New Releases for the Week of March 10, 2017


KONG: SKULL ISLAND

(Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, Shea Whigham. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

An expedition made up of a team of scientists, soldiers and explorers go to a previously uncharted and unmapped island in the Pacific and find a world of nightmares. Hostile locals aren’t even the half of it; the island is infested with ferocious creatures that are so much further up the food chain than human beings that we might as well be lambs for the slaughter. The island is rules by Kong, a gigantic ape whose existence has ever only been legend. Now, the team – stranded on the island – has no choice but to rely on all their skills to make it home with the proof that the legend exists, or die trying.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, promos, B-Roll video and Premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)

Badrinath Ki Dulhania

(Fox Star) Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Gauhar Khan, Shweta Prasad. Two young people growing up in neighboring small towns seem to be polar opposites. Everything he believes in, she believes in the opposite. Even though they both recognize the good hearts in the other, their ideologies might just get in the way of a perfectly good romance.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

I Am Not Your Negro

(Magnolia) Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. When James Baldwin passed away in 1987 left unfinished was a manuscript for a book that examined the murders of three of his closest friends – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Director Raoul Peck has created a documentary using Baldwin’s still-timely prose and archival footage to remind us that the progress we have made in racial relations is not really as much as we thought.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity)

The Ottoman Lieutenant

(Paladin) Michael Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley. A plucky American nurse is charmed by a doctor working at a charitable hospital in one of Armenia’s most desolate areas. As it is 1919 and war is brewing not only in Europe but in the Ottoman Empire as well (as Turkey and Armenia were then called) her resolve to bring medical supplies and a much-needed truck into a dangerous place leads her into contact with a dashing young lieutenant in the Ottoman army – and a romantic triangle that threatens to explode even as war does.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some war violence)

Cop Car


The beginning of a bad idea.

The beginning of a bad idea.

(2015) Thriller (Focus World) Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Sean Hartley, Kyra Sedgwick (voice), Loi Nguyen, Sit Lenh, Chuck Kull, Thomas Coates, Justin Barr, Adam Barr, Kathleen Bentley. Directed by Jon Watts

Actions have consequences. We learn this at an early age, usually because we’ve done something foolish or wrong. The consequences are almost always some form of punishment; having a favorite toy or device taken away, being grounded, made to stand in a corner (if we are very young) or maybe being sent to bed early without desert (horrors!). Of course, the more egregious the offense, the worse the punishment.

Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) are a couple of nine or ten year old kids who have decided to run away from their Colorado Springs subdivision. They are traipsing along a vast prairie (being kids, they haven’t particularly thought this through, having only a Slim Jim to sustain them and no water), Travis saying an expletive and Harrison repeating them. It’s all fun and games until they get to a specific word which Harrison is loathe to repeat. Even kids have their limits.

Then they come across something cooler than an F-bomb – an abandoned cop car. At first, the boys timidly run up to the car and having touched it, scurry back fearfully. like some bizarre ritual of counting coup. Eventually they work up the courage to get inside and of course at first it’s all play acting and fun…but then they find the keys.

Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) is not so amused when he returns to find his car gone. You see, he was in the midst of burying a body and had come to fetch a second from the trunk of his car. Having his homicidal activities discovered just would not do. So he goes out to find the pilferers of his official vehicle, while the kids, blissfully ignorant of what’s going on, go on the joy ride of a lifetime.

Watts, who on the strength of his efforts here won himself the director’s seat for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, takes a story that’s been essentially told before, strips it down to its essence, and gives us one taut, well-made thriller. The boys’ ignorance of how things work – they have no clue how to operate a car and make some pretty significant mistakes because of their inexperience – helps keep the tension level high. There’s a sequence when they’re trying to figure out how to fire the guns, peering down the barrels of the firearms and you are absolutely certain that one of the kids is going to get their heads blown off. Da Queen was literally viewing that sequence through her clenched fingers. She wasn’t the only one, either.

It helps that the two juvenile actors he cast are completely natural. They are full of bravado, crazy naive, and bonded together like only little boys can be. They are out on an adventure and are very much, as little boys are, shoot first ask questions later sorts. As I mentioned earlier, thinking things through is not their strong suit. While Travis is clearly the ringleader, the true strength belongs to Harrison – again, as is often the case with little boys. They’re like any little boy you might meet in your neighborhood; a little less supervised, a little wilder, but nonetheless recognizable. That helps the movie a great deal the longer it goes on and is one of the strengths of the film overall.

