The Guard


In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they're young.

In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they’re young.

(2011) Comedy (Sony Classics) Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, Fionnula Flanagan, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan, Pat Shortt, Katarina Cas, Declan Mannlen, Dominique McElligott, Owen Sharpe, David Pearce, Wale Ojo, Sarah Greene, Darren Healey, Michael Og Lane, Laurence Kinlan, Gary Lydon, Laura Hitchings. Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Offshoring

In a cop buddy film, it always helps if you get complete opposites as partners – check. There needs to be terrific chemistry between the two partners – check. They need to have some pretty nasty baddies to go up against – check. Fun to watch? Read on…

Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is a member of the Garda (the Irish State police) in the tiny village of Connemara in County Galway. He is liable to drink on the job, spends time with hookers (Greene, McElligott) and his mom (Flanagan), dying in a senior home, in about equal quantities. He spouts off vaguely racist epithets when boozing in the pubs – which is often.

When a body is discovered (with pages of the Bible stuffed in his mouth and a message written in blood on the wall), Gerry doesn’t think too much of it. He honestly doesn’t believe he’ll ever get the resources to solve the crime – on that count he’s wrong, however.

A stick-up-his-ass FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Cheadle) is assigned to the case as it is believed that it is the work of a major drug operation working in the area. Boyle, as one of the senior Garda officers in the region, is assigned to Agent Everett because of his knowledge of the locality. Gerry reacts to this with the same enthusiasm as he might drinking a Slovakian whiskey. It might be good, but it’s not Irish.

The two bicker like an old married couple with Gerry constantly testing Agent Everett’s laid-back demeanor with outrageous statements or questions. Apparently he thinks, or at least to Agent Everett’s perspective, that because Agent Everett is an African-American that he’s an expert on all things ghetto as seen on the American television shows that have made their way to the Emerald Isle.

Still, the triad of drug runners – O’Leary (Wilmot), Sheehy-Skeffington (Cunningham) and their leader Cornell (Strong) are especially vicious and not opposed to burying an FBI agent or a Garda in a shallow unmarked grave if need be. Both men will have to learn to trust and depend on one another if they are not only to survive but to in fact solve the case.

There’s a lot to like about a film like this. McDonagh gives the movie an easygoing Irish charm. There is a lot of sniping back and forth in a way that feels familiar and comfortable, much the way barflies do “take the piss” out of each other. To that end he has done a great job in casting, starting with Gleeson, a gruff and tumble character actor who has that Irish charm that can’t be taught. Making matters even better is the addition of Cheadle, one of the more capable actors working today, who can do drama and comedy with equal precision. The two pros work exceedingly well together and create a partnership that is believable and fun to watch.

The rest of the cast is just as strong, much of it Irish and local to County Galway. There isn’t a performance wasted here and everyone not only knows what’s expected of them but delivers. This is as fluid an ensemble as you’re likely to get, with everyone working well together, even the extras.

Granted, if you’re looking for innovation in cop buddy movies, you won’t find it here. The plot is pretty standard and predictable and despite the lovely Irish edge that the production has, it doesn’t cover up that this is a pretty unremarkable story that most cop film lovers will see what’s coming in throughout. There are also a few slow spots in which not a lot happens, which could easily have been edited out.

That notwithstanding, this is still a pretty damn good film which slipped under a lot of radars here in the States, undeservedly so. If you like cop buddy films and haven’t seen this, by all means do. In fact if you haven’t seen this film, by all means do. The movie is more than entertaining enough for any audiences, but if you’re sensitive to certain words (the one that the Irish pronounce that rhymes with “kook”) be warned that the F bomb is dropped repeatedly to the point that fifteen minutes into the film you become numbed to it as it is used like Americans use “umm” or “err.” Otherwise this is one of those overlooked gems you’ll thank me for hooking you up with.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle, and also Gleeson and Flanagan. A laconic Irish charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really daring or innovative plot-wise. Drags in a couple of places.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language (nobody curses like the Irish), a little bit of violence, some drug use and a wee bit of sexuality here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a few outtakes and the short The Second Death by McDonagh which includes several cast members from The Guard and introduces an early version of Gerry Boyle. There’s also a festival Q&A with Gleeson, Cheadle and McDonagh.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.6M on a $6M production budget; this constitutes a minor hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Fuzz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 4

Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life

Dog Soldiers


Dog Soldiers

Never wolf down your food.

(2002) Horror (Artisan) Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson, Leslie Simpson, Tina Landini, Craig Conway, Bryn Walters, Brian Claxton Payne, Ben Wright. Directed by Neil Marshall

 

If you were in the woods far away from civilization, where would the safest place to be? You would think among a troop of soldiers on training exercises. There are some things though an entire army wouldn’t even be able to protect you from.

Private Cooper (McKidd) looks to join the elite SAS unit and looks to have the skills to do it. However when he is ordered to kill a dog, he refuses. The commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Cunningham) shoots the dog himself and sends Cooper back to his unit.

A month later, Cooper’s squad, commanded by Sgt. Wells (Pertwee), is dropped into the Scottish highlands for training exercises. They’re supposed to attack a squad of SAS commandos but when they reach their encampment, the place has been torn to shreds. There are no bodies but plenty of bodies and bits of flesh and organ strew about. It looks like the scene of a massacre. There is just one survivor – Captain Ryan, who is grievously wounded and keeps muttering “there was only supposed to be one.”

Right about then the soldiers are attacked by unknown assailants. Corporal Bruce Campbell (Lockyer) is impaled on a tree branch and the rest of the squad make their way to an abandoned farmhouse with the help of a zoologist they encounter on the road, Maggie (Cleasby). They hole up there, thinking if they can hold out until morning the werewolves will revert to human form and they’d be safe.

Soon it appears that won’t be happening. One of the soldiers, Private Terry Milburn (Simpson) is abducted and their ammo is running low. It becomes obvious that they will need to find a way to escape before dawn or they just won’t survive.

Marshall has crafted an old-school kind of werewolf movie that eschews CGI for practical effects and with a script clever in its references to all sorts of movies, from Zulu to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Night of the Living Dead. That sounds like a bit of a mishmash (and it is in a way) but it actually works really well. The movie has a clever sense of humor that is going to appeal to not just the fanboy but the casual horror fan as well.

Marshall apparently has a pretty good sense of how military units operate – he’s gotten praise for getting that aspect right. He also has a good sense of how soldiers talk – not like cliché machines but with a wide swagger, a hefty dose of macho but also a sense of precision. Military units thrive on precise communications; they would be pretty unsuccessful if they weren’t efficient that way.

The movie was produced on the cheap; in that sense from time to time the lack of a budget shows through although for the most part the movie looks more expensive than it was. The cast is solid and talented (although Jason Statham was offered a part in the movie he had to decline to commitments to other films) and gets the military jargon down, not to mention the swagger. There are a few twists and turns (although you should be able to guess what the “mission” of the SAS really was, what the significance of the farmhouse is and what the secret of the werewolf clan is) and even better, plenty of visceral thrills to deliver the discerning horror film fan to hog heaven.

The movie failed to get theatrical distribution in the United States as distributors labeled it as “too British” which just goes to show you how stupid distributors can be (just check the box office receipts for Shaun of the Dead if you don’t believe me). It was initially shown on the SyFy Channel (and it still turns up on cable regularly) before getting a home video release, including a bare-bones Blu-Ray release a couple of years ago. That’s a shame; I think someday this will be recognized as a classic in the genre and given the respect and treatment it deserves. Until then, it can be our little hidden gem.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best werewolf films of recent years. Practical-effect werewolves rock. Reminiscent of Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London in tone. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheap production values sometimes show through.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of gore and lots of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set in Scotland it was actually filmed in Luxembourg.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Ledge

Safe House


Safe House

Denzel Washington is having a Morgan Freeman moment.

(2012) Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Fares Fares, Liam Cunningham, Nora Arnezeder, Joel Kinnaman, Ruben Blades, Jenna Dover, Stephen Rider, Tracie Thoms, Sara Arrington. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Some people are just naturally badasses. Take Chuck Norris for example. He’d kick you in the tush just as soon as look at you. Or how about Jet Li. Not only can he out-fight you, he can out-think you as well.

Tobin Frost (Washington) is a lot like that. He’s a legend in the CIA – a master manipulator, a world-class assassin and one of the guys you’re thankful is on our side. Except he isn’t on our side anymore. He left the Company and has spent the past 15 years selling our secrets to anyone who’ll buy them.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) wants to go places in the CIA but he’s stuck staring at four walls all day as the housekeeper for a CIA safe house in Cape Town. He spends most of his days making love to his girlfriend (Arnezeder) and lying to her about what he really does for a living, and nagging his handler David Barlow (Gleeson) about getting a field position which is what he really wants to do.

So when a team led by the gravelly Daniel Kiefer (Patrick) comes in bearing Frost, one of the most wanted men in the world, Weston is understandably surprised. He is even more surprised when a well-armed hit team led by the ruthless Vargas (Fares) blows in their doors and proceeds to execute everyone in the House – with the exception of Weston and Frost who have fled.

On the run with nowhere safe to go, Weston calls his superiors back at the CIA. Barlow knows that Weston is above reproach but Analyst Catherine Linklater (Farmiga) has her suspicions. Deputy Chief Harlan Whitford (Shepard) isn’t sure who to trust but seems to be giving Weston the benefit of the doubt.

Alone with one of the most dangerous men on Earth, chased by unknown assassins who want him dead and unable to trust the CIA since there had to be a leak that gave the Safe House away, Weston must figure out what’s going on, what secrets Frost is carrying with him that so many people want him dead and how to get out of this cluster fu…um, mess alive.

Frost is a part tailor-made for Denzel. He’s smart, he’s super-cool as well as super-bad, and enigmatic. He’s not the most likable guy you’ll ever meet but he is also disillusioned by some of the horrible things he has to do. To my mind, this is his best work since American Gangster – and not coincidentally, the most fleshed-out part he’s had since then.

Reynolds, known for being a touch on the light side, actually holds his own here which is a bit of surprise. This is really his first all-dramatic role (even his action hero roles have a comedic element to them) and he holds his own with one of the best actors of his generation. That’s a pretty impressive feat and watching this movie I really am re-assessing my opinion of Reynolds’ range and consequently the potential longevity of his career. This is not a star-making role for him so much as a star-potential declaration role. He is one role away from becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Espinosa, despite his Latin name, is actually Swedish and he has been one of those directors that is much better-known by studio people than by the American moviegoing public (although he is well-acclaimed in Sweden where he has a couple of highly regarded action films under his belt). He pulls off the action sequences very nicely, particularly a thrilling car chase through Cape Town and a rooftop chase through one of the ghettos of Cape Town.

With all this going for it, this should have been a big summer blockbuster but the reason that it’s sitting here in February is simply because the story isn’t anything to write home about. It’s all about deception and lies in the CIA with double and triple-crosses galore, every one of them telegraphed a mile off. It doesn’t keep you on your toes with its twists and turns so much as keep you on a familiar mountain road.

This isn’t a bad movie, don’t get me wrong – it’s just fairly predictable. It does what it does nicely without really taxing too much of your grey matter and there are some visceral thrills not to mention the opportunity to see one of the very best doing what he does best. For the record, I think this is an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours at the movies – which may sound damned by faint praise but to my mind is a pretty decent compliment.

REASONS TO GO: Washington is at the top of his game and Reynolds surprisingly keeps up. Some nicely done action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is pretty rote and doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally set in Rio de Janeiro but was switched to South Africa for security concerns.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Identity

CHAMELEON DENZEL LOVERS: The actor adopts a Spike Lee look for some of the film and a clean-shaven look harkening back to “St. Elsewhere” for other parts of the movie, and even a bit of American Gangster thrown in.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Green Mile

New Releases for the Week of February 10, 2012


February 10, 2012

SAFE HOUSE

(Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Fares Fares, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham, Ruben Blades. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

One of the most decorated agents in the history of the CIA is Tobin Frost. He is also one of the most reviled, having turned traitor and is now selling his services to the highest bidder. He has cost untold millions of dollars and dozens of lives, directly and otherwise. Then one day he walks into a U.S. consulate. He is taken from there to a CIA Safe House where the House sitter is to take charge of him until he is picked up – and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

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

Journey 2: Mysterious Island

(New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens. In this sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth, .the annoying nephew now has a new stepdad who reluctantly accompanies him to an island where there shouldn’t be one to find the annoying nephew’s explorer grandfather who had been presumed lost. Yes that’s right – another lost relative in the family. Someone should get this family a cell phone plan.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX

Genre: Family Adventure/Fantasy

Rating: PG (for some adventure action and brief mild language)

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ray Park.  Because George Lucas needs the cash since he’s retiring.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images)

The Vow

(Screen Gems) Rachel McAdams, Channing Tatum, Sam Neill, Scott Speedman. A newlywed couple seem to have everything going for them, a perfect life together and a bright future but it all comes to a screeching halt on a rainy night when the car they are in is plowed into by a truck. At least they both survive but the groom discovers that his new wife has lost all of her memory of the past five years – including every memory of him. She believes she is still engaged to the man she was seeing before he came along. Determined to win her back, he pulls out all the stops to get her to fall in love with her all over again. Sound too good to be true? It really happened.

See the trailer and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity and some language)

War Horse


War Horse

Joey takes it to the trenches

(2011) War Drama (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The bond between man and horse rivals that between man and dog. For horse lovers, it is an almost mystical connection, one that exists at the very base of the soul. It is a connection that doesn’t break easily, even when divided by distance, time…and war.

Joey is a horse that is born in the bucolic countryside of Devon in England. He is more racing stock than the plough horse that the sensible farmers of Devonshire tend to prefer. But then, nobody ever accused Ted Narracott (Mullan) of being sensible. A veteran of the Boer War, he returned home a shattered man, his leg a mess and turns to alcohol for solace. When he spots Joey at an auction, for reasons even he couldn’t articulate he gets into a bidding war with his own landlord, Lyons (Thewlis) for the beast and winds up spending his monthly rent money on the horse who is clearly not suitable for farm work.

Nonetheless Ted’s son Albert (Irvine) takes to Joey like a duck to water and the two become inseparable. Albert teaches Joey to wear a harness and gets him to plough a particularly rocky and infertile patch of land for Ted to plant turnips in. Albert’s mother Rose (Watson) chides her son gently afterwards when Albert’s pride at accomplishing the impossible moves towards contempt for his own father who had put him in a position of having to save the family bacon. Rose shows Albert the medals and regimental pennant that Ted had wanted thrown out but Rose had saved.

But a new war is on the horizon, one that will bring more horrors than any that had ever preceded it – the Great War, the War to End All Wars but one which today in America is little remembered as The First World War. Today most Americans look at it as little more than a dress rehearsal for the USA’s brightest moment in the Second World War, which is revered here.

Then again, America was a latecomer to the dance when it came to the Great War. It was fought in European fields and decimated the countryside; it also decimated the population. Nearly every family in France, Germany and Great Britain has a tale about that war involving a great-grandfather or relative who went off to war and never returned, or if they did return, did so with missing limbs, respiratory problems from mustard gas, or with a shattered psyche.

Joey is sold to the British army as a cavalry horse, much to Albert’s sorrow. He promises Joey that they’ll find each other, even as the kindly captain (Hiddleston) who takes the horse as his own mount has his doubts. Joey impulsively ties his dad’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and off Joey and the captain go to war.

The movie’s focus shifts from the Narracotts to Joey as he passes from hand to hand and side to side. He becomes the means for a couple of German deserters to escape, the hope for a dying French farm girl, a means of moving gigantic guns from one place to another and a reason for a temporary truce in No Man’s Land between the British and the Germans.

Spielberg has been more visible as a studio mogul these days than as a director, but here he  once again proves why he is the greatest director of our generation. This is visual poetry, thanks largely to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who in my opinion is the Oscar frontrunner) as well as composer John Williams who provides a score that alternates martial beats with heart-tugging strings.

In fact, this is a movie that leaves not a single dry eye in the house by its conclusion. This is based on a book by Michael Mopurgo which in turn became a stage play that is enjoying great success in London and New York City where it is running even as we speak; be warned that the movie hews closer to the book and less to the play which shifts the point of view from Joey to Albert by necessity. The play also includes a puppet horse who, while life-like, is still no match for the real horse (or horses) that is Joey in the film.

Irvine is guileless in the lead, a very typical Spielbergian hero who does the right thing motivated by love and is a stolid member of the working class. Irvine brings to life the heart that screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provide the character and makes that heart real. His relationship with his father and his mother is occasionally rocky but there is clearly love there.

Of additional note is Arestrup as a French grandfather who is watching the war take everything from him. Arestrup who was amazing as a gangster in A Prophet is wonderful here as well, becoming a kind of archetype for how most of us view French country life and those who live it. There is an inner sorrow inside him as loss after loss piles up until he has nothing left but memories. It’s an amazing, affecting performance and is to me the one human performance you’ll remember most.

But of course this is Joey’s story and Joey is indeed a stand-in for the millions of horses that were butchered during the war, sometimes literally. Spielberg has stated that in most of the movies he’s directed, the horse was just something the lead character rode; here he has to get audiences to watch the horse and not the rider, something that he accomplishes for the most part.

Now, I have to admit that while I’m generally willing to stretch my disbelief for a movie, the final scenes in the movie really made that stretch mighty thin, almost to the breaking point. The very final scenes are poignant but over-the-top with a Western sunset worthy of John Ford but perhaps not so appropriate for Devon. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way here gentlemen.

Still, this is a movie that has gotten much praise and justifiably so – it’s certainly one of the best movies of the Holiday season and while it hasn’t gotten the box office attention of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there are those who think it has an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar; certainly it will get a great deal of nomination votes in that category.

This is a movie that is cathartic and thrilling in equal measures. Horse lovers will be appalled at the depictions of animal cruelty here (although please do keep in mind that the Humane Society was on hand closely monitoring the situation to make sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie and from all accounts had glowing reports of how well the horses and other animals in the movie including a rather ill-tempered goose were treated). Military buffs will be impressed by the depiction of the trench warfare – a couple of scenes rivaled Saving Private Ryan as among the best depictions of war ever filmed. History buffs will appreciate that an era rarely visited by American filmmakers is finally getting its due by one of the greatest American filmmakers.

While the movie has plenty to recommend it to kids, I’d think twice about bringing the younger kids to the film as some of the wartime scenes are pretty intense with casualties among both men and horses. However for older kids and adults, this is a return to form by Spielberg and certainly one of his best works of the 21st century. Just be sure to bring plenty of hankies along with your popcorn and soda.

REASONS TO GO: The trench warfare scenes are amazing. Not a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: A little far-fetched in places. Final sunset-lit scenes are a bit too over-the-top.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some war-time violence and some graphic depictions of animal suffering.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were fourteen horses used to play Joey, each doing their own specific action but the horse used most often in close-ups is Finder’s Key, the same horse that played the title role in Seabiscuit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Black Stallion

ARTILLERY LOVERS: Very accurate portrayals of the moving of big German guns and how devastating they were once they got into position.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Harry Brown


Harry Brown

My name...is Michael Caine...punk!!!

(2009) Crime Drama (Goldwyn) Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Jack O’Connell, Liam Cunningham, Amy Steel, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jamie Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun. Directed by Daniel Barber

As we grow older, we sometimes find that the world is changing around us so rapidly it becomes virtually unrecognizable from what it’s been. Those changes can be confusing and even terrifying; sometimes we feel helpless in the onslaught of them. However, when the world grows out of control and violent, can we expect the elderly to stand up for themselves?

Harry Brown (Caine) is a pensioner grieving over his wife. He lives in a housing estate that has deteriorated rapidly, becoming rampant with crime and prostitution. He hangs out in a pub owned by Sid (Cunningham), playing chess with his old pal Leonard (Bradley). Leonard is terrified of the gang that runs their housing complex; they keep putting piles of dog excrement through his mail slot, going so far as to send flaming torches through as well. Fed up, Leonard takes a gun out to deal with the ruffians.

Predictably, Harry’s next visit is from Detective Alice Frampton (Mortimer) of the Metropolitan police, and her partner Detective Hicock (Miles) informing Harry that his friend has been murdered. Harry is of course bereaved, and expects the cops to bring those who murdered his friend to justice; however, it quickly becomes evident that the police can’t or won’t clean up the area or find the culprits.

However, when you’re Michael Caine, you don’t let details stand in your way. No, Harry Brown as it turns out is a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland a.k.a. he’s seen some stuff. It means Harry Brown is Dirty Harry with a Cockney accent, and some punks are about to feel decidedly unlucky.

While there is a bit of an apt comparison with the iconic Clint Eastwood character, the film comes off more like Death Wish than Magnum Force. With first-time director Barber at the helm, the film moves at a kind of a jerky pace – fast and frenetic at times and a bit slow at others. It gives an overall feel of driving a car with a dying transmission in it.

Caine is utterly magnificent here. In one of his best performances in a decade, he imbues Harry with quiet reserve, inner steel and rage. He is a man with absolutely nothing to lose and is willing to die for his cause. He isn’t a super-hero – he doesn’t hit everything he shoots, he can’t run like a track star and he doesn’t knock out behemoths with a single punch. Instead, he relies on his own experience and military smarts. Caine gives the character dignity and a bit of a connection with the past; we can imagine a young Caine sweeping through Belfast, machine gun in hand, rooting out snipers.

Mortimer is a very good actress who tends to play mousy characters. Here she’s playing a cop who is frustrated with the system, knows that its corrupt and is completely sympathetic to Harry’s plight and those of his neighbors but is helpless to really make much of an impact.

The ending is pure cinematic poppycock and the script tends to plod through clichés that were old when Death Wish was new. Still, with Caine’s soaring performance, Harry Brown bears watching, even though the sight isn’t exactly a new vista.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Caine’s best performances of the last ten years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable revenge thriller plotline. Ludicrous ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is very strong as is the violence. There is also some drug use and sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The woman singing “Gold” in the pub is actually the unit nurse for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $7.3M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Apollo 18

New Releases for the Week of August 26, 2011


August 26, 2011

COLOMBIANA

(TriStar) Zoe Saldana, Michael Vartan, Cliff Curtis, Callum Blue, Jordi Molla, Max Martini, Lennie James, Graham McTavish. Directed by Olivier Megaton

A young woman who witnesses the assassination of her parents is trained to become an assassin herself by her uncle. She continues to work for her uncle as a killer, all the while searching for the identity of those responsible for the deaths of her parents. Her pursuit will lead her to some dark, dangerous places..

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, intense sequences of action, sexuality and brief strong language)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

(FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson. A young family moves into a spooky old house where the little girl is menaced by dark forces. Based on the 1973 made-for-television movie that some believe is one of the best horror movies ever made for any medium.

See the trailer, promos, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for violence and terror)

The Guard

(Sony Classics) Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham. An Irish cop who is dealing with a local drug smuggling ring joins forces with a straight-laced FBI agent who gets involved when those smugglers turn out to be part of a larger operation.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy

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

Our Idiot Brother

(Weinstein) Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer. The perennially cheerful but completely lacking in sense or smarts is forced to live with each of his uptight sisters who are disgusted with his upbeat attitude. However the longer he spends time with them the more they realize that he may be  a lot smarter than they gave him credit for.

See the trailer, interviews, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)

Sarah’s Key

(Weinstein) Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Aidan Quinn, Niels Arestrup. The life of a modern-day American journalist is entwined with that of a 10-year-old French girl in Nazi-occupied France. The little girl hides her little brother in a closet with a promise to come back for him shortly, a promise that echoes into modern day France as the journalist uncovers disturbing information regarding the French round up of Jews.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Michelle Yeoh finds that checking out books at the Ancient China branch of the library can be problematical at best.

(2008) Action Adventure Horror (Universal) Brenan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, John Hannah, Isabella Leong, Chau Sang Anthony Wong, Russell Wong, Liam Cunningham, David Calder, Jessey Meng, Tian Liang.  Directed by Rob Cohen

Movie monsters may come and movie monsters may go, but you can’t keep them down for too long. That, at least in my estimation, is the lesson generated by the first two movies of the Universal Mummy reboot.

The third installment of the series starts off very promising. Evil Chinese emperor (Li) plans to take over the world, but falls in love with sorceress Zi Yuan (Yeoh) who only has eyes for the emperor’s right hand General Ming (R. Wong), which cheeses off the emperor enough to kill his best field general. The emperor apparently never learned not to piss off a sorceress, so on the pretense of making the emperor immortal she instead curses him and his soldiers to turn into clay, and as such they are entombed for four thousand years.

That is, until Alex O’Connell (Ford) comes along. A young, promising archaeologist excavating in China stumbles upon the tomb, one of the most important finds of the 20th century, but in doing so accidentally awakens the emperor who has plans to resume his world domination scheme after a slight delay. Those darn Chinese emperors!

Alex’s parents, Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz who chose not to return to the role) have been living in wedded bliss for more than a decade since the events of The Mummy Returns. However, they are both unspeakably bored and who wouldn’t be? Anything after a life of danger, adventure, exotic places and of course the undead would seem a bit dull by comparison.

Given the opportunity to return a rare gem to the Chinese people as a gift from the British government, the O’Connell’s head to China to reunite with their son, choosing a bar in Shanghai owned by Evelyn’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (Hannah), which is a mistake in itself. There they are attacked and helped out by Lin (Leong), who turns out to be the daughter of the sorceress and General Ming who inherited her mom’s immortality. Thanks mom!

After witnessing the truly evil nature of the mummy and his human henchman General Yang (C.S.A. Wong), the O’Connell’s realize that they are the only people equipped to deal with yet another outbreak of mummy-ism. They are in turn aided by the sorceress and her yeti pals. This all leads to a big battle by the Great Wall in which the emperor’s soldiers are opposed by the slaves they murdered to build the wall (brought back to life conveniently by the sorceress) and the emperor, who morphs himself into a formidable fire-breathing three-headed dragon. The odds are against the O’Connells and their allies but if you know mummies like they know mummies, you won’t be worried about the whole day-saving thing.

Cohen takes over from Stephen Sommers who helmed the first two movies and does adequately. Cohen is no stranger to big movies, having directed xXx and the original The Fast and the Furious among other things but he doesn’t get to use Vin Diesel here.

Instead, he gets Brendan Fraser and the actor utilizes his considerable charm to make Rick likable despite being a bit of a whiner here. The chemistry between Fraser and Weisz is sorely missed and although Bello is a terrific actress in her own right, she really isn’t right for the role. Quite frankly, her English accent is a bit too upper class for Evelyn, and she comes off as a bit phony. She does look good in the fight scenes at least.

Alex O’Connell has gone from an annoying child in The Mummy Returns to an annoying adult here, so the less said the better. Hannah provides comic relief nicely, but for me the real attraction here is Li and Yeoh. Li is one of the greatest martial artists ever in movies and while he doesn’t get as much time demonstrating his prowess (he’s much too busy being a CGI mummy or dragon), he shines when he does. Yeoh is in my opinion an incredibly gifted actress who is shamefully underrated here in the States. She is, as always, one of the best reasons to see this movie.

There is plenty of eye candy to go around and the action sequences make the movie at least palatable. However, a lot of the sparkle and gee-whiz fun is missing from this movie where it was present in the first two. You get the impression this was just a paycheck for most of the people involved, who are sufficiently talented enough to make this entertaining, but without the spark that would have made this amazing. It’s one of those things where you have good talent, a great concept and skilled filmmakers but it doesn’t add up to the great movie it should have been. Instead, it’s merely adequate.

It’s not good form to compare a movie to the one that you think should have been made, but the movie disappointed me so here you have it. It’s certainly worth a look if you haven’t already seen it, but don’t expect to have your socks blown off. Your footwear is quite safe this time.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular effects and some amazing fight scenes. Any chance to see Li and Yeoh is worth taking. Fraser is as charming as ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bello is miscast somewhat. The story is a bit weak compared to the first two movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action movie-type violence and a few disturbing monster images that might be a bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tomb and the terra cotta warriors are based on the actual tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in Xi’an, China. The excavations have been going slowly for decades, partially because of traps left by the builders of the tomb, some similar to the ones depicted in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual terra cotta warriors, as well as a trivia track and a U-Control feature called “Know Your Mummy” that compares this movie with the previous two Mummy flicks, the latter two being only on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $401.1M on a $145M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beginners

Perrier’s Bounty


Perrier's Bounty

Murphy, Whittaker and Broadbent stroll away from yet another catastrophe.

(2009) Gangster Comedy (IFC) Cillian Murphy, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Jodie Whittaker, Gabriel Byrne (voice), Liam Cunningham, Michael McElhatton, Domhnall Gleeson, Ned Dennehy, Patrick McCabe, Glenn Speers, Natalie Britton. Directed by Ian Fitzgibbon

Sometimes, you’re left in an impossible situation; one in which, either through your own ineptitude or through no fault of your own there is no good outcome. There are times when the lesser of two evils is to go medieval on somebody’s ass.

Michael McCrae (Murphy) is a small-time hood in Dublin who owes a thousand Euros to Darren Perrier (Brendan Gleeson), a big-time hood. He has sent a couple of thugs to inform young McCrae that they will return in four hours to collect – and if he doesn’t have the cash, they will break a leg. Four hours later they’ll break another leg. And so on and so forth until every limb is broken and all that’s left is to shoot him dead. Perrier doesn’t mess around, obviously.

At first McCrae seeks to get the amount from another loan shark known only as The Mull (Cunningham) but when that falls through, McCrae is left to the mercy of the thugs. He is saved when his neighbor Brenda (Whittaker) whom McCrae has had a crush on for ages, accidentally shoots one of the thugs.

This pisses Perrier off no end; he regards it as nothing less than a challenge to his authority. He authorizes a bounty on the head of the two of ten thousand Euros. Now McCrae are on the run along with McCrae’s dad Jim (Broadbent) who has had a premonition that he’s going to die the next time he falls asleep. With every hood in Dublin gunning for them, fleeing town seems to be the only option but that won’t be easy either.

For more than a decade gangster movies have made a resurgence in the UK and really for my money they are the best in the world at making them (although the Chinese have made some pretty intense gangster movies as well). This is not one that’s going to be at the top of the list, but neither is it going to be at the bottom either.

Murphy is a likable enough sort and he has the acting chops to go a lot farther in Hollywood than he has to date. He lacks that one vehicle to lift him over the top and make him a viable property over here; even appearances in the Christopher Nolan Batman movies haven’t done it for him yet.

Brendan Gleeson is as rough and tumble as they come and he’s done several turns as a bad guy, particularly in In Bruges (although audiences may know him best as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films). He’s one of the best character actors in the business and lends a certain amount of cachet to any film he participates in. His Darren Perrier is quite an S.O.B. but Gleeson keeps him from becoming a standard paint-by-numbers villain by making him interesting and quirky.

Most of the rest of the mostly Irish cast (with the exception of Broadbent who is English and also one of the finest character actors in the world) aren’t well known in the States, although Whittaker, who plays Brenda with some spunk and verve should be and could be eventually (although she’s English too – hmmm). Still, there are solid performances all around and the movie is the better for it.

The main problem is that there isn’t anything that particularly stands out from other gangster movies. The idiom requires a hook of some kind; a lead character without a name, a shootout in a medieval town, a language spoken only by a few in the UK, a missing parcel. Something that is more than just trying to get away from the bad guys – although the movie isn’t boring by a long shot either.

The script is well-written and the dialogue is clever, so the movie is smart in its own right. It just doesn’t take any chances, which is a shame because it could have used a few risks. Still, it has a great cast and any movie with Murphy, Broadbent and Gleeson in it is worth watching.

WHY RENT THIS: Gleeson, Broadbent and Murphy are always wonderful and Whittaker does a terrific job as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not really very groundbreaking when it comes to gangster flicks.

FAMILY VALUES: There is an awful lot of violence (which you’d expect in an Irish gangster flick), a whole lot of swearing (which you’d also expect in an Irish gangster flick) and a smattering of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fitzgibbon is currently completing his next film, based on the novel Death of a Superhero.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $167,938 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Rio