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Movie Review

Tim Grierson Reviews 'The Pirates!' and 'The Five-Year Engagement'

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Tim Grierson Reviews 'The Pirates!' and 'The Five-Year Engagement'
Photo Source: Glen Wilson
The Aardman animation studio is best known for its delightful, near-perfect "Wallace and Gromit" shorts of the 1990s. While the company's subsequent feature films have possessed the same handmade charm and tart British wit, they've sometimes struggled to maintain their narrative momentum over a longer running time. That same problem hamstrings "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," a consistently amusing-around-the-edges comedy about a luckless pirate captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) who hopes to finally win the prestigious Pirate of the Year award. With a voice cast that includes Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven, Martin Freeman, David Tennant, Brian Blessed, and Imelda Staunton, "The Pirates!" is a very likable family film that unfortunately is only rarely hilarious or inspired. Like last year's "Arthur Christmas," this new Aardman offering takes some fun characters and deposits them in a rather generic tale. Maybe I'm too partial to Wallace and Gromit, but what I really miss is their shorts' crackerjack inventiveness and effortless storytelling grace.

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt make for such a lively, believable long-term couple in "The Five-Year Engagement" that it's a shame that this romantic comedy-drama isn't as mature or committed as its characters. Successful San Francisco chef Tom (Segel) and psychology student Violet (Blunt) have gotten engaged, but their blissful relationship hits a snag once they move to Michigan so she can pursue her career, which leaves him floundering. Give "Engagement" credit for being wiser and more honest than most rom-coms about the difficulty of juggling love and careers, but that doesn't excuse this overlong film's insistence on going for broad, dumb jokes at the expense of the story's emotional center. It makes for a thoroughly frustrating viewing experience: You'll want these characters to stay together, but you may find yourself begging that they break up with their own movie.

The main reason to see "The Raven" is John Cusack's spirited performance as Edgar Allan Poe, although that's not enough to recommend the movie. It's 1849 in Baltimore, and a rash of murders are connected to plot devices in the macabre author's work. Out of answers, the local detective (Luke Evans) recruits Poe himself to help find the killer. Cusack pours every ounce of intelligence and bluster he can into his portrayal of the drunken, acerbic writer, but "The Raven" overdoes its grisly tone. Instead of really investing in its period setting or iconic protagonist, this uber-dark thriller mostly uses them as excuses for a bloody ordinary whodunit.

Unabashed Jason Statham fans so enjoy watching his elegant, slyly confident performances that we tend to ignore the fact that he's not in many very good movies. Alas, "Safe" is another dud: an action movie about an ex-cop who comes to the aid of a Chinese girl (Catherine Chan) who's being hunted by every mobster in New York. Statham doesn't venture out of his comfort zone, and it's still a kick to see the guy beat the hell out of anyone who crosses him. But it's also impossible to shake the feeling that he could do this sort of thing in his sleep -- and maybe just did.

Jack Black takes a break from mainstream broad comedies for "Bernie," a nervy indie based on a true story. Reuniting with "School of Rock" filmmaker Richard Linklater, Black plays Bernie Tiede, a sweet-natured assistant funeral director who became the close companion of an older woman (Shirley MacLaine) in their quaint Texas community. So why, then, did he kill her? That mystery drives "Bernie," and Black nicely dials back his usually oversize personality, only hinting at the menace beneath the character's aggressively chummy surface. But whether it's MacLaine's one-note old bitty or Linklater's glib jokes about small-town Texas life, "Bernie" is a little too pleased with its bizarre ripped-from-the-headlines tale to explore fully the darkly comic possibilities.

The indie drama "Sound of My Voice" premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, which was the same year that another, better film about a cult, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," debuted. But that's not to diminish this consistently unsettling film. Documentary filmmakers Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) want to expose Maggie (Brit Marling), an enigmatic, soft-spoken young woman who tells her followers that she comes from the future. Somewhat predictably, though, the longer the couple stays undercover in this cult, the weirder things get and the less Peter and Lorna doubt Maggie's ludicrous story. Marling, who co-wrote the film, makes for a striking, quietly unnerving prophet: She transfixes even when "Voice" starts to get shaky near the end.

Some actors peak after winning an Oscar, but not the great Juliette Binoche. In the 15 years since being honored as best supporting actress for "The English Patient," she's put together a sterling career, including terrific recent turns in "Certified Copy" and "Flight of the Red Balloon." "Elles," sadly, is one of those rare missteps. In this drama, Binoche plays a journalist writing a profile on prostitutes who starts to question her staid bourgeois life. As always, Binoche gives a sexy, sophisticated, layered performance -- no other actor looks so alive onscreen -- but the film's attempts to make grand statements about gender politics feel rather obvious.

The Norwegian crime thriller "Headhunters" isn't concerned with grand statements per se, but underneath the double crosses and rising body count are deeper questions about identity and greed. The film stars Aksel Hennie as a cocky headhunter who steals valuable artwork on the side to keep up his extravagant lifestyle. Unfortunately, his latest theft may bring deadly consequences. With paranoid twists reminiscent of David Mamet and shocking violence that feels influenced by the Coen brothers, "Headhunters" almost dares you to object to its story's utter preposterousness. But if the film is decidedly a mixed bag, Hennie is quite good as a soulless corporate suit who finally discovers his humanity in the face of certain death.

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