Bacon is a reliable presence. This is the kind of role he’s done before. The actions of the sheriff are never fully explained; we see him at one point flushing an impressive amount of cocaine down the toilet so we assume that it’s a drug thing, but why he has the two men set for a dirtnap is anybody’s guess. We do know that he’s a vicious and clever sort, not above putting a civilian in the line of fire if it is to his advantage; we are used to our policemen being concerned with our own safety so it never occurs to us that the orders we are getting are not given with that in mind. In some ways, this movie mirrors the public’s changing perception of the police. It’s not that there haven’t been bad cops in the movies – there have been bad cops in the movies as long as there have been movies – but it’s the way we look at this bad cop that’s different.

A couple of times during the movie it did feel like some of the sequences felt a little bit forced in order to advance the story; that happens a lot in these sorts of films although in fairness less often here than in other examples of the genre. There’s an encounter with a motorcycle cop that is very well-written from a tension point of view, but it seems to exist in the story only to show us how clever the Sheriff is. A good rule of thumb for filmmakers is that if a scene isn’t germane to the overall story other than to illustrate a character’s personality trait, it probably doesn’t belong in the movie.

Sure, some of the plot points are a bit contrived but for the most part this is a movie that feels like it could happen and maybe it already has. As thrillers go this one is well done, not quite to the level of last year’s Blue Ruin but certainly in the same ballpark. This is a well-constructed, well-executed edge of your seat entertainment that deserves a spot on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Nice tension. Good performances by the kids who behave like kids.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit contrived in places. Bacon has played this role before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence, a scene of drug usage and kid peril throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the dispatcher is done by Kyra Sedgwick. In addition, the Quinlan County on the side of the cop car doesn’t exist in Colorado or any other state.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your cable or satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Evidence
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Grandma

New Releases for the Week of September 11, 2015


The VisitTHE VISIT

(Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Patch Darragh. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A brother and sister go to rural Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents. At first things are pretty much as you might expect; and older couple happy to see their grandkids but the longer they stay, the stranger the behavior of the elderly people begins to seem. Soon they realize that something sinister is going on and their chances of getting home alive are worsening but they can’t get their mom to believe them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard  (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity and for brief language)

90 Minutes in Heaven

(Goldwyn) Kate Bosworth, Hayden Christensen, Dwight Yoakam, Rhoda Griffis. A man in a car accident is declared dead and left under a tarp before being transported to a hospital. He experiences heaven until a pastor’s prayers bring him back to the living. Now in excruciating pain, he fights to regain some kind of normalcy while pining for what waited for him in heaven. Eventually he wrote a book on his experiences which became a New York Times bestseller.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Amstar Lake Mary, AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

The Challenger

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Clarke Duncan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kent Moran, Justin Hartley. An ex-boxer trying to make it as an auto mechanic is simply not making ends meet. When he and his adopted mother are evicted, he is forced back into the one thing that he’s been struggling against – boxing. With the help of a legendary trainer, he will do whatever it takes to keep he and his adopted mom off of the streets. This is the late Michael Clarke Duncan’s last film.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: PG-13 (for some sports violence)

Cop Car

(Focus World) Kevin Bacon, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Kyra Sedgwick. Two young boys discover what seems to be an abandoned police vehicle in a secluded glade and decide to take it for a joy ride. This incurs the wrath of a brutal county sheriff and leads to disastrous consequences.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language, violence and brief drug use)

Learning to Drive

(Broad Green) Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber. A high-powered and self-obsessed New York book editor undergoing a divorce decides to become more self-sufficient. She signs up to take driving lessons so that she can visit her daughter in college in Vermont. Her instructor is Darwan, an extremely conscientious teacher and his patience inspires her to open up with him about her deeper problems. In turn, her volatile feelings about her disintegrating marriage bring out some feelings in him about his own impending nuptials.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Meru

(Music Box)  Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer. Among mountain climbers, Conrad Anker is a legend. It is also considered that the Himalayan peak Meru is virtually unclimbable, towering 21,000 feet into the sky with the final portion being a unique shark’s fin formation that is nearly vertical and requires a different set of climbing skills than the first portion of the mountain, requiring an entirely different set of gear, all of which has to be lugged up the mountain. Anker and his team undergo the harshest conditions that mother nature has to offer, heartbreaking defeats and terrible tragedies just to make yet another assault on Meru. But can anyone climb the unclimbable mountain?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

The Perfect Guy

(Screen Gems) Michael Ealy, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Charles S. Dutton. After a painful breakup with her boyfriend, a beautiful young professional woman meets a handsome and charming stranger. At first he seems like a gift from heaven, but when her ex-boyfriend re-enters the picture and tries to win her back, the perfect guy suddenly changes into someone she doesn’t know – and someone completely terrifying.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, menace, sexuality and brief strong language)

Catch .44


Now, that's what I call a catch!

Now, that’s what I call a catch!

(2011) Action/Suspense (Anchor Bay) Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll, Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Shea Whigham, Jimmy Lee Jr., Brad Dourif, Jill Stokesberry, P.J. Marshall, Dan Silver, Michael Rosenbaum, Edrick Browne, Christopher Alan Weaver, Amanda Bosley, Ivory Dortch, Kevin Beard, Shelby Schneider, Nikita Kahn. Directed by Aaron Harvey

Some movies look like a good idea on paper. However, once the finished product gets out there, it doesn’t quite measure up. I suspect Catch .44 was something like that.

How else do you explain the outstanding cast for what turned out to be a direct-to-video turkey? The premise, which might have caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye once upon a time before he decided to reinvent the Western involves three gorgeous girls straight out of a Russ Meyers grindhouse movie, three badass chicks in a diner who have a mission for the man they’re employed by – Mel (Willis), an utter irredeemable lowlife drug dealer.

Things go South in a hurry, bullets fly and bodies drop. Whitaker shows up as a hit man to turn the Mexican standoff into a three-way. Who will walk out of the diner alive? Will anybody care which one does? The answer to the latter is likely “no.”

The oddball thing is that the main action of the movie occurs in the first five or ten minutes, then the rest of the movie is essentially a flashback to tell you how all the characters got there which, half an hour in, you’ll slowly begin to realize that rather than using the flashback as a means of giving the characters depth, there’s just a lot of pointless meandering going on and by that time you’ll likely want to switch the DVD player off. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs utilized much the same kind of format but was much more successful at utilizing it than Catch .44 did.

Harvey has a pretty decent visual sense – the movie looks good and he clearly was able to line up a top of the line cast. What he didn’t do was motivate them to perform up to their level of stardom. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and Willis one of the most charismatic stars of the last 20 years, but both of them seem to be sleepwalking. Whitaker affects a nearly indecipherable Spanish/Cajun accent and Willis essentially plays the standard Bruce Willis character, although there’s a surreal moment when someone plays “Respect” from his 80s attempt at rock and roll stardom, The Return of Bruno.

I did like Akerman in the lead role, and to a lesser extent Reed and Woll; Reed’s turn is a bit more sexual than the other two but frankly the script gives us little hint as to who these women are. That doesn’t give us a whole lot of incentive to identify with any of them.

I like the idea of three badass girls in a diner dealing with a deal gone wrong. We need movies like that, but we need good movies like that. Tarantino could have made a masterpiece out of this, as could a number of like-minded directors; Robert Rodriguez, for example. Sadly, this is just a forgettable bit of action fluff that starts out promising, goes nowhere and ends up in the dollar bin at Wal*Mart quicker than you can say “Is that all there is?”

WHY RENT THIS: Three beautiful girls. Nice premise. Great-looking, cinematically speaking..
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit clumsy in its execution. Most of the cast looks like they’re just there for the paycheck. Confusing storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of violence and foul language as well as a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Mara and Lizzy Caplan were both originally cast but both dropped out of the movie, to be replaced by Reed and Woll, respectively.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unknown box office on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Killing Jar
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: In Bruges

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

(2014) Documentary (Naked Edge/City Light) Mark DeFriest, Scoot McNairy (voice), Shea Whigham (voice), John Middleton, Robert Berland, Bonnie DeFriest, Brenda C., Gabriel London. Directed by Gabriel London

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Here in this country, I think it is fairly evident that our prison system is in need of drastic reform.

