New Releases for the Week of January 30, 2015


Project AlmanacPROJECT ALMANAC

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

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

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

Black or White

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

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

Black Sea

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

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

The Loft

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

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

Two Days, One Night

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

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

Wild Card

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

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

New Releases for the Week of June 20, 2014


Jersey BoysJERSEY BOYS

(Warner Brothers) John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken, Steve Schirripa, John Griffin, Lou Volpe. Directed by Clint Eastwood

The Four Seasons were not just pop stars from a bygone era. They were four Jersey boys who went from the mean streets of the Garden State to the highest of heights. With the signature voice of Frankie Valli, they were one of the major pop forces of the 60s all the way through the 70s. A Tony Award-winning musical about their lives and music took Broadway by storm and at last hits the big screen, directed by none other than Clint Eastwood himself.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: R  (for language throughout)

Cold in July

(IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw.On a hot summer night in Texas in 1989, a man investigates noises in his living room and surprises a burglar. A split second decision sees the man pull the trigger and become a local hero. Not everyone appreciates his actions; the criminal’s ex-con father is coming to town and he has nothing but bloody revenge on his mind.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

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

The Grand Seduction

(eOne) Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Liane Balaban, Gordon Pinsent. A small Canadian town desperately needs a new petrochemical plant in order to survive. The company will not locate a plant there unless they have a resident doctor which is one thing they don’t have. When a doctor passes through, they realize that they have to convince him that this town is the paradise he’s been looking for.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive material and drug references)

Humshakals

(Fox Star) Saif Ali Khan, Ritesh Deshmukh, Ram Kapoor, Bipasha BasuAshok and Kumar are best friends who unbeknownst to them have two lookalikes, also named Ashok and Kumar who are also best friends. Unbeknownst to both of these pairs of friends is another pair of lookalikes, also named Ashok and Kumar, also the best of friends. Add to this a man named Mamaji who also has a lookalike who in turn has a look alike of his own (you guessed it – all named Mamaji) and you have chaos waiting to happen.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Rover

(A24) Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Susan Prior. In a future ten years following the collapse of society, a loner in the Australian outback has his car stolen by a gang of thieves. However, they leave one of their members behind in the ensuing chaos and the loner uses him (quite unwillingly) to track his former mates so that he can retrieve the only thing that really matters to him. The latest film from the director of Animal Kingdom.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Action

Rating: R (for language and some bloody violence)

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

(Radius)  Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas.In the annals of managers both in the film and music industries, the name of Shep Gordon looms among the pantheon of the best. One of the few in the business who is beloved by both clients and corporate alike, he has created a storied life that would make a Hollywood movie – if it weren’t true. Now, close friend Mike Myers aims to tell the story of the man who redefined the word mensch .

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for language, some sexual references, nudity and drug use)

Think Like a Man Too

(Screen Gems) Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson. This sequel to the surprise hit of 2012 finds the same couples still hanging in there after a couple of years but now they are headed to Las Vegas to celebrate the wedding of one of their own. They find themselves unable to keep themselves from getting into hot water and forget one of the most basic rules of Hollywood – what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy (opens Thursday)

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual content including references, partial nudity, language and drug material)

Non-Stop


Liam Neeson's contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

Liam Neeson’s contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Corey Stoll, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount, Quinn McColgan, Corey Hawkins, Frank Deal, Bar Paly, Edoardo Costa, Jon Abrahams, Amanda Quaid. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Flying is a stressful endeavor. We are crammed like sardines into a tin can and hope that the pilot is sober enough to get us from point A to point B without bringing us down in a flaming Viking funeral. We are surrounded by strangers and we hope against hope that they won’t talk the entire five hour flight, or that the kids behind us won’t kick our chair non-stop. It’s no wonder that alcohol is served aboard air flights. The wonder is that they don’t make tranquilizers available as well.

Bill Marks (Neeson) hates flying. Just to get him on the plane he has to drink half a bottle of whiskey. Once on board, he disables the smoke alarms in the lavatory to smoke a long, calming cigarette. He doesn’t really want to talk to anybody, but he’s a kindly enough sort who takes the time to help a little girl travelling all by herself across the Atlantic ocean to visit her daddy in London conquer her fears and step aboard the big intimidating airplane. Bill sure hates flying but he does a lot of it. After all, he’s a Federal Air Marshal.

