"The Five-Year Engagement"

Richard's Review: 3 stars

Somewhere etched on a stone tablet are the Rules of Rom-Coms. All romantic comedies, it seems, must have an unlikely couple meet, fall in love, hit an obstacle and then reconcile just before the credits roll. "The Five-Year Engagement" is no different. But it shakes up the formula with some dark comedy (no other romance would use frostbite as a plot point), an adult conversation done with Muppet voices and two stars with charm and charisma to burn.

Jason Segel is Tom, a San Francisco chef engaged to his girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt). The quirky pair is a perfect match and head off to parties dressed as Princess Diana and Super Bunny. But circumstance gets in the way of the wedding plans. First Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie) preempts her sister's big day by getting pregnant and planning a shotgun wedding. Then psychology student Violet accepts a spot in a two-year graduate program at the University of Michigan, once again getting in the way of this walk down the aisle.

Like many Judd Apatow-produced movies, "The Five-Year Engagement" plays out like a standard rom-com but takes many twists and turns along the way.

Some darker touches help separate this from the run-of-the-mill romantic comedies, but they also weigh down the midsection of the movie. Luckily this isn't Kristen Bell, or worse, Katherine Heigl and any standard romantic male lead starring in this movie.

Blunt and Segel are the engine that keeps the movie moving forward. You care about what happens to them, and when contrived obstacles comes between them it doesn't feel as standard as it does in most movies. You really hope they'll be able to work things out.

Blunt and Segel are aided by a terrific supporting cast from shows like "The Office," "Community" and "Parks and Recreation." Community's Alison Brie is a scene-stealer. Watching her and Blunt have a grown-up conversation in Muppet voices is worth the long running time.

"The Five-Year Engagement" could have used some trimming, but succeeds because doesn't follow the ordinary rom-com rules.

"Pirates! Band of Misfits"

Richard's Review: 3 1/2 stars

It's not every kid's flick that features Queen Victoria, the Elephant Man and Charles Darwin. "Pirates! Band of Misfits" isn't like most kid's movies. The latest film from Aardman, the British animators behind "Chicken Run" and the "Wallace and Gromit" movies, delivers plenty of sidesplitting, swashbuckling fun.

The story begins with Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) filling out a form to enter the Pirate of the Year Award. He's lost 21 times in a row -- he's such a lame pirate, the reward for his capture is only 12 doubloons and a free pen. But he feels like this might be his year.

Marking down "lustrous beard" as one of his strong points, he's up against former winners Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), who makes a spectacular entrance on a whale's tongue, and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek). The goal is to gather as much pirate booty as possible. Pirate Captain is far behind, and a plundering spree doesn't do much to enhance his chances. That changes after he boards a ship belonging to Charles Darwin (David Tennant).

There's no gold aboard Darwin's ship, but when the evolutionary scientist notices that Pirate Captain's bird isn't a big-boned parrot but a thought-to-be-extinct Dodo bird, the Captain sees a way to get the money he needs to win the top pirate contest.

First he must get past Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who has a real hate for pirates.

"Pirates! Band of Misfits" mixes family-friendly humour with Monty Python-style gags and Aardman's usual whimsy. There is so much going on here you may want to see this more than once to catch all the sight gags and throw-a-way lines. The humour should appeal to every member of the family.

Some of the goings-on, however, may be lost on younger kids. The Elephant Man cameo, for instance, is strictly for adults. That said kids will enjoy many of the characters -- particularly Darwin's monkey butler. They may even pick up on the moral that by doing the right thing Pirate Captain finally gets his wish and becomes a bad guy.

"Darling Companion"

Richard's Review: 2 stars

The spirit of the Littlest Hobo is very much alive in "Darling Companion." The homeless German Shepherd of the TV series (which was based on a 1958 movie of the same name) dropped into people's lives for 30 minutes every Saturday morning, bringing with him goodwill and understanding.

Freeway, the homeless dog of "Darling Companion," doesn't get up to exactly the same tricks as the Littlest Hobo. He doesn't help rescue a Prima Ballerina who wants to defect from her Iron Curtain captors or protect an elderly prospector from greedy land-grabbers. But by going on a wild adventure, he does bring one family closer together.

When we first meet Freeway he's an abandoned dog on the side of the freeway. In quick succession, Beth (Diane Keaton) and daughter Grace ("Mad Men's" Elisabeth Moss) rescue the mangy mutt. Grace falls for the dog's vet and Beth falls in love with the animal and adopts it. Tragedy strikes, however, when Beth's egotistical surgeon-husband, Joseph (Kevin Kline), allows the dog to wander off.

Beth searches for Freeway for three days, along with family and friends. The hunt for the dog brings new meaning to their relationships.

Lawrence Kasdan, along with his wife, Meg, wrote and directed "Darling Companion." Many of the trademarks of his best work are evident here, such as the ensemble cast à la "The Big Chill" and the distant male lead character of "The Accidental Tourist." What isn't here, however, is subtext.

Kasdan's other movies have been rich examinations of the inner workings of life.

On the surface "The Big Chill" was about a disparate group of friends who danced in the kitchen and attended their friend's funeral. Underneath it all, the film was really about the renewal of hope in these character's lives. That's the thing that made "The Big Chill" an enduring classic.

By contrast, "Darling Companion" is a movie about people looking for a dog. There are lots of nice moments during the search, but not enough to justify the running time. The plot contrivance of having an exotic psychic (Ayelet Zurer) as a spiritual guide for the search doesn't help matters much.

One of the film's pleasures is watching Kline, Keaton, Richard Jenkins and Dianne Wiest glide through this slight material as if it was melted butter. They love, laugh and look for the dog, all the while delivering performances that are far better than this script deserves.

"Darling Companion" is a well-intentioned movie about how people react in a crisis, but could have used some more drama. Where's the Littlest Hobo when you really need him?


Richard's Review: 3 stars

Here's my idea for a marketing plan for the new action film "Safe":

  • Body Count: 350
  • Bullet Budget: $1,000,000
  • Jason Statham's Steely Glare: Priceless

In "Safe," the gravelly-voiced Statham digs deep into his bag of tricks to play Luke Wright, Statham Character No. 2. That's the loner with a past who must protect a youthful innocent." (As opposed to Statham Character No. 1, in which he plays the loner with a past who must protect a loved one.

The innocent in this case is an 11-year-old prodigy named Mei (Catherine Chan) who has been kidnapped by a Chinese Triad boss (James Hong) who hopes to use her photographic memory to store sensitive information. That gift makes the girl valuable to the Russian mob, who try and snatch her away to unlock the secrets in her head.

Enter Luke, a coiled spring of a man who has nothing to live for until he meets this girl genius.

The first half hour consists of clunky character set-ups and back-story. Then, at the 30-minute mark, Statham comes to life. All of a sudden he becomes a one-liner-spouting action hero and "Safe" becomes the dumb, good fun we expect from Statham's movies.

There are lots of old-fashioned fist fights and some awesome back-story info delivered by Chris Sarandon and a group of corrupt cops. Unfortunately, there's also young Mei. It cannot be a coincidence that Mei's character name is only one letter away from the word, "meh." She delivers one of the worst child mastermind performances in recent years.

Luckily she's playing opposite Statham who covers the screen with his own brand of awesome.

"Safe" isn't for everyone, but Statham fans will find something to like.

"The Raven"

Richard's Review: 2 stars

"The Raven," a new thriller starring John Cusack as mystery writer Edgar Allen Poe, is a convergence of fact, fiction and police procedural. Poe must help the police track down a serial killer who is using his stories as inspiration before the love-of-his-life becomes the final victim. It's "CSI" meets E.A.P.

Set years after Poe's greatest successes "The Tell Tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum," the story begins with a mystery -- a locked room containing two dead bodies, but no killer. When brash Baltimore Detective Fields (Luke Evans) makes a connection between the crime and Poe's stories, the writer becomes a suspect, then a collaborator.

Meanwhile Poe is trying to eek out a living writing for the local newspaper.

"I've used up all my tricks," he tells his editor, explaining why he can't recreate the big-selling blood and guts of his best known work.

Soon, however, the writer must put pen to paper when the mysterious killer kidnaps Poe's fiancée, Emily (Alice Eve), threatening her with death unless he writes descriptions of the murders in the newspaper.

Despite drawing on the fantastic elements of Poe's stories, the imposing presence of Brendan Gleeson as an irascible millionaire and the petticoats of Alice Eve, "The Raven" feels rather standard. It's a run-of-the-mill serial killer story dolled-up with period clothes and a performance from Cusack that alternates between disinterest and Nic Cage's "anything goes" intensity.

It's wildly uneven, although like all Cusack's performances it has a certain charm. The mannered 19th century language doesn't seem to fit his mouth, but occasionally he pulls out a good line.

After reading one of the killer's notes to the police Poe, the part-time critic, says, "Even his prose is barbaric." It's a funny line, well delivered, that breaks up the movie's general feeling of doom and gloom.

Director James "V for Vendetta" McTeigue hasn't imbued the film with the gothic feel it needs to feel suitably creepy. He completely misses out on the inventiveness of the stories that inspired the movie.

Poe's works were atmospheric studies of madness, sin and horror. Here, however, we are given an average tale. If you dressed it up in modern clothes, it wouldn't feel out of place on any prime-time police drama.

"The Raven" isn't a terrible movie; it's just a really average one. It's as if the filmmakers knew it was going to take a critical pounding and threw in some preemptive strikes against reviewers. Early on, a critic is dispatched in a very gruesome way and later Poe dismisses criticism as "the easy stuff." Maybe he's right, but I'm not wrong about this movie.