“The Raven”

Edgar Allan Poe was an enigmatic character who wrote some weird stuff. John Cusack brings him to life in “The Raven,” a movie that satisfies in so many ways.

Grisly murders are a Poe staple. In “The Raven,” when people begin to die in 1840’s Baltimore in crimes that resemble Poe stories, Poe becomes a suspect. In short order though, he becomes an aid to police as they try to solve this “whodunit.”

The literary references throughout the movie will make American Lit majors happy. Poe’s efforts to expose the serial killer via his writing original fictional material for the Baltimore newspaper lends more literary cred to the story.

Like gore? There’s plenty here to sicken and shock. But gore was a big part of Poe’s writing and the inconvenient truth is that gore is a big part of “The Raven.”

Despite a few moments of anger that bring to mind Nicolas Cage rants, John Cusack is excellent as Poe. He is a portrayed as a polarizing man whose work was embraced by the public whereas he, himself, was not particularly likeable. In “The Raven,” we see Poe as a bit of an arrogant jerk, but also as a vastly intelligent man with passion for his work and love for a woman.

Alice Eve is Poe’s girlfriend/fiancé and Brendan Gleeson plays her father, who detests Poe. Luke Evans is the police detective who initially suspects Poe and later solicits his input in solving the mystery.

“The Raven” was shot in Hungary and Serbia where well-preserved 19th century structures provide perfect settings for the film’s action. Any sunshine is filtered out of daytime exterior shots to maintain the dark and dreary look and mood of the film.

Though not a perfect film nor award-worthy, “The Raven” provides solid entertainment and a great performance by the likeable John Cusack. See it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Chimpanzee” /Oscar=Winner/

Animal tales have been a Disney staple for decades. Get some neat real-life footage, preferably featuring cute babies of a chosen species. Craft a simple story line. Hire a great narrator. Put it all together. Disney did it back in the day when they had a weekly TV series. Now, “Chimpanzee” takes those same ingredients and delivers solid, family-oriented fare for the 2012 audience.

“Chimpanzee” moves slowly, but that’s okay. The pace gives us time to enjoy baby chimp Oscar as he bonds with his mother and his extended family. It allows young children to be able to comprehend everything that happens. It’s fun to watch Oscar learn how to crack open nuts. It’s calming to watch raindrops hit leaves in slow motion. This jungle setting is more welcoming than most African jungles we see on film.

There is tension, though, as Oscar’s family engages in a turf war with a neighboring family of chimpanzees. During the battle, Oscar’s mother somehow disappears. He is not quite ready to go out on his own. The foster parent who takes him in is a bit of a surprise, according to the film’s storyline.

Tim Allen narrates “Chimpanzee” with a conversational delivery. You know he’s reading a script, but it sounds like he’s talking to you. Many of his lines sound ad-libbed and maybe some were. He doesn’t sound as folksy as Rex Allen did when he narrated wildlife segments on “Wonderful World of Disney,” but he sounds just as friendly.

“Chimpanzee” is a winner because it is sweet, brief (just under 80 minutes) and absolutely kid-friendly. (Rated G.) Want a movie that your preschoolers, your not-quite-yet-jaded preteens and their grandparents will all enjoy? Want a movie that will put a few smiles in your life, too? Step into the jungle and hang for a while with “Chimpanzee.”

P.S. Stick around for the quick sequence after “The End” with comments from the film crew who went into the jungle to photograph the chimps.

“The Three Stooges”—(Nyuk Nyuk’s for Nitwits)

When one’s expectations are low, a decent movie is a pleasant surprise. So it is with “The Three Stooges,” a movie that has all the elements that made the old Larry, Moe and Curly low-class humor icons.

The new Three are played by Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos and Will Sasso. Sean Hayes (AKA Jack McFarland of “Will and Grace”) sounds so uncannily like Larry Fine that I wonder if all his lines were dubbed by another voice talent. The other two actors capture the essence of the Moe and Curly we’ve watched for over half a century.

Eye pokes, hammer whacks and other forms of physical abuse come early and often, accompanied by loud and effective sound effects. As with the old Stooges shorts, some are hilarious, others are redundant. (There’s a postscript to the movie which says, basically, “Kids, don’t try this stuff at home!”)

