“This Means War”
The old Looney Tunes shorts appear to be the inspiration for “This Means War” (wide release), a combination of action, comedy and romance that resembles nothing more than one of the battles between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam but, though stretched out to an hour and a half, contains far fewer laughs than any of the five-minute cartoons.
The plot centers on a couple of James Bond-ish CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) whose partnership is threatened when they compete for the same woman, a no-nonsense executive (Reese Witherspoon). In their game of one-upmanship they both make use of the agency’s surveillance apparatus and arsenal to ruin one another’s dates and find out what their quarry likes and dislikes.
The picture lacks the satirical edge it would need to overcome the unpleasant notion of spies stalking a woman with the mechanisms of their profession, offering only stale jokes and humdrum action sequences instead. A subplot about a vengeful international criminal the guys have previously defeated is included only to justify a big damsel-in-distress finale.
You can save time as well as money just by turning on the Cartoon Network. You’ll have more fun, too.
When all the elaborate plot devices are spelled out at the end of “Thin Ice” (Magnolia), you’re likely to shake your head over the implausibility of it all. But along the way this modernized take on “The Sting” by way of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” provides a chilly good time.
The protagonist is a sleazy Wisconsin insurance man (Greg Kinnear) who spots an opportunity to feather his nest when a valuable violin turns up among the belongings of an addled client (Alan Arkin). But when the would-be crook tries to turn the fiddle into gold, a series of missteps gets him deeper and deeper into trouble – including a murder.
With a good supporting cast – including Billy Crudup as a wild-eyed ex-con and Bob Balaban as a fastidious expert on musical instruments – the movie manages to be both amusing and clever. And the emotional atmosphere is as frigid as the Minnesota locations.
At its weaker moments, “Thin Ice” occasionally creaks and wobbles, but it manages to right itself and remain a pleasantly dark diversion.
“The Secret World of Arrietty”
Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s films have been noteworthy for their lovely hand-drawn images and imaginative plotting, but in “The Secret World of Arrietty” (wide release) only the visual beauty remains.
In terms of narrative, the picture is merely an adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic children’s book “The Borrowers,” about a family of diminutive people who live beneath the floorboards of a house and pilfer the items they need – like a cube of sugar – from the regular-sized folk above.
And while the story – involving an ill boy who discovers their existence and aims to become their friend – is agreeable enough, it’s told in so slow and ponderous a fashion that younger viewers are apt to become impatient.
Still, it’s impossible not to appreciate the lush colors and skillful compositions the animators have so carefully applied to the material. A pity they didn’t add some excitement to the mix.
“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”
Johnny Blaze, the character Nicolas Cage plays in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” (wide release), remarks early on that good judgment isn’t his strong suit, and the picture offers ample proof that that’s true of all the people involved in this misbegotten movie.
“Vengeance” is a sequel to the 2007 adaptation of a comic book, in which Blaze sold his soul to the devil and, in return, had to do the demon’s bidding as a flaming skeleton that coasts around on a fire-breathing motorcycle.
This time around, though, he tries, Terminator-style, to save a young boy the devil intends to possess as a strong new vessel for his earthly acts of malevolence.
Though it boasts some nifty effects – like a “touch of decomposition” that Satan endows one of his minions with – as well as a typically gonzo performance from Cage and one or two decent jokes, for the most part the movie is a grim, ugly affair with some particularly nasty religious elements needlessly attached.
One hopes the “Ghost” will ride into the sunset after this second outing.