“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.

Amid misgivings, Captain America saves the world — again

A sign these days that winter is fading into the past is that Marvel hero characters are back in action on the big screens throughout the world. Get ready for more movie chaos and heroism as summer approaches.

Having been offered recent updates on Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, and Thor — still wrestling with family issues — it is now time for Steve Rogers to grace the screen, hence “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

The title is misleading, making it seem like Captain America is the winter soldier instead of the hero’s latest nemesis.

The story picks up about two years after all the superheroes banded together to thwart the total destruction if New York, as shown in “The Avengers.” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is living in Washington, D.C., and still employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. even though he has concerns that all the power and weaponry the agency has amassed may be a threat to the very freedom it is designed to protect. He is even more alarmed by the new Project Insight, three massive Helicarriers that are linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats.

While out jogging, he meets and befriends Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former pararescue war veteran now serving as a counselor for those with post traumatic stress disorder.

When a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel is hijacked by Algerian pirates, Captain America and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are dispatched with a team to recover the boat. There, Rogers’ trust issues deepen when he sees that Natasha has another objective that S.H.I.E.L.D. chief Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had assigned without Captain America’s knowledge.

But before Captain America can brood any more about being out of the loop, things go horribly wrong. Fury is attacked and has to find refuge in Rogers’ apartment and after giving Steve a USB flash drive with some key data, he is gunned down.

Meanwhile, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), in the top echelon of S.H.I.E.L.D., is pushing for the initiation of Project Insight amid resistance by the World Security Council. Redford’s Pierce is one of those impeccably dressed, cool characters well positioned to disguise true motives under the shield (pun intended) of making the world safe. Rogers, warned by Fury not to trust anybody, refuses to divulge to Pierce the information Fury gave him, thus Captain America is now a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D. and finds himself in mortal peril at just about every turn.

His only allies are Natasha, apparently taking a break from hanging out with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner in “The Avengers”), and Sam Wilson.

The Winter Soldier in the title is an assassin who has been on a tear for decades, something like a Manchurian Candidate project programmed to kill with no conscience.

Understandably, Captain America has to learn to trust Natasha, and with Wilson declaring loyalty to the cause, the trio must overcome massive odds to prevent whatever horrors are being cooked up. A lot of this has ties to Steve’s past  and brings up personal issues — as if saving the world is not enough to occupy his time.

The brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (“Arrested Development”) get their first chance to direct a Marvel superhero action fest and do a credible job with the battle scenes while also falling into the trap of using handheld cameras for the one-on-one fighting sequences, making them hard to follow.

Overall, “Captain America: The Dark Soldier” is another satisfying Marvel adventure, boosted by the charm and chemistry between Evans, Johansson and Mackie. And as is the custom with Marvel, audiences must sit through the entire credits to get a glimpse of what is coming soon.

Rod Serling’s daughter offers insights on the man as a writer and father

serlingDuring a brief film retrospective on Rod Serling that was shown as part of a presentation by his daughter Anne Serling on March 30 at Monsterpalooza in Burbank, a clip was shown of one of the more popular episodes of “The Twlight Zone,” the anthology television series that ran from 1959-64. It was titled “Time Enough at Last,” in which the henpecked bank teller Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith), a lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust, finds himself at a crumbled library but with all the books he would ever want to read. But then his thick-lenses glasses fall off his nose and shatter, a tragic event in that the text on the pages now were an unreadable blur to him.

That sad scene, shown even 50 years later, drew moans and gasps from the audience, a testimony to the enduring impact of this brilliant show created and overseen by Rod Serling — who also wrote many but not all of the episodes.

Because “The Twilight Zone” was often scary or spooky, loaded with irony and harsh looks at the darker side of mankind, the prevailing image of Serling was that of a serious, driven and maybe humorless man. Add to that his powerful dramas such as “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “Patterns,” and his passion for characters and stories was evident.

Anne Serling, the youngest of two daughters of Rod and Carol Serling, was only 20 when her father died in 1975. For years she grappled with the loss, and like her father, used writing as a means of addressing her pain and dealing with the challenges of life. The eventual result was her book, “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.” It is a loving recollection of the man only his family and close friends knew, a talented writer who endured the horrors of war and who felt, as Anne said, that prejudice was the greatest evil of our time and who did not hold back whenever he wrote about it.

