Inspired ‘Pirates,’ Excellent ‘Avengers,’ Amusing ‘Bernie,’ Wretched ‘Raven,’ Erratic ‘Engagement’


Contributing Writer

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Aardman, the British animation studio famous for Wallace and Gromit, offers the first 3-D feature in its traditional stop-motion format with The Pirates! Band of Misfits (wide release), and it’s a winner.
A goofy tale of a bunch of bumbling pirates whose pet parrot turns out to be a dodo bird – a revelation that gets them involved with a conniving young Charles Darwin and an imperious Queen Victoria – it’s filled with raucous slapstick action that will delight children, as well as verbal wit and more subtle sight gags to warm the hearts of adults.
And the visuals, which combine the dominant claymation technique with CG backgrounds and crowds, are genially old-fashioned.
Even the 3-D is used to enhance rather than overpower.
The Avengers
That’s also the case with The Avengers (wide release), the summer’s first big-budget blockbuster and one that sets a high standard for those to follow.
It’s genre master Joss Whedon’s adaptation of the Marvel comic book that brings together a gaggle of superheroes (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow, all under the direction of Nick Fury) to do battle against a common foe – in this case, Thor’s brother (adopted, as the hammer-wielding god points out at one point, to big laughs) Loki, who plans to unleash an alien army to take over earth.
The best part of the picture is the bickering that accompanies the founding of the team, with wise-cracking Robert Downey, Jr. (IM), super-earnest Chris Evans (CA) and arrogant Chris Hemsworth (Thor) exchanging barbs while jockeying for leadership.  But it’s equally successful in working Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk into the mix; unlike the others, the character flopped in his two solo outings but here brings lots of punch, as well as a surprisingly large amount of humor, to the proceedings.
The big final confrontation between the heroes and the extraterrestrials goes on rather long, as seems obligatory nowadays; even Whedon can’t come up with enough clever bits of business to justify 40 minutes of mayhem, though admittedly he gives it a good shot.
But overall this virtual convention of Marvel’s comic-book all-stars turns out to be the most engaging summer popcorn action movie since J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek.

Jack Black controls his customary volatility in the title role of Bernie (Inwood), Richard Linklater’s incongruously sweet-natured comedy based on a real-life East Texas murder case.
Black plays a genial, effeminate mortician who kills the mean old octogenarian widow he’s befriended (played with steely determination by Shirley MacLaine) and literally keeps the corpse on ice while he showers her money philanthropically on their neighbors. When it comes time for the flamboyantly good-ole-boy DA (Matthew McConaughey) to prosecute, the townsmen are reluctant to convict.
The central story is told with a deadpan precision that brings plenty of smiles, but it’s the continuing running commentary from an ensemble of perfectly chosen actors playing locals that makes the picture as much a study of the place as a Texan variant of Reversal of Fortune.
Bernie is a charming oddity.

The Raven
A period thriller featuring Edgar Allan Poe as an amateur detective has potential, but The Raven (wide release) flubs the premise, which has him helping the Baltimore police uncover why somebody is staging a series of gruesome murders fashioned after the deaths depicted in his own stories.
As a serial-killer puzzle the picture is simply dumb – the revelation of the villain and his motive at the close is ludicrous – but it’s the execution that really sinks the movie.  John Cusack is all bug-eyed desperation as the poet, and the attempts at witticism he’s given to recite (not to mention the excerpts of faux Poe prose he intones) are simply embarrassing.
The Raven may be intended as an homage, but it’s a puerile one.

The Five-Year Engagement
The newest cookie-cutter comedy from Judd Apatow’s factory is The Five-Year Engagement (wide release), in which the planned wedding of a restaurateur (Jason Segel) and a psychology Ph.D. (Emily Blunt) is repeatedly postponed after they leave California for the campus of the University of Michigan.  Not that the delay keeps them from living together, of course – until they break up, only to be reunited in the end.
It’s the usual mixture of vulgarity, slapstick that often turns violent, motor-mouthed insults passing for wit and sitcom-quality characterizations that passes for comedy in today’s Hollywood, and at over two hours it feels a lot longer than five years.


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