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FILM REVIEWS: The Raven, The Five-Year Engagement

Categories: Movies

John CusackJohn Cusack stars as Edgar Allan Poe in the gothic thriller The Raven. (Larry Horricks/Universal Studios)

The Raven

Poor John Cusack. For too many of us, he will always be the kid with the boom box blaring Peter Gabriel in Say Anything. Here's the rude reality check: that was more than 20 years ago.

He's in his mid-40s -- over-the-hill as a young heartthrob, but not quite ready for fatherly roles. His skills are clear: the killer deadpan delivery, great physical presence and that flavor of defiance in whatever he does. All this makes his newest role, um, a perplexing choice. John Cusack is Edgar Allan Poe.

We meet his Poe in Baltimore in the 1840s, near the end of his career. The gothic writer's a drunk, a joke and coasting on the diminishing returns of his writing. However, a sensational series of murders thrusts him back into the public eye.

From an intrepid detective named Fields (played by Luke Evans), Poe learns that a maniac is constructing the devilish devices from his stories, for instance, using the apparatus described in The Pit and the Pendulum to carve a critic (!) in half. When Poe is drawn into the case, the fiend kidnaps his fiancée and forces the author to chronicle her fate.

Now, I like Cusack. His track record may be spotty, but he's still one of most unique contemporary actors we have. Seeing him try to adapt to the 19th century takes some getting used to. At first, he looks more like a Cure music fan than the famous author. Where Poe was dark and sombre, Cusack leans towards the sarcastic. What's worse is The Raven's director James McTeigue treats the story as an episode of CSI: Baltimore, The Early Years, filling the screen with quick cuts, galloping horses and grisly murder scenes.

Yes, Poe was the Stephen King of his time, entrancing the public with his morbid visions. But his tool was the written word. When you transfer a story from the page to the screen, you move from the suggested to the explicit, where ghoulish can become gory. There's one moment when Cusack-as-Poe works and it's because we're left in the dark with the author's prose, as he describes his lover being buried alive, her fingers clawing at the wood coffin.

So quoth the critic: leave The Raven alone for evermore.

RATING: 2 out of 5

The Five-Year Engagement

Where Cusack's trying to get his groove back, Jason Segel is in the middle of a great run of late. He co-wrote and co-starred in The Muppets and, now, takes up the same duties in The Five-Year Engagement. Like a taller Jonah Hill to some, he can be a polarizing presence. Still, there's a boyish glee in his eyes that is infectious.

The Five-Year Engagement comes from director Nicholas Stoller, who worked with Segel on Get Him to the Greek and, more importantly, also belongs to filmmaker Judd Apatow's mafia of mirth. Apatow and Segel go all the way back to the cult hit TV series Freaks and Geeks.

The movie's plot is pretty simple: Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are madly in love and poised get married. But he puts a rising career in San Francisco on hold when she gets a job offer from snowy Michigan. Though the detour was initially to last just a couple years, Violet gets another offer. Cue the bubbling resentment that becomes comic strangeness at first before the inevitable meltdown.

Emily Blunt, Jason SegelViolet (Emily Blunt) and Tom (Jason Segel) get tripped up on the long walk down the aisle in the romantic comedy The Five-Year Engagement. (Glen Wilson/Universal Studios)

I liked The Five-Year Engagement. It's funny, but it also takes its sweet time. Perhaps four years would have been better. The interesting thing is, having seen the film and its trailers, there are more than a handful of gags that didn't make into the final product, which leads me to think this movie was constructed in the editing room. It has a lot of riffs and interesting scenes, but lurches to the finish line.

When producer Apatow and the director Stoller were asked what inspired them, they cited When Harry Met Sally. It's easy to see the connection: the earlier rom-com is also an extended relationship film that spans years, not months. But what was great about Harry is that it wasn't afraid to be serious. The sadness in the film is what anchors the comedy.

In The Five-Year Engagement, whenever things get real, it becomes just another setup for a punch line. That's unfortunate, because what sets the typical Apatow ensemble comedy apart is the kernel of honesty and truth at the heart of the story. It's what elevates his movies beyond just wacky, raunchy comedies.

Still, there are worse things than a film with an abundance of rim-shots -- it still offers some value for your funny money. Keep your eyes peeled for Alison Brie (from TV's Community and Mad Men) as Violet's emotionally unstable sister. The two engage in a heart-to-heart in puppet voices that is almost worth the price of admission.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5

Tags: Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, John Cusack, romantic comedy, The Five-Year Engagement, The Raven

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