Friday, August 31, 2012

Celeste and Jesse Forever: Love lies bleeding

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.31.12

If art truly imitates life, then — based on the evidence of recent films such as this one, Lola Versus and Ruby Sparks — today’s self-absorbed thirtysomethings haven’t the faintest idea how to embrace and sustain a relationship.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) insists — to anybody willing to listen — that
she wants only the best for ex-hubbie Jesse (Andy Samberg). The
truth, though, is that their separation is strictly on her terms ... and
that little detail is about to get them both in trouble.
At first blush, however, the opposite seems true of the title characters in Celeste and Jesse Forever ... and that’s the clever twist in this arch and perceptive script from Rashida Jones and Will McCormack.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are introduced on what seems an average day. They’re bubbly, effervescent and completely at ease with each other. They enjoy many of the same artful pursuits, while cheerfully tolerating each other’s varying tastes. They finish sentences together, dissect restaurant menus in mock German accents, and share little physical rituals, from air-hugs to hilariously vulgar acts with tubes of lip gloss.

In a word, they’re cute enough to be cloying.

Unfortunately, they aren’t a couple. At least ... not really.

Indeed, they’re long separated and in the final stages of divorce. But an inability to stay married hasn’t damaged their friendship, although this dichotomy falls outside the bounds of comfort for their respective best friends, Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), coincidentally engaged and soon to be wed.

We deduce that Celeste and Jesse once were perfectly matched, during the younger days that led to their own wedded bliss. But Celeste has matured beyond the giddy rush of carefree twentysomethingness; she has become the ambitious, workaholic co-owner of her own media consulting firm. She’s also a frequently quoted “trend analyzer” and the author of a book on same, provocatively titled Shitegeist.

The passive Jesse, alternatively, prefers the lackadaisical existence of an artist. He’ll blow off deadlines — even on projects for Celeste — in order to watch TV or get stoned with good buddy Skillz (McCormack), a casual pot dealer who is quite vexed by the medical marijuana clinics that are interfering with his business model.

When Beth confronts her best friend and wonders aloud, for the umpteenth time, why she and Jesse don’t get back together, Celeste rather waspishly replies that she can’t spend her life with a guy who won’t even get a checking account.

“The father of my child,” she insists, “will own a car.”

It’s a droll line, one of many in this frequently witty script. But Celeste’s facility for disdainful zingers is a defense mechanism: one that eventually fails to conceal the arrogance of a condescending control freak.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Expendables 2: More mindless mayhem

The Expendables 2 (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong bloody violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.24.12

It’s time once again to buy stock in ordnance manufacturers; Sylvester Stallone and his geezer squad are back to wreak more havoc and shoot up fresh landscapes.

Determined to rescue a lone American trapped by gun-toting
mercenaries, our heroes — from left, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone),
Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) — blast
their way into a fortified compound, and then prepare to eliminate any
two-legged signs of resistance. It's just another day at the office for
these guys...
Really, even by the already crazed standards of Hollywood’s exaggerated action flicks, I’ve rarely seen so much gunfire. Or so many blood squibs spurting from the chests, limbs and heads of obligingly posed victims. Particularly the goons shot by long-range, high-power sniper rifle, whose heads explode in a spray of viscera.

It’s almost enough to harsh the laughably ludicrous vibe of this otherwise mindless live-action cartoon.

The Expendables 2 is even sillier than its 2010 predecessor, an AARP spin on The Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen and all sorts of other gang-of-losers-against-insurmountable-odds epics. Ironically enough, "sillier" means better, in this case; thanks to the lighter tone, this sequel is quite a bit more entertaining. The notion that Stallone and his old coot buddies still can raise hell, definitely raises smiles ... and, yeah, it's a kick to see so many familiar faces.

With tongue even more firmly in cheek, Stallone once again shares screenwriting credit, but this time hands the directing chores to Simon West, a veteran of similar high-octane action fare such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, last year’s remake of The Mechanic and TV’s much-loved (if woefully short-lived) 2003 cop series, Keen Eddie.

The first Expendables at least made an effort to blend some actual character drama with its grim doings, with Dolph Lundgren’s Gunnar Jensen failing to play nice with the rest of the crew, most particularly Jet Li’s Yin Yang. Lundgren is sweetness and light this time — and has inherited a college-educated science background (!) — but Li makes little more than a token appearance in an audacious pre-credits rescue mission, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows.

Indeed, West errs slightly with this prologue; it’s far better staged than most of what follows. The folks who make these sorts of films really need to stop front-loading their best stuff; the rest of the film invariably feels anti-climactic.

But back to basics.

Any trace of squabbling has vanished, with Barney Ross (Stallone) and the rest of his crew — Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) — joking and tossing brewskies like seasoned best buds. They’ve also taken on a rookie, a talented sharpshooter dubbed Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), who seems to fit right in with the gang.

Premium Rush: Quite a ride!

Premium Rush (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, intense action and occasional profanity
By Derrick Bang

Summer isn’t quite over, but I still feel comfortable calling this the season’s nicest surprise.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prides himself on being the best of an
elite daredevil breed: hell-for-leather New York City bicycle messengers.
But even Wilee finds his skills taxed when one particular delivery
prompts pursuit by a clearly unhinged fellow ... whose behavior
becomes progressively more dangerous.
Premium Rush is a marvelous little action flick: cleverly plotted, capably acted and suspensefully edited. I also admire director/co-scripter David Koepp’s attitude: He shares my belief that most modern movies are too long, and his peppy thriller clocks in at a just-right 91 minutes. Koepp and editors Derek Ambrosi and Jill Savitt keep the action taut and inventive.

This is great edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Koepp and co-writer John Kamps also are the first filmmakers to properly exploit a fascinating sub-culture — New York City bicycle messengers — and they do so with considerable panache. This storyline also demands a whole new range of stunt work, much of it eye-popping.

Premium Rush certainly isn’t the first film to employ bicycle stunt work — 1983’s otherwise laughable BMX Bandits (with a young Nicole Kidman!) comes to mind — but this film delivers two-wheeled tricks that’ll drop your jaw to the floor.

Credit stuntman Victor Paguia, trick cyclists Danny MacAskill and Tom La Marche, and an authentic bike messenger dubbed Austin Horse. But credit, as well, goes to the film’s three primary riding stars, each of whom looks every inch the part, from buff bods to heavy, sweat-oiled exertion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dania Ramirez and Wolé Parks must’ve worked their butts off during this shoot, and it shows.

Indeed, according to report, the fearless Gordon-Levitt finally had to be restrained from attempting some of the stunts himself. I’m willing to believe it; he sure seems to be doing the lion’s share of his character’s riding.

Although Koepp built his reputation with solid screenplays for big-budget blockbusters such as Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man, he’s equally fond of intimate, claustrophobic, character-driven thrillers; notable examples include Stir of Echoes, Secret Window and most particularly the superb Jodie Foster suspenser, Panic Room.

With Premium Rush, Koepp and Kamps deliver their version of the real-time thriller, which unfolds in a time frame roughly equal to how long we spend watching. The screenplay “cheats” a little, with a few flashbacks designed to explain the pell-mell events fueling the action, but that’s part of the fun; the flashbacks are inventively placed at just the right moments, building our emotional involvement each time we return to the story at hand.

Friday, August 17, 2012

ParaNorman: Whimsical horror with a clever twist

ParaNorman (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Norman Babcock sees dead people. Constantly.

And he cheerfully chats with them.

Meet the Babcock family: from left, Grandma, Mom, Dad, Norman and
his teenage sister Courtney. You'll likely notice that Grandma seems
somewhat ghostly; that's because she has been dead for years ...
although this hasn't stopped her loving relationship with Norman.
Nobody else in the family appreciates the boy's, ah, unusual gift.
This unlikely talent has prompted nothing but derision, dismay and the unwanted attention of the booger-picking school bully. “Weird” kids always get singled out for abuse, and Norman is much weirder than most.

He’s also the hero of ParaNorman, the newest stop-motion treat from animator Travis Knight’s Oregon-based LAIKA Inc., which rose from the ashes of the financially strapped studio founded by claymation pioneer Will Vinton. Although LAIKA had a hand in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, the new company’s first wholly in-house feature was its awesome 2009 adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

ParaNorman is LAIKA’s second big-screen film, and the first written as an original concept by Chris Butler, who worked on storyboards for both Corpse Bride and Coraline. Butler shares directorial duties on this new movie with Sam Fell, whose previous credits include co-helming Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux.

The story is funny, snarky, occasionally scary — perhaps too much so for very young viewers — and unexpectedly poignant at times. The voice casting is delicious, and the 93-minute film moves along at a lively, suspenseful pace.

And the animation is simply smashing. Stop-motion is such a labor-intensive process; the mere completion of such an ambitious project deserves applause. That it turned out so well is icing on the cake.

The random bits of production data are staggering. ParaNorman took two years to make, involving more than 320 designers, artists, animators and technicians. At any given time, these people worked on 52 separate shooting units, representing the various settings of this droll, macabre little tale. An entire week would be spent, carefully manipulating these little puppets, to get between one and two minutes of footage.

None of which would matter a jot, of course, if we weren’t engaged by both the story and its characters.

We meet Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he enjoys a televised horror movie in the company of his beloved grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Only one problem here: Grandma has been dead for years, a fact that exasperates Norman’s father (Jeff Garlin), deeply concerns his mother (Leslie Mann), and flat-out disgusts his self-absorbed older sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick).

Sparkle: A star is born

Sparkle (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, drug use, violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang

Mara Brock Akil’s screenplay for this updated remake of Sparkle is laden with moments — plot developments, dialogue exchanges — that cut so close to Whitney Houston’s grim, off-camera misfortunes, that one cannot help wincing.

Thanks in no small part to her flashier dresses, Sister (Carmen Ejogo,
center) gets all the attention when she and siblings Dolores (Tika
Sumpter, left) and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) perform as a Motown
"girl group." Unfortunately, Sister's reckless behavior is destined to
change this dynamic.
Indeed, it sometimes feels as if one is in a constant state of wince.

Many of these moments don’t even concern Houston’s character. But the mere knowledge that Houston embraced this project — her final film, and her first big-screen role since 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife — adds a layer of pathos that I’m sure director Salim Akil (the scripter’s husband) exploited quite deliberately.

The knowledge that Houston died during post-production of what was intended as a comeback role — without ever having seen the finished result — adds an additional layer of heartbreak that tragically unbalances this film.

Which is a shame, because — unlike many remakes — this new version of Sparkle has much to recommend it, starting with the radiant title performance by Jordin Sparks. Mara Brock Akil’s script moves the story down different paths than those taken by the 1976 original — still recognized as a very important entry in African-American cinema — and not merely because these events have been bumped forward roughly a decade.

Some shrewd socio-political content occasionally surfaces from the overly familiar “Golly, but I’d love to be a star” underdog saga.

But 19-year-old Sparkle (Sparks) isn’t really an underdog; she’s more of a plain-Jane house mouse. That is, at least, how she sees herself when standing alongside her older sisters: the confident and accomplished Dolores (Tika Sumpter), who yearns to become a doctor; and rebellious wild child Tammy, better known as Sister (Carmen Ejogo), back in the family home after a decadent big-city sojourn from which — we gather — she was lucky to escape.

The setting is Detroit in the late 1960s, and all that era involves: the civil rights movement, renegade fashions and hairstyles, and — most crucially, to this tale — the enormously popular music of Motown. Sparkle and her sisters live comfortably in a middle-class home held together by their mother, Emma (Houston), a single parent who once had her own ill-fated fling with the music scene, and has endured by becoming a conservative church-goer.

(We almost can imagine that Emma might have been one of the cast-offs from the original Sparkle, which was set in 1950s Harlem and sorta-kinda echoed the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: A delicate bloom

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, for mild (and fleeting) profanity
By Derrick Bang

Peter Hedges makes delightfully idiosyncratic films about socially awkward and mildly eccentric characters somewhat out of step with the real world: people not quite in synch with the rest of us, and unable to figure out how to bridge that divide.

Rather perplexed by the ivy-esque leaves that appear to be fastened
to the lower legs of the mysterious boy (Cameron "CJ" Adams) who
entered their lives as in answer to a prayer, Cindy (Jennifer Garner)
and Jim (Joel Edgerton, far right) bring the little guy to a horticulturist
(Lin-Manuel Miranda). He offer to clip off the leaves ... a suggestion
that we just know is misguided.
Hedges doesn’t work quickly; he came to our attention back in 1993, when he adapted his own novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for director Lasse Hallström. He followed that with adaptations of two books by other authors — Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World and Nick Hornby’s About a Boy (the latter earning Hedges an Academy Award nomination) — before taking the director’s chair for his next project, 2003’s Pieces of April.

Aside from giving Katie Holmes her best role to date — and bringing co-star Patricia Clarkson an Oscar nomination for supporting actress — Pieces of April established Hedges as a writer/director with a fondness for wayward souls, and a solid sense of the way people interact with each other. His next project, the 2007 romantic comedy Dan in Real Life, remains my favorite Steve Carell film.

All of which brings us to the aptly titled The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a delicate, poignant little fantasy that I suspect will have trouble finding an audience during these noisy, action-oriented summer months. Timothy Green feels like a story that might have been spun by the Brothers Grimm, were they among us today; this is a fairy tale with a gentle message, and characters whose lives are changed by the intervention of a supernatural being straight out of wish-fulfillment dreams.

The story is credited to Ahmet Zappa, a low-profile actor making an intriguing writing debut; Hedges directed and supplied the script. The result is whimsical, charming and completely preposterous ... and that latter attribute is somewhat at odds with Hedges’ traditional strengths.

Because this narrative can’t possibly take place in our world, despite his insistence that it’s doing precisely that.

Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) live in the small town of Stanleyville, known as “the pencil capital of the world.” Unfortunately, the growing proliferation of computers, iPhones and the like have greatly diminished the demand for pencils, and plant employees keep expecting manager Franklin Crudstaff (Ron Livingston) to announce cutbacks and layoffs.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Bourne Legacy: In good hands

The Bourne Legacy (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for considerable violence and grim action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.10.12

Any doubts about the Bourne film series surviving Matt Damon’s departure can be laid to rest; replacement star Jeremy Renner capably opens a new chapter in Robert Ludlum’s popular franchise.

Pursued by both police and an anonymous, shadowy adversary,
Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) and Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz)
hijack a motorcycle and attempt to escape in the confusion of
Manila's insanely crowded streets and alleyways.
Although it’s perhaps not the chapter fans were expecting.

Ludlum, who died in 2001, wrote the three books made into the film trilogy that featured Damon between ’02 and ’07. Ludlum’s estate sanctioned Jason Bourne’s literary revival in an ongoing series of sequels by the prolific Eric Van Lustbader, who thus far has written seven more, starting with 2004’s The Bourne Legacy.

But although this new film shares the same title, that’s all it shares. Like most latter-day James Bond films, which also borrowed Ian Fleming’s book and short story titles — and nothing else — director/co-scripter Tony Gilroy concocted an entirely new narrative suggested by Ludlum’s conspiracy-laden premise.

And rather than tagging a new actor to play Jason Bourne — thus cleverly leaving the door open for Damon’s return, at some future point — Renner is introduced as Aaron Cross, one of several “sidebar assets” in the U.S. black ops agency’s clandestine Treadstone project.

Gilroy scripted all three of Damon’s Bourne films; he also wrote and directed the sleekly sinister George Clooney vehicle, Michael Clayton, and had fun riffing on industrial espionage with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, in 2009’s Duplicity. So it’s safe to say that Gilroy knows the territory.

Gilroy wisely takes his time with the first act of this new film, introducing Cross during an extreme survival training session in the Alaskan wilderness. Details are sketchy, aside from the same heightened senses and reflexes that characterized Bourne; Cross also carefully maintains a daily regimen of pills — one blue, one green — that are safeguarded in a container worn around his neck.

Back in D.C., high-level spook Eric Byer (Edward Norton) frets over the public appearance of Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), recognized from the previous film in this series. Similarly, Pam Landy (Joan Allen), Jason Bourne’s former handler, has threatened to go public with Treadstone’s seamier details.

Feeling that they have no choice, Byer and fellow conspirator Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) decide to shut down Treadstone and its half-dozen human assets, despite their highly effective work in various world hot spots. And in this realm of unsupervised behavior, “shutting down” has lethal ramifications for said assets.

Ruby Sparks: Fantasy with a whimsical glow

Ruby Sparks (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang
 • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.17.12

Fresh, provocative concepts are one of cinema’s great treasures: unexpected delights — often in quiet, unassuming packages — that catch our fancy because they deserve to.

Initially, Harry (Chris Messina, right) assumes that his brother Calvin's
(Paul Dano) new girlfriend is nothing more than a figment of his
unbalanced imagination. But when Harry finally agrees to meet Ruby
(Zoe Kazan) — and realizes that she's a genuine, flesh-and-blood
woman — he's both captivated and genuinely amazed ... because he
knows that she first existed only as a character in Calvin's new novel.
They’re usually script-driven, sometimes a debut screenplay by a young actor flying beneath the radar ... but not for long. Think of Sylvester Stallone, stubbornly shepherding 1976’s Rocky to the big screen as a starring vehicle for himself. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and 1997’s Good Will Hunting. Sofia Coppola, and 2003’s Lost in Translation (not her first script, but certainly the Academy Award-winning effort that made her career). Michael Arndt, and 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine.

The latter also marked the directorial debut of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a filmmaking team who cut their teeth on music videos and the MTV series The Cutting Edge before turning their deliciously quirky sensibilities to full-length features. They’re obviously selective, having waited six years before embarking on their sophomore effort.

And while Ruby Sparks certainly benefits from their capable guidance, this wonderfully idiosyncratic charmer will be immortalized as the film that transformed Zoe Kazan from a little-known young actress — you might remember her from supporting roles in 2008’s Revolutionary Road and 2009’s It’s Complicated — to a multi-hyphenate: star, writer and producer.

Until a few short months ago, Kazan probably was most famous simply because of her family name: She’s the granddaughter of celebrated director Elia Kazan (Gentlemen’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, East of Eden and many more), and the daughter of Academy Award-nominated screenwriters Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune and Bicentennial Man, among others) and Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, among others).

Clearly, talent runs in the family. By the end of summer, we’ll hear the name Kazan and think of Zoe, not her parents or grandfather. And deservedly so.

Ruby Sparks is Zoe Kazan’s tart, unapologetically preposterous update of the ancient Greek Pygmalion myth, which concerned a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he created, after it came to life. George Bernard Shaw turned this concept into a 1912 play that eventually begat the acclaimed 1956 Broadway musical My Fair Lady, which has remained famous — as a film and stage production — ever since.

In Kazan’s hands, the sculptor becomes novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a former literary wunderkind who sold his acclaimed first novel while still a teenager. But like other first-time author celebrities before him — Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee come to mind — the subsequent fame has proved stifling and artistically crippling. Now, a full decade later, Calvin still rides on the fame of his debut book, but he hasn’t been able to write anything new.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hope Springs: An acting storm in a narrative vacuum

Hope Springs (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, despite blunt sexual candor and sexuality
By Derrick Bang

As a movie, this is an odd experience.

The ritual is the same every morning: Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) comes
downstairs to a breakfast of two eggs and a single strip of bacon,
faithfully provided by his wife, Kay (Meryl Streep). He never talks to
her, instead burying his face in the daily newspaper. Her attempts at
actual conversation — forget about intimacy — are met with
bewildered indifference? And this is a marriage worth saving?
Vanessa Taylor’s plot is spare to the point of minimalism: Kay and Arnold, going through the motions of a loveless marriage, struggle to resurrect the original magic while seeing a celebrated couples’ counselor.

That’s it.

What this means, in practical terms, is that we spend nearly all of this 100-minute film watching Kay, reduced to almost helpless insecurity by years of neglect, as she attempts to survive her proximity to a grumpy, emotionally abusive husband. Not much fun.

But because these roles are played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, both superbly adept at subtle gestures and expressions that speak volumes, the result certainly is more interesting than would be the case with lesser performers. When speaking of our finest actors, I’ve occasionally confessed that I’d pay to watch them shop for groceries, because even that would be fascinating.

Well, at one point Kay and Arnold do shop for groceries, and Streep and Jones do turn it into a fabulous scene. No argument.

But the overall result, in sum, still feels more like an extended acting exercise than a feature-length film. Matters aren’t helped by director David Frankel’s pacing, which is deliberate and sluggish. His scene compositions are lackluster to the point of monotony, and he favors tight-tight-tight close-ups that quickly become tiresome.

We really don’t need to see every crease in Jones’ craggy features, nor does he need that sort of “cheating” to help sell a scene.

The story is restricted, almost entirely, to Kay, Arnold and Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, effectively modulated). Elisabeth Shue gets one quick scene as a cheerful bartender; Becky Ann Baker scores twice, as a tart-tongued waitress in a small-town diner; Jean Smart has two similarly brief moments as Kay’s best friend. The performers who play Kay and Arnold’s son, daughter and son-in-law register not at all; they’re practically blank slates during their quick appearances.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days — More underdog hijinks

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.3.12

Few things are dependable in Hollywood, but the movie adaptations of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books are a welcome exception.

In an effort to impress Holly (Peyton List, right), Greg (Zachary Gordon,
center right) claims to know how to play tennis, much to the horror
of Rowley (Robert Capron), who knows full well that he and his friend
never have stepped onto a court before. The hateful Patty (Laine
MacNeil) knows this as well, and she looks forward to this fresh
opportunity to humiliate Greg.
Various filmmaking teams have hewed closely to the all-essential tone established in Kinney’s books. Additionally, the clever means of animating his books’ stick-figure artwork — for title credits, and as transitional segments between live-action escapades — further reassures fans that these characters are in good hands.

Indeed. They’re also in good acting hands, and this continuity is just as pleasant. Although different cute girls have wandered in and out of hapless Greg Heffley’s orbit — it’s a shame Chloë Grace Moretz’s career took off, because it would have been nice to see her character again — the rest of the cast members have been a refreshing constant.

Best of all, director David Bowers and the production team possess the wisdom to resist the numbnuts slapstick that infects far too many so-called “family films” these days. To be sure, Greg’s various misadventures are mildly exaggerated for comic effect, but nothing here seems wholly inconceivable. And while some adults are held up for ridicule, that’s mostly a function of the way kids view their parents, as opposed to an indictment of anybody over the age of consent.

With school having let out for the summer, Greg (Zachary Gordon) is looking forward to endless days parked in front of the family TV set, playing his beloved video games. Alas, his parents have other ideas; his father (Steve Zahn, as Frank), in particular, wants his middle son to be more of an outdoor type, like the sports-minded boys who live across the street.

This strikes Greg as the height of absurdity, since he is — by his own admission — hardly anybody’s idea of well-toned physicality. And, truthfully, Frank should know better; his fondness for spending hours painting Civil War miniatures isn’t any different than Greg’s devotion to video games. And if you think there’s a lesson to be learned here, you’re correct.

Initially, though, Greg and his father have nothing in common ... except their shared loathing of a sappy daily newspaper comic strip called “Li’l Cutie” ... which seems a case of Kinney making fun of his own artistic stylings.

Total Recall: Thanks for the memories

Total Recall (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite generously, for intense, relentless violence and action, brief nudity, sexual content and profanity
By Derrick Bang

Whatever else may be true, this sucker moves.

Ultimately, a bit too much.

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) thinks he is about to experience a
harmless, James Bond-ian fantasy that he'll retain as a pleasant
memory. Alas, reality is about to trump fantasy, when Quaid discovers
that his life as a blue-collar factory worker isn't quite as "real" as he
has been led to believe.
Director Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall starts well and has much to recommend it, most notably plenty of striking production design and not one, not two, but three imaginative, cleverly filmed and all-stops-out chase scenes.

Unfortunately, the frantic pace grows tiresome after that third pursuit, particularly since we’re only halfway through the film by then. Wiseman and a veritable gaggle of scripters — Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Jon Povill — simply don’t know when to let up.

This film suffers from the same problem that derailed the second Indiana Jones epic (Temple of Doom): all chases and furious activity, with almost no respite. The characters never get a chance to catch their breath, and neither do we. Successful action flicks alternate between pell-mell activity and quieter moments: the latter for reflection, plot advancement and perhaps some tension-easing quips.

Wiseman’s update of Total Recall is almost without humor, grim or otherwise. While it’s true that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s outsized presence and personality overwhelmed the 1990 version, at least he cracked wise now and again. This remake’s Colin Farrell barely gets a chance to smile.

Let it be said, as well, that this new version doesn’t stray any closer to the Philip K. Dick story — “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” — on which both films are (very) loosely based. The reality-bending premise is present, as is the notion that our hero’s “false” memories might be genuine (or not) (or not not). Beyond that, Wimmer & Co. have grafted an entirely new narrative atop this mind-twisting concept.

Not a bad thing, to be sure, and this new version takes far greater pains to establish its credible future dystopia: all the more reason to be annoyed when the frenzied melees prevent our being better immersed in what seem to be fascinating background details.

The time is a century or so in the future, after chemical warfare has poisoned the majority of our planet. Only two nation-states have survived: the upscale United Federation of Britain, and the blue-collar “Colony” — formerly Australia — on the opposite end of the globe. Colony resident Douglas Quaid (Farrell) commutes daily to a grinding factory job in Britain, where he helps build robotic policeman on an assembly line.