New Releases for the Week of September 6, 2013


Riddick

RIDDICK

(Universal) Vin Diesel, Karl Urban, Jordi Molla, Katee Sackhoff, Bokeem Woodbine, Dave Bautista, Conrad Pla, Matt Nable, Keri Hilson. Directed by David Twohy

Riddick, one of the most dangerous men in the Universe, has been abandoned and left for dead on a hellish rock. Bounty hunters are on their way to collect him and they’re not too picky what shape he’s in when they turn him in. However, Riddick isn’t the only dangerous thing on this planet and the bounty hunters soon realize that their only chance for survival may be the very man they’ve come to take – only he may be harder to contain than the murderous creatures that live there.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for strong violence, language and some sexual content/nudity)

Bounty Killer

(ARC Entertainment) Matthew Marsden, Kristanna Loken, Gary Busey, Beverly D’Angelo. Twenty years after corporate greed brought the planet to its knees, the CEOs and executives are being hunted down by a new generation of heroes; bounty killers. Often going up against private armies, these guys go after the powerful to give them what they have coming. Definitely a lefty fantasy.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Action

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity) 

Laughing to the Bank

(L2Bank) Brian Hooks, Tabitha Brown, Laila Odom, Curtis Pickett. A struggling actor determines to get the funding to write, direct, star in and distribute his own film project. When the money vanishes, it’s just the start of a whole other thing to get the cash back.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Comedy

Rating: NR

Renoir

(Goldwyn) Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers, Thomas Doret. The beloved painter near the end of his life takes on a new model who brings new energy and passion out in the old man. However his son Jean, recuperating from war wounds, falls in love with her creating tension between father and son. This was one of my favorites at this year’s Florida Film Festival; you can read my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language)

Still Mine

(Goldwyn) James Cromwell, Genevieve Bujold, Rick Roberts, Julie Stewart. A man attempts to build a more suitable home for his ailing wife. Confronted by bureaucratic red tape and stop work orders, he defies the system in a race against time to complete the project before his wife’s illness gets more serious.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief sensuality/partial nudity)

Tio Papi

(Active Fox) Joey Dedio, Kelly McGillis, Frankie Faison, Elizabeth Rodriguez . A Miami bachelor is quite happy with his life of hedonism and non-stop partying. All that comes to a crashing halt however when he becomes the legal guardian of his sister’s six rambunctious kids.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, mild rude humor and brief language)

The Ultimate Life

(High Top) Peter Fonda, Logan Bartholomew, Bill Cobbs, Lee Meriwether. A man, reeling from lawsuits from his greedy extended family, missing his girlfriend away on a mission to Haiti and trying to run the foundation started by his late grandfather, finds some of old granddad’s journals. As he reads them, he becomes fascinated by the old man’s rise from rags to riches. But can he find the strength and the faith to withstand all the challenges being lobbed his way?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for a brief battle scene and mild thematic elements)

Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

Hannibal


Hannibal

Ray Liotta flips his lid for Hannibal!

(2001) Thriller (MGM) Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Zeljko Ivanek, Hazelle Goodman, David Andrews, Francis Guinan, James Opher, Enrico Lo Verso. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

The main problem with Hannibal, the multi-bazillion dollar grossing thriller, is Silence of the Lambs. Inevitably, it is going to be compared to that modern classic (after all, it is a sequel) and quite frankly, it doesn’t hold up. But y’know, director Ridley Scott really isn’t trying to do that. To his credit, Hannibal is a completely different type of movie, not so much suspenseful as visceral; it is more horror than it is heartstopping.

Some years have passed since the events of Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling (a terribly miscast Moore) has managed to alienate most of her superiors and peers at the FBI, and after a botched arrest which leaves her partner dead and Starling under intense media scrutiny, has begun to have doubts about her career.

Meanwhile, escaped madman Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) has settled into a quiet life in Florence, Italy, as an academic. Careful not to attract too much attention to himself (and circumspectly wearing gloves and wiping wineglasses to protect from his fingerprints being discovered), he has found a niche that appeals to his love of antiquity, fine dining and academia. The problem is, Hannibal the Cannibal has become bored.

The only living survivor of a Lecter attack, multi-billionaire Mason Verger (Oldman, wonderful under a queasiness-inducing makeup job), has been plotting his revenge since Lecter’s escape, but has been unable to locate the good doctor. Starling’s disgrace becomes Verger’s chance to smoke the good doctor out of hiding, and he uses a Justice Department bureaucrat (Liotta) to do just that.

In the meantime, the academic has been spotted by an Italian policeman (Giannini), who is trying to support a high-maintenance, beautiful wife on a policeman’s salary. The reward for bringing in Lecter proves to be too tempting for the lawman, and so the game is afoot.

At the risk of giving too much away, things go south and Lecter comes home, mainly to observe Starling. He has a rather unique bond with her, and although his motivations are never made as clear as they are in the book, there seems to be a hint of romance in the doctor’s motivation.

Quite frankly, there is a lot of gore here, much more than either of the first two Lecter movies (Michael Mann’s Manhunter being the first). Although there is some nifty viscera (particularly the scene where a man eats a meal you won’t find in the average fast food joint … well, then again, you never know), that alone won’t carry a movie.

What does is story and performance. The acting is certainly solid. Hopkins chews the scenery like his character chews other characters but still makes Lecter one of the most interesting screen villains ever … in fact, “villain” is not quite the right term for Lecter. Most of the movie, you spend rooting for him to get away from those who wish to take away his freedom, but you are reminded at every turn just how dangerous and homicidal he is.

Giannini is as soulful an actor as there is today; here is a man not hemmed in by desperation, but by resignation. His pain is quiet and restrained, mostly communicated through his eyes and a sad smile.

Oldman’s scarred, twisted Mason Verger is the true baddie of the movie, and I am not aware of very many actors today who do bad guys as well as Gary Oldman. Verger revels in his wickedness, wearing his scars like a badge of honor. He can’t let the pain and suffering go – but in a sick way, he needs them to be who he is.

Director Ridley Scott must have been flashing back to his Blade Runner days when filming this; the movie is filled with rain, umbrellas and crowds (although the neon is missing). The cityscape of Florence is in its own way a major part of the movie’s allure; the beautiful, ancient, civilized Florence has an underbelly that can’t be trifled with.

There are certain unexpected moments of lightness – for example, prominently featured in Lecter’s kitchen is a vegetarian cookbook. However, for the most part, there is a heavy sense of impending destiny that drags the movie down. The showdowns — between Lecter and Verger, as well as the one between Lecter and Starling — are both too predictable.

Moore, while a fine actress, doesn’t really capture the toughness of Starling. She doesn’t really have the physicality needed for the part (although, to be fair, neither did then-recent mother Jodie Foster at the time this was filmed). Moore never for a moment convinces me that she is dangerous, or even well-trained. In all of the physical confrontations she is involved with, she gets bested rather easily.

While the ending of the movie differs significantly from the more controversial ending of the book, I think it works better. I never really understood why novelist Thomas Harris had Starling do what she did at the book’s conclusion; the ending screenwriter David Mamet came up with here seemed more consistent to her character. Nevertheless, I’m not a huge fan of Mamet’s writing; he is a bit too cerebral and slow for my tastes. Here, the pace drags and the plot is obfuscated with unnecessary little “See how smart I am”-type intellectualisms that I found a tad pretentious. Did we really need Lecter reading sonnets by Dante aloud?

Hannibal made a ton of money, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. I recommend it mainly for the performances of Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini and I think the movie works despite the godawful script, elephantine pacing and inept plotting. Let’s face it. Most of us are going to see a movie like this regardless of the reviews. Let’s just say this is a good movie that didn’t meet the impossible expectations set for it.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Hannibal Lecter, people. Brilliant performances by Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini. Scott pulls off a sequel to a classic that stands on its own.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moore is terribly miscast. The script is full of intellectual showing off, almost talks down to its audience. Moves slowly and some of the plot points are ludicrous.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence, some of it gruesome at times. There is also a little bit of nudity and some foul language peppered about here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The scenes at Verger’s mansion were filmed at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. Winnipeggers can take pride that the killer hogs in the hog massacre scene were purchased from a Manitoba farm just outside of Winnipeg.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes footage from the press conference announcing the making of the movie. Strangely, the Blu-Ray edition (released in 2009 as part of a Hannibal Lecter collection that includes Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $351.7M on an $87M production budget; the movie was a big hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made in China

My Blueberry Nights


My Blueberry Nights

Nothing like a cup o' joe to finish your evening.

(2007) Drama (Weinstein) Jude Law, Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Adriane Lenox, Benjamin Kanes, Chan Marshall, Hector Leguillow, Chad Davis, Katya Blumenberg, John Malloy, Frankie Faison. Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Love is no easy thing. It chews you up and spits you out like a burnt blueberry pie. Time and distance can give us perspective and sometimes even lessen the pain, but it is a conscious choice to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on with our lives.

Elizabeth (Jones) is recovering from a relationship breakup after her boyfriend cheats on her. She finds refuge in the diner owned by Jeremy (Law), where she is the only customer who orders his fresh-made blueberry pie. The two start to converse; it turns out that Jeremy is a broken soul as well. Jeremy begins to fall for Elizabeth but she flees from New York before he can establish a beach head.

He searches for her meticulously and desperately, knowing only that she’s gone to Memphis. He makes calls and sends postcards to nearly every restaurant in the Memphis area trying to find her. He must have missed the one where she’s at, working as both a waitress (by day) and bartender (by night) as Lizzie. It’s at the bar she meets Arnie Copeland (Strathairn), an alcoholic ex-cop who pines for his wife Sue Lynn (Weisz) who persistently and openly cheats on her husband from whom she is separated. His struggle seems to resonate with Lizzie who befriends him, and when he threatens Sue Lynn one night with a gun, the resulting tragedy sends Lizzie off west to the desert.

Now known as Beth, she meets up with Leslie (Portman), a professional poker player who’s had a run of bad luck. She does have a car, which Beth needs but she needs a stake in the big poker tournament. Beth agrees to stake her in exchange for one third the winnings if she wins and her car if she loses.

Leslie plays in the tournament and eventually reports back to Beth that she lost. She asks if Beth could give her a ride to see her father, from whom she’s been estranged. They arrive in Las Vegas only to find that Beth’s father died the night before. They’d just missed him. Leslie confesses that she actually won the tournament and wants the car back for sentimental reasons. She gives Beth the money which is more than enough to buy a car…and Beth heads back east, having made a journey to evade love – had it found her anyway?

Chinese director Wong Kar Wei is known for being one of the most visually arresting filmmakers in the world, and in his English language debut retains that distinctive visual style. The neon lights make for a colorful backdrop in Manhattan and Memphis while the loneliness of the desert vistas are magnificently captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji.

And this isn’t case of images over story either; the movie depicts a journey, an evolution as it were, of Elizabeth from a scared, broken-hearted little girl into a wise, self-aware woman. Casting Jones, a singer with no acting experience in the role was a bold move but one that paid off. She has an interesting face, which is a Wong Kar Wei trademark – he utilizes close-ups better than any director working today, so in that sense she suits him well. She also proves to be at least competent as an actress; clearly she can use some improvement if she decides to prove a dual career with the music business, but she has the potential if she wants to go that way.

Law is solid in a part that doesn’t require much of him but to look soulful. Strathairn, the talented veteran character actor is most impressive as the broken-hearted alcoholic who desperately loves a wife who has given up on him. It’s a performance that is as soulful as it is poignant; I thought it was one of the best of his career. He and Weisz had real chemistry together.

The movie is only 90 minutes long so there is an economy here that’s refreshing – Wei does no more and no less than he has to do. The brevity works in the movie’s favor; the constant barrage of symbols (keys play a big part in this movie) grew annoying after awhile. But of course American sensibilities are different than Asian ones obviously. Some find that level of layered nuances challenging and gratifying on an intellectual level.

This is a movie that should be experienced rather than seen. I found that letting the images and story wash over me was helpful in my enjoyment of the movie. As Wong Kar Wei movies go, this isn’t his masterpiece…but it may make a good jump-in point for American audiences to be introduced to this amazing director.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all of Kar Wai’s films, this is a visual treat for the senses. Strathairn brings great poignancy to his role. Jones is a capable actress.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is symbol-heavy and not all of the vignettes are as striking as the Strathairn/Weisz one.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, but also a good deal of drinking and smoking as you might expect in a movie where so much of the action takes place in bars.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chan Marshall, who plays Katya, is better known as Cat Power, a leading indie musician. This is also her feature film acting debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Wong Kar Wai conducted by the Museum of the Moving Image that lends fascinating insight as to his philosophy of moviemaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie almost certainly made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ahead of Time

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Julianne Nicholson discovers that if you get a few glasses of wine in him, Timothy Hutton will begin to loosen up with the Ordinary People stories.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Julianne Nicholson, Will Forte, Timothy Hutton, Dominic Cooper, Bobby Cannavale, John Krasinski, Christopher Meloni, Denis O’Hare, Max Minghella, Lou Taylor Pucci, Josh Charles, Frankie Faison. Directed by John Krasinski

What do men really want? Why, any woman knows the answer to that – it’s sex and lots of it, in some cases the kind most humiliating and degrading to the woman possible. But how accurate is that portrayal?

Apparently right down to the bone, according to this adaptation of a collection of short stories by the late David Foster Wallace of the same name. In those stories, the questions are asked by an anonymous interviewer just denoted by a Q and a colon. Here, a character is created to be the interviewer; Sara Quinn (Nicholson), a low-key cropped-haired gamine who sits down a group of men in front of a pitcher of water and a tape recorder and asks them a variety of questions. These interviewees are rarely given names, only numbers. They rarely have anything nice to say. She does all this for a post-graduate thesis for pompous Professor Adams (Hutton).

Not everything here is a formal interview. Some of the vignettes are snippets of overheard conversations, or Adams pontificating on whatever. The last is Sara’s ex-boyfriend Ryan (Krasinski) who had dumped her without explanation, leading her to this graduate project. When she at last gets to question him as to why he would hurt her in that way, the answers are far less than forthcoming and far more than humiliating.

Krasinski, better known as Jim in “The Office,” chose a very difficult first project for himself and to his credit doesn’t become lost in it, although the movie does meander a little bit in the final third. Still, he has an excellent sense for casting as the impressive cast often delivers spot-on performances. Along with Hutton, Faison plays the son of a washroom attendant who worked a demeaning job for decades in a hotel he wouldn’t be allowed o stay in. He narrates his story with a mixture of disappointment, shame, and respect. Meloni (from “Law and Order: SVU”) and O’Hare discuss a rather tragic event while waiting in a train station and both are as good as anyone else in the movie, particularly Meloni who is both caustic and sympathetic at once.

The movie has been criticized for lack of a unifying thread but I disagree with that assessment. I do think all the stories are related in more than just a general way; they have to do with the self-image of men and their insecurities that lead them to treat women so poorly. While at times this seems to be a rant against the male species in general, I chose to take it as simply the viewpoint of those who are mystified by the cruelty and arrogance of men and who have yet to find men with better qualities, at least in men that are available to them.

My problem with the movie is that while Nicholson is usually a fine actress, here she is emotionally cut off, so wounded is she from being dumped by a boyfriend that she is frankly well rid of. She kind of floats in and out of the movie, carrying absolutely no inertia which in turn gives the movie a strangely languid quality that I found somewhat unpleasant.

However, Krasinski chose to retain much of Wallace’s terrific dialogue in the movie, utilizing the novelist’s style as much as possible when he couldn’t quote directly. It is one of the movie’s best qualities, and given the fine actors who he recruited to recite that dialogue, makes for a movie that stimulates the mind as much as the libido.

I’m not sure you’ll get any further insight into men by watching this, but you might get a few explanations about our behavior here and there. It is an oversimplification to say that men are all about sex; that aspect is more of a symptom than the disease. However, that men are capable of wanton cruelty is certainly not a surprise. What is surprising is that neither Wallace nor Krasinski could find anything or anyone redeeming in the gender to act as a counterbalance.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the vignettes particularly that between Meloni and O’Hare and a late monologue by Faison are brilliant. The dialogue is well-written and the impressive cast delivers in most cases.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes the movie feels a little aimless. Nicholson is bland and too expressionless.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of sexual innuendo and conversation as well as some foul language of the non-sexual sort. The overall theme and situations are not for children in the least.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Professor Adams’s office there is a pile of books, the top one of which is David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” Wallace also wrote the book this is based on.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,745 on an unreported budget; the theatrical release lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bonneville