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)

Lone Survivor


Brothers in arms.

Brothers in arms.

(2013) War Drama (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Yousef Azami, Ali Suliman, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Rich Ting, Dan Blizerian, Jerry Ferrara, Rick Vargas, Scott Elrod, Gregory Rockwood, Ryan Kay, Patrick Griffin, Josh Berry, Eric Steinig, David Shepard, Justin Tade, Sterling Jones, Jason Riggins. Directed by Peter Berg

When we invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9-11, I’m sure the Russians were chuckling ruefully to themselves…as were perhaps the ghosts of British colonialists, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. This land of unforgiving terrain has been repelling invasions for thousands of years.

But since that’s where the Taliban were and they had some dealings with Al Qaeda, it became a necessity that we go in there and clean house or at least that was the school of thought at the time. That we are still there 14 years later is neither surprising nor a reason to be proud.

In 2005, a group of Navy SEALS were sent into a remote area of Afghanistan to discover whether a high-ranking Taliban leader who had been responsible for the murder of a bunch of marines earlier that year was in fact hiding in a village there. Once they had established he was there, they were to call in the troops and help take him out. The problem was that communications in the area were dicey; secure lines and unsecured satellite phones alike worked only intermittently and the men going in were fully aware of that.

Those men were Michael Murphy (Kitsch) who commanded the mission, Danny Dietz (Hirsch), Matt “Axe” Axelson (Foster) and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg). Among those supporting them back at base is the young and eager Shane Patton (Ludwig) and their company commander Erik Kristensen (Bana), professionals all.

Things go sideways when a trio of goat herders stumble on them as they observe the village. One of them is carrying a military grade walkie talkie. Given the venomous rage that one of the boys looks at the SEALs with, it seems likely that if these herders aren’t Taliban they are at least informants. This leaves the men with a dilemma – whether to kill the goat herders outright, to tie them up which if they were unable to extricate themselves would certainly lead to them freezing to death in the night, or to let them go and abort the mission which would then having them chased by the much larger force of Taliban fighters than they were led to believe was in the village to begin with.

They choose the latter force, keeping to their rules of engagement even though all four of them knows what it could mean – and what it means is a couple of hundred well-armed hostiles chasing them through unfamiliar terrain and with the communications as iffy as they are, help may not be on the way for a good long time. This band of brothers will have to use every bit of courage and training to get them through this rapidly deteriorating situation, and rely on each other more than they ever have before.

This is based on actual events. Operation Red Wings ended up pretty much the way it is depicted here, and for the most part this is what these men went through although some of it has to be speculation. In any case, the movie basically from the time the SEALs let the goat herders go to the end is a pure adrenaline rush, harrowing in suspense but beautiful in how these men not only depend on each other but genuinely love one another as men who have defended their lives together truly can.

This isn’t a movie you go see especially for the acting, although the performances are pretty solid and nobody really disgraces themselves. The camaraderie is captured nicely and that is really the center of the movie; in the field, you fight for the guy/gal on your left, not for some idea or political point – and they’re fighting for you in the same way.

While I can’t say for sure if this gives audiences a good sense of what it’s like to be in a combat situation having never been in one myself, I can say that the combat sequences are very intense, maybe too much so for those who are sensitive or easily disturbed. I do like that although there are some genuinely nasty customers among the Taliban, not all the Afghans are portrayed as hateful. I certainly found myself wanting to find out more about what pushtanwali meant.

Where the film is less successful is telling us who these men were. We know how hard they fought, how fiercely they protected one another but I would have liked to know more about them. In a sense that  even though we feel what they go through, we are unable to mourn them as effectively because they are yet strangers to us, despite spending two hours with them. If Berg had succeeded in doing that as well, this would have been contending for a Best Picture Oscar, but as it is he has delivered a really good film that I can recommend to pretty much anyone without reservation.

REASONS TO GO: Harrowing and moving. A fitting tribute to the men and women of our armed forces.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some. Really doesn’t give us as good a sense of who these men were as I would have liked.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of salty SEAL’s language as well as a ton of war violence and some fairly disturbing and graphic scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the fire fight with the Taliban is depicted in the film as lasting three days, the real life one lasted five. Marcus Luttrell would be awarded the Navy Cross for his valor in the incident.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Hawk Down

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar begins!