It should be a routine flight from New York to London. Next to him is a pleasant if inquisitive middle aged woman named Jen (Moore) who is happy to let him sleep through most of the flight. The pilot (Roache) is an old friend as is the head stewardess Nancy (Dockery). His partner aboard, Jack Hammond (Mount) is a little by-the-book for his tastes but he knows his stuff. However, Bill doesn’t want to be there. He needs to be in New York, taking care of…well, stuff. He gets into a shouting match with his supervisor over the phone about it. The supervisor tells him that he can’t grant Bill’s request for an immediate return flight home; “I have to do what I have to do,” says the supervisor. “Oh yeah?” growls Bill, “Well I’ll do what I’ve gotta do too!” Showed him.

Of course, since this is a movie, the flight is anything but routine. Midway over the Atlantic, Bill gets a text on his secure Blackberry telling him that someone aboard the flight will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a Swiss bank account. Hammond pooh-poohs the threat but Bill is unnerved. When a passenger turns up dead at the specified time, Bill is vindicated. He is also the suspect as the bank account turns out to be in his name. As the body count begins to pile up, Bill begins to believe that the killer has a whole other agenda that has nothing to do with the money. The race against time is to discover what that agenda is, who’s behind it and to save the plane from the previously described Viking funeral.

There are plenty of red herrings in the thriller, some involving drug trafficking and of course the identity of the killer. Nearly everyone comes under suspicion at one point excluding Bill who is only made to look guilty but something told me early on that Neeson wasn’t going to be the killer (although that might have made for an interesting twist). There are so many that it actually becomes a little annoying.

Neeson has become quite a dependable action hero which is a far cry from his days as one of the better serious actors on the planet (Schindler’s List, Michael Collins sniff sniff). He is a large, physically intimidating man and his gruff demeanor makes him a perfect fit for these kinds of roles and again, like Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill is the biggest reason to plunk down your hard-earned cash to see this film.

Moore is likewise an actress who has delivered Oscar-caliber performances in the past. She makes an excellent foil for Neeson, bandying back and forth with him not necessarily in a flirtatious manner. Their chemistry is so strong I wouldn’t mind seeing them as partners in future movies.

The rest of the cast is unusually able for this type of film. Collet-Serra was very fortunate to cast actors who were on the cusp of their big break so he has an Oscar winner (Nyong’o) in an essentially throwaway role, Dockery just now breaking big for Downton Abbey and Stoll getting raves in House of Cards.

Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously teamed with Neeson in Unknown, knows what he’s doing when it comes to action films. Considering nearly all of the action takes place in a commercial airline cabin (excepting the opening and closing scenes), the action is pretty decent when it occurs. Most of the rest of the time, Collet-Serra is content to let the tension and the suspense rule the day. I would have preferred less misdirection – a little bit of that can go a long way – but that’s more of a personal preference. Your mileage may vary.

This is one of those movies that is exactly what you expect it to be – no more, no less. If you’re looking for mindless entertainment it will deliver. If you’re looking for a strong leading man, it delivers that too. If you’re looking for innovation within the genre, keep looking. But a WYSIWYG movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes it’s exactly what you need.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson is always entertaining and this time gets a fine foil in Moore. Some fairly decent white knuckle moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot a bit too far up the ludicrous scale. Too many action film clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some action film violence, at times fairly intense. There’s also a fair amount of foul language, a subplot involving drugs and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Bill Marks, like Neeson himself, was born in Northern Ireland and later emigrated to the United States.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Passenger 47

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Great Beauty

New Releases for the Week of February 28, 2014


Non-StopNON-STOP

(Universal) Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A Federal Air Marshal on a transatlantic flight receives a message that someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless a ransom demand is met. When it turns out the message is deadly serious, he has to discover who’s sending those messages – only to find out that there is something far more devious going on than a mere hostage situation.

