Four Christmases


Four Christmases
Merry Christmas times four.

(2008) Holiday Comedy (New Line) Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek, Katy Mixon, Patrick van Horn. Directed by Seth Gordon

Christmas is an incredibly stressful time of year for families that are even in the best of circumstances. When you take two sets of divorced parents, and a couple that are resisting the urge to get married because of it, you can get some interesting situations.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have what seems to be a really good relationship. They’re both successful people, well-organized and care deeply about each other. They do have a quirk however; they don’t like spending Christmas with their families. They make up elaborate lies every year to avoid spending any time with their four sets of families (both Brad and Kate are the products of divorced parents, several of whom have since remarried). They then take a well-deserved vacation in some tropical paradise – in this case, Fiji.

However, this is the year when most of their plans are going to go awry. Fog at San Francisco’s airport kills their flight; when they are put on television to comment on the situation, the jig is up. There’s nothing for it but to spend some time with each of their four parents.

First up is Brad’s dad, the irascible Howard (Duvall) who would live in a double wide if he was just a little bit less well-heeled. His other sons Denver (Favreau) and Dallas (McGraw), each of them named for the city they were conceived in (Brad’s birth name is Orlando), are a little bit shall we say steroid-enhanced. Would-be wrestlers, they take every opportunity to beat the crap out of Brad in a semi-playful manner that doesn’t hide so well their underlying rage. Dallas’ wife Susan (Mixon) is the queen of seven-layer cuisine. An attempt to hook up satellite TV for Howard ends in complete disaster.

Next up is Kate’s mom (Steenburgen), a man-hungry cougar who has set her sights on Pastor Phil (Yoakam). She is surrounded by fellow cougars and children with kids, her sister Courtney (Chenoweth) in particular with a baby that is a living, breathing, projectile vomiting machine. Kate and Brad are recruited to star in the church Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, which affords Brad an opportunity to access his inner Vince Vaughn.

Brad’s mom (Spacek) is next on the list, and Brad has a real problem with her. You see, she’s married Brad’s childhood friend (van Horn). Can we say awkward? I knew we could. All along Kate and Brad are finding out more about each other than they’ve ever known – when one reinvents oneself, one sometimes leaves past indiscretions behind one.

Finally, we end up with Kate’s Dad (Voight) where things come to a head. Kate and Brad will have to decide if they are really ready to step up and make it official or else let the things between them remain between them.

I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were tasked with making an outrageous comedy with a holiday theme, and then studio execs kept asking them to tone it down. The movie is replete with screenwriting 101 clichés, characters who are artificially outrageous for no other reason than to provide something for Vaughn and Witherspoon to work off of.

Actually, what I really mean here is Vaughn. While he pretty much sticks to his regular shtick, his comedic persona is so well-developed that he can do it in his sleep. Much of the movie is improvised which is right up Vaughn’s alley and when Vaughn is riffing, there are very few who can keep up with them. Witherspoon is a capable comic actress, but she’s dealing with a force of nature and wisely keeps herself to the background.

The parents are all Oscar winners and you would think with this kind of cast that there would be some depth to the movie. Nope, that’s a big negatory. This is really meant to be mindless entertainment and for the most part, the impressive cast just show up, collect their paychecks and move on to bigger and better things. Only Voight has a really magic moment, a one-on-one conversation with Witherspoon that injects some of the badly needed holiday spirit into the movie.

The movie got the equivalent of a thermonuclear blasting from critics upon release back in 2008, which still makes me scratch my head. No, this isn’t the greatest Christmas movie ever but it is mostly inoffensive and pretty mindless entertainment. While the tiny Witherspoon and tall Vaughn present a framing challenge, they have enough chemistry together to make the movie work. If you need something to put you in a holiday frame of mine, you could do worse.

WHY RENT THIS: An astonishing cast, with four Oscar winners (playing each of the parents) as well as two country stars. Vaughn is at the top of his game here, and Witherspoon is always charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie tends to get a bit unfocused in places and the reliance on improvisation gives the movie a choppy feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is on the sexy side, and there is a little bit of foul language but not enough to get steamed up over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Wiebe makes a cameo playing Donkey Kong in the movie. Wiebe was the subject of Gordon’s excellent documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing on the DVD version (grrrrr!) there is an hysterical gag reel on the Blu-Ray version as well as a well-intentioned but poorly executed comedy cooking show with Mixon and celebrity chef Paula Deen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

The Holly and the Quill


Starting Tuesday, December 21st and continuing up to Christmas Day, Cinema365 will be interrupting our regular programming to present you a film review festival of Christmas movies. This is our way of bringing the spirit of the season to our regular readers; here you will find a variety of Christmas movies, ranging from recent releases, independent releases and modern classics, culminating in one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time on Christmas Day. All of them will carry the special logo you see above which was specially designed for this feature by Da Queen herself.

Christmas is a special time of year for the Cinema365 family; Da Queen is a big believer in the season for whom listening to Christmas carols in July is not unheard of, and the strains of “The First Noel” can make her misty-eyed. She also loves Christmas movies with a passion and often this time of year our viewing menu is filled with television specials and broadcasts of classic Christmas movies.

In addition as a bit of a special treat, I’ll be posting a Christmas story, written by yours truly, on the Big Day. It’s a little different than most of the fiction I’ve posted up to now; I sincerely hope you like it. If you missed last year’s piece, there’s a link to it right here.

This has been the first full year of Cinema365’s existence and it has seen us grow from 588 hits in January to (if current viewing levels remain the same) well over 7000 hits this month. That’s pretty extraordinary, and I’m grateful to everyone who drops by and spends a little bit of their valuable time with us.

Our 2011 preview is going to be up on Thursday, December 30th, and will be chock full of information about what you can expect in theaters next year. Two weeks later, we’ll be putting up our feature on the top 10 films of 2010; you may find a surprise or two on that list. Finally, in February we’ll be initiating a new review mini-festival called Cinema365 From the Heart, in which we’ll be reviewing movies with a bit of romance to them. That will be running over Valentine’s Day weekend (yes, we’re never one to miss a trick around here).

It has been an amazing year for this blogsite and I’m looking forward to seeing it continue to grow over the next 12 months. My readers are a bit of a Christmas present for me; your attention is very much appreciated. If you like what you see here, do tell your friends about us and if there’s a specific movie you’d like to see reviewed here over the coming months, just leave a comment on this page and I’ll see what we can do.

Finally, there is this; to all those who celebrate a holiday this time of year be it Christmas, Channukah or Kwanzaa, I hope that you have a beautiful one and that you and your family enjoy the warmth and love of the season. From my family to yours, the very happiest of holidays, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Carlos deVillalvilla and Da Queen Doreen deVillalvilla

Penelope, Peanut and Angel

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader


The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Anyone who says there are no stars in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is crazy!

(2010) Fantasy (Fox Walden) Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Liam Neeson (voice), Simon Pegg (voice), Gary Sweet, Laura Brent, Bille Brown, Bruce Spence, Terry Norris, Colin Moody, Tilda Swinton, Anna Popplewell, William Moseley, Shane Rangi, Arthur Angel, Arabella Morton, Rachel Blakely. Directed by Michael Apted

When we sail for unknown waters, it takes a certain amount of fortitude. Not only do you never know quite what to expect, but it’s also likely that you won’t return the same way you left.

Lucy (Henley) and Edmund (Keynes) Pevensie remain in England during the Blitz while brother Peter (Moseley) and sister Susan (Popplewell) go off to America – apparently because they’re older, they deserve greater safety. Lucy and Edmund are packed off to Cambridge where they are rooming with their despicable cousin Eustace Scrubb (Poulter) who is an insufferable know-it-all and quite the twit. Edmund would like nothing better than to punch him in the face, but prefers to try and join up for the British Army, although he is too young by a couple of years.

He is frustrated because as a King in Narnia, he has fought wars against superior forces and led armies into battle but here on Earth he is just a silly boy. Lucy is the embodiment of the Stiff Upper Lip but she is deeply insecure about her looks; while Susan is already a bit of a stunner, Lucy feels invisible and ignored by comparison.

When the nautical painting in the bedroom Edmund shares with Eustace begins to change and a Narnian-looking ship appears on the horizon, Lucy realizes magical forces are work and a call back to the magical land is just around the corner. Eustace has always pooh-poohed their talk of Narnia and thinks them barking mad. He’s about to find out how wrong he is.

The sea floods out of the painting and into the bedroom; rather than opening the door or window and escaping the children essentially wait for the room to fill up before swimming to the surface and being greeted by the flagship of Narnia’s fleet, the Dawn Treader. On board is good Prince Caspian..err, King Caspian (Barnes) who is searching for seven lord of Telmar that supported his father but then had to flee for their lives. They carried with them seven magic swords that Aslan (Neeson) had given the Narnians for protection. They don’t know it but they are about to need them.

The two Pevensies are overjoyed to be back in Narnia; Eustace not so much. He thinks that everyone and everything not named Eustace are complete idiots and utterly lacking in…well, anything useful. He is basically the ultimate spoiled brat, a precursor to Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series, only far more venal and wretched.

Also aboard is the swashbuckling Reepicheep (Pegg), the mouse with the gentlemanly mien and the bold attitude. He becomes something of a mentor to Eustace, although of course Eustace detests him at first. There’s more involving a malevolent green mist, an island that is the embodiment of evil and a blue star that is in fact not a star but you get my drift. Eustace also turns into a dragon, a Lord turns into gold and the Dawn Treader will battle a vicious sea serpent before the final credits.

This is based on the third in the six-book series by C.S. Lewis which was meant to be Christian allegories as well as morality lessons for children. Amazingly, both of those aspects of the books were left intact in all three of the movies (much more overtly here).

However, there’s a new director in town; Apted, who has previously directed Coal Miner’s Daughter and The World Is Not Enough. This is kind of a new genre for him and he does a great job, never allowing the special effects to overwhelm the movie but using them when he needs to. While the effects aren’t particularly groundbreaking, they are serviceable – the sea serpent particularly at the end is hideous and scary.

Part of the problem with the first two movies is that the acting wasn’t up to the level of the Harry Potter movies. The child stars were all a bit on the wooden side; thankfully, Keynes has gotten much better and Henley as well, although she still can be annoying in places. Poulter, who was in the indie film Son of Rambow was actually really good, bringing out both the awful and redeemed sides of Eustace nicely.

Barnes also gets to shed the ill-advised Spanish accent of Prince Caspian and comes off much more mature and far more likable here. While the character tends to be much more of a second banana to the Pevensies than perhaps he should be, nonetheless Barnes makes the most of what he has to work with. My only wish is that Apted had let Caspian’s feelings for his father get a little more attention; that was an interesting subplot that seemed to go nowhere really.

I actually liked this film better than the first two and even better than TRON: Legacy to be honest. The books were a big part of my childhood, being a lover of fantasy and science fiction from an early age as I was. Seeing these films is a bit like going home, Dawn Treader a bit more than even the first two (and I thought The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a good solid movie). While the box office numbers have been underwhelming for a movie with this kind of budget, I’m hoping that it makes enough to warrant the making of The Silver Chair. This might well be the most entertaining movie of the holiday season, far more so than the overly grim and overwhelming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and a little bit more than the uneven TRON: Legacy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear like the audiences are giving it the chance it deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The best of the series so far. Poulter brings the horrible Eustace Scrubb to life. Barnes has improved 100% as Caspian.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really groundbreaking effects work and Henley remains a work in progress.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes that are probably too scary for younger, more impressionable children (particularly during the sea serpent battle) but by and large, perfect movie material for most kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simon Pegg as Reepicheep replaces Eddie Izzard who voiced the cavalier mouse in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

HOME OR THEATER: This may sound a bit strange but as big a movie as this is, I don’t know that the epic scope is diminished on the smaller screen. I usually recommend the multiplex for movies like this but it might be just as well for you to see it at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill begins!

TRON: Legacy


TRON: Legacy

Sam is a little irritated that the library wants their books back; Cora is just disappointed.

(2010) Science Fiction (Disney) Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Anis Cheurfa, Cillian Murphy, Daft Punk, Jeffrey Nordling, Dan Joffre, Mi-Jung Lee, Dale Wolfe. Directed by Joseph Kosinski

We are all haunted by the ghosts of our past. In the case of movies, they are haunted by the movies that have come before them, sometimes many of them.

Sam Flynn (Hedlund) has good reason to be angry. His father, eccentric software genius Kevin Flynn (Bridges) deserted him when he was 12, disappearing into a miasma of rumor and innuendo, leaving his giant corporation Encom essentially in the hands of those he despised with only his good friend Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) holding his fingers in the dyke.

Sam expresses his anger by pulling spectacular pranks on his company (like releasing their new operating system software to the Internet so that people can use it for free rather than have to pay exorbitant amounts for it – take that Bill Gates!) that he takes no other interest in. He’s a bit of a spoiled rich kid with plenty of toys but no direction.

Then Bradley gets a page from the arcade that the elder Flynn started out with from a number that’s been disconnected for years. Sam expresses disinterest but at last curiosity wins out and he decides to check out the arcade, which is in marvelous shape despite the nearly 30 years that have passed since people last brought quarters in to play their machines (in a nice nod to the first film, “Separate Ways” by Journey blasts from the jukebox). He discovers a hidden door behind the vintage TRON machine and heads into his father’s secret room where a computer far more advanced than what we even have now sits. Sam had always been entertained about his father’s tales of being  beamed into the grid; is this where his father actually travelled into the electronic frontier?

Of course it is. Sam is beamed down there and is immediately captured and sent to the gaming grid, at first mistaken for a rogue program. When it is discovered that he is a user he is brought before a mysterious masked figure who appears to be the head honcho of the grid. The mask comes off and it’s – his dad, but the same as he was 30 years ago. Sam discovers quickly that he’s not quite his dad.

This is Clu (Bridges, using the same de-aging software found in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a program his dad had written to help create the perfect electronic society but this version of his dad is obsessive and somewhat cruel. He sends Sam out to be executed in the light-cycle arena but Sam is saved by the beautiful Cora (Wilde) who takes him to his dad in a sanctuary outside the grid where grid vehicles can’t travel.

There he finds his real dad, looking every bit the aging guru (not unlike the Big Lebowski two decades later) in a white robe and bare feet. Grizzled as a man exiled from his home and family might be, he has gone from being cocky and reckless to being almost afraid of taking any sort of action. His Zen has become his pen.

It turns out that Clu decided he didn’t like the way Flynn was running things, so he took over, destroying Flynn’s electronic partner Tron (Boxleitner) in the process. Clu is obsessed with perfection and thinks that he can take his well-ordered near-fascist state out into the other world, which he has yet to be able to do. However, should he get Flynn’s identity disk he’ll not only be able to do it, he has amassed a gigantic army in order to take over our world and make it over in his own image.

Sam is incensed that his dad wants to sit in his lonely castle and wait until the portal that Sam opened closes on its own (the power it takes to maintain an open portal is tremendous and they close usually after about eight hours). He figures that he can go to the outside world and delete Clu with a keystroke. However, he has to get back to the portal to escape and Cora tells him there’s one man who can do it; a man called Zoos (Sheen).

Zoos however has his own agenda and things take a turn for the worse, forcing Dad to come to Sam and Cora’s rescue. However in the process, Flynn’s identity disk falls into Clu’s hands, leading to a final showdown between maker and machine.

There is a lot to like about this movie. Unfortunately, I wanted to like it more and left feeling a bit disappointed. That may be because I do believe the trailers and the hype set the bar awfully high and it may be that the movie just didn’t quite get to that bar. Perhaps on its own merits I might have given it a higher score; do keep that in mind as you read on.

The visuals here are absolutely dazzling. Those that remember the graphics of the original TRON will be pleased that the sequel takes those images and refines them, keeping the essence of the filmmaker’s intentions rather than redefining the wheel – they are merely redrawing it with a better pencil.  That’s a very good idea.

Bridges, who I believe filmed this before his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart is at the top of his game here. He is both the megalomaniacal Clu and the Zen surfer dude Flynn, as well as the grizzled disappointed Flynn. He is really playing three different roles and he imbues them each with their own subtleties. I had never considered him one of the best actors of our generation, but I’m beginning to change my mind on that score.

Hedlund looks and sounds a lot like a young Brad Pitt here and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When held up against Bridges, you have to feel for him; he’s just not in that league quite yet. However, he makes a serviceable hero here, both vulnerable and ballsy at the same time. I was more impressed with Wilde, who is beautiful, mysterious and physical, all blending well together in a single core role. For my money, she has the looks and talent to be an A-list actress if she gets more roles like this one. Sheen has an entertaining supporting role as an outgoing Zoos who is equal parts David Bowie, Liza Minnelli and the Merovingian from the Matrix movies.

A quick word about the soundtrack. It was composed and performed by the French electronic duo Daft Punk (they make a cameo appearance as masked DJs in Zoos’ club) and it is one of the best movie soundtrack’s I’ve heard, maybe since Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire. It perfectly compliments the mood and the environment of the movie, plus the music stands up on its own without the visuals.

In fact, the movie has a lot of the Wachowski Brothers epic trilogy in it, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are positives and minuses about both of those elements which you take with a certain amount of salt. However, what I had more problems with is that the movie has long sequences where it drags, such as when father, son and Cora are riding a long train to the Portal near the end, or when Sam is investigating his dad’s page early on. The movie is at its best when it is at its most kinetic; any gamer will tell you that a game is only as good as its action and the more of it the better.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are dazzling, a must-see. Hedlund resembles a young Brad Pitt both in look and in performance. Wilde makes a bid to be an A-list actress.

REASONS TO STAY: While the movie looks good it can’t really live up to the anticipation. There are long stretches where it drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi action and some of the littlest tykes might be put off by the derezzing. There’s also a little bit of bad language but quite frankly there’s nothing here that most parents should prevent their kids from coming to see.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s a hidden Mickey in the film; check out the back of Sam’s motorcycle helmet.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much the theater. These visuals should be seen in an epic scope. However, the 3D I found essentially unnecessary and added nothing to the film.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee


Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy

Four-Warned: January 2011


January 2011

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either. The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. THE GREEN HORNET (1.4)
2. COMPANY MEN (2.0)
3. THE RITE (2.1)
4. SEASON OF THE WITCH (2.3)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. ONG BAK 3 (2.1)
2. THE WAY BACK (2.3)
3. THE HOUSEMAID (2.4)
4. SINBAD THE FIFTH VOYAGE (2.5)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

JANUARY 1, 2011

SINBAD THE FIFTH VOYAGE (Giant Flick) Genre: Adventure. Sinbad must travel to dangerous distant lands to rescue the sultan’s daughter. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 If it is as imaginative as the old Ray Harryhausen versions, this could be a winner.

JANUARY 7, 2011

SEASON OF THE WITCH (Relativity) Genre: Supernatural Action. A heroic crusader is charged with transporting a convicted witch to a distant monastery where the monks will perform a ritual to reverse the curse she’s placed on the land. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.3 Oft-delayed, studio switched and early January release date usually spells disaster but I’m nonetheless intrigued.
THE TIME THAT REMAINS (IFC) Genre: Drama. A look at the creation of the state of Israel from its beginnings in 1948 up through modern times. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 I’m still not quite sure what the point of this movie is.

JANUARY 14, 2011

BARNEY’S VERSION (Sony Classics) Genre: Drama. An ordinary man who’s lived an extraordinary life tells his version of the events in it. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.8 An extraordinary cast (Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver) in an ordinary movie that was a festival mainstay this year.
THE DILEMMA (Universal) Genre: Comedy. A man on the eve of the biggest deal of his career sees his best friend and business partner’s wife cheating on him and resolves to tell him about it. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.9 Controversy over the use of the word “gay” in the trailer brought this movie into the public eye initially.
EVERY DAY (Image) Genre: Drama. A man in the throes of a midlife crisis deals with a flirtatious office worker, a crumbling manager and a sick and embittered father-in-law who is force to stay with them. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 Liev Schreiber, Helen Hunt, Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy are an enviable cast; the trailer looked interesting.
THE GREEN HORNET (Columbia) Genre: Superhero Action. With the help of his late father’s confidante, a young ne’er do well determines to succeed his crusading newspaper publisher father as a more direct crimefighter. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D). RATING: 1.4 I have to admit I wasn’t so sure about casting Seth Rogen as Britt Reid but the trailer looks good.
ONG BAK 3 (Magnet) Genre: Martial Arts Action. The series concludes with an epic conflict between good and demon. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Some of the best martial arts movies of the last decade have been in this series.

JANUARY 21, 2011

THE COMPANY MEN (Weinstein) Genre: Drama. Three laid off executives must re-define their lives as husbands, fathers and men. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.0 Moved forward from October to December to January, not a good sign.
THE HOUSEMAID (IFC) Genre: Thriller. A beautiful young maid for a wealthy family becomes pregnant by the husband, a secret which threatens to explode. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 This is a remake of a 1960 Korean film which is considered to be one of the best movies ever produced from that country.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED (Paramount) Genre: Romantic Comedy. A couple of friends develop a physical relationship but find that they want something more. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.8 Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman make an attractive couple but the premise sounds a bit empty to me.
THE WAY BACK (Newmarket) Genre: True War Story. The true story of a group of soldiers who escape a Siberian gulag and make a long trek on foot to freedom. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 Peter Weir directs an outstanding cast in a film that won great accolades on the European festival circuit.

JANUARY 28, 2011

FROM PRADA TO NADA (Pantelion) Genre: Romantic Comedy. Two sisters living a life of luxury in Beverly Hills are forced to relocate to Boyle Heights after daddy passes away where they learn something of their Latina heritage. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.8 I think I may have seen this movie before, although not in Spanish.
IP MAN 2: LEGEND OF THE GRANDMASTER (Mandarin) Genre: Martial Arts. Martial Arts master Ip Man escapes the Japanese occupation only to run into the hard line British colonial rule of Hong Kong. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 This has been breaking box office records across Asia.
THE MECHANIC (CBS) Genre: Action. A professional assassin reluctantly takes the son of his mentor under his wing. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.5 A remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson film.
POETRY (Kino International) Genre: Drama. A free-spirited South Korean grandmother discovers she has Alzheimer’s as she is taking a poetry course. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.7 Sounds a bit schmaltzy but this could be another Korean cinematic gem.
THE RITE (New Line) Genre: Horror. An unorthodox priest introduces a skeptical novice to the nature of true evil, hidden in one of the holiest places on Earth. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.1 Hannibal Lecter as an exorcist? The mind boggles.
SECONDS APART (After Dark) Genre: Horror. A pair of murderous twins shares the power of telekinesis between them. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 With After Dark shedding their horror festival format this year this is their first release as a distributor.
WHEN WE LEAVE (Olive) Genre: Drama. A Turkish woman flees an abusive relationship, only to have her family attempt to return her son to his abusive father. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles. RATING: 3.1 Said to be a meticulously researched look into the Turkish culture.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES

Season of the Witch, The Dilemma, The Green Hornet, The Mechanic, The Rite

Faster


Faster

Dwayne Johnson realizes that sometimes, the People's Elbow just isn't enough.

(2010) Action (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tom Berenger, Courtney Gains, Mike Epps, Xander Berkeley, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jennifer Carpenter. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

The American action picture is somewhat of an archetype. It borrows heavily from the Western and often employs taciturn loners as heroes. It takes place on windswept plains and empty towns, and sometimes in big cities which convey a different type of loneliness. In this world, a man is measured by the size of his gun and his willingness to use it.

Driver (Johnson) is being released from prison after doing a ten-year stretch. Although the warden (Berenger) chides him to seek help if he finds himself going down the wrong path, Driver already has a direction in mind.

After picking up a 72 Chevy muscle car in a scrap yard, Driver has some business to take care of. You see, the gang that pulled off the bank heist that got him sent to the pen was ambushed by a rival gang who killed them all off and left Driver for dead having taken a bullet to the back of the skull. Surgeons affixed a metal plate to keep his brains from leaking out and now he walks around with a bit of a bad attitude.

Normally Driver could let something like that go but one of the dead was his half-brother and Driver doesn’t cotton much to that. He’s out to kill every mutha on the list of those who were responsible, from the low-lifes who were there to the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. The latter would rather he didn’t come too close so they send out a hit man (Jackson-Cohen) with a strange British accent and impulse control problems. Killer, as he’s called is more of a dilettante than a professional, but he does have a girl (Grace) of his own and by gum he’s gonna marry that girl if it’s the last thing he does.

Also on Driver’s tale is a Cop (Thornton) who has even more problems than Driver or Killer. Ten days from retirement, he is a heroin user whose estranged wife harangues him for being late picking up his son for a baseball game and he’s more or less a joke to his peers. He has one last chance at redemption, not that Detective Cicero (Gugino), his partner, is interested; she just wants to catch this killer and she doesn’t want a sad sack junkie partner slowing her down.

This sounds more like an action movie of the ‘70s and in some ways it is. There is also a bit of the dark soul of film noir from the ‘40s and in some ways, it is. What it REALLY is, believe it or not, is an old-fashioned morality play. This story is not so much about revenge as it is redemption; it’s not so much about car chases as it is about forgiveness. While the trappings of an action movie are there, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Part of why the movie succeeds is because of Johnson. The Rock, the Brahma Bull, the People’s Champ. That guy. This is by far his best performance to date. His Driver starts out a killing machine, fueled by rage. As the body count gets higher, so does his sense of remorse, and a feeling that maybe revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. By the time he reaches the final name on his list, a man who has reformed and become a Pentecostal preacher (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the doubts have really set in. Things are no longer so black and white; it’s easy to walk up to a bad guy and blow the back of his head off if there is no doubt he is bad.

Thornton excels at playing folks who are a little bit flawed; he’s even better at playing folks who are a LOT flawed. That’s just what Cop is – a lot flawed (he actually has a name that appears briefly on a document near the end of the movie, but I didn’t catch it). Thornton gives him the hangdog look of a man who has made more mistakes than he can count and is desperate to try and redeem himself.  There’s that whole redemption thing again.

Gugino, who I still continue to maintain is one of the most criminally underutilized actresses in Hollywood gets wasted again in a role that she could easily have phoned in but chose not to. Her character is suspicious and somewhat hostile at first but ultimately makes some choices that show her to have a soft heart as well…oh yeah, I guess that you could call that…the “R”  word.

This is not a typical action movie and I don’t believe it ever was intended to be. In some ways it’s grim and brutal and the story line is a bit predictable (Da Queen figured out who was behind all the messed-up events long before the Big Reveal in the final reel, which puts her one up on me) and at times it feels like the characters are going through the motions as they drive through the deserts of Bakersfield and Inyo County. It isn’t the kind of entertainment that is mindless and easy (not that there is anything wrong with entertainment that is both of those things). I found myself reacting to the movie with a curious intellectual fascination which is not something you get from an action movie normally. For that reason alone I can recommend this.

REASONS TO GO: While ostensibly an action movie, this is also a morality play on steroids. Johnson makes a welcome return to a genre he is very well suited to.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit predictable and the movie has a curious lack of energy for a movie of this type.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of drug use in the movie, quite a bit of violence and a fair amount of foul language. There is also some brief sexuality that ought to bother nobody.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first strictly action film that Johnson has done since Doom (2005).

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the car chase sequences look good on the big screen but a lot of the rest of the movie is fairly intimate. Too close to call for me, so I’ll let you make it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee