The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

New Releases for the Week of October 10, 2014


Dracula UntoldDRACULA UNTOLD

(Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Diarmaid Murtagh, Samantha Barks, Charles Dance, Noah Huntley. Directed by Gary Shore

The historical figure of Vlad Tsepes, also known as Dracula, is mixed with fantasy as his origin story is given a re-imagining. A Transylvanian warlord attempts to protect his family and his people from an Ottoman sultan who threatens them. He is willing to go to any lengths to save them, including making the ultimate sacrifice – his soul. This has been announced to be the first movie in the shared Movie Monster cinematic universe that Universal is undertaking.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images and some sensuality)

Addicted

(Lionsgate/CODEBLACK) Sharon Leal, Boris Kodjoe, Tyson Beckford, William Levy. Zoe seems to have the perfect life; a handsome and loving husband, great kids and a business that she has built into a big success. However, Zoe hides a dark secret – a compulsion for sex that threatens to destroy everything she’s built. Based on the novel by Zane.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Drama

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

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

(Disney) Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Dylan Minnette, Megan Mullally. 11-year-old Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair and things go downhill from there. Getting little sympathy from the rest of the family, he begins to wonder if terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen only to him until they begin to experience their own terrible, horrible…oh, you get the idea.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Family Comedy

Rating: PG (for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language)

The Devil’s Hand

(Roadside Attractions) Jennifer Carpenter, Rufus Sewell, Alycia Debnam Carey, Adelaide Kane. Six girls are born to six different mothers on June 6th in a small, devout Amish-like town thereby setting in motion an ancient prophecy that on their 18th birthday, one of these girls will become the Devil’s Hand. As the day approaches and the girls begin to disappear, the town lives in terror that the prophecy might just be coming true.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing and violent material, some partial nudity and thematic content)

The Guest

(Picturehouse) Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley. The grieving family of a soldier killed in action in Afghanistan welcome one of his friends from his unit into their home. The teenage sister of the dead soldier starts to get suspicious when people in town start turning up dead and she believes that their seemingly polite and perfect guest might be responsible.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality) 

The Judge

(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga. Returning home for his mother’s funeral, a high-priced defense lawyer discovers his estranged father, in the early stages of dementia, has been accused of murder. He decides to represent him even though the two don’t get along at all in a last ditch effort to repair the breach that separates them both.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama (opens Thursday)

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Kill the Messenger

(Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia. San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb digs into a story that links the epidemic of crack cocaine, the CIA and arm sales to Contra rebels. He would ultimately win a Pulitzer Prize for the story but would also put his own reputation, his career, his family and his safety on the line to do it.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R  (for language and drug content)

The Man on Her Mind

(Paladin) Amy McAllister, Georgia Mackenzie, Shane Attwooll, Samuel James. A girl dreams about the perfect man. A boy dreams about the perfect woman. But when those dreams begin to become reality, what will it really mean for the two of them?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

Meet the Mormons

(Purdie) Jeffrey R. Holland, Gail Halvorsen, Bishnu Adhikari, David Archuleta. A look at the people and the tenets of the Mormon faith, which some believe has been given a raw deal by the mainstream media.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)

Pride

(CBS) Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine. In the era of Margaret Thatcher, the National Union of Mineworkers goes on strike, prompting a showdown in the corridors of power between the working class and the upper class. In London, a group of gay and lesbian advocates, seeing the struggle of the mineworkers, decides to support the strike. At first the mineworkers don’t want their aid but eventually come to see that together they are far stronger and can accomplish far more.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief sexual content)

Tracks

(Weinstein) Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Jessica Tovey, Emma Booth. An Australian city girl decides to make a 2,000 mile trek across the Australian desert accompanied only by her dog and four somewhat unpredictable camels. Along the way she meets a National Geographic photographer who decides to document her epic journey.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language)

New Releases for the Week of October 4, 2013


Gravity

GRAVITY

(Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice). Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

A routine shuttle mission and spacewalk turns into a fight for survival when an unforeseen accident destroys the shuttle. The two surviving astronauts – one a grizzled veteran on his last flight before retiring, the other a brilliant medical engineer on her first space flight – are flung into space, tethered to each other with no communication with Earth and their oxygen running low. Their fate looks grim but there may be a slim chance at survival – but they’ll have to do something completely out of the box in order to take that chance.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language)

Atharintiki Daaredi

(Reliance/My3) Pawan Kalyan, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Pranitha, Boman Irani. An old billionaire looking to reconcile with his estranged daughter sends his grandson to make overtures. In order to keep from being rejected out of hand, he conceals his identity. While there he falls in love with his cousin, who suffers a head injury – and believes she’s his lover.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Besharam

(Reliance) Ranbir  Kapoor, Pallavi Sharda, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh. A street-savvy auto mechanic who lives as an adult at the orphanage he was raised in. He’s charming, smart and bold and has no real concept of right and wrong. He helps support his orphanage by stealing cars and re-selling them. When his actions inadvertently hurt the one he loves most in the world, he determines to make amends. However, he approaches it in the same way he has always done things which might not necessarily be the best approach.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Grace Unplugged

(Roadside Attractions) AJ Michalka, James Denton, Kevin Pollak, Shawnee Smith. The daughter of a rock star who left the business after being born again has shown prodigious talent of her own as a Christian singer-songwriter. However, she has secretly harbored a dream of Hollywood stardom and once her dad’s former manager gets his mitts onto her it looks like she’ll do just that – but will stardom come at the cost of her faith, perhaps her very soul?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and brief teen drinking) 

Parkland

(Exclusive) Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti. It was an ordinary day being lived by ordinary people, but for the young doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963 would be anything but ordinary. In fact, it would be a turning point in their lives although they don’t yet know it – and a turning point in this nation as well.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for bloody scenes of ER trauma procedures, some violent images and language, and smoking throughout)

Pulling Strings

(Pantelion) Laura Ramsay, Aurora Papile, Stockard Channing, Tom Arnold  Walking through Mexico City one night, a beautiful American diplomat is about to be assaulted. She is saved by a young mariachi musician whose visa had been denied that very afternoon – by her.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG (for language and brief smoking)

Runner Runner

(20th Century Fox) Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie. A college student plays online poker to try and win his college tuition. Just when he thought he had done it, it all came crashing down. Soon he realizes it wasn’t just bad luck – he’d been cheated. Instead of slinking into a corner, he decides to go to Costa Rica and confront the owner of the poker site. Far from being angry, the tycoon offers the ex-student a job – and he accepts. He shouldn’t have; soon he finds himself way over his head in a maelstrom of corruption, sex, money and murder. Getting out will be even more difficult than getting in.

See the trailer, a clip and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content) 

Puss in Boots


Puss in Boots

Some cats are just cooler than others.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris, Constance Marie, Guillermo del Toro, Ryan Crego, Tom Wheeler, Conrad Vernon, Nina Barry. Directed by Chris Miller

Some characters are larger than life. Others are life-sized. Some are one size fits all. However, there are those characters, rare as they might be, that leave such an indelible impression that it doesn’t matter what size the canvas is, they seem to dominate it large or small.

Puss in Boots (Banderas) is a kitty raised in an orphanage in the tiny town of San Ricardo under the loving guidance of Imelda (Marie). He befriends Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Galifianakis), an egg who endures constant humiliation at the hands of his fellow orphans. Humpty longs to go on adventures, particularly finding the magic beans that will grow a beanstalk that will take them to a castle where the goose that lays the golden eggs resides. Such a goose would make him wealthy beyond imagining.

Humpty proves to have few scruples and ends up robbing a bank which the felicitous feline is framed for. Puss goes on the run, becoming an accomplished cat burglar, the finest in all of Spain. When he hears about the magic beans turning up in the hands of a couple of unsavory sorts named Jack (Thornton) and Jill (Sedaris), he runs into another party who is interested in the same merchandise – Kitty Softpaws (Hayek), a competitor of like skills.