New Releases for the Week of January 10, 2014


Inside Llewyn Davis

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS 

(CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Max Casella. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

A young folk singer trying to make it in the Greenwich Village scene in 1961 finds himself homeless with a cat that isn’t his in tow in a brutal New York City winter. The only ray of hope is an audition for a music mogul who could kickstart his career or once again shatter his dreams into a million pieces. This has been getting some pretty strong Oscar buzz.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

August: Osage County

(Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper. A trio of strong-willed women who don’t particularly get along all that well are drawn back home to the somewhat eccentric woman who raised them for a family crisis. With spouses, children and exes in tow it doesn’t take long for chaos and heartbreak – not to mention the occasional possibility for redemption – to ensue.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for drug material)

Dumbbells

(GoDigital) Brian Drolet, Hoyt Richards, Jay Mohr, Carl Reiner. A former star college athlete finds himself working as a trainer in a rundown gym. When the new owner of the gym hits upon the idea of setting a reality TV show in the gym, it is met with much resistance from the complacent staff. However, the athlete and the owner form an unlikely alliance to save the gym, change attitudes and generally kick butt.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

Her

(Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara. A hopeless romantic man, heartbroken after the demise of a long-term relationship, flounders in social awkwardness. Then he gets a new personalized operating system for his computer devices and everything changes – he falls in love with the voice and personality of his new operating system.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

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

Hercules: The Legend Begins

(Summit) Kellan Lutz, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Johnathon Schaech. The legendary demigod, son of Zeus and a mortal woman, is betrayed by his stepfather – an evil, ambitious king – and exiled. Resolved to address this injustice, the extraordinarily strong warrior resolves to overthrow the king and takes the first steps on his road to immortality.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG=13 (for sequences of intense combat action and violence, and for some sensuality)

Lone Survivor

(Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana. The true story of four Navy SEALs sent out into the mountains of Afghanistan to neutralize an Al Qaeda leader only to find themselves confronted with a much larger force than their intelligence told them. Faced with an impossible moral decision, they will put their lives on the line for each other and reflect in doing so the very highest ideals of the U.S. military.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: True Life War Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)  

Savages


 

Savages

Blake Lively is jealous that Salma Hayek gets a meal and she gets a salad.

(2012) Drama (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, Demian Bechir, Amber Dixon, Joel David Moore, Diego Catano, Shea Whigham, Joaquin Cosio, Antonio Jaramillo. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

When pushed to the wall, we all do what we have to in order to survive. We may be the most peaceable souls normally but that all changes in certain situations. Sometimes, we must become savages in order to make it through.

Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Johnson) have a business together. Their business happens to be growing marijuana. Ben is a botanist and a businessman from Berkeley. He has managed to breed the most amazing weed on the planet and has put together a network of distributors that keeps costs down and quality high.

Chon is the big stick in the equation. Ben’s business model doesn’t call for violence often but when it’s needed Chon supplies it. He’s a vet fresh off of tour in Afghanistan who has a cynical outlook on life. He’s the yin to Ben’s yang….er, or vice versa.

What they have in common is O. Which stands for orgasm. Which stands for Ophelia (Lively). She is Ben’s girlfriend. She’s also Chon’s girlfriend. Sometimes all at the same time. She has orgasms. Ben has orgasms. Chon has wargasms. It all works out nicely for everyone. Life is kind of a stoner paradise from their beach house in the OC.

Then it becomes clear that the Baja cartels want to invade. Alex (Bechir), a slimy lawyer, puts what sounds like a reasonable proposition out to Chon and Ben. Chon is suspicious and Ben is more interested in getting out of the business entirely. However when they turn down the offer, Elena (Hayek), the head of the cartel, sics her vicious enforcer Lado (del Toro) on the boys. He discovers their weakness is O (not orgasms, Ophelia who provides them – she likes to be called O because she hates her name by the way) and kidnaps their weakness.

At first Chon and particularly Ben are so concerned with O’s safety that they’ll do literally anything to ensure it. But as they get their composure back it becomes clear that once the cartel gets what they want (their superb weed and their business model) all three of them will be disposed of so it’s all-out war – reluctantly on Ben’s side. And in any war, there are casualties.

Say what you want about Oliver Stone’s politics, his point of view, the man can direct – JFK is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s just that sometimes he has a habit of inserting himself into a movie – the good ol’ “Look Ma I’m Directing” syndrome, or LMIDS.

Much of the problem is in the narration. Blake Lively is a fine actress but there is just far too much narration and what that is generally is the filmmaker inserting themselves into the story. Trust the story to tell itself – and trust the actors to convey what’s in their heads. If you have to narrate every scene, you’re selling your story and your cast short.

And part of the problem is also in the story itself. The main characters are a little narcissistic, a bit naive, and they do a lot of drugs. I mean Ben, O and Chon smoke a lot of their own product. That may make it seem like they’re just kids in paradise but in reality they’re criminals, selling illegal narcotics. They do some pretty bad things along the way which might be part of Stone’s message, but I’ve never been a fan of 70s movies that require you to root for the bad guy who’s less bad.

And there are some pretty impressive performances here, particularly from del Toro who’s as magnificent a villain as we’ve seen since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. He delights in inflicting pain and torment but he’s all business as well. He’s as frightening an enforcer as you’re ever likely to meet. Not that you meet a lot of enforcers.

For all intents and purposes this is a kind of Jules et Jim for stoners but done as a crime drama with a side of brutality. Does that really sound like an interesting film to you? Maybe it is and I’m just missing it but quite frankly I never connected to the movie and I usually do with Stone’s works. I haven’t even mentioned the ending which is really jump-the-shark bad. It’s definitely a LMIDS move that adds an additional unnecessary fifteen minutes onto the film and for no other reason than for the filmmakers to pull a fast one on their audience.

I’m not one for recommending this but this is the kind of movie that probably should best be experienced while bombed out of your gourd. It will help with the somewhat unlikely plot and the somewhat unlikable characters. But mostly, it will help with the directorial parlor tricks that serve to take you out of the film and remind you that this is an Oliver Stone Production. We only need the opening credits to remind us of that; anything else is just an overactive ego.

REASONS TO GO: Del Toro may well be the best screen baddie in the business at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly narrated and too many cutesie directorial moves. Very difficult to get invested in the main characters. The ending is really godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of drug use – and I mean a lot. If that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, this isn’t the movie for you. There’s also a lot of violence, a bit of torture, plenty of sex, some gruesome images, nudity and pretty much constant cursing. This is what they call a “Hard R.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uma Thurman was cast to play Ophelia’s mother but her part was cut from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are fairly mixed, trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic

HACIENDA LOVERS: Elena lives in two homes; one in Mexico and one in California – both are hacienda-style villas that are excellent examples of the form of architecture so prevalent in the American Southwest and Mexico.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Father of Invention

New Releases for the Week of July 6, 2012


July 6, 2012

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

(Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Embeth Davidtz, C. Thomas Howell. Directed by Marc Webb

Peter Parker, a brilliant but somewhat outcast high school student, was abandoned by his parents as a child, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. When he finds a mysterious briefcase that his father left behind, he’s sent on a journey to Oscorp, the somewhat unbalanced one-armed scientist Curt Connors and a rendezvous with a radioactive spider.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence)

Bol Bachchan

(Fox Star) Ajay Devgn, Abhishek Bachchan, Asin Thottumkal, Prachi Desai. A Muslim breaks the lock on a Hindu temple to save a trapped child but through a series of misunderstandings is believed to be a Hindu. In order to preserve the lie, he is forced to tell more and more outrageous tales until he is trapped by his own falsehoods.

See the trailer  here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: PG (for sequences of action violence, thematic elements and brief mild language)

Katy Perry: Part of Me

(Paramount/InSurge) Katy Perry, Glen Ballard, Shannon Woodward, Rachael Markarian. A chronicle of Perry’s California Dreams Tour of 2011, during which her marriage with Russell Brand came to an end. How she coped with that loss, her relationship with her fans and the story of her perseverance in becoming a pop diva is told through interviews and archival footage. There is also, as you can imagine, plenty of concert footage from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG (for some suggestive content, language, thematic elements and brief smoking)

Savages

(Universal) Taylor Kitsch, John Travolta, Blair Lively, Salma Hayek. Two Southern California friends share a thriving Marijuana business and a girlfriend. When a particularly vicious Mexican drug cartel moves into their territory and demands that they work with them, the two friends decline, leading to a cycle of escalating violence and high stakes. Oliver Stone directs.

See the trailer and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout)

To Rome With Love

(Sony Classics) Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg. Woody Allen’s latest takes him to the Eternal City for the first time, following a group of people – some local, others that are visitors – who fall in love, or fall out of love…or get into some pretty odd predicaments because of love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some crude sexual remarks and brief drug references)

Battleship


Battleship

The actors are overshadowed by the special effects.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

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

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Brothers

New Releases for the Week of May 18, 2012


May 18, 2012

BATTLESHIP

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

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

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

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

Darling Companion

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

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

The Dictator

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

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

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

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

New Releases for the Week of March 9, 2012


March 9, 2012

JOHN CARTER

(Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Haden Church. Directed by Andrew Stanton

A Civil War veteran finds himself inexplicably transported to a strange new world. No, not Bolivia – Mars. He finds himself caught up in a genocidal civil war there, falling in with an unexpected ally, an eight-foot-tall four-armed green man named Tars Tarkas and the beautiful Martian princess (and more human-looking) Dejah Thoris. Carter will have to confront the demons of his past and learn from them if he is to save himself and Mars. From the series of books by “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.

See the trailer, clips, promos, featurettes and a film short here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

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

A Separation

(Sony Classics) Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat. An Iranian woman initiates divorce proceedings to get custody of her daughter and move away from their home which her husband won’t leave because he is caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. The daughter winds up staying and the man hires a maid to help care for his father, but discovers she’s been lying to him and events begin to escalate beyond control.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material)

A Thousand Words

(Paramount) Eddie Murphy, Kerry Washington, Cliff Curtis, Allison Janney. A glib literary agent who prides himself over being able to talk anyone into anything discovers that after failing to get a new age guru for representation that a bodhi tree has miraculously appeared in his yard. For every word the agent speaks, a leaf will fall from the tree and once the tree is bare, both the agent and the tree will die. He will have to use different means of communicating and treasure his words wisely.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual situations including dialogue, language and some drug-related humor)

Deadline

(Roadside Attractions) Eric Roberts, Steve Talley, J.D. Souther, Anna Felix.  An investigative journalist re-opens a case of an African-American boy who had been murdered twenty years earlier. The case had never been properly investigated and thus the murderer had gone uncharged for the crime, let alone punished for it. Inspired by actual events, the movie is based on a novel called “Grievances” by Mark Ethridge.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True-Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language, some violence and thematic material)

Friends With Kids

(Roadside Attractions) Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig.  A group of young twenty-somethings who have been friends for awhile have mostly paired off. The last two singles in the group observe the effect of kids on the lives of their friends and decide they want a child of their own – they just don’t want to get married to each other so they decide to have a kid together – and date other people.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language)

Silent House

(Open Road) Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross. A young woman and her father decide to renovate their secluded lake house. While there they are mysteriously sealed in and all contact with the outside world cut off and soon strange and terrifying things begin to occur as they soon realize that their lives are in mortal danger in this silent place. The movie is presented as a single uninterrupted shot taking place in real time and is based on an Uruguayan movie of the same name that was their country’s official Foreign Language Oscar submission last year.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

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

The Bang Bang Club


The Bang Bang Club

Ryan Phillippe: late for work again!

(2010) Historical Drama (Tribeca) Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld, Patrick Lyster, Russel Savadier. Directed by Steven Silver

It takes a certain kind of person to become a combat photojournalist. You have to have the courage to put yourself in harm’s way to get the perfect shot. You have to be able to distance yourself from the subject, because becoming emotionally attached will compromise your journalistic objectivity. However, when these things begin to blur the line between your career and your humanity, what then?

Greg Marinovich (Philippe) is a young freelance photojournalist trying to make a name for himself in the early 90s in South Africa. Apartheid is dying; Nelson Mandela has been released from prison and his African National Congress is demanding changes in the white-run nation. Meanwhile, minority black tribal workers are fighting with the ANC over wages, believing if they join the strike, they will lose their jobs and their families will starve.

It becomes the kind of war that we have since seen in Rwanda and Darfur – horrific murders and mob mentality. The police, who have no reason to love the ANC, are believed to be complicit. Greg is taken under the wing of Kevin Carter (Kitsch), a hard-living photojournalist who works at the Johannesburg Star along with Brazilian national Joao Silva (Van Jaarsveld) and South African native Ken Oosterbroek (Rautenbach). Carter advises young Marinovich to ditch the telephoto and get up close shots; those are what publishers are buying, and making money is the name of the game.

Greg decides to get waaay close and goes into a Soweto enclave controlled by the Inkatha Freedom Party, mostly composed of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes. Chased through the narrow streets, he is brought before a leader of the IFP and explains he wants to tell their side of things. While with these leaders, he witnesses a brutal murder and captures it on film. His pictures are purchased and Greg is given a job by the comely photo editor of the Star, Robin Comley (Akerman).