“Writing is what my father believed in,” Anne said on March 30 to open her presentation, “what he was passion about, what he thought had a chance to save society.

“My father felt that radio, television and film are the vehicles of social criticism, and that writers should menace the public’s conscience.”

In the early days of his career, Rod had to battle advertisers and network censorship whenever he focused on issues that many felt would offend people. His writings often were watered down, characters’ ethnicities changed.

Anne quoted her father’s recollections about how as a writer he believed it was his responsibility to continue to offer critical views, via his intense and candid prose that delivered with powerful mental images.

But really who was my dad? Anne continued. Who was he beyond his work?

“He was a husband and a dad, he was brilliantly funny, a practical joker, passionate about civil rights and humanity, a lover of animals, and a killer paddle tennis player.”

Speaking of his death on a personal level, Anne said she was blinded by grief and did not know how to manage the loss.

“Eventually I found the same catharsis that worked for him — writing.” Out of that, Anne’s “journey of reflection of learning” and a realization that no true story of her father’s life was out there, led her to write the book.

For years as a child, Anne was not aware of her father’s work on “The Twilight Zone.” He had an office on their home property and all she knew was that was where he worked. Sometimes, defying the orders from her parents not to interrupt her father while he was working, she would stand outside his office, and when he noticed her, he would go out and greet her, never showing any irritation or impatience, but offering only affection for his daughter.

Rod attached many nicknames to Anne, including “Pops,” and father and daughter loved to watch “The Flintstones” together — a “don’t tell Mom” indulgence in that Carol was strict about how much television Anne and her sister Jodi could watch.

In the latter portion of her presentation, Annie noted that she saw in her father “a kind of desperateness, an urge to go back, a need to touch home plate, a need to have things the way they were.”

His nostalgic yearnings, she said, were most evident in “The Twilight Zone” episodes of “Walking Distance,” “A Stop at Willoughby” and “They’re Tearing Down Tim Wiley’s Bar.”

Anne then read a moving and beautifully written excerpt from her book — her speculations on what he might have been thinking in 1965, at age 40, as he visited the hometown where he grew up. Upon driving up the street on which he lived, she writes, “Perhaps he sees the ghosts of his boyhood friends, running barefoot along side the car, or calling out to him from their porches, waving to him and calling, ‘Come on, Roddy, come on,’ until the sounds of the present bring him back, and the passage of years and everything he has imagined are gone.”

Anne also quoted her father as saying he did not care if any of the lines he wrote in his many pieces could be remembered and quoted. To him, Anne said, being a writer was reward enough.


Also present at Monsterpalooza on March 28-30 were Billy Mumy and Richard Kiel, who were in memorable “Twilight Zone” episodes. Kiel was enjoying himself as he reprised his role as the Kanamit being,  visiting Earth on a supposed mission to help the planet but with gruesome ulterior motives. He sized up fans for their potential ingredients in the “To Serve Man” cookbook.


For fans who want to get a regular dose of horror movies, Urban Death offers screenings at 8:30 p.m. Saturdays at 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Tickets are $15. Information: 818-202-4120; www.urbandeath.com; zombiejoes.com; zombiejoes.tix.com

Vernor's Ticket gets sized up as a potential ingredient for the Kanamit cookbook.

Vernor’s Ticket gets sized up as a potential ingredient for the Kanamit cookbook.

‘Need for Speed’ has fast cars, crashes but characterizations fall short

The unfortunate burden “Need for Speed” must endure is the massively successful “Fast and Furious” franchise hovering over it like an overachieving older sibling. While it has some exciting racing scenes, along with chases, heart-stopping near misses and spectacular crashes, it also needs to have some characters, and face it, Aaron Paul’s Tobey Marshall is no Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) or Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker).
This is not entirely Paul’s fault. He has proven in “Breaking Bad” to be a captivating actor. The character, as written by George Gatins in his first screenplay, does not give Paul much to work with.
It is interesting that early in “Need for Speed” the groundbreaking car-chase scene from “Bullitt” is being shown on a drive-in theater screen. This appears to be a tie-in to having Marshall be the strong, silent type on which Steve McQueen put his trademark. But instead of being cool and confident, Paul appears uncomfortable. It is only later that Paul can add some substance to Tobey, but by then he is mostly behind the wheel of a high-performance car, building character while avoiding potentially deadly collisions.
Based upon a video game, “Need for Speed” is the basic revenge movie.
Marshall is the owner of an auto shop that is not doing well financially, and if it weren’t for the money he wins in illegal street races, he might be bankrupt.
Then Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), formally one of the locals, returns to town. He now is a professional racer and wealthy and has a proposition for Marshall and his colleagues in the shop — to finish building a special Ford Mustang that legendary designer Carroll Shelby was working on at the time of his death.
Marshall and Brewster have a history that is not too cordial, but there is no back story offered here. It may have to do with Brewster being engaged to Anita (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who may or may not have been in a relationship with Marshall.
The Marshall team builds the car and when Tobey himself conducts a test drive that is impressive enough to seal a sale, Dino, likely feeling overshadowed, is not exactly pleased.
This is where the plot gets ludicrous. Brewster seems to allow his ego to override any common sense and he challenges Marshall to a street race. In the ensuing race a tragic fatal accident occurs and Dino flees the scene and lets Tobey take the blame, resulting in a two-year prison sentence for Marshall.
Once out of prison, Tobey is spoiling to get even.
He gets his chance for revenge via an event called the DeLeon, an illegal street race organized by Monarch (Michael Keaton, regaining some of his “Beetlejuice” energy), a former racer now streaming online a race-oriented show.
Naturally, Dino is going to be a participant in this winner-take-all (including the other competitors’ race cars) event, disregarding that engaging in an illegal race like this could end his professional career.
Meanwhile, Tobey’s unlikely ally is Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), the lady who brokered the deal for the Shelby Mustang. That she manages to secure the Mustang for the DeLeon from the new owner despite the high chance for serious damage to the vehicle is yet another plot element that holds little sense — one that viewers must let go.
There is the pre-race challenge of traveling cross-country to California, the location of the DeLeon, while Tobey,  his colleagues and Julia face the dangers of mercenaries who hear about the bounty put on Tobey’s head by Dino, hoping to prevent Marshall from challenging him in the DeLeon.
Director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) knows how to weave together high-impact scenes of great auto stuntsmanship but otherwise seems obsessed with facial closeups, especially of Poots.
Predictably, while escaping death, Tobey and Julia start developing a relationship.
Everything else is predictable too, once the DeLeon begins. You know who will be going down to the finish line in the last second dash to win. The plot does take a brief turn for an obligatory act of revenge but that does not alter the conclusion one bit.
Paul manages to flesh out a decent characterization despite the screenplay shortcomings, while everyone else does credible but not memorable work. Of the supporting cast, only Scott Mescudi as Benny, a colleague of Tobey’s who has a knack for securing whatever aircraft is nearby to serve as Marsall’s eye in the sky, has some cool moments.
“Need for Speed” is what one would expect for an adventure movie — superb on the stunts with just an average story and characters.

History — a bit distorted — and family are fun in ‘Mr. Peabody and Sherman’

Given some of the less than spectacular results of earlier computer animation adaptations of cartoons (“Garfield,” “Scooby Doo”), tackling yet another project in this genre certainly was risky. But the team of director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King” and “Stuart Little”) and writer Craig Wright — breaking away from penning such presentations as “The United States of Tara” and “Six Feet Under” — have put together in “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” a lively and loving update of the cartoon series that was part of the “Rocky and His Friends” show that ran from 1959 to 1964.
The brain child of Jay Ward and his production company, the “Rocky” series was very much in vogue in those days as a show that required a certain amount of education and sophistication to fully appreciate the humor while still having enough silliness to draw the younger audience.
Mr. Peabody was yet another talking animal, but this time a genius dog — who also happens to be a savvy businessman, inventor, adviser to world leaders, gourmet cook and Olympic gold medalist.
And he set a legal precedent by being the first dog to adopt a boy, as the judge ruled that if a boy can adopt a dog, then a dog should be able to adopt a boy.
Thus as “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” opens, the bespectacled canine delivers a brief history of his life, including his adoption of Sherman when the boy was a baby. This actually strays from te original series in which Sherman already was a grade-school age kid when Mr. Peabody first encounters him.
The story centers around the main theme of the old cartoon series in which Mr. Peabody uses his invention, the WABAC time machine to travel back to earlier eras, accompanied by Sherman. In between the adventures, Sherman is given history lessons, and sometimes Mr. Peabody has to alter events to make them flow to their historically accurate conclusions.
In the updated version, Sherman starts school but has a run in with Penny Peterson (voice of  Ariel Winter) that leads to interruption in the orderly life of the dog and his boy, including the heavy-handed bureaucrat Ms. Grunnion (Allison Janney), determined to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody.
The unflappable dog, voiced by Ty Burrell from “Modern Family,” invites Penny’s parents Paul (Stephen Colbert) and Patty (Leslie Mann), along with Ms. Grunnion over for dinner and a resolution to the ugly incident.
Despite orders from Mr. Peabody not to tell anybody about the WABAC, Sherman spills the beans about the machine to Penny and the adventuress girl goads the boy into putting the machine into operation.
Now the action picks up and harkens back to the original series premise of Mr. Peabody using his smarts to keep history on track, including undoing a rift the travelers have created in the time continuum.
Along the way we meet Marie Antoinette (Lauri Fraser), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), Odysseus (Tom McGrath) and his Trojan Horse soldiers, King Tut (Zach Callison) and Mona Lisa (Lake Bell).
Of course, things do not always go smoothly and amid the chaos both Sherman and Penny grow up a little bit and even the steadfast Mr. Peabody learns about expressing affection.
The animation, as expected, is lush and colorful and although a 3D version has been released, regular screenings are just as enchanting. As is the story. Mr. Peabody makes being a know-it-all charming.

Neeson fine, but villain motivation almost derails ‘Non-Stop’

This is a horror element that the movie industry likes to employ. A person authorized to wear a badge and carry a firearm has a seriously messed up or tragically altered personal life, making great potential for dangerous instability.

Such is the case with Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks in the thriller “Non-Stop.” Bill is first seen sitting in his vehicle with the look of a person gloomily dreading another day of work. He needs a bracer of hard liquor to help him cope. The kicker here is that Bill is a U.S. Air Marshal, his workplace being commercial aircraft in which he is tasked with thwarting terrorism or any other unlawful activity.

Neeson has found a niche in recent years of portraying men who have resigned themselves to the fact that the profession in which they are engaged – and superbly so – requires violence and dedication that often kills any semblance of a normal life. And certainly being an air marshal – a job wherein if you have to spring into action it means you are dealing with some very dangerous people – is not the kind of work for someone who prefers a routine if occasionally stressful occupation.

Assigned to a flight to London, Bill is already irked about the prospect of being stuck in England for three days before being able to return to the United States. Yet despite that irritation, once he is in the airport he begins his work, scoping out fellow passengers, looking for any sign of possible trouble.

On board before take-off he goes into the lavatory and puts duct tape over the smoke alarm so he can enjoy a cigarette. Then later, when the passenger sitting next to him, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), notices his anxiety, he confesses that he gets nervous when the aircraft takes off. Then he settles down.

But settling down is not going to be possible on this flight.

He receives an anonymous text, via what is supposed to be a secure network, stating that if $150 million is not transferred to a certain off-shore account in 20 minutes, someone on board the airliner will be killed, with another person killed every 20 minutes until the funds transfer is confirmed. Additional texts taunt Bill, detailing personal information about Bill’s life, leading him to believe his on-board air marshal partner, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), is pulling off a sick joke. Hammond convinces him otherwise but insists that Bill keep cool because the threat is likely a hoax.

The script by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle is at its best at this point as Bill tries to locate the person delivering the threat while also arranging with the pilot to have the ransom transferred to the designated account, only to find himself outflanked by the plotter, making it look like Bill is the actual person attempting to hijack the plane.

Of course there are several potential suspects and none of them can be ruled out for certain, so the suspense builds nicely. Unfortunately, “Non-Stop” falls victim to a problem that deflates a lot of effective thrillers, and that is once the bad guy is revealed there has to be an obligatory pause in the action as that person reveals a motivation for the crime. Rather than having the standard reasons for the threats and murders such as terrorism, extortion or greed, the screenwriting trio tried to get clever with what they thought might be a unique twist. But it is so ludicrous that it prompts eye-rolling and almost derails the movie.

Fortunately, the nail-biting final sequence of whether the imperiled aircraft will survive helps put the movie back on track.

Neeson carries this movie, nailing yet again a portrayal of a man who must set aside his personal demons and tragedies and be strong when so many people are depending on him. Most of the supporting cast, including Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), does not get much to do. Moore has a few good moments as the enigmatic Jen Summers, as well as Corey Stull as a passenger who looks like he could be capable of committing violent acts against people.

Airline thrillers have the advantage of being heart-pounding action with the confined spaces, the high speed and altitude and potential for nasty conclusions. It’s too bad the writers tried too hard with a key plot element, but “Non-Stop” does mostly succeed as an adrenalin-pulsing movie.

Costner carries a silly but enjoyable ’3 Days to Kill’

Kevin Costner has been popping up lately, following his key role in the miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” with a supporting role in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and a lead role in the upcoming NFL drama “Draft Day.” And now he is the star power behind the silly but fun “3 Days to Kill.”
With a script by Luc Besson (“The Transporter,” “The Fifth Element”), co-written with Adi Hasak, viewers can expect a few sub-plot elements here and there to provide some special touches to a standard story.
In “3 Days to Kill,” we have Costner as Ethan Renner, an aging international spy ­— although he seems to do more killing than spying — in the twilight of his career. Having spent years putting his life on the line while making the world safer for us, his private life has become a shambles. He is estranged from his wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenage daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld from “True Grit”) and is hardly living an upper-class lifestyle.
As one of his missions unravels into a disaster, he also discovers he has health issues — of the worst kind. He has terminal cancer.
He travels to Paris with the intent of spending whatever time he has left reconciling with Christine and Zoey and having some semblance of family life.
Unfortunately, his employer, the CIA, is not quite done with him. An operative named Vivi Delay (yes, Vivi Delay), played by Amber Heard, is dispatched to Europe to lead a mission to kill The Wolf (Richard Sammel, the German soldier captured and then beaten to death with a baseball bat by Eli Roth’s Donny Donowitz in “Inglorious Basterds”), one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. Ethan is the agent assigned to do the dirty work.
Expecting Renner to be reluctant to accept this one final mission, Vivi offers him an incentive — a drug that has not been FDA endorsed but might slow down the cancer and extend his life if he accepts te job.
Aside from Costner’s scruffy but charismatic presence, “3 Days to Kill” adds some touches that add substance to the usual spy thriller. Among them is Ethan’s relationship with a family of squatters and a volatile interaction with a driver in a chauffeur business who can provide key information on The Wolf and his associates but who also as a father of twin teen daughters, can share some parental wisdom with Ethan.
There is the usual strained father-daughter relationship, allowing Steinfeld to be the pouty, embittered teen who calls her father “Ethan” instead of “Dad,” and the inevitable clumsy goof-ups by Ethan but eventual winning over of Zoey. Luckily, Steinfeld is a talented young actress who makes Zoey a sympathetic girl struggling to understand why Ethan was never around, and she and Costner work well together.
On the down side, Heard’s Vivi is unbelievable. In what should have been a typical role of a bureaucratic delegator, Vivi is a high-profile operative who appears to be living lavishly at taxpayers’ expense, speeding around Paris — and attracting a lot of attention — in an expensive sports car, and popping up occasionally to prod Ethan to finish his mission and inject him with the potential wonder drug.
 The villains do not get much time to make the viewers hate them. The Wolf and one of his associates known as The Albino (Tómas Lemarquis) spend most of their screen time fleeing from Renner.
Ethan and The Wolf do have a stare-down before the usual shootout of lots of bullets flying but no hits on the intended targets.
But once viewers shrug off those shortcomings, they can find “3 Days to Kill” an entertaining if implausible action film.

Another unlikely hero rises in ‘The Lego Movie’

His name is Emmet and he is blissfully content in his regimented life as a construction worker. Within this comfort zone he has no idea of his lack of creativity and free choice. He is a prime candidate to be thrown into a situation that will challenge him — and he will stumble along.

This is a familiar story line but the catch is that Emmet is a Lego mini-figure in a Lego world in the aptly named “The Lego Movie.”

The movie is the brain-child of co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, writing a script based on the story by Dan and Kevin Hageman. It is what one would expect from the current trend in animated features — a simple story line aimed at providing a message for young viewers but with a lot of touches that only adults, especially those who grew up with Lego products, could appreciate.

“The Lego Movie” begins with a back story in which the wise Vitruvius (voice of Morgan Freeman) is overtaken by the ambitious Lord Business (Will Ferrell), with Vitruvius issuing a prophecy in which a chosen one will find the Piece of Resistance that will foil the plans of Lord Business.

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is then introduced, part of a population of mini-figures that has been brainwashed to follow instructions on every aspect of their lives. Then fate steps in when he encounters WildStyle (Elizabeth Banks) foraging around a construction site — violating the instructions. But in his pursuit of WildStyle, Emmet falls into a hole and comes in contact with the Piece of Resistance. WIldStyle, witnessing this, helps Emmet — now with the Piece of Resistance attached to his back — escape as he is pursued by the Lord Business-back police force led by Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson).

Believing Emmet is the chosen one, possibly a MasterBuilder, WildStyle takes Emmet to Vitruvius and other MasterBuilders now living in exile. Although Vitruvius is steadfast in his belief Emmet is indeed the chosen one to help topple Lord Business, the other MasterBuilders are more skeptical. And naturally, Emmet makes one mistake after another as Lord Business continues to increase an advantage in the quest to carry out his diabolical plan.

While all this is going on, there are so many background details that will keep the viewers alert. The animation, all CGI with an attempt to make it seem like stop-action, is gorgeous and busy, with lots of references not only to the ever-expanding Lego product line, but to other aspects of modern life.

That, along with a multitude of colorful characters, makes “The Lego Movie” a visual feast, covering a major objective of animated features — enough stimuli to please both children and adults.

Not many laughs among 2013 Oscar nominees

Yes, the 2013 crop of Academy Award nominated movies were superb efforts with excellent performances. But watching them was like sitting in a dentist chair — professional work but not much fun to sit through.

These movies included piracy on the seas, AIDS, an outer space disaster, a love affair with an operating system, slavery, fraud and greed and broken families. Looks like if you want to have a few good laughs, go to the animated features category — ah, those minions love life.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees, only one, “Her,” does not have an acting nomination. And of the 20 acting nominations only four — Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine” and Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County”  — are in movies not nominated for Best Picture.

If the other awards presentations are any indication, Oscar night on March 2 will be a big one for “12 Years a Slave.” A grim and harrowing true story about Solomon Northup,  a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery, is brutal in its depiction of the pre-Civil War south, and director Steve McQueen does not hold back in showing the violence toward slaves.

If there is a surprise on Oscar night, it could be a surge for “Dallas Buyers Club,” also a sober story about AIDS sufferers but with humor and an element that can draw votes — redemption. Also, it is boosted by a stunning performance by Matthew McConaughey that makes him a frontrunner for the Best Actor award. High-profile nominees like “Captain Phillips” (Tom Hanks’ omission as a nominee has triggered some grumbling), “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are drowning out the quiet but sweet movies like “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “Her.”


If McConaughey is not named, it will be the surprise of the evening. Already a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild winner, McConaughey’s performance is a blue print for an Oscar — the story of a man, Ron Woodroff, a hard-living electrician and sometimes rodeo performer who contracts AIDS and then finds a new focus on life as he works to provide non-FDA approved medications for AIDS patients and develops friendships with homosexuals and transsexuals, forcing him to change his biases toward them. McConaughey dropped a lot of weight for the role but still had his strong presence in the movie.

Like McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a first-time nominee, a splendid actor who could have earned a nomination for his work in “Dirty Pretty Things” in 2002. Ejiofor’s role as Solomon Northup was a grueling physical demand, but the part forced him to spend much of his screen time being low-key and submissive.

Christian Bale, the only previous Oscar winner (“The Fighter”) in this category, also went through some physical alterations, putting on weight and pretending to have a receding hairline, to play con man Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” who is forced by an ambitious FBI agent to help bring down bigger criminals and who eventually turns the tables on the authorities. He’s very good, but not quite enough to overcome McConaughey.

Likewise, Bruce Dern, who last was nominated in 1978 for “Coming Home,” is funny and tragic but not not as showy as an addled senior citizen in “Nebraska” who believes he has won $1 million in a publishers sweepstakes and is determined to collect his prize. Along the way he finally emotionally connects with one of his sons.

On the other hand, Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street” runs the gamut of emotions as Jordan Belfort, a Long Island penny stockbroker who rises to superstar status on Wall Street using less than legal means to get rich. This may be DiCaprio’s best performance ever although it borders on parody, and he might have had a better chance at his first Oscar in four nominations were it not for “Dallas Buyers Club.”


Up until a few days ago, it was looking like Cate Blanchett would be a shoe-in for her second Oscar, having won the 2004  Best Supporting Actress for “The Aviator.” Her work as New York socialite Jasmine in “Blue Jasmine” took the Golden Globe. She is stunning and sad, a woman in denial as her high-class life falls apart when her philandering husband, played by Alec Baldwin, commits suicide while serving in prison for white-collar crimes, and she has to live with her sister, much lower on the social ladder. This was a role created by Woody Allen, and as Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”), Dianne Wiest (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”) and Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) have learned, Allen-written roles can lead to Oscars. Unfortunately, recent allegations regarding Allen’s personal behavior are creating speculation about an anti-Allen sentiment while Academy voting is still taking place that could cost Blanchett the Oscar.

If that happens, it could be a wide open race. This category is full of Academy Award veterans with the five actresses combining for 38 nominations and six Oscars. If Blanchett falls, Amy Adams, as Sydney Prosser, partner in crime with Bale’s Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” a woman whose loyalties could be anyone’s guess, could bring home her first Oscar in five nominations. Another strong possibility is seven-time nominee Judi Dench as the lead role in “Philomena,” an absolutely charming performance as an aged woman forced years earlier by nuns to give up a baby boy she had out of wedlock trying to track him down as his 50th birthday has arrived. Dench previously won a supporting Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.”

Meryl Streep continues to add to her unprecedented list of nominations, earning her 18th as Violet Weston, a strong-willed Oklahoma woman battling drug addiction and alienation from her husband and daughters in “August: Osage County.” Streep chews up the scenery here in yet another study of dysfunction in families.

Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock is a surprise nomination for “Gravity,” portraying a medical engineer who must keep her wits amid overwhelming odds of survival after a mishap on a space station. Grumblers noted all she did was pant a lot, from exertion and panic.


Jared Leto, folks. A gutsy performance as transsexual Rayon, who develops a volatile friendship and business partnership with the homophobic Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Leto’s Rayon puts up a fragile brave front in a losing battle against AIDS, strengthened by efforts to bring medications to fellow AIDS sufferers.

An upset is unlikely here, but calling it would be tough: Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate in “Captain Phillips” who becomes overwhelmed by U.S. military might; Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent willing to bend the rules and abuse whoever to bring down big-time cons in “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender as the Bible-quoting but cruel plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” and Jonah Hill as partner in fraud with DiCaprio’s Belfort in :”The Wolf of Wall Street.” Hill’s work might slip ahead in this pack as it is a multi-layered role of a seemingly grounded man who can be a shark when selling bad goods to people yet be an incredible goof-up when the booze and drugs render him a babbling fool.


This always seems to be a tough category to call. Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife who might be more sharp and lethal than he would expect in “American Hustle” has generated some enthusiasm, but so has first-time nominee Lupita Nyong’o in the heartbreaking role of Patsey, a favored slave of Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, making her vulnerable to abuse when he suspects her lack of loyalty.

Julia Roberts does have some moments as the oldest daughter in “August: Osage County,” but is bogged down by yet another “blaming my parents for my unhappy life” role. Sally Hawkins is cute and sweet as Jasmine’s sister in “Blue Jasmine,” trying to tolerate her sibling’s self-absorption while finding herself hooking up with guys who turn out to be jerks or liars.

The dark horse here has to be June Squibb, a first-time nominee at age 84 as the put-upon, loyal but obscenely candid wife of the mentally unraveling Woody Grant (Dern) in “Nebraska.” Hers is a performance that is fun to watch, coming up with observations that are painfully honest and squirm-inducing, a woman who has had to accept a less than rewarding life but refuses to go down without a fight.

Some tidbits:

Is movie acting only for young people? Note these ages of nominees: Dern 77, Dench 79, Streep 64 and Squibb 84. Squibb, incidentally, is the second-oldest nominee, behind Gloria Stuart, who was 87 when nominated for “Titanic” in 1997.

Speaking of ages: Adams, Bale and DiCaprio all turn 40 this year, Bullock 50.

“American Hustle” is the second movie in which Bale and Adams have worked together and earned nominations, having both been nominated for “The Fighter” in 2010. Blanchett and Dench both were nominated for “Notes on a Scandal” in 2006.

Dern’s two nominations occurred 35 years apart.

Nyong’o was born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and had her higher education in the United States.


Under one roof: Some of horror’s greatest scream queens

Dark Delicacies in Burbank is a place where any fan of horror movies, books and collectibles can go crazy. Making things even more interesting is that the store also serves as host for great events. On Sunday, Jan. 26, Dark Delicacies offered The Day of the Scream Queens, and some of the great ones were there.

Not all of the ladies in attendance were actual horror movie screamers. Deanna Lund was invited for her work as Valerie Scott in the television series “Land of the Giants,” which ran for 51 episodes in 1968-70. She was married to co-star Don Matheson, and her daughter Michele Matheson is an actress (“Mr Belvedere” TV series). No longer taking on movie or television roles, Deanna is a happy grandmother and dotes on her cats and dogs.

Although Jamie Lee Curtis is regarded as the scream queen — she was not in attendance Sunday — a trio of actresses have become known as excellent scream queens: Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, who were present and had many visitors to their tables.

Quigley is best known for her roles in “Night of the Demons” and “The Return of the Living Dead” but has had an active career since 1975. She has starred with Stevens and Bauer in such movies as “Nightmare Sisters,” “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama” and as recently as 2012 they were in “1313: Cougar Cult,” a made-for-video movie in which Quigley was out sick for much of the principal shooting but whose footage later was added in through the technology of modern editing.

Quigley is currently promoting a film in which she has a role titled “Virginia Obscura,” due for release in late February.

Eileen Dietz is an actress who has had many roles over the years, from soap operas to guest shots in television series to movie roles. But she can claim fame to being a performer a lot of people saw but did not know it. A lot of the scenes in “The Exorcist” in which Regan (Linda Blair) is possessed by the demon Pazuzu actually were Dietz in heavy makeup, making an uncredited appearance in what is regarded by many as the scariest movie of all time. Dietz has recently written an autobiography, “Exorcising My Demons: An Actress’ Journey to ‘The Exorcist’ and Beyond.”

Laurene Landon made her mark in the horror/sci fi and action realm with roles in “Maniac Cop” and Maniac Cop 2″ and in the title role  as “Hundra” in 1983 in what she called a “female version of ‘Conan the Barbarian’.” But she also had a high-profile role as one of the flight attendants on the troubled space shuttle in “Airplane 2: The Sequel” and was featured in “I, the Jury.”

Early in her career she starred in “.. All the Marbles,” a film about female wrestlers, which was the last movie directed by Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”), who died in 1983. Landon said she trained for about eight months to learn all the wrestling movies and did all of the wrestling scenes herself. Veteran actor Peter Falk played the role of her manager.

“He was crazy,” she said of Falk. “He was into improvising and would call me and Vicki (Frederick, who played the other lady wrestler) after the day’s shooting and go over upcoming scenes and the next day what we would shoot would be different from the script.” She noted that Aldrich was not a director who tolerated actors straying from the script, and as a young actress she felt compelled to go to Aldrich and apologize after he called them out for the improvising. But the great director assured Landon he was aware that Falk was the culprit in the dialogue alterations.

Other actresses in attendance at Day of the Scream Queens included Trina Parks (Diamonds are Forever” and “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery”), Helene Udy (1313: Frankenqueen” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), Lisa London (the upcoming “”666: Devilish Charm”), Kristine DeBell (“Meatballs,” “1313: Night of the Widow” and the TV movie “A Halloween Puppy”), Donna Wilkes (“Jaws 2″), Lynn Lowry (“Cat People,” “The Crazies”), Jessica Morris (“Venom” and the upcoming “666: Devilish Charm”), Jean Louise O’Sullivan (“Alien Inhabitant” and “Puppetmaster X: Axis Rising”), Carolyn Purdy-Gordon  and Darcy DeMoss (“Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI”), who had a hockey-masked Jason standing by for photo ops.