It turns out Kitty has been meant to bring Puss aboard a more elaborate attempt to capture the beans, one masterminded by Humpty. Puss trusts the egg about as far as he can fry him but Humpty proves persuasive and the quest begins. Can Puss redeem himself and give up the outlaw life?

This is meant to be a prequel to the events of the Shrek movies and to the credit of the writers and filmmakers they take it far away from the landscape dominated by the jolly green ogre and place the action in what is identified as Spain but looks more like the California of the Zorro series (there are many allusions to Zorro, a nice touch as Banderas famously played the part in two hit movies). That reminds me a little bit of Rango, but there is definitely more of an Old California feel to it.

The Puss character that Banderas has brought to life is a compelling one. He is in many ways a stereotypical Latin hero – brave, loyal, honorable and irresistible to the ladies. He’s no different than Zorro in that regard.  However, he has the feline cockiness that is absent in the masked hero, plus a hint of a sophisticated cat thief a la David Niven in Pink Panther.

He has an able adversary in Hayek, who has worked with Banderas extensively in the El Mariachi series from Robert Rodriguez, among other films. She gives Kitty a certain sauciness (sorry, couldn’t resist) and a bit of a sexual tension (as sexual as tension can get in a family animated film anyway). They make a fine duo.

Humpty is not a terrific character, although Galifianakis gives it a good go. Unfortunately, he’s too much like the Syndrome character from The Incredibles as voiced by Jason Lee for my comfort. He’s just…a rotten egg (I’m having trouble resisting today).

This is a good looking movie that has some of the sass of the Shrek series but not enough of it, although it distances itself wisely in other ways. Puss could certainly carry a franchise all by his lonesome and I don’t doubt given the opening weekend success that a sequel that might bridge the gap between this movie and Puss’ first appearance in Shrek 2 might not be unwelcome.

I liked the movie and it has a good shot at a Best Animated Feature Oscar next February, with this being an off-year for animated features in terms of quality. However, this seriously doesn’t measure up with the best of the Shrek series let alone any of the Pixar gems; it’s kind of upper middle of the pack in that regard. Hopefully the next one will be better; until then, good enough will have to suffice.

REASONS TO GO: Puss is a compelling character and taking him completely out of the Shrek landscape was a smart move.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is nothing much to write home about. Nothing really got a huge laugh.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few jokes that are on the rude side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally meant to be a direct-to-DVD release but DreamWorks decided because of home video market conditions to make it as a theatrical release instead. It is the first film in the Shrek franchise not to be set in Far Far Away, Duloc or Shrek’s swamp.

HOME OR THEATER: If you have kids you’re going to see it in a theater sooner or later. Might as well make it sooner.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil

New Releases for the Week of October 28, 2011


PUSS IN BOOTS

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris, Constance Marie, Guillermo del Toro, Ryan Crego. Directed by Chris Miller

Everyone’s favorite swashbuckling feline from the Shrek series gets a film of his own as we get to see his humble origin story. Here he teams up with cat burglar Kitty Softpaws and the legendary Humpty Dumpty to save the town. I’m wondering when all the king’s horses show up.

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some adventure action and mild rude humor)

All’s Faire in Love

(Patriot Pictures) Christina Ricci, Matthew Lillard, Ann-Margaret, Cedric the Entertainer. A football star working off non-attendance at his Renaissance literature class and an investment banker who really wants to be an actress join a theatrical troupe at a Renaissance Faire. They must fend off a rival troupe in order to win the coveted Shakespearean stage spot and perhaps even fall in love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content including references)

Anonymous

(Columbia) Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis. There are scholars who contend that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays he is credited with. Director Roland Emmerich of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow contends that Shakespeare was a front for a member of the royal court for whom anonymity was a necessity.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

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

In Time

(20th Century Fox) Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Alex Pettyfer. In the not-too-distant future, people stop aging at 25 and time has become the new currency. When you run out of time, you run out of life. When Will Salas, who lives minute to minute, gets an unexpected windfall, it upsets the balance of things and triggers some very desperate people to do some very dangerous things.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, some sexuality and partial nudity, and brief strong language)

RA.One

(EROS International Worldwide) Shahrukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal, Sanjay Dutt. This is the prequel to the enormously popular found footage horror series. It depicts, in the 80s, how the supernatural forces that beset Katie and Kristi came into their lives as young girls.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Superhero Sci-Fi Action

Rating: NR

The Rum Diary

(FilmDistrict) Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins. From Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel, this is the story of a rumpled American journalist from the 1950s who leaves behind the New York City beat for a more laid-back lifestyle in Puerto Rico. There he discovers shady land developers, disreputable newspapermen, sexy Connecticut debutantes and perhaps a vestige of his own dignity.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

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

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

Eagle Eye


Eagle Eye

Shia LaBeouf discovers that the Republicans have control of the House.

(2008) Action Thriller (DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Anthony Mackie, Ethan Embry, Anthony Azizi, Bill Smitrovich, William Sadler. Directed by D.J. Caruso

George Orwell, a writer in the 1930s, predicted a society in which a somewhat fascistic government has complete knowledge of your activities and observes you via cameras placed everywhere. In this society, the rights of the individual have become secondary to the rights of the state, and the “Big Brother” figure, meant to be reassuring and friendly, becomes sinister and twisted.

Does any of that sound familiar? Our society has used defense against terrorism as an excuse to invade our privacy in every conceivable way. Our phone calls are monitored without our knowledge. Our internet usage is monitored without our knowledge. Our credit cards and bank accounts are monitored without our knowledge. I wouldn’t be surprised if our bowel movements are also being monitored. If that all sounds a bit paranoid, it’s probably from watching too many movies like this one.

Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf) is a slacker who works in a copy store (one not unlike Kinko’s) and lives hand to mouth. He’s far smarter than the job he does requires, but he seems to be pretty satisfied with underachieving. He then gets devastating news; his twin brother, a high ranking officer in the military, has passed away suddenly in an unusual accident.

Jerry goes home for the funeral where he and his father get into the same old argument; “When are you going to do something with your life? When are you going to be more like your brother?” Blah blah blah.  When Jerry gets home his empty bank account suddenly has three quarters of a million dollars in it. When he opens his apartment door, there are cases of weapons, explosives and enough stuff to blow up a whole chunk of city. He also gets a phone call from a mostly expressionless female voice informing him he needs to leave the apartment within ten seconds or be arrested by the F.B.I. Jerry is understandably overwhelmed and a bit skeptical…until ten seconds later when the F.B.I. barges into his apartment and arrests him.

He is being held as a terrorist by Agent Thomas Morgan (Thornton) in a cushy high rise which of course is what most F.B.I. offices seem to look like these days. In the meantime, Rachel Hollomon (Monaghan) sees off her son at the train station; he’s going with his elementary school band to play for the President in Washington D.C. She also gets a phone call from the same expressionless female voice that called Jerry, warning her that if she doesn’t follow instructions to the letter, her son’s train will be derailed. To prove that They can do it, the expressionless female voice shows live security cam pictures of her son on television sets in a nearby electronic store window (do electronic stores even have television sets in windows anymore?) so she does what she is told.

Back to Jerry. He receives another phone call from the expressionless female voice essentially telling him to duck. More of a believer this time, he does duck – particularly when he sees a giant crane arm hurtling towards the window. He is told to jump and with F.B.I. agents shooting at him, he jumps. Eventually he winds up on an elevated train – did I mention this was set in Chicago? Not that it matters. In any case, Jerry loses his cell phone so the expressionless female voice – or EFV as I’ll refer to it from here on in – calls him on someone else’s cell phone. Or, shall I be more accurate and say everyone else’s cell phone.

It becomes obvious that the EFV is the voice of an organization that has control of just about everything electronic, from traffic signals to cell phones to automated car crushers to satellites to power grids. That in itself is pretty impressive, but what does the EFV want, what part do nobodies like Jerry and Rachel play in the grand scheme of things and when is the next car chase?

Those are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself when you watch this movie. Director D.J. Caruso previously worked with LaBeouf on the much better Disturbia which was also much smaller in scope. Not that I mind bigger scope, by the way.

The problem here is not so much with the acting, although LaBeouf and Monaghan don’t get much time to do any; they’re far too busy hurtling from one action sequence to another at breakneck speeds. The problem here is that the writers kind of write themselves into a corner. They make the EFV so omnipresent, so powerful that you wonder why someone so smart and so in charge couldn’t just take much easier short cuts rather than running two bedraggled citizens ragged on a cross country chase.

The movie obviously owes a lot to some classic suspense movies, like The Man Who Knew Too Much and movies like War Games and Colossus: The Forbin Project (while I’m dancing around who is behind the EFV, most folks know by now who it is either from having seen the movie, reading about it or just reading this review). It feels a bit like a pastiche, although Caruso proves himself more than capable with action sequences. There are some pretty nifty ones here, particularly one that takes place in an airport baggage conveyer system, and near the end in the streets of Washington D.C.

Dawson enters the movie early on as a military intelligence officer investigating the death of Jerry’s twin. She stumbles on this whole mess by mistake and winds up making a nice foil to Thornton’s corn pone F.B.I. agent; the two bicker quite a bit from the movie and provide some much-needed comic relief.

The key to enjoying a movie like this one is understanding its limitations. This isn’t meant to be examined seriously or given much attention to its own internal logic. The fact is that Eagle Eye does what it means to do quite well. It’s a roller coaster, not a math quiz, and it’s meant to be enjoyed without thinking too much about it. Just put your hands in the air and let the ride take you where it will.

WHY RENT THIS: Some great action and wonderful stunts to be seen here. The movie raises some interesting questions about how safe are we with all the surveillance that goes on, and how easily that information can be abused.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is a bit of a preposterous factor, and LaBeouf and Monaghan do not make for the most compelling leads ever.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, as well as some choice words but nothing I would fret too much about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the EFV a.k.a. Aria, the computer program which is heard over cell phones and in the underground bunker, was voiced by an uncredited Julianne Moore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The standard single disc DVD release has no features to speak of; on the 2-disc special DVD edition and the Blu-Ray, viewers are treated to a discussion between Caruso and his mentor, director John Badham whose War Games is obviously an inspiration for this (Caruso served as a second unit director on that film). There’s also an interesting but generic piece on the constitutionality of surveillance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tokyo!

New Releases for the Week of November 26, 2010


November 26, 2010

Rider is having a bad hair day.

 

TANGLED

(Disney) Starring the voices of Zachary Levi, Mandy Moore, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor, M.C. Gainey, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins. Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Rapunzel gets the Disney feature treatment in this updated and somewhat irreverent version of the Fairy Tale. Flynn Rider is a cocksure but capable thief who has gone a little bit too far and has the entire kingdom looking for him – half to imprison him, the other half to kill him. He decides to hole up in an isolated tower in the middle of nowhere until the heat blows over, never realizing that the girl who lives in the tower is far more dangerous than all the king’s men put together.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Fantasy

Rating: PG (for brief mild violence)

127 Hours

(Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Kate Burton. The Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire returns with this astonishing true story of Aron Ralston, a type-A personality who gets trapped by a boulder pinning his arm to a mountain while climbing and has to go to astonishing lengths in order to survive and escape. Franco is considered a lock for an Oscar nomination and the movie may well be one of the big contenders for a number of different Oscars in February, including Best Picture.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images)

Break Ke Baad

(Reliance Big Pictures) Deepika Padukone, Imran Khan, Sharmila Tagore, Navin Nischol. Two childhood friends are drawn together by their passions which also threaten to separate them forever – her dreams of becoming an actress and his love for her. Polar opposites in their lives, they will either find the strength to carry on together, or be without each other forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: NR

Burlesque

 (Screen Gems) Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Eric Dane. A starry-eyed young girl from a small town goes to L.A. to become a star. She goes to one of the last burlesque-style nightclubs in the city, only to be told she doesn’t have what it takes. She believes in herself and her talent and eventually gets the opportunity, and uses it to become a star. Stardom, sadly, isn’t everything she thought it would be…say, didn’t Judy Garland make a movie like this a few years back?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material)

Faster

 (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace. After ten years in prison, Driver looks to avenge the death of his brother, which came during a botched heist that led to him getting pinched in the first place. Now, with a dogged cop on his tail and a demented hit man not far behind, Driver’s to-do list is getting shorter by the day, but it might just get him killed.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, some drug use and language)

Love and Other Drugs

 (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria. A young pharmaceutical salesman has everything going for him – women, career success, and great friends. When he hooks up with the one woman he can’t have, he becomes enmeshed in the folds of heartbreak just as his greatest opportunity for wealth materializes – a new wonder drug called Viagra.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, pervasive language and some drug material)

The Astronaut Farmer


The Astronaut Farmer

Billy Bob Thornton wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.

(Warner Brothers) Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Bruce Dern, Max Theriot, Mark Polish, Jon Gries, Bruce Willis. Directed by Michael Polish

For as long as he could remember, Charlie Farmer (Thornton) wanted to be an astronaut. The son of a Texas rancher, he joined the Air Force and became a test pilot, the better to join the space program, which he did. After his dad’s suicide, however, Charlie left the program to take care of his family, a decision he regretted the rest of his life.

Now, Charlie Farmer is building a rocket in his barn. His kids – including son Shepherd (Theriot) are behind him, his beautiful wife Audie (Madsen) supports him, even as she works as a waitress in a diner to help make ends meet. Even his father-in-law (Dern) respects him. Most of the rest of the people in town think he’s a whacko.

Unfortunately, the feds get wind of his scheme when he tries to buy 10,000 square pounds of rocket fuel and decide to shut down this amateur Buck Rogers. The bank, to whom Charlie has already fallen terribly behind in mortgage payments, has initiated foreclosure proceedings. Charlie is this close to losing everything. Still, he has his family dreaming together – and that in itself is a very powerful thing.

There can be some extreme corniness at times, with emphasis on family unity and pursuing dreams nearly at the expense of all else. You can see why it didn’t resonate with a younger audience, a virtual kiss of death at the box office today. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a good movie. It has all the elements of a family movie, but the character exposition might be a bit too much for younger audiences, who could conceivably be bored.

There are some moments that will wake you up, like most of the launch sequence scenes. Some nice visuals too, as early on Billy Bob in full spacesuit regalia chases a stray calf while riding a horse. Talk about cowboys and aliens.

Thornton excels at these kinds of roles, the low-key salt of the earth family man, and he doesn’t get to play them too often. He carries himself with great dignity, but loses his cool just often enough to put you a little bit on edge around him. Madsen as his long-suffering wife continues to be impressive with almost every role she plays. Willis, in an uncredited turn, plays an old friend of Charlie’s who made it on into “the program” after Charlie dropped out, and went on to fly the space shuttle.

I liked the underlying current of the role of civilians in space. I believe that you will start to see more civilians playing larger roles in future space missions especially as the commercial possibilities of space become more lucrative.

All that aside, I found this to be a charming movie that I became engrossed with. Occasionally, the writers strained credulity a bit – they painted themselves into a few corners and used some shall we say, novel approaches of getting out of them. However, those moments are few and far between. I was completely taken with Charlie Farmer’s story, and I think a lot more people will be too, once they give it a chance. For the record, the DVD is a little difficult to find in stores, but it is available generally on premium cable and video-on-demand services.

WHY RENT THIS: Unexpectedly charming. Low-key without being sleep-inducing. Message is one we rarely hear these days outside of the occasional Disney movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Paints itself into corners plot-wise and doesn’t resolve every challenge in a satisfying manner.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little salty language and some perilous situations but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Just as Farmer is about to launc h, Shepard says “Cleared for launch at zero hour, 9am” in an homage to Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Australia