Case in point, Mark DeFriest. He was a 19-year-old kid when his father passed away, promising him that he could have his tools. Mark went ahead and took them. The problem was that the estate was still in probate; technically he didn’t own the tools yet. His stepmother called the cops, Mark panicked and ran. He was given four years for taking tools which had been promised him too early. It kind of seems to me that he could have gotten off without doing prison time, but far be it for me to second guess the wonderful Florida justice system.

DeFriest has a real issue with authority; he doesn’t do well when told what to do, where to be, how to live. Prison is definitely not the kind of place a person like that wants to be in. So, DeFriest made a break for it. He managed to actually get away too, for several days before being caught. Of course, time was added to his sentence for that little adventure. In fact, there were thirteen little adventures in all (to date). He successfully escaped in about half of them. The media took to calling him “Houdini.”

His lawyer, John Middleton, suspected that Mark had some sort of mental illness. He told horror stories of being gang raped and of horrible beatings, most of which could be corroborated by medical personnel. But there were also other things. DeFriest is a very smart guy, able to create keys that actually worked out of paper, and created zip guns from material commonly available around the prison. He also made impressive drawings and artwork from inside his cell, using the inside foil of potato chip bags. However, there was also extreme paranoia and what Middleton thought might be some psychosis.

The courts agreed to have Mark undergo competency testing. Four of the six psychologists agreed that Mark wasn’t mentally competent enough by the definition accepted by the Florida Department of Corrections. Two, however, believed he was; one of them was Robert Berland who had the most contact with him at Florida State Hospital’s Forensic Wing. It was his recommendation that the parole board accepted.

In the meantime Mark grew darker and more driven by despair. His marriage crumbled. A new one began, with Bonnie whom he met through correspondence. Bonnie has been a rock for DeFriest as his lawyer continued to advocate for his release as the years piled up and Mark’s misbehavior and Disciplinary Referrals (DRs as they are referred to) piled up as well. His parole date was extended, extended and extended some more. It soon reached 2085 having been sentenced to four years in 1980.

Dr. Berland would have a change of heart; initially believing that Mark was faking his symptoms, he eventually came to realize that DeFriest’s difficulties were genuine. He has become one of the stauncher advocates for the release of the prisoner and has since diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid delusions, all of which can be treated with medication.

DeFriest’s story is a nightmare made flesh. His anti-authoritarian nature is not exactly tailor-made for imprisonment. Minor infractions ranging from possession of contraband to misuse of phone privileges piled up, continuing to add to his sentence. In his 34 year incarceration, 27 of them were spent in solitary confinement in the notorious “X Wing” of Florida State Penitentiary  where he was the only non-violent offender.

The film primarily focuses on the fight of his lawyer, his wife and Dr. Berland to have the ridiculous sentence pared down and get Mark declared mentally incompetent. London uses some pretty impressive animated sequences to illustrate some of the events that occurred in DeFriest’s long incarceration; London cites Waltz With Bashir as an inspiration and in fact the animation resembles that film stylistically.

DeFriest himself is a pretty compelling character; he is a natural-born storyteller and has a pretty good sense of humor which I would imagine you would have to have in order to survive what he has survived. Judging from the horrible beatings he took (the results of which are sometimes displayed photographically) it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least some brain trauma that may have contributed to what might have already been there from the beginning.

One of the things this movie is most successful at and what makes it so compelling is that it raises, at least in my mind, what the penal system is for. Does it exist to rehabilitate those who have broken society’s laws and help them emerge better citizens, or is it there to punish those who have transgressed? While surely there is an element of punishment involved, is that all we want it to be? A way to warehouse those who don’t play well with others?

The movie is a little less successful in some of its storytelling elements; I never got a clear picture as to what prompted Dr. Berland’s reversal of opinion which has been crucial in the defense’s argument to get Mark out of prison and into psychiatric care. However, the issues I had were of a fairly minor nature other than the one I just mentioned; most should find the story easily followed.

Our country currently has the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any non-dictatorship on Earth. That’s not a statistic we want to be number one in. Imprisoning our criminals has become a lucrative business for privatized prisons (although DeFriest isn’t in one of those) which compounds the issues we have. Prison rape is a real problem as is prison violence. When you put men already prone to lawbreaking in a closed system and don’t give them much to occupy their time, violence becomes inevitable. It’s a self-defeating circle.

This isn’t an indictment of any individual. Even the parole board is essentially doing their job given the information they’re receiving. This is an indictment of the system. Mark DeFriest is no angel, but he remains incarcerated today as of this writing. Justice has been denied him and in many ways, he’s a victim of his own mental illness.

