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Reviews: ‘Rock the Kasbah,’ ‘The Last Witch Hunter’

Bill Murray in 'Rock the Kasbah' (photo -- Open Road Films)

By Tim Lammers

“Rock the Kasbah” (R) 3 stars (out of 4)

Bill Murray once again plays a role tailor-made to his keen comic sensibilities in “Rock the Kasbah,” an amusing tale about a over-the-hill rock tour manager who’s seeking redemption in the unlikeliest of places. Murray is great as usual, even though the plot of the film – grounded in the plight of a real Afghan woman – is hopelessly contrived.

Murray stars as Richie Lanz, who finds a silver lining in a very dark cloud over his doomed music management career when he gets an invite to bring his last client, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) to play a USO tour in Afghanistan. Once Richie and Ronnie get there, though, they find bombs going off and talk of getting body armor if they want to stay safe. Freaking out, Ronnie steals Richie’s money and passport and secures a trip to Dubai, leaving the down-on-his-luck tour manager stranded in Kabul with no means of getting out anytime soon.

Richie’s fortunes change, though, when he meets a couple of shady American arms dealers (Scott Caan and Danny McBride), who send him on a mission to sell ammunition to a tribal leader who is trying to protect his people from rivals. By happenstance, Richie stumbles across the tribal leader’s daughter, Salima (Leem Lubany) singing in a cave in the desert, where she dreams of being on the country’s televised singing competition “Afghan Star.” Richie wants to get Salima there, but he’s going to have to be creative because the country’s culture forbids women from singing and dancing in public.

While it’s not nearly as funny or poignant as Murray’s stellar dramedy “St. Vincent” from last year, “Rock the Kasbah,” ably directed by Barry Levinson, is still a good comedy that will please fans of the legendary funnyman. He’s aided by a fantastic supporting cast, including Kate Hudson as an enterprising American hooker building up a nest egg in Kabul, as well as Bruce Willis as a hard-nosed mercenary who helps Murray out of some serious jams. Lubany also shines as the would-be Afghan singing star, even though the plot comes off as highly implausible.

Thankfully avoiding any sort of political commentary (which you would expect given the film’s Afghan war setting) “Rock the Kasbah” works, if anything, as a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. You just know Murray would never survive these sorts of circumstances in the real world, but as Richie Lanz, he rocks the house.

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“The Last Witch Hunter” (PG-13) 1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Fresh off the blistering success of “Furious 7,” Vin Diesel’s latest star vehicle, the supernatural action adventure “The Last Witch Hunter,” hits the wall even before the movie has a chance to get revved up.

Diesel stars as Kaulder, a medieval axe and sword slinger who is cursed to live forever by a powerful witch in the 13th century in the film’s prologue. The bulk of the movie, though, is set 800 years later, when a long-dormant coven made up of the most evil witches and warlocks threaten to emerge and wreak havoc on the world, and only Kaulder and a pair of priests (the always great Michael Caine and Elijah Wood) can stop them.

Without the type of insane “Furious” car stunts and action sequences to distract the audience, Diesel’s limited acting range becomes painfully obvious in “The Last Witch Hunter.” While he appears to be an affable actor, Diesel’s delivery in “The Last Witch Hunter” is horribly a one-note performance, and the run-of-the-mill creature effects that creep up throughout the film aren’t much better.

In a movie that has no sense of humor about itself (a key to the “Furious” franchise’s success), Diesel, for the lack of better words, is running on fumes. He needs to get back on the “Furious” trek – and fast – if his career is to going to last.

Movie review: ‘San Andreas,’ ‘Aloha’

Carla Gugino and Dwayne Johnson in 'San Andreas' (photo -- Warner Bros)

By Tim Lammers

“San Andreas” (PG-13) 3 stars (out of four)

Ridiculous scenarios and a paper-thin plot and characters aside, it’s hard to, well, fault “San Andreas” – a wildly conceived and thrillingly executed natural disaster movie that is pure summer popcorn drenched with gobs of butter. Starring the affable Dwayne Johnson and featuring megatons of earth-shattering visual effects, “San Andreas” is certainly not the best movie of this young summer movie blockbuster season, but ranks among one of the most entertaining.

Johnson stars as Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department Rescue chopper pilot  who has no boundaries when it comes to risking his life to save others. Despite his achievements in the field, Ray is haunted by a family tragedy that led to the separation from his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) and estrangement from their adult daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) — so he’s willing to face hell on earth when “The Big One” hits.

The problem is, the event is not one big earthquake, but a series of them that begins at the Hoover Dam. Intensifying  in power with each earthquake, the series of ultra-destructive events continues with a run up the entire San Andreas fault line. The biggest and worst one – along with a tsunami — is set to hit San Francisco, where Blake is holding on for dear life.

Amid the crumbling buildings, people scattering and the earth shattering, “San Andreas” follows three sets of characters: Ray and Emma, who plow through hazards in the air, land and sea in a desperate attempt to find their daughter; Blake, who forms a bond with aspiring businessman Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) as they battle the harsh elements; and a reporter (Archie Panjabi) who helps an earthquake scientist  (the always great Paul Giamatti) warn the residents of San Francisco of their impending doom.

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Unlike Johnson’s previous action movie blockbuster “Furious 7,” “San Andreas” does its best to assemble a story amid all the chaos involving the characters. But as evidenced by the film’s nail-chomping opening rescue scene, “San Andreas” is all about the action and effects, and the intensity rarely lets up for the film’s 114-minute run-time.

The characters, while all likeable (apart from Ioan Gruffudd, who is perfectly slimy as Emma’s weasel boyfriend), are really only pawns to support the film’s majestic visual effects, which to director Brad Peyton’s credit, sometimes boom out of nowhere so loudly that you can’t help but jump out of your seat. “San Andreas” is one of those movies that has to be seen on the big screen if you want to experience its full effect, and for Californians, it’s one that will leave audiences quaking in their boots.

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“Aloha” (PG-13) 1 1/2 stars (out of four)

God only knows what exactly writer-director Cameron Crowe’s intentions were with the ambitious but ultimately ambivalent “Aloha,” a disappointing dramedy that has all the right talent but can’t seem to figure out what to do with it. Awkward, disjointed and sometimes just plain confusing, “Aloha,” which stars Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Is it a romance? Is it a comedy? Is it a tale of redemption? Is it a tale about Hawaiian spirits? Is it a cautionary tale about weapons of mass destruction?

As odd as it sounds, all of those elements are dancing inside the frames of the 105-minute film, but never quite seem to gel.

Cooper stars as Brian Gilcrest, a former, starry-eyed Air Force veteran who fell from grace while making a shady living as a defense contractor in Afghanistan. Despite a stormy past with billionaire businessman  Carson Welch (Bill Murray), Brian, a gifted private aerospace contractor, is recruited once again by the shrewd industrialist to oversee a game-changing, super-secret satellite project. Seems that Brian not only has the technical wherewithal to launch the risky project, but has a rapport with the Hawaiian natives to calm their fear and skepticism about it.

Cold and removed, Brian’s return to Hawaii after 13 years seems to soften him up, as he encounters an old flame (Rachel McAdams), who is now married with two kids; and a flaky but intelligent Air Force Captain, Allison Ng (Stone), who possesses the same enthusiasm for space that Brian lost years before.

For the sake of the story, Brian’s potential future with Allison eventually leads us to the film’s predictable third act, where Brian is forced to confront his past misgivings and make a decision that could save his soul but ultimately ruin his life. Coming far too late in the proceedings, it’s the only part of “Aloha” that seems to make any sense.

Cooper, coming off the blistering success of “American Sniper,” is likable in “Aloha,” but the problem is, he’s not supposed to be. Cooper’s natural charm and charisma overshadow Brian’s shifty demeanor, and it’s shame to say, but he was simply miscast. Starting off as an annoying character, Stone’s character softens enough by the end to become tolerable, even though her motivation in the film is horribly contrived.

In supporting roles, Murray is his usual great self as Carson, and Alec Baldwin is a hoot as a hot-headed Air Force general. McAdams’ character is more or less a functional role, which spins off into a subplot involving her dejected husband (John Krasinski), who becomes jealous of Brian.

Ultimately, the pitfalls of “Aloha” fall squarely on the shoulders of Crowe, who seems to have peaked with his brilliant autobiographical 70s music tale “Almost Famous.” With “Aloha,” it just feels that he’s desperately trying too hard to tell a unique story, yet he never quite gets his arms around the sprawling narrative tight enough to rein everything in. There are mere flickers of Crowe’s brilliance in “Aloha,” but nothing near to “Almost Famous” or his memorable sports agent movie “Jerry Maguire.” For all the talent “Aloha” has in front of and behind the camera, the film is hardly a movie fan’s paradise.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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Reviews: Tim Lammers talks ‘Fury,’ ‘St. Vincent’ on KARE-TV, more

Brad Pitt in 'Fury'

Tim reviews the World War II action drama “Fury” and the comedy drama “St. Vincent” on KARE-TV in Minneapolis with Bryan Piatt below. Also, you can read Tim’s review on BringMeTheNews.com and hear Tim review the films on The Tom Barnard Show, WCCO-AM, KTWIN-FM and KSCR-FM.

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