New Releases for the Week of August 29, 2014


As Above, So BelowAS ABOVE SO BELOW

(Universal/Legendary) Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

A group of student explorers in the catacombs of Paris are trapped by a rock fall. With no choice but to go further into the labyrinth, they find themselves lost. Soon, inexplicable things begin to happen to them and the group realizes that they have stumbled onto an ancient secret, one which may cost them their lives.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout)

50 to 1

(Ten Furlongs) Christian Kane, Skeet Ulrich, William Devane, Madelyn Deutch. A group of New Mexico cowboys who have more heart than brains are stunned when their crooked-footed horse qualifies for the Kentucky Derby. Getting the horse there though is half the battle and once they get there, they’ll only have to face the elite of horse racing in the glare of the biggest spotlight in the sport. If ever there was an impossible dream, this must be it.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive material and a bar brawl)

The Calling

(Vertical) Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace, Gil Bellows, Donald Sutherland. A small town police detective has never had a whole lot of work thrown her way but a series of murders in the surrounding area puts her face to face with a serial killer who is answering to a higher calling.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

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

Cantinflas

(Pantelion) Oscar Jaenada, Michael Imperioli, Ilse Salas, Barbara Mori. Mexico’s most beloved comedian has a story that is largely unknown outside his native land. From humble beginnings he rose to the bright lights and fame of Hollywood, co-starring in the Michael Todd Oscar-winning epic Around the World in 80 Days. This is his story.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biography

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, language, smoking and some suggestive material)

Land Ho!

(Sony Classics) Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Lynn Nelson, Karrie Crouse, Elizabeth McKee. Two dear old friends, once married to two sisters, have drifted apart over the years. Now that one is divorced and the other is a widower, they decide (albeit one of them reluctantly) to take a vacation to Iceland where the two may find the adventure still in their hearts even if the bodies aren’t quite what they used to be.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

November Man

(Relativity) Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Eliza Taylor. One of the CIA’s most lethal operatives has been living in relative peace and quiet in Switzerland after retiring. However, he is lured out of the pasture for one final mission, but soon discovers that it is not what it seems to be and that he will be forced to take on his most brilliant protégé in a game that he once knew but whose rules have changed.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence including a sexual assault, language, sexuality/nudity and brief drug use)

Raja Natwarlal

(UTV) Emraan Hashmi, Humaima Malik, Kay Kay Menon, Deepak Tijori. After a small time con man is wronged by a big time gangster, the grifter seeks the help of his mentor to get his revenge on the crook.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals

New Releases for the Week of November 22, 2013


The Hunger Games-Catching Fire

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE               

(Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Katniss Everdeen’s victory in the 74th Hunger Games has made her not only a hero but an icon, a symbol that is becoming dangerous to the ruling class of Panem. While on her victory tour, a plan is hatched to see to it that she becomes an enemy of the people, a figure of hatred and revulsion. Katniss, however, has other ideas.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)

Blue is the Warmest Color

(Sundance Selects) Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux, Jeremie Laheurte, Catherine Salee. A 15-year-old French girl is determined to find out what all the fuss is about boys and sex in particular. She means to find the right one to take her virginity. However, her plans are thrown into disarray when she meets a free-spirited blue-haired woman who raises feelings in her she has never had to handle before now. Based on a French graphic novel, this was a huge but controversial hit at Sundance earlier this year.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NC-17 (for explicit sexual content)

The Christmas Candle

(Echolight) Hans Matheson, Samantha Barks, Sylvester McCoy, John Hannah. In the tiny English town of Gladbury, there is a Christmas tradition in which an angel visits the village candlemaker each Christmas Eve and touches a single candle which grants to whomever lights it a miracle. But this is the turn of the 20th century after all and the new preacher has no time for such nonsense – in fact, it’s time to bring electricity to the church. However, the preacher – and the village – have no idea what kind of miracle is in store for them this Christmas. Based on the Max Lucado novel.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Holiday Drama

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements) 

The Delivery Man

(DreamWorks) Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Colbie Smulders, Britt Robertson. David Wozniak is a habitual slacker who is pushing 40 and still doesn’t really have a clue what he wants to do with his life. When his girlfriend gets pregnant, he looks forward to being a father but she breaks up with him instead, realizing that he  won’t ever be father material. Realizing he has a lot of work to do, he is given the perfect opportunity – a snafu at a fertility clinic to which he had donated sperm years ago had caused him to be the biological father to 533 now-grown children. Based on the Florida Film Festival hit Starbuck.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual content, some drug material, brief violence and language)

Gori Tere Pyaar Mein

(Reliance) Kareena Kapoor, Imran Khan, Anupam Khan, Shraddha Kapoor. A young architect is more interested in spending his father’s considerable fortune than he is in designing buildings. A chance encounter leads him to the realization that there is a lot more to life than having fun.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Kill Your Darlings

(Sony Classics) Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Jack Huston, Elizabeth Olsen. In 1944, three young men and aspiring writers would meet at Columbia University. Their lives would be permanently entwined by their words – and also by a murder that took place that would lead to a new Beat that reverberates through American society to this day. Meet Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

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

The Italian Job (2003)


The Italian Job

That Mini-Cooper could probably fit inside that helicopter with room to spare.

(2003) Action (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland, Boris Lee Krutonog, Julie Costello, Gawtti, Franky G, Aaron Speiser, Olek Krupa, Thomas Alexander. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

It started out as a perfect heist. The brazen pilfering of Venetian gold, misdirection to lead pursuit away, and the recovery of the ill-gotten gains. Better still, this wasn’t the work of mastermind John Bridger (Sutherland), who is looking to get out of the game for good, but of his protégé, Charlie Croker (Wahlberg), who is taking over the crew.

Unexpectedly, they are betrayed by Steve (Norton) one of their own, who wants all the gold for himself. Knowing that Bridger has an aversion to carrying guns, Steve brings a few of his own and uses them. Most of the crew gets away, but John Bridger does not.

Fast forward a few years. The crew has managed to track down the elusive Steve back to Los Angeles, and are just itching for a little payback – not to mention the gold they stole. Left Ear (Mos Def), computer expert Napster (Green) and driver Handsome Rob (Statham) have reunited with Charlie, but they need an expert safecracker to take John’s old role. It so happens that John’s daughter Stella (Theron) has become an excellent safecracker, after a fashion; she is a security consultant who tests the vulnerability of safes for large corporations. She’s not really interested in ill-gotten gains, but it turns out she is very interested in getting revenge on the man who killed her father.

As with most caper movies, there are twists, turns and suspense a-plenty. Some wonderful car chases, some terrific action sequences and a nice bit of poetic justice near the end, although I couldn’t really call it an unexpected twist. Director F. Gary Gray is a bit too heavy-handed for that. He also has too many extraneous characters in the movie. I’m not sure if he’s trying to do some misdirection of his own, but it doesn’t work.

We could have done without the Russian mobsters and the informant, Skinny Pete (Gawtti). Frankly, some of the gang could have used a little more screen time. Gray, however, cast this movie to near-perfection. Green is fast becoming the Steve Buscemi for a new generation; he is nervous, quirky and always entertaining when he is riffing on his own. Statham is perfectly cast as Handsome Rob, the driver. He is absolutely riveting when he is on screen, and while he hasn’t gotten the huge screen star career I thought he was going to when I first saw this, he has managed to carve out a pretty satisfying niche in the action genre and has made some fairly nice films, although there is a lot of b-movie drekk in there as well. Wahlberg is settling into an action-hero niche nicely, although I’ve found him to be one-dimensional at times here but he nicely fills the role of the resourceful mastermind for the purposes of this film.

It is Theron who really caught my notice. Up until this point I’d never been very fond of her – she’sd always seemed kind of prissy in most of the movies I’ve seen her in up until this film, but she really held her own, and quite frankly, she looks better than she ever has at least until Snow White and the Huntsman (I know, I know, I’m a shallow, shallow man). Edward Norton gets to be a smarmy bad guy, a role in which he excels and pretty much perfects here.

The psychology of the movie is a little predictable; father-figure gets gunned down in front of the impressionable eyes of the hero, who seeks justice and gets it without getting his hands dirty. You know that the trigger-happy Norton is going to get his at the end of the movie, but you can’t have the hero getting blood on his hands; Hollywood might be going retro, but the anti-hero is a bit too retro for the tastes of most studios. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to line up Wahlberg as a criminal, but then he’s not a murderer, so he’s not too bad a guy. Of course, I could just be getting too grumpy in my old age.

Some movies should never be remade. Others can benefit from an updating. The 1969 Michael Caine caper movie on which this one is based is not what you would call a classic, but it is a movie of its time. That said, The Italian Job does what another remake, 2001`s Oceans 11 set out to do; take a movie of its time and make it timeless. Oceans 11 succeeded in its attempt, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Italian Job doesn’t quite become timeless, but it is an entertaining movie, and as the years have passed it has remained that way. I guess it is timeless after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Great action sequences. Theron emerges as a major star. Fun summer entertainment. Great ensemble.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wahlberg lacks the charisma I would have liked to have seen here. A little bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence and a lot of action.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Lyle’s girlfriend at the end of the film is played by Kelly Brook, who was Jason Statham’s actual girlfriend at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Mini-Coopers (which are used extensively in the chase sequence) and on the actors two weeks in drivers school (they did a lot of their own driving stunts).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.1M on a $60M production budget; the film was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans 11

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Beautiful Life

Instinct


Instinct

Cuba Gooding Jr. marvels at Anthony Hopkins hair growth after a wild weekend.

(1999) Thriller (Touchstone) Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward, Thomas Q. Morris, Doug Spinuzza, Paul Bates, Kim Ingram, Paul Collins, Louanne Stephens. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

What makes a human being? What separates us from the animals? And are we necessarily better off that way? Tough questions, any one of which would make a pretty fascinating movie. Instinct tries to tackle all three and winds up satisfactorily addressing none. However, it does make for a fine character study.

 Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins), a noted anthropologist, disappears while observing gorillas on a scientific expedition to Africa. When he resurfaces two years later, he is feral, homicidal, unwilling to speak and seemingly psychotic. No amount of therapy seems to be able to help, but Dr. Theo Caldwell (Gooding), a self-possessed and career-oriented psychologist with bigger ambitions, lobbies to assess Dr. Powell’s mental status and wins the job.

At first, the relationship is adversarial, but with the help of Dr. Powell’s photographer daughter Lynn (Tierney), Dr. Caldwell begins to make progress, getting the heretofore silent anthropologist speaking and finally the two begin to teach each other about life, humanity and everything else important, as we find out what really happened in Africa. Meanwhile, the brutal conditions in the prison Dr. Powell is residing in threaten that progress completely.

The cast here is uniformly fine, with Hopkins – perhaps the best pure actor in Hollywood today – giving a positively eerie performance. Gooding is likable enough, able to project the vulnerability beneath the self-confident veneer of the ambitious psychologist. Also worthy of note are Donald Sutherland as a mentor figure for Dr. Caldwell, John  Aylward as a bureaucratic warden and John Ashton as a sadistic guard.

The problem with Instinct is that for all its good intentions, it really doesn’t explore the underlying questions with anything resembling depth. Dr. Caldwell’s personal transformation is the focus here, but it seems a bit too pat. Powell’s own change of heart is a bit too abrupt and is never really explained much. It’s along the lines of “You need to see your daughter.” “I don’t want to.” “Why not?” “OK, OK, stop hassling me, you win, I’ll see her.” You get the drift. It’s like arriving at the destination without taking the journey – it may be more efficient, but then you miss the framework. Even the Mona Lisa needs a frame.

Instinct is all about veneer and the true person that dwells beneath. Civilization, according to the filmmakers, is a corrupt expression of our own vanity and greed, and should be excised. It ennobles the animal kingdom to almost preposterous dimensions. The truth about critters, folks, is that they live in the here and now, and have no other frame of reference beyond that. No right and wrong. The gorillas that Dr. Powell studies so rapturously would not hesitate in real life to tear the throat out of any crybaby scholar who violated their territory as thoroughly as he does.

Is the forest safer than an American city, as Dr. Powell suggests? Perhaps it is. But I guarantee you that the jungle has its own dangers that will take your life just as ruthlessly. Instinct posits that humans more in touch with their animal side are better for that connection may play well at PETA benefits, but shows absolutely no insight or understanding of animals…or humans.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Gooding and Hopkins. Interesting subject matter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Takes shortcuts. Lacks understanding.

FAMILY MATTERS: Hopkins’ Dr. Powell exhibits intensely violent behavior and the subject matter might be a little much for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dr. Powell was originally offered to Sean Connery who declined it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Congo

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Skin

The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence takes a bow.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Nelson Ascensio, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid. Directed by Gary Ross

 

For some, Darwinism boils down to survival of the fittest. Only those equipped to make it in a brutal, indifferent environment will move on to the next round. We see this in our social networking. We see this in our reality television.

In the future, it is all over our lives as well. After the fall of the United States, a new nation of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses meaning bread and circuses) rises. It is comprised of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. After a failed uprising, the Capitol has ordered that one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district would be selected at random and brought to the Capital for a fight to the death. Only one of the 24 young people would survive the competition, which was televised and became known as the Hunger Games.

This year is the 74th of the annual events. In District 12, the coal-mining district which is one of the poorest of them all, the people awaiting the Reaping (the ceremony in which the selection of the fighters, known as Tributes, is made) with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Katness Everdeen (Lawrence) is a veteran of these Reapings as is her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) who like many young people is chafed by the injustice of the very rich choosing from the very poor to die for their entertainment. Katness is more practical; she’s concerned with day-to-day survival in a situation where food is scarce.

Her sister Primrose (Shields) is in her first Reaping and is mighty scared about how things will turn out. Katness tries to reassure her; she’ll only have one entry into the Reaping while Katness and Gale have dozens. So of course when the Reaping takes place it is Primrose who is chosen; Katness, aghast, quickly volunteers to take her sister’s place. This isn’t unusual in the more urban districts but this is the first time District 12 has had a volunteer. Somewhat anti-climactically, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the son of a baker, is chosen for the boys.

The two are collected by Effie Trinket (Banks), a dandified handler and whisked away by bullet train to Capitol. There they are to be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), a sullen alcoholic who has the distinction of winning the Hunger Games twenty years previously. There is also Cinna (Kravitz), a genius of a designer whose purpose is to make the Tributes look as memorable as possible so they might attract sponsors, wealthy patrons who send their favored medicine, food, water and other supplies during the course of the game.

Training is interspersed by media appearances, particularly on the wildly popular talk show of Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) where Peeta lets it slip that he’s had an unrequited crush on Katness. When the game begins, Haymitch warns Katness to stay away from the cornucopia which would be a bloodbath and to find high ground and water. She follows his advice and is able to survive the brutal first few hours in which half the Tributes die.

Her skills in hunting and tracking serve her well, particularly as an alliance has been formed by Cato (Ludwig), Glimmer (Rambin) and Marvel (Quaid), some of the older and better-trained Tributes. Peeta has thrown in with this lot to help hunt down Katness who has quickly become one of the more popular Tributes. Katness is joined by Rue (Stenberg) who helps her outwit the alliance by pointing out a nest of Tracker Jackers, a kind of genetically enhanced hornet whose sting causes hallucinations and death, at least for Glimmer.

It will soon become apparent that Katness will not only be fighting her fellow Tributes but also the powers that be, led by the amoral President Snow (Sutherland) who don’t want to see the inspirational Katness succeed. The Hunger Games are turning out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

The wildly popular young adult books have transitioned well to the big screen, which translated to the third-largest opening of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel. The movie has gotten high critical praise and is rapidly on its way to becoming the next cultural phenomenon, replacing the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

It is also going to make a huge star out of Jennifer Lawrence. Katness is in many ways an iconic character; she’s a young woman of strength and ethics who feeds her family (much as Lawrence’s Ree Dolly did in Winter’s Bone) but shows compassion for the weak. She knows that her society isn’t just but is concerned more about survival until pushed to the limit. She makes for quite the role model.

Like in the Twilight series, Katness is faced with the love of two different men – the earnest and charismatic Peeta as well as the good-hearted and intelligent Gale. Expect hours of conversation between pre-teens and their moms about the relative merits of both gentlemen and which one is the right one for Katness.

Director Gary Ross has opted to go with a good deal of handheld camera work here, mostly to signify Katness’ point of view and illustrate the chaotic nature of the Games. That might be exciting for the younger viewers but for us older folks it gets annoying and intrusive; there are better ways to illustrate chaos than blurry, shaky images that make you want to look away from the screen than be mesmerized by it.

The images are dazzling in places, but not as much as I thought it would be. The overall look of Capitol is kind of like Versailles if it had been designed by the art director of The Fifth Element. It screams decadence and autocracy quite nicely, while dressing up the citizens of the outlying districts in homespun not unlike pioneers.

The action sequences are pretty marvelous although not necessarily groundbreaking. The stunts aren’t too terribly violent although there are a couple of pretty messy deaths here. Definitely original author Suzanne Collins has succeeded in creating a new environment that is simultaneously familiar and alien, inhabited by Tracker Jackers and mellifluous mockingjays (songbirds who appear in the movie’s emblem) as well as digitized Muttations.

There are those who see a socio-political commentary in the film; conservatives look at the young people as the Tea Party vs. the elitist left-leaning establishment, whereas liberals look at the young people as signifying the Occupy movement against the one per-centers. You are free to choose whichever interpretation you wish, or to make up one of your own. This is meant to be socio-political commentary disguised as entertainment but Collins is wise enough to be fairly vague in who’s who. That makes for some fairly nondescript politics but at least it is a place to start conversations. And when you’re talking one of the year’s most successful movies (having made three times its production budget in the first eight days), that’s not a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Several steps above the Twilight franchise. Lawrence sends her career to the next level.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little bit too long. Left me ambivalent about the inevitable next film in the franchise. Shaky cam was distracting and annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design for the cornucopia was based on the work of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan’s Run

GLADIATOR LOVERS: There are numerous references to ancient Rome, from the names of the citizens of Capitol (Coriolanus, Seneca, Cato) to the weapons used in the Games themselves.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

New Releases for the Week of March 23, 2012


March 23, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES

(Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones. Directed by Gary Ross

In a distant future, the United States is now the nation of Panem – whose Capitol demands that annually the twelve districts of Panem each send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and18 to be trained to fight in a series of battles from which only one will survive. When Katniss Everdeen’s sister is unexpectedly chosen, she volunteers to take her place. She will be forced to go up against career tributes who have trained their entire lives to perform in the Games. She will also find a cauldron of turmoil and intrigue inside Capitol itself with powerful enemies who are eager to see Katniss die.

See the trailer, clips, promos, interviews, web-only content and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard and Limited-Time IMAX Engagement

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens)

Agent Vinod

(Eros International) Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Prem Chopra, Ram Kapoor.  After a colleague is brutally murdered, Indian espionage expert Vinod travels around the world to discover who was behind the assassination. Along the way he will have to contend with vicious assassins and a seductive doctor whose motivations may not be what they seem.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Spy Action

Rating: NR

October Baby

(Goldwyn) Rachel Hendrix, Jason Burkey, Jasmine Guy, John Schneider. After collapsing onstage during her first performance in her college play, a young woman discovers that the reason for her medical issues was that she had a difficult birth. However, the real shocker is that she is actually adopted – after her birth mother had an abortion, albeit unsuccessfully. The student then departs with her best friend to find her birth mother and demand some answers – which usually lead to only more questions.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material)

Horrible Bosses


Horrible Bosses

Raise the roof, 1999!

(2011) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Jennifer Anniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland, Julie Bowen, Ioan Gruffudd, Isaiah Mustafa, Ron White, Bob Newhart, Lindsay Sloane, Celia Finklestein. Directed by Seth Gordon

Everyone who spends any amount of time in the workplace sooner or later is going to have it happen to them. The horrible boss – we all have horror stories about one or two. Some are so horrible we often fantasize about pushing them in front of a train. Of course, we would never do such a thing for real…would we?

Of course, most of us never have bosses like these. Nick Hendricks (Bateman) however, does. He is working hard for a promotion that has been dangled out in front of him by Dave Harken (Spacey), a mean, cruel, vindictive and manipulative man who jerks the rug out from under Nick’s feet after months of “motivating” him with the promotion.

So does Dale Arbus (Day), a dental assistant to Dr. Julia Harris (Anniston), a dentist with a libido the size of Texas. She harasses Dale, who’s engaged to the beautiful Stacy (Sloane) and wants no part of the predatory advances of Dr. Harris. Her obsession with him is threatening his future with Stacy.

Kurt Buckman (Sudeikis) has a great boss. Jack Pellit (Sutherland) is easy-going and is well-liked by his employees, especially Kurt who is like a son to him. His actual son, Bobby (Farrell), is a train wreck. A drug addict, a womanizer, and a selfish greedy bastard, when he takes over the company after a tragic set of circumstances, Kurt suddenly knows what it’s like to have a horrible boss.

All three of these guys are friends going back to high school. All three of them commiserate with each other at a local watering hole. All three of them agree that their lives would be better if their bosses were dead. And all three of them have seen Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

So has Mofo (that’s not his name, but his name wouldn’t exactly be marquee material) Jones (Foxx) who did ten years in the slam, and he figures out what these men have in mind. He agrees to become their “murder consultant” for a fee. The idea is for all of them need to kill each other’s boss – that way they can’t be pinned with a motive to kill a perfect stranger. Of course these types of ideas always work better in the movies…

First off, this is one of the funniest movies of the summer. It is much in the same vein from an overall standpoint (not so much in plot) as Bad Teacher and The Hangover Part II. It’s a raunchy, push-the-envelope kind of comedy that takes territory previously plumbed by Office Space – in some ways not as well and in others better – and pushes the boundaries a little bit further.

It helps having a stellar cast like this one. Bateman has risen rapidly through the ranks and become one of the busiest actors in Hollywood at the moment. He is likable and somewhat everyman-ish. He has a bit more of an edge here than he usually does but that’s understandable given the movie. Sudeikis has many of the same qualities, although he’s a bit more acerbic than Bateman. He does a pretty good job here, enough so that he might well move up a notch on the Hollywood ladder.

Day is best known for his work on the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I found him a little bit whiny here, which got on my nerves after awhile but I can see how he might be the breakout star from this movie, if there is one. His moment with Bateman in what will be forever known as the “cocaine scene” (the one where the three of them reconnoiter Bobby’s apartment and discover a cache of cocaine which Dale promptly drops on the floor. Day becomes, shall we say, infected. It’s one of the best moments in the film.

The bosses are great too. The actors playing them are all stars in their own right and they have fun with the outrageous parts. Anniston turns her image on its ear, playing a nymphomaniac of a boss. We see a side of Anniston that is far sexier than we’re used to (not that she can’t play sexy – she has and certainly does so here) and quite frankly, it’s pretty welcome. I like seeing her go out of her comfort zone a little.

Farrell can chew scenery with the best of them. His performance as Bullseye in Daredevil was one of the best things about that movie, and with his combover he is scarcely recognizable physically and like Anniston, you sense he’s having a good time with this. Spacey has played tyrannical bosses before (see Swimming With Sharks) and in some ways this is more or less a repeat of that performance, only on steroids.

Sutherland and Newhart, two veterans, only get a scene apiece, but make the most of their time. I would have liked to have seen more of them. Foxx only gets three scenes but he makes the most of his cameo as well. Otherwise nearly all the action revolves around the bosses and their employees so much of the onus is on their shoulders.

Fortunately they carry the movie well. Part of what makes this movie work is the casting. However, the other thing that makes the movie work is the writing. There are plenty of funny jokes, some great comic bits and the actors are given room not only to improvise but to take their characters as far as they can.

It doesn’t work well everywhere and some of the bits do fall flat. It isn’t Office Space which was a much better commentary on the modern workplace, but this is more of a comedy about cubicle cowboys pushed to their limits. It’s crude fun, and yes those who like their humor a little more gentle might be put off by this, but it is funny nonetheless. Sure, those who are unemployed might kill for any sort of boss, but those who are in need of a laugh should make a beeline for this one.

REASONS TO GO: At its best the movie is extremely funny, one of the funniest of the summer. The bosses sink their teeth into their roles.

REASONS TO STAY: A few of the bits don’t work as well. Day’s voice got annoyingly whiny after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of crude, sexual content and almost non-stop foul language. There is also a scene of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anniston dyed her hair a darker brown to differentiate her character from the lighter roles she usually plays.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

New Releases for the Week of July 8, 2011


July 8, 2011

HORRIBLE BOSSES

(New Line) Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Jennifer Anniston, Colin Ferrell, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Ioan Gruffud, Jamie Foxx, Julie Bowen, Bob Newhart, Isaiah Mustafa, Ron White. Directed by Seth Gordon

A trio of cubicle cowboys suffers from their own particular form of Purgatory; one has a psychotic boss who delights in making him squirm. Another has a female boss who thinks sexually harassing her employee is a form of foreplay. A third has a boss who might well be insane, giving orders to fire people on the flimsiest of pretenses. All three agree their lives would be much better without them. But how can three guys who are about as violent as a Smurf hope to put together a murder scenario for three people? With the help of a professional, that’s how.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

Buck

(Sundance Selects) Buck Brannaman, Robert Redford, Reata Brannaman, Betsy Shirley. Here is an amazing documentary on the life of Buck Brannaman, the man who was the model for The Horse Whisperer and served as an advisor on that film. These days he travels the country, giving clinics on humane ways for horse owners to train their horses rather than the barbaric practice of “breaking” them. His own childhood of abuse gives him insight into the plight of the horses. For those who want to know what I thought of it, here is my review.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, mild language and an injury)

Page One: Inside the New York Times

(Magnolia) Brian Stelter, Tim Arango, David Carr. A rare but fascinating glimpse inside the inner workings of America’s most prestigious newspaper. Particular attention is paid to the Media Desk and to columnists covering our changing world. This is the story of a year in the life of an institution struggling to survive as the news gathering industry changes around it.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Zookeeper

(Columbia) Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Joe Rogen. When a kindly zookeeper’s chosen profession gets in the way of his love life, he resolves to get a new career. This doesn’t sit well with the animals under his care who don’t want to lose the best keeper they’d ever had. They resolve to help him get the woman of his dreams but to do so they have to let him in on a huge secret – they can talk like humans. Paging Doctor Doolittle, Doctor Doolittle your lawyers are calling.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family Comedy

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

The Eagle


The Eagle

Tahar Rahim checks to make sure Channing Tatum isn't carved of wood as Jamie Bell looks on indistinctly.

(2011) Swords and Sandals (Focus) Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, Lukacs Bicskey, Dakin Matthews, Tahar Rahim, Pip Carter, Simon Paisley Day, Aladar Lakloth, Thomas Henry, Ned Dennehy. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

It is said that in 117 A.D., the Ninth Legion of Rome marched into the wilds of Caledonia on a mission to expand the Empire. They were never seen again, nor was their standard, a golden Eagle that represents Imperial Rome.

It is 20 years later and the son of the commander of that ill-fated expedition, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) has requesting a posting for his first command in Briton. His identity doesn’t sit well with the men but they follow him resolutely like good Romans, particularly his second-in-command Lutorius (O’Hare). When Marcus seemingly uses psychic powers to detect a raid on the outpost and saves the men from annihilation, he gets the admiration of his men. When he is severely injured in the melee, he is given a commendation. He is also discharged from the army.

He recovers at the villa of his Uncle Aquila (Sutherland), who regales him with stories of his father. While recuperating, he attends some gladiatorial games and witnesses the bravery of a slave sent out to fight a gladiator. When the slave Esca (Bell) refuses to fight, Marcus is impressed and urges the mob to spare him which they do. As a reward, Aquila buys the slave for Marcus. 

When word reaches them that the Eagle of the Ninth has been sighted in Caledonia (modern day Scotland), Marcus decides to go – not with an army behind him, but just him and the slave who has said that he hates all Romans, including Marcus. There they will go where no Roman dares go – master and slave, neither one trusting the other. Together they will find the truth of the fate of the Ninth – and restore the family name of Aquila, or die in the attempt. 

Kevin Macdonald has directed Oscar nominees (The Last King of Scotland) and Oscar winners (One Day in September). This will be neither. What it turns out to be is an old-fashioned action adventure film with a nice historical perspective – it is rumored that the Ninth Legion disappeared around that time, although there are some facts that dispute it.  There is a minimum of CGI and no cast of thousands here. Most of the battle scenes take place amidst a very few soldiers, and we get no sense of vast numbers here. All this makes for a fairly intimate setting as epics go.

Tatum is not known to be among Hollywood’s most revered actors, although he has shown some promise in films like Stop/Loss. Too often he gets cast as the hunky action hero and that appears to be more or less his speed, at least as far as Hollywood’s concerned; something tells me he has a lot more to offer, given the right role. Here he does the strong silent type, although he seems to be trying to affect an English accent which slips in and out somewhat unfortunately. It’s distracting and I would have preferred he retain his American accent had I been directing.  

The master-slave relationship is at the crux of the movie, and fortunately Bell and Tatum make a good team. Bell is another young British actor who I foresee good things happening from in the near future; while this movie isn’t likely to catapult his career forward, at least it isn’t setting it back either. His performance is strong and competent.

Also of note is Rahim as the leader of the Seal People, a tribe of Celts in northern Caledonia. Some might remember him from A Prophet as the young Franco-Arab sent to prison but here he is the nominal villain, and yet he engenders such sympathy that you almost wind up rooting for him in spite of yourself. That’s the definition of a great movie villain in my book. 

If you are looking for the fairer sex here, look elsewhere. There are few women seen in anything other than as extras, mostly looking at Tatum and Bell lustfully. This is most certainly a man’s world and we are just passing through. I’m not sure that it helped the movie any – I for one like having both sexes present in a movie – but I suppose it made a sort of sense that the women took a backseat in this film.

That’s kind of odd too, because the novel the movie was based on, “The Eagle of the Ninth,” was written by Rosemary Sutcliff back in 1954 and she by all accounts was all woman. While some more ignorant critics have labeled the source material a children’s book (and Sutcliff wrote a great many of those), it was in fact not specifically aimed at children and is a good read for young and old alike.

The movie differs from the book in a number of very basic and fundamental ways so purists beware. One of the more basic tangents is the relationship of Esca and Marcus which is less a factor in the book than it is in the movie. I like the movie’s interpretation of it, although the thought of a patrician Roman and a lowly British slave becoming friends…not likely.  

Still it’s that chemistry that drives the movie and while it reeks of old-fashioned Hollywood smarm, it’s still effective in an era that tends to choose flash and glitter over story. The Eagle doesn’t necessarily blow one away visually, but the story and the underlying adventure are a bit of a breath of fresh air. For those who are fond of saying they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, here’s living proof that they can and they do.

REASONS TO GO: Good buddy dynamic between Tatum and Bell. Some nice adventure action and an authentic looking Roman setting.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit on the pedestrian side and the lack of women in the film is a bit off-putting but not as much as Tatum’s attempt at an accent.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle violence and a few images that might be disturbing to the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family name of the main character is Aquila, which is Latin for “eagle.”

HOME OR THEATER: There are some battle scenes and wilderness shots that certainly will look nifty on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Just Go With It