The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

Advertisements

The Art of Getting By


Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

(2011) Teen Romance (Fox Searchlight) Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Sasha Spielberg, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ann Dowd, Maya Ri Sanchez, Blair Underwood, Ann Harada, Rita Wilson, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Reaser, Andrew Levitas, Sam Robards, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Angarano, Dan Leonard, Sophie Curtis, Lindsay-Elizabeth Hand. Directed by Gavin Wiesen

It seems sometimes that the world is overcrowded with movies about teens, floundering to find themselves, finding romance which inspires them to put aside whatever bullshit they were into and grow up. I’m not sure if the source of these are frustrated parents of teens, desperate for hope that their own kids are going to grow out of the phase they’re in, or by former teens who wish that their issues could have been resolved that easily.

George (Highmore) is a self-described misanthrope, although I might have added nihilist to the description. He is a budding artist who is inspired by nothing. We’re all going to die eventually, he reasons; why bother doing anything? So the homework at the elite prep school in Manhattan that he attends remains uncompleted and he spends his lunch breaks alone and reading Camus. And if you needed one more clue that George is a pretentious Morrissey-wannabe, he always always always wears a dark overcoat. Except in the picture above.

Then Harry – I mean George – meets Sally (Roberts) and impulsively takes the fall for her smoking on the school roof. Side note: has anybody actually named their daughter Sally since, say, 1947? Anyway, the two start hanging out together and George begins to develop those kind of feelings for her which are either not reciprocated or ignored. As it turns out, Sally’s got issues of her own although we don’t find out what they are until later in the film.

George also meets Austin (Angarano), an artist who starts hitting on Sally. George’s parents – his doormat mom (Wilson) and his stepdad (Robards) who turns out to be not nearly as successful as he let on – are having issues. George, now really upset, has a blowup with Sally and the two fall go their separate ways, Sally into a relationship with Austin and George into a quest to find meaning by finishing his homework which leads me to believe that the first group might be the source of this particular film.

First-time director Wiesen cast this Sundance entry well, with Highmore especially proving to be fortuitous. The young Brit has been a skilled actor for quite awhile (and has received rave notices for his work on the Psycho TV series. The George character is truly unlikable when we first meet him; pretentious and angst-ridden in the worst teen way. Like many teens who prefer to embrace the doom and gloom, they refuse to see the things right in front of them that are good – a mom that loves him, a school that wants to inspire him, a girl that could be good for him.  Instead, he prefers to mess things up for himself which is pretty true-to-life.

What isn’t is that the movie follows too many teen movie cliches in that everything is resolved by a girl leaving a guy, forcing him to make changes for the better and by the end of the movie he’s actually a likable guy with a bright future and of course the ending is as predictable as a Republican reaction to an Obama policy. Most kids are far too complex and far too smart to believe this as anything but the most optimistic fantasy. Change comes from within, and change for the better is hard work. I can’t think of many schools, particularly elite academic institutions, that would be willing to let someone who has slacked off on turning in his homework all year save his academic life. In fact, most schools would have expelled his ass long before.

Despite the cliches, this is actually a pretty decent example of the teen coming-of-age romance genre and while it’s no Say Anything it’s still competently made and has some decent performances, especially from Highmore. And, for once, the adults aren’t treated like morons; they have their own issues sure but they are well-meaning. Of course, the trend lately is to eliminate the adults from the conversation entirely, but Wiesen doesn’t do that. The Art of Getting By more than gets by, thankfully; it’s not a movie that will change anybody’s life or perception of it but it fits the bill, particularly if you’re into the niche that it fits in.

WHY RENT THIS: Highmore is engaging and turns an unlikable character into a likable one.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really add anything to the teen coming-of-age romance movie genre which is overcrowded as it is.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are aimed at more mature teens and adults. There’s also plenty of foul language, sexual content and scenes of teen partying and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the first scene, the camera passes by Tom’s Restaurant, the one made famous by Seinfeld.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of very brief interview segments on New York City and young love in general.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Outside the Law

Wild Card (2015)


Never get Jason Statham's drink order wrong.

Never get Jason Statham’s drink order wrong.

(2015) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Dominik Garcia-Londo, Max Casella, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche, Francois Vincentelli, Chris Browning, Matthew Willig, Davenia McFadden, Michael Papajohn, Jean Claude Leuyer, Grace Santo, Lara Grice, Shanna Forrestall. Directed by Simon West

Life is a bit of a gamble when you think about it. We can control things to a certain extent but circumstance and luck have quite a bit to do with it as well. All of our best laid plans can be irrevocably changed in an instant.

Nick Wild (Statham) is a bit of a Las Vegas fixture. He is one of those guys that if you need a favor, he’s the one you see. Some of these favors he charges for – for example, he takes a beating from a guy so that he can impress his girlfriend (Vergara) for $500. He works out of the office of lawyer Pinky (Alexander) where he is introduced to tech billionaire Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) who wants a bodyguard and, as it turns out, something more.

Then there are the favors he does for free. When his ex-lover Holly (Garcia-Londo) is beaten up and raped, he uses his connections with mob boss Baby (Tucci) to find out who done the deed and discovers it’s Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia), the sadistic scumbag son of a highly placed East Coast mob boss. Using his impressive fighting skills, which were honed in a British special forces division, he subdues DeMarco’s bodyguards and allows Holly to take her revenge, after which she flees Vegas, taking with her money from DeMarco’s desk, some of which she gives to Nick for his fee.

Nick realizes that he won’t be welcome in Vegas much longer and needs to get out. DeMarco will be gunning for him and if he wants to make his dream of retiring to Corsica, he’d better get hopping. However, there is the thing that has been keeping him in Vegas so long – his gambling addiction. And on a night when so much is riding on it, he can’t afford for Lady Luck to be fickle.

Considering that this is essentially a Direct-to-VOD production, the talent before and behind the camera is pretty impressive but if you look at the budget below, you immediately understand that this was never meant for that sort of release. Why Lionsgate gave up on this project is beyond me; it’s actually surprisingly good for the genre and even though it is certainly flawed it deserved better for an unpublicized excuse me theatrical release.

For one thing, you get Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman supplying the script based on his own novel. Goldman excels in character development and each role here is definable and has at least some sort of personality to it. Given the stellar nature of the cast and that some of them only have a scene or two here, it’s no wonder that they were attracted to these parts which are more than stunt cameos.

West, who has such genre fare as Con-Air and The Expendables 2 on his resume, is usually pretty dependable for films in the action genre and surprisingly (yes, I’m using that word a lot here) this is pretty light on the action as action films go, but that’s a good thing in this case. Rather than going from one fight scene to the next, there’s actual dialogue, some of it pretty damn good. There’s also exposition and a genuine story. For film critics used to seeing action films which are just an excuse for people to shoot lots of big guns, chase around in cars and generally give people the opportunity to watch big men beat the hell out of one another, that’s like rolling ten sevens in a row.

I’ve always thought Statham was more than just a tight-lipped martial arts action hero. He actually can be quite soulful and when given the opportunity to act, has done so particularly well. Mostly though he seems content to accept roles in which he is given little to do beyond beating people up. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good at it and usually his movies are entertaining but they are little more than that.

Here he gets an opportunity to do more and he takes advantage of it. Definitely this is a reminder of how good Statham can be in the right role, and given that he has a high-profile villain role in the upcoming Furious 7 gives me even more reason to look forward to that movie. He has nice chemistry with Hope Davis as a heart-of-gold blackjack dealer, as well as Angarano as a rich guy who believes himself a coward.

The oddball thing here is that the action sequences are the weakest aspect of this movie. That’s surprising (there’s that word again) given West’s action pedigree. Had a little more time and care been devoted to them I think this would have been released into theaters and maybe would have been the same kind of action hit that John Wick was last year.

Instead we end up with a movie that had enormous potential and remains an entertaining diversion but doesn’t do anything that pushes the envelope which is a shame. I think the movie’s slow start – things really don’t pick up until about 40 minutes in – also doesn’t do it any favors.

While the blackjack sequences are realistic and Davis (or her body double) gets the moves and attitude of a blackjack dealer just right, we also lose something in the fight choreography which is business as usual with the exception of the final fight in which Statham takes out a bunch of baddies with a butter knife and a spoon, not to mention slicing open a bad guy with a credit card. I also like that we get kind of a local’s point of view to Vegas. Still, with just a little more imagination when it came to the fight sequences this might have been something special.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining but not groundbreaking. Realistic on the blackjack sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly. Fight sequences are just adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most Jason Statham movies, plenty of violence and cursing, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William Goldman wrote the script based on his novel, which was filmed once before as Heat starring Burt Reynolds back in 1987. This is Goldman’s first script in eleven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

New Releases for the Week of January 30, 2015


Project AlmanacPROJECT ALMANAC

(Paramount) Jonny Weston, Ginny Gardner, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Gary Weeks, Macsen Lintz, Gary Grubbs, Agnes Mayasari. Directed by Dean Israelite

A brilliant young high school student watches a video of his 7th birthday party and is flabbergasted to see himself at the age he is now in it. Not long afterwards, he stumbles upon a mysterious device in the basement his late scientist father had been working on and realizes that it’s a time machine and the opportunity to make right in his life all that is wrong is too much of a temptation to resist. Little does he know that such accidents have consequences and those consequences might mean the end of existence, or at least of his existence.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Teen Sci-Fi Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some language and sexual content)

Black or White

(Relativity) Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr. A mixed race child lives with her white maternal grandparents after her mother passes away and her father is unable to care for her due to his drug and alcohol problems. When her grandmother also passes away, the African-American paternal grandmother files for joint custody, something the white grandfather – having only his granddaughter left – can’t bear. As many things do in America, it becomes a racial issue as well as a guardianship issue.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight)

Black Sea

(Focus) Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Jodie Whittaker. A disgraced submarine captain discovers the location of a Nazi sub at the bottom of the Black Sea filled with gold; it’s only a matter of getting to it and taking the gold. He’ll need some highly specialized men but once they find their prize, greed and paranoia stalk the claustrophobic sub as the men realize that the fewer that make it back home, the more gold for each of them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village, Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: R (for language throughout, some graphic images and violence)

The Loft

(Open Road) Karl Urban, James Marsden, Rachael Taylor, Rhona Mitra. Five married men, in the prime of their lives and successful in their careers, conspire to rent a midtown loft for use in extramarital activities. When they discover the body of a beautiful but unknown woman in the loft, they realize that one of them must be the killer. Paranoia and fear build, marriages crumble, secrets are revealed and friendships and loyalties tested and discarded as the hunt to find the killer before he strikes closer to home drives them.

See the trailer and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, bloody violence, language and some drug use)

Two Days, One Night

(Sundance Select) Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee, Baptiste Sornin. When a woman returns to work after a severe bout of depression, she learns that her co-workers will be voting as to whether to allow her to keep her job. She goes from person to person trying to convince them to allow her to work which would mean smaller bonuses for all of them. Cotillard received an Oscar nomination for her performance here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for some mature thematic elements)

Wild Card

(Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Stanley Tucci, Michael Angarano, Sofia Vergara. A bodyguard in Las Vegas with a gambling problem – which is a terrible place to have a gambling problem – comes to the rescue of a friend who’s being beaten up by a sadistic thug, who in turn gets a beating from the bodyguard. Unfortunately, said sadistic thug is the son of a mob boss. Suddenly gambling is the least of the bodyguard’s problems.

See the trailer and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex
Rating: PG (for some action and scary images)

Red State


What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

(2011) Horror (SModcast) Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Ralph Garman, Kerry Bishe, Jennifer Schwalbach, Stephen Root, John Goodman, James Parks, Molly Livingston, Catherine McCord, Alexa Nikolas, Ronnie Connell, Haley Ramm, Nicholas Braun, Cooper Thornton, Kevin Pollak, John Lacy, Anna Gunn, Kaylee DeFer. Directed by Kevin Smith

Life is full of it’s real horrors. Both conservative and liberal alike are outraged and disgusted by the antics of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church whose fundamentalist Christian zealotry borders on the batshit crazy. More accurately, is full on over the border and deep in crazy territory. You have to wonder what goes on in a congregation like that.

Travis (Angarano), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Jared (Gallner) are three horny high school buddies who answer a Craigslist ad from an older woman (Leo) who wants to have sex with three guys at once. They drive to her trailer where she serves them some beer before the festivities begin – except the festivities never begin since the beer is drugged and the boys pass out.

When they awaken they are in the church of Pastor Abin Cooper (M. Parks) who makes Fred Phelps look like a Girl Scout. They are treated to one of his fire-breathing sermons of hating sin and hating the sinners, ranting against the evils of homosexuality, adultery and premarital sex. Basically, against anything fun I suppose.

When a gay teen who was similarly entrapped is executed while immobilized and tied to a cross with saran wrap, the three boys realize they are in mortal danger. Travis is being bound to the cross when a deputy rolls up looking for the boys car which had sideswiped the Sheriff’s car while the Sheriff (Root) was parked on the side of the road having sex with his partner. Billy-Ray is able to free himself and manages to escape into the armory where he gets into a shoot-out with Caleb (Garman). This attracts attention of the deputy who calls in the shots fired to the Sheriff, who in turn calls in the ATF in the form of Agent Keenan (Goodman).

Soon the compound is surrounded and a standoff of Branch Davidian proportions; the well-armed zealots facing off against the might of a government which wants the situation ended without any surviving witnesses. Horny teenage boys, take note.

This is very much unlike any other Kevin Smith film; while there are humorous elements here it is most definitely not a comedy. This was also distributed in a unique way – for the most part, Smith took the film on tour with Q&A sessions following the screenings. There was also a one-day screening of the film just prior to its VOD and home video releases.

Smith is a well-known fan of genre films and while he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies like a Quentin Tarantino I do believe his affection for horror, action and comic book genres is just as passionate. He has tackled religious themes before in Dogma albeit in a much more satirical vein. He also is one of the finest writers in the business in my opinion with dialogue that is second to none in making onscreen characters talk like people you’d run into at the grocery store. Believe me, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

The part of Pastor Abin Cooper was written specifically for Michael Parks and he delivers a blistering performance that will chill you to the bone and stay with you for a long while afterwards. His delivery is so smooth and so gentle that you are almost fooled into buying his message which you come to realize is absolutely whacko.

Goodman is solid as usual as the government stormtrooper who is tasked with bringing a situation that has spiraled wildly out of control back in control and who has no problems with carrying out orders that to you and me might seem immoral. In many ways, Cooper and Keenan are opposite ends of the same coin.

There is plenty of violence here and while I would hesitate to label it strictly as a horror film mainly because the gore and level of terror isn’t in line with, say, a Hostel movie. As thrillers go however, it is on the gruesome side. To my mind the movie winds up being somewhere in the middle – call it throrror. The overall tone is pretty bleak so be aware of that and the body count is high; if you like to play the game of “who’s still standing at the end credits” chances are you’re gonna be wrong. Some main characters barely make the second act and some surprising characters are still around when the dust settles.

There is a lot of things going on here of a topical nature, dealing with religious fanaticism, government overkill and homophobia which makes for entertaining viewing. However, the movie lacks a strong center – Gallner as Jared kind of assumes that role by default but is never really fleshed out enough to get the audience intrigued. Still, it IS Kevin Smith and the guy can write so there is entertainment value here. Hell, ALL of his movies have entertainment value (except for maybe Cop Out) of at least some degree. Still, one wonders what direction he is going to head in next – genial raconteur or all-out revenge film slasher found footage supernatural thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying portrayal of religious fanaticism. Very topical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too tame to be good horror, too bloody to be a thriller.

FAMILY VALUES: The content here is awfully disturbing and violent with plenty of foul language and sexuality. There’s also a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abin Cooper was named after Abin Sur from the Green Lantern comic book series.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an informative interview with Michael Parks, a Q&A session with Smith from Sundance and a making-of feature which includes the Westboro Baptist Church’s reaction to the film and finally a series of Smith podcasts recorded while the film was shot, in post-production and finally in theaters.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blackfish

Seabiscuit


Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Michael Angarano, Ed Lauter, Gianni Russo, Sam Bottoms, Dyllan Christopher, Gary Stevens, Royce D. Applegate, Valerie Mahaffey, Michael O’Neill, Annie Corley, David McCullough (voice), Michelle Arthur. Directed by Gary Ross

There are true stories and then there is the truth. Hollywood has a habit of obscuring one for the other. I say this because upon first glance at this movie, one is going to believe that some of the men who are front and center in Seabiscuit were saints, or at least close to it. Be aware as you watch this, that it is more or less an idealized version of the true story that surrounded one of the most legendary racehorses of our time and don’t let that fact get in the way of a truly wonderful movie.

The Great Depression hit some men harder than others. For automobile dealer Charles Howard (Bridges), a car accident that took the life of his 15-year-old son was a forceful reminder that the sunny days of the ’20s were over. Although Howard was able to retain much of his fortune, he found himself searching to fill the empty void in his life, one that cost him his first wife (Mahaffey) although he would later find the spirited Marcela (Banks) while on a trip to Mexico.

For Tom Smith (Cooper), the end of a lifestyle that he loved and an era in American history came hand-in-hand. One of the last of the true range-riding cowboys, Smith found himself in an increasingly mechanized age where the once endless prairies had vanished into subdivisions, towns and fenced-off ranches. A man who had forgotten more about horses than most of the rest of the country combined actually knew, he found it difficult to find a good job utilizing the skills and knowledge he had accumulated over years in the saddle. Adjusting to the 20th century was proving difficult to a man who was born 50 years too late.

Red Pollard (McGuire) had gone through life fighting his way uphill for everything he had, literally. Forced into a foster home after financial difficulties had beset his family, he had a massive chip on his shoulder for most of the rest of his life. He had tried his hand at prizefighting, but wound up beaten, bloody and more often than not, alone. An excellent rider, he was considered to be too big to be a jockey and there were otherwise precious few jobs that involved riding horses.

These three men were united by an unlikely horse named Seabiscuit. Small, ungraceful and none too fast, Seabiscuit’s career on the racetrack had been less than spectacular. But then Howard bought the horse and hired Smith to train him, and Pollard to ride him. And it is this particular confluence of people, time and events that would create magic – and sports history.

At first, Seabiscuit was met with a certain amount of apathy. But as he began to win, the canny publicity hound Howard began to market his horse like no other sports figure in the country (except for maybe Babe Ruth). The right sort of people began to get behind the underdog horse, such as radio reporter Tick Tock McLaughlin (Macy). And Seabiscuit continued to win and win and win.

Off in the distance, coming from the east, War Admiral — thought of as the Perfect Racehorse — had won racing’s coveted Triple Crown. The snobbish Eastern bankers who own War Admiral think at first the undersized horse from the West Coast is beneath their notice. Howard pushes in the press for a match race, leading to an epic confrontation that pitted the two greatest horses of all time, who happened to be at their peaks simultaneously.

Of course, Seabiscuit plays with the heartstrings – unashamedly and sometimes unnecessarily. The story of the great horse is great movie material; it had been done before – in an godawful 1949 tearjerker The Story of Seabiscuit starring Shirley Temple – but the horse with a heart bigger than a nation’s pain deserved a much better biography and this is it. Bridges, Cooper and McGuire all handle their roles respectfully, trying not to succumb to the over-sentimentality of the script, and bringing the essence of the characters to life. They have a good chemistry together which is immensely important given that this is as much their story as Seabiscuit’s.

Director Gary Ross wisely lets the visuals speak for themselves; the racing scenes are well-executed. Although the story is Hollywoodized somewhat, the facts are actually stuck fairly closely to, which is to be commended. They also do a great job of recreating the gait and style of the legendary Seabiscuit.

The movie is inspiring, if occasionally treacly. The story itself lends itself to a big stage, and Ross provides it for his fine cast. Getting past the sentiment can be tricky, but this is a story about perhaps the ultimate underdog and the movie has in ten short years become a sports movie classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Great underdog story. Excellent chemistry among the leads. Inspiring. Terrific racing sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prone to over-sentimentality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexuality and there is some violence within the context of the sport.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sold 5.5 million DVD copies which at the time was a record for a drama.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on horse racing in the 1930s which includes not only the Seabiscuit-War Admiral rivalry but also other great horses of the era. The Blu-Ray includes newsreel footage of the actual race and an A&E channel special on the real Seabiscuit.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $148.3M on an $87M production budget; the film fell shy of recouping it’s production costs during its theatrical run although it turned a very tidy profit on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Now You See Me

 

The Brass Teapot


You ain't never had a friend like meeeeeeee!

You ain’t never had a friend like meeeeeeee!

(2012) Fantasy (Magnolia) Juno Temple, Michael Angarano, Alexis Bledel, Billy Magnussen, Alia Shawkat, Bobby Moynihan, Stephen Park, Debra Monk, Ben Rappaport, Lucy Walters, Jack McBrayer, Michael Delaney, Tara Copeland, Thomas Middleditch, Bob McClure, Rebecca Drake, Claudia Mason. Directed by Ramaa Mosley   

I don’t think there’s a person alive who hasn’t had a wish-fulfillment dream – a dream where their most fondly imagined wishes are made to come true. Sometimes it comes in the form of a Lottery win, or of an inheritance – most of our actual real world dreams generally come with real world fulfillments. But then again, would anyone turn down a magic lamp….or teapot?

Alice (Temple) and John (Angarano) are a couple with more love than money. Alice is recently unemployed and John works at a crap job that he can’t stand – one in which he is hoping for a promotion from a boss who spouts meaningless aphorisms that motivate John not even a little bit.

They live hand to mouth and whenever the rent is late, which it is often, Alice must put up with the brutish come-ons of landlord Arnie (Magnussen). While driving to visit Alice’s parents, the two are involved in a car accident when they are t-boned at a rural intersection. While John sorts things out, Alice wanders into a neighboring antiques store and finds hidden away a teapot. Impulsively she decides to take it and as it turns out, their car was drivable so they drive away.

When John discovers what Alice has done, he is disgusted; “We’re already two steps above white trash as it is.” He doesn’t ask her to take it back however and the continue on to dinner where they get put down by both Alice’s parents, her sister (Monk) and brother-in-law (McBrayer) who are those smug conservative Christians that drive most liberals crazy.

The next day, John is back at work but not for long – he’s being laid off. Fortunately for him, Alice is finding out something about the teapot – anytime pain is experienced anywhere near it, the pot produces hundred dollar bills. Lots of them depending on the severity of the pain. She spends much of the afternoon beating herself up – literally – until John arrives. At first incredulous, he is soon motivated to join the party.

John knows they need the cash but he is concerned about the price to be paid and makes Alice agree that they won’t let this brass teapot take over their lives and when they’ve made enough, they’ll stop. She readily agrees.

They’re able to start buying new things but before long they receive a visit from a pair of Hassidic Jews who beat the crap out of John and steal the proceeds from the teapot. Apparently it was their mother whom Alice stole the teapot to and she’d recently passed away. Not long after that the two get a visit from Dr. Li Ling (Park), a patient Chinese expert on the teapot who warns them that the teapot can destroy them and that the only way to save themselves is to give it to them.

They have no intention of doing that however and continue to discover new things about the brass teapot, including that mental and emotional pain can trigger cash as can the pain of others. Soon they have enough to buy a mansion near new neighbor and former high school rival Payton (Bledel). However, things begin to take a turn for the worse. Arnie finds out about the Teapot. John becomes increasingly worried that Alice has become obsessed with it and won’t be able to give it up when the time comes. It sure looks like Dr. Ling’s worst prognostications are coming true.

This is Mosley’s first feature after a sterling music video career and it’s pretty solid. Writer Tim Macy has developed a pretty solid mythology behind the teapot which gives it a solid footing. I like the imaginative concept although the execution of it really didn’t utilize it properly. The equation of pain and wealth sounds on the surface like a commentary on our materialistic society.

Macy and Mosley don’t really do that though. Mostly this is a comedy of creative ways to hurt yourself which wears a little thin by the end of the movie. Fortunately, there’s a pretty solid cast to keep your attention even when the vignettes lose their luster. Temple, one of the most engaging up-and-coming actresses today, has a good comic timing, something I wasn’t aware she was known for. Angarano has made some missteps in his career but is slowly emerging as a talent of his own.

The important thing is that the chemistry between Temple and Angarano is genuine. The movie doesn’t work if you don’t sense the love between John and Alice but that emotion is clearly there. Even when they appear to be drifting apart there is still that connection – that’s why you continue to root for them even though they’ve done such disagreeable things. You also get that these are people made desperate by an economy that failed them.

The denouement is pretty interesting and doesn’t particularly come out of left field. I would have liked to have left this film with a bit more thought regarding the value of the pursuit of wealth and its effect on the human soul. The Brass Teapot doesn’t particularly add anything to that particular conversation, which is a bit of a shame but then again it doesn’t necessarily have to. As entertainment, the movie delivers which is really all you can truly ask of it but a little something extra would have been nice.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky sense of humor. Nice fantasy environment without a lot of special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit mean-spirited. Some of the self-inflicted pain is bit squirm inducing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Tim Macy also wrote the short story that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100; critics clearly didn’t like this film a whole lot.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aladdin

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Oblivion