Free State of Jones


Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

(2016) Historical Drama (STX) Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Liza J. Bennett. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Most of us have some fairly general knowledge of the American Civil War, but most of us are probably completely unaware (at least until this movie came out) that there were parts of the Confederacy that didn’t necessarily agree with the aims of the rebels and actually seceded from it during the War. Most of us are completely unaware of the name of Newton Knight.

Knight (McConaughey) is serving in the Confederate Army as a nurse/orderly. While he isn’t actively shooting at anybody, he is picking up the pieces of wounded men and transporting them to the medical tents once the shooting has stopped. His cousin Davis (Franklin) is a frightened teen who is terrified of what could happen to him. Newton volunteers to help get him through the coming battle, but a Union sniper makes hash of that plan.

The Army wants to bury Davis where he fell, but Knight wants him buried with his kin in Jones County, Mississippi and so he goes AWOL although the term at the time is “deserter.” Deserters are being hanged, but Knight doesn’t care; he’s sick of fighting a war so that the plantation owners can get richer, especially since slave owners had enacted legislation that exempted the sons of slave owners from service (one son for every twenty slaves owned). This doesn’t sit well with the mostly small farmers that are actually doing the fighting, most of whom don’t own slaves a’tall.

Once back home, Knight sees that the Confederate Army in the person of Lt. Elias Hood (Murphy) who enforces the laws that farms must provide a percentage of their harvest and meat animals to the Army. Of course under Hood’s auspices, the Army take far more than they are entitled to, leaving the citizens of Jones County in near-starvation. When Hood discovers the presence of Knight, a sympathetic Madam (Clements) helps Knight escape into the swamp, leaving his wife Serena (Russell) and son behind.

There he finds a group of escaped slaves, relatively safe in a place where the army’s horses cannot follow them. They are led by Moses (Ali), a charismatic slave who wears a horrible spiked collar and pines for his wife and child, sent to Texas by an uncaring master. As their numbers begin to swell with more runaways and deserters from the Confederate Army, Knight sees that they have enough numbers to make a difference on the home front. He begins to arrange to arm the slaves and soldiers, and starts training them. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the despised James Eakins (Chrest) plantation, who has risked her life to learn how to read and also to bring in supplies for the swamp dwellers.

As their numbers grow, the new army under Knight’s canny leadership begins to intercept food shipments that were taken from locals for the Confederate army and finally beats the small contingent of the Confederates, declaring that part of Mississippi a free state. But there isn’t much war left and eventually the South surrenders and Jones County rejoins the union, but their troubles are far from over. Just because the South lost doesn’t mean that the freed slaves are Americans…yet.

This is a sprawling, two and a half hour epic that covers Knight’s story from the tail end of the War through reconstruction, incomprehensibly adding flash forwards to the 20th century and a legal issue being waged by one of Knight’s descendents regarding interracial marriage. It is a means of hitting us over the head with the racial issue that I think everyone except for the extreme right knows continues to plague this nation. It’s a little bit overbearing.

Ross does a great job of summoning up the era, from the unwashed look of the people in it to the rotting teeth and tattered clothes. It was a hard life in the rural South back then (and continues to be) and the look of the film illustrates that nicely. These are people who lived in poverty and the film reflects that to the credit of the filmmakers and the actors.

McConaughey does a fine job; this is the kind of role he’s shown he can excel at. Better still is his supporting cast, particularly Ali (who shows he has the ability to be a leading man in major films with his performance here) and Mbatha-Raw who is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished actresses working today.

There has been some complaining that this is yet another “white hero saving the day for the oppressed blacks” type of thing, and I can understand the criticism, but it’s kind of hard to ignore that Knight DID lead the revolt. Now, from what I understand this film paints a far kinder, more saintly portrait of Knight than may have been the actual case. Maybe the film should have focused on Rachel, who also was a real person, or Moses, who was not.

I do admire the filmmakers for trying to educate their audience, even though the real Newton Knight was much less admirable than the one portrayed here. I think they could have lost the whole flash forward subtext which was unnecessary, doesn’t show up until well into the film causing further confusion and adds nothing to the overall message that they couldn’t have added with a title card. The movie is long as it is and the extra footage just tends to make people check their watches and wondering when the school bell is going to ring.

Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile venture that entertains rather well and educates not quite as well, but at least it’s an effort. I’m curious as to why the studio thought this would make a good summer movie; it would have fared better, I think, if it had been released in the fall, but that’s just Monday morning quarterbacking. If you can still find it in a theater near you, it’s certainly better than most of the stuff out there.

REASONS TO GO: Covers a part of history that is murky to most Americans.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and some graphic images that might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To this day, the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has “Free State of Jones” on the doors of all their vehicles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Swiss Army Man

New Releases for the Week of June 24, 2016


Independence Day ResurgenceINDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

(20th Century Fox) Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Viveca A. Fox, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Sela Ward, Maika Monroe, Joey King, Grace Huang, Brett Spiner. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Twenty years have passed since the events of Independence Day and in twenty years, the human race has rebuilt their shattered planet, utilizing the technology left behind by the would-be invaders. We’ve spent two decades getting ready for what we’re sure is an inevitable return – only to discover that they’ve also had 20 years to prepare, and this time we might not be able to beat them.

See the trailer, interviews, promos, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and destruction, and for some language)

Free State of Jones

(STX Entertainment) Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali. During the Civil War, a Mississippi farmer – convinced he’s fighting for the wrong side of history and also convinced that the South must eventually fall – leads a rebellion at home to secede from the Confederacy – and incredibly, managed to convince slaves and ex-slaves to fight alongside him. This is based on actual events.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images)

The Music of Strangers

(Broad Green) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato. Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Neville turned his cameras on Ma, perhaps the greatest classical cellist of all time, and the acclaimed musicians of the Silk Road Project as they rehearse for a collaborative project. They look at their philosophies of music, their cultures and how the world is changing.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence)

The Neon Demon

(Broad Green) Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. A beautiful young woman, what they call in the modeling industry “a natural,” moves to Los Angeles to start off her career. There she runs into a group of women who are obsessed with aging and beauty. They begin to devour her vitality and beauty and will let nothing stop them until they get everything that she has.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Most of the Larger Multiplexes in Central Florida

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language)

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

(Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, Eli Roth, John Rhys-Davies. 35 years ago, a trio of intrepid 11-year-old Mississippi boys saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and like so many of us back then, were completely dazzled, enraptured even. They decided to make a movie of their own but not just any movie – they decided to remake Raiders shot for shot. Over a seven year period, they worked on it diligently at great cost. When they ceased filming, they had the entire movie in the can – save one scene. Now, they reunite to finish what they started, not realizing the impact their film has had on the fans  everywhere out there – and on those who worked on the original movie itself.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Septembers of Shiraz

(Momentum) Salma Hayek, Adrien Brody, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Gabriella Wright. A secular Jewish family living in Iran in 1979 is caught up in the events of the 1979 revolution that brought fundamentalist Islamic clerics into power. The family is forced to fight for their lives in a home that is growing increasingly unrecognizable to them – and more dangerous by the day.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content involving interrogation, brutality and disturbing images, and for some partial nudity and brief strong language)

The Shallows

(Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge. A secluded, breathtaking beach. A beautiful blonde surfer alone with the waves. Paradise, right? Sure…until the Great White Shark shows up. Cue the theme from Jaws.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language)

Dark Skies


Things that go bump in the night.

Things that go bump in the night.

(2013) Sci-Fi Horror (Dimension) Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L.J. Benet, Rich Hutchman, Myndy Crist, Anne Thurman, Jake Washburn, Ron Ostrow, Tom Costello, Marion Kerr, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Josh Stamberg, Tiffany Jeneen, Brian Stepanek, Judith Moreland, Adam Schneider, Jessica Borden Directed by Scott Stewart

6 Days of Darkness 2015

In one’s home, one feels secure, safe as if locked doors and a deadbolt can keep the outside world at bay. The terrors of the outside world however are insidious and some of them can’t be deterred by a closed door or a security alarm.

Daniel Barrett (Hamilton) is an unemployed architect unable to find a job in a recession-era environment. His wife Lacy (Russell) is a real estate agent in a market when NOBODY is buying houses. They are surviving on her meager income and the bills are rapidly becoming an issue that is affecting their relationship.

Their kids Jesse (Goyo) – the eldest – and Sam (Rockett) – the youngest – are aware that their parents are under some strain but don’t really know why. And then some odd things begin to happen. They find the refrigerator door open and all the vegetables eaten. The canned and packaged food is stacked up in a neat pile on the kitchen table. The chandelier over the table begins projecting strange symbols on the ceiling.

The incidents begin to escalate. Sammy has some kind of seizure during a soccer game. Lacy witnesses hundreds of birds flying into their home and killing themselves. Lacy sees an alien figure standing over Sammy’s bed who disappears when she turns on the light. As the incidents get worse and worse, Lacy does some research and comes up with a single cause – U.F.O.s. She consults an expert (Simmons) who tells them that these cases usually end up in child abduction.

That night, which happens to be the Fourth of July, Daniel and Lacy load up for bear, sealing up their home and awaiting an alien onslaught. But how can you fight an enemy you can’t see – and whose motivations you don’t know?

There have been plenty of alien abduction movies ranging from Communion to The X-Files: Fight the Future. Where does this one stack up on the list? Somewhere in the middle. Director Stewart, whose background is in visual effects, manages to set a great suburban environment where everything is normal – at least normal for this time and place. At first the villains are purely financial – bill collectors and the possibility they might lose their home bring in modern horror we can all relate to.

But as the movie goes on, it slowly begins to come off the rails until it builds to a climax that is to put it mildly disappointing. I can’t stress enough that this is a movie with enormous potential that you watch with a stupefied catatonic expression on your face as it completely blows it.

Keri Russell is a really fine actress and normally she can be relied upon to keep a film centered but here, she – like everyone else in the cast – overacts almost to the point of parody. All the gestures are wild and overbearing; all the dialogue delivered like they’re pronouncements rather than lines. I have never seen a movie in which there was such universal scene chewing as this one, or at least none that I can remember.

The two actors playing the kids – Royo and Rockett – are completely unconvincing and as wooden as a treehouse. I get that having children put in jeopardy is part of the movie’s whole reason to be, but at least make the children believable. I can’t believe they couldn’t find better juvenile actors than these.

The most major failing however is that this sci-fi horror movie isn’t as scary as it could be. For one thing, we never see the aliens clearly. If you’re going to have an alien movie, the least you can do is show us the aliens. And as the ending dives over the cliff of futility, the sense of jeopardy that the director worked so hard to establish disappears entirely. By the end of the movie you’ll be hard-pressed not to check the time.

The first half of the movie is actually pretty terrific and if they’d maintained the momentum they set up, this could have been a horror classic. Instead we get a movie that is a bit of a mess. There are definitely some features worth exploring here but overall this is fairly unsatisfying and despite a decent cast, falters in nearly every important way.

WHY RENT THIS: Establishes a sense of normalcy. Hits close to home.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Abundant overacting. Not scary enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Situations of terror, a fair amount of violence, some sexual material, a little bit of drug use and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dark Skies was also the original title for Sharknado.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.4M on a $3.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Skies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!

(2014) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Doc Shaw, Lee Ross, Keir O’Donnell, Kevin Rankin, Jocko Sims, Mustafa Harris, Deneen Tyler. Directed by Matt Reeves

As we can see by the events taking place on the Gaza Strip, two separate cultures in the same place have a difficult time coexisting. Each suspicious of the other, neither truly listening or trying to live in peace, there are always elements within that push for the complete annihilation of the other. Can you imagine how much worse it would be if the two cultures weren’t even the same species? Add into the mix that one of those cultures has been decimated by plague and war and blames the other for it and you have a powderkeg waiting to explode.

But that’s just the situation in Northern California. A ragtag human colony has gained a foothold in the ruined city of San Francisco. Led by Dreyfus (Oldman), his right hand man Malcolm (Clarke) sets into the Muir Woods of Marin County to see if they can reroute the power lines leading from a hydroelectric dam to go South instead of North and thus keep the power on in the human colony whose own generators are beginning to fail. However, his lone hydroelectric engineer Carver (Acevedo) runs into a pair of apes in the woods and shoots one of them, wounding him.

What Carver doesn’t know is that this is the colony of apes led by Caesar (Serkis), the genetically enhanced ape who has used the same drug that caused the end of mankind to enhance the intelligence of several of his fellow apes. They are beginning to learn to talk and have created a peaceful arboreal society in the woods. Caesar is none to pleased about it and orders the humans to go which they do posthaste.

Licking their wounds back at the colony, Dreyfus and Malcolm discuss the situation. They need that power. There are no other options. The apes however have followed the humans back home and Caesar, on horseback, informs the humans that they aren’t welcome in ape territory. They then return the backpack of Malcolm’s son Alexander (Smit-McPhee) who had dropped it in the chaos following their unexpected encounter.

Knowing that the survival of their colony depends on that power, Malcolm heads back to the woods accompanied by Carver, Malcolm’s girlfriend Ellie (Russell) who is a nurse, Alexander, Foster (Eyez) and Kemp (Murciano). Malcolm asks to speak to Caesar and plead the case of the humans. When Caesar agrees to let the humans do their human work, it arouses the ire of Koba (Kebbell), an ape who had spent much of the first part of his life in labs being experimented upon by human researchers. His hatred for humans is pathological and he means to wipe them out and remove their menace from the apes lives forever.

For his part, Carver hates the apes and blames them for the Simian flu (although the flu was created by human scientists) that wiped out the majority of the human race. He doesn’t trust the apes as far as he can throw them and as it turns out. Koba feels the same way about the humans  and as it turns out, they’re both right – Koba decides to see what the humans are up to in the city and discovers they have a large cache of guns and are testing them out. He thinks they’re planning an assault on the apes camp. Koba decides to enact a plan which is basically a “get them before they can get you” kind of thing and the fragile peace between the apes and humans are put in jeopardy and conflict between the two colonies becomes inevitable. Can either race survive a war?

This can be considered something of a parable, particularly in light of what’s going on between the Israelis and Palestinians although something tells me that it wasn’t initially meant that way. However, whether you choose to view the film that way or not, this is rip-roaring entertainment with maybe the best CGI for any film ever.

Let me explain that last sentence. The apes are motion capture with human actors supplying movement and voices. There are also other CGI animals including bears and horses. Every last one of these animals looks real and natural. Each of the characters have scars and faces that are recognizable. If you thought the make-up for the original Planet of the Apes franchise was groundbreaking, so too is the motion capture here. It’s bloody amazing.

Clarke, an Australian actor who has mostly done supporting roles in films like White House Down and Rabbit-Proof Fence, is likely best-known in the States for his work in the Showtime series Brotherhood. He proves himself a fairly able lead although whether or not that will translate into high profile roles in the future is somewhat ambiguous. He takes a backseat to Serkis whose powerful portrayal of Caesar reminds us that there is nobody better at motion capture in the business.

The eventual outcome of the story is pretty much a foregone conclusion which does make the movie a bit predictable. Some have groused that the Apes during the battle sequence seem to take to the guns a bit too easily but I disagree. They are far from expert marksmen and mostly shoot wildly when they shoot at all. When the clips are empty, they don’t know how to reload. Mostly, it is their sheer numbers and superior physical strength that makes them formidable.

At the end of the day, while the movie may not be perfect it is certainly one of the more entertaining summer movies of a disappointing season. It is likely to take its place as one of the biggest box office winners of the year, although it’s too early to tell if the numbers it got in its first week will be sustained until the beginning of August when Guardians of the Galaxy is likely to make a solid run. But until then, I can wholeheartedly recommend this as a good choice for a movie night out for just about anyone.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe some of the best CGI effects ever. Compelling story. Serkis does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense and occasionally brutal violence. A couple of instances of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reeves gave Keri Russell her first big break by casting her in the lead role of his TV show Felicity.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Kong

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snowpiercer

New Releases for the Week of July 11, 2014


Dawn of the Planet of the ApesDAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

(20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer. Directed by Matt Reeves

Years after a horrible plague decimated the human race – one brought on by the same drug that made apes smarter – a lone ragtag band of humans living in a fortified enclave in San Francisco venture into the woods to rig a dam to provide desperately needed power for their colony. However, a peaceful  village of apes – led by Caesar, the young chimp born of an ape who had been injected with the original formula – don’t trust the humans and don’t want them around. There are some who don’t simply want them at the dam, they want them not to exist anymore. There are some humans who are fine with the apes being remanded to the endangered species list. Something’s got to give.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, featurettes, premiere footage and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opened Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

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

Bangalore Days

(Star) Dulquer Salmaan, Nazriya Nazim, Nivin Pauly, Parvathy. Three cousins, for various reasons, make their way to Bangalore from Kerala to pursue their dreams or in one case, to help their husband pursue his. They will find heartbreak, love, redemption and bike racing in one of India’s most beautiful cities.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Drushyam

(Suresh) Venkatesh, Meena, Nadhiya, Baby Esther. When the wife and daughter of a movie buff/cable TV installer accidentally kill the son of a police inspector who was trying to blackmail them with indiscreet photos he had taken of the daughter in a public bathroom, the father uses his knowledge of movies to help his family “get away with it.” This movie is a Telugu remake of the highest grossing Malayalam film of all time.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania

(Dharma) Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Siddharth Shukla, Ashutosh Rana. A Hindi woman, bound for Delhi and an arranged marriage, decides to live life to the fullest while she still can. She meets a free-spirited unconventional college student and the pair gradually fall deeply in love. However, they will have to overcome a good deal of obstacles if they are to wind up together.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Rage

(RLJ/Image) Nicolas Cage, Danny Glover, Rachel Nichols, Peter Stormare.  An All-American businessman seems to be leading an ideal life; success, a family, a nice home. But when his teenage daughter is abducted from their home, his violent past has emerged to catch up with him. He will have to put together his old crew in order to beat his past and rescue his daughter.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

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

Third Person

(Sony Classics) Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, Kim Basinger. Three couples in New York, Rome and Paris try to balance love and need in an atmosphere of secrets – some devastating – as their interrelated stories begin to entwine. From writer/director Paul Haggis, the originator of the genre with Traffic.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

New Releases for the Week of September 13, 2013


Insidious Chapter 2

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2

(FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Leigh Whannell, Steve Coulter, Angus Sampson. Directed by James Wan

Following the events of Insidious the Lambert family thinks the terror is behind them. However, little do they know that they were signed to do a sequel and the supernatural forces that bedeviled them in the first film aren’t done with them yet. Not only are they back but they are more frightening than ever – which is good news for gorehounds looking for a pre-Halloween scarefest.  

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror and violence, and thematic elements)

Austenland

(Sony Classics) Keri Russell, Jane Seymour, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge.  A New Yorker with a not-so-secret passion for the world of Jane Austen, finds herself the perfect vacation – an English resort in a Regency-era estate which has been outfitted to take their guests back to that time, complete with actors playing the characters from the novel. But as she flirts and finds her perfect nirvana, perhaps someone will turn out to be her perfect Mr. Darcy.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo)

The Family

(Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron. A mafia boss who testified against the mob has been in witness protection but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Unruly, unable to give up their life of crime and mayhem despite the danger it puts them in, their exasperated handler puts them in a house in rural France but even there they can’t get past that they’re most definitely not in Brooklyn anymore. And as the mob closes in on them, they realize they have no other place to go.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Action Comedy

Rating: R (for violence, language and brief sexuality) 

The Investigator

(Gabriel’s Messenger) Wade Williams, David Sanborn, Kevin White, Mollyanna Ward. A veteran police detective, weary of the worst side of humanity he confronts every day, is forced to retire after a drug bust goes horribly wrong.  He becomes a criminal justice teacher and baseball coach at a local Christian high school, but after his wife’s miscarriage he questions his once-strong faith. However, one of his students urges him to put his police skills to the test – to investigate the murder of one Jesus of Nazareth. Based on a true story.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith

Rating: PG-13 (for some drug material and a scene of violence)

Winnie Mandela

(RLJ Entertainment) Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Wendy Crewson, Elias Koteas. While many are aware of the accomplishments of the South African activist and politician Nelson Mandela, his wife Winnie was no less a formidable advocate for freedom and a major figure in bringing down the system of apartheid in that country. This is that story from her point of view.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some violence and language)

New Releases for the Week of February 22, 2013


Dark Skies

DARK SKIES

(Dimension) Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L.J. Benet, Rich Hutchman, Myndi Crist, Annie Thurman, Ron Ostrow. Directed by Scott Stewart

When a suburban family begins to experience terrifying unexplained occurrences, they look for answers and discover that they’ve been targeted by a mysterious and deadly force. When they can get no help from skeptical authorities, they take matters into their own hands to protect themselves against a malevolent foe.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, terror throughout, sexual material, drug content and language – all involving teens)

Bless Me, Ultima

(Arenas Entertainment) Luke Ganalon, Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, Dolores Heredia. When a mystical healer comes to stay at a New Mexico boy’s home during the Second World War, she changes his life in many ways – opening him up to his own spiritual qualities and teaching him to see the world in a different way. Based on the beloved but controversial novel by Rudolfo Anaya.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references and some violence)

Kai Po Che!

(UTV) Sushant Singh Rajput, Raj Kumar Yadav, Amit Sadh, Amrita Puri. A trio of childhood friends decide to unite to start their own business – a cricket training academy. In India where cricket is like hockey for Canadians, it seems like a slam dunk of an idea – but the hurdles facing them are large and not so easily surmounted.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Snitch

(Summit) Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Barry Pepper. When a young man is busted for a drug crime he didn’t commit, his father is willing to do anything to keep him out of prison. What “anything” entails is going undercover in one of the most vicious drug cartels operating in the United States. Unbelievably, this is based on actual events.

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for drug content and sequences of violence)  

West of Memphis

(Sony Classics) Damien Echols, Lorri Davis, Jason Baldwin, Pam Hicks. Documentary filmmaker Amy Berg looks into the notorious case of the West Memphis Three, three teenage boys unjustly convicted for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in 1993. Given the death penalty, it took an extraordinary effort which was often thwarted by the state of Arkansas itself to bring to light the truth which eventually would set these young teens – now grown to young men – free.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

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

Goats


 

Goats

This is what it looks like when David Duchovney loses a bet.

(2012) Drama (Image) David Duchovney, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Keri Russell, Anthony Anderson, Dakota Johnson, Adelaide Kane, Evan Boymel, Justin Wheelon, Timothy Gibbs, Olga Segura, Nicholas Lobue, Ricardo Andres, Caleb Dane Horst. Directed by Christopher Neil

 

As the saying goes, we can choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. We’re kind of stuck with them, regardless of how much (or how little) we like them. That can be a bad thing but it can be a good thing too.

Ellis (Phillips) would probably lean towards the former if you asked him. His parents are divorced, and are none too friendly with one another. His mom Wendy (Farmiga) is a trust fund hippie who never met a new age concept she didn’t become obsessed with. She’s self-centered and vindictive; not the best mom on Earth (as Ellis normally is the one who has to pay her bills because she’s so flighty) but she’s not the worst either.

How his dad (Burrell) wound up with her is something of a mystery. He went to an exclusive prep school in New England where he’s used his connections to get Ellis accepted into. Although a snooty prep school would seem to be a completely alien environment for Ellis, who’s used to the desert psychedelics of Arizona, he recognizes that it would be a boon for his future so he goes but not without much whining from his mother.

Ellis isn’t particularly upset at being separated by so many miles from his mom, but he does feel something for Goat Man (Duchovney) who goes by Javier but who’s real name is Steve. Goat Man is a herbologist and botanist who look like a cross between Jerry Garcia, Grizzly Adams and Moses with a Smith brother thrown in for good measure. He lives in the pool house with his goats, in exchange for tending the pool and landscape for Wendy. Their relationship is strictly platonic. Goat Man is most interested in botany so that he can grow some amazing marijuana, which he shares with Ellis. Goat Man takes Ellis on treks which are essentially walkabouts with no particular destination in mind – just an exploration of the land and its inhabitants.

Ellis is doing well in school but the pressure is getting to him. His roommate Barney (Lobue) is clearly not a good influence on him; his father is making overtures at reaching out and establishing a relationship with his estranged son. Goat Man, who promised to send Ellis weed hasn’t sent him anything and Wendy’s obnoxious lout of a boyfriend (Kirk) won’t let Ellis talk to his mother.

But Frank turns out to be a decent soul even though his impending marriage to Judy (Russell) is doing the fandango in Ellis’ brain, almost as much as the impending birth of his half-brother to the very pregnant Judy has. And he’s been coerced by the coach (Anderson) of the track team to run cross country, which he’s not really comfortable with at first. How can you run towards a future if you don’t even know which way you’re going?

Based on a novel by Mark Jude Poirier, this is one of those quirky indie movies that really wanders aimlessly through the plot the way a Deadhead might wander through a pot field, with a benevolent smile and a lack of purpose. Ellis doesn’t really have to much of a major crisis; sure he drinks too much for a15-year-old, and he does way too much pot, but he’s getting straight A’s and for the most part is a pretty well-adjusted kid given to bouts of douchebagness from time to time which is not out of line with the behavior of most real life 15-year-old boys.

Duchovney has always been a big draw for me. His easy-going laid-back charm meshes nicely with his intelligence. That the X-Files movies didn’t make him a major movie star has more to do with what was going on behind the camera rather than in front of it; both he and Gillian Anderson have all the tools to be big screen power players. In her case, I think it’s a choice not to go down that path; that also might be true of Duchovney.

I don’t think Farmiga really knew what to make of her character and in many ways that’s my main frustration with the movie. She’s quite the self-centered bitch throughout but there’s no doubt that Wendy really loves Ellis with all her heart and soul; Frank’s betrayal, whatever it might have been (and it’s not really explained why they split up, at least not that I can remember) really devastated her and has been in some ways the focal point of her life. She has certainly poisoned her son towards her father, making it impossible for Frank to see him. Early in the movie, Ellis believes his mother about the behavior of his dad, but as the movie progresses and he gets to know not just his dad but also his sweet-natured fiancé his attitude towards him changes.

There are no real epiphanies here other than that adults aren’t perfect and that there’s nothing wrong with life that a little toke can’t fix. Phillips plays Ellis like he’s living in an “Afterschool Special” and doesn’t do too bad a job of it, but I never really got to know Ellis all that well and found Goat Man far more interesting. Now, I’m wondering if there’s going to be a sequel all about Ellis’ discovery of peyote.

REASONS TO GO: Duchovney is interesting, even behind all that hair. Dynamic between Ellis and Frank works nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Too quirky for its own good. Meanders quite a bit. A movie for stoners.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use, including teen pot smokers and alcohol drinkers. There is also plenty of bad language, some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers had to hire someone to teach Duchovney to roll a joint like an expert – the actor claims he’d never rolled one in his entire life..

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dead Poets Society

NEW MEXICO LOVERS: Several of the “trek” scenes are shot in the beautiful New Mexico highlights, doubling for Arizona.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Bedtime Stories


Bedtime Stories

A rose by any other name doth smelleth.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Adam Sandler, Guy Pearce, Keri Russell, Richard Griffiths, Courtney Cox, Lucy Lawless, Teresa Palmer, Russell Brand, Aisha Tyler, Jonathan Pryce, Jonathan Morgan Heit, Laura Ann Kesling, Carmen Electra, Paul Dooley, Rob Schneider. Directed by Adam Shankman

There is something comforting about a good old fashioned bedtime story. They transport us to faraway places and show us fantastic sights with strange and magical beings. This is part of the comforts of our childhood, as well as the joys of our parenthood.

Skeeter (Sandler) had a vivid imagination and loved to tell stories almost as much as he loved his dad’s (Pryce) hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Times were hard and his dad wound up having to sell the hotel to Barry Nottingham (Griffiths), owner of a chain of hotels – the understanding being that Skeeter would one day run the hotel.

Years later, Skeeter was still working at the hotel as a handyman but the days of the hotel were numbered; Nottingham had plans to build a new hotel, the flagship of his chain. Unctuous manager Kendall (Pearce) has the inside track for the position, as well as for Violet (Palmer), the tabloid bad girl who seems to always have a cloud of paparazzi following her.

Skeeter’s sister Wendy (Cox), the principal of an eco-friendly school, is having to look for new work in Phoenix when her school is abruptly closed, the land sold to a hotel magnate (you can guess who that is). She needs someone to watch her kids, daughter Bobbi (Kesling) and son Patrick (Heit) and Skeeter is essentially her only resort since her best friend Jill (Russell) must work. She doesn’t trust Skeeter – in fact, she hasn’t spoken to him in four years and he can barely remember the names of her children. Family is family though, so he does the best he can.

Turns out they can’t fall asleep without a bedtime story. He has them suggest one to him and he tells it to them, incorporating elements of his own life into the story. When the kids change the ending to include a rainstorm of gumballs, he doesn’t think much of it…until the sky opens up the next day and gumballs rain down.

Skeeter realizes that the kids have the ability to make their bedtime stories come true and he tries to manipulate their stories so that he gets what he wants in life. However, try controlling a couple of kids with vivid imaginations and as this is a Disney movie, you can bet that things are gonna get complicated.

Sandler can be an engaging and charming guy and there’s no doubt that he can appeal to the younger set, but this is actually his first family movie and in a lot of ways it feels kind of vanilla – more so than a family film would demand ordinarily. Not that Sandler has to be blue to be successful, but he feels very toned down, scaled back and watered down. I get the feeling that was more the doing of studio execs at the Mouse House more than anything but still the effect is the same.

There are several story segments, ranging from Ancient Rome to the Old West to Outer Space and beyond. Some of them are imaginative, others less so but they mostly hold your attention at least. So too (but for all the wrong reasons) does the guinea pig with saucer-like eyes that is used as a running joke in the movie. It’s CGI and not particularly good CGI; it’s a tiresome one-joke bit that is used way too often.

The cast is pretty impressive and for the most part, the acting is solid enough but again, nothing really stands up and makes you take notice. Russell is one of my favorite actresses and she lights up the screen when she’s on, but never really generates much chemistry with Sandler. Pearce, in a moustache-twirling villain role, seems a bit out of his element.

 There really doesn’t seem to be much of a message here, which would be refreshing if there was something else concrete to take its place, like sly wit or humor. I felt rather indifferent after seeing this and that’s not where you want your movie to be. I would have liked there to be more edge here, but unfortunately it can be filed away with Tooth Fairy, The Pacifier and other family films of that ilk that have a bit of magic to them, but only a bit.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the story segments are cute and imaginative. Sandler is likable in a kind of oafish way.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sandler goes family-friendly but it comes off a bit bland.

FAMILY VALUES: Disney knows family friendly and this is it. A few bad words and some poo-poo jokes but otherwise easily family-friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the driving range, one of the golf balls that goes whizzing by bears the Happy Madison logo, a reference to the production company logo.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Art of the Steal

Leaves of Grass


Leaves of Grass

Two Edward Nortons for the price of one!

(Millennium) Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfus, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy deVito, Josh Pais, Steve Earle, Ken Cheeseman, Maggie Siff, Amelia Campbell, Leo Fabian, Randal Reeder, Lee Wikoff, Ty Burrell. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Family dynamics can be unpredictable. Two siblings in the same family can take wildly divergent life paths, even if they’re identical twins.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is one of the most brilliant minds in the country. He is a professor of classical philosophy at Brown University, handsome, erudite and brilliant. He is a sought-after commodity, both by administrators at Harvard (Wikoff) who are so eager to have him on staff that they’re creating a position specifically for him, and co-eds (deVito) who write him erotic love sonnets in Latin and tear their clothes off in his office, much to the chagrin of his administrative assistance Maggie (Campbell).

Brady Kincaid (Norton, in a dual role) is one of the cleverest pot growers in Oklahoma. He and his partner Bolger (Nelson) have built, as Bolger puts it, the Taj Mahal of grow houses, a state of the art hydroponics facility in which Brady has crossbred many strains of wacky weed to make the most turbocharged product in all of Southeastern Oklahoma. His girlfriend Colleen (Lynskey) is pregnant and his mom (Sarandon) has checked into a rest home despite being 15 years younger than everyone else there because she likes being able to do whatever the hell she wants, as she describes it.

However, things aren’t all rosy in Brady’s life. The big drug distributor in Oklahoma, Pug Rothbaum (Dreyfus) from whom Brady borrowed most of the cash to set up his operation, is demanding either his money back or for Brady to expand his operation into harder drugs, something Brady is philisophically opposed to. Rothbaum is demanding an answer and Brady and Bolger are pretty sure that he won’t like the one they have for him.

Shortly thereafter, Bill gets a call that his twin brother has been murdered. Even though he’s been estranged from his family for more than a decade, he decides to fly back to Tulsa. On the plane he is seated next to a pushy orthodontist named Ken Feinman (Pais) who is relocating his practice from New York to Tulsa where insurance rates and general costs are much lower. Drowning in debt and desperate to establish a new practice, he hands the disinterested Bill his business card.

Bill is picked up at the airport by Bolger who makes a stop at a mini-market in Broken Bow to pick up some supplies. While there, Bill is mistaken for Brady by a couple of redneck business rivals who beat the living crap out of him before Bolger intercedes, but not before he is knocked out cold by a kick to his head.

When he wakes up, who should be the first face he sees but Brady. It turns out that his brother faked his death in order to get Bill to Oklahoma, which Bill admits he likely wouldn’t have done if asked like a normal person. Brady needs Bill’s help – he needs Bill to impersonate him and be seen by the local sheriff (who hangs out with the receptionist at the nursing home with whom he is smitten) while Brady attends a meeting with Rothbaum in Tulsa. Bill is at first adamant against doing anything to help his brother, but a few hits from the wonderpot persuade him to stay the weekend, and the introduction of Janet (Russell) the comely English teacher with a penchant for quoting Walt Whitman and with whom Bill takes a shine to immediately seals the deal. Unfortunately, when Brady is involved with something, the unforeseen usually occurs.

Tim Blake Nelson, best-known as an actor in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou has directed a handful of films since the late 90s, but this is by far the best work he’s done to date. He captures the rural atmosphere of Southeast Oklahoma perfectly, from the local twang to the fishing hole chic. The movie motors along at a brisk pace that keeps you involved in every little twist and turn that occurs.

Norton’s twin performances as Blake and Bill are also worth seeking this out for by themselves. The two characters couldn’t be more different but there are some core similarities that a pair of identical twins would have to have, from idiosyncratic mannerisms to the strong bond that exists between them, whether Bill wants to admit it’s there or not.

He has a great supporting cast. Russell is one of the most charming of actresses out there, and ever since her work in “Felicity” and particularly the indie comedy Waitress is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nelson as the ultra-loyal Bolger to Dreyfus as the rabid dog of a crime boss, is very strong. Pais is particularly noteworthy as the neurotic orthodontist and Siff as a rabbi has a very moving speech near the end of the movie.

I also wanted to mention Sarandon’s role as the ex-hippie mom. She’s so perfect for this role that you end up wishing she was in the movie more (she only appears in four scenes); if there’s any footage of her on the cutting room floor, I surely hope it ends up on the DVD. I think its safe to say that all the characters in the movie are nicely fleshed out, the mark of a well-written script.

The thing I love most about the movie is that about two thirds of the way though it takes a wild left turn that comes completely by surprise, so much so that at the Florida Film Festival screening at which I caught the film the audience let out an audible and collective gasp. The movie switches gears from that point and goes into overdrive. It’s a bravura bit of screenwriting as well as a tribute to Nelson’s talents as a director.

A word of warning; this is most definitely a movie about the drug culture, and those who are uncomfortable with depictions of pot smoking and other accoutrements of growing weed will probably have problems with Leaves of Grass. However, it must be said that the sweet smoke is no more pervasive than it is in the Showtime series “Weeds” so if you’re not bothered by that show you’ll be okay here.

This is the kind of movie that grows on you, no pun intended. I suspect that if you ask me again in a week’s time I will give this a higher rating than I have to this point. At the end of the day this is a very well-crafted movie that’s worth seeking out at your local art house or on DVD if it doesn’t find its way near you.

REASONS TO GO: The movie takes an unexpected 90 degree turn about two thirds of the way through the movie that’s unexpected. Norton fills both of the roles admirably. Russell is charming as always.

REASONS TO STAY: The stoner tone might be a bit overly much for those who are uncomfortable with the culture.

FAMILY VALUES: Those who are uncomfortable with depictions of drug use (particularly the smoking of weed) will be put off by this. There is also some scenes of violence and quite a lot of usage of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norton was so eager to do this role that he accepted a pay cut of half his normal fee.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68,000 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Social Network

Note: I first saw this movie at the Florida Film Festival and published a mini-review at the time as the film hadn’t been released into theaters yet. Unfortunately, the planned release was scrapped and eventually the movie got almost no release whatsoever, which is a crying shame. Do rent this if you can find it.