New Releases for the Week of February 19, 2016


The WitchTHE WITCH

(A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings. Directed by Robert Eggers

In New England not too long after the Pilgrims landed, a farmer is banished from the colony and forced to move his family to a plot of land on the edge of a forest reportedly haunted by witches. Soon thereafter, unsettling things begin to happen and the eyes of the family turn to their teenage daughter, who adamantly denies that she is practicing witchcraft. However as things turn more unsettling, the family’s faith and loyalty will surely be tested. One of the most acclaimed films to come out of the 2015 Sundance Festival, it finally is hitting theaters; the critical response has been so near-unanimous with praise that the studio moved it from a limited release to a wide one.

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

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

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity)

Busco Novio Para Mi Mujer

(Pantelion) Sandra Echeverria, Arath de la Torre, Jesus Ochoa, Alejandro Cuétara. A middle-aged middle class man in Mexico is fed up with his shrew of a trophy wife, so he decides to come up with a plan to end his marriage; he hires a professional seducer to sweep her off her feet and inspire her to leave him. However, when the plan works all too well, he realizes that his life is so much better with her than without her.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal The Loop

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, some language and smoking)

Race

(Focus) Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons. Jesse Owens to this day remains one of the most celebrated athletes in American history. His journey taking him from a country that looked down upon him and his race to a celebrated icon of freedom and defiance against tyranny is one that is seldom told – until now.

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

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

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and language)

Risen

(TriStar) Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis. The crucifixion of the Christ as seen through the eyes of a Roman centurion. Wait a minute; wasn’t that the plot for Hail, Caesar?

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

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

Rating: PG-13 (for Biblical violence including some disturbing images)

Snowtime!

(Shout! Factory) Starring the voices of Angela Galuppo, Lucinda Davis, Sandra Oh, Ross Lynch. What kid doesn’t love to get a day off from school to go play in the snow? Rival groups of kids battle in the ultimate snowball fight for possession of the greatest snow fort ever built. This French animated feature makes its U.S. debut.

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

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

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and rude humor)

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Planes


The rain in Planes falls mainly o the...well, er, planes.

The rain in Planes falls mainly o the…well, er, planes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Dane Cook, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Cedric the Entertainer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui, Priyanka Chopra, Gabriel Iglesias, Stacy Keach, Brent Musburger, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Roger Craig Smith, Sinbad, Colin Cowherd, John Ratzenberger, Emerson Tenney, Kari Wahgren. Directed by Klay Hall

The latest Disney animated feature is a spin-off from the animated world of anthropomorphic Cars although it takes place above that world. Welcome to the shiny aerial world of Planes.

Dusty Crophopper (Cook) is a crop-duster, a single-engine plane who was built for the specific purpose of spreading pesticides and manure on crops (mostly corn, which is apparently the source of fuel in the world of Planes). Dusty want more out of life – “I’ve flown thousands of miles and never gone anywhere” he complains.

What he really wants is to be a racer, and the Wings Across the Globe race is the perfect outlet for him. With the support of his friends Chug (Garrett) and Dottie (Hatcher), Dusty trains relentlessly and even though he gets a lot of skepticism and negativity thrown his way, he perseveres. He gets into the race where he is befriended by Bulldog (Cleese), a obsequious Spitfire, Ishani (Chopra) a lovely Indian and the would-be ladies man El Chupicabra (Alazraqui).

Not everyone wants to succeed. Ripslinger (Smith) is gunning for his historic fourth consecutive win i the race and nothing and nobody will get in his way, particularly a crop-duster with delusions of grandeur. As it turns out, Ripslinger will go to any and all lengths to nail down that win and if it means that some planes must crash and burn, well….

Although this is based on a Pixar movie, this actually isn’t a Pixar film, even though John Lasseter co-wrote and produced it. No, it was animated by the wizards at DisneyToons, their direct-to-video arm and that was the intention for this as well. However, the stars aligned nicely for Planes – a planned King of the Elves feature shut down and somebody noticed the merchandising potential of the new characters, thus it was added to the theatrical release schedule a bit late in the game.

Quite frankly, I expected direct-to-video quality and I was somewhat surprised when I found this comparable to Pixar’s work in Cars and its sequel. There are a lot of clever little asides (such as the plane-looking rock formations near Propwash Junction where Dusty, Chug and Dottie reside. There are also air traffic controllers at Kennedy Airport who talk with JFK-esque accents, and German planes drinking fuel from beer steins.

There also isn’t much in the way of story and characterization which cobble elements from …well nearly every animated feature of the last 20 years. Skipper (Keach), a crotchety old war hero, is a dead ringer for Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson, El Chupicabra makes a nice Puss in Boots (albeit not quite as cute) and Dusty could easily be the title character from Turbo. In fact, most of the characters are pretty bland, generic characters you’ve met before in other movies. As for the plot, well, this isn’t the first movie that tells us that it’s okay to dream big because if we want something bad enough and have the support of our friends, we can accomplish anything.

I did like the overall charm of the movie and I will venture to say that if you compare this to most direct-to-video fare this is miles and miles ahead of those. Frankly, this deserved the theatrical release it got – it certainly isn’t as bad as some of the other animated features out there that were always intended to hit the theaters (I’m looking at you, Planet 51. Hop and Astro Boy).

REASONS TO GO: Maintains the goofy charm of Cars. Clever in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs the gamut of animated feature clichés. No really memorable characters.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for everyone – there’s a bit of semi-rude humor and a couple of action scenes that might scare the kids a little but nothing I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending an 3-year-old to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bravo and Echo, two Air Force jets who Dusty runs into during his around the globe race, are voiced by Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards who played fighter pilots in Top Gun; their flight helmets are identical to those worn by the actors in their live action roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Race

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Riddick

Saint Ralph


Saint Ralph

Adam Butcher wistfully ponders why he chose a bowl haircut over something less dorky.

(2004) Drama (Goldwyn) Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Tilly, Gordon Pinsent, Shauna MacDonald, Tamara Hope, Frank Crudele, Michael Kanev, Chris Ploszczansky. Directed by Michael McGowan

Sometimes we want something so desperately that we are willing to abandon reason to get it. This is particularly true of the very young, particularly when they are faced with something so terrible they can’t comprehend it.

Ralph Walker attends Catholic school in the industrial town of Hamilton, Ontario circa 1953. He’s a bit on the wild, undisciplined side, but the stern Father Fitzpatrick (Pinsent) forbears somewhat, because he’s aware that the boy’s father has deserted the family and his mother (MacDonald) is seriously ill. Still, he is being cared for by his grandparents, so a little leeway is thrown the boy’s way.

Not so from the general student body, which treats the scrawny, awkward Ralph like the local whipping boy. To make matters work, Ralph – being 14 years old – is discovering just how serious puberty can be. I won’t say every waking thought is taken up with sex, but maybe two out of three. When an occasion of self-abuse at the public pool lands the boy in hot water, Fitzpatrick orders the punishment/penance (this is a Catholic school, after all) to be running on the cross-country team. A little physical exertion might just exhaust the impure thoughts out of the boy, or so the thinking went.

The cross country coach, Father Hibbert (Scott) is a former marathon champion himself, and doesn’t see much in the way of potential in Ralph. After all, Ralph doesn’t seem to inclined to apply himself and is woefully out of shape. The kid is very close to losing his place at the school, wandering directionless through life.

That’s much truer than anyone knows. The reality is that there are no grandparents. Ralph is on his own, subsisting on canned goods his mother had left. There is nobody to take care of him while his mother is ill, so he just makes do. His days are made up of school, then visits to his mother and a sympathetic nurse (Tilly) while he dreams of a young girl named Claire (Hope) that he encountered on a baseball diamond while smoking in between classes. That was Ralph smoking, by the way, not Claire.

Then things get worse. His mom falls into a coma and her prognosis looks bleak. It will take a miracle for her to recover, and Ralph feels heavily the responsibility to manufacture one. A chance remark by Father Hibbert (“The Boston Marathon is the most prestigious footrace in the world. It would be a miracle if someone on this team won it, so put it out of your minds”) sets off a lightning bolt in the 14-year-old. This could be precisely the miracle his mother needs! 

Ralph sets out to train for the marathon. At first, his attempts are pretty laughable, because he simply doesn’t know how. He gets a book from a former marathon champion to help him train, but it turns out that the champion wound up in an asylum shortly after writing the book and most of the information is useless. Ralph remains an object of ridicule, but there is something different about him now. He is focused, possessed with this idea of winning the marathon. Although Father Fitzgerald is now suspicious of Ralph’s living arrangements and is looking into the phantom grandparents, Father Hibbert sees the boy’s determination and agrees to train him. 

Still, it looks like the goal Ralph has set for himself is insurmountable. His first race ends in disaster, and Ralph is depressed. However, he trains hard and actually wins a local marathon. Now he’s getting support and respect from the community, but there are still many obstacles. His house burns down while he is sleeping one night; he barely gets out alive. Now with no place to live, Boston just weeks away and his training far from complete, it looks like Ralph’s miracle is just too far out of reach.

This Canadian production has a great deal of warmth and heart, which while not necessarily missing from similar American movies, is at least in short supply. The movie chugs around without getting overly schmaltzy or self-conscious, and juvenile actor Butcher holds his own, although Scott does a very nice job as the sympathetic ex-marathon running priest, while Tilly is sympathetic (not to mention dang hot in a nurse’s uniform).

There are some extended conversations with God who resembles a young Sid Caesar, and some television-styled montages (this movie was made for Canadian TV and then released theatrically in the States), and a Godawful version of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah” sung by Gord Downie of the Canadian cult band the Tragically Hip. Right song, wrong singer.

Still, there is a bit of charm and not a little bit of Catholic angst. As a former Catholic school survivor, I can admit to finding the parochial school sequences a little too close to home, in a good way. There isn’t anything life-changing about Saint Ralph but as family movies go, this is a pretty solid one. Director McGowan not only evokes the period but also the surroundings, and does it well. As a former marathoner himself, he understands the motivations of the long-distance runner and the proverbial loneliness that is required, but also the triumph of a race well run.

WHY RENT THIS: More heart than you’ll find in any ten movies. Authentic place and time. Fine performances by Butcher and Tilly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Made for Canadian TV and has television production values.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexual content and yes, even a little partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Race Around the Bay, which Ralph is depicted winning, is an actual event and is the oldest structured road race in North America, predating the Boston Marathon by three years.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unreported production budget; the film probably made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Last Lions

Death Race


Death Race

Who was that masked man?

(Universal) Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Fred Koehler, Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Jacob Vargas, Robert LaSardo. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

The masses need bread and circuses to distract them when times are hard. The harder things are, the more violent the circus must be in order to keep the mob happy.

In the near future after the U.S. economy collapsed, crime skyrocketed, overwhelming the prison system. In order to cope, the federal government privatized the prison system, creating prisons for profit. In order to recoup their costs, one corporate prison, led by innovative (and bitchy) warden Hennessey (Allen) has come up with a unique concept; Death Race. A combination of gladiator games, chariot races and NASCAR, convicts drive souped-up cars that are heavily armed and armored. However in order to activate weapons, drivers have to drive over lighted shields and swords. They are aided by female navigators from a neighboring woman’s prison. The drivers get a full pardon and release if they win five races.

The most popular driver in Death Race is Frankenstein. He is a mysterious guy whose face is reputedly so disfigured by all the crashes he’s been in that he wears a mask. Unbeknownst to the world, Frankenstein has died after his most recent race and the ratings are sure to plummet once word gets out.

Jensen Ames (Statham) is an honest, hard-working guy who used to be a very good race driver. After getting laid off from his steel mill job, he comes home to find his wife murdered. He is, of course, blamed for the deed and sent to the tender mercy of Warden Hennessey’s care. She offers him a deal; he takes over the persona of Frankenstein and he will be given credit for the number of wins that Frankenstein has already achieved – four, so if he wins one more race, Ames will go free.

However, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Ames has already alienated Pachenko (Ryan), the local white supremacist and Frankenstein has a major rivalry going with Machine Gun Joe (Gibson), who means to take out Frankenstein. However, Ames has an excellent crew; the fatherly Coach (McShane), the nervous but brilliant Lists (Koehler) and the navigator Case (Martinez). However, all is not as kosher as it seems and Ames finds out that in order to survive the Death Race he may need to become more brutal than he can ever imagine.

Director Anderson, whose cinematic resume includes the Resident Evil series, the much-underrated Event Horizon and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, has remade the Roger Corman camp classic Death Race 2000. He has removed much of the humor from it and ratcheted up the gore and action quotient. The result is a satisfactory action movie that while is definitely on the visceral side certainly keeps your attention.

Statham is one of my favorite action heroes and while this isn’t one of his more interesting roles, he brings home the bacon here. Jensen Ames comes from a long line of falsely accused men forced to do reprehensible things in prison starting with movies like The Shawshank Redemption and moving on through movies like The Longest Yard. This won’t win any new converts to the Statham bandwagon but neither will it disappoint his fans.

Allen and McShane are two engaging actors and you wonder what they are doing in obvious B-Movie fodder like this one. Still, they are here and they elevate the movie quite a bit, particularly McShane who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.

The stunts here are way over-the-top, with cars bouncing around like bumper cars and flying through the air like Frisbees. There are plenty of explosions and enough gunfire to fill up World War Two. I have to admit I didn’t care for the soundtrack; it wasn’t so much the heavy metal guitars, which are a bit on the cliché side, but that all the riffs sounded like rip-offs from other songs.

This is the kind of movie that easily gets overlooked. Critics tore it a new one when it was released but I think they were a bit harsh. Certainly this isn’t Oscar material but then it never aimed for that kind of bar. This was meant to be diverting, visceral entertainment that allows viewers to use as little of their brains as they wish to, and that is a perfectly fine ambition.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless action movie fun that moves at a ridiculous pace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ultra-violent and too much mediocre metal on the score.

FAMILY VALUES: Over-the-top violence and a cornucopia of f-bombs and other harsh language make this a definite mature audience’s only feature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the first Frankenstein was supplied by David Carradine, who played Frankenstein in Death Race 2000.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which show race standings during the race sequences as well as an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage in picture-in-picture style. In addition, there is a feature which allows viewers to edit their own version of the second stage of the race from seven different angles.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Pandorum