Happy Friday! It’s the last minute run-up to summer blockbuster season, and since no one wants to even contemplate challenging “The Avengers” next week, a swell of smaller, independent, and foreign pictures are hitting theaters this weekend. And with the Tribeca and San Francisco International Film Festivals in full swing, we’re happy to go along. Despite the blockbuster-less slate, there’s still plenty of mystery, horror, and gun-filled action to (temporarily) sate any action lovers’ palate. Plus a romantic comedy and a maybe-for-children-maybe-for-adults animated feature. Enjoy!
Edgar Allen Poe’s tales of horror and woe are put into practice in this week’s “The Raven” from James McTeigue. The part-biography/part-thriller stars John Cusack as Poe, who, after cleared of initial suspicions, is tasked with solving a series of murders fashioned after gruesome deaths from his own stories. Like “E.T.” and Elliott, the life of the film seems inexplicably tied to the lives of these victims, and “The Raven” gets progressively deader with each murder case. A messy script, wooden performances, and bungling direction from McTeigue bring little to the table, and stakes remain low throughout since the culprit can be identified from his first walk-on. He might as well be The Joker. If The Joker had neon signs pointing at his head that flashed, “Villain.” Our review says, “it is, in short, by some distance the worst film we've seen in this young year. It makes us grieve sincerely for Cusack, one of our favorite stars, and for everyone who wasted their time and energy on the picture.” Rotten Tomatoes: 21% Metacritic: 43
Jason Statham juggles the mob and the NYPD, all while making moves and taking names, in the old-school b-action movie “Safe,” directed by Boaz Yakin. Statham plays a failed-cop-cum-failed-organized-crime-stiff who decides to end his life after mobsters murder his wife. But things turn around for the saddened (but still muscled!) hero: his will to live is restored by a young girl who, providentially, is also his means for revenge. Two for one deal! As usual, Statham is pretty unshakeable, his victory over random goons always fairly certain. However, an engaging plot that moves forward at a good clip keeps the film from desperate predictability. Additionally, a strong supporting cast of Chris Sarandon, Robert John Burke, and Reggie Lee helps to both deepen and advance the adventure. Our review calls the film “a take-no-prisoners crowd-pleasing asskicker, one that invests its familiar mob war trappings with the forward momentum that can only be provided by a filmmaker smart about genre, and an attitude that makes no apologies for political correctness, MPAA determinations, or a lack of a modern sensibility.” RT: 51% MC: 55
You know what I hear people say a lot? “Let’s leave San Francisco. For the middle of nowhere.” This week, there’s a picture for all of them. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s (sometimes un)romantic comedy, “The Five-Year Engagement,” hits theaters this weekend. Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are happily engaged until they move from the City By The Bay to university-town Michigan in pursuit of Violet’s career. Once there, Tom’s personal and professional lives take a turn toward sucksville while his fiancée blossoms in her new locale, a refreshingly nontraditional situation that prompts expected resentment. However, likeable characters, realistic twists, and belly-laugh-inducing humor give the film appeal and heart, and it lands solidly among the more substantial comedies of the Apatowian Era. Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Chris Parnell, and Brian Posehn co-star as the couple’s colorful and interesting friends and family. Our review says the film is “a genuinely affecting picture about the all-too-real complications and expectations of trying to tie the knot while negotiating careers, complex emotional baggage and family obligations.” RT: 62% MC: 58
The high seas are awash with lush visuals and genuine humor in “Pirates! Band of Misfits” from director team Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt and Aardman Animation, the studio behind “Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Arthur Christmas.” Based on a series of children’s books by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the screenplay, the film centers on a pirate captain named Pirate Captain, who commands a crew of even more hilariously named swashbucklers. The captain is on a mission to win the prestigious Pirate of the Year Award: short the necessary cash but up one extinct Dodo bird, he enlists the help of Charles Darwin (yes, that Charles Darwin) to guarantee his success. Visual and verbal gags abound, providing nonstop laughs, while the very tactile stop-motion animation in 3D lends a beautiful aesthetic to the movie. Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Piven, Selma Hayek, and Imelda Staunton provide just a few of the wacky voices in this frenzied story. Our review deems the film “an embarrassment of visual riches, with each frame containing more jokes and sly gags than entire live action movies. These are pirates who inhabit a very specific, fantastical world, who are less interested in actual high seas villainy than appearing like they are. They're insecure, neurotic, and totally relatable.” RT: 87% MC: 74
Scandinavia: so hot right now. The Norwegian “Headhunters,” directed by Morten Tyldum from the book by Jo Nesbø, is the slickest kind of crime thriller. Desperate for cash, headhunter Roger (Aksel Hennie) steals valuable paintings from his clients. At long last, one of them, a former special forces soldier – played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau! Jaime Lannister! “Game of Thrones”! – discovers Roger’s double-dealing and threatens his life. A mix of sultry, nasty, blackly comedic characters and moments create a fun, quick ride though some palpable plot holes and a largely unfocused script are problematic. Our review says, “fans of the genre will certainly have fun across its brisk running time, but aside from a few memorable sequences — a gruesome car crash, and a surprising attempt to dispose of a body — it's unlikely to linger long in the memory.” RT: 91% MC: 74
Richard Linklater’s mockumentary “Bernie” also hits theaters this weekend. The film, co-written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth (a journalist who wrote the article the film is based on), relates the tale of a Texas mortician who is so loved in his community that they rally to his defense when he’s convicted of murder. Jack Black is understated and warm in the titular role, and is quite convincing in his deeply contrasted turns as the vivacious pillar of community and a depressed criminal. Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, and Richard Robichaux co-star as fellow townspeople. Though perhaps a little light in its examination and superficial in its portrayals, the film still manages to be a charming and hilarious portrait of small-town life. Our review says, “as slim and inessential as ‘Bernie’ is in the scope of things – it’s really not saying a whole heck of a lot – it is nonetheless arch and witty, a lighthearted and entertaining little trifle that’s pretty damn funny and enjoyable too.” RT: 73% MC: 72
A woman claiming to be from the future asks her followers to listen to the “Sound of My Voice,” in Zal Batmanglij’s directorial debut. Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) are amateur filmmakers who penetrate the cultish ring around Maggie (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the script) in the hope of making a documentary about the phenomenon. Only, they too find themselves succumbing to her unearthly presence, her assured philosophies and advice straight from Tomorrowland. By the film’s conclusion, Maggie’s compelling, angelic delivery has lulled its characters and audiences alike into a sense of mystified security. Powerful acting, particularly on this barest of sets, and a piercing examination of psyche and faith, coalesce to form a terrifying and enchanting account. Our review calls Marling’s performance “a star turn, the kind of performance you are almost afraid of ignoring,” admits “few filmmakers can do so much with such a sparse setting,” and says the film “creates the milieu of limited visual possibilities that nonetheless brims with ideas.” RT: 91% MC: 68