New Releases for the Week of August 19, 2011


August 19, 2011

FRIGHT NIGHT

(DreamWorks) Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin, Toni Collette, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Chris Sarandon, Lisa Loeb, Dave Franco. Directed by Craig Gillespie

Some high school seniors have it all, but Charlie has all that plus a vampire living next door. Of course, nobody will believe him so Charlie decides he’ll need to take out that infringing bloodsucker by himself before his mom and girlfriend become the latest victim of his next-door monster. Of course if all vampires looked like Colin Farrell, I don’t think Charlie’s women would mind being his victim all that much.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Vampire Horror

Rating: R (for bloody horror violence and language including some sexual references)

Conan the Barbarian

(Lionsgate) Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan. From the pages of Robert E. Howard’s legendary fantasy series strides a new version of the muscle-bound hero. Now wearing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sandals is Momoa in the titular role. Seeking revenge on the warlord who massacred his village and killed his parents, Conan finds himself embroiled in a war with the forces of evil with the very survival of Hyboria at stake.

See the trailer, promos, an interview, a featurette and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity)

One Day

(Focus) Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson, Ken Stott. On the day of their college graduation, two young people meet. The evolution of their relationship is examined by returning to see how the two are faring in their lives on the anniversary of their initial meeting – for twenty years in a row.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, partial nudity, language, some violence and substance abuse)

Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World

(Dimension) Jessica Alba, Jeremy Piven, Joel McHale, Antonio Banderas. The children of a famous spy-hunting reporter don’t get along with their new stepmom. That’s before they find out she’s a retired secret agent, one of the best ever. When a new megalomaniacal villain surfaces looking to conquer time itself, the kids and their now-unretired mom must face their foe to save the world – with a little help from the original Spy Kids themselves.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Family Espionage Fantasy

Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)

Avatar


Avatar

A gunship moves through one of the majestic landscapes of Pandora.

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

A race with superior technology has a responsibility to protect those races that are less advanced than they. However, the history of humankind has shown that to rarely be the case in those sorts of situations.

In the year 2154, Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) was a grunt whose spine was injured during a campaign in Venezuela, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. His identical twin brother was a scientist who had been leaving for the wondrous world of Pandora, an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, as part of the avatar program. The journey was supposed to take five years of cryo-sleep just to arrive but it would never happen; Jake’s brother was killed during a mugging.

Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. The planet is full of flora and fauna, much of which is aggressive and lethal. There is an indigenous race of humanoids called the Na’Vi, a race of 10-12 foot tall tailed bipeds that have a great deal in common with Native Americans. Even their language sounds similar.

Humans communicate with the Na’Vi through avatars, genetically engineered creatures utilizing human and Na’Vi DNA that humans link through a machine that transfers the human’s mind into the avatar allowing the human to experience what the avatar sees, tastes and touches. The Na’Vi call the avatars “dreamwalkers” because when the humans return to their own bodies, the avatars lose consciousness and appear to sleep.

Because avatars are so hideously expensive, it is determined that Jake will take his brother’s place on Pandora despite the fact that he has had no training in an avatar and is abysmally ignorant of Pandora and its dangers. When Jake arrives on Na’Vi he finds a bit of a power struggle going on in the human fortress-encampment between the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), a cantankerous botanist, and Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), a gung-ho ex-Marine employed as a mercenary by the RDA Corporation and its smarmy representative Parker Selfridge (Ribisi) – notice the similarity to the word “selfish” here – who are after a rare mineral called, somewhat irreverently, unobtanium. One particular Na’Vi settlement sits on a particularly rich deposit of the stuff.

The Na’Vi don’t trust the humans and with good reason. The humans look around Pandora and see a dangerous world whose resources exist for their exploitation for corporate gain. The Na’Vi sees a living world that is beautiful and inter-connected.

Jake goes on his first mission into the forest accompanied by fellow rookie Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Augustine and immediately gets himself into trouble, winding up being chased by a rhino-like creature (with the head of a hammerhead shark) into a chasm where he is separated from his fellow avatars. Day turns into night and the forest becomes even more dangerous as a pack of black canine-like creatures attacks Jake. He is saved by one of the Na’Vi, the beautiful Neytiri (Saldana) who has nothing but contempt for the avatars,who as she puts it walk through the forest like ignorant children and “see nothing.” However, when a jellyfish-like lifeform becomes curious about Jake, Neytiri interprets this as a sign and takes Jake to their village.

There her father Eytukan (Studi), the clan chief and her mother Moat (Pounder), the shaman of the clan, make the determination that Jake should be trained as a hunter for the clan. Tsu-tey (Alonso), the clan’s best hunter who is also heir to the position of chief and as thus betrothed to Neytiri, is skeptical that this can be done.

My son characterized the plot as “Dances With Aliens” and he has a point. There are many similarities between the plots of Avatar and Dances With Wolves but this definitely has its own take on it. The conflict between the needs of the corporation and the world of the Na’Vi eventually come to a head. There are some intense battle sequences but in all honesty, these are not why you come to see this movie.

Never before in motion picture history has so complete an alien environment ever been created. The look of Pandora is astonishing and realistic. It is certainly alien with some familiar elements; lush vegetation, grasses and trees and many unusual flora and fauna. There is literally no way to take it all in with a single viewing which is what the filmmakers intended undoubtedly.

Some movies become event movies simply on the basis of hype and a precious few because they are game changers. Star Wars was one of the latter and so is Avatar. This is a movie that many will see simply because everyone will be talking about it and they want to get in on the conversation. Director Cameron has once again proven himself one of the most visionary directors of his generation. While some think of him as the director of Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time, his legacy may rest with Avatar. This will literally change how movies get made.

The acting is surprisingly good. Weaver has made a career of delivering strong, capable performances and her Grace Augustine may rank with Ripley as the character most associated with her in the future. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that has already landed him the lead in high-profile movies and undoubtedly will continue to do so. He has all the qualities to be a big star and while his performance in Terminator Salvation hints at it, he delivers big time here. Michelle Rodriguez, an actress I’ve never really connected with before, is superb as a sympathetic pilot.

The movie runs two hours and forty minutes which is a bit long; the 3D glasses are bulky and uncomfortable and I wound up with a sore nose where the glasses rested. I have to admit that Cameron’s strong point is not dialogue and some of the characters utter lines that made me groan out loud. His points on corporate greed and its role in wiping out the ecology of our own world, the treatment of aboriginal races and the general irresponsibility of humankind are well-taken but at times he uses a 2×4 to whack us over the head with it when an ostrich feather would have done the trick.

Reviews for this movie are almost superfluous other than to pile on superlatives for a movie that richly deserves them. Avatar may be the closest thing to a visit to an alien world that most of us will get to experience in our lifetimes, but I’m sure most people have either already seen it or were planning to see it anyway without my endorsement. Still, count me in among the endorsers of this film; widely-hyped, intensely scrutinized and greatly anticipated, it delivers as one of the year’s very best.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals, the visuals, the visuals. This is a detailed, realistic world that has an internal logic. Even the elements of the fantastic make sense.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is probably about 20-30 minutes too long and can cause a bit of sensory overload at times. Some of the film’s points get hammered in a bit too strongly.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair bit of violence and some language, but pretty much okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The avatars have five fingers and toes while the Na’Vi have four.

HOME OR THEATER: This absolutely must be experienced on the big screen, preferably in 3D and in the IMAX format if you have a theater equipped for it nearby.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: World Trade Center

Public Enemies


Public Enemies

Johnny Depp, unphased that they didn't spring for a convertible, finds another means of open-air driving.

(Universal) Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, James Russo, Bill Camp. Directed by Michael Mann.

The difference between a hero and a folk hero is often vast. Folk heroes are often regarded as villains in their time, becoming favorites long after their deaths. Sometimes, they are terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries.

John Dillinger (Depp) qualifies as a folk hero more than a traditional hero. He robs banks yes, but he has a certain ethical code; the movie starts out with the jailed Dillinger being broken out of prison by his gang members. When the brutality of one of the men leads to the death of Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich (Russo), an enraged Dillinger kicks the offender out of the escape car.

G-man Melvin Purvis (Bale) receives notoriety by gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum). FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) promotes him to a task force with one directive: capture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. The ambitious Purvis immediately heads to Chicago to do just that.

Dillinger, relaxing at a restaurant between train robberies, meets coat check girl Billy Frechette (Cotillard) and immediately falls for her. He woos her by buying fur coats and expensive gifts. Even after he tells her who he is, she decides to stay with him.

A failed ambush at a hotel that leads to the death of an agent at the hands of the brutal Baby Face Nelson (Dorff) leads to Purvis calling in seasoned professional lawmen, Texas Rangers led by the dour Charles Winstead (Lang) despite the objections of Hoover. Shortly afterwards, Dillinger is actually captured after a hotel fire in Tucson and extradited to Indiana. He boldly escapes from the “escape-proof” prison there by ingeniously whittling a fake gun out of wood.

Dillinger returns to Chicago and finds himself unwelcome there. The heat the manhunt for him is bringing down on the city is interfering with the mob’s lucrative bookmaking operation, and Mafioso Frank Nitti (Camp) has hung out the get out of town sign personally. Dillinger is short on funds and reluctantly takes a squirrelly bank job, despite the presence of the twitchy Nelson. Predictably, Nelson opens fire on a cop outside the bank, leading to a shoot-out.

The G-Men capture a wounded gang member who is tortured until he reveals the location of the gang, the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. The feds surround the lodge and would seem to have the element of surprise, but trigger happy G-Men open fire on civilians mistaken for gangsters and a gun battle ensues. All of Dillinger’s gang, including Nelson die in the gunfire as does Purvis’ partner Carter Baum (Cochrane). Dillinger barely escapes with his best friend, Red Hamilton (Clarke) who is mortally wounded. Dillinger, alone, buries his friend.

Things are spiraling towards the inevitable for Dillinger. Frechette is captured by the G-Men after Dillinger drops her off at what he thought was a safe location. She refuses to divulge the location of her lover, even after being beaten by a brutal agent, although Purvis and Winstead stop the assault before it gets out of hand.

In the meantime, Purvis is pointed at Madam Anna Sage (Katic) by a crooked cop. He threatens her with deportation unless she co-operates. The stage is set for the denouement that even Dillinger knew was inevitable given his lifestyle.

One has to admire the look of the film. Michael Mann went to great lengths to insure historical accuracy in the set design, costumes and vehicles (going so far to use a car that Dillinger actually drove). Unfortunately, he wasn’t a stickler for it in his script. Glaring inaccuracies – for example, Baby Face Nelson did not die in the Little Bohemia gunfight as depicted here, but several months later and not in the presence of Purvis. In fact, none of Dillinger’s gang perished in the battle.

This is meant to be a vehicle for stars Depp and Bale, but turns out a bit disappointing. Depp is so low-key as to be nearly comatose, and Bale, so good in The Dark Knight, seems unsure of what to do with his character. Mann has successfully directed two stars in the same film before (Collateral) but for some reason their performances fall a little flat here.

The gun battles are impressive and exceptionally LOUD. Throughout, the film looks impressive and I really wanted to like it more than I wound up doing. Maybe I wasn’t in the best of moods at the time, or maybe I missed the point. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really connect with the movie. I found myself feeling like I didn’t know either Dillinger or Purvis any better after the credits ran than before I walked in. I also found the liberties taken with the facts disquieting; especially in light of how hard Mann worked to make the look and sound of the film more authentic (Crudup perfectly catches the Cagney-like staccato of Hoover’s voice). In fact, some of the supporting performances make this worth seeking out.

In the end, it compares unfavorably with other gangster action movies such as The Untouchables. It re-creates the Midwest of the Depression era near-perfectly, but doesn’t really make you want to spend any time there. Now there’s a crime even Dillinger would never have committed.

REASONS TO GO: A near-perfect re-creation of Depression-era Chicago and the Midwest. There are some superb supporting performances, particularly from Crudup, Clarke and Lang.

REASONS TO STAY: Oddly enough, the leads are almost un-interesting. Sticklers for historical accuracy will be dismayed at the sometimes unnecessary gaffes that permeate the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a heavy serving of violence and graphic carnage, including scenes of torture and brutality. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in locations where the events depicted actually happened, such as the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin (site of the famous shoot-out) and the Lake County Jail in Indiana, where Dillinger’s daring “wooden gun” escape took place.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The standard DVD edition includes a featurette called “Larger Than Life: Adversaries” which discusses the rivalry between Purvis and Dillinger, featuring newsreel footage, interviews with Purvis’ son as well as the actors from the film. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD featrues a featurette entitled “Last of the Legendary Outlaws,” a feature on the real-life Dillinger with some wonderful newsreel footage. Finally, the Blu-Ray has an interactive historical timeline as well as a gangster movie trivia game in addition to the featurettes previously mentioned.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine

The Men Who Stare at Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats

That goat shouldn't have eaten George Clooney's script.

(Overture) George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root, Rebecca Mader, Glenn Morshower, Nick Offerman, Tim Griffin, Jacob Browne, Todd La Tourette. Directed by Grant Heslov

The human mind is in many ways the truly final frontier. We know so little about it, yet our minds our capable of amazing things. Were we able to harness these abilities we could literally do anything we can imagine.