London’s restraint in telling the story is admirable; while he clearly understands that this is a system that needs to be fixed, he doesn’t affix the blame on anyone in particular. He’s just calling for changes to be made that benefit not only the prisoners but society at large. How we treat our prisoners, going back to Dostoyevsky, is a reflection of a society’s values. How our society at this time in history will be judged will largely be reflected in that. Perhaps if we start as a society injecting more compassion into our penal systems we will actually start turning out rehabilitated felons rather than men who come out even more dangerous and disillusioned than when they went in.

While the theatrical run for this film has essentially ended although you can go to the movie’s website and contact the filmmakers for one-off screenings or theatrical runs if you own a theater, the film will be airing on the Showtime premium cable channel in the United States starting tomorrow. While there’s no word when this will be available for streaming on iTunes or Amazon or on DVD, this is a documentary worth seeking out particularly if you are interested in issues relating to justice. Certainly it’s an early contender for my 2015 Top Ten list.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story that invites the viewer to rethink their views on the modern prison system. DeFriest an engaging character. Very much a legal thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit vague on Berland’s change of mind.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeFriest wrote a letter to his wife describing the murder of Florida State Penitentiary inmate Frank Valdes; it was eventually used as evidence against the prison guards who were accused (and later acquitted) of the crime. Because they were acquitted, DeFriest was moved to an out-of-state penitentiary for his own safety.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: West Memphis Three
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Red Army

New Releases for the Week of March 13, 2015


CinderellaCINDERELLA

(Disney) Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgard, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Rob Brydon. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

An orphaned girl, cruelly abused at the hands of her stepmother and her two vicious daughters, dreams of meeting a kindred soul and seems to have found one in the form of Kit, an apprentice at the palace. But secrets abound; Kit is really the Prince, he is head over heels for the girl and the Grand Duke plots with the evil stepmother to keep the two apart. Fortunately, the courageous and kind young girl has a fairy godmother on her side and with pumpkin and mice transforms the girl into a beautiful young woman.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements)

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest

(Naked Edge/City Drive) Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham. Sentenced to four years for a petty crime, DeFriest finds his sentence being extended after escape attempts and generally bad behavior. But now his four year stretch has become twenty and as he comes up for yet another parole hearing, hard questions about our penal system begin to surface.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Red Army

(Sony Classics) Scotty Bowman, Vlacheslav Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak, Ken Kurtis (voice). In the 1970s and 1980s, hockey wasn’t just the national sport in the Soviet Union, it was an obsession. The best team in the world was the Red Army team and it formed the basis for the formidable Soviet National team. The captain of that team took exception to the brutal training methods and often heartless treatment of its players and stood up to the system, going from national hero to political enemy in the process but paving the way for a revolution that would transform a nation and change the whole world.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG (for thematic material and language)

Run All Night

(Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent D’Onofrio. A prolific hit man for the mob knows he is at the tail end of his career, and as the sins of his past begin to catch up to him, he takes solace in the bottom of a bottle. He remains more or less protected by his boss who is his closest friend. However, when his boss’s son attempts to kill his own estranged son, he is forced to make a choice between his biological family and the Family. On the run with his boy, he has a single night to keep them both alive and to somehow make things right.

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: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong violence, language including sexual references, and some drug use)

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

American Hustle


The 70s - the sexy decade.

The 70s – the sexy decade.

(2013) Drama (Columbia) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elizabeth Rohm, Robert De Niro, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp, Steve Gagliastro, Christy Scott Cashman, Becki Dennis. Directed by David O. Russell

Ah, the 70s. The Disco decade; home to the bellbottoms generation in which fashion and hair were so hideous that even the 80s looks more reasonable. The era in which the music scene was so stodgy that punk had to be invented to kick start rock and roll from a moribund existence (although to be honest I’ve always thought the accusation a bit unfair). In movies it was the time of the anti-hero when Travis Bickle, Dirty Harry and Billy Jack roamed the silver screen. Rodney Dangerfield might have said that the 70s don’t get no respect.

It was also the time of ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that netted corrupt politicians amid accusations of entrapment. The latest from Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is loosely based on that affair. Here, manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has small time con man and dry cleaner Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) by the shorties. Irv has been selling fake loans to desperate businessmen and pocketing the fees. He is aided by his sexy girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Adams) who affects an English accent although she’s from Albuquerque.

DiMaso has Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) in his crosshairs and thinks that Irv and Sydney can sweet talk the mayor into accepting money from an Arab sheikh to help rebuild Atlantic City and erect the casinos that he knows can turn the city around. While the FBI doesn’t have any sheikhs sitting around headquarters with nothing to do, Irv knows where to get one and it looks like he might just get out of this thing okay.

But things quickly start spiraling out of control. Irv’s wife – yes he has a wife too – Rosalyn (Lawrence) gets wind of what’s going on and knows enough to really throw a monkey wrench in the works. Carmine also brings in a mobster (De Niro) from Miami who is no fool and doesn’t play nice if he thinks that things are snarky and brother, nothing is more snarky than what’s going down in this hustle. To make matters worse, Carmine turns out to be a pretty decent guy who only wants to help the people of Atlantic City; he’s just willing to take an inadvisable shortcut to do it and Irv starts to get second thoughts about nailing him.

The story is more parable than plot having to do with control and power and how it corrupts, but that’s really not what the movie’s about. What the movie is really about is the characters and Russell may well be the best ensemble director in Hollywood right now. He has collected an impressive group of actors, some of the best working today.

Nobody throws themselves into  a role as physically as Bale. He gained some 50 pounds for this role and affected a slouch (which led to him being treated for two herniated discs) as well as a hideous combover which all became affectations of the character which helped sum up Irv in just a glance. Irv is wary about the world and doesn’t trust anyone and with good cause. He’s smart, smart enough to know that while he’s smarter than most people he’s not as smart as everyone and that the best strategy for any good con is to have a way out. Bale makes this character who might easily have become just another lowlife loser in lesser hands into a sympathetic almost-a-hero.

In fact, all of the characters wind up gaining a certain amount of sympathy from the audience which is quite a feat, even the somewhat loathsome DiMaso. Cooper understands that Richie is desperate to become somebody and lives in fear that he will be forever a non-entity. That fear drives him, makes him take unrealistic chances and to leap when he should look. It also creates a rage within him, a rage that he takes out on his hapless boss (C.K.).

Lawrence has become one of the most capable actresses in Hollywood over the last few years and while her role here is clearly a supporting one, she has one scene that is absolutely breathtaking. Just listen for the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and you’ll understand. Rosalyn is a Jersey princess who comes off as plenty dumb but is a lot smarter in the end than anyone might think. She also rocks the lame dress you see in the poster.

Me though I thought the performance of the film belonged to Amy Adams. Dressed in sultry low-cut dresses she’s always threatening to fall out of, this is a strong brassy character but inside she is a frightened little girl holding off the cruelty of life with an English accent. When that vulnerability shows through as it does on a few occasions, Adams just rips it up. I don’t know that she’ll get an Oscar nomination for this one but she not only richly deserves one, I think she might just have put together a performance that beats out Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity. It’s neck and neck in my book for best actress of the year.

With all that going for it, you’d think I’d have loved the movie but curiously I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot, respected it a great deal but I just didn’t fall in love with the movie. It didn’t connect with me somehow; maybe it’s the length which seems to drag on a bit. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it – there are elements of black comedy here as well as a scam movie. I admire that Russell stayed true not only to the setting but the way movies were made in that era. From a strictly craft point of view this is excellent filmmaking.

So take my lack of enthusiasm for what it’s worth. Sometimes you see a movie you admire but you just don’t connect with it for whatever reason. It happens. I get the sense my wife loved the movie more than I did but I don’t think she was all that enthusiastic in her love either. In any case from my point of view this is a movie that inspires respect and admiration more than devotion. Take from that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: High level performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Too long. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect with it.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a ton of swearing, some brief violence and some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming in Boston was delayed because of the Boston Marathon bombing; afterwards Adams, Cooper, Bale and Renner all visited victims of the attack in area hospitals.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iceman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Apocalypto

The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo di Caprio knows he's getting an Oscar nomination.

Leonardo di Caprio knows he’s getting an Oscar nomination.

(2013) True Life Drama (Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Miloti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, MacKenzie Meehan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

We are all aware that there is something broken on Wall Street; it is often depicted as a kind of testosterone-infused drug-fueled locker room in which over-stimulated men essentially rob America blind. While there are plenty of honest stockbrokers, there is some truth to the notion that the culture of greed exists.

Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) is the poster boy for that culture. He starts off as an ambitious stockbroker, taken under the wing of a successful broker (McConaughey) who initiates him in the cult of screw you – making the customer money is not the first order of business. Getting his fees are. And keeping those fees coming in even if that means selling some poor schmuck stocks he can’t afford or worse, stocks the broker knows are going to lose money.

Belfort quickly realizes that the real money is to be made in owning his own firm and that selling penny stocks were a vastly underserved market in which the brokers can make a huge amount of money in a short amount of time. With partner Donny Azoff (Hill) Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a literal boiler room where brokers make high-pressure sales of penny stocks.

Belfort found that defrauding his clientele was far more profitable for him personally than actually working for it and soon finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. Of course, men with more money than they know what to do with usually find things to do with it – drugs, prostitutes, a luxury yacht, a trophy wife. In Belfort’s case, the latter turns out to be Naomi (Robbie), a Jersey shore princess and model.

As Belfort’s shenanigans grow more egregious he and his firm attracts the attention of the FBI in the person of dogged agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Constantly in a drugged haze of cocaine and Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff decide to launder their money and use drug dealer Brad (Bernthal) and a loathsome Swiss banker (Dujardin) to do it. But as those who ride too high will tell you, the fall is inevitable and not very pretty when it comes.

Scorsese has delivered another masterpiece in his storied career. Frequent collaborator (this is the fifth movie they’ve done together) di Caprio is at his best. His manic portrayal of Belfort is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination later this month and is at the moment the odds on favorite to win the gold.

He is mesmerizing every moment he’s on the screen and this with a character that is basically a douchebag. He basically thumbs his nose at everything decent and does everything to the point where you could charitably call him evil and yet di Caprio is so good that we can’t turn away. Belfort is a train wreck of a human being and di Caprio keeps our eyes glued on him.

Hill also delivers what might be a superior performance to his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. His Azoff is smarmy, smart but not as smart as Belfort and a bit cowardly. He is the kind of guy who wants to live the high life but doesn’t have the brains or the charisma to get it himself so he rides on Belfort’s coattails. At the end of the day, Hill makes this guy less of a rat and more of a flawed human being whose mantra of every man for himself informs his every decision.

I’ve noticed that conservative viewers tend to look at this movie as a liberal Hollywood hatchet job on Wall Street so those who tend to get their information from Fox News might want to give this one a skip. While the excesses here seem over-the-top, they are all documented – by the real Jordan Belfort himself. I must also add that while Belfort bilked his customers out of more than a billion dollars, he did go to jail for it. Some of the Wall Street bigwigs from established firms stole far more from their clients and damn near bankrupted our economy yet none of them are in jail. I guess it’s all in who you know.

Part of the downfall for Belfort is his drug use and that is depicted pretty graphically here. If the sight of di Caprio snorting a line off of a naked woman’s breasts is uncomfortable for you, if the idea of seeing the results of Quaalude intoxication makes you queasy, this might not be the movie for you. I must admit that a scene late in the movie in which Belfort and Azoff take some powerful Quaaludes that don’t have a reaction in the normal amount of time turns into one of the funniest scenes of the year. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about laughing at it; watching a drug addict having a seizure after an overdose sounds cruel but I suppose if you can’t laugh at someone who has to roll their way down a staircase and only able to communicate in a kind of hooting grunt, who can you laugh at?

Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there’s a hint of controversy involved and the movie definitely isn’t for conservative Wall Street apologists. However for everyone else, there is something to be said for watching someone playing so fast and so loose without a care for the consequences of his actions get his which leads to my next point; if I have one gripe about the movie it’s that there isn’t anything about the very real human consequences to Belfort’s clients. That aspect might illustrate the real tragedy of the Jordan Belfort story in that the people who paid for his crimes and continue to do so never really get a face.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio and Scorsese hit another one out of the park. Hysterically funny in places, heartbreaking in others.

REASONS TO STAY: Belfort is such a scumbag it’s really hard to identify with him let alone root for him.

FAMILY VALUES:  More drug use than you thought humanly possible, graphic nudity and sex, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush and even a little violence for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Footage of the actual beach party in the Hamptons depicted here with the real Jordan Belfort can be found on YouTube.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boiler Room

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Punk Singer