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The title Riddick is so much simpler and less pretentious than the title of the last entry in Vin Diesel's other franchise, The Chronicles of Riddick.

As goes the title, so goes the movie.

The character of space fugitive Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) was introduced in the nifty 2000 sci-fi entry Pitch Black, a kind of futuristic disaster movie in which Riddick, an intergalactic felon, emerged as an unlikely hero. In 2004, writer-director David Twohy steered the terse, violent protagonist into more mythic territory with The Chronicles of Riddick, which, in addition to being an unsatisfying hodgepodge, was also rated PG-13 in the U.S. -- a transparent effort to trade off some of the savagery for a shot at a wider audience.

Riddick quickly jettisons the excess mythic cargo -- and the PG-13 niceties -- in its first act, which sees the brooding brute marooned on an especially savage planet to die. He doesn't seem especially upset by this. Once he sets his own broken leg and snacks on a space vulture, he seems positively jubilant about "zeroing the clock" and getting back to basic survival. We understand that Twohy is also zeroing the clock and taking the character back to a Pitch Black-like story of wicked monsters and even more wicked men.

Hence, realizing there is only so far he can go on a planet populated by mutant dingoes and reptiles that can bite from either end, Riddick summons fellow humans to his planet when he comes across an abandoned bounty hunter outpost. After they arrive, we know most of the cast will be picked off one by one, either by Riddick or by the aforementioned creatures. And as Riddick is really the only character with whom we have some investment, this is one of those movies that gives us lots of supporting roles for the purpose of inviting us to guess, who, when, and how they will be killed off.

Fortunately, Twohy is a pretty imaginative genre filmmaker, and on a fairly modest budget, he creates a nicely realized world of desert, rocks, toxic pools and slimy/fanged fauna.

He also knows how to deliver the B-movie goods now that he is free from the more genteel PG-13 obligations. ***


You're Next


In its first two acts, the home-invasion thriller You're Next throws in so many clichés, one starts to assume it was made by someone who has never seen a horror movie before.

How else to explain all these characters faced with deadly assault employing the most pinheaded strategies from the slasher playbook? Let's split up. I'll make a solo run for the car. Send mom to bed alone. Leave the ringer of your cellphone on.

Director Adam Wingard has made a few genre movies (Pop Skull, A Horrible Way to Die) and one guesses he has seen quite a few more. You're Next seems especially beholden to The Strangers (2008), another home-invasion movie in which Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman's intimate romantic weekend was ruined by a trio of remorseless psychos wearing inappropriate -- but creepy -- masks.

And so it goes here, except it is an entire fractious family discovering they're the ones being served up during an anniversary dinner at a remote country estate. Yes, director Wingard trots out a few horror clichés, but when it counts, delivers pretty effective jolts, especially when it emerges the killers aren't as mysterious as believed.

The film's other distinction is that the characters aren't the usual slasher fodder: nerd, jock, slut, etc. If no masked psychos made an appearance, this family might have kept our attention under the banner of a mumblecore comedy or maybe even a solid indie drama. ***1/2


Fruitvale Station


This pertinent docudrama released theatrically in the wake of George Zimmerman being found not guilty in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, really has one primary purpose: it strives to give a face, a voice and a human context to Oscar Grant, a young man cut down in his prime on New Year's Day 2009, inexplicably shot by a cop at Oakland train station.

Writer-director Ryan Coogler, making his debut feature, simply strives to make Grant a three-dimensional figure, with the able assistance of actor Michael B. Jordan (The Wire), who portrays Grant as a young man valiantly trying to get through life playing the hand he was dealt.

Coogler dramatizes the last day of Grant's life with a blend of fact and conjecture, but succeeds in countering the audience's worst instincts when it comes to a police shooting: we tend to try to comfort ourselves that the victim somehow brought it on himself. This film makes the salient point: Oscar Grant did not have it coming. ***


Lee Daniels' The Butler

As with his last film The Paperboy, a certain awfulness asserts itself occasionally in director Lee Daniels' more grounded drama The Butler, mostly thanks to its stunt casting. But it is also admirable in the way it provocatively pinballs between the private life of a black servant and the Washington power players whom he serves.

Forest Whitaker maintains his dignity as Cecil Gaines, a humble sharecropper's son who escapes that grim existence and moves north to work his way into the White House as a butler, proud of his ability to seem invisible when he's in a room.

He first gains entrance to the presidential inner sanctum during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) at a time when the civil rights movement is causing ripples in the corridors of power.

Cecil witnesses the transactions of the upper echelons, but prefers to give his voice at home with his supportive but troubled wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his two sons.

But as his boys come of age in the '60s, Cecil's two worlds begin to ping off one another. Cecil's eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) goes to college and is drawn into the movement, protesting segregated restaurants and participating in the exploits of the Freedom Riders. His other son, Charlie, (Elijah Kelley) goes to Vietnam.

Hence, in the administrations of John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Cecil maintains his stoic silence, even as he has a growing personal stake in the Oval Office debates on how best to manage issues at home and abroad.

Inspired by the experiences of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, The Butler suffers this imbalance: Daniels is evidently more comfortable in the realm of seamy melodrama than historic docudrama. This is a particular irritant when it comes to Schreiber's Johnson, whose brief inclusion presents a potentially fascinating study in contrasts. He was a vulgarian given to frequent employment of the N-word, but he was also deeply revulsed by the televised spectacle of human-rights abuses in Alabama and was moved to enact some of the most important civil rights legislation of the 20th century.

Forget Johnson. Daniels would rather devote more time to a narrative dead end, say, Gloria's sordid affair with a neighbour (Terrence Howard), but at least Whitaker holds up his end with a performance of grace and gravitas. ***

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2014 C12

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