Bob Wilton (McGregor) is lacking somewhat in the cojones department. A journalist, he takes a job at a small town newspaper, marries his college sweetheart (Mader) and interviews quack psychics (Root) who claim they were part of a military program to develop psychic super soldiers, whose mental powers would allow the military to spy on “the enemy” psychically.

Shortly after this, Bob’s life goes to hell in a handbasket. His wife leaves him for his editor (La Tourette) and Bob falls apart. He decides to prove his manhood to his wife to go to Iraq to cover the war as a truly macho war correspondent but true to form he can’t get clearance to cover anything in the war zone, so he sits in a hotel in Kuwait, enviously watching the other journalists swap stories from the front lines while they totally ignore the inexperienced Bob.

This is when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a ramrod-straight retired soldier whose name Bob remembers from his interview with the psychic, who mentioned Lyn admiringly as “the best psi in the outfit.” He is reluctant to talk to Bob at all but when he sees something that Bob was doodling in his notebook, he does an about face and becomes willing to have Bob accompany him into Iraq on a “black ops” mission.

It turns out that Lyn has recently been re-activated to go on a mysterious mission into Iraq. When they drive into Iraq, Lyn practices his psychic skills to “keep sharp” by cloudbursting. He becomes so distracted by this he runs right into the only boulder in hundreds of miles of sand.

The two seem to be rescued by a passing truck but it turns out to be militants who capture Lyn and Bob. Lyn tells Bob a little more about the history of his outfit, “Project Jedi” (a not-so-subtle jibe at McGregor’s previous role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the man who created it, Lt. Col. Bill Django (Bridges), a free-spirited sort who embraced the new age and proto-hippie movements in California in the ‘70s a little too closely after a near-brush with death in Vietnam. When he returns to the Army, he does so with claims that he can create soldiers who can walk through walls, find missing persons through psychic means, and influence the minds of others. He captures the imagination of a somewhat unrealistic General (Lang) who is concerned that the Soviets are conducting a similar program.

The self-described Jedi Knights undergo unorthodox training methods, experiment liberally with psychotropic drugs and have mixed success in the psychic warfare department. Lyn has the most promise and becomes Django’s apprentice while another soldier named Larry Hooper (Spacey) seethes with jealousy, wanting to be the pre-eminent psychic on the planet. He takes matters into his own hands and when a young recruit dies during an experiment that Hooper clandestinely conducts using the methods of the notorious MK Ultra project, Hooper manages to shift the blame to Django who is shown the door, discharged and disgraced.

The two escape the militants along with an Iraqi civilian (Zuaiter) but run into a firefight between competing security contractors. As the pair travels further and further into the heart of enemy territory, Bob begins to suspect that he is not hearing the whole truth – and that Lyn might just be insane.

This is based on what is reputedly a non-fiction book written by an actual British journalist and makes no bones that not everything in the story is 100% factual. In fact, the opening screen tells you that much with a graphic that reads “more of this is true than you might believe.” Let’s just say that my cynic-meter was registering some pretty high numbers despite the disclaimer.

In the hands of someone like the Coen Brothers, this might have been a terrific movie. Unfortunately, first-time director Heslov (Clooney’s long-time production partner) seems to be trying too hard to make this funny and quirky all at once. The quirk far outweighs the funny percentage-wise, never a good thing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some nice moments here. Some of the scenes in which the would-be Jedi Warriors attempt to use their psychic powers unsuccessfully are nicely done, as is some of the satire, particularly Robert Patrick’s turn as a security contractor. It’s too bad that those moments aren’t more plentiful.

The cast is pretty solid, with Clooney and McGregor doing good, solid jobs in the leads, while Bridges and Spacey are dependable as always. Bridges in particular seems to be channeling his character from The Big Lebowski which isn’t as bad as it sounds since that character was so memorable (I don’t name him because I refuse to – as everyone from AOL and MiniPlanet knows I am the Dude).

There is an awful lot of drug humor here and those who are offended by such things might want to skip on by this one. I haven’t read the book this was based on but based on the subject matter I do think there was a good movie to be had. Sadly, this wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and McGregor are appealing leads while Bridges and Spacey always do good work. Some genuinely funny scenes stand out here.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too quirky for its own good, the movie tries too hard to be funky and funny. The drug humor may offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some brief nudity (some of which is Clooney’s for all you ladies out there), some scenes of violence, a lot of drug use and some rough language. A lot of “somes” equals leave the kids at home for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Kuwait and Iraq were actually filmed in New Mexico.

HOME OR THEATER: Strictly for home viewing. There are lots of movies far worthier than this one in the multiplex right now, so you have plenty of cinematic options.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Star Trek