The four photojournalists quickly develop a reputation for taking risks and getting incredible shots of the upheaval that is rippling through South Africa. The photographs the group is getting are taking the world by storm, appearing on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Marinovich wins a Pulitzer for witnessing another brutal murder of a suspected Inkatha spy being set ablaze and then killed with a machete blow to the neck. However, he is forced to take an extended vacation when the South African police want to bring in Marinovich for questioning about what he witnessed; he knows if he identifies any of the killers he will have a great big target on his back and his usefulness as a photojournalist in South Africa will be finished.

By now Marinovich is in a romantic relationship with Comley and the four members of what has been termed the Bang Bang Club have become nothing short of rock stars – partying hard, receiving the adulation of women and barflies all over South Africa and kicking ass and taking names.

Particularly living the life of a rock star is Carter, who is constantly broke because of his prodigious drug use. Despite the pleas to keep him on, Comley is forced to fire Carter because he’s become unreliable and dangerous. Returning to the freelance ranks from whence he sprang, Carter wins a Pulitzer for a controversial photo of a vulture stalking a half-starved little girl. Carter is forced to defend his status of an observer, and not making sure the little girl made it to where food, water and medical care was available (the fate of the little girl, who had gotten up and walked away according to the real Kevin Carter, is unknown to this day).

As the end of apartheid nears, the friendship of the four men will be tested and their flair for entering dangerous areas and risking their lives will lead to tragedy. The Bang Bang Club will literally have their own bang bang turn on them, viciously.

This was largely filmed in South Africa and whenever possible in the actual locations that the pictures were taken. Many of the pictures taken by the photographers are recreated here, and you get the sense that like any great piece of art, the genius is as much accidental as it is a product of preparation.

The debate here is at what point does a photographer lose their own humanity in becoming an observer of humanity. Was the shot of the little girl compelling and heartbreaking? Absolutely. Should Carter have intervened? I believe he should have. There comes a point where you have to set aside your objectivity and become a human being. I would imagine there are a great number of hardcore journalists who would disagree, perhaps even vehemently. I’m sure the argument is that a journalist cannot do their job properly without objectivity. I grant you that – but any job that requires you to give up your humanity in order to do it properly is not a job worth doing – period.

Soapbox ranting aside, this is well acted. Phillippe, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career, achieves it here. This is by far the best work of his career. Marinovich is not just a thrill-seeker, but I think if you had asked him at the time Phillippe was playing him why he was doing what he did, he probably couldn’t have articulated it and Phillippe doesn’t attempt to. He simply sinks deeper into the morass of ethical and moral conflict.

Kitsch is also compelling as Carter, a man haunted by demons most of his life. Kitsch takes Carter from a self-confident, balls-to-the-wall combat photojournalist and deconstructs him through drug use and of course the nightmares of the horrible images he’s witnessed – and recorded – into a man lost and broken. It’s truly stellar work.

Now, I know that there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the gonzo war correspondent, hanging out in bars and discos, swapping war stories, engaging in stupid macho behavior and drinking themselves into cirrhosis and I think that does the profession a disservice. Sure some of them are that way – type “A” thrillseekers who don’t think they’ve done their job right unless they’ve been shot at. Most combat photojournalists are professionals who don’t behave like frat guys at a kegger; they’re focused and generally, pretty low-key. They aren’t as effective in their work when they’re treated like rock stars; they are far better able to do what they do when they can blend in more.

There are a lot of questions asked here about the lines between observing humanity and being human. Personally, I think this should be required viewing at every journalism school in the country. Not because they should emulate the behavior of the Bang Bang Club – but because they shouldn’t.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific look at not only the final days of Apartheid but also what makes a combat photographer tick. Phillippe gives one of the best performances of his career.

REASONS TO STAY: A little overloaded with journalist testosterone disease – photojournalists as rock stars.

FAMILY VALUES: Although unrated, there were scenes of war violence, torture and drug use. There’s plenty of bad language and some sexual situations as well. .

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bang Bang in the name of the group’s title refers to the automatic weapon fire that accompanied their assignments.

HOME OR THEATER: This is available on Video on Demand until the end of the month; it might be harder to find at your local art house, but if it’s playing at a theater near you, by all means see it there.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans