New Releases for the Week of September 28, 2012


September 28, 2012

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA

(Columbia/Sony Animation) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Cee-Lo Green, Steve Buscemi, David Spade. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

In an effort to insulate his willful daughter Mavis from the world, Count Dracula decides to turn his castle into a hotel for monsters only. There, he and Mavis can hang out with Frankenstein and his bride, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and all of their friends. However when a human hiker stumbles into the Castle and Mavis takes a liking to him, all manner of chaos will ensue. However, I don’t know how eager I’d be to have Dracula as my father-in-law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some rude humor, action and scary images)

Looper

(Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano. In the future time travel has been discovered but it’s illegal; so only criminals use it, to dispose of their “problems.” They send the people they want to whack back in time to the present day where an assassin – called a Looper – murders them and disposes of the body. Nice. Neat. But for one Looper, he is put in a very disconcerting situation when his assignment turns out to be his own future self. So would that be homicide or suicide?

See the trailer, an interview and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

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

OMG – Oh My God!

(Viacom18) Mithun Chakraborty, Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar, Poonam Jhawer. When an antique shopkeeper loses everything to a tornado, his faith in God wavers to the point where he makes it his mission to convince others of the non-existence of God. This leads to mayhem until he gets an unexpected visit from Lord Krishna himself.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Pitch Perfect

(Universal) Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson. A shy young girl who has just enrolled in college is roped into the a cappella group, even though she’d much rather listen to music than make it. However she resolves to take the group from their traditional arrangements to mash-ups of modern hits which might lead them to success at competitions. Or unfair comparisons to “Glee.”

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, language and drug references)

Robot & Frank

(Goldwyn) Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler. The concerned children of a retired thief are worried that he is unable to care for himself living alone. So against the old man’s wishes, his son buys him a robot that is programmed to improve his physical and mental health. The old man soon finds his life changing in some ways – and returning back to what it used to be in others.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Solomon Kane

(Radius) James Purefoy, Max von Sydow, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige. A soldier in the 16th century discovers his actions have damned his soul. He vows to redeem himself and refrain from violence for the remainder of his days, but when a supernatural threat descends upon the land, he discovers that his skills may be the only thing to save his home and people.

See the trailer, featurettes, a clip and a link to stream the full movie from Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: R (for violence throughout)

Won’t Back Down

(20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter. Two mothers, horrified at the state of education in their poverty-level neighborhood, resolve to improve the quality of the education in their area. Met with opposition from the city and education bureaucracy they find themselves forced to take the fight much further than they thought possible.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)

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The Town


The Town

Jon Hamm confronts Ben Affleck over which one looks best unshaven.

(Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite, Slaine, Owen Burke, Titus Welliver, Dennis McLaughlin, Corena Chase, Brian Scannell, Isaac Bordoy. Directed by Ben Affleck

Before the credits start rolling, we are informed that Charlestown, a suburb of Boston near the city center and populated by a predominantly working class Irish demographic, has more bank robbers per capita than anyplace in America. I don’t know that it’s true, but it certainly makes for an interesting concept.

Doug MacRay (Affleck) lives in Charlestown and is one of the aforementioned excess of criminals. He and his crew Jem (Renner), Gloansy (Slaine) and Desmond (Burke) are robbing a bank wearing ghoulish masks and so far the caper is going like clockwork. However, things go a little sideways; it’s discovered that one of the employees set off the silent alarm and Jem, a hothead, reacts by viciously beating the assistant manager whom he thinks did it. He also forces them to take pretty bank manager Claire Keesey (Hall) hostage as insurance. However, once they’re satisfied the cops didn’t follow them they let the blindfolded woman loose feeling fairly comfortable that she didn’t see anything.

What they didn’t take into account is that Claire lives in the same neighborhood as the four of them, so Doug decides to keep an eye on her to make sure that she really didn’t see anything. He arranges to “bump into her” at a local Laundromat and the two begin to like each other, and maybe something more than that.

In the meantime Agent Adam Frawley (Hamm) of the FBI is hot on the tail of the crew, even if he’s at least two steps behind him. One advantage he has is that his partner is Dino Ciampa (Welliver), who grew up in Charlestown and knows most of the guys involved. Even with that, he’s no closer to figuring out who this mysterious crew is until he figures out that one of them worked for a specific electronic security company.

Despite the heat, the crew continues to pull jobs which turn more and more violent. Doug wants nothing more than to get out, preferably with Claire as company. However, Fergus “The Florist” Colm (Postlethwaite), who sets up their jobs and gets a cut of what they pull, wants him right where he is. Doug doesn’t want to end up like his jailbird dad (Cooper) but as The Florist tightens the screws and Frawley inching closer to pinching him, he knows that something’s got to give and it might be his relationship with Claire – who is still ignorant of his identity as one of the robbers who kidnapped her and is to his mind his only way out of Charlestown.

This is Affleck’s second directorial effort and like the 2007 crime thriller Gone Baby Gone it makes excellent use of the city of Boston. There’s a car chase through the narrow alleyways of Boston that is absolutely outstanding, one of the better ones you’ll see this year. Affleck also captures the gritty flavor of Boston’s working class neighborhoods.

He has assembled an excellent cast. Renner shines as the hair-trigger Jem, who served a stretch of nine years for taking out a guy who wanted to take out Doug. His relationship with Doug is strong, but he needs Doug far more than Doug needs him, and he knows it. Lively also turned my head with a performance as Jem’s drug-addled floozy of a sister, a role as far from her “Gossip Girls” character as it’s possible to get, and serves notice that Lively is an outstanding actress in her own right. Veterans Cooper and Postlethwaite have miniscule parts, but make the most of them.

Affleck has been on a roll lately albeit mostly in supporting parts, from Hollywoodland to Extract; taking a lead role since Surviving Christmas (2004) he is very strong, although he could have used a little more flavor. He is supposed to be the brains behind the operation but never comes off as excessively clever, and we get the sense that he’s more meticulous than smart.

Affleck’s best moment as both an actor and a director comes during a scene where Doug and Claire are sitting at an outdoor cafe when Jem strolls up. Throughout the scene there’s a great deal of tension; I won’t reveal exactly the source but suffice to say that there is real jeopardy that Claire will discover that Jem is part of the gang that robbed her bank and took her hostage. Affleck the director keeps the tension at a high level, while Affleck the director sells it with his body language, trying to hide his concern from both Claire and Jem. It’s a masterfully done scene and Affleck the actor makes it work.

The movie has done surprisingly well at the box office thus far and looks to be a hit, which is good news for Affleck’s career both as a director and as a lead actor. Hopefully his work in Company Men later this month will continue that trend; after the fallout from Gigli I always thought he was unfairly stigmatized as a terrible actor, which he obviously is not and I generally look forward to seeing his movies. Here, he’s crafted a satisfying crime thriller as a director that oddly doesn’t showcase his best skills as an actor, but still shows enough of him to make the movie worth seeing and Affleck’s role memorable. It’s enough that I look forward to seeing Affleck in both capacities in the future.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty nifty acting performances and a terrific car chase sequence make this a gritty crime thriller worth checking out.

REASONS TO STAY: The thick Boston accents can be difficult to understand from time to time and the material may be a bit too gritty for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is extremely rough, particularly if the F-Bomb disturbs you. There’s some sudden and brutal violence, as well as a little bit of sexuality. Mature teens can probably handle this, but I wouldn’t go much past that.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rob Reiner founded Castle Rock, the production company behind Flipped but later sold it to Warner Brothers; this is the first time he’s worked with them since 1999.

HOME OR THEATER: The car chase is certainly worth checking out on the big screen, but otherwise the home video option is just as viable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Final Destination

Inception


Inception

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's world is all askew.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Lukas Haas, Tai-Li Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In perhaps the most famous soliloquy of all time, Hamlet muses “To sleep, perchance to dream.” In this speech, he’s referring to death, wondering what the dead dream of. Perhaps death is a dreaming in a way, the ultimate dream. Maybe life itself is the dream – who’s to know?

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is a corporate thief with an unusual technique; he enters the dreams of CEOs and billionaires to extract the secrets that their mind has locked in those dreams. It’s an apparently lucrative profession; he seems to have a fairly extensive bankroll. However, Cobb isn’t a happy man. His wife Mal (Cotillard) died recently, and he was implicated in her death. Their children are being cared for by Mal’s mother, and Cobb hasn’t seen them in awhile, although he longs to.

Getting back to them is problematic, until Japanese billionaire Saito (Watanabe) comes up with an offer. He can take away Dom’s fugitive status if Dom will do one job for him, but instead of stealing an idea, he wants one implanted. This process, called inception, is deemed impossible…by everybody except Dom, who claims to have done it on one occasion.

Dom puts together a team of experts, including his right hand man and researcher Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), con man, impersonator and demolitions expert Eames (Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Rao). The last they need to put the subject into a deep sleep, deep enough so that the dream architecture doesn’t collapse, because in order to make the idea work without his mind removing a foreign idea from itself (similarly in the way antibodies tackle viruses), the idea must be implanted so deeply that the subject thinks that the idea is his own.

The subject is Robert Fischer (Murphy), the son of a billionaire energy mogul whose father (Postlethwaite) is dying and stands to inherit his company. That company, which supplies nearly 80% of all the earth’s energy needs, has become too big to stand against and is in danger of becoming a power rivaling that of nations.

Dom also needs a dream architect and for that, he visits his father-in-law (Caine), who teaches the architecture of dreams and who helped Dom become what he is (although dear old dad-in-law disapproves of how Dom utilizes his gifts). Dom needs one of his students, a particularly gifted one, to create a realistic enough world that will fool Fischer into believing he is awake. That student is Ariadne (Page), who in Greek mythology led Theseus safely through the labyrinth on Crete where he slew the Minotaur.

This Ariadne is required to construct a labyrinth, because once the mind realizes that there are intruders in it, it sends what are called constructs to remove the intruders. The maze serves to keep the constructs off your back, at least for a little while. Not forever, however, and once the constructs arrive they are well armed and willing to shoot first and ask questions not at all. Once you are killed in the dream, you wake up – quite a different take on the usual Hollywood mythology which has dreamers dying in real life when they die in dreams. However, because they are going so deep into the dream, those who die in this dream will be sent to a limbo of the subconscious where they will slowly go mad until they awaken.

There is a time dilation too – while in a normal dream, five minutes of real time equates to an hour of dreamtime, the deeper level you go to, the more pronounced the dreamtime – to the point where five minutes can equal ten years.

There is also another wrinkle. Dom has never really been able to get over the death of his wife, and she is a powerful figure in his subconscious, so powerful that she has been able to manifest in the dreams of others and wreak havoc. This is why Dom needs another architect instead of doing it himself. Her presence in his subconscious is becoming more and more pronounced and only Ariadne, who went into one of Dom’s own dreams to figure out what was going on, knows the truth. Will Dom be able to overcome his own subconscious in order to win him the freedom he so desperately desires?

Nolan began writing this when he was filming Memento (2000), and it took him eight years to complete it. That’s largely because of how densely layered a tale this is; this is one of the most complexly plotted movies you’ll ever see. Pull one thread out and everything collapses.

Fortunately, Nolan is a good enough writer that he can pull it off. First, he has to create a believable dream mythology. Secondly, he has to create characters that the audience can relate to and care about. Thirdly, he has to inject a real sense of jeopardy. Finally, he has to make the plot simple enough for a general audience to keep up with, yet complex enough to make all the elements work.

He succeeds in all these points. The mythology is believable; the science may suffer from a little bit of what I call “mumbo jumbo science” – an overuse of technobabble – but it isn’t so much that you shake your head and feel stupid. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; they live and breathe and seem real.

The jeopardy part is accomplished by a series of car chases and shootouts which rankles some critics; “My dreams aren’t about car chases,” grouses A.O. Scott of the New York Times, which apparently means nobody else’s are either; of course, nobody has ever accused Scott of a lack of hubris.

All right, that was a bit of a below-the-belt shot at a fellow critic. Still, when one is discussing dreams, it’s a given there are no rules. Perhaps the dreamscapes that Nolan invents for Inception aren’t as outside the box in some ways as What Dreams May Come, that doesn’t mean there isn’t invention here. The sequences wherein Ariadne folds Paris onto itself (having cars driving Escher-like down vertical streets), or when Arthur fights a construct in a corridor that is revolving (the reason for which is explained nicely in the movie) are as breathtaking as anything you’ll see this summer.

I have a soft spot for movies that make you consider the nature of reality and leave you to form your own conclusions about what just happened. Roger Ebert says correctly that this is a movie about the process more than the plot; I can give you spoilers about plot points but the full effect isn’t as bad because those spoilers lose their effect because it’s more about how we reached that point, not about the point itself. Is this a dream? Is it a memory? Is it reality? Is there a reality? There are no easy answers to that, and Nolan wisely allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. If he has his own ideas, he keeps them to himself.

Di Caprio has never been my favorite actor – he’s a bit too angst-suffused for my taste – but this is surely one of his best performances ever. He plays Dom as a man who appears to be emotional on the surface, but the deeper we delve into the character the more we realize he represses his emotions to the extent that most psychiatrists would probably see him as borderline disturbed.

This is the kind of movie you can spend hours in discussion about. Is it a masterpiece or a conversation piece? The answer is it’s a little bit of both. Certainly people will be talking about the ending and its meaning for quite awhile. Movies that can satisfy the need for visceral action sequences and stimulate the mind simultaneously are rare indeed, and Inception does both. In a summer plagued by weak box office and mediocre movies, Inception easily shines as the best movie of the summer season.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking science fiction with some amazing visuals. Di Caprio gives one of the better performances of his career and his terrific supporting cast doesn’t disappoint.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is hard to follow along with in places, and there is a high degree of mumbo jumbo science going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of action and some violence (a lot of shooting). The themes are sufficiently adult enough that I might think twice before bringing very young children who might have trouble following the plot; otherwise, this is suitable for mature pre-teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Dom Cobb, was also the name of a main character in Nolan’s first movie, Following (1998) – furthermore, both characters are thieves.

HOME OR THEATER: The amazing visuals in the movie are best experienced in a movie theater and are even better in the IMAX format if you have an IMAX screen nearby.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Five Minutes of Heaven

Clash of the Titans (2010)


Clash of the Titans

Liam Neeson is all aglow as he releases the Kraken.

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Mads Mikkelsen, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas Hoult, Polly Walker, Elizabeth McGovern, Alexander Siddig, Danny Huston, Vincent Regan. Directed by Louis Leterrier

One should be grateful to those who gave us life, but if those who gave us life are then cruel and capricious towards us, should we not then rise against them?

Spyros (Postlethwaite) is a simple fisherman, his ship drifting in a storm when he comes across a coffin-like box. When he opens it, he finds a beautiful woman, dead and an infant, alive. He decides to raise the boy as his own with his wife Marmara (McGovern). The boy grows up to be a handsome, strong man named Perseus (Worthington). Perseus loves his parents, but still understandably has questions about who he is and who he is meant to be.

However, all is not perfect. The Gods of Ancient Greece, led by brothers Zeus (Neeson), the King of the Gods, Poseidon (Huston) the God of the Sea and Hades (Fiennes), the Lord of the Underworld, had overthrown their parents the Titans mostly due to Hades creating the Kraken, a fearsome beast, from his own flesh. Zeus created men to worship and love the Gods who are in turn made powerful and immortal by the prayers of men. Hades, tricked by Zeus, lives on the fear of men.

However, men are chafing at the often capricious and cruel behavior of the Gods. Kepheus (Regan), the King of Argos, has declared war on the Gods at the urging of his wife, Queen Cassiopeia (Walker). His troops pull down a gigantic statue of Zeus, which earns the notice and wrath of Hades, who wipes out most of the troops at the statue. Unfortunately, Hades notices Spyros’ ship floating by and in a moment of pique sinks it with all aboard drowning. All aboard, that is, save Perseus.

The survivors of Kepheus’ army pull Perseus from the water and take him back to Argos, where Kepheus is declaring victory. Draco (Mikkelsen), Kepheus’ general, is less sanguine about the loss of most of his men but in the midst of Cassiopeia’s boasting that they, the royalty of Argos, are the new gods and their daughter Andromeda (Davalos) is more beautiful than Aphrodite herself, Hades appears. He ages Cassiopeia to death and warns the assemblage that Argos will be destroyed ten days hence during an eclipse unless they sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken.

He also identifies Perseus as the son of Zeus. Perseus doesn’t believe it at first but Io (Arterton), a demigod herself, confirms it, telling him that he is the son of Zeus and the wife of King Acrisius (Flemyng), who also rebelled against the Gods. Driven mad by the despoiling of his wife, Acrisius orders the newborn and his mother thrown into the sea but Zeus disfigured Acrisius and sent Spyros’ ship to rescue Perseus.

Only the Stygian Witches have the knowledge to destroy the Kraken but only a demigod would have the strength and endurance to make the journey there and back in time to save Argos and Andromeda in particular. Draco and a few good men, including Eusebios (Hoult) and Io – okay, a few good men and a woman – accompany Perseus. Hades, aware of Perseus, enlists Acrisius (who now goes by the name of Calibos) to stop him, infusing the mad disfigured King with his essence.

Perseus is given a gift of a sword by the Gods, but he refuses, saying he wants to accomplish these feats as a man, not a God. Draco puts the sword in his pack, hoping Perseus will come to his senses. They then encounter Calibos, wounding him in the process but giant scorpions spring from his blood.

They make it to the Witches’ lair, but they inform Perseus that in order to destroy the Kraken they must get the head of Medusa (Natalia Vodianova) whose gaze turns any living flesh to stone, including that of a God. However to get to Medusa they must first cross into the Underworld and nobody has ever emerged from Medusa’s lair alive.

This is a remake of the 1981 film reviewed in this blog yesterday, and it is faithful only in that there is a Perseus and a Kraken in it (there is also a mechanical owl, Bubo, from the first film, a cameo only but done in a clever way as a nod to fans from the original). Director Louis Leterrier has amped up the special effects and made it far less comedic. This is strictly action and eye candy and both are of the highest order.

Sam Worthington is turning into a fine leading man. He carries the movie effectively, continuing his run of successful roles in Terminator Salvation and Avatar. He makes a more muscular and military Perseus than Harry Hamlin did in the original, Hamlin being a bit of a pretty boy. Worthington’s Perseus is less starry-eyed and more stubborn than the 1981 incarnation.

The special effects are what are worth the price of admission. The monsters are nightmare-inducing and all look realistic. Particularly in the case of the Medusa and the scorpions it was hard to tell that it was all CGI. Considering this is an action movie, there are some pretty fine performances, particularly from Mikkelsen and Postlethwaite.

This is solid, fun popcorn entertainment. It isn’t brain surgery and it isn’t rocket science but it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination to make a movie with the kind of intricate effects this one has. Director Leterrier, fresh off The Incredible Hulk, is proving to be a serious talent in that department. While there’s a little more cheese in the dish than I usually like, it is nonetheless all a lot of fun for the entire family except for those who are easily given to nightmares by the very realistic-looking monsters.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects and Worthington proves himself a solid leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Although in many ways a more serious film than the original, it still has a certain amount of cheese in the recipe.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of fantasy violence and some horrifically gory scenes but it is the monsters that make this not for small children or those given to nightmares. Fine for teens, though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Harryhausen, co-producer and special effects designer of the original film, was invited to participate in this one but declined, citing that he had retired in 1981 and intended to stay that way.

HOME OR THEATER: Theater definitely, preferably with a big tub of popcorn in your lap.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: How to Train Your Dragon

New Releases for the Week of April 2, 2010


April 2, 2010

Sam Worthington went from Pandora to Ancient Greece without so much as blinking a bicep.

CLASH OF THE TITANS

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelsen, Nicholas Hoult, Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Louis Letterier

Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen was known as the King of Stop-Motion Animation, with many classic movies (including Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) to his credit. His last movie to date (he’s still alive, although he’s 90 years old at the moment) was the 1981 hit Clash of the Titans which depicted the mythological story of Perseus. Nearly 20 years later, Incredible Hulk director Letterier sees to remake it, albeit amped up on computer-generated steroids.

See the trailer, featurettes and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Rating: PG-13 (for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality)

The Last Song

(Touchstone) Miley Cyrus, Greg Kinnear, Kelly Preston, Bobby Coleman. Writer Nicholas Sparks has become a one-man band singing the praises for romantic South Carolina. This time, teen pop diva Cyrus plays a city girl forced to spend the summer with her estranged dad in a South Carolina beach town and finds romance, music and family. Amazing what washes up on the beach in South Carolina.

See the trailer, featurettes and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for thematic material, some violence, sensuality and mild language)

Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Janet Jackson, Malik Yoba, Jill Scott. The same eight college buddies from the first film are back and still struggling with the challenges facing married couples in 2010, only this time instead of facing them at a ski resort they are going to the Bahamas, which means bikinis instead of tight sweaters. Ah, the things we do for marital bliss.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including sexuality, language, drug references and some domestic violence)