Brawl in Cell Block 99


Vince Vaughn is reborn as a badass.

(2017) Crime (RLJE) Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter, Dion Mucciacito, Marc Blucas, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Franco Gonzalez, Victor Almanzar, Keren Dukes, Rob Morgan, Mustafa Shakir, Brian Wiles, Adrian Matilla, Tuffy Questell, Philip Ettinger, Jay Hieron, Phillip Dutton, Larry Mitchell, Dan Amboyer, Pooja Kumar, Devon Windsor. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

 

The grindhouse movies of the 70s were an art-form unto themselves. Quentin Tarantino is famously influenced by them as is director S. Craig Zahler who impressed with the bloody Western Bone Tomahawk. But whereas Tarantino seems content to evoke them and illustrate his encyclopedic knowledge of them, Zahler is more interested in using them as a building block to create more contemporary fare.

Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is a big man. He drives a tow truck for an auto wrecker yard but with times being what they are, he is laid off. Coming home, he discovers his wife Lauren (Carpenter) in bed with another man. An ex-boxer like Bradley might be forgiven if he used his pugilistic skills to create a whole new face for his wife and lover but instead, he utilizes his temper in a more constructive manner and after his moment is passed, begins to talk calmly and rationally to Lauren about reconciliation.

Jobs are hard to come by so Bradley goes back to one he had before going the straight and narrow; as a drug courier to old friend Gil (Blucas). The work is lucrative and Bradley is soon able to afford a much nicer house for his wife who is now pregnant with their daughter. Bradley is content with the way things have gone. However, when Gil takes on a partnership with a Mexican cartel, Bradley is troubled; he doesn’t trust the Mexican thugs at all and his suspicions are soon borne out. A shoot-out with the cops ensues and Bradley ends up taking the fall for his boss and gets seven years in prison for his troubles.

But his troubles are far from over. Bradley gets a visit from a slimy lawyer (Kier) who informs him that the cartel boss has taken his wife hostage. As far as the cartel is concerned, Bradley cost them millions of dollars and they expect repayment. His wife will be released unharmed if Bradley performs a simple task for them; if not, they will abort the baby.

The “simple task” turns out to be very complicated – Bradley must kill an inmate of Cell Block 99. The trouble is, Cell Block 99 is in Red Leaf Maximum Security prison; Bradley is in a medium security jail. In order to get himself transferred to Red Leaf, he’ll have to call on his inner badass and once at Red Leaf with its cigarillo-smoking warden (Johnson), he must get himself transferred to Cell Block 99 which is where the most violent offenders are sent. Time is ticking down on his wife and unborn child and Bradley must find a way to get the job done – until he discovers that the job isn’t at all what he thought it was.

This movie is hyper-violent with a ton of gore. Heads get stomped like melons; arms are broken into shapes that arms were never meant to take. Faces are peeled off like orange peels and people are shot every which way. If those sorts of things bother you, stop reading and find a different movie to watch because clearly this movie isn’t for you.

It certainly is for me though and one of the biggest reasons why is Vaughn. He’s made a career out of fast-talking wiseacre comedy characters who have a bit of the con man in them but this role is light years away from that. Bradley is soft-spoken but prone to fits of intense and shocking violence. With a shaved head and a Gothic cross tattooed to the back of his skull, he looks like the kind of trouble that most people walk across the street to avoid. Vaughn fills the roll with quiet menace and in the process reminds us that he began his career playing a variety of roles until comedy derailed his versatility for a time. Hopefully this will lead for a wider variety of roles for the actor who has proven he can handle just about anything.

Johnson also does a fine job in his role as the serpentine warden who is neither corrupt nor evil; he’s just doing a brutal job brutally. Putting a stun harness on the prisoners is simply the easiest way to control them; he’s not torturing them so much as educating them, at least from his point of view. It’s a great role for Johnson and hopefully will bring him some just-as-juicy big screen roles from here on out.

The length of the film is a problem. At just a hair over two hours, the pacing of the first hour is a bit too leisurely to sustain itself and you might find yourself looking for something else to do but try to hang in there; once the movie gets going, it stays going. The problem is that by the time that happens, the last half hour begins to really wear on the viewer. Some of the build-up should have been more judiciously edited. It felt very much like we were watching a director’s extended cut rather than the final theatrical version.

Still in all this is the kind of entertainment that B-movie fans are going to love. These types of movies have become more in vogue particularly with the support of Tarantino who has essentially resurrected the genre in terms of respectability – grindhouse type movies have never really gone away, after all. However films like this one have not only kept the genre running but have given it true vigor and made it a viable artistic concern as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is at his very best here. The gore effects are pretty impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow moving, particularly during the first hour. You begin to feel the movie’s more than two hour length during the last half hour.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as a goodly amount of violence, some of it graphic and/or gory. There are also some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaughn put on 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for filming and also did extensive boxing training over the two months prior to cameras rolling; he claimed that his boxing training made the fight choreography much easier to learn.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starred Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Heaven Without People

Passengers (2016)


passengers

There’s nothing quite like a swim by starlight.

(2016) Science Fiction (Columbia) Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster, Kara Flowers, Conor Brophy, Julee Cerda, Aurora Perrineau, Lauren Farmer, Emerald Mayne, Kristin Brock, Tom Ferrari, Quansae Rutledge, Desmond Reid, Emma Clarke (voice), Fred Melamed (voice), Chris Edgerly (voice), Curtis Grecco, Joy Spears. Directed by Morten Tyldum

Loneliness can drive us to do terrible things. But contemplate this; you are completely alone on a starship full of sleeping human beings on their way to a distant interstellar colony. You have been awakened 90 years too early and are likely to be dead, or at least enfeebled, by the time the ship arrives. How do you cope? What do you do with absolutely no human contact for the rest of your life?

That is the prospect facing Jim (Pratt), an engineer and passenger aboard the Avalon, a colony ship headed to a distant world. His hibernation pod has malfunctioned and awakened him almost a century too early. The only conversation comes from Arthur (Sheen), a robotic bartender who dispenses whiskey and advice in equal measures.

Then Aurora (Lawrence), a fellow passenger also awakens. She’s a writer who had purchased a Gold level ticket, entitling her to more perks on the luxury liner than Jim gets (think of it as first class vs. steerage – Titanic much?) who is equally mystified even as the two enjoy the many amenities on the Aurora – in complete and utter silence and solitude.

But they have much bigger problems. The ship has begun to show a series of worsening malfunctions, from elevators that won’t work to failures of more critical systems. They don’t have access to the vital crew areas where the malfunctions can be dealt with. And while Jim and Aurora are falling deeply in love, there is a secret that may destroy the fragile relationship that is beginning to blossom – if they survive long enough for the relationship to develop.

Pratt and Lawrence are two of the biggest stars in Hollywood and star power is just what a movie like this needs. The bulk of the movie rests on their capable shoulders with little interaction with anyone else other than the aforementioned Arthur and a crew member (Fishburne) who also awakens early. Pratt often plays characters who are generally not very serious. Jim is super serious and the twinkle that Pratt normally has in his eye is not really present here. This is Serious Guy Chris Pratt and while some may prefer the Not So Serious Guy, he is displaying more range than he’s shown to date, which augers well for a long run as an A-lister.

I’ve always known Lawrence is a tremendously gifted actress with extraordinary range but I never thought of her as a sex symbol before this film. There is a scene where Aurora goes on a date with Jim (some of this is shown in the trailer) where she wears a stunning Little Black Dress and has the nightclub walk down. It is as sexy a scene as you’re likely to see and yet no clothes are shed and no skin is viewed. It’s just an actress showing that sexuality doesn’t have to be simulated humping; the most sexual organ is indeed the mind.

Also playing a huge role is the production design. The Avalon is a cruise ship as reimagined by the designers of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s sleek and in some cases sterile, but it looks like the way we thought the future would be back in the 60s before movies like the first Star Wars and Alien showed us a future that was more lived in and industrial. This future is, as Walt Disney might have put it, a great big beautiful tomorrow.

The movie begins to break down in the third act as the love story begins to unravel and turn into a straight-out disaster movie which I think is a tactical error. While Titanic used the love story to give the disaster humanity, here because there is no interaction essentially with anyone else, it becomes less of a disaster than a “Oh no, the ship is sinking!” kind of thing. More like the S.S. Minnow, if you get my drift.

The movie has all the ingredients to be a science fiction classic, but it unfortunately doesn’t pull it all together to make it so. The storytelling could have been tighter and there could have been more emphasis on the people than on the environment. The antiseptic corridors of the Avalon, devoid of human life, become an echo chamber for the two protagonists and that seems a bit cold and empty. The movie is the definition of eye candy; pretty to look at but ultimately nothing substantial once you’ve seen the images.

REASONS TO GO: Pratt and Lawrence make a beautiful couple. The effects are pretty special.
REASONS TO STAY: The story meanders a little bit. The ending is extraordinarily weak.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and nudity as well as some sci-fi action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The starship is named the Avalon after the mythical location connected with the legend of Camelot. Not coincidentally, the bartender’s name is Arthur.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sing

Bone Tomahawk


Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

(2015) Western (RLJ Entertainment) Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Sean Young, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, Fred Melamed, Kathryn Morris, Michael Paré, James Tolkan, Geno Segers, Zahn McClarnon, Brandon Molale, Jamison Newlander, Omar Levya, Eddie Spears, David Midthunder, Raw Leiba, Marem Hassler. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Love can be wonderful; a tender feeling of caring and compassion. But love can also be a terrible burden. If it requires us to go somewhere dangerous, then we go, heart heavy and maybe even terrified, but we go nonetheless.

Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson) and his wife Sam (Simmons) are deeply in love. They live in the small town of Bright Hope, on the edge of the prairie near forbidding hills where even the cattle trails that Arthur uses as a cattle driver fail to go. She’s a bit of a nag, not letting him forget that she warned him not to go repair the roof in the middle of a storm. Per her warning, he fell off the roof and broke his leg, forcing him into essential confinement to bed. This is the Old West, after all, and men did what they had to do.

Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) also does what he has to do and that might involve shooting a drifter (Arquette) in the leg when he acts a little squirrelly. Because the town doctor is in his cups, Sam is summoned to remove the bullet from the drifter’s leg (she evidently has some sort of medical training). When she doesn’t return home, Arthur becomes a bit concerned.

Deputy Chicory (Jenkins) returns to the Sheriff’s office to discover everyone missing, including Deputy Nick (Jonigkeit). The evidence of a struggle includes a strange bone arrow at the scene. The local expert on Native Americans (Midthunder) tells them that it is from a tribe that isn’t even a tribe – it is in fact not exactly human. He refers to them as troglodytes and asserts that they eat the flesh of humans. He only knows they reside in something called The Valley of the Hungry Men.

A posse is formed. Sheriff Hunt is obligated to go, and even a broken leg won’t keep Arthur away. Deputy Chicory is ordered to stay behind but he refuses to; someone else can watch over Bright Hope while the Sheriff is away. Finally, dapper gambler John Brooder (Fox) also offers to go; he had escorted Mrs. O’Dwyer to the jail and feels obligated to assist in her rescue.

&Even on horseback it will take three days to get to the Valley if they can find it. The way there will be anything but safe, as bandits and bushwackers lurk in the hills. And when they finally get there, the men will be up against something they’ve never seen before – and are woefully unprepared to fight.

Russell is also starring in another Western opening up this winter, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and has found success in other Westerns – Tombstone comes to mind immediately. The plot has a little bit of The Searchers in it, but the similarity ends there; this is more of a mash-up between horror and Western than the traditional John Wayne horse opera.

Russell is at his best here, rough and ready in the saddle and apt to shoot first and ask questions later. His is the iconic taciturn lawman whose moral compass steers towards what’s right rather than what’s convenient. Fox, who is a decent actor who hasn’t yet equaled his role on Lost, does some of his best work on the big screen here, as does Wilson who has found a career boost in horror films like The Conjuring and Insidious. Here, Wilson plays to type but not just that; there is an inner strength to the character that is absolutely unexpected and mesmerizing. Arthur’s dogged determination and refusal to give up despite having a broken leg speaks volumes of what it means to be a man in the West.

And lest we forget the horror element here, it is more or less an overtone, although there is an onscreen kill here that is as brutal and as shocking as any you’ll see in more overt horror films this year. There is plenty of blood and gore and brutality, and those who are on the squeamish side are well-advised to steer clear.

Zahler is better known as a novelist and a musician as he is as a director, but he does a bang-up job here. There isn’t really a false note in the movie and while some critics have sniped at the length of the movie (just over two hours), it never drags and it never feels long. He also has wonderful cinematography to fall back of thanks to Benji Bakshi whose name should be on a lot of rolodexes after this.

It is unlikely the Western will ever go back to its level of popularity that it enjoyed back in the 1950s but it will never completely die. Movies like this one insure that the Western will always be around as a genre, and remind us that there can always be something new made of a time-tested cinematic formula.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted. Exceptional cinematography. Captures the frontier mentality.
REASONS TO STAY: Excessive gore might put some off.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal, bloody violence, sexuality, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Russell authored a testimonial for Zahler’s second novel before this was cast.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Chi-Raq

Get On Up


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

(2014) Musical Biography (Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Keith Robinson, Atkins Eastmond, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Stacey Scowley, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Tate Taylor

James Brown has never really gotten his due other than by his peers and true music buffs. He never achieved the sales that one would assume that someone who revolutionized pop music should have gotten, and yet when you look at the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential figures to come out of it are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and James Brown. He is the most-sampled artist in history, and virtually every song on your digital music storage device owes something to James Brown.

Before he was the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Boseman) was a young boy in rural Georgia. Abandoned by his mother Susie (Davis) at a young age and raised primarily by his alcoholic father Joe (James), he was dropped off with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who ran a brothel. There he grew up huckstering the house of ill repute for African-American soldiers coming into town on weekend passes, and going to the local church to listen to gospel music and watch the ecstasy of dance.

While in jail for stealing a suit, he met Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who led a group called the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd would end up bringing James home and bringing the talented young singer into their group which he would eventually rename the Famous Flames. A demo of the song “Please, Please, Please” ended up in the hands of promoter Ben Bart (Aykroyd) and label owner Syd Nathan (Melamed). Whereas Nathan never really got Brown’s music, Ben recognized that the sounds coming from the single were unique; it’s not about the song, he tries to explain to Nathan who never really gets it.

Brown was something of a control freak and he rebelled at playing along with the status quo. He dealt with venues directly rather than going through a promoter, bringing Bart aboard as an advisor and business manager, allowing him to retain a larger share of the gate at his shows. He is Mr. Entertainment, priding himself on putting on the best shows for his audience and giving everything he had night after night. People began to listen.

Success breeds excess however. Brown would become a drug addict although the movie glosses over this somewhat which would lead to legal troubles that plagued the latter half of his life. He could be mean and abusive which wreaked havoc not only in his personal life but also alienated many of those musicians whose talents helped elevate him to where he was. He demanded absolute control but as Byrd pointed out, he was a genius and it was on his coattails that his band would achieve legendary status but his demeaning treatment of them alienated them.

Taylor opts for an achronological telling of Brown’s story, starting out in 1988, jumping back to 1968 (good God!) and back again to 1939 and up forward 1955. Flashbacks within flashbacks, you might say. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth group events in his life thematically rather than chronologically, headlining them with nicknames he would acquire during his career – The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite. and so on. For the most part this works although some of the transitions between time periods are less smooth than others and the linking devices occasionally take us out of the story and make us realize we’re watching someone directing a movie. That’s a big no-no.

Boseman is absolutely incredible here. Richard Corliss of Time magazine has all but handed the Oscar to Boseman and while that may be premature, I do hope that his performance still remains in the memory of Academy members come nomination time. He certainly deserves consideration. While the vocals here are Brown, Boseman not only gets his mannerisms correctly he also manages to recreate Brown’s unique stage movement and presence. It’s a performance that really carries the movie and necessarily so.

Ellis also does a fine job as Byrd, the closest thing to a friend Brown has. Although their relationship was rocky, there was also genuine affection between the two. Ellis and Boseman have a strong chemistry which doesn’t really get enough credit. While this is definitely Boseman’s film, it wouldn’t be as strong without Ellis.

While the movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Brown as a difficult man to get along with, there’s a sense that they’re trying too hard to make a mythology about the man and that sometimes comes off like a child whining too much for recognition. Rather than have him appear to be thinking back on his life before – and sometimes during – his performances, those flashbacks could have been framed differently and more organically rather than framing Brown in heroic poses. We get that he was a genius and don’t need to have his mythic qualities shoved down our throats.

A great biography of James Brown is long overdue and while this isn’t the great film I would have hoped it would be, it is nonetheless a strong movie made stronger by the performances of Boseman and Byrd, along with Aykroyd as a kind of Jewish father figure/rabbi to Brown. Brown was in the eyes of many the personification of Black Power during one of the most turbulent times in our history and while he himself was more concerned with making money entertaining his audiences, he did embrace the importance of black culture and black empowerment in his art and in his life. For most, this will be the closest thing to witnessing a performance by James Brown as they will ever come (although there are many clips of his performances available online and of course some of his concert films available for purchase or streaming) but even Boseman’s performance doesn’t duplicate the raw, sweaty power of a live James Brown performance. His legacy is not just in the records he made but in the millions who fell under his spell at his concerts. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that he was the greatest live performer in the history of pop music.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome music. Boseman makes a formidable James Brown.

REASONS TO STAY: Era jumping smacks of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Over-mythologizes.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content, drug use and foul language as well as a couple of instances of violence in the form of child and spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers while Ellis appeared with Brown in Undercover Brother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ray

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy

In a World…


Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, Eva Longoria, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Michaela Watkins, Geena Davis, Stephanie Allynne, Melissa Disney, Olya Milova, Corsica Wilson, Yelena Protsenko, Charly Chaikin, Janicza Bravo, Jason O’Mara, Talulah Riley, Don La Fontaine, Jeff Garlin, Amy Vorpahl. Directed by Lake Bell

If you’re reading this, chances are you like movies enough to pay attention to the trailers. One of the most notable phrases in a trailer is “In a world…” which actually was the trademark of a single man – Don La Fontaine, who essentially for 20 years was the voice of movie trailers. Although there were certainly other voice over artists who worked major studio releases, La Fontaine was The Man pretty much up to his death in 2008.

However, it is true that nearly all the voices you hear shilling movies in their trailers are men – the lone exception being Melissa Disney (who in a nice bit of gracia is given a small role here by Bell) whose voice was once heard extolling the virtues of Gone in 60 Seconds. Carol Solomon (Bell) would like to be the next Big Voice. She is pretty talented too, able to switch to just about any sort of vocal style you can name. In order to better emulate them she likes to record people, sometimes surreptitiously sometimes not to the point where she has been barred from the high end hotel where her sister Dani (Watkins) works as a concierge. However, it’s a nearly impossible field to break in to for a woman so Carol makes due with gigs as a vocal coach helping celebrities like Eva Longoria speak with a believable accent.

What makes it doubly hard is that her father, Sam Sotto (Melamed) is one of the bigwigs in the industry and due to receive a lifetime achievement award. He’s not a candidate for father of the year by any stretch of the imagination – his voice may be sonorous but his soul is not. Carol has been sleeping in his spare room for awhile but Sam kicks her out so that his girlfriend Jamie (Holden) – whom Carol and Dani deride as a groupie – can move in. Carol moves in with Dani and her husband Moe (Corddry).

The “In a world” trailer line is going to be brought back for Hollywood’s hottest property – a quadrilogy called The Amazon Games and while the producers want Sam to do it, Sam magnanimously steps aside so that his good friend and protégé Gustav Warner (Marino) can get the gig but Gustav – whose ego may be even greater than Sam’s – contracts laryngitis and is unable to make the recording session for a temporary track to show the executive producer. Carol is helping Longoria re-record her dialogue in a nearby studio and the engineer, Louis (Martin) suggests that Carol do the temp track.

It turns out that the executive producer is so taken by Carol’s performance that she wants to use Carol for the final track and based on that Carol begins to get work on other trailers as well. Gustav is throwing a party for Sam and his impending award so Carol kind of has to go. Louis is eager to go with her as her date but is too shy to ask her. At the party Gustav hooks up with Carol, not realizing who she is.

Will Carol end up with the selfish Gustav or the shy Louis? Will Moe and Dani be able to overcome their marital problems? And who will be the one to warble the immortal words “In a world”?

This is one of those movies that earns the laughs that it gets. This isn’t one of those “throw everything and the kitchen sink at the screen and see what sticks.” The humor is carefully crafted and a collaboration between Bell, the writer and director of the film and her actors, taking advantage of their strengths as comic actors as well as of their physical appearances.

Bell’s ability with accents and mimicry is part of what stands out about her performance on the surface but if you look a little deeper you’ll find that this is a very layered character who can be selfish and oblivious to the needs of others – obviously the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – and also there’s a great deal of insecurity there as well. She desperately wants to be part of the elite of the industry whose voice is instantly recognizable even if her face isn’t. Somehow, I think the ladies of 20 Feet from Stardom might understand her pretty well.

Bell also shows some skills behind the camera as well, shooting this more in the style of a drama rather than a comedy – Woody Allen is a master of this and Bell delivers a movie that Allen would likely be proud of. However, I think that as a writer she might be most talented of all – this is a smart script that allows each character enough time and space to develop a real personality. They’re not perfect and they’re just flawed enough to be realistic without being annoying. She doesn’t fall into the indie “quirkier-than-thou” trap which a lot of independents tend to do, mistaking neuroses for personality.

Melamed is perfectly cast as the unctuous Sam, full of fake bonhomie and ego but even so there is love in him. Even Gustav, the erstwhile villain, has some redeeming and interesting features. Corddry gets a somewhat different kind of role to play – Moe is less sure of himself and much nicer than what we usually see out of Corddry.

This is really a very good movie, worth seeking out. Bell has always been one of those actresses who does solid but not really noticeable work mainly in second banana roles. Here she is front and center and shows that she is worthy of consideration for higher profile parts – like this one. In a world where the worthy are rewarded for their toil, it would be sure to happen. Seeing as this is planet Hollywood, that is far from a sure thing.

REASONS TO GO: Deceptively funny. Bell is magnificent in front of and behind the camera.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too Hollywood of an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of foul language including some sexual references and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the winner of the award for Best Screenplay at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the Light in the Sky

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

New Releases for the Week of September 27, 2013


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Terry Crews, Neil Patrick Harris. Directed by Cody Cameron and Chris Pearn

Flint Lockwood returns to Swallow Falls to find that his machine which converted rain into food has begun to evolve. Now the food is alive and in short order will be breaking out and making its way to the mainland. Flint and his crew of intrepid explorers must shut down the machine for good or the world will face an apopcornlypse of epic proporridgetions.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild rude humor)

Baggage Claim

(Fox Searchlight) Paula Patton, Derek Luke, Taye Diggs, Boris Kodjoe.  A beautiful flight attendant is less than thrilled at the prospect of her younger sister’s wedding. Competitive to a fault, she determines that she is going to be engaged by the wedding date 30 days away and she’ll use all her connections to land Mr. Right.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some language)

Don Jon

(Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza. Jon has the good life Southie style; he’s got a great ride, a wicked cool pad, all the women he can handle, a family that would die for him and buddies that would kill for him. He’s also got a computer where he can watch porn night and day. Who could want anything more? Then when he meets the right girl, he discovers that there’s one part of his equation that she can’t tolerate.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and brief strong language) 

Enough Said

(Fox Searchlight) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette. Dreading her daughter’s impending departure for college, a single mom develops a romance with a sweet and charming single dad likewise facing an empty nest. At the same time, a friendship with one of her clients grows and as it does, her friend constantly rags about her ex-husband to the point where it begins to affect her new romantic relationship until she discovers the truth about her friend’s ex.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, comic violence, language and partial nudity)

In a World

(Roadside Attractions) Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Fred Melamed, Geena Davis. A young woman working as a vocal coach secretly yearns to follow in her father’s footstep and become the best voice-over actor in Hollywood. When a huge break comes her way unexpectedly, she runs smack into a wall of sexism, egotism, pride and dysfunction.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Metallica: Through the Never

(Picturehouse) Dane DeHaan, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett. As Metallica, perhaps the most respected and beloved metal band on Earth are performing one of their epic concerts, a roadie is sent on a quest to retrieve an object that the band desperately needs for their show. As he makes his way through the city, he discovers that the landscape has become a surreal reflection of the band’s music.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: IMAX 3D (opening in Standard format October 4)

Genre: Concert Film/Fantasy

Rating: R (for some violent content and language)

Rush

(Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara. The rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s was legendary, one which is still talked about by racing fans even today. But beyond the public perception was a private story that few other than those who knew the two men ever knew – until now. Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is at the helm for this high octane drama.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Biographical Sports Drama

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use)

A Serious Man


A Serious Man

You may think you're on top of the world, but you've still got to fix the antenna.

(2009) Dramedy (Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, George Wyner, Michael Lerner, David Kang. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

There comes a time in all of our lives in which our suffering seems greatly magnified. We all experience the dark winter of our souls at some time or another. It’s enough to make even the least devout look heavenward and wonder why. Not all of us get to be Job, but most of us share in his troubles.

I’m sure Professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) would tend to agree with that. He’s a middle aged professor of physics, living a comfortable existence in a middle class subdivision in a Minneapolis suburb in the late 60s. He has applied for tenure and has been assured that there is no reason he shouldn’t get it. His son Danny (Wolf)  is about to undergo his bar mitzvah.

When we feel the weave of our lives is at its strongest is usually when it unravels. His wife Judith (Lennick) wants a divorce. She no longer can take the lack of inertia in Larry’s life and has taken up with his best friend, Sy Ableman (Melamed). Personally, I think if your best friend is named Sy Ableman you’ve got problems to begin with.

His son is having difficulties concentrating in class and has been experimenting with reefer. His daughter Sarah (McManus) is stealing money to save for a nose job. His ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Arthur (Kind) has taken up residence on his couch (when Sy and Judith urge him to leave their home and take up in a local motel, Arthur comes along with him as a sort of hideous luggage set Larry can’t get rid of) with a variety of ailments, including a cyst in need of drainage. Arthur believes he is close to uncovering the secret of the universe which apparently has to do with surviving without working.

A Korean student (Kang) who has clearly failed a test offers a bribe which turns into a means of blackmail. Larry’s oversexed neighbor who sunbathes in the nude has become not so much a sexual fantasy so much as a sexual nightmare that further emasculates him. To top it all off, the tenure which seemed to be a sure thing is now in jeopardy due to anonymous libelous letters that urge the university regents not to grant Larry tenure. It’s enough to make Larry go scrambling first for the shrink, then to the rabbis. Yes, plural.

The Coen Brothers are some of the most gifted filmmakers of the past 20 years, with a string of movies that aren’t just well-made but are among my favorites. Certainly when you go down the list of their films – Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men – and that’s just a partial list, there’s bound to be at least one or two that you’re fond of as well.

Here, the Coens explore their own inner Jewishness and certainly their own background as they were raised in a similar suburb of Minneapolis during the same time period here. I’m not sure if Aaron is a surrogate for the brothers but he might very well be.

I’ve always admired the Coens for their quirky sensibility and their offbeat humor and both qualities are in evidence here, to even greater effect. Those who prefer their storytelling done straight up will probably find the Coens an unpleasant taste, too Dr. Pepper in a world of colas.

This is a movie to my mind that is about the nature of suffering and the sheer randomness of it. It is appropriate that this is set in a Jewish background for if any ethnic group knows suffering, it’s them. There is plenty of sardonic humor but also a sense of bewilderment as if nobody involved with the movie can quite believe what’s going on in it.

Stuhlbarg, who has mostly been a stage actor throughout his career, does an extremely solid job here in what is essentially his first motion picture lead role. He captures the sense of being adrift on a sea of troubles with nothing but a life preserver to keep him afloat. Mostly he is surrounded by character actors whose names you may or may not recognize but whose faces you’ll immediately know.

There is a whole lot of kvetching in the movie, perhaps more than is necessary but then I’m just a goyim and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to get it. That’s all right, too. This isn’t essential to the Coen Brothers catalogue in the sense of entertainment, but if you really want to get to know the filmmakers, I suspect this will be the film that comes closest to allowing you in. As Roger Ebert said, this is clearly a labor of love and one that would only be allowed to be made by someone who has won an Oscar. The movie is filled with parables that don’t really clarify anything but then, most parables were meant to be mysterious anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: While offbeat, Coen Brothers movies tend to be well-made and interesting, and this one is no exception. Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, gives a solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very rooted in its Jewishness, which may make certain parts of the movie difficult to follow or relate to for non-Jews. The movie also meanders a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a certain amount of sexuality and even a bit of brief nudity. Some of the thematic elements will go zooming over the heads of younger teens and the less mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filming in Bangkok during the September 19, 2006 coup d’état. The armory department claims they fired the only shots of the coup. Filming was only interrupted for six hours.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an educational tool that helps with the Yiddish and Hebrew phrases that are peppered throughout the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.4M on an unreported production budget; given what appear to be a pretty meager budget, I’d say the movie was probably a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Pink Panther 2