New Releases for the Week of February 5, 2016


Hail CaesarHAIL CAESAR

(Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, a studio head struggling to get the studio’s prestige project made while keeping an eye on all the other movies in production suddenly finds a crisis developing when the star of his big release is kidnapped. Trying to keep the news out of the gossip columns while negotiating with the kidnappers and dealing with the egos of stars and directors alike is just another day at the office.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and smoking)

The Choice

(Lionsgate) Benjamin Walker, Teresa Palmer, Maggie Grace, Tom Welling. Nicholas Sparks strikes again as a beautiful, spunky med student moves in next door to a laid-back ladies man. She wants nothing more than to settle down with her long-term boyfriend while he doesn’t want his lifestyle tied down to a particular woman so the two are wary of one another. Of course, they fall in love with each other and change each other’s lives for the better – until one of them becomes faced with a heart-wrenching decision that nobody should have to make.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some thematic issues)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

(Screen Gems) Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Matt Smith. The classic Jane Austen novel gets an overhaul as the people of Longbourn and Regency-era Britain are faced with a plague that kills much of the population but also reanimates the dead. The prim and proper ladies of the time are forced to learn the arts of war along with the arts of homemaking. That in itself to the people of the time is a definite sign of the apocalypse.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material)

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In the Heart of the Sea


Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

(2015) True Life Adventure (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Riley. Directed by Ron Howard

Most people are aware of the saga of Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a great white whale that took his leg and eventually much more than that. Many consider it the greatest novel ever written by an American. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is based on the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by an unusually large whale in the Pacific in 1820.

It’s a story that has made the rounds in Nantucket and the whaling community of New England, so Herman Melville (Whishaw) wants to get the scoop right from the horse’s mouth – the last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson). At first, Tom is loathe to tell the tale but at the urging of his wife (Fairley) who points out to her husband that they need the money – and to Melville that Tom needs to let all of the demons of that ill-fated voyage that have troubled him for so long out. Eventually, Tom tells the tale and quite a tale it is.

Putting to sea for a two year voyage, the Essex is commanded by George Pollard (Walker), scion of a respected Nantucket seafaring family but inexperienced at the helm. He is given Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a well-regarded first mate who has ambitions to captain his own ship someday but a son of landsmen (or land lubbers if you prefer). As they head out on their trip, hoping to pull In 400 barrels of whale oil, Pollard steers them directly into a squall, nearly wrecking the ship in the process. Not an auspicious start.

Things get worse though. The usually fruitful hunting grounds of the Atlantic are barren – already almost completely fished out – so the crew makes a try to go around Cape Horn for the Pacific fisheries, a long journey adding months to their already long and arduous trip. Lurking there is an abnormally large white whale, one that means business. The encounter between the whale and the Essex won’t be a happy one – certainly not for the seamen of the Essex.

The ship is stove and the crew is forced to abandon ship, the survivors getting into three ships normally used in the harpooning of whales. One disappears completely, never to be seen again (in reality, the third ship washed ashore years later with three skeletons aboard, and while the remains were never positively identified it as believed to have been the one from the Essex) while the other two, try for the coast of South America or at least Easter Island. However there are more than a thousand nautical miles to make it there and little food or water. Pollard commands one ship, with his cousin Henry Coffin (Dillane) aboard while Chase the other with his close friend Matthew Joy (Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Holland) on board. Which ones, if either, will make it to safety? And what must they do in order to get there?

Tales like Treasure Island and Moby Dick have always excited the American imagination, although to be honest in these more cynical days of CGI and cell phones, the lure of uncharted waters is not as enticing so in that sense In the Heart of the Sea is something of a hard sell for the American moviegoing public. It would take a truly stirring movie to get people into the theater to see it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Ron Howard delivered. There are moments, yes, where the movie really works – the sequence of the whale attack is actually one of them, although it is clearly a digital creation. The framing device of the conversation between Melville and a middle-aged Nickerson also works, mainly because Gleeson is so compelling an actor.

But there are also moments in which the movie just seems to drag. Quite frankly, watching sailors slowly dying of starvation and dehydration is not exciting which sounds a little bit cold but there you have it. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt draw parallels from the whaling industry of the 1820s to the oil industry of today, parallels which have some justification, but still the harpooning sequences are bloody and a off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure we need to be told that whaling was a brutal, bloody business.

I did want to like this movie more than I ended up doing and I think that I may well have gone a little easy on it if the remarks of other reviewers are to be believed. Hemsworth, usually reliable an actor, feels like he’s had all his charisma sucked out of him for this one; you get the sense he’s like a caged animal, wanting to break out of the shackles his character has had put upon him. When the framing sequence is what works best about a film, you have a problem. And yet, I still recommend the movie nevertheless. There is enough here to keep one’s attention, but if you choose to wait until it’s available on home video, I wouldn’t dissuade you.

REASONS TO GO: Rip roaring adventure yarn. Framing sequences work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t as exciting as the book based on it was. The pace is a bit leaden through the second act.
FAMILY VALUES: Some startling violence, disturbing images, moments of peril and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the sixth film directed by Howard to be based on a true story. The others are Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon and Rush.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moby Dick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Youth

New Releases for the Week of December 11, 2015


In the Heart of the SeaIN THE HEART OF THE SEA

(Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Benjamin Walker, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland. Directed by Ron Howard

Many believe that the greatest novel ever written was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. What most people don’t realize is that the novel was based on an actual event that occurred aboard the Essex, a New England whaling ship, in 1820. Their incredible story, not only including their encounter with a vengeful whale, but the aftermath in which those that didn’t perish in the attack were forced to do the unspeakable in order to survive.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence and thematic material)

Phoenix

(Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter. With the Second World War over, a concentration camp survivor, hideously disfigured in the last days of the war, has her face surgically reconstructed but is not quite the same as before. She searches for her husband, only to find he may have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis in the first place. When she does find him, he doesn’t recognize her – but involves her in a scheme to get the inheritance from the wife he thinks is dead. This played last month at the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival and proved to be so popular that the Enzian added a week-long engagement. You can read my review of it here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is trained in the art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight. Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he chides him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell), the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James in his stead whom Lincoln liked less) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.

REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark

GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The American Experience series begins

New Releases for the Week of June 22, 2012


June 22, 2012

BRAVE

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, John Ratzenberger, Patrick Doyle. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

An Scottish princess yearns to prove her mettle but her mom the Queen wishes her to be more lady-like. When her actions cause chaos in the hitherto peaceful kingdom, she turns to a wise wisdom and inadvertently unleashes a curse that may cause even more damage to life and limb. It is one thing to play brave but quite another to be brave and that is precisely what she must do if she is to reverse the curse and bring peace back to Scotland.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some scary action and rude humor)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

(20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell. Our beloved 16th president led a secret life before he became the Great Emancipator. Lincoln in addition to debating politics and practicing law was a killer of vampires, the scourge of the Earth who had murdered his own mother. Soon he is taking on a vampire curse that is intent on forming their own nation – the Confederate States of America.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Thriller

Rating: R (for violence throughout and brief sexuality) 

Lola Versus

(Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Bill Pullman, Debra Winger. After being dumped by her fiancee just a few weeks before the wedding,  Lola, accompanied by her sympathetic friends, goes on a journey to discover her place in the world and what it means to be a single woman approaching 30. Which isn’t what it used to be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: R (for language, sexuality and drug use) 

Moonrise Kingdom

(Focus) Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand. A pair of 12-year-olds living on an island off the coast of New England in 1965 decide to run away together into the wilderness. As the community turns the island upside-down trying to find them, a brewing storm off the coast puts more urgency into the search. From eclectic director Wes Anderson.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and smoking)

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World

(Focus) Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Patton Oswalt, Melanie Lynskey. As the world winds down awaiting the final, fatal collision with an asteroid, a man and his comely neighbor take a journey for him to find his lost love and for her to be reunited with her family one last time before the end arrives. Along the way they find that the things they really need may not be that far away at all.

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence)

Teri Meri Kahaani

(Eros International) Priyanka Chopra, Shahid Kapoor, Omar Khan, Greg Heffernan. Three different love stories. Three different couples (played by the same actors). All linked together, by history and by love. With settings in 1912, 1962 and 2012, the music of each story is of the period the story is set in. Sounds pretty interesting to me.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR