Tamara Drewe


The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Luke Evans, Bill Camp, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, James Naughtie, John Bett, Josie Taylor, Bronagh Gallagher, Pippa Haywood, Susan Wooldridge, Amanda Lawrence, Zahra Ahmadi, Cheryl Campbell. Directed by Stephen Frears

Thomas Hardy famously wrote that “you can’t go home again.”  I have always taken that to mean that when you leave your home, your journey elsewhere changes you or time changes your home. Either way when you return the changes made to you, the place you call home or both leave it an entirely different experience altogether.

Tamara Drewe (Arterton) left the quiet Dorset village of Ewedown to seek her fortune as a journalist in London. She left an ugly duckling with a nose large enough to put off the village boys (except for one) from being friendly with her; she returns a beautiful swan, not only having found success in her career but a skilled plastic surgeon as well.

She’s returned to sell the home she grew up in after her mum passed away. But not only has Tamara changed, Ewedown has as well. It has become home to a writer’s colony, set up by bestselling crime author Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) but mainly administered by his tolerant wife Beth (Greig). Nicholas is a bit too busy philandering to really take an interest in it.

Tamara’s arrival as far as Nicholas is concerned means one more pair of panties to get inside but to others in the village, it means a different thing altogether. For Andy (Evans), the boy we spoke of earlier who was the only one to be romantically drawn to Tamara, it means a second chance to be with the woman he loves (but it also means additional income as Tamara hires him to help get the house in order for the sale). For local teens Jody (Barden) and Casey (Christie) it means someone else to torment and another life to investigate. Jody in particular has it in for Tamara because she has been having an affair (after Nicholas has come and gone) with rock drummer Ben Sargeant (Cooper) whom Jody has a huge crush on. And for aspiring writer Glen McCreavy (Camp) who has come to Dorset from America to immerse himself in Hardy and perhaps find a muse, it is an opportunity to develop a relationship with Beth whom he slowly becomes infatuated with – it must be the scratch-baked pastries.

All in all, there will be meddling, secrets revealed, tragedy, comedy and frankly, a lot of people getting what they deserve. But what would Thomas Hardy think?

Frears is a marvelous director who often looks at the libidinous nature of life and finds humor in it. He directed one of my favorite all-time films in High Fidelity as well as some pretty high quality efforts in My Beautiful Launderette and The Queen. He shows a good sensibility for capturing the rhythms and quirks of English country life here, largely due to an intelligent and well-written script by Moira Buffini.

Arterton has been developing an impressive resume of both big-budget tentpole films and more intimate indies and dramas. Here she’s mostly required to be sexy, which she is amply qualified for. While she receives top billing, the movie really isn’t about Tamara. Tamara is more of a catalyst.

Frears has wisely cast a group of actors who don’t necessarily have a lot of name value (although Cooper and Evans are both building respectable careers) but are entirely capable. Greig in particular does extremely well in the sympathetic role of Beth who manages to be kind and supportive even though she is no fool and is perfectly aware that her husband is a rotten human being.

The film is high on charm albeit low on insight. This isn’t a movie to turn to when you want to learn something new about human nature, although if you lack experience in such you might sing a different tune. To be honest, there are definitely many films out there (including by Frears himself) that capture the foibles and quagmires of love more succinctly.

The one real misstep in the script is a fairly major one – the characters of Jody and Casey. While they do cause some of the major plot points to occur, in all honesty every time they take the screen as a kind of Greek chorus, they tend to summarize what’s going on with each of the characters that they are in the midst of investigating. The movie loses what momentum it has when this occurs and could have done better without them.

For me, this was a movie that while charming is ultimately full of empty calories. The pastries that Beth bake are from scratch, crafted with love and honest ingredients. The film however feels store-bought in a lot of ways. Me, I would rather enjoy something home baked than something out of a box.

WHY RENT THIS: Superb performance by Greig. A great deal of charm. Captures rural English village life in the 21st century perfectly. Intelligently written.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight. Jody and Casey tend to stop the film in its tracks when they are onscreen.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original graphic novel by Posy Simmonds was itself a collection of comic strips originally published in the UK newspaper The Guardian and was a modern re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy classic Far From the Madding Crowd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a discussion with Frears and Arterton on how the graphic novel was transformed into a film and some of the differences therein.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.9M on an unreported production budget; this was very likely a solidly profitable film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Great Gatsby (2013)

New Releases for the Week of March 8, 2013


Oz The Great and Powerful

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

(Disney) James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer. Directed by Sam Raimi

A small-time Kansas stage magician dreams of bigger things, of becoming a great and powerful man. When he is sucked through a cyclone into a magical land, it looks like he’ll get that opportunity but it will be a far more perilous journey than he could possibly have imagined and not knowing who to trust makes it all the more dangerous

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)

56 Up

(First Run) Michael Apted, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield. In 1964 filmmaker Michael Apted interviewed 14 classmates to get an idea of what their lives were like, what their hopes and dreams were and what they wanted to do with their lives. Every seven years since he’s gotten back together with the original 14 to see how they were getting on with their lives. Now that group is 56 years old and well into middle age, with old age in sight on the horizon. This social experiment has become one of the most important and riveting documentary series in the history of film.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR  

Dead Man Down

(FilmDistrict) Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard. When a woman witnesses a killer for hire doing his work, she contracts him to do a job for her – to take out a vicious criminal who’d disfigured her. When it turns out he has good reason for wanting this same criminal out of the picture, it looks like a match made in….well, heaven might not be exactly the right word but you know what I mean. Anyway things don’t go according to plan – they so rarely do – and they find themselves dealing with a dangerous kind of chaos. From the director of the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality)

Emperor

(Roadside Attractions) Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Eriko Hatsune, Kaori Momoi. Following the surrender of Japan at the conclusion of World War II, the American occupying force and General Douglas MacArthur, the de facto ruler of Japan, had a thorny question to work out. What were they to do with Emperor Hirohito, worshipped as a living god by the Japanese people but accused of war crimes. Should he be punished for the crimes perpetrated by the Japanese military, or should he be pardoned? With Japan a potential powder keg, MacArthur assigns an officer who has his own connections to the Land of the Rising Sun to unravel the Emperor’s guilt.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for violent content, brief strong language and smoking) 

Sound City

(Variance) Paul McCartney, Lindsey Buckingham, Barry Manilow, Trent Reznor. One of the most legendary recording facilities in the world is Sound City. Nestled amid unassuming industrial warehouses in the San Fernando Valley, this facility has been where some of the most influential and acclaimed albums in history were recorded. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl turns filmmaker as he chronicles the efforts to record an all-star album here, interviewing many of those who have recorded their most famous albums at Sound City.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins

New Releases for the Week of June 22, 2012


June 22, 2012

BRAVE

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

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

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

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

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Thriller

Rating: R (for violence throughout and brief sexuality) 

Lola Versus

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

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

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

Moonrise Kingdom

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

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World

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

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

Teri Meri Kahaani

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

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR 

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

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

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

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

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

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

New Releases for the Week of August 12, 2011


August 12, 2011

FINAL DESTINATION 5

(New Line) Nicholas D’Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher, Arlen Escapreta, David Koechner, Tony Todd, Courtney B. Vance, P.J. Byrne, Ellen Wroe. Directed by Steven Quale

When a suspension bridge collapses, several young people are saved from certain doom by the premonition one young man has about the impending disaster. The survivors are then picked off one by one in various elaborate and gruesome ways. Note to self: this summary can be used for any Final Destination movie past present or future, substituting only the specific disasters; speedway crash, bus crash, roller coaster crash, airplane explosion. See how easy a preview summary can be?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: R (for strong violence/gruesome accidents, and some language)

30 Minutes or Less

(Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Michael Pena. The follow-up from the director of Zombieland concerns a couple of bumbling criminals who concoct a crazy scheme to get others to rob banks for them. They simply strap a bomb to their chest and tell them they have 30 minutes to rob a bank or they’ll get blowed up real good. They choose a hapless stoner of a pizza delivery guy as their pigeon, but things go way out of control from there.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy

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

Another Earth

(Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, William Mapother, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor. The lives of an aspiring astrophysicist and a brilliant composer are linked by a terrible tragedy on the eve of the most amazing discovery in the history of the planet. A duplicate Earth has been discovered and the lives of these two people – and everyone else on the planet – are about to be irrevocably changed.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing images, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use)

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

(Sony Classics) Common, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Mos Def. One of the most acclaimed and influential hip hop groups ever was A Tribe Called Quest. Although their members have gone on to other careers and the group broke up far too soon in the minds of some, their music remains a testament to how innovative and cutting edge rap can be. This Michael Rappaport-directed documentary goes backstage with the band and explores the drama that surrounded them (and eventually broke them apart) as well as the creative process behind some of the greatest hip hop songs ever.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: R (for language)

The Devil’s Double

(Lionsgate) Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi, Philip Quast. A simple soldier is chosen to be the body double for the notorious son of Saddam Hussein, the Black Prince Uday Hussein. Forced into this service in order to keep his family safe, the young soldier is thrust into a glamorous world of drugs, sex and brutality as he is witness to the depravity of a modern-day monster.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and torture, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language)

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

(20th Century Fox) Lea Michele, Corey Monteith, Kevin McHale, Amber Riley. Gleeks everywhere are getting an emotional chubby knowing that their time is finally here. The hit television show has spawned a multi-city tour which has been in turn made into a 3D concert movie. You can be there, right onstage as the kids from “Glee” belt out vapid covers of songs from the last 30 years. I’m not sure which would be worse torture, this or the Justin Bieber concert movie. It’s a toss-up.

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG (for some rude and suggestive humor, and language)

The Help

(Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer. When a young journalist fresh out of college decides to write a feature on the lives of the household servants in Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-1960s she puts all of them at grave risk. Based on a best-selling novel, the story unfolds into an unlikely but deep abiding friendship that shows how the power of the truth can cause changes in even the most entrenched behavior (Opening Wednesday August 10).

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material)

Captain America: The First Avenger


Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans isn’t sure the new uniform for FTD delivery guys is appropriate for a soldier’s uniform.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount/Marvel) Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Richard Armitage, Kenneth Choi, JJ Feild,  Michael Brandon, Amanda Righetti, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Joe Johnston

Part of the American character is to root for the underdog. There is something about someone beating the odds that capture the imagination of American audiences, particularly when it is someone less physically gifted that surpasses those with more natural talent.

It is World War II and Steve Rogers (Evans) wants nothing more than to enlist but his scrawny asthmatic physique gets rejected every time. His best buddy, James “Bucky” Barnes (Stan) is about to be shipped over and as he and Steve and a couple of dames visit the New York Fair of Tomorrow (think of the Stark fair from Iron Man 2) to celebrate Bucky’s last night before shipping out, Steve spies a recruiting station. He and Bucky have an impassioned discussion which catches the ear of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci). Finally Steve leaves his friend to make one more fruitless attempt to enlist.

At least, Bucky thinks it’s going to be fruitless – heck, even Rogers thinks it’s going to be fruitless – but Erskine walks in and makes Steve an offer. At last, Steve Rogers is going to do his part. He is sent to boot camp, run by the crusty Colonel Phillips (T.L. Jones) and overseen by the lovely British agent Peggy Carter (Atwell). While there are better physical specimens there (which the Colonel appreciates), Erskine and Carter are drawn to less obvious characteristics that Steve possesses, much to Phillips’ chagrin.

Steve is eventually chosen to be the guinea pig in a “super soldier” program to be injected with a serum that will make him stronger, faster and a better fighter. Erskine will be assisted by Howard Stark (Cooper), a wealthy aviator who is one of America’s most brilliant weapon designers. The operation is a success but agents of the Nazi science group Hydra wreck any further thought of creating an army of super soldiers.

Hydra is led by Johann Schmidt (Weaving), better known to comic book fans as the Red Skull who was injected with a earlier version of the formula causing the visage that gave him his nickname, although it is never uttered at any time during the movie. He has stolen a power source once protected by Odin of the Norse Gods (see Thor) and is using it to power weapons designed by the brilliant Dr. Armin Zola (T. Jones) that will turn the tide of the war.

Of course, nobody on the Allied side knows that yet. Steve, whose exploits in corralling the Nazi agent that threw the monkey wrench into the super soldier works were done very publically, has become a war bonds spokesman as Captain America, a persona the shy and unassuming Steve is uncomfortable with but like a good soldier, he does what he’s told, even if the orders are odious to him. When he learns that his pal Bucky has been captured by Hydra (along with most of his battalion), Steve does something most un-Steve Rogers like – he defies orders and goes in to rescue his friend.

Captain America is in many ways the Superman of the Marvel Universe – the iconic hero tied to the American way. He is almost too good to be true, but in this movie he is good enough to be true. Evans plays him in the digitally enhanced 98-pound-weakling the same way he plays him cut and muscular – with a hint of humility and plenty of fight in the dog, although there are touches of doubt and disappointment.

Johnston, who has previously directed The Rocketeer, another period comic book-based movie (which gave us Jennifer Connolly, among other things) does a wonderful job of recreating the World War II era, from the art deco lines to the make-up of Peggy Carter. The war bonds shows that Cap undertakes complete with singers, dancers and a sneaky little Hitler are spot-on.

This is a superhero movie with character, literally. Johnston takes the time to bring Steve Rogers to life just as equally as Captain America. Like Sam Raimi before him, Johnston clearly understands that the alter ego is equally as important as the superhero. Humanizing the paragon of virtue makes him more accessible; giving him challenges that we can relate to brings us closer to him.

Still, he also gives several nods to the fanboy base, throwing in enough references to the comics and the Marvel universe circa WWII in particular to keep that segment of the audience picking through the DVD/Blu-Ray long into the night. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Of the main superhero movies that have been released this summer (and this was supposed to be the big triumphant superhero movie summer), this is the best and unexpectedly so. I wouldn’t have called that back in April when writing the Summer Preview. At that point, I would have given the nod to Green Lantern and Thor first but nonetheless I liked Captain America: The First Avenger more.

As for criticism that this is essentially a two hour trailer for the forthcoming Avengers movie, well I for one like that Marvel Studios is taking the model that works for their comic book universe and applying it to their motion picture division. I like the idea of event movies that will bring together the heroes from other franchises into a single film. To that end, certainly this movie is pointing to the next one but it stands on its own as well. That kind of criticism is, to my mind, ignorant of the medium and of the audience that follows it.

Be that as it may, this ranks right up there with the summer’s best films. It’s got great action sequences, terrific characters, wonderful special effects and a great heart at its center. This reminds me not only of the way movies used to be, but of the best movies being made now. There is certainly a place for that in summer blockbuster films.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly, giving it a bit of a revisionist spin to fit the Marvel comics universe. Evans carries the movie nicely and gets support in every quarter.

REASONS TO STAY: Cap might be too goodie two-shoes for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of wartime violence and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film based on a comic book that Evans has done.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the action sequences deserve a big canvas and huge sound system.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: The Dark Knight

New Releases for the Week of July 22, 2011


July 22, 2011

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

(Paramount/Marvel) Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Richard Armitage, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Joe Johnston

The early days of the Marvel Universe are explored as Steve Rogers, the prototypical 97 pound weakling, wants so badly to do his part in World War II that he takes part in an experiment in which he is injected with a serum that will turn him from zero to hero. Joining up with his partner Bucky Barnes and the sassy scientist Peggy Carter, he will take on the hordes of Hydra (a Nazi group that utilizes almost mystical science) and their leader, the villainous Red Skull.

See the trailer, promos, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Superhero

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

Friends With Benefits

(Screen Gems) Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman. A pair of friends, disenchanted with love, still craves sex. They decide to become friends with benefits – a non-romantic relationship in which the participants both get to have sex with each other. While the two think they’ve got the best of all worlds, instead they find that sex very often brings its own set of complications – both emotional and otherwise.

See the trailers, interviews, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language)

Submarine

(Weinstein) Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Yasmin Paige. A 16-year-old English schoolboy worries that his parents’ marriage is crumbling to pieces. He has also fallen for a young classmate who is brash and intimidating, but may be his route to growing up. This was a big hit at Sundance earlier this year.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Mamma Mia!


Mamma Mia!

Blondes do have more fun, especially in the Greek isles.

(2008) Musical (Universal) Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Julia Walters, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Rachel McDowall, Ashley Lilley, Ricardo Montez, George Georgiou.  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

I will admit it. I was a big ABBA fan in the 70s. Their influence can be felt in music today, from the alternative Swedish pop movement to the pop music of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. They were a phenomenon in their time, and despite the critical scorn heaped upon them, they actually wrote some pretty good music that stands the test of time.

That music also spawned a stage musical that has sold tens of millions of tickets all over the world. This is what is called a “jukebox musical,” one which is written around already established songs rather than having original songs. More on that in a moment.

Sophie (Seyfried) is getting married which is reason enough to rejoice. She is obviously deeply in love with Sky (Cooper), her fella but the one fly in the ointment is that she doesn’t know who her dad is. Her mom Donna (Streep), an ex-pop singer who has retired to the Greek Islands to run a taverna and raise a daughter on her own isn’t talking so Sophie resorts to reading her mom’s diary to find a clue and comes up with three possibilities; Bill (Skarsgard), an adventurer; Harry (Firth) a financier and Sam (Brosnan), a handsome guy.

Sophie invites all three to the wedding. It takes a little time for the boys to figure it out but eventually they realize that they could be daddy. In the meantime, Sophie tries to hide the three of them from her mom, who eventually discovers them. Not a happy surprise, let me tell you.

Mom has invited her best friends and bandmates Rosie (Walters) and Tanya (Baranski) more as moral support than anything else, but also so the three can perform at the bachelorette party for Sophie. However, the appearance of these three men has thrown Donna into turmoil, and Sophie is beginning to have doubts about her wedding too. Can love save the day?

If it can’t, ABBA certainly can. The music of the Swedish supergroup is infectious and uplifting; it’s hard not to crack a smile to songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me.” Director Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed the stage version) utilizes the beautiful Greek island landscape to further up the sunshine quotient.

Streep, who has sung onscreen previously in such films as The Prairie Home Companion and Silkwood, is the champ here. She belts out her tunes with confidence and aplomb and her rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” is a showstopper, one in which even the jaded movie theater audience applauded and cheered to. Certainly at home, you’ll feel goosebumps at the very least.

Unfortunately, not all of the cast fares quite as well. Firth has a pleasant enough voice and Seyfried is strong if not as gifted as Streep but Skarsgard is a much better actor than a singer and Brosnan…well, I like the man but his duet with Streep had me literally wincing. He can’t sing period.

Still, the singing and dancing is mostly okay, and is at least energetic if not always competent. While the acting performances are solid enough, if you’re going to cast a musical I think it’s wise to put people who can sing and dance in it; that is, after all, why we’re seeing the movie no?

Now about jukebox musicals in general; while they don’t disturb me in principle, they have an inherent flaw. Because the songs are already written, the plot must be written around the songs. In regular musicals, the songs are written to enhance and advance the plot; here the plot is set decoration to the songs. The story, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1968 Gina Lollabrigida movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (a fact that the makers of the musical have written of as coincidental) often takes twists and turns and careens right into the ludicrous.

Still, there is the kind of energy that makes you feel good just radiating from the film. Kudos have to be given to the producers and Lloyd for making the movie feel like a movie. Often stage plays that are converted to the big screen have a stagey feel to them, but the beautiful Greek backdrop lessens that to a large extent. You don’t ever feel like you’re viewing this over a proscenium.

However be warned; Lloyd’s decision to let all the actors do their own dancing and singing was a questionable one at best and if she was going to pursue that route, she should have damn well made sure that her cast could handle it. It’s not like there aren’t leading men out there who could have handled the singing and dancing (Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris anybody?) at least adequately. Still, you know what you’re going to get going in and if you’re an ABBA fan, this is heaven on earth. If you’re a movie fan…not so much.

WHY RENT THIS: Joyous and energetic; it’s hard not to be uplifted. Streep is a surprisingly strong singer and Seyfried became a star. Not as stagey as you might expect.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the singing and dancing is really, really bad. The plot is shoehorned in to fit the songs, rather than songs written to enhance the plot.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few comments that are sexually-oriented but otherwise pretty harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was the first to film on the new Pinewood 007 stage after the original had been destroyed in a fire.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting featurette on training the actors to sing, as well as a complete musical number that was cut from the final print (“The Name of the Game”). The Blu-Ray edition also includes the “sing-along” version (with lyrics subtitled during the songs) and Universal’s signature “U-Control” feature with picture-in-picture interviews and trivia. There is also a Gift Box edition that includes the soundtrack on CD as well as a nicely done booklet about the genesis of the film from on stage to on screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $609.8M on a $52M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Seraphim Falls

An Education


An Education

They'll always have Paris...

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick.  Directed by Lone Scherfig

There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.

It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.

This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.

Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.

This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.

Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.

Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.

However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.

The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.

The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2