Tag Archives: Jennifer Lawrence

I’ll Always Give Thanks for the Movies

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, the time when we take stock of our lives and acknowledge the amazing gifts we’ve been given.

Like most well fed, well cared for, comfy Americans, I have more things to be grateful for than I can list, especially this year, as my husband and I welcomed into our home a magical and mysterious creature, a now 10-month-old daughter who keeps us on our toes.

On a more playful note, and with no disrespect intended to the One our thanks is owed, I’ve been reflecting on my many movie-related blessings. It may be silly, but film is an important part of my life, helping me celebrate what is good and process what isn’t, shining some light into a dark world.

I’m grateful that for 15 years I was privileged to work at my dream job at a local newspaper. Over the course of my career, I performed many different tasks, some of them tedious, but I never grew tired of writing about movies.

Being a film critic is, hands down, the best job ever. I got paid to drive to Los Angeles and see the latest releases before anyone else did. Most Friday afternoons, I’d pop my head through the door of my boss’s office and say, “I’m going to the movies,” before strolling out of the building long before quitting time.

Pondering over, analyzing, nit-picking and discussing films is my favorite pastime and I got to do it for a living, in print, which often resulted in lively debate with readers.

Though I worked on the fringes of Hollywood, I had the opportunity to indulge my passion for movies with a wide spectrum of assignments. I interviewed fans at midnight screenings, talked to actors and directors by phone, covered film festivals, went to museum exhibit openings, delved into Tinseltown history and maneuvered my way onto film sets in the middle of the desert.

I perturbed Steven Spielberg by sneaking onto the Palmdale set of “The Terminal” (at least that’s what his publicists told me). And I passed out right in front of “Man of Steel” star Henry Cavill at a local premiere (but that’s another story).

After all these adventures, I’m surprised at how much I don’t miss my newspaper job, but I do miss spending every day immersed in the silly, strangely satisfying world of Hollywood.

That’s why I’m thankful I still get to go to the movies fairly frequently, thanks to a pair of wonderful grandmothers who don’t mind babysitting. And I’m blessed to continue writing about what I love on this blog, so if you’re reading this post, thank you.

Going to the movies wouldn’t be half as fun without my two moviegoing partners in crime. My husband, Nick, and I spend almost every date night in front of a flickering screen. When I traveled to L.A. for screenings, he was usually at my side, even though those nights could be tiring.

He gamely allows me to drag him to “artsy” fare like “Nightcrawler,” sits through the documentaries I put on our Netflix queue, briefs me on the horror movies I don’t have the nerve to watch and makes sure I’m up-to-date on the latest action flicks.

Best of all, as we leave the theater, he listens patiently while I chatter away, deconstructing everything we’ve just seen. I don’t know if anyone else would be willing to put up with my pompous, opinionated rants.

When I can’t convince Nick to come along with me, I can always count on my fellow film buff, Kristy. She’s the one who goes with me on a Tuesday night to see “Laggies” or “Tracks” or “Boyhood” when no one else will.

When I worked at the paper, she often rode shotgun with me to those exhausting L.A. screenings, hashing out the merits or lack thereof of what we’d just seen during the long drive home.

Kristy and I are gearing up for Oscar season, our favorite time of year, when we spend much of our time tracking the results of awards shows, handicapping the various categories and checking off the list of films we have yet to see.

We also spend way too much time, energy and money organizing the best Oscar party ever, at which someone is always guaranteed to do something crazy, like run down the street wearing a trash bag or dress up like Jennifer Lawrence.

This brings me to the next item on my list of blessings — the fact that one of the best seasons of the year is rapidly approaching.

With the holidays looming, Hollywood is ready to inundate theaters with long anticipated, must-see movies, including “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 (opening Friday), “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Into the Woods.” It’s like Christmas. Wait, it is Christmas.

Even when January rolls around and the studios clean out their closets, resulting in one lackluster weekend at the box office after another, I’ll still have much to be grateful for, thanks to my go-to movies, the films that are a constant presence in my life, always there to comfort or enlighten or provide a bit of escape.

It’s not possible to list them all, but I’m grateful for the irrepressible hopefulness of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the soulfulness of “Lost in Translation,” the gothic atmosphere of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” the comedic brilliance of “Bringing Up Baby.”

I’ll never take for granted the perfection of “Casablanca” or “Almost Famous,” “Roman Holiday” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

For these and so many other cinematic gifts, I will always give thanks.

Lavender Kristy trash bagsLavender Vroman and fellow film buff Kristy Rivas take a jog around the block in honor of “Silver Linings Playbook” at a 2013 Oscar party. 

Image at top: Lavender Vroman on one of her moviegoing adventures. Photo by Fawn Kemble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Looking Forward to Films of Fall

Fall may be the best season of all.

And not just because it begins with the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Along with sweaters, scarves, Halloween, turning leaves and a welcome chill in the air, fall is a time of renewal for Hollywood as a late-summer slump at the movies gives way to a fresh supply of films we’re actually looking forward to.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been AWOL from the movie theater. I couldn’t bring myself to watch Idris Elba — who deserves better — terrorize Taraji P. Henson — who also deserves better — in “No Good Deed.” “A Walk Among the Tombstones” looked as dreary and depressing as its title. “This Is Where I Leave You” has a wonderful cast, but then I read the reviews. I meant to see “The Maze Runner,” but was less than impressed with the book and haven’t gotten around to it.

Starting this weekend, however, there will be reasons galore for moviegoers to get off the couch and get their butts into the cineplex once again. Film buffs, rejoice — the fun won’t stop until after Christmas.

Here are the fall (and winter) movies I’m most looking forward to.

“The Boxtrolls,” Sept. 26: Stop-motion animation studio Laika brought us the exquisitely dark “Coraline” and hilariously macabre zombie comedy “ParaNorman.” The painstakingly rendered “Boxtrolls” — which features more than 200 detailed puppets — looks to be just as enchanting.

“Gone Girl,” Oct. 3: Gillian Flynn’s poisonous he-said, she-said thriller was impossible to put down. Watching director David Fincher pull off the book’s epic twists should be interesting. So should watching Ben Affleck inhabit the role of douche-baggy murder suspect Nick Dunne.

“Kill the Messenger,” Oct. 10: The underrated Jeremy Renner takes a break from playing the loneliest Avenger to tackle the meatier role of real-life journalist Gary Webb, who investigated the CIA’s alleged involvement in drug smuggling in the mid-1990s. Sure, I’ll miss the spandex and the crossbow, but it will be nice to hear Renner say more than three lines in this drama.

“Whiplash,” Oct. 10: Young up-and-comer Miles Teller (“Project X,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Divergent”) stars as a drummer under the sway of a maniacal music instructor (J.K. Simmons) in a drama that caused a sensation at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. It sounds just strange enough to be awesome.

“Birdman,” Oct. 17: This dark satire appears to be a significant departure for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”), who isn’t exactly known for his comedies. Michael Keaton steps into the role of a washed-up actor once celebrated for playing a superhero. Could he be riffing on his stint as a certain caped crusader? If this movie has anything intelligent to say about our comic book obsessed culture, it could be fascinating.

“Fury,” Oct. 17: There are so many movies about World War II, coming up with a new angle on the conflict isn’t an easy task. “End of Watch” director David Ayer seems to have done it though, telling the story of a Sherman tank crew on a mission behind enemy lines. Brad Pitt plays a philosophical sergeant — am I the only one who’s tired of the actor’s incessant speech-making in recent films? — but I’m more excited about the underrated Michael Pena as the Fury’s driver.

“St. Vincent,” Oct. 24: Anytime Bill Murray decides to come out of his eccentric, hermit-like shell and make another movie, it’s cause for celebration. It’s a bonus that the comedy, about a cantankerous Brooklyn veteran who becomes a boy’s unlikely babysitter, looks so darn hilarious. It also stars Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd, which can’t be bad.

“Horns,” Oct. 31: The boy who played Harry Potter is all grown up and has been busy carving out an eclectic career on the stage and screen. Daniel Radcliffe’s latest choice, a bizarre thriller by horror director Alexandre Aja, may be his strangest and most intriguing endeavor yet. The former wizard plays a man on a quest to find his girlfriend’s killer. He’s aided by supernatural horns that spontaneously sprout from his head.

maxresdefaultMatthew McConaughey in “Interstellar” (photo YouTube)

 “Interstellar,” Nov. 7: After the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception,” I would travel many miles and shell out a lot of cash to see anything director Christopher Nolan dreams up. His latest is an enigmatic sci-fi odyssey we know little about, thanks to a typically obscure Nolanesque advertising campaign. We do know “Interstellar” stars Matthew McConaughey, who has suddenly become one of Hollywood’s most intriguing actors. This is a must-see if there ever was one.

“Rosewater,” Nov. 7: Jon Stewart makes his directorial debut with a drama, starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal, about Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned and tortured following his country’s 2009 presidential election. This is the movie that managed to temporarily lure Stewart away from his beloved “Daily Show,” so it better be good.

“Foxcatcher,” Nov. 14: Steve Carell in a non-comedic role that requires him to wear a creepy prosthetic nose? Sounds like a recipe for disaster … or wild success, considering the raves coming out of the Toronto Film Festival. Carell stars as millionaire John du Pont, who became embroiled in a murder while sponsoring an Olympic wrestling duo in 1996.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1,” Nov. 21: I’m not the biggest fan of the final chapter in author Suzanne Collins’ dystopian series. That last book was a letdown and it’s too slight to be divided into two parts, as studio Lionsgate has deemed necessary in an obvious grab for more box-office cash. Still, the trailers for “Mockingjay — Part 1” suggest the film could actually be thrilling as Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss becomes the unwitting leader of a revolution.

“The Imitation Game,” Nov. 21: Benedict Cumberbatch is the only reason needed to anticipate this period drama about genius politician Alan Turing, who cracked a notorious Nazi code during World War II and was later persecuted for his sexual orientation. When it comes to playing brilliant minds, “Sherlock” star Cumberbatch is the best. This “Game” could be even more thrilling than “Mockingjay.”

“Wild,” Dec. 5: Based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about her harrowing hike along the Pacific Crest Trail after a crisis turned her personal life into a shambles, “Wild” seems poised to strike a chord with moviegoers. I hope so, if only to see Reese Witherspoon reclaim her spot at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. She’s gunning for another Oscar. Godspeed, Reese!

“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Dec. 12: Biblical epics are all the rage again. After the cheesy misfire that was Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” I know I shouldn’t be looking forward to director Ridley Scott’s Moses biopic, starring Christian Bale. But I just can’t help myself. The film looks so fabulous and corny, from Joel Edgerton as an eyeliner-wearing Rhamses to “Breaking Bad” bad-ass Aaron Paul as Joshua. And who doesn’t want to witness the Red Sea part in spectacular CGI?

“Inherent Vice,” Dec. 12: Director Paul Thomas Anderson reunites with “The Master” star Joaquin Phoenix for a psychedelic 1970s-set noir film about a private detective investigating a string of juicy conspiracies. “The Master” was sometimes difficult to sit through. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I found it just hypnotic enough that I’ll be back for more of Anderson and Phoenix’s bizarre collaboration.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies,” Dec. 17: The first installment of director Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy was a slog, overlong and sluggishly paced. Last year’s “Desolation of Smaug” was a marked improvement, zippier and more engaging. Now I can actually look forward to the finale, which will test all of visual effects house Weta’s computer wizardry as they bring to life the show-stopping skirmish of the film’s title.

“Big Eyes,” Dec. 25: Tim Burton re-creates the dysfunctional marriage of painters Walter and Margaret Keane, who in the 1960s produced a series of memorable paintings of children with creepy peepers. The couple is played by Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams, a match made in cinema heaven, considering these two are amazing in everything they do.

“The Interview,” Dec. 25: There is no homoerotic comedy union more hilarious than that of Seth Rogen and James Franco, from “Pineapple Express,” to “This is the End,” to the duo’s brazen parody of the Kanye and Kim video “Bound 2.” In their latest wacky endeavor, the pair play tabloid TV journalists who travel to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un. The dictator reportedly denounced the movie, which somehow makes it even more hilarious.

“Into the Woods,” Dec. 25: Fairy tales are in again, as evidenced by the insane popularity of “Frozen,” “Maleficent” and “Once Upon a Time.” Stephen Sondheim’s bedtime story mash-up could be a dark and cynical anecdote to the sugary sweetness of Disneyfied fables. The only catch is that it’s a Disney movie with director Rob Marshall catering to a family audience. At least it boasts a stellar cast, including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine.

Into-the-Woods-Movie-Meryl-Streep-as-the-WitchMeryl Streep in “Into the Woods” (photo teaser-trailer.com)

 

Prep for ‘Future Past’ with Ultimate X-Men Recap

Are you planning to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past” this weekend?

Ideally, you’ll want to watch all six movies that preceded this sequel, which features a time travel plot so twisty and complex, it would leave J.J. Abrams scratching his head.

Director Bryan Singer’s wildly entertaining but mentally taxing seventh franchise installment requires moviegoers to keep straight a huge ensemble of mutants past, present and future in various eras, various places and various stages of their lives.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy “Days” but it does help if you brush up on the X-movies that have gone before. Below you’ll find reviews, complete with plot summaries, of every chapter in the franchise, from 2000’s “X-Men” to last year’s “The Wolverine.”

Consider it your refresher course on all things mutant. Professor X would be proud.

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X-Men (2000)
Three and a half stars
PG-13
104 minutes

Some comic book junkies waited more than 30 years for an X-Men movie. When the film was finally made, it was greeted with a flurry of hype reminiscent of the fuss over “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” After months and years of pent up anticipation, someone was going to be disappointed. But that someone wasn’t me.

Director Bryan Singer brings the mythology of the comic book to life without sacrificing substance for special effects — and the special effects are spectacular. Yes, Wolverine’s knife-like talons shoot from his skin with a thrilling metallic ring and Storm brews up magnificent bursts of thunder. Yes, Magneto twists metal bars like balloon animals and Wolverine and Mystique pirouette in a graceful, butt-kicking fight sequence.

The heart of the film, however, is in the richness of the characters and the resonance of the themes of prejudice and intolerance which made the comic so popular. Dark, moody and intelligent, but always fun, the mutant charms of “X-Men” will satisfy even the most X-ignorant and leave them hungry for more.

The brilliance of “X-Men” begins with the casting. Led by stage and screen veterans Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and charismatic newcomer Hugh Jackman, the actors transform comic book caricature into flesh and blood. Jackman is Logan, one of a minority of humans who have reached the next stage in evolution, feared by society because of their extraordinary powers. Logan is also called Wolverine because of the metal claws that spring from his knuckles, his wolfish sensory ability and rapid healing power.

Wolverine meets up with waifish runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin). She’s no ordinary teenager. Anyone who makes skin to skin contact with her could end up in a coma or worse. The two are pursued by bad guys from the Brotherhood of mutants: shape-shifting, blue-skinned Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), big, dumb and hairy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), slithery-tongued, high-jumping Toad (Ray Park) and their ringleader, Magneto (McKellen), who manipulates all types of metal without moving a finger.

Wolverine and Rogue are rescued from Magneto’s clutches by the X-Men, whose headquarters are hidden beneath a school for gifted youngsters where Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart), one of the world’s most powerful telepaths, trains mutants to use their powers for the good of humankind. He and ex-students Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose power also lies in her mind; Cyclops (James Marsden), who can blast through walls with his eyes; and Storm (Halle Berry), who wields power over the weather, keep track of the world’s mutants and fight evil.

As Rogue and Wolverine adjust to a community where mutants share acceptance and mutual respect, the X-Men strive to keep them safe from Magneto’s grasp and stop his diabolical plot for world domination.

It’s a delight to watch the distinguished McKellen and Stewart face off in “X-Men.” Two such passionate and imposing actors need not leap from planes and pummel each other with their fists to catch our attention. In one tense standoff, they do battle with nothing but their minds — Xavier pulls a sort of Jedi trick on Magneto’s men while Magneto holds cops at bay by turning their own guns against them.

It’s Jackman, however, who holds the movie in his sharp-clawed hands. His Wolverine is a sexy mix of James Dean leather-jacketed cool and Jack Nicholson crazy. A raging animal whose only soft spot is for Rogue — and perhaps Jean Grey — Wolverine is the film’s darkest, most intriguing source of conflict. The chemistry between Paquin and Jackman infuses “X-Men” with a tender humanity.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters are too bogged down in explanations and exposition to extend this human touch to the rest of the X-Men. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that Cyclops and Jean Grey are lovers when they don’t ever seem to look at each other. Sometimes the mutants, who have supposedly been together through thick and thin, hardly seem to know each other.

Some people will probably complain about the way “X-Men” shamelessly and meticulously sets itself up for its inevitable sequel. I didn’t mind it. They won’t be able to make the second one fast enough to satisfy my craving for more.

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X2: X-Men United (2003)
Four stars
PG-13
134 minutes

“I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school looking for trouble.”

Professor X utters this line at the end of “X-Men,” and in “X2: X-Men United,” we find out exactly what he means by it.

When special operations commandos storm the professor’s ivy-covered, manor-style school for gifted young mutants, they get a whole lot more than they bargained for. Instead of lying there waiting to be tranquilized like good little kiddies, the students melt through walls, let out literally paralyzing screams, turn into walking masses of steel and spin walls of ice from their fingertips.

And then there’s Wolverine, who happens to be baby-sitting this particular night. You don’t mess with Wolverine.

You don’t mess with director Bryan Singer, either. The “X-Men” helmer is back in the driver’s seat for “X2,” and the man knows what he’s doing. The sequel is every bit as good as its predecessor, boasting seamless special effects, rollicking action and actors who really “get” their characters.

It is darker, sexier, more adult and more violent — though surprisingly nongraphic, with a heightened sense of camaraderie between the characters and more mutants with more intriguing powers.

In short, it’s a good time at the movies.

“X2” opens with an assassination attempt on the president of the United States by a mutant unlike any we’ve seen before. He is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue-skinned, strangely tattooed, devil-tailed creature who can instantly teleport from one location to another, disappearing from the grasp of secret service agents in a kind of inky blue “poof!”

In a doozy of an action sequence, Nightcrawler is barely thwarted from knifing the pres, but the incident gives ruthless Army Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox) the opening he needs to obtain authorization for a special ops invasion of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters.

Unaware of Stryker’s plot, Xavier, the wheelchair-bound leader of the X-Men, also known as Professor X (Patrick Stewart), dispatches the weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry) and telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to pick up Nightcrawler, in hopes they can prevent him from further violence.

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), in the meantime, has returned, still unsatisfied, from his quest to solve the mystery of his past, and Jean’s powers are threatening to burgeon out of control.

It is Professor X’s nemesis, the metal-manipulating Magneto (Ian McKellen), who busts out of his plastic prison with the help of shape-shifting lackey Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), to warn Xavier and the X-Men of Stryker’s hidden intentions, which involve the professor’s powerful mutant-tracking device, Cerebro.

In true serial comic book fashion, there is a lot going on in “X2,” but screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris manage to keep the story uncluttered, as well as allow sufficient time for each character to have his or her moment.

New faces are introduced, including the rebellious, flame-throwing Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and the tough-as-nails Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who is, in essence, a vinyl-clad female version of Wolverine with knife-like talons protruding from her fingertips.

All of the actors are game and energetic, most notably Jackman, whose rugged, flippant, cool-but-caring attitude signals the arrival of a true action hero, and the quietly imperious McKellen, who steals every scene he’s in.

Curry wisely does not go too far over the top in his portrayal of the eccentric Nightcrawler. Stamos gets more screen time and she’s surprisingly good, even getting a chance to shed her blue scales for her human skin in one scene.

Who am I kidding, though? The real stars of the X-show are the special effects and they are mighty impressive. From Wolverine’s whirling, lightning-paced final confrontation with Deathstrike, to the computer-generated maneuvering of the X-jet, to a scene in which Pyro unleashes jets of flame at a squad of police cars, only to be halted rather creatively in midrampage by the power-absorbing Rogue, these are action sequences that make you want to leap out of your seat and do an adrenaline-pumped dance of joy.

The “X2” finale is a bit overblown and those long-drawn-out and harped-upon secrets of Wolverine’s origins, once revealed, aren’t nearly as shocking as we might have expected.

Still, “X2” accomplishes what every good comic book should. It leaves us salivating for issue No. 3.

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X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13
103 minutes

The miracle of the first two X-Men movies was that they were based on a comic book series and still managed to be action packed and character driven. So while the audience was dazzled by the sight of Wolverine flashing those adamantium claws or Jean Grey manipulating futuristic airplanes with her mind, the real attraction was in the relationships of these mutants, whose ambivalence over their supernatural powers is really just a metaphor for whatever individual gifts or curses we struggle with here in the real world. 

Though he had hundreds of possible characters to choose from, director Bryan Singer was always careful not to cram the screen too full with them. They were painstakingly selected for maximum conflict, each one — with the possible exception of Halle Berry’s Storm — was given a moment to shine, and while fists flew and monolithic battles were waged, it was the interaction between them that made the films so compelling.

Singer famously abandoned the X-Men franchise when the prospect of bringing yet another Lycra-clad avenger to the screen — a musclebound fellow by the name of Superman — proved too tempting to resist. He left his mutant charges in the hands of Brett Ratner, helmer of the “Rush Hour” flicks.

In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Ratner has clearly bitten off more than he can chew. The movie is so bloated with characters, old and new, that many of the personalities moviegoers have come to love have been unceremoniously shoved to the side. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg
(“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) and Zak Penn (“X2: X-Men United”) must share in the blame because they of all people should have known better than to attempt such a juggling act.

The plot of “The Last Stand” revolves around a pharmaceutical company’s sudden announcement that it has developed a cure for the genetic mutations that grant the X-Men their remarkable paranormal abilities. The U.S. government’s head of mutant affairs, Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), aka the furry blue Beast, attempts to address this startling turn of events diplomatically, but the nation is quickly divided between those who line up at clinics, desperate for the shot that will rid them once and for all of their embarrassing
abnormalities, and those who take offense at the very thought of such a thing.

“There’s nothing wrong with any of us,” Storm protests as talk of the cure swirls around Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) School for Gifted Youngsters. Inclined to agree with her is Magneto (Ian McKellen), the megalomaniacal metal manipulator and Xavier’s best-friend-turned-nemesis, who seizes upon the controversy over the cure to brew up his own violent mutant revolution.

Xavier and the X-Men are a little too distracted to deal with Magneto immediately because Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who seemingly died at the end of “X-Men United,” has
resurfaced and she’s acting mighty strangely, causing inanimate objects to float about the room and trying to seduce Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who has long nursed an unrequited
crush on the fetching telepath.

The transformation of Jean into the omnipotent, id-driven force known as the Dark Phoenix is one of the most anticipated elements of “The Last Stand.” It doesn’t disappoint, at least initially, as the furious Phoenix demonstrates her awesome powers in her childhood home in a scene of absolute devastation. Unfortunately, Janssen spends the rest of the movie mostly standing around, as do many of our favorite members of the X-gang, that is if they haven’t already abruptly departed from the screen.

Among the other returning characters who get woefully short shrift are the fatherly Xavier, laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), chameleonic Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), angsty fireball-throwing Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose lethal talent for absorbing other mutants’ powers via skin-to-skin contact sparks a love triangle with her boyfriend, the hormonal Ice Man (Shawn Ashmore), and cute Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can
walk through walls.

These characters are all relegated to the background to make way for Storm, Wolverine and Magneto — not necessarily a bad thing considering Jackman and McKellen are two of the best actors in the franchise — and an assortment of new, but
largely uninteresting villains, including the behemoth Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones sporting a goofy helmet and an unsightly wedgy) and fast-moving Callisto (Dania Ramirez).

Ratner spends a lot of time dwelling on Magneto and his brooding band of drab disenfranchised mutants, who look like a bunch of pierced and eye-linered Goth kids
camped out at a Marilyn Manson concert, while utterly wasting some fascinating new arrivals, like the winged and tortured Angel (Ben Foster) and a mysterious bald child
named Leech (Cameron Bright), who is the source of the mutant cure.

Ratner seeks to mollify fans with some impressive special effects sequences, including a forest chase in which Wolverine gets to really bare his claws, an over-the-top set piece
on the Golden Gate Bridge and a final mutant showdown complete with flaming, flying cars and whizzing syringes.

On the whole, though, “The Last Stand” ends the X-Men trilogy on a terribly unsatisfying note. Of course, I’m not buying for a second that it was ever really intended to be the
final chapter. If you doubt me, stick around for the final teaser at the end of the credits.

The X-Men will be back. Let’s hope they bring Singer with them.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Two stars
PG-13
107 minutes

In the movies, at least, Wolverine has always been the coolest of the X-Men. Those lightning-quick adamantium claws. That werewolf-meets- Elvis pompadour. The leather jacket and the motorcycle, indicating his status as a rebel and a drifter. The grouchy glower and throaty growl. The fact that underneath all that animalistic rage, he’s just a softie with identity issues.

So, you might be tempted to think “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the first of several planned spin-offs of 20th Century Fox’s successful X-Men trilogy, would be the coolest flick of all.
Instead, it feels like the cold, stale leftovers of a franchise already past its expiration date.

If you’ve seen “X-Men” or its sequel, “X2,” then you’re already familiar with this origin story charting the mutant hero’s evolution from wolfie mercenary to indestructible
government test subject. “Wolverine” spends most of its time filling in the blanks, or manufacturing blanks to fill in — including the ferocious Canadian’s tragic love affair with an ethereal schoolteacher and his rivalry with psycho half-brother Sabretooth –before contorting itself into a tangle of twisted logic so that the story flows
back into the established movie mythology. Seamless is not a word I’d use to
describe this process.

The movie begins with an intriguing montage of all the wars the nonaging Logan (Hugh Jackman) and his equally timeless brother, Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), have fought during more than a century of existence, stretching back to before the Civil War. In the modern world, their unique powers — bony talons burst from Logan’s knuckles, while Victor has
the nails and teeth of a tiger — capture the attention of William Stryker (Danny Huston), the sort of mildly deranged military chief who, at least in Hollywood’s version of things, is
forever starting up renegade bands of top-secret super-soldiers in the interest of national security.

When Logan loses his taste for Stryker’s bloody agenda, he hightails it to the Rockies and settles down as a lumberjack with a fetching pacifist named Kayla (Lynn Collins). You can
probably guess where this is going because, obviously, Jackman can’t spend the entire movie snuggling in a cabin with some hot chick. The abrupt disintegration of his idyllic normal life, the work of a brother pushed over the edge by the horrors of the Vietnam War, sends Logan on a quest for revenge and straight into the lab of Stryker, where the broken-hearted mutant
is transformed into the angry, hairy, metal-skeletoned beast we’ve come to know and love.

Pumped up like a plastic action figure — indeed, the actor’s muscles have become a spectacle unto themselves — Jackman is as roguishly charismatic as ever. His Wolverine
is soft-spoken, given to spouting quaint, old fashioned phrases, like “bub,” but there’s a burning, primal fury coursing through those swollen veins. We like him, but we’re also a
little bit afraid of him.

Unfortunately, ever since “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Fox has jettisoned that potent, satisfying blend of character development and action that made the first two films such a delight.
With a writer like David Benioff (“25th Hour,” “The Kite Runner”) on board, you’d think the screenplay might be a smidgen more cerebral but, then again, his co-scribe was Skip Woods (“Swordfish,” “Hitman”), so nevermind.

Action is now all that remains — and if you’re in the mood tostart your summer viewing off with a bang, you could do worse than “Wolverine,” I’ll admit — leaving Jackman little to do besides glowering, growling and flashing those claws. Another fine actor set adrift in a
sea of vaguely-sketched-out personalities is Schreiber, a thinking man’s thespian who brings a refreshing level of subtlety and craft to what could have easily been the stock bad guy role.

Yes, there’s real acting going on in “Wolverine,” but it only calls attention
to the loudly echoing vacant space that is the rest of the film. Director Gavin Hood — whose
previous films include the promising South African drama “Tsotsi” and the not-so-promising thriller “Rendition” — seems slightly out of his league with a movie of this massive-budgeted scale. Perhaps this is why he relies on action movie clichés for his visual approach. The hero clutching a murdered loved one and bellowing “Noooooo!” as the camera swirls overhead, Jackman walking in slow-motion with a gigantic fireball behind him — it’s all here.

Hood also encounters one of the pitfalls that befell the makers of “The Last Stand.” With a host of new characters to introduce, it’s impossible to give each one their due, so many of these new arrivals fail to make even the smallest impression. Among them, the sumo wrestler-sized Blob (Kevin Durand), the sparky Bolt (Dominic Monaghan) and sharp-shooting Agent Zero (Daniel Henney). Even X-favorites, like the cardflinging Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and
the slicing-and-dicing Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), are given deflatingly short shrift.

So many mutants, so little time.

x_men__first_class_movie_poster_by_nicolehayley-d4uer4q

X-Men: First Class (2011)
Three stars
PG-13
132 minutes 

Many fans lost faith in Marvel’s X-Men after “The Last Stand,” the bloated, messy,
infuriatingly shallow third movie that seemed to signal a disgraceful end to the franchise.

Hope may be restored by “X-Men: First Class,” a younger, sexier installment designed to send the series in a fun and lively new direction, while introducing the comic book mutants to another generation of moviegoers.

“First Class” is a marked improvement over “Last Stand,” even if it doesn’t quite stack up with the effortlessly cool and exhilarating first installments, 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X-2: X-Men United.”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, who has yet to crank out a flick that’s not worth seeing — his ouevre consists of “Kick-Ass,” “Stardust” and “Layer Cake” — this reboot has energy, style and an infusion of new blood that bodes well for the future of the franchise. Vaughn penned the script with his “Kick-Ass” collaborator, Jane Goldman, and “Thor” scribes Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller, working from an idea from original series director Bryan Singer.

They’ve taken a few liberties in regard to the existing films, but proceed with a surprising amount of respect for the preceding installments. There’s even a couple of priceless cameos involving characters from the first two flicks and playful references to X-Men lore, including the much loved and reviled classic blue and yellow suits.

Some fans may be miffed that Vaughn and company freely mix and match characters from various eras of the comic book for a story that is set during the Cold War as tensions escalate between the United States and Russia. We’re introduced to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), aka Professor X, a wealthy Oxford graduate with telepathic talents tapped by the CIA as a consultant on the rapid evolution of a species of mutants with powerful but frightening natural abilities.

Assisting Charles is childhood best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone” and the upcoming “Hunger Games”), a scaly, blue-skinned shape shifter who will grow up to be the alluring mimic Mystique, but for now is insecure about her true appearance. The agency wants Charles and Raven to help them prevent enterprising madman Sebastian Shaw
(Kevin Bacon) from igniting World War III in his quest to shift the balance of power between humans and mutants.

Shaw has a connection to Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor and powerful manipulator of metal, consumed with the desire to avenge his past.
Erik’s obsession leads him to cross paths with Charles, who befriends the future Magneto and urges him to channel his anger into more positive pursuits. Together, they begin
recruiting others like them to join what one character describes as the CIA’s special “mutant unit.”

The recruitment sequence is one of the most enjoyable in a movie that takes its cues from the swingin’ ’60s suaveness of early James Bond films. There are submarines and smart suits, martinis and miniskirts and a pre-feminist vibe that’s capped off by January
Jones’ smoking-hot portrayal of Shaw’s shimmery, indestructible, skintight jumpsuit-wearing righthand gal, Emma Frost.

If only the countless scenes of generals plotting out strategy in war rooms filled with blinky lights and maps were as titillating. Sadly, the historic machinations of the plot tend to drag, as do moments involving Bacon’s Shaw, a disappointingly run-of-the-mill Bond-style baddie
whose motives are suspiciously like those of the fully formed Magneto.

A hefty helping of teen angst is served up by the film’s assorted young mutants, including Lawrence’s Raven, the fluttery fairy-winged Angel (Zoe Kravitz), shy and nerdy Beast (Nicholas Hoult), screaming Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), adaptable Darwin (Edi
Gathegi) and energy wave-blasting Havok (Lucas Till). As in past films, some of their powers are more compelling than others.

The highlight of “First Class” is the interplay between McAvoy and Fassbender as close comrades with starkly opposing philosophies that will eventually drive them apart.
Both actors bring an emotional weight to their scenes together, although it is Fassbender’s tormented rage — hold onto those metal fillings, folks! — that commands the most attention.

A final showdown between these friends, soon to be foes, hints at potentially awesome things to come.

background_wolverine

The Wolverine (2013)
Three stars
PG-13
126 minutes 

Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for more than a decade now, and the actor — and his spectacular bulging sinews — are no worse for wear.

Sure, the adamantium-clawed antihero had a bad time of it in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a brainless, bloated action epic that twisted itself into too many knots in an attempt to conform to franchise canon.

But thankfully that seems like a distant memory with the arrival of Logan’s fifth big-screen outing, “The Wolverine,” (the sixth if you count his brief but priceless outing in “X-Men: First Class).

“The Wolverine” ditches the franchise’s preoccupation with its protagonist’s tortured origin story and puts the focus back where it belongs — on Jackman and his ferocious embodiment of the enraged mutant, the indestructible product of twisted government experimentation.

Capably directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma”), the movie presents us with a Wolvy who is more vulnerable than ever before, physically and emotionally. The script by Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) and Scott Frank (“Minority Report”) doesn’t skimp on action, but also works hard to ensure its epic scale never overwhelms the human drama.

At the beginning of the film, Logan is squatting in the wilds of Canada, unkempt, stringy-haired and looking a lot like Jean Valjean, the desperate ex-con Jackman played in “Les Miserables,” only beefier.

This mutant is sorely in need of a bottle of shampoo, a shave and an escape from the bad dreams that haunt his sleep, including visions of lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who he was forced to kill at the end of 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

After a tragic encounter with one of his fellow beasts of the forest, Logan gets riled up and instigates a backwoods barfight. He is reluctantly extricated from the brawl by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a samurai with crimson hair and a penchant for schoolgirl skirts who has traveled all the way from Japan to track him down.

Yukio convinces Logan to return with her to Tokyo at the request of her employer, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a dying businessman who wants to thank him for saving his life years ago during World War II.

Once in Tokyo, Logan discovers there is more to Yashida’s interest than gratitude. The ailing man claims he can rid Logan of his rapid healing powers and the immortality that weights so heavily upon him.

While Logan considers this proposal, he is introduced to Yashida’s heirs, his scheming son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and demure granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Wolverine never could resist a damsel in distress and becomes Mariko’s protector after an assassination attempt by the Yakuza.

The Japan setting of “The Wolverine” makes for entertaining intrigue, complete with stealthy ninjas, sword-wielding samurai and family secrets hidden behind sliding Shoji screens. Here the tank-top-clad Logan and his husky biceps stick out like a sore thumb, which makes for some compelling culture clash.

With her balletic blade skills, Fukushima is a spunky new sidekick for Logan, while the slinky Svetlana Khodchenkova is alluringly creepy as venomous nemesis Viper.

Tossing off sarcastic one-liners and glowering grouchily at his castmates, Jackman continues to do an excellent job of channeling the tormented rebel’s fury and guilt. The actor is getting older, but you wouldn’t know it, especially from the state of his strapping physique.

There are a few points where the pace of the film lags — Mangold, to his credit, is more interested in character development than comic book bluster — but X-fans should be satisfied with the energetic action setpieces the director unveils.

There’s a great introductory sequence that takes place during the bombing of Nagasaki. A Yakuza ambush during a funeral zings with cleverly choreographed flying arrows, swordplay and martial arts, punctuated by the thud of Wolverine’s massive fists.

“The Wolverine” may be the first film ever to stage a chase atop a bullet train in one of the few instances in which Mangold gives in to the sillier impulses that comic book movies tend to bring out with over-the-top feats that defy physics.

Parents should note that the film’s PG-13 designation is what would be considered a “hard” rating. In other words, “The Wolverine” is considerably violent, despite its general lack of blood and gore. In one scene, Logan is pierced again and again by arrows. In another, a bit of self-surgery is performed that could either be considered laughable or cringe-worthy.

I’ll close with another note, this one to fans rabidly anticipating next year’s “X-Men: Days  of Future Past”: Stay for the credits to see a teaser that will have you wishing it was already May 23.

‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ Delivers Best of Both Worlds

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Three and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (some sci fi violence and action, suggestive material, nudity and language)
131 minutes

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” could be the best chapter yet in a comic book franchise that has been going strong for the last 14 years. That’s because this seventh entry offers the best of all possible worlds, allowing the seasoned mutants of the first trilogy to appear alongside the excellent young cast of recent reboot “X-Men: First Class.”

“Days of Future Past” preserves the fun historical revisionism of “First Class” while simultaneously heading into darker, more emotionally wrenching territory, literally jumping between a world we recognize – the turbulent 1970s – and a world we don’t – a bleak and violent dystopian future.

Director Bryan Singer smoothly juggles an unwieldy ensemble of mutants old, new and even newer and succeeds in keeping the film’s focus on the characters. The movie’s brain-cell-melting concept is clever and the visual effects are superior, but “Days of Future Past” isn’t about that. It’s about people coming together despite epic personality clashes, the very thing that made the X-Men so relatable when they made their comic book debut in 1963.

It’s almost as if Singer and writer Simon Kinberg are atoning for letting the fans down with the much reviled third X-Men movie, which Singer produced and Kinberg penned. “Days of Future Past” niftily erases “The Last Stand,” while cunningly opening the door to an alternate reality with lots of tantalizing possibilities for the franchise.

They achieve this improbable feat with the help of “First Class” co-writer Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn, who contributed to the mind-bogglingly complicated story. It begins with a glimpse of an inky future in which mutants, who boast unique super powers thanks to their evolved genes, are hunted by high-tech killing machines known as Sentinels. Haunting images of bodies and mass graves set the tone for a film that is often grim and, parents should note, not always kid friendly.

Despite the dismal outlook for their future, the X-Men continue the fight for the survival of their species. In a spectacular opening sequences, a young band of mutants engages the eerily faceless Sentinels in combat. It’s clear they’re outmatched by their relentless mechanical foes, but they manage to stay a step ahead of them thanks to Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open up portals to transport her comrades from one space to another.

The X-Men’s other secret weapon is Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) who apparently has a gift for … take a deep breath and try to stay with me now … transferring an individual’s consciousness back in time to their younger body. She and the surviving X-Men, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his old nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen), who have temporarily buried the hatchet, concoct a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the past. His objective? Stop shape-shifting, blue-skinned Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), from committing the fateful act that will trigger the mutants’ impending extinction.

Because of his quick healing powers, Wolverine is the only one whose mind can withstand the traumas of such rigorous mental time travel. It’s not long before he wakes up in his youthful, pre-adamantium-enhanced body in an era still reeling from the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination.

To get to Mystique, Wolverine must appeal to Professor X and Magneto at the very point in time their friendship evaporated, back when they were still going by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender).

This is no easy task because Charles, awash in self pity after the climactic events of “First Class,” has shuttered his school for gifted youngsters and hunkered down in his mansion, blocking out the mutant voices in his telekinetic head. Eric is imprisoned in the Pentagon, due to his participation in a particularly notorious crime. A solitary Mystique continues Eric’s militant pro-mutant sabotage, zeroing in on maverick weapons developer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

“Days of Future Past” presents us with an X-Men universe gone topsy-turvy, occupied by a Wolverine who still flashes claws of bone, a Professor X who can walk but whose powers are diminished, the only thing he shares now with the metal-manipulating Magneto.

McAvoy and Fassbender basically pick up where they left off in the finale of “First Class.” Their highly charged chemistry remains the rebooted franchise’s greatest strength. McAvoy is particularly intense as a Xavier whose optimistic humanism has been replaced with despair — there are allusions to drug addiction in his suffering – and Fassbender is all cool, controlled rage, magnetic in his malevolence.

There are so many other mutants to love in “Days of Future Past,” too. Chief among them is newcomer Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a kleptomaniac teenager who delights in his speedy gifts and presides over the best sequence in the film, using his supernatural swiftness to bust Magneto out of his plastic prison. This may be the film’s most entertaining moment, but it’s just one of many in which Singer and Kinberg bring the mutants’ gifts to vivid life in uncannily crafty ways.

Also new to the club are the energy-absorbing, dreadlock-sporting Bishop (played by Omar Sy, charismatic star of French film “The Intouchables”) and strong and fast Warpath (“Twilight’s” Booboo Stewart).

Reprising their roles from “First Class,” Lawrence transforms the increasingly empowered Mystique into a much richer character and Hoult provides much of the film’s humor and heart as Xavier’s right-hand man, the furry, blue Beast.

Patrick Stewart and McKellen bring a veteran gravitas to the film and while we all have to suspend disbelief a bit to imagine that Jackman still looks like the young Wolverine, he’s so comfortable and confident in the role, we’re willing to go along with the charade.

If you haven’t seen the previous films in the X-Men franchise, the plot of “Days of Future Past” could be near impossible to follow. Actually, this could be the case even if you have seen them. By time the credits roll – and you’ll want to stick around until the very end for an apocalyptic teaser – you may have a Cerebro-sized headache.

It’s a small price to pay, though, for the satisfaction of viewing the most compelling team of comic book characters ever to grace the big screen. An unforgettable bunch of freaks and weirdos, they speak to the disenfranchised, the misfit, the loner in all of us.

The Avengers may get more attention these days, but they’re not nearly as cool.

 

From Lupita’s Dress to ‘Adele Dazeem,’ Musings on Hollywood’s Big Night

For some of us — I’ll admit, a very small segment of the population — the Oscars are like the Super Bowl. We spend months speculating about the nominations, making sure we’ve seen the films, taking our best shot at who will go home with the gold on the big night. And now that Sunday’s ceremony is over, the trophies handed out, the designer gowns worn, the after-party champagne sipped, there is still a lot to talk about. Here are some thoughts.

1. After establishing herself as a fashion icon throughout the awards season with her simple but bold choices, best supporting actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o unveiled her pièce de résistance at the Academy Awards, creating a sensation in her floaty, pale blue Prada gown. This stunning dress is destined to go down in red carpet history and stood in tasteful and fanciful contrast to some of the night’s more bizarre sartorial moments — Anne Hathaway wearing a chandelier, Liza Minnelli in silk pajamas and Whoopi Goldberg as flapper/geisha/Seinfeld’s puffy shirt/Wicked Witch of the  West.

Nyong’o’s gown couldn’t have been more appropriate for her fairy tale moment when she took the podium to claim the prize for her harrowing work in “12 Years a Slave.” Her acceptance speech was one of the highlights of the evening, heartfelt, brimming with joy and elation.

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said. “And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own. … When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

Moments like these are the reason we watch the Oscars.

2. Was it just me or were there an inordinate amount of awkward Teleprompter related gaffes during this year’s ceremony?

When  it came to reading their lines, so many presenters stumbled — metaphorically, except in the case of Jennifer Lawrence, who continued her tradition of taking a fall while wearing sky-high heels.

Silver screen legends Kim Novak and Sidney Poitier really needed their glasses. Zac Efron botched his scripted patter. Even host Ellen DeGeneres flubbed, calling actor Christoph Waltz “Christopher.” There were so many awkward moments, but none of them quite as hilarious as when John Travolta introduced “Frozen” star Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem.”

His error has turned into something of a social media sensation. Slate even concocted this hilarious name generator based on the goof.

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/low_concept/2014/03/john_travolta_called_idina_menzel_adele_dazeem_what_s_your_travolta_name.html

All of this makes me wonder. Did anyone actually rehearse before the ceremony?

3. Matthew McConaughey’s win for a role that demanded a transformation of career and body in “Dallas Buyers Club” wasn’t exactly a surprise, but his resulting comments are now the talk of Tinseltown. Many people were delighted by his mention of God, gratitude and family. Others, like me, were baffled by his improvisational style.

In regard to a higher power, McConaughey said, “When you’ve got God, you got a friend. And that friend is you.”

In reference to his dearly departed dad: “To my father who, I know he’s up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there. He’s probably in his underwear. And he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite and he’s dancing right now.”

And then he pretty much shattered his previous humility by declaring himself his own hero. Well, sort of.

“I’m never gonna be my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not, and that’s just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.”

It was all only slightly less surreal than his Screen Actors Guild Awards speech, in which he made wacky reference to the planet Neptune, or his remarks at the Golden Globes, which revealed that apparently his wife calls him her “king.”

Whatever your reaction, you have to admit there’s never a dull moment when this guy takes the stage.

4. A spirited Cate Blanchett accepted her trophy for “Blue Jasmine” with the immortal words, “Julia, hashtag suck it!,” referring somewhat cryptically to Julia Roberts.

More memorably, she called out a male dominated Hollywood on the woeful lack of satisfying roles for women, slamming those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

It needed to be said.

5. After last year’s poorly received performance by host Seth MacFarlane, whose caustic and sometimes offensive schtick rubbed Hollywood the wrong way, the Oscar producers’ pendulum predictably swung to another extreme in the form of the ever likable, always pleasant DeGeneres.

Don’t get me wrong. Hosting for a second time, Ellen was great, cultivating a playful atmosphere with gentle jabs at celebs during her opening monologue. She treated the bejeweled audience to pizza, stole Nyong’o’s lip balm and coaxed Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep and other luminaries into posing for that now famous selfie.

Despite her best efforts, however, this year’s ceremony often felt tedious and tame. There were few surprises when it came to the winners — “Gravity” dominated with seven trophies; “12 Years a Slave” took the best picture prize — and only a handful of moments that resonated with the genuine emotion that keep Oscar viewers coming back for more.

This year’s theme was dedicated to movie heroes, but the ensuing montages were so generic they barely registered. Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the traditional In Memoriam segment and received one of several overeager standing ovations, but considering the song is more than 30 years old, it was a strangely stale choice.

Ultimately, the 86th Academy Awards were done in by a stultifyingly conservative aura. Nobody ever got the gold by playing it safe.

Stop Grousing and Go See ‘Gravity’

This year’s Academy Awards race is one of the closest in recent memory with three of the nine films nominated for best picture in a tight heat. Oscar analysts agree that at the conclusion of Sunday’s ceremony, Hollywood’s most coveted prize will be presented to the producers of either “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” or “American Hustle.”

Entertainment Weekly, in its Oscar predictions issue, forecasts that 19% of the Academy vote will go to “Gravity,” with 18% for “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” with 16% of the ballots. Last month, in a rare occurrence, “Gravity” and “12 Years” tied for the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards. The ceremony is usually a good predictor of Oscar outcomes.

For months, the three front-runners have generated considerable buzz. “Gravity” racked up an impressive $700 million at the global box office. “American Hustle” crossed the $200 million mark and even the harrowing “12 Years” drummed up $100 million in ticket sales. The fact remains, however, that many people have not bothered to head to the theater to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course, this isn’t unusual when it comes to the Oscars, a ceremony that is treated with reverence in Tinseltown but tends to elicit yawns from an indifferent general public. Unless it’s one of the few years in which a major blockbuster is nominated — “Avatar,” for instance, viewed by practically everyone on the planet — it’s common for best picture candidates to languish unseen.

But this time around, the front-runners are worthy of your time and attention. In a year of exceptional films, they are the best Hollywood had to offer — a visually innovative cosmic thriller; a brutally honest historical drama; and a shamelessly entertaining glitter-pile of 1970s glam.

Oddly enough, it is “Gravity” that seems to have encountered the most resistance from a certain segment of filmgoers. I’ve talked to a number of people who stubbornly turn up their noses at Alfonso Cuaron’s space odyssey. Perhaps their reticence stems from the film’s minimalist but epic premise. At first I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be so compelling about watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney float around in outer space.

Still, the skepticism is baffling, considering what a taut nail-biter of a thriller the film is, not to mention its stunning visual achievements and emotional heft. If you’re lucky enough to find a place where you can still catch an IMAX screening of the movie, it will be one of the most suspenseful, immersive, uplifting and intense cinematic experiences of your life. The film was released Tuesday on Blu-ray, so you can watch it from the comfort of your couch, but you’ll be missing out. If ever a film demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible — preferably in 3-D with a kick-ass sound system — this is it.

The story of a medical engineer adrift after her space shuttle is torn to shreds, “Gravity” features one of Bullock’s most fragile and moving performances. The film ingeniously registers on two levels – it’s one heck of a popcorn movie ride but it’s also packed with existential symbolism and musings on hope, rebirth and the significance of humanity in a terrifyingly infinite universe. It’s as deep or as shallow as you want it to be.

“American Hustle” is an easier sell. Directed by “Silver Linings Playbook” helmer David O. Russell and reuniting several members of that crowd-pleasing comedy-drama’s cast, “Hustle” is a trashy, over-the-top romp through 1970s sleaze and the most fun many of us had at the movies in 2013.

Nothing about the film is hard to love, from the gloriously kitschy period costumes and art direction, to the go-for-broke acting, to the twisty plot about a pair of con artists embroiled in a government sting operation. Bradley Cooper’s perm and Christian Bale’s comb-over may appear to steal the show, but it is the film’s leading ladies – both nominated for Oscars – who are the real stars. Amy Adams, as a chameleonic temptress looking for love, and Jennifer Lawrence, as an unstable, accident-prone housewife, deliver the most mesmerizing performances of their already accomplished careers.

“12 Years a Slave” is difficult to love, despite the fact that it is quite possibly the most authentic movie of its kind. While other films about America’s dirty, devastating past soft-pedal the indignities of slavery, director Steve McQueen lays them bare in merciless fashion, making for a film that is necessary, yet excruciating. After seeing it, my husband and I were silent the whole way home. There was literally nothing to say in the aftermath of so much shame and sadness.

McQueen specializes in depicting human depravity and desperation — he made a movie titled “Shame,” after all — and “12 Years” is his masterwork. It is brilliantly acted with performances so naked, it’s hard to look them in the eye — Chiwetel Ejiofor as the kidnapped Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as a lascivious slave owner and, most searing of all, Lupita Nyong’o as the tormented target of that slave owner’s twisted obsession.

Yes, “12 Years” is painful to watch, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it, even if you only watch it once. The film has profound and indispensable things to say about the insidious nature of racism.

There are great treasures to mine, great revelations to discover in Oscar’s favorite trio and time and opportunity to rectify what you’ve missed, long after the Oscars are over.

Why deprive yourself of greatness?