The movie’s story has L, M & C attempting to raise $830,000 to save the orphanage where they were raised by nuns (played by the likes of Jane Lynch and, yes, Larry David). The classic Stooge bit of making a mess of a party for a group of swells is also a turning point in the plot.

My love for the original Stooges peaked when I was still in single digits. Oh, I’ve watched them and laughed from time to time over the years, but do not consider myself a Stooges connoisseur. Hardcore Stooges fans will, I think, find the movie acceptable and enjoyable. Some may even love it.

Will kids like it? My guess is yes. Boys may enjoy it more than girls do.

I recall Jay Leno’s observation that a key difference between men and women is that men like The Three Stooges and women don’t like them. We’ll see if that holds true when the box office figures for the weekend are released.

 

 

“Cabin in the Woods”—(Scary Funny)

Five college students (three guys, two girls) drive an RV to a secluded cabin for a weekend of fun. Bad things happen. That’s about all I can reveal without venturing into spoiler territory.

If you’ve seen the preview trailers, you already know that the students are being watched. The watchers are in a control room with big screen TV monitors.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play the mission control leaders. Their nonchalant, routine, ho-hum approach to their work, complete with joking, gossiping and side bets, belies the terrors that we know will ensue.

More humor comes from the stoner among the five, played by Fran Kranz. The only well-known actor among the college quintet is Chris Hemsworth who starred as Thor last year. (“Cabin” was shot in ’09 before he got the Thor role. He’ll be Thor again in the new “Avengers” movie coming in three weeks.)

In “Cabin,” as in many movies of this genre, tension builds slowly until the horror gets going. As the story proceeds to its resolution, things get really weird. Honestly, much of the weirdness is hard to describe. Just enjoy the ride.

“Cabin in the Woods” is not the scariest movie I’ve seen, nor is it the funniest. But it does a nice job of blending horror and comedy. Rated R for gore, language, weed and boobs.

Bully

“Bully” is a clever piece of film making. The stories come from the heartland: smaller towns in Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia and Mississippi. The words come from both kids and parents. The blame (for not controlling bullies) lands squarely on school administrators.

“Bully” introduces us to kids who cope and kids who were not able to cope. We come to know kids who left the world, via family videos and comments from their parents and friends. We meet a girl who threatened school bus bullies with a gun. A boy who manages to grin and bear it while being pummeled daily on the bus is revealed to be a truly likeable kid.

Scenes in the movie include: A town hall meeting in Georgia following a 17-year-old boy’s suicide, at which school board members and high school administrators fail to show up. A middle school in Iowa, where leadership promises to help to address a student’s situation, but his parents are dubious. A father in Oklahoma who decides to move because of the way his daughter and his family are treated.

For me, the movie stirred some past memories of horrible things that have happened to my three kids as well as things that I endured decades ago. (Damn, I hated riding that school bus to junior high!) I can assure you that principals and counselors were just as hesitant to mete out appropriate punishment in years past as they are today.

In fairness to school administrators, though, moviegoers should know that the movie is edited in such a way as to make certain school leaders appear soft on bullying or, worse, almost buffoonish. Make no mistake: this is advocacy film making.

“Bully” will not end bullying. As long as some of us are smaller and weaker or look different and act differently, bullying will occur. But giving voices and faces to the downtrodden will certainly generate conversations that may lead to actions.

Regarding the movie’s MPAA rating or lack of it, I’d put it at about “PG-11,” not so much for the F-bombs, but for the subject matter.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi—–(Raw Talent)

Jiro Ono is a man with amazing talent and dedication. His sushi bar in Tokyo has three Michelin stars. He’s 85 years old and still going strong.

This movie is a “must see” for chefs and foodies. You will be impressed by the intense labor that goes into sourcing and preparation of what, when plated, appears to be simple food.

Fans of Japanese culture will love JDOS because we get a look at real Japanese people in their real lives. The film, directed by American David Gelb, is in Japanese with subtitles.

The movie, like the sushi, is presented simply. We see the work in the sushi bar, a visit to the fish market, the training of apprentices and an octopus massage. In the movie, we learn that you should massage your octopus for 40-45 minutes to make it taste right, not 30 minutes, which is apparently enough for some sushi sellers.

Jiro’s story is told by Jiro himself, his two sons, a former employee and a Japanese food writer.

Jiro recalls being on his own from a very early age. His work ethic is not unlike that of Americans raised during the Depression. (Except my father retired in his early 60’s. Jiro works on.) And, yes, Jiro admits that he does have dreams about sushi.

Jiro’s older son works in his father’s shadow, waiting for the day when he will take over. His younger son has his own sushi place, but still receives supervision from his father.

The food writer points out the qualities necessary to excel in the food biz and does not find Jiro lacking in any way. He mentions Jiro’s high level of excellence, which, through numerous meals he’s eaten there, has never fallen short.

JDOS is punctuated by glorious shots of the various sushi dishes being served, with a nice lingering shot of each piece on the plate, clearly identified.

I recommend buying the movie house popcorn or other snacks because this movie will make you hungry. It opens Friday, April 13, at the Tivoli in University City.

“Deep Blue Sea”—(Melancholy, Baby)

“Deep Blue Sea” reminds me of those late 30’s movies my wife loves to watch on AMC and TCM: It’s slow. It has a small core of key players. It greatly resembles a stage play.

Actually, “Deep Blue Sea” was a stage play! It debuted in London in 1952 and came to Broadway a year later. The movie stars Rachel Weisz as a young woman married to an older man. He is a wealthy London judge. They have a nice life but she wants passion. Her mother-in-law advises her that “restrained enthusiasm” is preferable to passion.

She finds passion with a younger man, a military pilot. She leaves the older guy, moves in with the younger guy, but he (the younger guy) is not quite ready to settle down. He still wants to party in bars, instead of spending all his time with Rachel. This makes her gloomy.

Will she go back to the older guy? Will she follow the younger guy across the ocean? Will she kill herself? No spoilers here!

Director Terrence Davies has turned in a movie that has many stylish shots, including those at the beginning and end of the narrative that frame the film.

Tom Hiddleston plays the younger guy. Simon Russell Beale plays the judge. They’re good, but this is Rachel Weisz’s movie.

If you want an antidote for loud, fast-paced movies with plots that are hard to follow, check out “Deep Blue Sea.” It’s more about the characters and their needs and desires than it is about the plot. And it’s slow. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Rated “R” for a nude scene. Opening date for “Deep Blue Sea” has been pushed back to Friday, April 20 at the Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

“American Reunion”—(Raunchy Fun!)

Here’s the thing about the class of ’99 featured in “American Pie” and its sequels: the members of the core group are likeable. Some are even sweet. They’re not really that different from other young Americans who have recently turned 30. It’s the situations they get themselves into that make these movies outrageously funny.

In “American Reunion,” the gang comes back to town for their 13 year reunion—certainly an odd anniversary to celebrate, but let’s not be picky. It’s a movie.

The movie focuses on Jim and Michelle (Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan), now married with a kid, and their recent lack of hooking up. Throughout the weekend, Jim tries to make it happen with Michelle but those situations always manage to prevent it. Meanwhile, Jim urges his dad, now a widower, to move on with life and invites him to Stifler’s party where Jim’s dad is attracted to Stifler’s mom.

For me, the real comedic stars of this movie are Seann William Scott as Stifler and Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad. They bring the movie’s funniest lines and provide a couple of hilarious sight gags that may become classics. (No spoilers here, but one of those scenes involves a tub of movie popcorn. That’s all I’ll reveal.)

Jim also has a reunion with the little girl who grew up next door to him. She is about to turn 18 and decides she wants to lose her virginity to Jim, her former babysitter. When he drives her home from her birthday party, she distracts him with bare breasts. His mission to sneak her into her house after she has passed out (with help from Stifler and friends) is another of those funny situations.

“American Reunion” (rated “R”) is loaded with drinking, drugs, sex and raw language but doesn’t leave you feeling sleazy afterward. That’s because the cast and characters are people we like and, in some cases, can relate to.

As long as the movies are as funny as “American Reunion” and the sequels aren’t made too quickly, moviegoers can look forward to keeping up with this gang and their situations for years (decades?) to come.