by Jeff Boam


Opening this week

Labor Day
Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin
In 2013, Josh Brolin racked up three credits, Gangster Squad, Oldboy and his latest, Labor Day, which opened in New York and Los Angeles before the New Year. Rather than take a break in 2014, however, this movie star is racking up three more: Everest, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City sequel A Dame to Kill For, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to The Master, Inherent Vice. First, however, comes this adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel. In this PG-13-rated drama set in 1987, a depressed single mom and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride, only to gradually learn his true story as the police close in. The Plus: The pedigree. From Thank You for Smoking to Juno to Up in the Air to Young Adult, director Jason Reitman has amassed a critically hailed CV. Here, he directs Winslet (Carnage, Contagion), Brolin (True Grit, Men in Black 3), Clark Gregg (The Avengers, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), James Van Der Beek (The Rules of Attraction, CBS’s forthcoming Friends with Better Lives) and Tobey Maguire (Brothers, The Great Gatsby). The Minus: The specs. Reitman has amassed a critically hailed CV … until now, it seems. Between the Director’s Guild Awards, Golden Globes and Oscar nominations, Labor Day has pretty much been passed over which doesn’t speak well for its prospects.

That Awkward Moment
Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan
In this R-rated comedy, three best friends (Efron, Jordan, Miles Teller) find themselves at the confusing moment in every dating relationship when it’s time to take to take it to the next level or get out while they can. The Plus: The genre. From The Hangover ($277 million) to Project X ($100 million) to Horrible Bosses ($117 million) to Ted ($218 million) to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa ($102 million), American moviegoers love their Hard-R comedies. Here, we have Efron (17 Again, The Lucky One), Jordan (Chronicle, Fruitville Station), Miles Teller (Footloose, The Spectacular Now) and Imogen Poots (Centurion, Fright Night). The Minus: The odds. From The Change-Up ($37 million) to 21 & Over ($25 million) to Movie 43 ($8 million), American moviegoers are finicky when it comes to their Hard-R comedies, especially considering this go-round boasts a first-time writer/director in Tom Gormican.


Now Playing

I, Frankenstein
Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy
* — Monster Fraud
Stitching together a monstrously bad tale out of classic lit and bathroom reading, hulking bore I, Frankenstein deserves to be hunted down and burned to the ground by angry villagers. In this PG-13-rated adaptation of the graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, Frankenstein’s creature (Eckhart) finds himself caught in a centuries old war between two immortal clans. Even having never read the source material, one gets the feeling that much of the story has been truncated. The phoney baloney backstory of gargoyles versus demons, for instance, plays out almost as if on fast forward. When the monster gets named (obviously fans of the Old Testament, they go for ‘Adam’ as it turns out), this important gratuity comes with nary a beat before the next line. What results is not so much in the tongue-in-cheek style meets substance funny book adaptation Hellboy so much as poor monster mash-ups Underworld and Van Helsing. Only it’s much, much worse than those already low standards, dishing out a cliched supernatural actioner that robs from graves not worth turning over. How does Aaron Eckhart get made up to look like Frankenstein’s monster? He gets slapped with some fake scars and ninja sticks. Having already made his mark in a ridiculously good comic book flick (The Dark Knight) the actor should have left well enough alone instead of helping to set Mary Shelly spinning in her grave. Neither he nor anybody else in the cast bothered to crack a smile. Sadly, the movie wants very badly for some humor … because something this miscalculated has got to be a joke, right?

Ride Along
Ice Cube, Kevin Hart
** —  Flunk the Police
Ridden hard and left for dread, Ice Cube’s latest nearly brings moviegoers along on a straight up bust. Oh, it boasts some laughs, but sometimes makes audiences long for his PG-rated days pulling desk duty in family flicks. In this PG-13-rated comedy, a fast-talking security guard (Hart) joins a hard-nosed cop (Cube) on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying the cop’s sister. The fact that the ridiculously formulaic Ride Along blatantly robs so many cliches from decades old police actioners speaks volumes about the comedy’s entertainment value overall, however. Once you stop shaking your head at the jaw dropping amount of stolen goods being sold as new kicks on screen, you can actually stop to appreciate the occasional yuks. They’re often derived from a recipe too, mind you, but the players bring some mad skills.

August: Osage County
Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts
***1/2 — American Gothic Reunion
Boasting a host of A-List talent on their A-Game, this exhaustive but exhausting stage adaptation nevertheless ends up falling onto the B-List. The R-rated drama August: Osage County takes look into the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family (Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson), whose paths have diverged until a family tragedy brings them back to the Oklahoma house where they grew up under a domineering matriarch (Streep). It functions best as a performance piece, mind you. And everybody stands and delivers brilliantly … so much so that it often overshadows the sometimes lackluster story. It’s not that the play on which it is based wants for substance. It’s just that taking audiences through the eight circles of hellish Southern fried family dysfunction seems to ignite more emotion and passion performed live under a proscenium. For filmgoers familiar with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Steel Magnolias, the dour and draining script doesn’t present anything new but it does package in some surprises. Thankfully, it also includes many hilarious moments as well. But it’s not enough to elevate this awesome stage show to becoming an awesome film. It’s decent but, given the pedigree, the audience is right to expect much more. Tracy Letts adapts her own stage play, which was a monumental task given the show runs more than three hours. What’s left untouched by the red pen starts to feels redundant early on. Here, she has a blessing and a curse with the amazing cast assembled. Led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, this ensemble proves wondrously mesmerizing to watch under the direction John Wells, who smartly manages to stay out of their way and make the claustrophobic set not feel stagy.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Chris Pine, Kevin Costner
*** — Executive Derision
Bond-ed and Bourne too late, Jack Ryan nonetheless gets reinvented for the 21st century with excitingly mixed results. In this PG-13-rated reboot of the late great Tom Clancy’s espionage franchise, a young covert CIA analyst (Pine) uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack. It’s as thrilling as Hell, then daffy as heck. Intricately plotted, then ploddingly silly. A worthy follow-up to Patriot Games, then a Clear and Present Wanker. The film lays out some interesting thinking man’s groundwork full of death-defying espionage and breakneck fist and firefights, but simply arrives too late to the party. Dammit, even the action sequences that work beautifully betray the whiff of been there/done that.


Small Screens

Bad Grandpa
Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze
*** — Low Comedy for Old Men
In this R-rated comedy new to DVD, 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Knoxville) goes on a journey across America with his 8-year-old grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicholl). Partly acted to establish a throughline but mostly staged to milk laughs from hapless victims, this hidden camera comedy featuring a Bad Grandpa rides Borat’s coattails to sometimes greatly funny results. The sophomoric humor starts immediately but takes a while to really catch fire. Once the belly laughs begin, however, the movie becomes a consistent knee-slapper even when the “story” hardly stitches together the segments and some of the grossout jokes earn more yucks than guffaws.