See the trailer, clips, an interview,  a promo and footage from the premiere here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references)

Odd Thomas

(RLJ/Image) Anton Yelchin, Willem Dafoe, Patton Oswalt, Addison Timlin. A nondescript fry cook in a nondescript small town has a special gift – he can see dead people. When a mysterious stranger brings in an entourage of truly nasty demonic sorts, Thomas realizes that a disaster of apocalyptic proportions is upon them. From writer Dean Koontz and director Stephen Sommers who has The Mummy on his resume.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: NR

Raze

(IFC Midnight) Zoe Bell, Doug Jones, Sherilyn Fenn, Tracie Thoms. After being abducted, a woman wakes up in a concrete bunker and is forced to fight in a tournament of 50 women. If she loses or refuses to fight, her loved ones will be murdered.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Horror

Rating: NR

Repentance

(CODEBLACK) Forest Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, Mike Epps, Sanaa Lathan. A life coach with a dark past takes on a man fixated on his mother’s recent passing mainly to get some cash to bail out his brother who is deeply in debt to the wrong people. However, it turns out his new client is far more than he seems to be and his issues run far deeper.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for violence including torture and language)

Shaadi Ke Side Effects

(Bataji) Farhan Akhtar, Vidya Balan, Vir Das, Ram Kapoor. A young married couple who had a very difficult time getting their wedding pulled off finds that the most difficulty comes after the wedding.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Son of God

(20th Century Fox) Diogo Morgado, Roma Downey, Nonso Anozie, Amber Rose Revah. From the producers of the hit cable series The Bible comes this focus on Jesus of Nazareth.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Faith

Rating: PG-13 (for for intense and bloody depiction of The Crucifixion and for some sequences of violence)

Stalingrad

(Sony Classics) Thomas Kretschmann, Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Maria Smolnikova. An epic retelling of the crucial battle that broke the Nazi stranglehold on Europe and eventually turned the tide of the war. Shown from a post-Soviet Russian point of view.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: IMAX 3D

Genre: Historical War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language)

The Wind Rises

(Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short. A young Japanese dreamer sees the breathtaking work of early aviation pioneer Caproni and dreams of flying aircraft. His extreme nearsightedness prevents him from becoming a pilot but he determines to design the planes that will bring Japan into the air age. Acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki says this will be his final film and it may well be one of his best; it has been nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar for this Sunday’s ceremony.

See the trailer, a video and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Anime

Rating: NR

12 Years a Slave


Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

(2013) Historical Biography (Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupito Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Garret Dillahunt, Isiah Jackson, Dwight Henry, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhane Wallis, Devyn A. Tyler, Willo Jean-Baptiste, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Ashley Dyke. Directed by Steve McQueen

The question we sometimes have to ask about a movie depicting a horrible epoch in human history is why. Why should it be made? After all, it’s not exactly a secret that slavery was a terrible, shameful practice. But do we need to be reminded of that?

I believe that we do. In the same way movies like Schindler’s List reminds us of the holocaust, or Hotel Rwanda reminds us of the horrors of genocide, we need to remind ourselves periodically of the depths of inhumanity that man practices upon other men. We need to be reminded as Nicol Williamson once accurately (albeit bombastically) said in Excalibur that it is the doom of men that they forget.

Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in Saratoga, New York in 1841. While he is a black man, he is nonetheless freed and is well-known as a magnificent violinist but also a hard-working carpenter. His wife Anne (Scott) is highly respected as a great cook. They have beautiful children and as African-Americans in the mid-19th century go, a pretty wonderful life.

Then, he is approached by a couple of men calling themselves Hamilton (Killam) and Brown (McNairy) who represent themselves as entertainers in need of an accompanying musician. They are going as far south as Washington, DC. The money is good and the company congenial so Northup agrees to lend his services.

He awakens in chains in a slave market. Gone are his clothes, his papers identifying him as a free man and even his name – he is to be called Platt now. He is sold by the dealer (Giamatti) to Ford (Cumberbatch) who runs a sugar cane plantation near New Orleans. There he goes with the disconsolate Eliza (Oduye) who has been separated from her children. However, Northup gets into a fight with the cruel and barbarous carpenter Tibeats (Dano) who for some reason has it out for Solomon (possibly because Northup was a better carpenter) and for the safety of his slave and of his plantation, the kindly Ford is forced to sell Platt to the cruel Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who runs a cotton plantation.

Epps expects 200 pounds of cotton to be picked by each one; those who fail are lashed cruelly. The best cotton picker is Patsy (Nyong’o) who does three times what the burly men of the plantation can do. Epps has taken an unhealthy sexual interest in her which infuriates his wife (Paulson) who visits cruelties and mutilations upon Patsy. Solomon for his part is keeping his head down low, making sure nobody knows that he can read and write. When Solomon meets an itinerant Canadian carpenter (Pitt), he knows his last chance to get word to those in the North of his whereabouts may be staring him in the face.

Based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Northup, I’m told the film follows the book pretty closely – McQueen insisted on it. While I can’t personally vouch for that, I can say that this is an incredible story told with as much authenticity as the filmmakers can muster. That this is a British production is somewhat ironic that it takes a foreign eye to shed light on an American disgrace.

There is a good deal of brutality. When slaves get whipped, pieces of flesh fly from their back and the resulting cuts are hideous to behold. It’s not easy to watch but this was the reality of what happened. Too often Hollywood portrays a whipping as a grunting actor, jaw heroically clenched against the pain as lines of red appear on his back. In reality, whippings were horrid affairs with a good deal of screaming and bloodshed. To his credit, McQueen doesn’t turn the eyes of the camera away and we see the brutality in unflinching detail.

Ejiofor has long been one of those actors who has been patiently waiting the right role. He’s finally found his. One of the best actors you’ve never heard of out there, he plays Solomon with dignity, with fear and with humanity. Solomon is a smart guy and occasionally able to manipulate Epps but his own inner fire gets him into trouble sometimes. He is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January and is an early favorite to win it.

Fassbender has been busy of late and might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his layered and nuanced performance as Epps. Certainly Epps is a cruel and vicious master, but he is also henpecked by his wife to a certain degree and a slave to his own lust for Patsy. Epps could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of a plantation owner; yes, there is evil here but it isn’t cartoon evil but the evil that slavery creates in the slaveowners.

Nyong’o is a newcomer but her performance as Patsy may bring her the kind of notice new actresses dream of. Patsy is the face of despair in the film and Nyong’o handles it with a certain dignity that at once is moving and disturbing. When the despair overwhelms her and she begs Platt to end her misery, one wonders how many slaves took that road off the plantations. Probably many more than we realize – when hope is dead, the will to live generally dies with it.

This is a movie that is certain to be considered for Oscar gold this year and is going to make a lot of year-end top ten lists. While it may be considered an education about slavery, I see it more as a metaphor for the continued inhumanity that we enforce on others. The message here isn’t that slavery is  bad; I’m pretty sure we all get that. It’s how we treat each other today and how our ability to enslave others has informed that treatment that makes this movie so important. While I would hesitate to bring small children to see this, I think parents should bring their teens. Opening the eyes of a younger generation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Impeccably acted by Ejiofor and Fassbender. A living breathing testament to the horrors of slavery.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and brutality can be overwhelming at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and scenes of torture and cruelty. There is also some nudity and sexuality, as well as a few graphic images that may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henry and Wallis both co-starred previously in Beasts of the Southern Wild, also distributed by Fox Searchlight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 97/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amistad

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Italian for Beginners

Promised Land


Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

(2012) Drama (Focus) Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, Tim Guinee, Terry Kinney, Sara Lindsey, Ken Strunk, Gerri Bumbaugh, Frank Conforti, Joanne Jeffers. Directed by Gus Van Sant

Rural America is often depicted as an idyllic place. Small towns where everyone not only knows one another but cares for one another as well. A place populated by hard-working folk who have farms that go back generations in the same family, a place untroubled by the bustle and stress of city life.

But that life is largely dying. Family farms are becoming an endangered species as agribusiness crowds them out of the marketplace. Many family farms require subsidies to get by. People in desperate situations are often vulnerable to any suggestion that might well save them from financial catastrophe.

Steve Butler (Damon) works for Global, a natural gas company, and he’s very good at what he does. What he does is go into small towns where Global wants to drill and secures contract granting drilling rights to their land. He and his partner Sue Thomasson (McDormand) are successful more than their peers by triple digits in terms of percentages. He is up for an executive position and the company has sent him to a small Pennsylvania town which Global wants to be the beachhead for their penetration into the Keystone State.

