Red 2 (2013)

Director: Dean Parisot

Starring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough

How do you keep the energy of an action film series fresh? It can’t be easy, or else there would be any number of sequels out there that could claim to be as good or better than the original. Comedies have the same problem. Too often, they take the easy road of repeating all the same jokes. When you fuse the two genres together, it puts even more pressure on the filmmakers to deliver. The action scenes need to dazzle the eyes and the humor has to tickle the funny bone. Fail in either area, and you’re screwed. Bruce Willis has had plenty of experience with duds over the course of his film career. Even the “Die Hard” franchise has been phoning it for the last 20 years (give or take). How was “RED 2″ going to avoid the sequel curse? Well, putting together as equally talented a cast as the first film was certainly a step in the right direction.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) witness the apparent demise of their friend Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) and attend the subsequent funeral. Marvin has faked his death so many times over the years, Frank notes, that it doesn’t seem real that he can be gone. Well, of course he isn’t! Frank gets picked up by government agents after the funeral, but the agents are all disposed of during Frank’s interrogation by Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) and a SWAT team. Frank, also a target, manages to escape in the nick of time, rescued by Sarah and a very much alive Marvin. Frank listens as Marvin explains his deception: They’ve been labeled terrorists because they were erroneously linked to a secret operation codenamed Nightshade. To make matters worse, they’re the targets of two contract killers, Han Cho-Bai (Byung Hun Lee) and their friend, Victoria (Helen Mirren), who calls them in advance to warn them about her hiring by MI6.

Globe-hopping from Paris to London to deep in the heart of Moscow, Frank and crew pick up some company along the way in the form of Katya, a Russian secret agent whom Marvin describes to a jealous Sarah as being Frank’s Kryptonite. She’s just as interested in Nightshade as the rest of them, but is ready, willing and able to backstab Frank at a moment’s notice. Good thing Marvin anticipates this, or she would make off with the all-important key they need. The group’s travels lead them to an insane asylum in London (how appropriate!), where they find the inventor of the nuclear device known as Nightshade, Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins). He’s been locked up for 32 years, and has the appearance of a man whose mind is mostly mush. Appearances can be deceiving.

Having Anthony Hopkins in your movie, whether in the wise old man role or as the villain, pretty much automatically ups your cool factor, as can the presence of Catherine Zeta-Jones. While that holds true in a very big way for Hopkins, I was mostly disappointed with Jones’s inclusion in “RED 2.” Katya seems to have been conceived as a mere plot device to create an unnecessary and uninteresting triangle between her character, Frank and Sarah. Fortunately, this plot device is prevented from overwhelming the main story as I feared it might. Byung Hun Lee and Neal McDonough are okay, but I miss Karl Urban. Willis, Parker, Malkovich and Mirren are all still a lot of fun, and I could stand to see them team together for a third go-round if they so choose. I especially appreciate that Mary-Louise Parker was given even more to do this time than in “RED.” Sarah may not be Retired and Extremely Dangerous, but she’s an integral part of the team now.

One of the more random events in the movie is a blatant product placement for Papa John’s Pizza during the Moscow sequence. There’s a secret tunnel to where the bomb is hidden, but to get to it, Frank & Co. have to enter a Papa John’s location and break through the wall in the back of the building. Great, now I crave a pepperoni and anchovies pizza w/ extra cheese. Thanks for that.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed the experience of watching this movie. If “RED 2″ is inferior to the original, it is because it is far too predictable. While “RED” kept me guessing, “RED 2″ delivers a more straightforward, black & white story where you know who the villains are, you can expect one of the bad guys to join the cause of the people they’ve spent most of the movie trying to kill, and you even know what trick the heroes will use to save the day. The villain’s favorite line that he likes to use is “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” Well, yes… as a matter of fact, I did.

Red (2010)

Director: Robert Schwentke

Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon

You can’t keep a good action hero down. In recent years, that’s truly been the case, as actors like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, and Bruce Willis (most of which appear together in the “Expendables” series of films) are all finding that getting older has not prevented them from playing the same kinds of tough guy roles that normally would go to men half their age. Willis especially has been keeping busy, milking the “Die Hard” franchise for every last cent, as well as featuring in the “G.I. Joe” reboot alongside Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, “Sin City” and its long-belated sequel (due out this time next month), and of course 2010′s “RED.”

The title of the film refers not to the color, but is an acronym for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous.” Frank Moses (Willis) might not look it, judging by the quiet and lonely life he has chosen for himself these days, but he was a black ops CIA agent in his youth. These days, the most exciting part of his day is the long-distance phone conversations he has with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who works for the Kansas City pension office that sends Frank his checks. Frank tears up those pieces of paper just so he’ll have excuses to call her, sometimes just to talk about the plant she sent him. Sarah hates her job, and would love nothing more than to have a little excitement in her life. Her wish is about to be granted, although in a way that a little too closely resembles the romance/espionage novels she’s been reading. After a hit squad tries and fails to kill Frank, he heads for Kansas City, grabs Sarah for her own protection and rounds up the old gang, which includes conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), ex-MI6 agent Victoria Winslow (Helen Mirren), and Frank’s mentor, Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman).

Their goal is to find out who wants the members of a secret 1981 mission in Guatemala dead and who on that list might still be left alive. Standing in the team’s way is CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban). He’s a pretty tough customer, himself, though not always smart enough to know when he’s being played. Hardly mastermind material… more of a pawn, really. Eventually, the answers they find will lead to an assassination attempt on the Vice President of the United States… perpetrated by our heroes!

Although a fairly standard spy movie plot in the long-run, “RED” does keep the audience guessing throughout. Unless you’re paying strict attention to everything that everyone says, you may not figure out who the real bad guy is until the big reveal.  Based on a three-issue miniseries published by DC Comics in 2003 and 2004, “RED” is very fantastical, but also very balanced. It handles moments of hilarity just as easily as it does its most serious scenes of violence. John Malkovich’s over-the-top performance as Marvin steals much of the laughter, as does Mary-Louise Parker (whose comic timing reminds me why I absolutely loved the TV series “Weeds”). On the flipside, the fight between Bruce Willis and Karl Urban inside CIA Headquarters, though not nearly as dragged out as it ought to have been, is for me one of the most brutal on-screen fight sequences (not including boxing or martial arts movies) since Sean Connery battled Robert Shaw on a train in 1963′s “From Russia With Love.”

In 2013, a sequel to “RED” arrived… and it’s a good thing, too. These characters are too much fun to leave them with only one movie. A sequel means more zaniness from Malkovich, more wide-eyed curiosity from Parker and more machismo from Willis, not to mention more scenes of Helen Mirren and her big… guns. (Get your minds out of the gutter!) The question is, how much more mileage have they got left in them? Also, there is the age-old idea that sequels are inferior to the original, which action films and comedies have an especially hard time proving false. With the promise of new additions like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins, I’d say it’s worth the risk. It sure beats sitting around watching the daisies grow.

The Family (2013)

Director: Luc Besson

Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo

Relocating must be a bitch. I wouldn’t know… I’ve never had to relocate to a new town, never had to get adjusted to a totally different way of life in a new country. But then I’ve also never been on the wrong side of the law, never had cause to be placed in the Witness Protection Program.  How frustrating it would be to have to change my name, move away from everyone I’ve ever known, and live under 24-hour surveillance on the outside chance that someone figures out where I’ve gone. The idea there is that you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, but the Manzoni family just can’t help themselves.

Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) had to pack up the family and move from Brooklyn, New York to Normandy, France after snitching on some fellow mafiosos and having a $20 million bounty placed on his head. Now, all he wants to do is tell his story in memoir form, even if he’ll be the only one who ever reads it. FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) isn’t too thrilled with Giovanni’s idea, as he believes (and rightly so) that a testimonial will only serve to alert Giovanni’s enemies as to his whereabouts. Giovanni is prideful and impulsive. He’ll break a man’s leg in several places, with two separate blunt instruments, just to prove a point and earn respect. Only then will he drive the injured to a hospital. Others aren’t so lucky, especially those who won’t help him in his quest to have clear tap water.

Truth be told, the only truly level-headed person in the Manzoni clan is the family dog. Giovanni’s wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) doesn’t care for being disrespected either, and a lot of supermarkets in her path tend to explode. Their son, Warren (John D’Leo), might get beat up on the first day of school, but he’s a natural at picking up on the social cliques and their symbiotic relationships to one another. In no time at all, he’s the king of the school’s drug business.

Coming into “The Family,” I expected that the weak link in the cast would be Dianna Agron, due to my prejudice against the TV series “Glee.” Shame on me because Agron, as Manzoni’s daughter Belle, is one of the movie’s strongpoints and the source of its biggest laugh-out-loud moment. If you were unfamiliar with her family background, as would be the case of any of the residents of Normandy, you would take Belle’s deceptively sweet appearance at face value. Especially if you’re a horny teenage boy looking for some action. When a few of the locals try to put the moves on her, Belle shows them just how deeply disturbed she is, beating one of the boys to a bloody pulp with a tennis racket (the business end of which winds up broken clean in half) and then stealing his car.

The adults are less impressive, but that’s because they’re playing all-too familiar roles. Tommy Lee Jones excels at playing easily annoyed enforcers of the law. Robert De Niro has played his role so many times, in both comedies and serious dramas, that he could be sleepwalking and you’d never know the difference. A truly surreal moment comes when Giovanni is asked to partake in a film debate. The intended film was to have been “Some Came Running,” starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but is changed at the last minute. “Some Came Running” is relatable enough for Giovanni, himself being a novelist with a dark background, but it’s when the replacement film turns out to be “Goodfellas” that things get really interesting. Aside from the fact that this gives Giovanni a forum to openly talk about his history in the mob, the vision of a Robert De Niro character watching another Robert De Niro movie is just brilliant.

Where “The Family” goes wrong is in its imperfect balance of comedy and violence. The climax focuses so much on the exchange of gunfire that it seems comedy stepped out for a smoke break and forgot to return. I expected a little more from the director of “Léon: The Professional” and “The Fifth Element,” as well as the writer of “District 13″ and the “Taken” movies. Perhaps Luc Besson will have better luck with his next movie, the soon-to-be released “Lucy” starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman… or perhaps it will be burdened by an imbalance of its own, this time because of a reliance on special effects. One area in which Besson has remained consistent is his ability to make his movies look interesting, whether because of the subject matter, the casting, or a mixture of both. “The Family,” while not a modern classic like some of Besson’s other works, is entertaining enough that it is easy to have fun with it. Fun, dare I say it, for the whole family.

Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Christopher Plummer, Mark Lenard, David Warner, Kim Cattrall, Rosana DeSoto

It would be difficult (though not impossible) to pick out a single “Star Trek” story that came about at a more appropriate time. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had kept citizens of both nations on edge since just after World War II. Each was just as distrustful of the other, just as frightened of the possibility of a shooting war… or worse, a nuclear war. In 1986, it wasn’t a bomb but a nuclear power plant at Chernobyl that cost lives, rendered an entire town uninhabitable for generations, and led to closer relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since Klingons = Russians, it’s only fitting that art should imitate life in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

The U.S.S. Excelsior, under the command of Captain Sulu (George Takei), the former helmsman of the Enterprise, detects the explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis. It’s a costly disaster, as it has destroyed the Klingon homeworld’s ozone layer. Their options limited, the Klingons sue for peace with the Federation. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), still holding a grudge with the Klingons over the death of his son David, is dismayed when his first officer, Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) volunteers the Enterprise and her crew to meet with the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) and escort him to the peace talks. Someone feels worse about it than Kirk does… perhaps several someones… as Gorkon and several of his men are murdered shortly after returning to their vessel from a dinner aboard the Enterprise. Kirk and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are arrested for the crime, and sentenced to life without parole on the gulag Rura Penthe, a truly unpleasant, snow-covered world.

It is up to Spock to pull a Sherlock Holmes and discover who stands to gain from the dismantling of the peace talks, not to mention figuring out a way to pull a jailbreak for his friends. The riddle to be solved involves figuring out why the Enterprise’s data banks insist that the ship fired two torpedoes at Gorkon’s ship, crippling its artificial gravity, while a visual inspection accounts for a fully-loaded inventory. The answer is obvious: At least one or more of the conspirators is an Enterprise crew member, and there may still be more in both Starfleet and the Klingon Empire. It would have been a gutsy move to make one of the seven main cast members a part of the conspiracy, but also a bit risky this late in the game, which is probably why they didn’t go for it. The prospect of fan outrage likely crossed the writers’ minds. Who wants to see their heroes turning traitor in their final appearance? As a result, the identities of the conspirators are hardly a surprise. Most of them are telegraphed right from the start.

Fortunately, “Star Trek VI” is about more than just mystery. It is also about learning how to accept change. When Chancellor Gorkon (who is made to resemble Abraham Lincoln for a very good reason) offers a toast at the dinner party, he toasts to “the undiscovered country.” Naturally, everyone else at the table has no idea what to say since that phrase, when spoken by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is accepted as referring to death (the ultimate ending). Gorkon, ever the idealist, is thinking towards the future and his vision for a greater understanding between the Klingons and the Federation, one that even he acknowledges won’t come easily to the current generation. Though he has even less screen time here than in “Star Trek V,” David Warner’s role as the ill-fated leader of the Klingon High Council has a great importance that his role as the Terran ambassador to Nimbus III lacked, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see even more of Warner’s great performance before Gorkon is martyred.

Making up for Warner’s disappearance from the movie is the fantastic Christopher Plummer as General Chang, Gorkon’s Chief of Staff and a serious Shakespeare buff. He devours every scene he’s in. There’s never any doubt as to Chang’s motives but, rather than play him as the sort of creature who just acts on instinct, Plummer projects a level of thoughtful intelligence to Chang. He’s a master strategist (probably how he rose to his current position in the Empire), and is like Kirk in the way he bends the rules of combat to his advantage.

There was some talk of Nicholas Meyer’s desire to have Kirstie Alley return as Lt. Saavik (from “Star Trek II”), but if that’s true it obviously didn’t pan out. Replacing Sulu at the helm is Lt. Valeris as played by Kim Cattrall, best known as Samantha from “Sex and the City.”

One of the great assets of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” is the film series’ return to a dark, serious tone. The lighting reflects this, as does the musical score. The main theme played over the opening credits is so haunting and creepy that it almost belongs in a horror movie. You know, as soon as you’ve heard this piece, that some bad shit’s about to go down.

Contrary to what it says on the poster above, the U.S. release date for “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” ended up being December 6 of 1991, not December 13. I bring this up because, as fate would have it, I ended up seeing the movie on its original release date of the 13th. There were many different ways this one could have been screwed up. As this was going to be the last time we would have all of the original crew together, they deserved a proper send-off on the 25th anniversary of “Star Trek,” and they got one. Of course, like most modern cinematic heroes, just because you see them literally riding off into the sunset doesn’t mean that someone won’t think of a way to bring them back. Some endings aren’t always final.

Star Trek V - The Final Frontier (1989)

Director: William Shatner

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Laurence Luckinbill, David Warner

In addition to acting as a metaphor for current events, “Star Trek” has always been about the exploration of the unknown, or the impossible. After saving the Earth (twice), engaging in life-altering battles with the Klingons and superhumans, and traveling through time, a very literal search for God as the Enterprise crew’s next adventure could not be considered out of the question. Contrary to what the late Gene Roddenberry would have you believe, the TV show had on multiple occasions dealt with the theme of religion, often with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard for the fraud he/it is. Even “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” had handled this subject before, with a Voyager space probe returning to Earth in search of its “Creator.” The impossibility of making this kind of story work in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” did not come about because “Star Trek” hadn’t boldly gone there before; it came as the result of failures in just about every technical and literary detail imaginable.

Most of the crew of the Enterprise is on shore leave, while a skeleton crew remains to affect repairs. Barely anything is working at 100% onboard the ship: the turbolifts, the main computer and the transporter among them. On Earth, Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are camping out. Kirk has a brush with death, falling off of El Capitan while free climbing, but is rescued by Spock at the last instant. He later declares to his friends that he knew he would not die because the two of them were there with him.

What is a great moment is soon sabotaged by one of the more embarrassing moments in “Star Trek” history. Kirk and McCoy, drunk on Tennessee whiskey, start in on a rendition on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It doesn’t last very long, as the two of them stop when Spock (trying to understand the lyrics) doesn’t join in, but it feels like it lasts an eternity. This scene is only the first of many signs that “Star Trek V” was going to be a self-contradictory movie, as it would be tackling a profound topic in a less-than-serious manner.

What passes for the movie’s conflict arises when three ambassadors (from the Terran, Klingon and Romulan governments) are taken hostages on the planet Nimbus III by a group of losers led by a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckenbill), whom we later learn is Spock’s half-brother. Sybok had been cast out by his people when he chose faith over logic, and has been searching for the Vulcan equivalent of Eden ever since. Sybok persuades others to join his cause by using his Vulcan mental powers to bring that person’s darkest memory into the light, the effect being that this will make them stronger. Taking hostages was merely a ploy to get a starship to come to Nimbus III so that he might use it to travel to the center of the galaxy, where the very real heavenly planet is allegedly located.

The idea that this ragtag group with primitive weaponry can not only overpower the Enterprise crew, but also convince them to fly their shuttlecraft up to the Enterprise so that they can steal it would seem ludicrous if it weren’t for the fact that this same trick had been pulled a few times on the TV series. That’s not what’s wrong with “Star Trek V.” What’s wrong with “Star Trek V” is a long list indeed:

- Infusing the script with scenes of baffling, unfunny comedy (at one point, Scotty hits his head and knocks himself out after proclaiming his familiarity with the layout of the ship) was clearly a decision made in the wake of the intentionally humorous “Star Trek IV”‘s success, but it serves as a terrible counterpoint to the action.

- The Klingons shouldn’t even be in this movie, and their presence does come off as horribly forced. Whose fault that is exactly I’m not sure.

- Actor David Warner hopefully was well-paid for his part. Warner, a fantastic performer who is great either as good guy or villain, plays the Terran ambassador to Nimbus III. The thing is that he’s got absolutely NOTHING to do once we’re back on the Enterprise, which is barely halfway through the film… if that!

- Uhura’s fan dance. Whoever thought it was a good idea for the ship’s communications officer to do a (dimly lit) naked fan dance should have thought of it thirty years earlier. ‘Nuff said.

- The Writers Guild strike of 1988 is to blame for the movie’s low budget and use of a different special effects company, but it does not excuse the atrocious editing. All through the movie, there is fodder for nitpickers when it comes to goofs that the editors apparently missed. My favorite of these comes when Kirk, Spock and McCoy need to get up to the top level of the ship using Spock’s rocket boots (or whatever the hell you call them). As the three make their ascent, no attempt is made to hide the fact that the actors have been replaced with stunt doubles. The deck numbers themselves run in a very odd sequence (35, 36, 52, 63, 64, 52, 77, 78 and 78 again!). There shouldn’t be more than 23 decks on the ship, and Deck 1 should be the highest level instead of the lowest.

- Even Jerry Goldsmith’s score is not immune. The Klingon theme is ruined by just three notes from an oboe that sound like the dying gasps of a castrated duck. Goldsmith almost makes up for it with the track “A Busy Man.” Almost.

*Interesting side note: The role of Sybok was reportedly originally intended for Sean Connery, but he had already committed to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Evidence of this is still present in the final film: the Vulcan translation for “Eden” is “Sha Ka Ree.”

That William Shatner has never directed another movie since, or that Harve Bennett never produced another “Star Trek” movie is hardly surprising. And yet, here’s the kicker… For all of its failings, I cannot dislike this movie. Part of it would have to be nostalgia, as this was my first “Star Trek” theatrical experience when I went with my father to see it in the summer of 1989. It is also because this one, out of the original cast’s six films, feels the most like an episode of the original TV series. A third season episode, I’ll grant you, but a TV episode nonetheless. Kirk is very much like 1960′s Kirk… and why not since the director is decidedly very familiar with the character… remaining defiant when all others around him are giving in to Sybok. The Big Three (Kirk, Spock & McCoy) never had as much time onscreen together in a movie as they did in this one and, despite the weak story, they demonstrate almost as well as they do in movies II & III what their friendship means to each other. It is their rapport that really helps me through what would otherwise be an embarrassingly awful movie.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

Director: Danny Leiner

Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn

Fast food, one of life’s guilty pleasures, is a great American tradition. In times of economic strife, any meal that won’t cost you more than $10 is desirable. You also don’t have to worry about waiting an eternity to be served. After a long road trip, even something as simple as a rapidly prepared hamburger can be one of the most satisfying things in the world. It’s true that you should always maintain a balanced diet, but when it’s “what you crave,” there can be no substitute.

After getting high in the apartment they share, Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn), both now having an uncontrollable case of the munchies, search for the right place to quell their hunger. Chinese take-out isn’t the answer, Kumar says. He wants something different, somewhere they haven’t gone to for food in a while. As if listening to Harold and Kumar’s urges, their television presents a commercial for White Castle. After watching this tantalizing ad, both are convinced that nothing else will do but those little square burgers. Such a premise would lend itself well in short-film form. As “Harold & Kumar” lasts just shy of 90 minutes, you know they aren’t going to get there so easily.

Harold’s having a pretty tough time enjoying his high. He’s been suckered by co-workers into doing their assignments for them as though they were all still in high school. He’s also crushing hard on his hot young neighbor, Maria (Paula Garcés), but completely lacking the courage to speak to her even though they frequently ride the elevator together. Kumar is a bit more carefree than his friend. He could become a greater doctor even than his father and brother, but all Kumar really wants to do is get high, get laid, and otherwise generally have fun without the burden of responsibility. Thus, although they will go on this quest together, it’s Harold who is on a personal journey. He needs to “man up,” and it’s going to take run-ins with psychotic cops, a deformed auto mechanic, an “extreme” gang of vandals, the student body of Princeton University, and Neil Patrick Harris (as a VERY heterosexual version of himself) to see that he gets there.

In addition to NPH, “Harold & Kumar” is littered with cameos from famous faces. Ryan Reynolds appears briefly as a gay doctor. Funnyman Fred Willard shows up early on to conduct a job interview with Kumar, before being disgusted by his lack of restraint regarding vulgarities. The greatest of all is “Law & Order: SVU”‘s Christopher Meloni. Once you know it’s him underneath all of that hideous makeup as Freakshow, the auto mechanic, it makes his scenes that much funnier. In the years since the release of the film adaptation of the “Watchmen” graphic novel, it’s also a hoot(er) to see Malin Åkerman as his wife, Liane.

“Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” stands firm as an example of how to do blatant product placement the right way. This isn’t like “Mac and Me,” the hideous 1987 “E.T.” clone which exists only as an extended plug for Coca-Cola, Skittles, Sears, and of course McDonald’s. At least Harold and Kumar made plans from the get-go to wind up at a fast food restaurant, and at least they don’t get lost in some half-assed dance routine that brings the movie to a screeching halt. White Castle has been a part of American culture since 1921, decades before the first McDonald’s was opened. As such, this makes White Castle the second oldest fast food franchise in the United States (behind only A&W). Despite this, White Castle is not as widely distributed as some of its successors. There is not one location near where I live, however one can easily find Krystal (whose founder got the idea to sell little square hamburgers from a visit to White Castle), and I CAN find boxes of microwavable White Castle burgers in the frozen foods section of the grocery store. This comes in handy because, every time I sit down to watch the funniest pair of stoners since Cheech & Chong, I always develop a craving of my own afterwards.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Director: Bob Rafelson

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach

You know those people in you life who have no inner monologue? You’re trying to concentrate on driving but you can’t hear yourself think, and it’s all because of that annoying talky sound coming from the backseat. It’s not that you’re incapable of handling a little road trip chatter. It has to do with the fact that you’ve heard the same boring story, repeated with only the slightest of variations, at least ten times already. “Five Easy Pieces” contains a moment that presents just such a scenario, but its main character is so emotionally stunted that he doesn’t offer a single word of objection. He just keeps on driving.

Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), a descendant in a long line of musicians, was once destined for greatness as a classical pianist but he has long since abandoned that life for a crappy job drilling for oil in California. Lately, he has involved himself in what looks to be a loveless relationship with a waitress named Rayette (Karen Black). Consumed with dreams of being a country singer, Rayette is a big fan of Tammy Wynette and plays her records on high volume late at night. She’s awfully clingy, threatening to kill herself if Bobby ever leaves her. That’s quite a trap, but she’s right about one thing: Even though she’s the one sulking and hiding under her bed sheets, it’s Bobby who is the pathetic one.

When Bobby gets word from his sister that their father has suffered not one but two strokes, he makes the decision to drive up to Washington state to try and make up for lost time. What follows is the part of the movie I like best. Bobby and Rayette pick up two hitchhikers, one of which cannot stop herself from continuously talking about how “filthy” everything is. Not once does Bobby ever yell at her to shut up (nor does Rayette, for that matter), but the look on his face tells us he’s yelling on the inside. Any raw anger he needs to get out is released in what is considered the film’s most famous scene. Stopping for food, Bobby gets into a heated discussion with the waitress over the inflexibility of the diner’s menu. This clues us in a little bit more on the content of Bobby Dupea’s character. For anyone whose had time to familiarize themselves with Jack Nicholson, they will recognize this outburst as being characteristic of most of his roles. In this moment, Bobby has this compelling need to be right. I think he is, and so does his hitchhiker, but that’s not the point. You should never embarrass yourself in public when it’s so easily avoidable.

Contrary to what one might believe, the title “Five Easy Pieces” refers not to the women with whom Bobby has sexual relations, but to the classical piano pieces which are played during the course of the film. Besides, the number of women who make it with Bobby is three, not five. There’s Rayette, of course, but as Bobby becomes increasingly incapable of feeling anything in this relationship, he looks elsewhere. One of these other women is played by a pre-”All in the Family” Sally Struthers. She’s just a one night stand, someone he uses and then throws away just as quickly. The other woman is his brother’s fiancée, Catherine (Susan Anspach). Despite being two very different people, there is an instant attraction that turns physical. But Catherine is way too smart for a man like Robert, whom she can tell is both directionless and loveless. These are not exactly the best qualities a man can have if he actually wants a woman to stick around, which is what Robert seems to desire this time.

Apart from a genuinely terrific performance from Jack Nicholson, a good supporting cast and three standout scenes, “Five Easy Pieces” as a whole is disappointingly ordinary. Like its main character, the movie meanders from moment to moment without there being much meaning behind any of it. I realize that this was likely the whole point, that the plot was meant to reflect the man, and I respect that.  I also know that my opinion puts me in a select minority, as “Five Easy Pieces” comes highly praised and beloved by critics and Average Joe Citizen alike. The Tammy Wynette-heavy soundtrack certainly doesn’t help. It is said that there is a certain point in our youth where we become who we are going to be for the rest of our lives. That tends to discourage the idea that people can change, which is a sad thought indeed. For some people, though, it holds true. In Bobby’s case, it probably happened around the time he first left home. Here is a man who cannot enjoy life because he’s too busy running away from it. He’s a child who never grew up. Therein lies the problem: Examining the journey of a man who refuses to participate in this thing called ‘life’ can be a good character study, but it would be a stretch for me to refer to the experience as either entertaining or fun.