New Releases for the Week of March 2, 2012


March 2, 2012

DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX

(Universal) Starring the voices of Danny De Vito, Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Rob Riggle, Stephen Tobolowski, Laraine Newman. Directed by Heitor Dhalia

A boy seeking to impress a girl who wants nothing but to see a real, living tree learns the tale of a mystical creature who was unsuccessful in protecting the trees against rampant greed and exploitation. He will find himself in a battle between those who love the planet and those who wish to profit from its exploitation. Hey, Bill O’Reilly hates this movie so there is reason plenty to go see it right there.

See the trailer, clips, promos, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for brief mild language)

Pina 3D

(IFC) Pina Bausch, Ruth Amerante, Eddie Martinez, Julie Shanahan. The life of iconic modern dance choreography Pina Bausch is explored by legendary German film director Wim Wenders. Former dancers and peers wax poetic on what it was like to dance for her and her lasting contribution to the world of dance.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some sensuality/partial nudity and smoking)

Project X

(Warner Brothers) Kirby Bliss Blanton, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Oliver Cooper, Alexis Knapp. A pair of high school losers make one last ditch effort for immortality by throwing the party of the century while their parents are out of town. Wanting to be legends, they document every moment of it from the first invite to the last guest and the aftermath. Found footage Weird Science if you ask me.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sex Comedy

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem – all involving teens)

Rampart

(Millennium) Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver.  A bigoted, brutal L.A. cop in the Rampart precinct is caught beating a suspect on tape and in the wake of a corruption scandal in the department refuses to change his ways and as a result faces bitter consequences. However, things begin to unravel further as a stream of women, investigators and an aging mentor are combining to send him to rock bottom. Is there redemption for a man like this?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo or stream the full movie from Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Drama

Rating: R (for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence)

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

(Magnet) Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis.  A couple of would-be Judd Apatows squander a billion dollar movie budget and the evil Schlaaang Corporation wants it back. This will take them to the seediest mall in America – and a chance to be gazilliionaires. From the whack jobs who perpetrated the “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job” on an indifferent cable landscape.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language, some violence and thematic material)

Made in Dagenham


Made in Dagenham

Sally Hawkins finds out that diamonds aren't always a girl's best friend.

(2010) True Life Story (Sony Classics) Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, Jamie Winstone, Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James, Nicola Duffett, Matt Aubrey, Kenneth Cranham, Daniel Mays, Andrew Lincoln, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Rupert Graves, Richard Schiff. Directed by Nigel Cole

 

It is no secret that women in the workplace are not treated the same way as men are. Some of it is a biological necessity – after all, men don’t have to take off of work to have babies. However, when given equal work to do, women have never been paid equally to men.

In Britain that is as true as it is in the States. At the Ford plant in Dagenham, source of most of the Fords on the road in the UK, most of the women are involved with sewing the upholstery for the cars. They work in an industrial barn with no air conditioning that gets so hot that the women strip down to their bras and girdles in order not to faint while they are working at the sewing machines. This makes for some fairly awkward moments whenever any men walk into their domain.

One such man is Union rep Albert Passingham (Hoskins) who has to impart the bad news that their bid for being classified as “Skilled Labor” has been turned down by Ford’s executive leadership. This means they will continue to be classified as “Unskilled Labor” and thus make significantly less than their male counterparts.

This doesn’t sit well with the ladies or Albert and so they vote to authorize a one-day walkout to show management they mean business. Albert chooses young mother of two Rita O’Grady (Hawkins) – who is married to a line worker, Brian (Aubrey) to accompany himself, Union boss Monty Taylor (Cranham) and shop steward Connie (James) to a face-to-face meeting with management. However once they arrive it becomes clear that Monty not only doesn’t support equal pay for the workers, he is colluding with Ford to make sure it doesn’t happen. Incensed, Rita throws down some fabric and tells the execs that they are welcome to try to sew them into a car seat and leaves to tell her co-workers to walk.

Thus begins the story of a real-life 1968 labor action that would lead to Britain’s 1970 Equal Pay Act which was a landmark victory in the women’s rights struggle in Britain. Made in Dagenham is a dramatization of those actual events – Rita is actually an amalgam of several real women who were involved in the leadership of the strike – and a fine one at that.

The movie doesn’t just focus on the strike itself, although that’s definitely a focal point, but more on how it affected the workers and the community. Rita suffers from a good deal of vitriol because many townspeople are angry at the lost wages incurred during the strike (of course they change their tune once the strike is resolved). Her friends also have their own crosses to bear; Connie is dealing with a husband (Lloyd-Pack) who is suffering from battle fatigue and other psychological problems due to his involvement in the Second World War while Sandra (Winstone) dreams of being a model, which Ford uses against her to help try to turn the strikers back to work.

In the meantime the strike attracts the attention of Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Richardson) who sympathizes with the strikers but is under  enormous pressure from Prime Minister Harold Wilson and from Ford’s legal consul (Schiff) to bring the strike to a speedy conclusion or risk having Ford pull out of Britain entirely, something that would pretty much doom Wilson’s party in the next elections.

Hawkins does fine work as Rita. She’s shown her plucky and cheerful side in Happy-Go-Lucky and here adds a core of steel to that pluck. She begins on the mousy side but ends up a leader and the transformation is very organic. Hawkins gives the character flesh and blood.

Unfortunately not all of the other characters in the movie get the same kind of attention, particularly the male ones. They are mostly either sympathetic or antagonistic to Rita’s cause and rarely are they given much more context than that. The women fare a bit better, but often take a back seat to the flash fashions they are given to wear which are colorful and mod (in stark contrast to what the real strikers wore which was more drab and utilitarian – but then the women who worked at Dagenham at the time were a good sight older than they were portrayed here). The era is captured nicely on the soundtrack as well.

Dagenham works as a history lesson and gives us reason to understand that the fight still has a long way to go – women in the United States make about 77% of what men earn, for example – but films like this remind us that it just takes a willingness to stand up for what you believe in and the courage to stay standing when adversity is thrown at you to effect any sort of change.

WHY RENT THIS: A lively and plucky look at a group of women who helped change the British workplace permanently. Hawkins gives a marvelous performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the characters could have used some fleshing out.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of bad language as well as some fairly sexual scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sandie Shaw, who sings the film’s title song, once worked as a punched card operator at the Ford Dagenham plant, although years before the events of this film took place..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a moneymaker unless I miss my guess.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mars Needs Moms

Inside Job


Inside Job

The scene of the crime.

(2010) Documentary (Sony Classics) Matt Damon (voice), Eliot Spitzer, Glenn Hubbard, Barney Frank, Paul Volcker, Lee Hsien Loong, Domnique Strauss-Kahn, Gillian Tett, Sigridur Benediktsdottir, Satyajit Das, Jerome Fons, Andrew Lo, William Ackman. Directed by Charles Ferguson

 

There is no doubt that the financial crisis of 2008 was completely avoidable. Regulations that had been in place since the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash had been systematically removed, first during the Reagan administration but continuing through the Bush, Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. The government that was supposed to protect us from the sharks of Wall Street had in fact aided and abetted their feeding frenzy which led to the crisis.

Most of us have been affected in some way by the crisis. Some of us have lost jobs or homes or know someone who did. Nearly all of us have paid with a drastically adjusted lifestyle that is nowhere near as affluent as it was in 2007 (unless you’re one of the 1%). Most of us feel angry and helpless against the prevarications of the banks and financial institutions that precipitated this mess. What most of us aren’t aware of is that they weren’t the only ones who deserve blame.

Filmmaker Charles Ferguson knows. At one time a dot com millionaire himself, he has become a documentary filmmaker and a fine one – his first film, No End in Sight, showed how disastrous decisions made after the fall of Saddam were leading us to utter disaster – and the Iraqis as well. This movie is even better.

He approaches the crisis calmly and rationally, explaining the steps that led us to the situation we’re in starting in, of all places, Iceland. That country had a robust economy until deregulation (pushed for by the banks and greedy investors) led them to near economic collapse well before our own crisis. Even with that warning in place, few noticed or cared that we were headed in the same direction. Anyone who did raise the alarm was condemned as a Luddite or a socialist. Of course we could trust our bankers and financiers to do what’s best. They’re all interested in a healthy robust economy ahead of their own short-term financial gains aren’t they?

They aren’t, clearly. Not only that, they actively campaigned for deregulation, even given the examples of history where deregulation would lead – not only in Iceland but in 1929 as well. It is in fact somewhat chilling how similar the two crashes were and Ferguson points out those similarities like a prosecutor.

He questions participants in the freefall, from academics paid by Wall Street firms to write “impartial” papers on the soundness of the system to politicians who were hornswoggled into believing that deregulation would be beneficial to the economy short-term and long. He also points out that nobody has seriously been prosecuted for their roles in manipulating the economy nor have the laws essentially changed. That’s just as true in 2012 as when this movie came out two years ago.

Inside Job won a Best Documentary Oscar in 2011 and it deserves it. If your blood isn’t boiling by the conclusion of the film, you need to get your pulse checked. We are made to understand that we have all fallen asleep at the switch and allowed the government, business and academic sectors to collude for the profits of a few. It is up to us, as narrator Damon points out at the film’s conclusion, to make ourselves heard (as the Occupy Wall Street movement has attempted to do). We have to understand that those who got us in this fix feel like they can afford to wait us out but we can’t allow that to happen. We need to learn from our mistakes, make those people responsible for this accountable and re-establish those regulations that prevented this sort of thing from happening for fifty years – the years which coincided with our nation’s greatest prosperity, not too coincidentally. When is our ADHD nation going to take notice of the important things rather than be distracted by more lurid subjects? Not soon enough, I fear.

WHY RENT THIS: A very capable explanation of the financial meltdown and its lasting consequences. Non-partisan (relatively).  Some gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dry stuff and lots of talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity as well as some drug and sex-related material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Lurie, one of the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles and one of the richest men in the United States, was an executive producer on the film – which is a study in irony in itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, although if you want to see a few extended interviews with some of the participants you’ll find that here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.9M on a $2M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Made in Dagenham

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

Shame


Shame

Michael Fassbender reacts when he discovers his mother is attending the premiere for the film.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen

 

Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.

Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.

But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.

His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.

Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.

Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.

There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?

This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.

Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.

FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Duchess

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Nicolas Cage may be laughing now but he won't be when he shows up on another Conan O'Brien Homeland Security Threat Alert sketch.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan, Anthony Head, Christopher Lambert, Spencer Wilding, Sorin Tofan, Jacek Koman, Cristian Iacob, Jai Stefan. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

 

This is a movie that is just going to make you stammer. On Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: “Didn’t they direct Crank? That-that-that was so good!” On Nicolas Cage: “But-but-but-but…didn’t he win an Oscar? Didn’t he make Raising Arizona? Peggy Sue Got Married? Adaptation? Valley Girl?” All true. Throw those expectations out the window.

Johnny Blaze (Cage), the Ghost Rider has fled the United States and his curse of turning into a flaming headed demon who extracts vengeance (and the souls) of those who deserve it which is pretty much everybody. He is living in the Balkans now, skulking in the darkness. He is approached by a drunken French priest named Moreau (Elba) who tells him that he is needed to help protect a young boy that the Devil is after; should he fulfill his end of the bargain, his order will help him get rid of the curse. Having nothing better to do and 90 minutes of screen time to fill, he agrees.

Said boy is named Danny (Riordan) and he is the son of the comely gypsy Nadya (Placido) who wants him back. Denis Leary-esque thug Ray Carrigan (Whitworth) – who has a history with Nadya – has managed to steal the boy after blowing up the Ghost Rider with a grenade (they just don’t make demons like they used to). Still, you can’t keep a good Rider down and Blaze steals the boy back which hacks the devil off .

Satan, going by the name Roarke (Hinds) – and he’s about as far from “Fantasy Island” as you’re going to get – is pretty cheesed off so he turns the dead Carrigan into Decay, a demon that rots everything he touches – everything except Twinkies which are immune. Take that, snack food naysayers – who knew an armor made of sponge cake and filling would grant the wearer immunity from demonic powers?

Anyway it’s all leading to a ritual that must be performed on the solstice blah blah blah blah blah…you know the drill. The odds are against them but you know ol’ Flamehead will save the day. This is, after all, a Marvel Comic book adaptation.

And folks, I’m here to tell you it is the worst Marvel movie since the largely unseen 1994 Fantastic Four film that was made to retain the rights to the comic for Constantin Films (who would finally make a big budget version in 2005), and that’s saying something. This is Steel bad. This is Catwoman bad.

Neveldine and Taylor have made some nifty action films but you get the sense they were hamstrung by the PG-13 rating imposed on them by the studio. While there is some of the out-of-control seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that characterized their first movies, mostly they resort to clever camera angles and loud pulsating hard rock to turn the movie into an hour and a half long Megadeth video. This isn’t nearly as much fun or free-spirited as their earlier works; not only is it not anything goes, it feels more like nothing does.

Cage has gotten his fair share of flack for his overacting, but he sets a new bar here. Remember those Conan O’Brien bits about Nicolas Cage performances being the new means of setting Homeland Security threat levels? Cage has produced a whole new threat level. There’s a scene where he interrogates an Eastern European Eurotrash club owner about the whereabouts of Carrigan that has simply got to be seen to be believed. I honestly believed his head was going to explode (and it pretty much does in CGI when he transforms into the Rider). And while we’re on the subject of acting, can we not find a juvenile actor who could act? Riordan delivers a performance that compares unfavorably with Jake Lloyd’s wooden extravaganza as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And no, that’s not something you want said about your acting.

In fact, much of the CGI owes as much to Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes as it does to Marvel Comics. Cage’s eyes bug out like a wolf checking out a female – I half-expected a wolf whistle and an “Ah-OOOOOOO-Gah!!!” to accompany the transformation. He also spits out bullets machine gun-style at one of Carrigan’s thugs. When you can’t do a comedic scene as well as a 70-year-old cartoon, even with all the modern technology at your disposal, you’re doing something terribly wrong.

This is simply an embarrassment. I didn’t think the first Ghost Rider was as bad as it was made out to be but this one is far worse than you can imagine. Other than Placido who is sweet to look at, and Hinds who is at least having fun chewing the scenery as a Wall Street Beelzebub, and Lambert as a tattooed monk, there really isn’t a lot to recommend this movie, other than to serve as a warning that not all Marvel movies are necessarily good.

REASONS TO GO: Film is a bit better-looking than the first Ghost Rider.

REASONS TO STAY: Cage just…oh my God. Overacting doesn’t even cover it. Story is predictable and dull. Too much “look ma I’m directing” in the action sequences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some darkly disturbing images, and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eva Mendes was approached to reprise her role from the first movie but perhaps wisely she declined.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100. The reviews are a train wreck.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man (2006)

TATTOO LOVERS: Lambert sports a face full as do several of the other monks. Cage as Johnny Blaze doesn’t have any per se but his flaming skull would make a wicked awesome tat.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Shame

The Green Mile


The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan shows Tom Hanks which direction he'll have to grow in to be as tall as he.

(1999) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Gary Sinese, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton, William Sadler. Directed by Frank Darabont

 

I know of at least three authentic American geniuses in the arts named Steve: Stephen Sondheim, who doesn’t figure into this; Steven Spielberg; and Stephen King.

Spielberg started out as a director of entertainments that while not always taken seriously by the critical cognoscenti nonetheless enjoyed extreme popularity. Later, he would direct projects that met with critical acclaim, Oscars and the respect of his peers. He is now rightly considered one of the greatest directors of all time.

Stephen King appears to be paralleling Spielberg’s course. At the start of his career, his work was dismissed as mere horror novels, but they sold in record numbers. Then starting in the late 1990s, he began to produce works of greater depth and heart. Witness The Green Mile, which has been brought to the screen by Frank Darabont, who also directed one of the best filmed adaptations of King’s work, The Shawshank Redemption.

Like Shawshank, The Green Mile is set in a prison in the ’30s at the start of the film. In this case, it’s in cellblock E of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana (moved from Mississippi in the book) circa 1935. Paul Edgecombe (Hanks) supervises the guards on the cellblock, which is better known as Death Row. He has a pretty good team of guards working for him, most notably Brutus “Brutal” Howell (Morse), a surprisingly gentle-natured bear of a man. Their job is to keep calm the men who are waiting to die because, as Edgecombe tells Percy Wetmore (Hutchison), a sadistic guard with connections to the governor, “they can snap at anytime and hurt themselves, or somebody else.”

Into this volatile mix comes John Coffey (Duncan), a huge, hulking, simple man who dwarfs even Brutal. He has been convicted of the rape and particularly brutal murder of two young girls. He seems gentle and frightened, but as his lawyer (an uncredited Gary Sinese) explains, a dog may seem gentle and loving and then unexpectedly turn on you.

Coffey joins a group of men waiting to be executed, including Eduart Delacroix (Jeter), a timid prisoner with a very precocious pet; Wild Bill Wharton (Rockwell), who is understatedly described by Warden Hal Moores (Cromwell) as “a problem child”; and Mr. Jingles, a mischievous mouse.

Coffey, you see, has a gift – a unique and miraculous gift. He shoulders the burden of this gift in a world of suspicion, prejudice and brutality. The Green Mile looks at that world without flinching or blinking, the kind of a world that produces a Wild Bill, a John Coffey and a Paul Edgecombe, who is a decent man doing a horrible job.

Parts of The Green Mile are hideous (a botched execution attempt) and sometimes beautiful (unexplainable cures, fireflies in the moonlight). It also has more urine than you’ll ever see in five movies (courtesy a urinary tract infection for Edgecombe), so those who are squeamish about bodily fluids be warned.

 The acting here is uniformly good, with Hanks at the top of his game and Morse, Jeter and Cromwell – some of the finest character actors in Hollywood then and now – all delivering fine performances. Duncan and Rockwell, both at the very beginnings of their careers, were both terrific, Duncan receiving an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. That was one of four Oscar nominations the film received and while it didn’t win any of them, certainly it received plenty of love from the Academy who are not known for extending much of it to Stephen King and his movie adaptations.

Despite being three hours long, The Green Mile never drags for a moment. That’s because this really isn’t a film about prisons and crime; the human spirit is really the subject of the picture – the nature of good and evil, death and dignity. There are some emotionally gut-wrenching moments. Da Queen had tears streaming down her face for about the last half hour. She claims that The Green Mile is off the Hankie scale completely, and advises that you just have a whole box of tissues available when you sit down and watch the movie. Preferably one of those industrial strength Costco sizes. Trust me, you’re gonna need it.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that you know from the first few moments is going to be a great motion picture experience, one that touches you in deep places, perhaps even comforts you. The Green Mile is just such a movie. It was my pick for the best film of 1999 and remains to this day more than a decade later a modern classic, one which bears repeated viewings. It certainly is a staple in my family and I’m not alone in that assessment. If you haven’t seen it, you are truly missing out.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern classic. A touching treatise on the human spirit. Excellent performances from Hanks, Morse, Duncan, Rockwell, Cromwell and Jeter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe you hate Stephen King on general principles.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can be pretty foul, there are some sexually oriented scenes as well as some fairly disturbing images of murder and execution. There are also lots of scenes involving urine, so be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Stephen King visited the set during filming and asked to be strapped into the electric chair. He was somewhat unnerved by the experience and immediately asked to be released.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While the original DVD release (2000) didn’t have much room for features, the 2-disc special edition (2006) did and included Duncan’s original screen test and a make-up test with Hanks (he was originally set to play Edgecomb as an old man but the make-up was unconvincing and so Dabbs Greer was cast in the role in his final screen appearance) as well as a new nearly two hour feature on the making of the film. The Blu-Ray (2009) has all of these as well as a 34-page Digibook with background on the film, actor bios and an essay on Darabont’s three King adaptations to date.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $286.8M on a $60M production budget; the movie was pretty much a Blockbuster (and is the highest-grossing Stephen King adaptation to date).

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Safe House


Safe House

Denzel Washington is having a Morgan Freeman moment.

(2012) Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Fares Fares, Liam Cunningham, Nora Arnezeder, Joel Kinnaman, Ruben Blades, Jenna Dover, Stephen Rider, Tracie Thoms, Sara Arrington. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Some people are just naturally badasses. Take Chuck Norris for example. He’d kick you in the tush just as soon as look at you. Or how about Jet Li. Not only can he out-fight you, he can out-think you as well.

Tobin Frost (Washington) is a lot like that. He’s a legend in the CIA – a master manipulator, a world-class assassin and one of the guys you’re thankful is on our side. Except he isn’t on our side anymore. He left the Company and has spent the past 15 years selling our secrets to anyone who’ll buy them.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) wants to go places in the CIA but he’s stuck staring at four walls all day as the housekeeper for a CIA safe house in Cape Town. He spends most of his days making love to his girlfriend (Arnezeder) and lying to her about what he really does for a living, and nagging his handler David Barlow (Gleeson) about getting a field position which is what he really wants to do.

So when a team led by the gravelly Daniel Kiefer (Patrick) comes in bearing Frost, one of the most wanted men in the world, Weston is understandably surprised. He is even more surprised when a well-armed hit team led by the ruthless Vargas (Fares) blows in their doors and proceeds to execute everyone in the House – with the exception of Weston and Frost who have fled.

On the run with nowhere safe to go, Weston calls his superiors back at the CIA. Barlow knows that Weston is above reproach but Analyst Catherine Linklater (Farmiga) has her suspicions. Deputy Chief Harlan Whitford (Shepard) isn’t sure who to trust but seems to be giving Weston the benefit of the doubt.

Alone with one of the most dangerous men on Earth, chased by unknown assassins who want him dead and unable to trust the CIA since there had to be a leak that gave the Safe House away, Weston must figure out what’s going on, what secrets Frost is carrying with him that so many people want him dead and how to get out of this cluster fu…um, mess alive.

Frost is a part tailor-made for Denzel. He’s smart, he’s super-cool as well as super-bad, and enigmatic. He’s not the most likable guy you’ll ever meet but he is also disillusioned by some of the horrible things he has to do. To my mind, this is his best work since American Gangster - and not coincidentally, the most fleshed-out part he’s had since then.

Reynolds, known for being a touch on the light side, actually holds his own here which is a bit of surprise. This is really his first all-dramatic role (even his action hero roles have a comedic element to them) and he holds his own with one of the best actors of his generation. That’s a pretty impressive feat and watching this movie I really am re-assessing my opinion of Reynolds’ range and consequently the potential longevity of his career. This is not a star-making role for him so much as a star-potential declaration role. He is one role away from becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Espinosa, despite his Latin name, is actually Swedish and he has been one of those directors that is much better-known by studio people than by the American moviegoing public (although he is well-acclaimed in Sweden where he has a couple of highly regarded action films under his belt). He pulls off the action sequences very nicely, particularly a thrilling car chase through Cape Town and a rooftop chase through one of the ghettos of Cape Town.

With all this going for it, this should have been a big summer blockbuster but the reason that it’s sitting here in February is simply because the story isn’t anything to write home about. It’s all about deception and lies in the CIA with double and triple-crosses galore, every one of them telegraphed a mile off. It doesn’t keep you on your toes with its twists and turns so much as keep you on a familiar mountain road.

This isn’t a bad movie, don’t get me wrong – it’s just fairly predictable. It does what it does nicely without really taxing too much of your grey matter and there are some visceral thrills not to mention the opportunity to see one of the very best doing what he does best. For the record, I think this is an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours at the movies – which may sound damned by faint praise but to my mind is a pretty decent compliment.

REASONS TO GO: Washington is at the top of his game and Reynolds surprisingly keeps up. Some nicely done action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is pretty rote and doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally set in Rio de Janeiro but was switched to South Africa for security concerns.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Identity

CHAMELEON DENZEL LOVERS: The actor adopts a Spike Lee look for some of the film and a clean-shaven look harkening back to “St. Elsewhere” for other parts of the movie, and even a bit of American Gangster thrown in.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Green Mile

The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arrietti)


The Secret World of Arrietty

Pod and Arrietty on a mission in the world of the Beans.

(2010) Anime (Disney) Starring the voices of Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, David Henrie, Moises Arias, Peter Jason, Frank Marshall, Karey Kirkpatrick, Gracie Poletti. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Gary Rydstrom

 

People come in all shapes and sizes. It is said that the smaller the person the greater the heart and being the brother of a sister who is small in size I can attest to the truth of this. You can’t always predict how courageous a person is going to be based on their size.

Shawn (Henrie) is a very sick boy. He has a bad heart and is in need of surgery. His doctors have advocated bed rest, quiet and above all no excitement. His Aunt Jessica (Poletti) – Shawn’s closest living relative since his parents have both passed away – has decided to take him to the country house where she and her sister (Shawn’s mom) grew up. There he’ll be cared for by Hara (Burnett), a kind of combination nanny and housekeeper.

Hara and Shawn aren’t the only ones in the house though. Underneath the floorboards lives a family of people just a few inches tall. They are members of a race called Borrowers – scavengers who live on items that the people won’t miss. This particular family is made up of Pod (Arnett) the taciturn dad, Homily (Poehler) the hysterical mom and 14-year-old Arrietty (Mendler), their fearless daughter. She has come of age and is old enough to go on “borrowings” with her dad although she longs to see the rest of the world. She has ventured out into the garden where she was spotted by sharp-eyed Shawn.

While on the borrowing she pinches a sugar cube but during the adventure she finds Shawn awake in his room and she accidentally drops the sugar. She and Pod escape but she is ashamed to tell Homily she dropped the sugar they needed. However, Shawn has figured out who they are and where they live and thoughtfully leaves the sugar cube where Arrietty can find it.

Arrietty and Shawn become friends, although there is plenty of mistrust on Arrietty’s part. Pod has seen it before; humans see a Borrower, Borrowers have to leave. It’s too dangerous and so it is again this time, although not from Shawn – Hara you see has also figured out that the little people she’s been ridiculed for believing in her entire life are real and right there before her, ready to vindicate her for the years of being made the fool.

This is the most recent film from the Japanese anime producers Studio Ghibli, the home of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki (he produced and wrote the screenplay although he didn’t direct it). It’s based on the beloved children’s novel by Mary Norton.

Like most Studio Ghibli films, there is an inherent sense of whimsy that pervades the whole movie from start to finish. Unlike some animated features which push the silliness, this is a more gentle feeling. They don’t hit you in the face with the pop culture references or with the zaniness; there is heart here as there is in the best Pixar movies.

There are some very poignant moments. Shawn has had a difficult go of things; both parents dead and himself facing his own mortality very young. The filmmakers wisely don’t turn Shawn into some sort of martyr figure; there are moments where his heart issues are evident (he tires easily and he sometimes stumbles) but it isn’t front and center. Rather, it is an issue that is much on his mind and in one scene, he talks to Arrietty about it.

Also like most Studio Ghibli films, the animation is breathtaking. It is not three-dimensional like Pixar is known for, but more of a traditional animated look. It’s actually art come to life, like a painting with motion. The look is amazing and the Borrower’s environment is clever. Yeah there are a few issues with proportion – the cockroaches are about the same size as Arrietty and she is also the same size as the rats. If the cockroaches are the same size as the rats, I am not visiting Japan anytime soon. However that’s a fairly minor point. I will say that the film has a distinctly Japanese feel; those who are suspicious of anime for that reason will probably not enjoy this.

That would be a bummer; this is one of the best animated films you’re likely to see this year. People who don’t like anime or have a view of it that it’s big-eyed “Speed Racer” clones with bad animation and weak plots, or worse, “Sailor Moon” cutesy pie crap. This is a beautiful, heart-warming animated feature that is going to appeal to audiences of all ages; I can’t think of a single reason not to pack the family into the mini-van and head on out to the multiplex to see this.

REASONS TO GO: Another great Studio Ghibli film. Beautiful animation and a heartwarming story that is familiar to American audiences.

REASONS TO STAY: A little Japan-centric for those who are wary of Anime.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The UK and Japanese versions of the movie have different voice actors.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100. The reviews are outstanding.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Borrowers

RAIN LOVERS: Much of the movie takes place on rainy days and the artists at Studio Ghibli take great pains to make the background art for those particular scenes to look magical rather than grey and dull.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW:Safe House

New Releases for the Week of February 24, 2012


February 24, 2012

GONE

(Summit) Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer Carpenter, Wes Bentley, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pare, Nick Searcy, Socratis Otto, Emily Wickersham, Joel David Moore. Directed by Heitor Dhalia

A young woman working nights returns home one morning to find her sister missing. She knows immediately what’s happened; you see a year previously, the woman had been kidnapped by a serial killer, taken to the woods and thrown into a hole along with the remains of previous victims. She managed to escape, but the police were never able to find proof that her story was genuine. Now her sister is in the hands of a madman and the police are again less than helpful and with time ticking away, she realizes that the only way her sister is going to survive is if she herself throws herself in harms way.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and terror, some sexual material, brief language and drug references)

Act of Valor

(Relativity) Active Duty Navy SEALs, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Jason Cottle. A group of Navy SEALs are assigned to rescue a captured CIA operative from a group of terrorists. What they discover is a plot that will unleash a catastrophe that will kill thousands on American soil and they must race against time to stop it from happening.

See the trailer, promos, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence including some torture, and for language)

Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos

(Eleven Arts) Starring the voices of Shelley Calene-Black, Rie Kugimiya, Shinichiro Miki, Roy Mustang. A pair of young alchemists discover a poverty-stricken people who carry a secret of enormous power. Eventually they find themselves in the middle of a revolt, led by a fiery young alchemist who will stop at nothing to restore her people to their former glory, even if it means unleashing destruction of unimaginable power.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Anime

Rating: NR

Shame

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Hannah Ware.  A successful New York man dreads intimacy but craves sex, so he goes from one meaningless physical relationship to the next. When his sister comes to live with him, some old skeletons hiding in his closet come rattling out, forcing him to deal with old emotional pain.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NC-17 (for some explicit sexual content)

Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Thandie Newton, Brian White, Rebecca Romijn.  A wealthy businessman who has always followed the course laid out for him by his father and family finds his life taking a left turn when he meets a homeless single mom and her kid. Suddenly his life is turned upside down and he begins to question the priorities set out for him and wonder if the course he’s set upon shouldn’t be changed to what makes him happy.

See the trailer, a promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Romantic Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language, some violence and thematic material)

Wanderlust

(Universal) Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Malin Akerman, Justin Theroux. A New York couple comfortable living the conspicuous consumption lifestyle find their lives thrown into disarray when he gets laid off. He packs them up and moves them into his brother’s house in Georgia but when that doesn’t work out, they find their way into a commune whose lifestyle runs pretty counter to what they’re used to. Will the changes tear them apart, or bring them closer together with a new appreciation for life? I think we all can guess the answer to that…

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use)