Normally, Steve is in and out of a town like this in a matter of days. He grew up on a family farm in Eldridge, Iowa and speaks the language of these people. He knows what buttons to push. But there is a science teacher, a retired engineer by the name of Frank Yates (Holbrook) who raises some questions at the town hall meeting about the natural gas drilling. He brings up fracking, the technique of breaking up shale and releasing the gas by creating cracks in the rock with huge drills and by forcing water, sand and chemicals into the shale to speed up the process. He’s read some pretty disturbing stuff on the internet and Steve, who had tied one on the night before, wasn’t in any shape to deliver answers.

To make matters worse, an idealistic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) blows into town to ally himself with Frank. He disseminates all sorts of information on the effects of the chemicals seeping up into the groundwater, with graphic photos of dead cows, brown land, dreams of five generations of farmers withered up and dead in a matter of months.

Things turn into a war of wills between Dustin and Steve. Dustin seems to have the upper hand – including with a teacher named Alice (DeWitt) who Steve has become sweet on. But for the battle of the hearts and minds of the town, Steve and Sue are losing the battle until a turning point comes. However, that moment of victory turns to ashes when Steve comes to a terrible realization that turns his viewpoint on what he has worked so hard to accomplish on its ear.

There are some political ramifications to the film and we might as well get those out of the way first. Detractors have proclaimed this a hatchet job on the natural gas industry, using fear tactics to unfairly portray fracking as being far more dangerous than it is, and using sensationalism and exaggerated cases to make its point. They also point to the participation of ImageNation as a producer. ImageNation is a production company based in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates which is of course an oil-producing region who would have a vested interest in creating a hatchet job on the production of U.S.-based natural gas.

There’s no doubt that the filmmakers have taken a stance of being against fracking and have used twisted the facts somewhat. While it is true that fracking has been connected with groundwater pollution and the release of methane gas into the atmosphere, it must be said that the kind of destruction depicted by the Dustin Noble character has yet to be determined to be a product of fracking exclusively (ordinary drilling for ground water well can also lead to methane gas release) and while I think it’s safe to say that there is some room for discussion as to the long-term effects of fracking on the environment and human health, it certainly isn’t the problem it is made out to be here, at least not in a way that could be proven in a court of law – at least not yet.

So keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, not a documentary and as such there are some things to recommend it. Damon is so darn likable that you end up rooting for him even though you know the company he works for are a bunch of jerks. He believes in his company with almost child-like faith; they wouldn’t lie to him and they certainly wouldn’t do anything immoral or wrong.

Damon has a strong supporting cast behind him. McDormand plays Sue with laconic strength and a sense of big sisterness that creates an appealing chemistry between the two. Sue does most of her parenting via Skype and being a city girl, has less connection to the people she’s dealing with than Steve does which makes it easier for her to separate herself. Krasinski gets Dustin’s character down note-perfect while Holbrook could do the sage/oracle role in his sleep but nonetheless does it here like a pro. Welliver does some of the best work of the veteran character actor’s  career as the proprietor of a general store who becomes sweet on Sue.

Van Sant enlists cinematographer Linus Sandgren to deliver some really pretty shots of the rural countryside. There’s often a misty quality adding to the allure. It’s all calculated to deliver to audiences the most nostalgic of visuals. In a sense, it becomes a special effect.

I will say that in an effort to show how dastardly and ruthless that corporate America will go the filmmakers go to absurd lengths. I think keeping things in the realm of reality would have been far more effective. Big corporations have been guilty of plenty of abuses to make them look villainous without having them resort to what they do here.

This is a decent enough movie as long as you go in realizing that they adhere to a specific point of view. Liberals may well embrace the doctrine here while conservatives may decry it. I’m on the fence about fracking; I certainly think there’s enough evidence warranting further study into the practice and maybe looking into ways to making it more safe. While I realize that in most instances fracking has caused zero environmental damage, there have been instances where it has not.

This is one of those movies where your political leanings may well determine how much you appreciate the movie. In all honesty the movie isn’t really stirring – at least not in the way that a great film is – nor is it so well-made that you can overlook the manipulative nature of the script. However the performances are such that you’ll forgive a lot of sins assuming you can get past your views on the environment.

REASONS TO GO: Bucolic cinematography. Damon plays his natural likability to a “T.” Welliver, McDormand, DeWitt, Holbrook and Krasinski deliver solid performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Stretches believability. Takes a controversial subject and turns it banal.

FAMILY VALUES:  There was enough foul language to net this an R rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon was originally slated to direct the movie but had to pull out because of time constraints and creative differences. He did remain aboard as an actor.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty darn mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up in the Air

MINIATURE HORSE LOVERS: Hal Holbrook’s Frank Yates character raises them and they make several appearance, often puzzling Steve and Sue as they see them in the field.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Game

Killing Them Softly


Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

(2012) Crime Dramedy (Weinstein) Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Sam Shepard, Slaine, Garret Dillahunt, Bella Heathcote, Linara Washington. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Tough economic times make people a little harder. They grow skittish at any sign of trouble; they are unforgiving of mistakes, even those not of your making. When people get scared, their tendency is to go into self-preservation mode with most decisions made on pure self-interest.

In an indeterminate American city (but looks somewhat like New Orleans), a poker game gets robbed by two masked men. These things happen, even while the 2008 Presidential election rages and speechifyin’ is underway from candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, while President George W. Bush tries to calm people down as the economic meltdown strikes, crippling our nation and casting doubt on our future.

Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate. You see, this poker game wasn’t just a poker game; it was run by the Mob and they don’t take kindly to being robbed. Driver (Jenkins), the go-between for the committee that runs the Mob in New Orleans and Jackie, is glum. Examples must be made but a bloodbath isn’t necessarily welcome.

It soon turns out that there are four people involved in the robbery; Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Curatola), the dry-cleaner and low-level thug who masterminded it, Frankie (McNairy) – who is Squirrel’s choice to execute the robbery (yes, Frankie and Johnny – cute, no?) – Russell (Mendelsohn), the Aussie heroin addict that Frankie brings in to assist and Markie Trattman (Liotta) who runs the game.

Now Markie is completely innocent; his problem is that five years earlier he had arranged to rob his own game. This is common knowledge and even though he had nothing to do with this robbery, the clientele think he does and they don’t want to play anymore. While the mobsters in charge would be satisfied with a beat down of Markie (and a fine beating is administered to him), Jackie contends that Markie has to be whacked. With all due haste.

Jackie is not keen on getting all of these hits done himself so he brings in Mickey (Gandolfini), a hitman who is having some personal issues not the least of which is alcoholism and sex addiction. He proves to be worthless so Jackie is on his own, having to carry out all the hits himself.

The movie is based on a book by George V. Higgins called Cogan’s Trade which was set in Boston in 1974. Dominik chose to bring the action to New Orleans in 2008 and there are some compelling reasons to do that – the economic hardship thread is one of the main issues in the movie. I haven’t read the book to be honest so I don’t know if that’s something that was part of the original novel (it may well could have been) but it certainly is something that the filmmakers hit you in the face with quite regularly.

This is a fine cast and Pitt does a pretty good job with the enigmatic Jackie Cogan. I like that you don’t get a sense that Jackie is invincible and smarter than everybody else. He makes mistakes. He screws things up. However, he thinks quickly on his feet and takes care of business and is ruthless as they come.

Gandolfini, a fine actor who tends to be cast in roles that aren’t dissimilar from his Tony Soprano role, has a couple of really nice scenes here. Jenkins and Liotta are essentially wasted in roles that they shouldn’t have accepted (yes, further career advice to professional actors from a blog critic – just what they needed).

The big problem here though is Dominik. He consistently throughout the film reminds you that there is a director and that he has an Artistic Sense. From the most annoying opening credits ever through a slow-mo death scene of which Sam Peckinpah would have said “Didn’t I do that already?” in scene after scene you are given odd camera angles, unnecessary montages, and other little tricks which is a director inserting himself into the film. Word of advice to any aspiring directors out there – stay the heck out of your movie. If you must insert yourself, do a cameo. Or cast yourself in a role. Otherwise, let your actors and crew do their jobs and trust them to tell the story without your help.

This is frankly quite a mess. It is destined to be Pitt’s lowest grossing movie of his career to date and for good reason; this is the kind of film that people walk out on, as several folks did at the screening we attended. Da Queen and I hung in there but we were frankly dissatisfied when we left. I like a good neo-noir as much as the next guy but sometimes, simpler is better.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt gamely does his best. There are a couple of terrific action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: A fatal case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a ton of bad language,  a surfeit of drug use, plenty of violence and gore as well as a few sexual references; fun for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Richard Jenkins character is never seen standing up in the movie. He is always seated in a car or at a bar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are surprisingly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burn After Reading

BARACK OBAMA LOVERS: .The film is set during the 2008 Presidential Election and features a number of speeches by the recently re-elected President.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: Color Me Kubrick

New Releases for the Week of November 30, 2012


November 30, 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY

(Weinstein) Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Sam Rockwell, Richard Jenkins, Bella Heathcoate, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn.  Directed by Andrew Dominik

Three not-terribly-smart guys rob a mob-protected poker game. This, as you might imagine, doesn’t sit too well with the mob and they hire a hitman to track down the perpetrators and restore order to the local criminal underworld. However as it often happens with the very foolish, not everything goes according to plan.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy

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

Anna Karenina

(Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald. Based on the epic Leo Tolstoy novel, a woman lives a life that most women in that time and that place would envy. But as she questions her heart, she begins to question her marriage and as her world is engulfed in tumult, so too the world around her changes forever in spasms of awful violence.

See the trailer, featurettes, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some sexuality and violence)

The Collection

(LD Entertainment) Josh Stewart, Emma Fitzpatrick, Christopher McDonald, Navi Rawat. When the daughter of a rich man is captured by a sadistic serial killer, he hires a group of mercenaries who in turn coerce the only man who escaped from the killer’s maze alive to return and lead them to the captured girl. This proves to be much easier said than done.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, grisly images, language and brief nudity)

Dragon

(Radius) Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu. A shy, retiring craftsman in a turn of the century Chinese village is forced to defend a shopkeeper from two violent gamblers. The police detective investigating the incident believes the craftsman is much more than he lets on. However, his investigation begins to draw the attention of the criminal underworld to the craftsman and his village.

See the trailer and a link to streaming the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Martial Arts

Rating: R (for violence)

A Late Quartet

(EntertainmentOne) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Jeremy Northam. When a beloved member of a world-renowned string quartet gets a medical diagnosis which means his career must come to an end, the long-suppressed squabbles of ego, competitive bickering, unrequited passions and hurt feelings comes out and threatens to destroy what a quarter century of friendship, hard work and harmony has established.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality)

The Other Son

(Cohen Media Group) Emmanuelle Devos, Pascal Elbe, Jules Sitruk, Mehdi Dehbi. Two young men – one Israeli, one Palestinian – discover that they were accidentally switched at birth. The revelation has unforeseen repercussions on not only the lives of the men but on their families as well.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (For a scene of violence, brief language and drug use)

Silent Night

(Anchor Bay) Malcolm McDowell, Jaime King, Donal Logue, Lisa Marie. A sheriff and his deputy chase a maniac dressed as Santa Claus who is murdering those he judges to be naughty. That list includes everything from porn and adultery to green…to lesser offenses. Loosely based on the Christmas horror classic Silent Night, Deadly Night.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

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

Talaash: The Answer Lies Within

(Reliance Big Pictures) Aamir Khan, Rani Mukherji, Kareena Kapoor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. When a popular movie star dies when his car plunges into murky waters, a detective investigating the case is charged with discovering whether it was an accident or murder. The closer he gets to the truth however the closer he gets to his own past which he will be forced to confront if he is to find out what really happened.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Argo


Argo

I just wish Ben Affleck had shed this much light upon his character.

(2012) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

In late 1979, a group of Iranian “students,” angered over the United States giving shelter to the dying former Shah (with some justification – the despotic Shah had many, many atrocities committed in his name) had taken over the U.S. Embassy (without justification – this was a violation of International law and was almost universally condemned) and held some 52 Americans for what would turn out to be a total of 444 days, accusing them of being spies rather than diplomats. Depending on your perspective, they had some justification for thinking that as the coup d’état that had placed the Shah in power in the first place had been organized by the British and American espionage agencies and had used the U.S. Embassy as something of a headquarters.

Six Americans escaped the embassy takeover – a fact that I’d forgotten and I consider myself a student of history – and hid in the residences of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and immigration officer John Shearsdown (although Shearsdown’s part in the affair is left out completely in the movie). Their ordeal is captured here.

The six Americans – Robert Anders (Donovan), Joe Stafford (McNairy), his wife Kathy (Bishe), Mark Lijek (Denham), his wife Cora (DuVall) and Lee Schatz (Cochrane) see the writing on the wall as the angry mob chants for blood outside the doors of the Embassy. Because they are in a side office with direct access to the street and lacking any sort of directive, they make a run for it. They wind up at Taylor’s (Garber) home after being refused safe harbor at the British and New Zealand embassies which in fact was untrue – that was a bit of license taken by the filmmakers to give a sense that the Americans had nowhere else to go to.

Back in the United States, the State Department is in an uproar over the hostage crisis. They feel, correctly, that the 52 hostages in the embassy are reasonably safe as they are in the public eye but the six who have been separated are in far more danger, and their presence is putting Canada in an awkward diplomatic position. CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) has brought in exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) into a meeting in which the State Department is exploring ways to get the six out safely but the ideas they come up with are ludicrous to say the least.

While watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on television, he hits upon the idea of giving the six cover stories as being part of a Canadian film crew doing a cheesy Star Wars rip-off movie using Iran as an exotic location. In order to add plausibility to the story, he enlists Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) to help create a production company. To lend credibility, producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) is also brought aboard. They stage a publicity event in which actors perform a reading of the script which gets enough press coverage that give credence to this being a “real” film.

Mendez enters Iran posing as a producer for the film and makes contact with the refugees. At first, there is some skepticism that this idea will even work – and Joe Stafford in particular has some trust issues for Mendez. Still, all of them realize that it is only a matter of time before the Iranian authorities realize that there are Americans missing from the embassy and once that happens, only a matter of time before they are found and that once they are found, their deaths will be extraordinarily bad.

As I said earlier, I’d let this incident – known as the Canadian Caper – fall into the recesses of my mind and I suspect most people my age are going to find the same effect. Younger audiences may not have any recollection of the incident at all and may know the hostage crisis as something they read about in modern American history or saw on the Discovery channel.

Affleck has really come into his own as a director; while The Town served notice of his skills both as a lead actor and director, Argo is likely to net him some serious Oscar consideration in the latter category. This is a movie that has you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and even if you remember the incident in question, you’ll still be right there. He also captures not only the look of the United States and Iran circa 1980 but also the feel of both; it is an era when disco still reigns and America is beginning to grow bloated and ineffectual. Still reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and a moribund economy, there is a feeling that our country had lost its relevance and in fact, its cojones.

There are some strong performances here. Garber always carries himself with a certain grace and as the courageous Canadian ambassador that’s in evidence a ‘plenty here. The Emmy-winning Cranston continues to make his presence felt in supporting roles in films; now that his “Breaking Bad” run is over he no doubt will be getting lots of feature roles thrown at him and here he has some really good moments. On the Hollywood side, Arkin and Goodman are pros that can be relied upon to deliver solid at worst and spectacular at best performances and both are more towards their best here.

Strangely, the one performance I found less than compelling was Affleck’s. There is a little distance in him; Mendez clearly cares very much about the fate of the six and this spurs him to actions he might ordinarily not have taken. Still, Affleck doesn’t show us very much about the man Tony Mendez is/was and that’s puzzling since the real Mendez was available for him to study from; it’s possible that Mendez himself is this hard to know as well.

Still, this is likely to wind up on some end of the year lists and quite deservedly so. This is one of the Fall’s must-see films and if you haven’t already caught it, you really should before it gets pushed out by all the Thanksgiving blockbusters that are already making their way into the multiplex. Even if you’re not old enough to remember the hostage crisis, you’ll appreciate one of the great thrillers of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly. Puts you on the edge of the seat even if you know how the affair concluded.

REASONS TO STAY: Affleck’s performance is a bit distant; I left the movie wondering who Tony Mendez was. Plays fast and loose with the facts.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language is pretty rough in places and there are some disturbing images, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, and Kyle Chandler who played him in the movie were both graduates of the University of Georgia.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

JIMMY CARTER LOVERS: The former President makes several appearances in the movie via archival footage.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Imposter