New Releases for the Week of December 20, 2019


STAR WARS: RISE OF THE SKYWALKER

(Disney) Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant. Directed by J.J. Abrams

Forty years and ten movies on, and it all comes to this; the final chapter in the saga of the Skywalker family, from Anakin to Luke and now the last generation, the story that has spanned four decades comes to a conclusion. Is it going to be as emotionally satisfying as the MCU finale earlier this year? Probably not.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action)

A Hidden Life

(Fox Searchlight) August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti. The true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter who refused to fight for the Nazis during the Second World War at great personal cost to himself and his family. This is the latest from recently prolific director Terrence Malick.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: PG-13 (for traumatic material including violent images)

Bombshell

(Lionsgate) Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow. A group of women at Fox News take on Roger Ailes to try and change the toxic masculine atmosphere he created, leading to a profound shakeup at the official network of the Republican party.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Lake Square, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Orlando, Cinepolis Hamlin, Cinepolis Polk County, Cobb Daytona Luxury, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pavilion Port Orange, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: R (for sexual material and language throughout)

Cats

(Universal) James Corden, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson. At long last comes the screen version of the hit Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, depicting a group of cats meeting to determine which one of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return to a new and better life. The film has gotten a great deal of blowback due to the trailer which some found the CGI make-up effects disconcerting.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some rude and suggestive material)
 

Dabangg 3

(Yash Raj) Salman Khan, Arbaaz Khan, Mahie Gill, Girish Taurani. India’s beloved badass cop Inspector Chulbul Pandey is back to take on a new case.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Touchstar Southchase
Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Hero</em
Prati Roju Pandage
Ruler
Thambi

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE/KEY WEST:

Hero
Only Cloud Knows
Prati Roju Pandage
Ruler
Thambi

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG/SARASOTA:

Ruler

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Prati Roju Pandage

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A Hidden Life
Bombshell
Cats
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Mistletoe Movie Madness, Dania Beach, FL

The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road

Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour

Emile Hirsch mistakenly thought his scavenger hunt list said "gremlin."

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Joel Kinnaman, Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze, Gosha Kutsenko, Nikolai Efremov, Vladimir Jaglich, Arthur Smoljaninov, Anna Roudakova, Pyotr Fyodorov. Directed by Chris Gorak

 

Some movies have little or no potential and make the most of what they have. Others take wonderful ideas and go absolutely nowhere with them. Which one would you rather see?

This is one of the latter. Hirsch and Minghella play a couple of net entrepreneurs who fly to Moscow to pitch an app to a bunch of venture capital bigwigs, only to see their idea stolen by Skyler (Kinnaman), a slimy Swede. The boys, furious and with uncertain futures, decide to go to a sleazy disco to drown their sorrows. There they meet Natalie (Thirlby) and Anne (Taylor), American and Australian (respectively) tourists who are apparently globe hopping in order to meet boys. Guess there weren’t enough slimy club hounds in their own neck of the woods.

While in the club, Moscow gets invaded by – wait for it – Christmas lights. Well, that’s what it looks like at first until the aliens actually arrive and are completely invisible. They are also deadly, reducing any organic matter they touch into ash. Whenever they’re around, they generate an electrical field that turns on car alarms, light bulbs and cell phones, all of which have gone dead (we assume an EMP has passed through the city but are never shown that definitively).

After a week in the club’s pantry, the four (who have been joined by Skyler who turns out to be even more of a dick than they thought) set out on foot to find other survivors and to find food, shelter and water. Eventually they learn of a nuclear submarine which intends to ferry survivors to a safe place (the aliens can’t see through machinery or glass – they detect humans by their bio-energy or some such gobbledygook) which I would imagine is somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

Director Gorak’s last film was the much-superior Right at Your Door which made a lot more from a lot less. That film adequately captured what humans do in impossibly stressful situations (in that case, the detonation of a dirty bomb in a metropolitan area) and made his characters non-heroic at times. Here, he also makes some of the characters non-heroic although Hirsch’s Sean character falls into the mold of the brainy hero.

The problem here is that none of the characters are given much in the way of characteristics. They’re all pretty much unremarkable, all given a single characteristic (Anne’s fear, Skyler’s amorality) in which their character pretty much uses as a means of reaction to every situation. They come off as one-dimensional not because the actors are bad, but because they’ve only been given one dimension to work off of. Whereas Gorak’s last film was filled with real human beings, that doesn’t happen here.

Another missed opportunity is the aliens themselves. They are invisible through most of the film, which gives the filmmakers an opportunity to develop a great deal of tension and paranoia. That also never happens here; the aliens appear with such regularity that you just assume that wherever the characters go there’s going to be an invisible alien trolling about waiting to turn someone to ash (including a hapless dog). When the aliens finally are revealed, they are less than satisfying.

This is pretty bloodless. Not only the humans turn to ash but when the aliens blow up they turn into hunks of what looks like volcanic glass. Even gorehounds will be irritated by this movie.

The Russian locations aren’t used to their best effect in most cases, although there’s a really nice scene in Red Square. By and large, producer Timur Bekmambatov (director of such fine films as Night Watch and Wanted) should have done a better job of showing off his city; for the most part it looks pretty dull and boring.

The concept was good here; the execution was lacking and mostly due to lazy writing and poor decision making on the parts of the filmmakers. If you’re going to use Moscow as your backdrop, don’t trap your characters in malls and pantries. If you’re going to have invisible aliens, use them sparingly – make our spines tingle. If you’re going to write a science fiction picture, don’t baffle us with bull-crap; cut down the scientific jargon to a minimum and give the poor actors something to work with. I was sorely disappointed here.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting premise and some nifty effects shots.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity; none of the characters are drawn all that well and the plot is awfully predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words, some disturbing images and lots of action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production was suspended for three weeks due to air pollution caused by the wildfires that surrounded Moscow in the summer of 2010 while production was underway. After production resumed, there was still some smoke in the air that had to be digitally removed in some shots.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 16/100. The reviews are extremely poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skyline

ALIEN INVASION LOVERS: Should be high on your list but be warned that when you finally do see the aliens, it’s a bit of a letdown.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Roommate

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore


Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Even dogs can't save this movie from going to the dogs. Ahem.

(2010) Family Fantasy Comedy (Warner Brothers) Christina Applegate, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neil Patrick Harris, James Marsden, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, Joe Pantoliano, Katt Williams, Chris O’Donnell, Paul Rodriguez, Sean Hayes, Jack McBrayer, Fred Armisen, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore.  Directed by Brad Peyton

In Ghostbusters, a sure sign of the end of the world according to Bill Murray was cats and dogs living together. I wonder what he would have made of this.

A disgraced ex-police dog named Diggs (Marsden) is recruited into a spy agency called DOGS by Butch (Nolte). The fearless leader, Lou (Harris) informs them that there is a rogue former agent of their rival cat spies CATS named Kitty Galore (Midler) who has developed a secret weapon that would drive all the dogs on the planet insane, forcing them out of their long ensconced spot as man’s best friend and giving the cats a base to eventually overthrow mankind as the dominant species. Using high-tech gadget and good ol’ dogged determination (couldn’t resist), Diggs and his partners go after the bald sphinx Kitty and try to stop her fiendish plot.

That’s really all the plot you need to know. This is more or less a sequel to the 2001 family film Cats and Dogs which I found rather clever and charming, with effects that looking back seem a little bit low budget by today’s standards. The sequel has been percolating for awhile and it took nine years for it to finally bubble onto the big screen, where it was received with a bit of a thud. Live action/talking CGI animals are more or less commonplace these days.

There’s a pretty solid voice cast and a ton of references to the James Bond series (see below) which makes this at least a little more palatable to parents and grandparents who intend to use this as a babysitting tool. Unfortunately, most of the amusing bits about the concept are pretty much covered in the first ten minutes and quite frankly, there are a lot more butt sniffing jokes than most humans should be allowed to experience in their entire lifetimes.

Kids are going to like the cute puppies and kitties, but quite frankly I think kids are a bit more sophisticated about their entertainment these days than they were even a decade ago. They seem to go more for CGI puppies and kitties rather than the real sort, even if they have CGI lips mouthing CGI dialogue.

This was about as forgettable as family entertainment gets and I’ve seen some pretty awful family films over recent years. Here, nearly every human is a complete nincompoop and not even kids can save us – our salvation lies in the animal kingdom, which is embarrassing to say the least.

I have this off-the-wall theory – all me crazy – but that if you treat kids with respect and not like little morons with hands inside their parents wallets, not only will you make a movie that parents will want to take their kids to see but that kids will love as well and will want to see it several times. When you talk down to kids – just like when you talk down to anyone – they tend to tune you out.

That’s kind of how I felt here, like I was tuning out the movie. That’s a shame because there are some moments worth enjoying, and Bette Midler is pretty good as a megalomaniac. A little less Bond and a little more personality of its own would have served the movie better.

WHY RENT THIS: Dogs and cats are cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clever concept wears out its welcome. Even kids might find this low-brow.

FAMILY VALUES: This is rated PG for “animal action and humor” but really truly? This is fine for kids of any age. Seriously.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of James Bond references herein; from Police Captain Flemming (after Bond author Ian Fleming) to Lazenby (after former Bond George Lazenby) the character played by Roger Moore (himself an ex-Bond) to Paws (after Bond villain Jaws) and even the main character of Kitty Galore is a take-off on Bond girl Pussy Galore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Looney Tunes animated short featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote in “Coyote Falls” which is significantly better than the main movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.5M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Horrible Bosses

Tooth Fairy


Tooth Fairy

Even a hockey setting couldn't save this movie.

(2010) Family Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Judd, Julie Andrews, Steven Merchant, Ryan Sheckler, Seth McFarlane, Billy Crystal, Chase Ellison, Destiny Grace Whitlock, Ryan Sheckler, Brandon T. Jackson. Directed by Michael Lembeck

The belief of a child is precious and powerful at once. Attacking that belief – whether it is in the infallibility of its parents, or the existence of Santa Claus is a profound turning point in their lives.

Derek Thompson (Johnson) is a goon on a minor league hockey team in Lansing, Michigan who has garnered the nickname of “Tooth Fairy” for all the dental work he’s sent opposing players for (although I have to point out that no self-respecting hockey player would have a nickname that contained the word “Fairy”).

Off the ice he’s an affable enough sort, although he’s a bit of a self-centered jerk. His girlfriend Carly (Judd) has two kids that he has trouble relating to. Randy (Ellison) is a sullen teenaged annoyance who gets what little pleasure he gets out of life from his music. Tess (Whitlock) is a bit of a dreamer and Derek, who has been jerked around by life, having never had the talent to go very far in the game he loves, tells her that there’s no tooth fairy and even steals the money from under her  pillow. Now that’s a douchebag. It also gets him the heave-ho from the only good thing in his life – his relationship with Carly.

Well, the powers that be hear about this and boy, are they miffed. Derek is sentenced to spend a week as a tooth fairy (apparently there are a whole bunch of ‘em) in penance for trying to attack the belief of a child. Those powers that be, they don’t mess around.

There Derek meets Lily (Andrews), the head fairy which is kind of an executive position as it turns out; Tracy (Merchant), an adenoidal fairy without wings who is Derek’s case worker, and finally Jerry (Crystal), a kind of Q Division fairy who gives Derek all sorts of gadgets such as a horn that scares off cats and a shrinking potion. These fairies, they’ve got a hell of an R&D department.

At first Derek is just there to serve out his time and doesn’t take much care in doing his job properly until he begins to learn what tooth fairies mean to kids…and what kids mean to them. The arrogant, selfish Derek begins to morph into a kinder, gentler Derek. But is it too little, too late?

After a promising start in action films, Johnson moved into family-friendly movies like this one. He’s become quite a staple in them and his easygoing personality make him a natural, plus his notoriety as a former WWE wrestler makes him even more kid-friendly. I like Johnson in roles that utilize his comic abilities, but his formidable skills as an action hero have been seriously missed.

He’s got a pretty decent cast behind him; Andrews and Crystal certainly perform as advertised, but their roles are brief and are in fact little more than cameos (Crystal goes uncredited in the film). Merchant has a more sizable role but his eager beaver caseworker comes off a little too forced, a little too bland.

Frankly, I’m surprised Disney didn’t snap this up; they’ve made these sorts of movies for decades and nobody does it better than they do. I think the movie could have used the Disney touch a little bit; still, Johnson is just so damned likable that you can’t help but like him in the movie, even though he’s a bit of an arrogant prick for much of it.

Kids will probably love the movie for the whimsy shown with the tooth fairies and some of that is actually pretty fun. Unfortunately, even the charismatic Johnson can’t save this movie from an overabundance of kid flick clichés.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock on ice. Need I say more? Also some nice cameos from Crystal and Andrews.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Typical family fare that Disney does so much better

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and a bit of rude humor on the family-friendly side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Billy Crystal’s first live action movie role in eight years.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sing-along feature with Johnson and Merchant called “Fairy-oke” and a kid’s workout video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.3M on a $48M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Barney’s Version

Coraline


Coraline

Not every crawlspace should be explored.

(Focus) With the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr.. Directed by Henry Selick

Do our parents ever pay as much attention to us as we want them to? We get so wrapped up in providing the necessities we forget about the most basic necessity of all.

Coraline Jones (Fanning) is one pissed off little girl. Not only have her parents moved away from everything she knows and away from all her friends, they’ve moved into an apartment building in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and it always rains. Her mother (Hatcher) can’t cook to save her life, is irritable and always busy. Her father (Hodgman) works incessantly and has nothing resembling a backbone. The two bicker and sit hunched over computer screens, all but ignoring their daughter and not listening to a word she says.

For her part, Coraline is not exactly Pollyanna. She whines, complains and is somewhat mean to the only young man her age in the neighborhood, the awkward and ungainly Wyborne (Bailey) who hides his own loneliness with nervous chatter and prefers to be known as “Wybie”. Admonished to explore their strange, drafty old house, Coraline discovers a tiny door that has been covered with wallpaper. After coercing her mother to open the door with a skeleton key, Coraline is disappointed to find the doorway bricked over. It isn’t until darkness falls that the doorway opens into a parallel world that is strangely like her own…only better.

In this world, food tastes better, the garden is more colorful and life is just the way she wants it to be. Replacing her parents are two look-alikes who hang on her every word, give her everything they want and love her much more than her real parents ever have. There are wonderful things to do and Wybie cannot speak. This world is in every way better than the one she’s used to. The only unsettling thing is that everyone in the other world has buttons sown over their eye sockets – that and their constant wheedling for her to stay in this perfect world forever. Coraline soon learns that the most terrible trap is everything you’ve ever wanted.

Director Henry Selick is best known for directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and while the styles are similar, they aren’t quite the same. This film is based on a Neil Gaiman story and the combination of Gaiman and Selick is a winner just as Burton and Selick were. The visuals here are inventive and memorable. As with his previous film, Selick works in the medium known as stop motion animation, in which actual live objects are manipulated frame by frame to give the illusion of movement and life.

While this is a great movie to look at, it might be a little bit too intense and too frightening for the smaller kids. While this is ostensibly an animated feature that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. Parents should think twice about whether they want their younger kids to view this.

That said, one of the drawbacks to the movie is Coraline herself. She is so nasty, so petulant and so self-pitying that you can’t help but feel that she deserves to find herself in an alternate dimension in terrible peril. It’s not that Fanning does a bad job voicing her; it’s just the character as written is pretty unlikable. That makes it difficult to really care what happens to her after awhile.

Still, although the movie overdoses on the eccentricity from time to time, it’s still so visually impressive and the story so clever you can forgive the occasional excesses and even the excesses of Coraline herself. While this is more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale in the darkest sense of the genre, it retains a certain modern edge which gives it a distinct flair.

Coraline is a beautiful, strange movie that celebrates its own uniqueness and dares you to accept it as it is. It isn’t always easy to love, but love it you will. I know I did. The Academy did as well – it is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for next month’s Oscars, although it will have an uphill battle to beat Up. Still in all Coraline has all the goods, and as dark a fairy tale as it is, it’s still the kind that will bear repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly imaginative, this is a movie that rediscovers the painstaking art of stop motion animation and elevates it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little quirkiness goes a long way; a lot of quirkiness doesn’t. How can I root for a character I just want to shake some sense into?

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images may be a little too horrific for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest stop-motion movie ever made, and also the first one filmed entirely in 3D.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray uses the U-Control system to integrate features, animatics and commentary into the film, allowing viewers to get in-depth information about how difficult this film was to make. There’s also a brief 6-minute interview with author Neil Gaiman discussing the differences between the book and the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The White Ribbon

The Book of Eli


The Book of Eli

Tell them Eli's coming and Heaven's coming with him.

(Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Malcolm McDowell, Tom Waits, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Chris Browning, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by the Hughes Brothers

There are those who say that faith and religion are to blame for all the world’s troubles. There are also those who say that the world would be a savage place without them.

The world as we know it has come to an end. War has ripped a hole in the ozone, allowing the sun’s radiation to cook the Earth. It is the apocalypse, and as we all know from watching films set in the post-Apocalyptic era, the Earth turns into the Old West.

Down the dusty pock-marked roads that are all that is left of the Interstates comes a walker, a middle-aged man – something that is rare in this world where both the good and the bad die young – carrying a satchel and armed to the teeth, as would be prudent in a time where law and civilization have broken down. Darwin’s law has become the only law that is enforced.

The man is Eli (Washington) and he carries with him something very valuable. Not just the trinkets he’s been able to pick up, mostly from corpses and the already-stripped houses that remain standing, but something worth dying for…maybe even worth killing for. It is the King James Bible, and it may be the last one left. After the war had decimated the planet, many of those who remained on it blamed religion for the war and Bible-burning became the new national pastime.

Eli is a man to be reckoned with, lightning quick and merciless with knives, as a group of scavenging hijackers who mean to rob him and eat him find out. He is also merciful and compassionate with the weak, as the woman (Martinez-Cunningham) who was used as bait also discovers.

Eli comes to a small town which looks uncannily like Tombstone, Arizona, mostly to get supplies and to recharge a battery charger. While he’s waiting for the Engineer (Waits) who runs the general store to charge the battery, he goes across the street to the Orpheum bar to fill his canteen. Some rough and tumble sorts led by Martz (Jones) try to mess with him and wind up writhing on the floor or dead. The leader of the town, Carnegie (Oldman) is impressed and is anxious for Eli to join his group of enforcers. Eli is unwilling; he has business to the West to which Carnegie responds “There’s nothing west of here.” Carnegie isn’t the sort to take no for an answer so he has Eli sleep on it, whether he wants to or not.

Carnegie sends his girlfriend in, blind Claudia (Beals) with food and drink. He then sends in Claudia’s daughter Solara (Kunis) to tempt him with baser charms. Eli turns her down but she begs him to allow her to stay the night and give Carnegie the illusion that she had done as he asked; if he does not, she tells him, her mother will pay the price for her failure. Eli relents and allows her to stay.

The next morning Solara inadvertently lets slip that Eli is carrying with him a book. Carnegie goes ballistic – this is the very book he has been sending bands of illiterate marauders out to retrieve. With it he can control the remaining populace and act as a kind of post-Apocalyptic messiah. He has to have this book! He and his right hand man Redridge (Stevenson) go running into Eli’s cell, only to find him gone. He hasn’t gone far and after a brutal gun battle in which Carnegie gets hit in the leg, Eli escapes with Solara chasing after him, eager to get away from her existence in the town.

The enraged Carnegie takes nearly all his enforcers in what vehicles remain and head out after him. Eli believes he is on a divine mission to take the Bible to safety, but with such a man on his tail can Eli reach safety even with heavenly assistance?

While much about the movie is basic Post-Apocalypse 101 from the Old West-style towns, the rusting cars abandoned on highways that have collapsed, the desert-like environment to the abundance of trenchcoats and shotguns, the concept is unique. It is not your usual action-adventure type of film that is usual for this genre (although there is plenty of both); it is also meant to be an examination of faith and belief.

Kudos for screenwriter Gary Whitta and the Hughes Brothers for trying something a little daring. It is not an easy sale sometimes for secular Hollywood to take on themes of morality and faith, but they do so here. I’m sure the presence of Denzel Washington in the project had more than a little to do with the studio taking a chance on it.

Washington is perhaps the most movie star-like actor out there today. He has the kind of screen presence and charisma that gives him appeal not only to African-American audiences who revere him, but also to white audiences who respect him, female audiences who adore him and male audiences who want to be like him. He carries films in the same way that Clint Eastwood once did. In fact, this is the most Eastwood-like of Washington’s performances ever, as he plays essentially a man with no name and of few words who comes into a town, kicks ass and fights injustice. It’s the kind of role few have tackled since Eastwood hung up his gunbelt.

Kunis has been getting a lot of high-profile roles lately, and she has a great deal of potential, but in many ways this was the wrong part for her. She seems far more adept at light comedies and romantic roles than in action movies. However, I was pleased to see Jennifer Beals do so well in this movie; after Flashdance she never really regained the kind of attention that movie brought her, but she is a talented performer as she shows undeniably here. Ray Stevenson, who was last seen playing the comic book character the Punisher is also very strong as Carnegie’s lackey.

Gary Oldman plays villains with a great deal of panache and you get the feeling that he has more fun with them than he does with characters like Sirius Black from the Harry Potter movies. He is certainly playing a demagogue – when we first meet Carnegie he’s reading a biography of Mussolini – but he’s not completely unsympathetic.

I have to mention that there is a bit of a twist ending here, one I didn’t see coming which is somewhat unusual these days, and it elevates the movie in my opinion. However, it also must be said that because the filmmakers are showing a world in which the sunlight is much brighter, the whole movie has a washed out, colorless look that is at times distracting. I know it’s probably a realistic look and I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but just the same it did wear a little bit on me personally. Just sayin’.

I’m not going to say this is a pleasant little film because there’s a good deal of brutality in it, but I found it to be a pleasant surprise. It was much better than most of the critics I’ve read and heard from made it out to be. Denzel is a fine actor and an engaging screen presence and while I hesitate to say he can do no wrong, he has for sure not done wrong here.

REASONS TO GO: A very nice twist at the end. Washington does his best Clint Eastwood and is surprisingly good at it. Oldman is always an engaging actor.

REASONS TO STAY: The film has a bit of a washed-out feeling that lacks color, which I found to be a bit distracting after awhile. Once you’ve seen one post-apocalyptic landscape, you’ve seen them all.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a great deal of brutality and some rough language. There’s also a suggestion of rape. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the wall of the room in which Eli is kept prisoner at the Orpheum is a poster for A Boy and His Dog, another post-apocalyptic movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s a bit washed-out from a cinematography standpoint, so a smaller screen might lose some detail. See it in a theater just to be on the safe side.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Darwin Awards