New Releases for the Week of February 14, 2014


RoboCop

ROBOCOP

(Columbia/MGM) Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Jose Padilha

In the near future, crime is out of control and military contractors have developed robotic law enforcement machines to keep the peace but the American public is wary to have them patrolling their streets. Enter RoboCop, a melding between human police officer and unstoppable machine. However, the global corporate conglomerate that created him may have a darker agenda in mind when they upgraded officer Alex Murphy.

See the trailer, a promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material)

About Last Night

(Screen Gems) Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall, Joy Bryant. Two friends start dating a pair of roommates. As one relationship struggles, the other seems to blossom and then vice versa. A remake of an ’80s romantic comedy with a decidedly urban spin.

See the trailer, a featurette and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

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

Date and Switch

(Lionsgate) Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Nicholas Braun, Dakota Johnson. A pair of close friends in their senior year of high school make a pact; the experienced one determines to get his friend laid before senior prom. However, things take a turn for the different when the virgin comes out of the closet and explains that he’s gay.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including crude dialogue, pervasive language, drug and alcohol use – all involving teens)

Endless Love

(Universal) Alex Pettyfer, Gabriella Wilde, Robert Patrick, Bruce Greenwood. A young man working his way to a better life meets a beautiful young girl from a privileged background at the country club resort where he works. The two young people fall in love, which doesn’t sit well with the rich dad who is ruthless and will do anything to keep the young lovers apart – including making them watch the 1981 Brooke Shields version of the movie.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, brief partial nudity, some language and teen partying)

Gunday

(Yash Raj) Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Irrfan Khan. Two young orphaned refugee boys, on their own in the mean streets of Calcutta, rise through the ranks of that lawless town in the 1970s to become folk heroes – legendary crime figures who were both feared and beloved.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Winter’s Tale

(Warner Brothers) Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, Russell Crowe. Based on the novel by Mark Helprin, the movie depicts a love story that spans time from turn of the 20th century New York City to the modern Big Apple as an apparently ageless man chases his love through time pursued by the personification of evil

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and some sensuality)

Mao’s Last Dancer


It's a cultural phenomenon.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

(2009) Biographical Drama (ATO) Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Chris Kirby, Suzie Steen, Madeleine Eastoe, Aden Young, Wen Bin Huang, Shu Guang Liang, Ye Wang, Neng Neng Zhiang, Wan Shi Xu, Shao Wei Yi, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Hammond, Hui Cong Zhan, Chengwu Guo. Directed by Bruce Beresford

Talent transcends politics. Hard work trumps propaganda. With the Winter Olympics of 2014 firmly underway we are treated to some of the finest athletes in the world doing their things which brings to mind the similarity between athletes and artists. The discipline it takes to attain the highest level of both can only be generated from within; what happens without is almost irrelevant.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is a young Chinese peasant boy (Huang) taken seemingly at random from an impoverished village to study dance during the Maoist era. He is brought to the Beijing Dance Academy where he is taught ballet techniques through brutal discipline and as a teen (Guo) becomes one of the leading lights at the studio.

Having performed to the highest standards in Beijing, he is sent on a student visa to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet. Mainly a propaganda move to show Western audiences the superiority of Chinese techniques and dancers, the Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) is impressed by what he sees and the potential Li possesses.

Li himself is confused by the strange new world around him; it is much different than what the communist propagandists in China led him to believe it would be. For the first time he begins to doubt the wisdom of those who have been in charge of his life. He has found freedom and he is both amazed and overjoyed with it, but also a little bit afraid. To make matters “worse,” he has fallen in love with Elizabeth (Schull), a fellow dancer.

Ben, convinced his future is better in the West, implants the seed in Li’s head that leads to a seedling; when his three month visa is up, he determines to stay in the United States. Before he can be granted asylum, the Chinese government takes the extraordinary step of kidnapping him and imprisoning him in their consulate. Ben and Elizabeth hire lawyer Charles Foster (MacLachlan) to secure his release and have him stay where his heart lies.

Eventually, they succeed and Li is allowed to stay in America but Li knows the cost to his family will be high. The guilt of his act hangs over him and begins to affect his dancing. Will following his heart be worth the price he – and those he loves both in China and the United States – must pay?

Aussie director Beresford, best known for his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, takes a very low-key approach to the movie in terms of filmmaking (the story is another matter). The camera angles are fairly standard – Beresford is not out to prove anything about what an innovative director he is – and there is almost no computer assisted trickery. What you do have is a beautifully photographed movie about the human spirit that tries its best to be apolitical but doesn’t always succeed.

The ballet sequences are nothing short of amazing. Cao dances for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and his shortcomings as an actor are more than made up for by his strengths as a dancer. Schull also has experience as a dancer with the San Francisco Corps de Ballet and her duets with Cao are incendiary.

Cinematographer Peter James has a terrific eye for both the starkness of the Chinese village and the Dance Academy as well as the beauty of the dance. Yes, there are some scenes that are going to bring a tear to your eye – some perhaps unnecessarily so. Still, Li’s story is inspiring and it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – well, maybe a little – and everything to do with the human spirit and what it will overcome to achieve what it is meant to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous dance sequences. Beautifully photographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and sensuality and one brief violent scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li already knew Cao whose parents were his teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy; Cao was Li’s choice to play him in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.3M on a $22.4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Farewell, My Concubine

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Septien

Star Trek Into Darkness


Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

(2013) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Amanda Foreman, Jay Scully, Jonathan H. Dixon, Aisha Hinds, Joseph Gatt, Deep Roy, Anjini Taneja Azhar. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The trouble with taking on an icon is that the bar is impossibly high. You’re not going to please everybody, particularly the diehard old guard fans of the franchise. The fever pitch of shrieking outrage usually begins with the second film in the reboot. J.J. Abrams knows that better than most; he has had his fingers in the hands of three beloved franchises – Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is his second film in the reboot of the Trek franchise. The first got some grudging respect from the notoriously difficult-to-please Trek fandom who might very well turn their noses up if Gene Roddenberry were resurrected and turned up to direct a new Trek movie.

The new film starts out with a terrorist attack in London, ramps up with a conspiracy to militarize Starfleet’s science and exploration mission (think of NASA with missiles and bombs) and finishes up with the appearance of a familiar foe.

Normally I’m one to describe the plot in great detail, but I think I’m going to abstain this time – for one thing, I found that knowing little about what was to occur in the movie made it far more delightful. Knowledgeable Trekkers and those fairly familiar with the canon of the original series will find lots of references here, from Harry Mudd to Transwarp drive to tribbles. There is also a great deal of referencing one of the original series most popular episodes and most beloved films but not exactly as you might remember it.

Abrams has re-energized the franchise without a doubt. Part of the success of the reboot has to do with the casting – each of the choices are spot on. Pine in particular takes the essence of Captain Kirk created by William Shatner and loses some of the mannerisms that made the character a bit of a parody in later years. Pine understands the basics of the legendary Captain – the recklessness, the ego, the brilliant strategic mind and the penchant for womanizing, but takes out the quirks – the stunted speech patterns, the over-reaction reactions and the writers have kindly aided his cause by giving Kirk fewer pronouncements and more self-analysis.

Quinto also makes a terrific Spock, although I noticed in this movie that his jaw seemed a bit more set and he looked a little less like the original Spock in a lot of ways, but he does capture the constant war between the emotional human side and the cold, logical Vulcan in him. The trauma of Vulcan’s fate in the last film weighs heavily on him, although he doesn’t show it.

The relationship between Spock and Uhura is an interesting one, given that this is a recent invention. Zoe Saldana gives the character a little more action-orientation than Nichelle Nichols did in her day; I like also that the writers give her a lot more to do than being a glorified answering machine. She is much more a member of the team than she was in the original series, where much of the planning, decision making and risk taking was done by the male members of the crew. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Cho is a worthy successor to George Takei as Sulu. One of the great regrets I have when it comes to Star Trek is that we never really got to see too much of Sulu as Captain – in the couple of instances when we did see it Takei was amazing. Cho gets an opportunity to take command as Sulu and makes the most of it; I’m kind of hoping we see Cho in a spin-off someday.

Pegg is one of the world’s outstanding comic actors and while Scotty becomes more of a comic figure than he was in the original series (although depicted as a heavy drinker he had his share of drunk moments that James Doohan played beautifully) the main thrust of his character is his brilliance as an engineer and we get that from Pegg as well, although he is a bit more willful than the original Scotty and in one of the new film’s most underrated scenes stands right up to Kirk, something I don’t recall seeing the character ever do before but was a welcome moment here.

There are also “guest” characters; Greenwood as Pike is a bit of a mentor and a lot more of a father figure to Kirk. Alice Eve is gorgeous and plays her pivotal character as a lot more than you might guess from the surface – and the writers leave room for future glimpses of her character. Peter Weller, who had a couple of appearances on the Enterprise TV series, plays an admiral here whose character might remind long-time fans of an admiral who had a small but pivotal role in one of the last movies featuring the original crew.

That leads us to Benedict Cumberbatch whose character is…well, not who he appears to be. Fans of the original series will doubtlessly guess early on who he actually is but for now let us say that he is a brilliant adversary worthy of Kirk and Spock and whose appearance is done in what I believe is the proper way – coming into the series sideways, making the surprise all the more pleasant (although again savvy Trekkers will either know from Internet chatter who he is or guess based on the clues the filmmakers give us early on). Cumberbatch is an up-and-coming actor who looks to have a brilliant career ahead of him, and based on this film is already getting some scrutiny for some plum roles in franchise films. Before you know it this man is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Bet on it.

The stakes are higher here and the effects are as crazy good as they were in the last Star Trek film. I chose not to see it in 3D – who wants to see those annoying lens flares in 3D? – and I think that’s a wise choice. Some of the scenes are set in pretty dark places and the 3D glasses will only make it murkier. Besides, I didn’t get the sense that 3D would have added anything to the experience.

I liked the movie just a smidge less than the first one; what pleased me most is that the filmmakers are developing the characters in just the right way to set up more thoughtful episodes in the future. While there was some underlying commentary about the militarization of space, the usefulness of drones and of terrorism in general, this is still a little more action-oriented than fans of the original series may like but that does make the movie more palatable to non-fans. Oh, and you get to see Klingons too.

In my review of the first film I wondered if Abrams could repeat his successful reboot in the second film. The answer is a resounding yes. This is great entertainment not only for Trekkers but for general audiences as well, managing to thread the line nicely. Certainly this bodes well for the future of the franchise and with the 50th anniversary of Trek’s debut in 1966 only a few short years away, one can only be hopeful that there are a lot more places for the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go.

REASONS TO GO: Pine turning out to be an excellent Kirk and the rest of the supporting cast works well also. Nice effects, battle sequences and stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit all over the place.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty intense battle sequences in space as well as some pretty nifty fisticuffs.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Scotty (the late James Doohan), makes a cameo appearance as a transporter technician working alongside the current Scotty in the transporter room.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100; pretty impressive reviews for a Star Trek film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Russian Ark

New Releases for the Week of May 17, 2013


Star Trek Into Darkness

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Peter Weller, Alice Eve. Directed by JJ Abrams

The rebooting of the beloved science fiction franchise continues as Captain Kirk takes the gallant crew of the Enterprise where maybe they shouldn’t go – deep into his own hubris. When a terrorist attack shocking in its brutality leads to the presence of an advanced weapon and a killer hidden within Starfleet itself, Kirk decides to capture or kill this man who may bring down the entire Federation to suit his own agenda – and destroy the Enterprise and her crew in the process.

See the trailer, clips, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Opening today in IMAX 3D; Opening tomorrow in Standard/3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)

Hating Breitbart

(Freestyle) Andrew Breitbart, Orson Bean, Michelle Bachmann, Keith Olbermann. Conservative gadfly and Internet blogger Andrew Breitbart upended traditional journalism in much the same way Fox News changed the way television news viewed objectivity in reporting the news. Liberals hate him; conservatives venerate him. He unearthed the ACORN scandal and published the tweets that ultimately took down Congressman Anthony Wiener. Love him or hate him, you must admit he is passionate about his beliefs.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for some language)

The Iceman

(Millennium) Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta. Richard Kuklinski seems to be a fairly normal guy. A loving husband, a devoted father and a pillar of the community, he lives a quiet suburban life. But that life hides a shocking fact; Richard Kuklinski is a contract killer for the mob who has murdered more than 100 people by his own estimates. Based on a stunning true story.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Crime

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

The Place Beyond the Pines


Ryan Gosling wonders why he's always cast as a great driver.

Ryan Gosling wonders why he’s always cast as a great driver.

(2012) Drama (Focus) Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin, Bruce Greenwood, Olga Merediz, Robert Clohessy, Kayla Smalls, Jennifer Sober, Luca Pierucci, Gabe Fazio, Brian Smyj, Greta Seacat, Ephraim Benton, Vanessa Thorpe, Sabrina Lott. Directed by Derek Cianfrance   

As the saying goes, the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. This is, I suppose, a way of tying together the behaviors of a son that ape those of his father, often to the detriment of the son.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a story told in three parts. The first concerns Luke Glanton (Gosling), a skilled motorcycle stunt driver who as part of a travelling carnival moves from town to town. The buff, bleach blonde Glanton doesn’t seem to have a problem finding women to sleep in much as a sailor has a girl in every port. In Schenectady, that girl is Romina (Mendes), a waitress who doesn’t appear to have much more to look forward to than sore feet and occasional liaisons with men she probably shouldn’t have them with. A baby results from this union and Luke impulsively decides to quit the wandering life to settle down and help raise the baby.

However, Romina has moved on somewhat since her fling with Luke and has found a steady boyfriend in Kofi (Ali),  who is willing to help raise baby Jason as his own. Romina though has a soft spot for her bad boy who wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately Luke has fallen in with Robin (Mendelsohn), a small-time criminal who runs an auto body shop. It is he who puts the idea in Luke’s head that the easiest way to support his kid properly is to rob banks. Luke, barely able to make ends meet on his own, slowly finds it to be a good idea. Thing like this, however, rarely remain good for long.

The second part of the story belongs to Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop whose father (Yulin) – a judge and a local power broker – doesn’t approve of his son’s career choice and is perfectly willing to express his opinions. Avery and his wife Jennifer (Byrne) are busy raising a one-year-old son on their own when Avery is shot on the job. He is at home rehabilitating but is anxious to get back to work. Jennifer is torn – she wants space at home to raise her kid, but is terrified Avery’s next encounter with violence won’t end so fortunately.

Avery gets wind of some corrupt cops, led by Detective Deluca (Liotta), Avery’s partner and friend Scott (Fazio) and Doc (Pierucci). At first Avery kind of lets things go but when he realizes that with every act of compromise he’s getting in deeper with these guys, he decides to blow the whistle. This won’t be easy particularly since he doesn’t know how high the corruption goes. Is Chief Wierzbowsky (Clohessy) clean? Can he trust District Attorney Killcullen (Greenwood)?

The final part of the story takes place 15 years afterwards as Avery’s troubled son AJ (Cohen) moves from a more urban school to Schenectady where his father grew up. Avery, whose ambitions as a cop have blossomed into a run for State Attorney General , doesn’t really have time for his rap-spewing drug-addled boy. At the new school he meets Jason (DeHaan), a kind of quiet smart kid who hits it off with AJ based on both boys love of getting high.

AJ is definitely trouble but Jason isn’t exactly turning down time with the boisterous and braggadocios boy. However, he will discover that AJ’s dad and his own have a connection, one which binds the two boys together in a dark and serious way. As Jason investigates that connection, the lives of the two boys and everyone around them will undergo a profound change.

Cianfrance, who helmed the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine which in many ways has some of the same attributes as this – great intensity, top notch acting, a storyline which doesn’t shrink from real life issues and ultimately not always easy to watch. Cianfrance is highly skilled at his craft and is most certainly a talent to keep an eye out for; this is a movie that shows a great deal of confidence from the opening extended tracking shot that follows Luke through the carnival to the final shot of Jason riding away from Schenectady, seemingly on the same road as his father with the same inevitable consequences. Yes, it is a shot of a young man embracing his freedom but there are troubled undertones – to my mind it’s brilliant.

Gosling and Cooper shine here. Both Oscar-nominated actors, I truly believe that over the next 20 years these are both going to be regular honorees at awards shows (including the Oscars) and Cooper in particular is likely to be a force to be reckoned with at the box office. Gosling seems less interested in that sort of thing, preferring to take roles that challenge him but who knows; maybe somewhere down the line he gets a plum franchise to make his own.

The two actors share but one scene and that for only moments, which further cements Cianfrance as a director unafraid to take chances. In the third act, Cooper is relegated to essentially a supporting role while Cohen and DeHaan take center stage. DeHaan has enormous potential with some big roles in his immediate future (he’ll be Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 next summer)  and here he shows that he has the kind of searing presence that can mesmerize audiences.

What doesn’t work here are a couple of things. First, the damn shaky cam. I get that directors like to create a kind of kinetic cinematography that brings the audience into the film, creating additional dramatic tension but let me send a note to every director out there – it doesn’t work. What it really does is quite the opposite – I’ve watched people get motion sickness at films with the kind of hand held shenanigans you find here and when an audience is looking  away from the screen because the images are making their stomachs do flip flops, there’s a director who has a problem.

The character of AJ was a bit too trying for me as well. I have no doubt that there are a lot of kids out there who fit this bill – spoiled, hedonistic, lost souls whose only goal is to escape the lives that they have, which when they come from middle class or even upper class families can strain one’s sympathies. However the character was all wrong for this situation; when Jason has his confrontation with AJ the audience begins to root for some serious damage to be done to AJ and that doesn’t serve the film well. The story deserves better than that; if AJ had at least a few redeeming characteristics it would add a great deal more power to the story. As it is, the audience’s rooting interest becomes all too easy. While the story really is about the changes that come to Jason, it adds a little more something to the film if AJ also transforms and you don’t get the sense that he does, despite the twinkle in his eye near the end of the film.

This is a movie I respected more than liked. The story felt very real, and the economic pressures on both Luke and Avery that drive some of their moral decisions are those felt by millions of families each and every day. While I would be a little surprised if either Gosling, Cooper or DeHaan received awards season recognition – not that they don’t deserve it but more because of when the movie came out and how little publicity it’s received – I have to say that this is a movie that will push you into looking around you more than entertaining you. The late Gene Siskel made it plain that slice of life movies were among his favorites and mine too as well. However, some slices are more bitter than others.

REASONS TO GO: Really tremendous acting, particularly from Gosling and Cooper. An interesting story.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much shaky cam. You just want to punch AJ in the face.

FAMILY VALUES:  Swearing throughout, a bit of violence, some teen drug use and drinking and a couple of sexual references..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in and around Schenectady, NY whose name translates from the Mohawk for “beyond the pine plains.” Also, the banks seen being robbed here are all real working banks in the Schenectady area.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; all in all the reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Conviction

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Broken

The Core (2003)


Hillary Swank suddenly realizes  there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

Hillary Swank suddenly realizes there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

(2003) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Bruce Greenwood, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo, Alfre Woodard, Glenn Morshower, Christopher Shyer, Ray Galletti, Eileen Pedde, Rekha Sharma, Anthony Harrison, Nicole Leroux. Directed by Jon Amiel

As far as Hollywood is concerned, the world is in constant need of saving. If it’s not alien invasions, it’s natural disasters or incoming asteroids. Sometimes it’s even the wrath of God. But how do you save the planet from itself?

Weird things are happening all over the world. People drop dead suddenly with no explanation until it’s discovered that all of them wore pacemakers that caused arrhythmia due to electromagnetic interference. The space shuttle’s navigational equipment malfunctions, forcing a crash landing by heroic co-pilot Rebecca Childs (Swank); the culprit – an electromagnetic glitch. Birds start to slam into buildings and into the ground, their sense of direction confused by – you guessed it – electromagnetic interference.

One scientist has figured it out. Dr. Josh Keyes (Eckhart) has come to the horrifying conclusion that the molten core of the planet has stopped rotating, causing the planet’s electromagnetic shield to start to fail. He warns Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Tucci), the Presidential science advisor who at first pooh-poohs his conclusions but then comes to the horrifying realization that he’s right. As he warns the President’s cabinet, in three months human civilization will have returned to the stone age. In a year, all life on the planet will have fried.

There’s nothing to be done but to jump start the planet, but how do you get to the Earth’s core when the deepest hole ever dug is only seven miles? And once there, how can anything withstand the extreme temperatures? No fears there – an eccentric scientist, Dr. Ed “Braz” Brazzleton (Lindo) has developed a craft whose hull is made of the rare (so rare it’s non-existent) metal Unobtanium and uses sophisticated lasers to tunnel through rock like…well, a mole.

Also on the team is Serge (Karyo), a French weapons specialist whose nuclear device will be used to get the core moving, and commanding the mission is Robert Iverson (Greenwood) with Maj. Childs along as co-pilot. Of course, information control will be a key since if word got out there’d be panic the likes of which the world has never seen so expert hacker “Rat” Finch (Qualls) monitors the Internet. In mission control is General Thomas Purcell (Jenkins) on the military side and presidential advisor Stickley (Woodard) for the science.

But there will be many obstacles both known and unforeseen before they reach the Core and once they get there, a secret that explains why the rotation stopped will be revealed. With the life of every living thing on Earth hanging in the balance, this small team literally carries the weight of the world on their shoulders.

This is a surprisingly (although it shouldn’t be considering the cast) well-acted movie for the disaster genre. The premise is kind of intriguing. the science behind it not so much. In fact, most scientists point to this movie as having the most egregious scientific gaffes of any movie ever made. The laws of physics are constantly violated both in plot and execution.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no entertainment value here. As with any good disaster movie there’s plenty of spectacle as iconic monuments the world over go bye-bye, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Roman Coliseum. And, as I said, the cast is more stellar than most with Eckhart and Swank turning in solid lead performances, with Tucci, Lindo, Qualls and Karyo getting in some quality support for them, Tucci in particular getting props for his cross between Carl Sagan and Tim Gunn.

So kids don’t see this and expect to be a physics whiz. Real physics whizzes are going to watch this (if they haven’t already) and either tear their hair out and curse Hollywood roundly, or laugh and laugh and laugh until their pocket protectors explode. Disaster film junkies though will probably find this a cut above more recent Roland Emmerich end-of-the-world fare however.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining and thrilling popcorn flick surprisingly well-acted. Decent effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the situations they encounter are a tad ludicrous and the science behind the film is really, really faulty.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of swearing and some scenes that are gruesome by implication although nothing horrible is shown.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Dr. Keyes uses a peach as an example to show the Earth, none of the fruit that the producers brought to the set were suitable so an apple was brought in, painted to resemble a peach and a peach stone inserted in the middle.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.5M on a $60M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run although turned a profit once home video and cable sales are factored in.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snitch

Meek’s Cutoff


How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

(2010) Western (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux. Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Travelling from East to West in the mid-19th Century wasn’t something undertaken lightly. Prior to the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the only ways to get from the east to the west was by ship around Cape Horn in South America all the way back up to San Francisco; it was a perilous journey in which ships frequently were wrecked on the treacherous passageway.

There was also the overland route on the Oregon Trail which was just as arduous and nearly as lethal. Settlers would pack up what provisions and goods as they could carry in their wagons (not all of which were Conestogas), hitched up their oxen and set off hoping their guide knew where he was going, which wasn’t always the case.

Guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) sure talked a good game – to hear him tell it, no man alive knew the Oregon Trail as well – but this two week journey has stretched into five with still no end in sight. Supplies are getting dangerously low and there has been no water in the drought-stricken west. There are only three families on this wagon train; Emily (Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Patton), Millie (Kazan) and Thomas Gately (Dano) and Glory (Henderson), Jimmy (Nelson) and William White (Huff). The women are skeptical of their guide’s ability to lead them to safety. The men are dithering and unwilling to stand up to the overbearing lout.

When the men capture a Cayuse Indian (Rondeaux) who has been shadowing them, they are eager to kill the native. However the women urge that he be spared and convinced to lead them to water. For once they get their way. Still, there is a good deal of mistrust; is the man leading them to water or into a trap? And will they find their way to their destination or will they all die out there in the wilderness?

Reichardt, best known for her edgy modern drama Wendy and Lucy (which also starred Williams) tackles one of the American cinema’s most iconic genres and adds to it a uniquely feminine viewpoint (even though the script was written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, a man). Clearly the strongest and staunchest of the settlers is Emily, although mores and custom of the day required her to take a back seat to her husband.

Williams, whose next role would net her an Oscar nomination, is wonderful here. She gives Emily a marvelous inner strength which the pioneer women certainly must have – and did – have. Williams is careful not to turn Emily into a 21st century woman in a 19th century milieu which is what some actresses might have been tempted to do; Emily is very much a product of her time. However that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a strong personality or a will to match.

The entire cast is actually quite strong and all of them seem to be authentic to their roles. There are no jarring out-of-place anachronisms, and even better, this doesn’t feel like a bunch of modern people playing at cowboys and Indians – this feels like real settlers, unsure of what to do, completely out of their element and terrified that they’re going to die.

The vast vistas that are both barren and beautiful add to that feeling of a bunch of small people in a very large wilderness – kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for capturing it onscreen. The result is a very intimate film on an epic scale, which is a hard feat to pull off.

However be warned that the pace is slow, maybe too slow. A lot of time is spent showing the settlers doing their day-to-day activities – grinding coffee, gathering wood, repairing wheels and so on, to the extent that you might feel like you’re sitting in a classroom. In fact, high school history teachers looking to give their students an idea of life on the Oregon Trail (and others like it) might want to arrange a screening of the movie for their classroom – it’s that informative.

The story progresses organically but slowly and much is left to interpretation. Audiences used to being led from point A to point Z with all the answers pointed out to them as they go along might find this frustrating. Still, it is one of the better Westerns to come along in the 21st century and those who love the genre will find much here to love – but traditionalists might find little here to love as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A very different Western. Strong performances throughout the cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a very contemplative pace. Framework is very bare-bones which may ask too much from audiences used to being spoonfed.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Meek Cutoff follows Bear Creek to the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $977,772 on a $2M production budget; it certainly didn’t make money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: September Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Perfect Storm

Flight


Flight

It rains on the just and the unjust equally.

(2012) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly,  Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Brian Geraghty, Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velazquez, Charlie E. Schmidt, Peter Gerety, Boni Yanagisawa, Garcelle Beauvais, Justin Martin, Rhoda Griffis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

We take flying for granted. You are far more likely to be killed in a car wreck than you are in the friendly skies. We trust our pilots to be sharp and skilled, highly trained to handle any situation and get us to our destination in one piece.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is such a pilot. He is cool calm and in command on the outside, his aviator shades and uniform inspiring confidence. He is piloting a short flight from Orlando to Atlanta. The weather is frightful; a severe storm making the take-off anything but routine. But that’s not the worst of it; mid-flight, the plane goes inexplicably into a nosedive and nothing the crew can do can pull them out. Whitaker pulls off an incredible maneuver involving lying the plane upside down and manages to set down in a field. There is loss of life (four passengers and two crew die in the incident) but compared to what might have happened the landing was nothing short of miraculous.

Whip wakes up in the hospital barely remembering what happened. He’s being hailed as a hero and the press is in a frenzy, eager to get an interview with him. His good friend Charlie Anderson (Greenwood), a fellow pilot and head of the pilot’s union, flies to Atlanta to navigate him through the NTSB and other procedures that occur after a crash with fatalities.

Then everything falls apart. It turns out that the blood drawn from him routinely after the crash showed that he had alcohol and cocaine in his system. Which, in fact, he did – the night before the crash he had partied all night with a sexy stewardess (Velazquez) who had somewhat conveniently been one of the fatalities. They’d drank like fish, snorted coke and had lots of sex. In fact, Whip had even mixed himself a little cocktail of orange juice and vodka during the fatal flight.

In fact Whip has quite a problem; he could face jail time and lawsuits. A lawyer is hired for him by the union, the whip-smart (couldn’t resist the pun) Hugh Lang (Cheadle) who is charged with getting Whip off the hook because should he be found liable, so would the airline that hired him which would effectively put it out of business and put a good many pilots in the unemployment line, which the union decidedly doesn’t want.

But Whip’s biggest problem is his own demons. He can’t seem to stop drinking, although he tells everyone around him he can quit on his own, no problem. He resents even the thought of being called an alcoholic and yet his binges seem to come at the worst possible times as if he himself is crashing far worse than the jet he had previously piloted.

His estranged wife (Beauvais) and son (Martin) want nothing to do with him, but all isn’t hopeless – he has taken up with the recovering addict Nicole (Reilly) who seems to be serious about her recovery. Maybe this hook-up which was a result of his own kindness might turn out to be his salvation. With an NTSB hearing which will determine his future approaching, Whip is most assuredly his own worst enemy.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, this isn’t a movie about a plane crash although the crash sequence, which lasts twelve minutes at the beginning of the movie, is flat-out amazing and horrifying at once – so much so that if you’re planning to travel by air anytime soon, you may want to hold off on seeing this until after you’ve fulfilled your travel plans.

What this really is about is addiction and as harrowing as the plane crash sequence is, the rest of the movie following Whip’s fall from grace is far more so. It really isn’t very easy to watch as Whip gulps down liquor as if it were Kool-Aid and he continues to deny that there is a problem.

Very few actors could pull this part off properly – we need to be repelled by Whip’s actions even as we are compelled by his compassion. Washington is so likable and charismatic that we root for him throughout even though his character’s self-destructive streak is so profound that deep down we know he’s going to let us down. I imagine it’s much the same living with an alcoholic in real life.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar as one. Reilly, an Irish accent, is pixie-like and has an odd vulnerability that is laced with gravitas. Cheadle, one of my favorite actors, comes through again as a competent professional who is nevertheless out of his depth with Whip and the frustration becomes very apparent soon. Goodman, as a party animal who is Whip’s supplier, is marvelous and Tunie as a stewardess is amazing.

But it is Denzel who steals the show and simply put, this is one of the best performances of his storied career. He has to be considered an early front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar race, and I almost guarantee that he’ll nab a nomination early next year. It would be a major miscarriage of justice if he did not.

There are plenty of movies that show the horrors of alcoholism but few have captured it this well. This might be a good primer for those who suspect someone they care about is an alcoholic, but for those who already know someone they love is this might be a little too close to home. Just fair warning.

REASONS TO GO: Nothing like what you think it’s going to be. Oscar-caliber performance from Denzel.

REASONS TO STAY: Those expecting an action film might be put off by the drama. May be too close to home for those who are alcoholics or have someone in the family who is.

FAMILY VALUES:  The depiction of alcohol and drug abuse is pretty graphic; so too is the crash scene that opens the film. There is also plenty of bad language, a good deal of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the second R-rated film Zemeckis has directed (the first was Used Cars in 1980.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100. The reviews are solidly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Days of Wine and Roses

AIRPLANE LOVERS: A very realistic look inside the cockpit of a jetliner, and you get a real sense of what it’s like to fly a commercial airplane.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mission to Mars

New Releases for the Week of November 2, 2012


November 2, 2012

WRECK-IT RALPH

(Disney) Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Mindy Kaling, Adam Corolla, Horatio Sanz, Dennis Haysbert, Edie McClurg. Directed by Rich Moore

Ralph is a videogame villain who for decades has been overshadowed by Fix-It Felix who always gets to save the day. Ralph longs to be a good guy but will never be one as long as he is overshadowed by Felix, so he decides to find a game where he can do good. Unfortunately, in his quest he inadvertently releases an evil that threatens the entire arcade. Can Ralph be the hero he dreams of being and save the arcade? It’s a Disney film so I’m thinking “yes.”

See the trailer, promos, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

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

Flight

(Paramount) Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood. An airline pilot becomes a national hero when he pulls off an impossible maneuver to land a crippled plane. That adulation quickly turns to something different when his blood work taken from the accident site reveals that he had alcohol in his system during the fatal flight.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)

The Man With the Iron Fists

(Universal) Russell Crowe, RZA, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune. A mysterious stranger arrives in a remote Chinese village to become the village blacksmith. Rival clans within the village force him to forge elaborate weapons of war. When the simmering feud goes nuclear over a shipment of gold, the stranger forges a weapon of his own, channeling an ancient power to fight alongside iconic heroes against soulless villains. The fate of the village rests on his ability to harness that power and control it.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Martial Arts

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

Dinner for Schmucks


Dinner for Schmucks

Rolling on the floor laughing is just an Internet phrase, dammit!

(2010) Comedy (Paramount) Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis, Stephanie Szostak, Jemaine Clement, Jeff Dunham, Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston, Lucy Punch, David Walliams, Ron Livingston, Larry Wilmore, Kristen Schaal, P.J. Byrne, Andrea Savage . Directed by Jay Roach

There are two kinds of people in business, it is said; those with ambition and those who succeed. Those who are successful, the inference is, act on that ambition. Sometimes, the price for acting on that ambition is high indeed.

Tim Conrad (Rudd) is that kind of ambitious guy, an executive at a financial firm who wants to move up the ladder. The key to his success is landing Muller (Walliams), a Swiss multi-millionaire. His boss, Lance Fender (Greenwood), is impressed enough to invite Tim to an annual event he hosts, a dinner for winners. Tim is psyched about this until he finds out that the event is not about highlighting legitimate talents, but to find the biggest loser for which the executive who brings him gets everlasting glory.

Tim’s girlfriend Julie (Szostak), who is a curator for the eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Clement) doesn’t like the idea much. Tim has proposed several times to Julie but she’s turned him down each time. Tim agrees not to go to the dinner, hoping this will put him over the top with Julie.

The next day Tim is driving his Porsche when he accidentally hits a man picking up a dead mouse in the street. That man is Barry Speck (Carell), and it turns out his hobby is recreating works of art as dioramas with dead mice in the place of humans in the tableaux. Tim realizes that he has found the winning loser.

When Julie finds out that Tim is going to the dinner after all she storms out of his apartment, leaving her cell phone behind. Shortly afterwards, Barry shows up having confused the dates of the dinner. He gets on Tim’s computer while Tim is occupied and gives Tim’s address to Darla (Punch), a one-night stand that Tim had before he met Julie who is now psychotically stalking Tim. To make amends for inviting her, Barry decides to guard Tim’s apartment and intercept Darla before she gets there but mistakes Julie for Darla and implies to Julie that Tim is cheating on her.

Barry acts like a cyclone in Tim’s life, innocently doing the wrong thing and making things worse when he tries to atone. Discovering that Julie is on her way to Kieran’s ranch, Barry enlists the help of his supervisor at the IRS (yes, a guy like Barry could only work at the IRS), one Therman Murch (Galifianakis) who believes he is able to control Barry with the power of his mind. Uh huh, as if. Even this turns out to be disastrous.

Tim, who was on the verge of having it all, now finds himself on the verge of losing it all. However, he will attend the dinner in a last-ditch attempt at redemption. Maybe he might even deserve it.

This is the remake of a French film by Francis Veber entitled Le Diner de Cons (translated as Dinner With Cretins). I haven’t seen it myself but I understand it is less over-the-top and a little more cerebral than this one. Roach, who has the Austin Powers franchise to his credit, takes a little more in-your-face attitude, making it more like a Farrelly Brothers effort to my mind.

One of the things the movie has going for it is Rudd and Carell. Although they’ve worked together before (notably on The Forty Year Old Virgin) they never have quite as extensively as this. They do make a good comic team, with Rudd being one of the best straight men in the business and Carell rarely getting to let loose quite as much as he does here.

There are moments that are heart-warming but there is an underlying cruelty to the concept that gives one pause. On the surface, the heart seems to be firmly on the side of the Schmucks, but there is that nagging feeling that they’re really the butt of the joke once again. From my perspective, this is decidedly uneven and will have you flushing with embarrassment as you laugh at some of the antics of the schmucks but at the end of the day, it’s still funny enough to recommend. Just.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Carell and Rudd is spot on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never really decides whether it’s going to be heart-warming or cruel.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of partial nudity and some crude content (sexual and otherwise) and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Early on in the film’s development, Sacha Baron Cohen was set to be the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the building of the mouse dioramas by the Chiodo Brothers (directors of the cult hit Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and a skit used during the 2010 ESPY awards lampooning the LeBron James press conference with Rudd and Carell in character.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $86.4M on a $69M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon