Need for Speed


Let's race bitches!

Let’s race bitches!

(2014) Action (DreamWorks) Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson, Steve Ray Dallimore, Alan Pflueger, Brian L. Keaulana, Logan Holliday, Carmela Zumbado, Jalil Jay Lynch, Nick Chinlund, Chad Randall, Buddy Joe Hooker, Rich Rutherford, Tara Jones. Directed by Scott Waugh

Video games are fun. At least, that’s the general point of them. What could be more fun than playing a racing game, driving expensive cars you could never afford in cross country races and causing motorcar chaos in the form of multiple crashes? Why, doing it for real of course.

Tobey Marshall (Paul) is a brooding young man grieving for the recent passing of his dad. Dear old dad owned a high-end auto shop in bucolic Mt. Kisco, New York where Tobey makes a reputation for being a crackerjack racer. He and his crew – tech-savvy Finn (Malek), boyish daredevil and hero-worshipper of Tobey (not to mention occasional psychic) Little Pete (Gilbertson), worldly Joe (Rodriguez) and high flying Benny (Mescudi) – fix cars, hang out and watch the shop slowly wither away.

In comes Dino Brewster (Cooper), a rival of Tobey’s once upon a time who stole Tobey’s girl Anita (Johnson) who also happens to be Little Pete’s sister and went on to leave Mt. Kisco to drive for NASCAR. He’s since left the NASCAR circuit for reasons never fully explained and has gotten hold of a Mustang that legendary car customizer Carroll Shelby was working on prior to his death in 2012. If Tobey can finish the car, he’ll get a 25% split of the sale which Dino thinks will be in the $2 million range. Although Tobey doesn’t trust Dino as far as he could use him as a wrench, he needs the money so he and his crew get busy.

The car turns out to be more than anyone expected and Dino easily finds a buyer, wealthy Bill Ingram (Dallimore) whose representative, Julia Maddon (Poots) turns out to be a cheeky blonde Brit with a preference for Gucci boots. They agree to pay $2.7 million for the car. Everyone’s happy, right?

Wrong. Dino and Tobey are still bickering and decide to settle it behind the wheel. Little Pete wants in on the action. The three go street racing in identical Koenigsegg Ageras that Dino happens to have. During the ensuing race which Tobey looks to win, Dino purposely bumps into Little Pete’s car, sending it flying through the air and off a bridge, sending Little Pete off to a fiery grave.

Dino manages to convince the cops that he wasn’t there and of course the dozens of motorists who nearly or actually get into crashes because of the racers don’t notice the flaming red sports car so Tobey is sent to jail on a vehicular manslaughter charge for two years. When he gets out of jail two years after the fact, he’s lost everything. All he has left is vengeance masquerading as justice and the only way to do it is the De Leon, an underground street race run by an eccentric billionaire (Keaton) in which he can prove he’s the better driver once and for all.

To do that he’ll need a car and he gets one – the Mustang. However, Ingram insists that Julia accompany the car. After all, what billionaire wants to risk putting a car worth $2.7 million into the hands of an ex-con so he can run an illegal street race, right?

Look, this is based on a videogame, not an Oprah Book Club selection. Logic was never going to be the strong suit here, but  even so this movie is riddled with holes that even the least sensible of viewers is going to scratch their heads and say “But..but…” over. All I ask for in a movie is at least a little bit of common sense. There are so many elephants in the movie that are ignored that you can’t help but question how much respect the filmmakers had for their intended audience. Gamers aren’t idiots after all.

There are some saving graces to the film though. Paul, for one. While Tobey is a brooding, taciturn hero who doesn’t have a whole lot to say, Paul has all the charisma you would want a big screen leading man to have. He has the cred of his Breaking Bad work to keep the target audience from rejecting the film version out of hand.  Poots is a terrific actress still searching for a role deserving of her talents and once again she is wasted here. Someone needs to find the woman a better agent.

Likewise the movie gets points for doing their car stunts with practical effects rather than through CGI. Cars fly through the air, speed through city streets and country roads and crash into each other willy-nilly. Some of the stunts are pretty spectacular although there are only so many things you can do with a car that haven’t been done before. It sure is fun watching the filmmakers turn multi-million dollar cars that thee and me could never possibly afford to drive into oversized paperweights which seems to be the main attraction to this movie. Sadly, it doesn’t break the streak of really bad videogame adaptations from Hollywood. You’d think that someone somewhere could make a decent movie out of a videogame that isn’t a horror franchise. Just sayin’.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty racing sequences. Great cars. Paul shows he has what it takes to be a lead actor on the big screen.

REASONS TO STAY: Lackluster logic-challenged plot. Overly long and repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language, some disturbing car crash scenes, nudity and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul was originally being considered to play Dino Brewster but after executive producer Steven Spielberg and Waugh binge watched Breaking Bad they both decided he would be more suitable as the lead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fast and the Furious

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Tim’s Vermeer

New Releases for the Week of March 14, 2014


Need for SpeedNEED FOR SPEED

(DreamWorks) Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Harrison Gilbertson. Directed by Scott Waugh

A blue collar mechanic, struggling to save his garage from going under, is framed on an illegal cross country race by an arrogant ex-NASCAR driver for manslaughter and is sent to prison. On being release, he yearns for revenge and knows the best way to get it is to beat his antagonist in an underground street race. However, with a bounty out on his car and the law chasing him, it will be an uphill task. Based on the bestselling racing videogame.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, videos and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language)

The Single Mom’s Club

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Nia Long, Amy Smart, Terry Crews. A group of single moms struggling to survive and raise their kids on their own get together and form a support group. Their bonds of sisterhood help them grow and change in surprising ways.

See the trailer, interviews and a video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual material and thematic elements)

Veronica Mars

(Warner Brothers) Kristen Bell, Krysten Ritter, James Franco, Jamie Lee Curtis. Now graduated from law school, the titular character has left her amateur sleuthing of her high school years (and TV show) behind, looking to move forward with a career at a prestigious law firm. But somehow, the past keeps calling her back when her ex-boyfriend from high school comes under suspicion for murder. It looks like an open and shut case and just about everybody believes he’s guilty – but with Veronica on the case, you know the real culprit will soon take his place behind bars.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Mystery

Rating: PG-13 (for sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language)

Short Term 12


Sharing is caring.

Sharing is caring.

(2013) Drama (Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva, Harold Cannon, Silvia Curiel, Melora Walters, Bran’dee Allen, Danny Roper, Elyssa Gutierrez, Garryson Zamora, Michael Marto, Patricia Barrett, Tanya Maria A. Bitanga. Directed by Destin Cretton

We call them “at-risk” kids but for the most part, we haven’t a clue what they’re really at risk from. Sure, we have a general idea that they’re runaways and come from less-than-perfect homes but the horrors that these kids live through doesn’t really hit home unless we’ve lived it, or know someone who did.

Grace (Larson) is the floor supervisor at Short Term 12, a residence facility for troubled teens. Most of them come from homes of abuse both physical and emotional and some of these kids can barely function in a normal society. She is compassionate and actually listens to the kids which makes her atypical for most humans. Her boyfriend Mason (Gallagher) also works at the home, along with newbie Nate (Malek) who’s just started.

Some of the kids are pretty messed up. Sammy (Calloway) periodically runs out of the facility screaming at the top of his lungs; he has a collection of toys that he clings to and has a somewhat creative imagination. Marcus (Stanfield) is about to turn 18 at which time he’ll be forced to leave this temporary facility and he’s intimidated at having to make it in the real world, so his normal quiet demeanor has turned angry and he is acting out more than usual, particularly when it comes to Luis (Hernandez) who likes to pick on him.

Into this volatile environment comes Jayden (Dever), a young girl with a whole lot of attitude. She’s a cutter – inflicts wounds on herself in order to relieve her psychological pain – and has a hair-trigger temper that explodes at the least provocation. She’s a problem child but Grace is patient and soon begins to notice that the two of them are not quite so different as it would first appear.

Grace however turns out to have some issues of her own – she rarely takes the advice she hands out her own kids and talk out her problems with Mason. However, Mason isn’t willing to give up on her and with the patience of a saint, waits for whatever it takes for her to open up and commit and as Grace faces an imminent life changing event, everything she’s built threatens to crumble down around her.

Cretton apparently worked in a facility such as the one depicted here and the first observation that comes to mind is “authentic.” The kids here aren’t monsters but they aren’t saints either; they’re just trying to cope despite having a deck particularly stacked against them. Grace, likewise is neither monster nor saint – she tries to help out the best she can but there is little authority that she can exercise (while the kids can be forcibly be brought back inside if they try to run away, once they actually leave the property they can’t be touched although staff member will follow them to whatever destination they have in mind and try to talk them back). As she tells Nate “We’re not therapists. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.” That’s a task not unlikely trying to juggle chainsaws and live hand grenades.

The relationship between Grace and Mason is genuine as well. They’re both twenty-somethings who spend nearly the entire day together but Grace has intimacy issues – not necessarily having to do with sex. Letting Mason in is nearly impossible for her and as it turns out with good reason. He is moon-crazy about her and she knows it and it tears her apart that she can’t give him what he needs. This is romance in the real world although men as patient as Mason are pretty hard to come by. Most guys would have said “hasta la vista” to Grace awhile ago.

This is extremely well-acted. Gallagher, who has turned a few heads for his work on the acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom shows big screen promise here. While at times Mason’s a bit too good to be true, he’s basically the kind of guy that most young women search their entire lives for. Not all of them find one.

Dever, who plays the youngest daughter on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing is also a revelation. This is a very different role for her, much more of a stretch than Gallagher had to make. I was impressed at the depth of emotion Dever went to and basically this is her clarion call to one and all that here is a very fine young actress who is going to be competing for some top acting awards in the future. Meryl Streep, watch your back.

However the movie truly belongs to Brie Larson and this is also a big step forward from The United States of Tara. If this movie had been distributed by a major studio, Larson would doubtlessly be on the short list for Best Oscar actress buzz this year. Maybe she still will be – certainly if critics voted for them she would be. This is a layered, deep portrayal of a young woman helping kids with some pretty serious issues while her own just-as-serious issues remain unresolved. She’s keeping it together with smoke and mirrors and as her façade begins to crumble, we see at last her rage and sorrow not just at Jayden’s predicament but at her own.

This isn’t all hankies and angst. There are some pretty humorous moments, like the opening scene in which Mason tells a self-deprecating story which very cleverly sets up the rules for the facility and sets the tone for the film. It is a masterful piece of writing (and acting) that labels Cretton as a talent to keep an eye on. While there are a few scenes that are somewhat predictable if you’ve watched any of ABC’s Afternoon Specials, by and large this is a rare take at a major societal problem from a point of view we rarely get to see – those young people who are actually responsible for the day-to-day care for troubled kids at facilities like this.

Many critics and film buffs have labeled this one of the best movies of the year and I have to agree. It’s still out there on a few screens but your best bet to catch it is on home video where it will be arriving soon. Keep an eye out for it – this is the kind of movie that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-breaking and heart-warming. Larson, Dever and Gallagher are amazing. Exceedingly authentic and well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: A couple of scenes carry the faint smell of Afterschool Specialness.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly salty language and a bit of sexuality, not to mention some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cretton previously directed a short film with the same title and setting but with a completely different cast of characters and plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warrendale

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Escape Plan

New Releases for the Week of October 25, 2013


The Counselor

THE COUNSELOR

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Rosie Perez, Toby Kebbell, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic. Directed by Ridley Scott

A respected lawyer gets involved with a crooked business deal and discovers that it’s not just his life and career that’s at risk but everything – and everyone – he holds dear. Oscar-winning director Scott is working off a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. That’s the kind of one-two punch I can get into.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)

Bhai

(Reliance) Akkineni Nagarjuna, Prasanna, Richa Gangopadhyay, Kamna Jethmalani. Telugu superstar Nagarjuna hopes to restore his fading box office appeal with this action-drama-comedy with musical overtones.

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa

(Paramount) Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera, Steve-O, Jason “Wee Man” Acuna. Irving Zisman, an irascible 86-year-old man, heads off on a trip to discover America accompanied by his 8-year-old grandson and a bunch of hidden cameras. Along the way he will meet male strippers, toddler beauty pageant contestants,  mourners at a funeral and an assortment of ordinary and unsuspecting Americans.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use)

Short Term 12

(Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever. A young supervisor at an at-risk teenager facility finds her own past brought bursting through her carefully erected defenses when a troubled young teen joins the facility. Unexpectedly, she finds a bond developing between them that may help her overcome her demons yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

A True Story

(Freestyle) Cameron Fife, Tyler McGee, Jon Gries, Katrina Bowden. Two friends who have nothing other than their belief that the screenplay they’ve written will someday make an amazing movie navigate the waters of Hollywood. Swimming those waters are apathetic studio cronies, predatory agents, slutty ex-girlfriends and a motley collection of back-stabbers and bootlickers. In short, a true story.

See the trailer, a featurette and a link to stream the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some violence) 

We Are What We Are

(eOne) Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Bill Sage, Kelly McGillis. A seemingly normal family in a small seaside town is ruled by a patriarch who sticks to custom and tradition with the rigidity of the self-righteous. He is grooming his daughters to take over for him one day but that day comes much too soon when a terrible storm strikes the area. As local authorities begin to realize the full extent of the horror that the family has kept secret for years, the storm grows in intensity threatening the entire town.

See the trailer, a clip and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1


Be still my heart.

Be still my heart.

(2011) Romantic Fantasy (Summit) Kristin Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Jackson Rathbone, Elizabeth Reaser, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Rami Malek, Maggie Grace, Mackenzie Foy, Dakota Fanning, Lee Pace, Anna Kendrick, Michael Sheen, Christopher Heyerdahl, Booboo Stewart, Daniel Cudmore, Justin Chon, Julia Jones, Sarah Clarke. Directed by Bill Condon

Sometimes you have to take into account as a critic that your own personal taste isn’t going to mesh well with the intended audience of a film. One instance where that has been demonstrated time and again is in the Twilight series. Wildly popular, particularly among young girls (and to a large extent, their moms) it has spawned a diehard fanbase who identify themselves as TwiHards. It has also spawned an incredible backlash, mainly among boys (and to a large extent, their dads) who despise the series with a vitriol heretofore reserved for the same regard held by Jews for Nazis.

So what is a critic to do? Are we supposed to write one review for the intended fanbase and another for the rest of the world, or try to make something that can be useful to those who aren’t necessarily fans of the series but may be curious whether or not to see the movie for themselves? Generally, I tend to go for the latter route as those fans have likely already seen the movie at least once – probably during its theatrical run or if not on home video certainly.

Taking place following the events of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the long-awaited wedding of Bella (Stewart) and Edward (Pattinson) is finally here and yes, the blushing bride looks ravishing in a demure-yet-sexy wedding dress that of course keeps her grinning groom hungry for more. Bella’s good friend Jacob Black (Lautner), the werewolf who was the third leg of the love triangle with vampire Ed, is less sanguine about the union – not just because he wants Bella for himself but also because he realizes just how dangerous it can be for Bella. They have words and Jacob ends up running into the woods, leaving Edward to escort a distraught Bella back into the reception.

They honeymoon on Isle Esme off the coast of Brazil. There, the loving couple at last consummates their marriage. True to form, Bella wakes up one morning and discovers herself pregnant. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. It isn’t that Bella and Edward don’t want children – it’s just that the mortal human body wasn’t meant to bear the child of a supernatural undead being like Edward. It is unlikely that Bella will survive it.

Her pregnancy proceeds at an advanced rate and they cut short their honeymoon and head back to Forks. When the werewolves find out what has happened, they are furious – and terrified. The spawn of such a union will be demonic indeed and in order to protect themselves, they must kill Bella before she can give birth. Jacob of course is having none of this and he leaves his pack, creating a new pack with Seth (Stewart) and Leah (Jones) with Jacob as the Alpha.

Bella grows progressively weaker and soon is forced to drink human blood to keep the fetus viable and allows Bella to gain some much-needed strength. When she goes into labor, all Hell is going to break loose. Edward must convert her into vampirism but will it be enough to save him – to save them all?

Condon is actually a pretty decent director with such movies as Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls to his credit. He brings Guillermo del Toro’s usual cinematographer Guillermo Navarro on board and Navarro responds with the most beautifully shot movie of the series. He also continues to stock the soundtrack, as those who came before him did, with some nifty alt-rock tunes that nicely enhance the movie and appeal nicely to the target crowd.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is cringe-inducing and the acting really hasn’t improved much over the course of the series. Of course, you can’t really blame the actors for that – Summit’s demanding shooting schedule in producing one of these suckers every year is bound to take its toll.

There is enough here that makes this a much superior film to New Moon which isn’t saying much, but it’s still not enough for me to really recommend it to most audiences. Hardcore fans will love this as they inevitably would – TwiHards are nothing if not loyal – and even those not quite so obsessed but still within the target audience are likely to find this worthwhile.

The overwrought drama and again, choosing to make Bella a simpering idiot rather than a truly strong role model for her audience is frustrating. Meyer and those involved with the series have chosen to waste an opportunity to create a hugely popular series with strong female role models and instead turns it into an indigestible bodice ripper with little redeeming value other than it excites the fantasies of young girls and middle-aged women alike. While there is certainly nothing wrong with that as a goal, at least couldn’t they have made Bella able to protect herself?

WHY RENT THIS: There are plenty of fans who think this is the best film of the series.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I’m not one of them.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of paranormal action, some partial nudity and scenes of sexuality, a couple of disturbing images and some mature (relatively speaking) thematic elements..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author of the Twilight series of books Stephenie Meyer has a cameo appearance as a guest at the wedding of Bella and Edward.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a wedding video done in the hand-held style of most home wedding videos. There’s also a Jacob Fast-Forward and an Edward Fast-Forward in which those on the respective teams can watch all the scenes that their favorite heartthrob is in without having to endure those scenes with that other guy.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $712.2M on a $110M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Creatures

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Farewell, My Concubine

New Releases for the Week of September 21, 2012


September 21, 2012DREDD

(Lionsgate) Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Rakie Ayola, Wood Harris, Warrick Grier, Jason Cope, Joe Vaz, Scott Sparrow. Directed by Pete Travis

In the future, the world is divided into irradiated wastelands and vast cities overcrowded and crime-ridden. Justice is dispensed by Judges, a combination street cop, judge, jury and executioner. The most feared of these is Dredd, who with his rookie partner Anderson is tasked with riding the streets of Slo-Mo, a drug that allows users to experience reality at a fraction of its normal speed. However, the drug lord who controls most of it, an ex-prostitute named Ma-Ma doesn’t take too kindly to having her business interrupted and a war erupts that will push even Dredd beyond his limits. Based on the iconic British comic series.

See the trailer, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content)

10 Years

(Anchor Bay) Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson, Justin Long, Kate Mara. A group of friends reunite for their 10 year high school reunion. This ensemble piece follows them through the big night to see how they have – and haven’t – changed over the years as their tangled relationships begin to unravel before their very eyes.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for language, alcohol abuse, some sexual material and drug use)

End of Watch

(Open Road) Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, America Ferrera. Two cocky young police officers patrol the mean streets of south central Los Angeles, one of the most dangerous areas in the country. They wind up in the crosshairs of a Mexican drug cartel after a routine traffic stop leads them into places they never dreamed they’d be. Only their loyalty and support for one another and the love of their families stands between them and oblivion.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Drama

Rating: R (for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use)

Heroine

(UTV) Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal, Randeep Hooda, Shahana Goswami. A Bollywood actress, once the best in the business, sees her career go on the decline despite her best efforts to stay on top.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

House at the End of the Street

(Relativity) Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue, Max Theriot, Gil Bellows. A newly-divorced mom and her teenage daughter move into a new house hoping to make a fresh start. That is, until they discover that a neighboring home was the scene of a gruesome multiple murder. Things go downhill from there when the daughter develops a relationship with the only survivor of the massacre – and the person responsible for the crime may be back for seconds.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and terror, thematic elements, language, some teen partying and drug material)

The Master

(Weinstein) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek. Shortly after the Second World War a down-on-his-luck veteran is ensnared by a charismatic intellectual who has created a faith-based organization to which the vet becomes his right-hand man. However, the ex-soldier begins to see and hear things that cause him to question the faith he has embraced and the man who has become his mentor.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity and language)

Trouble With the Curve

(Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman. A baseball scout, one of the most respected in the game, is starting to show his age. His eyesight isn’t so good and he wants to go out on top, but his team is questioning his judgment. His only option is to ask his daughter, a bright young lawyer who has grown apart from him as of late, to help him. She puts her career on hold despite her misgivings and her father’s objections to spend some quality time with him and in the process, the two find out some long-held secrets about one another that might tear them apart permanently.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

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

Unconditional

(Harbinger Media Partners) Michael Ealy, Lynn Collins, Bruce McGill, Diego Klattenhoff. When a senseless act of violence takes the husband of a children’s author away from her, she loses her faith and her desire to live. However, an encounter with a couple of kid leads to a reunion with her oldest friend whose compassion and kindness towards the kids in an underprivileged neighborhood leads to new revelations about God’s role in her life.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Christian Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violent content and mature thematic elements)

Battleship


Battleship

The actors are overshadowed by the special effects.

(2012) Science Fiction (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Liam Neeson, Asano Tadanobu, Hamish Linklater, Peter MacNicol, John Tui, Jesse Plemmons, Gregory D. Gadson, Jerry Ferrara, Joe Chrest, Rami Malek. Directed by Peter Berg

 

Most of us as kids probably had occasion to play the Battleship board game. It’s the one with a screen in the middle to prevent you from seeing where your opponent placed his fleet; you place your aircraft carrier, a couple of destroyers, a few PT boats and a battleship and choose co-ordinates to launch “missiles” to sink your opponent’s fleet. Those much older than I might remember when that game was played with pencils and graph paper.

Alex Hopper (Kitsch) – whose last name brings to mind an unfortunately timed DirecTV commercial – is a Hawaiian beach bum celebrating a birthday on a beachside bar with few prospects for the future. His brother Stone (Skarsgard), an officer in the U.S. Navy, is tolerant but nags Alex that he needs to find a path and suggests the Navy as a possibility. When Alex spots a comely lass who wants a chicken burrito, he decides to play the gallant and run across the street to a convenience store. He just misses closing time despite his desperate but drunken pleas to the owner. So, in a fit of grandiose stupidity, he decides to break inside, steal a burrito (leaving behind some cash – he’s not a thief after all) and fall through the ceiling tiles not just once…but twice. Oddly enough, this behavior impresses the babe who turns out to be Samantha Shane (Decker), who also happens to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (Neeson) who’s Stone’s boss. After this mis-adventure, Stone insists that Alex join the Navy who no doubt would be absolutely thrilled to have a newly minted felon in their ranks.

Flash-forward a few years. Not only is the chicken burrito vandal in the Navy but he’s an officer which surely is the most science fiction you’ll find in this movie. Roughly about the same time Alex did the chicken burrito stunt, a group of scientists including the ubernerdy Cal Zapata (Linklater) have sent a radio telescope transmission to the mysterious Goldilocks planet which is the most earthlike yet discovered. In the intervening time, Alex hasn’t changed much and while he and Samantha are an item, his naval career is rapidly being flushed down the toilet and after a stunt where he arrived to a ceremony declaring a naval war games maneuver open (one in which warships from Japan and other countries will be participating) Admiral Shane has informed Alex not to make any long-range Naval career plans once the war games are over.

Of course, in that intervening time the aliens haven’t changed much from other movie aliens and they’ve sent five ships as an advance guard to take over the Earth (although what anybody would want with our planet is beyond me). Their ships land in the ocean and just as the warships arrive nearby the aliens rise up out of the ocean and start raising holy pluperfect hell, wiping out most of the fleet including the ship Stone is in command of, and inconveniently, all of the officers on Alex’s ships that are above Alex, leaving him in command of his ship which he promptly orders to turn around and find the nearest convenience store that might have a chicken burrito. When informed there aren’t any nearby, in a fit of pique he sends his ship on a collision course with the alien mothership. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail and Alex grumpily agrees to go rescue drowning sailors in the water after the Japanese warship gets trashed, including Captain Nagata (Asano) who has a beef with Alex over a soccer game and a fistfight afterwards.

Because the aliens have enacted a forcefield around the Hawaiian islands, the remainder of the fleet can’t get to them leaving Hawaii and the rest of the fleet virtually defenseless. However, there are still a few things left to save humanity; Alex’ tactical genius, a legless war veteran (Gadson) that physical therapist Samantha conveniently has on a hike near the mountaintop headquarters for the signal senders that ubernerd Cal Zapata is part of and an old veteran taken out of mothballs for one last stab at glory.

There are more holes in this than Casey Anthony’s testimony. Of course, one shouldn’t expect logic from a movie based on a board game but then again, why shouldn’t we? I get the distinct impression that the suits at Hasbro brought director Peter Berg into a screening room, showed him all three of the Transformers films and said “Like that, only more.”

He does deliver on the action sequences and special effects – there are plenty of exploding warships and overly complex alien weapons enough to keep the eye candy nice and sweet. In fact, the best sequence in the film is oddly the one most like the game, in which the navy uses seismic buoys that measure water displacement to locate alien vessels. Of course, nobody mentions why an alien race with the technology to put up a barrier hundreds of miles long that is impervious to weapons can’t put one up around their own ships. Guess they didn’t watch Independence Day. Also unfortunately, Berg neglected to cast any actors with enough screen presence to pull it off. Well, they cast Neeson but they could only afford him for three scenes once the special effects budget got approved.

Kitsch, after this year’s John Carter debacle is now at a career crossroads after having been the lead in two of this year’s biggest bombs. As in that film, Kitsch doesn’t display enough screen presence to really pull off what the producers intended. He’s certainly good-looking enough – and his stint in ”Friday Night Lights” have proven that the man can act – but to be a hero for a franchise movie like this one you really need to own the screen and that Kitsch fails to do.

Oddly, the people who acquit themselves best here are the non-actors. Gadson, a genuine Iraqi war veteran, knows a thing or two about heroism and that shows. He has more screen presence than most of the leads and while Hollywood doesn’t show itself to have a whole lot of roles open for a man with two prosthetic legs, certainly those that are Gadson could fill ably.

Rihanna also surprised me. The pop chanteuse shows a few acting chops here, her trademark blonde locks shorn and died black. She channels Michelle Rodriguez a bit here as a kick-ass Latina military woman and shows that she might well have a future in acting if she chooses to pursue it.

At the end of the day, this is entertaining enough to recommend somewhat although there are plenty of movies that are entertaining and with more substance behind them out there at the moment and more coming into the theaters every week. I can’t say you’ll leave the theater feeling like your money was wasted but on the other hand you won’t feel like you got the most for your buck either.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects. Wonderful sequence that echoes the board game.

REASONS TO STAY: Storyline a bit of a jumble. Acting is mostly atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a tribute to the board game, the alien artillery is shaped much like the pegs used in the original game.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

U.S.S. MISSOURI LOVERS: The decommissioned “Mighty Mo” is used as a set during the final reel and some filming actually took place there.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Brothers

New Releases for the Week of May 18, 2012


May 18, 2012

BATTLESHIP

(Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgard, Liam Neeson, Rihanna, Asana Tadanobu, Peter MacNicol, Joe Chrest, Rami Malek. Directed by Peter Berg

A sailor on board the USS John Paul Jones during a naval war games exercise gets a lot more than he bargained for when the Earth is invaded – by a foe lying in wait beneath the waves. Based on the board game from Hasbro, this comes from the producers of Transformers which might account for the look of the aliens.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language)

Darling Companion

(Sony Classics) Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest. After saving a bedraggled lost dog and taking it into her home, a woman pours her emotional center into the dog as she suffers from an empty nest and a distracted husband who’s a little self-involved. When the husband loses the dog while hosting a wedding at their vacation home in the Rockies, the hysterical woman will enlist the remaining guests in a frantic search for the love of her life.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content including references, and language)  

The Dictator

(Paramount) Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Megan Fox. The brutal dictator of an Arab republic, known to encourage terrorism, is called to address the United Nations and answer for his crimes against his people. However on his way there, his prodigious beard is shaved, rendering him unrecognizable. Will he be able to fight his way back to the UN, make his address and resume abusing his country? (Opens today)

See the trailer, clips, a promo and an Academy Awards promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R  (for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images)

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

(Lionsgate) Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Dennis Quaid, Chris Rock. A group of five couples are all expecting new arrivals – and I’m not talking deliveries from Best Buy. No, they are all going to have babies – four the usual way, one via adoption. Each has their own unique issues and all of them will intersect in one way or another. A great ensemble cast highlights this film inspired by the bestselling book that has become a bible for expectant mothers.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, thematic elements and language) 

Larry Crowne


Larry Crowne

Julia Roberts smirks at Tom Hanks' new CHiPS-inspired look.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Bryan Cranston, Wilmer Valderrama, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, Rita Wilson, Jon Seda, Rob Riggle, Dale Dye, Grace Gummer. Directed by Tom Hanks

There are occasions in life where it becomes necessary to reinvent ourselves. We are almost forced to take stock, figure out what’s not working and attempt to fixing.

Ex-Navy “culinary specialist” (read: cook) Larry Crowne (Hanks) is sailing along at the big-box chain where he works and has won eight employee-of-the-month awards. He figures he’s being called in to win his ninth; but instead is dismayed to discover that he is being downsized. The reason? He has no college education (having chosen to serve his country instead) and has gone as far as he can go at the company without one. Not wanting to leave him in the same position for years to come, he is instead let go. Nobody ever said that big companies are logical.

He is underwater on his mortgage after buying out his wife after a somewhat messy divorce. After an unsuccessful attempt to refinance with an unctuous loan officer (Wilson), Larry is forced to start selling off his stuff at a perpetual yard sale run by his grouchy neighbor Lamar (Cedric) and his friendlier wife (Henson), who turns Larry on to the idea of going back to school. Larry also buys a scooter to get him places more economically.

At the local community college he takes a speech class with Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot (Roberts), a somewhat burned-out teacher who uses alcohol to numb out and help her forget she’s married to Dean (Cranston), formerly a promising science fiction author turned into a slacker with a penchant for commenting on blogs and surfing for porn on the internet. Mercy has the distinct impression that she is making not a whit of difference in the lives of her students.

He also takes an economics class under the watchful eye of the quirky Dr. Matsutani (Takei) who isn’t above a little self-promotion but has a distinct hatred of cell phones. In the class is the free-spirited Talia (Mbatha-Raw), who brings in Larry into her scooter gang, led by her boyfriend Dell (Valderrama). Talia decides to take Larry on as a bit of a project, remaking his house and his appearance in a more modern image.

Gradually Larry begins to rediscover himself, getting a job at a local diner and finding self-confidence through his speech class. Meanwhile, as Mercy’s marriage continues to fall apart, Larry begins to fall a little bit for the attractive but closed-off teacher, although Mercy assumes that Larry and Talia are together because of her clear affection for him.

That’s essentially it for plot. Hanks co-wrote and directed this star vehicle (this marks his second feature film as a director after the far superior That Thing You Do! back in 1996) tends to a gentle, inoffensive style in both writing and directing. I’ve often characterized Hanks as a modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman with a heart of gold. He plays that role to the hilt here.

He is matched by Roberts, whose luster is undimmed 20 years after Pretty Woman. She still has one of the most radiant smiles you’ll ever see, although you’ll see far more frowning from her here which is a bit of a shame – but she nonetheless fills her role well. While the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts isn’t as electric as it is in Charlie Wilson’s War, they still work well together onscreen.

In fact this is very much a project moved forward by star wattage. The likability of Hanks and Roberts lies at the core of the film, and Hanks the director wisely utilizes it. He has a pretty strong supporting cast, but it is Mbatha-Raw who charms most. Best known here for her work in “Doctor Who,” she is incandescent and lights up the screen whenever she’s on. “Star Trek” veteran Takei also is strong as the curmudgeonly economics professor, while Cedric recycles his stage persona adequately enough. Valderrama breaks out of his “That 70s Show” type as the tough-seeming teddy bear Dell.

There are a lot of quirky characters here, from the self-absorbed student (Malek) to the slacker husband (Cranston) and most of them aren’t developed all that well. We could have done with a number of them altogether, quite frankly. Also, I felt Larry is a bit too passive here. He reacts to people who essentially re-shape him. He just kind of goes along with it; Lamar suggests he goes to college, he goes to college. The proprietor of a local diner suggests Larry start working for him, Larry goes to work for him. Talia wants Larry to change his wardrobe and add a wallet chain, Larry does. Larry becomes a blank slate which everyone around him draws their version of him on; he could have used a little more self-assertiveness.

The movie takes a situation that all too many Americans are feeling – laid off, middle aged, at a crossroads of life – and really doesn’t do a lot with it. There isn’t a lot of angst here; Larry has a few depressed moments, caught in montage early on, and then rolls up his sleeves and gets about the job of finding himself a new job. He meets with rejection but that doesn’t really figure much into the plot. It’s more of a means of getting the story from point “A” to point “B.” To my way of thinking, there were some lost opportunities here for commentary on the current economic state of things but apparently the filmmakers didn’t want to do that

Be that as it may, the movie still makes you feel good. There is no raunchiness here at all as there is at most of the summer comedies you’ll see this year. That in itself is rather pleasing; it’s nice once in awhile to see a comedy that doesn’t rely on pushing the boundaries for humor. The good thing about Larry Crowne is that no matter what kind of rotten mood you’re in (and I was in a foul one when I saw it) you’ll leave the theater feeling good – and if you’re in a good mood to begin with, you’ll leave the theater feeling better. I’m sure some Hollywood blurb-writer will coin it “the feel-good movie of the summer,” but for once the blurb will be accurate.

REASONS TO GO: A warmhearted comedy that relies heavily on the charm of its stars. Will pick you up even on a bad day.

REASONS TO STAY: A few too many quirky characters. The character of Larry might be a little too passive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual content but otherwise pretty mild.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Talk of the Town.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon