Kick-Ass 2


Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are nonplussed to discover that they're not getting action figures made after all.

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are nonplussed to discover that they’re not getting action figures made after all.

(2013) Superhero (Universal) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Clark Gregg, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Claudia Lee, Amy Anzel, Augustus Prew, Olga Kurkulina, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan, Garrett M. Brown, Lindy Booth, Robert Emms, Chuck Liddell, Yancy Butler, Lyndsy Fonseca, Sophie Wu. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Although I have it labeled as a superhero movie (and indeed that is how this movie is essentially classified nearly everywhere), it’s not quite accurate. You won’t find a single superhero in this movie. What you will find is a movie about people who love and regard superheroes as idols to emulate.

Taking place a couple of years after the original Kick-Ass, the sequel finds Mindy Macready a.k.a. Hit Girl (Moretz) is cutting classes to go work out with Dave Lizewski a.k.a. Kick-Ass (Taylor-Johnson) who after an entire movie of getting beaten to a bloody pulp by bad guys wants to better be able not only to defend himself but to inflict some damage as well.

Seething in the background is Chris D’Amico, formerly the Red Mist (Mintz-Plasse) whose father was blowed up real good by Kick-Ass at the end of the first movie. He wants his revenge although his mother (Butler) doesn’t take him all that seriously. His bodyguard Javier (Leguizamo) does and when Chris – after an untimely accident – decides to become the first supervillain, Javier is not thrilled with the idea but supports him nonetheless.

When Mindy’s guardian Marcus (Chestnut), a cop, discovers what she’s been up to, he makes her promise to stop being Hit Girl. She starts hanging out with Brooke (Lee) and the other popular girls, trying on a normal life on for size. She finds out quickly that it doesn’t quite fit.

In the meantime Dave has found a new superhero team led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Carrey), a born again ex mobster. The roster includes Insect Man (Emms), Dr. Gravity (Faison), Night Bitch (Booth) with whom Kick-Ass strikes up a – ahem – physical relationship, and Battle Guy (Gregg) who turns out to be Dave’s friend Marty. Eventually they bring in the other member of Dave’s high school circle, (Prew) so that he doesn’t feel left out but he seems unable to be anything but derivative of Kick-Ass’ name and costume.

For his part D’Amico, going by the name of the Motherf*cker, has assembled a team of villains of his own including Mother Russia (Kurkulina), an ex-KGB agent who is a walking, talking advertisement for steroid abuse. He means to take things up a notch and bodies are going to hit the floor. With Hit Girl on the sidelines and only amateur heroes to stand at his side, can Kick-Ass survive the assault?

First off, the level of violence in this movie is fairly extreme and occasionally graphic, particularly in the third reel. People get hurt, people get maimed and people get killed. The kind of game that Kick-Ass was playing in the first movie is over; the stakes are way higher. There are consequences to putting on the costumes and they are illustrated here.

The movie has gotten a bad rap for that violence and I can only say this; if you’re squeamish about such things, this really isn’t a movie you should be seeing. However, I do believe the violence in the film isn’t as gratuitous as critics – including star Jim Carrey who has famously disowned the film – would lead you to believe. The violence here has a purpose and while you may agree or disagree with that purpose, it nonetheless does have a reason for being.

While Taylor-Johnson has yet to impress me in either Kick-Ass movie, Moretz is amazing here. She is a terrific young actress who captures all of Mindy’s adolescent self-doubts and yearning for acceptance and love. She is a lonely little girl who misses her daddy and that aspect is played up well by Moretz.

Leguizamo does a good job too as the bodyguard/mobster with a heart of gold. I also quite liked Mintz-Plasse who really captures the evil of  Chris D’Amico, driven to the dark side with mad thoughts of revenge. Chris might be a bit of a joke but that doesn’t make him any less evil.

I will say that I found this entertaining enough, but not enough to stand out which isn’t a good thing in one of the most mediocre summer blockbuster seasons in recent memory. Like most of the other movies I’ve seen this summer, Kick-Ass 2 isn’t bad – it just isn’t any more than that.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining and funny. Moretz is fabulous and so is Leguizamo.

REASONS TO STAY: Unrelentingly brutal, particularly in the final reel.

FAMILY VALUES:  A buttload of violence and a shitload of profanity. There’s also some sexual content and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carrey bought his own props and costume in an effort to look more like the comic book version of his character – which, in the comic book, was actually two characters: brothers Colonel Stars and Lieutenant Stripes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The World’s End

The Story of Us


You mean...Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

You mean…Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

(1999) Romance (Universal) Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tim Matheson, Rob Reiner, Julie Hagerty, Rita Wilson, Ken Lerner, Colleen Rennison, Jake Sandvig, Victor Raider-Wexler, Albert Hague, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Betty White, Red Buttons, Alan Zweibel, Art Evans, Lucy Webb, Paul Reiser, Marci Rosenberg, Bill Kirchenbauer, Jessie Nelson. Directed by Rob Reiner

Hollywood is a town built on ego. The stars, the producers, the directors, the studio execs all have heads so swelled they won’t fit into ordinary cars – that’s why they take limos everywhere. Hell, even the bicycle couriers got ‘tude.

Isn’t it funny, then, that with all that excess of self-worth, nobody will break Hollywood’s critical commandment: Thou Shalt End Happily (unless Thou Art Remaking Shakespeare). Sometimes, that formula gets in the way of a good movie.

The Story of Us chronicles a marriage in its final stages of dissolution, as Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a once-happy couple who can hardly be civil to one another for more than a few moments at a time. As their marriage crumbles, they try to figure out how they’re going to break it to their kids, who are away at camp. At the same time, they’re wondering where things went wrong.

Like so many Rob Reiner films (When Harry Met Sally most notably), both characters are likable enough to keep us interested, but flawed enough to be just like the people who surround us in Real Life. Although the focus here is on Willis, Pfeiffer’s character seemed more sympathetic to me. Thrust into the role of disciplinarian, pragmatist and organizer, Pfeiffer hates what she’s become (i.e. her own mother), but feels powerless to escape her situation. She takes out her rage on her husband, whom she blames for not lifting her burdens, or at least sharing them.

For his part he is bewildered by her behavior and is unable to sympathize, yearning for the happy-go-lucky woman he married. Neither one is able to see the other’s viewpoint, and therein lies their problem.

Willis followed one of his all-time career performance in The Sixth Sense with an outstanding effort here, his best romantic comedy work since his Moonlighting days. While Academy members have never really had Willis on their dance card, one wonders if they tended to view him as little more than Mr. Demi Moore, a label which hounded him when he was unable to match the success of the Die Hard film series throughout the ’90s. Then again, he’s generally played pretty much the same character with astonishing regularity with occasional diversions like The Jackal.

Viewers are bound to notice Rita Wilson, however. As Pfeiffer’s best friend (and wife to Willis’ best friend) she positively dominates the screen every time she’s on it. She is, as Da Queen put it, just like every woman’s best friend in real life. That is to say, brassy, catty, vulgar and supportive. It is no accident that most women who view the film howl at Wilson’s jokes while the men tend to squirm and scratched their receding hairlines perplexedly.

That Pfeiffer and Willis were both dealing with the breakup of their real-life relationships while The Story Of Us was filming undoubtedly gave both actors an additional wellspring of emotion from which to draw. A profound scene near the end of the movie when Willis at last sees himself through his wife’s eyes couldn’t help but get one wondering if he was thinking of Demi at that moment.

My biggest gripe with this movie is the denouement, which is forced and happens in such an unbelievable and predictable manner that it leaves you spitting out “Hollywood!” in a scornful tone at your empty popcorn bowl as you turn off your screen. We spend two hours exploring why the marriage is breaking up, but we never really understand what puts it back together again.

Pfeiffer and Willis are appealing, but it’s the realism of their characters that make this movie satisfying, until it’s shattered in the final reel. I still recommend it strongly, based on the performances and the depiction of a relationship that is not unlike those of friends and family. Not a bad date movie for a couple going through a bad patch.

WHY RENT THIS: Good chemistry between Willis and Pfeiffer. Extraordinary performance by Wilson. Realistic characters and situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE. Oh that Hollywood ending! Gaah!

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and some sexy stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The last full-length feature film for Red Buttons and Albert Hague.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A featurette on the locations the film was shot at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.9M on a $50M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jobs

2 Guns


Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

(2013) Crime Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, James Marsden, Fred Ward, Robert John Burke, Greg Sproles, Patrick Fischler, Edgar Arreola, Derek Solorsano, Kyle Russell Clements, Christopher Matthew Cook, Tim Bell, Tate Fletcher, Azure Parsons. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur

There is room in this world for testosterone-infused crotch-scratching knuckle-dragging action movies. We men need them, as much as we need beer, 24 hour sports networks, grilled meat and babes. They are endemic to our manhood. They make us feel good and get past all the crap we have to take for being men.

Here is a movie that will make your penis swell with pride and put a smile on your manly unshaven face. Two guys – Bobby (Washington), a natty well-dressed guy who “knows people” and Stig (Wahlberg), a skirt-chasing loudmouth who never misses – are planning to rob a bank. Unfortunately, this particular bank is across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties and a word to the wise – never rob a bank across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties. Easy fix though; they burn the diner to the ground.

It turns out they are robbing this particular bank because Mexican cartel kingpin Papi Greco (Olmos) keeps a goodly load of his cash there, about $3 million worth. It’s not generally a good idea to rob a drug lord but it’s okay – Bobby is DEA and this robbery is a good way to link Papi to tax evasion.

However, when they get to doing the deed it turns out that there’s more like $40 million in the safety deposit boxes. And it’s not Papi’s – it belongs to a corrupt CIA whose sweaty agent Earl (Paxton) wants his money back – payments from Papi and other drug lords who give a small percentage of their profits to the CIA as protection for letting them operate. Whoops.

And it turns out that Stig isn’t a mindless thug after all – he’s Naval Intelligence. But both of them have been set up. Stig and Bobby aren’t exactly a match made in heaven but they are forced to work together to get out of the mess they’re in with the CIA, the U.S. Navy and a vicious drug cartel all chasing them and none of them too particular about due process.

This is the kind of movie that Michael Bay fans are going to love. The chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg is excellent, as good as the Glover-Gibson pairing a couple of decades ago. The two bicker and trade barbs as well as bullets but when the rubber hits the road they have each other’s back. Exactly the kind of relationship men like to see.

There is a whole lot of carnage – lots of bullets flying and rarely do any of them strike the heroes but they sure do strike the flunkies of the bad guys with abandon. I can imagine there was a squib shortage in Hollywood when this baby was shooting.

The script will hold no surprises for veteran action film aficionados. Those you think are probably going to end up as villains do. Those you think are going to get shot do. Twists you think the plot is going to take happen. But that’s not why real men see a movie like this. We see a movie like this to affirm that we’re still men. There’s no exploring their feelings, no tender moments of self-expression, no issues of the day – just bullets flying, fists pumping and things going boom. And when that’s what you need, that really is all you need.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, a bit of nudity (briefly) and a fair amount of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point in the film’s development this was intended to be a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to team up but they elected to pass.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; as with many movies this summer the critics can’t make up their minds..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Star Trek: Insurrection

Despicable Me 2


Gru's angels.

Gru’s angels.

(2013) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, Steve Coogan, Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier, Moises Arias, Nasim Pedrad, Kristen Schaal, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Nickolai Stoilov, Vanessa Bayer, Ava Acres, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin

It takes a thief to catch a thief, which sounds pretty logical on the surface although practically, it’s not absolutely true. However when chasing a thief, having a thief helps a whole lot.

Gru (Carell), master criminal, has given up thievery for a more suburban lifestyle raising up the three little girls who stole his heart in the first movie – Maggie (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Fisher). He has gone from planning epic heists to planning birthday parties for Agnes. Dr. Nefario (Brand), Gru’s right hand man, has gone from designing super-weapons to designing a new kind of jam (unsuccessfully). Gru is less despicable as he was in the first film and more domesticated.

However, Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League’s Nigel Ramsbottom (Coogan) to investigate the theft of an arctic research base. They’ve narrowed down the list of suspects to a group of business owners in a mall and send in Gru and his new partner Lucy Wilde (Wiig) as owners of a cupcake shop to investigate the mall and find out who the culprit is. Meanwhile, Gru’s minions are disappearing and Margo has found a boyfriend (Arias) who happens to be the son of Eduardo (Bratt), owner of a Mexican restaurant in the mall and one of the suspects.

Gru however lets his emotions overcome his better judgment and soon he finds himself discredited. But nothing is always as it seems and it will be up to Gru to save the day. The world is in deep, deep doo-doo (or Gru-Gru, if you prefer).

I liked the first movie a little better. The despicable Gru which captured my imagination is completely gone; the soft fuzzy Gru is all you’ll find here. The more fiendish Gru was in the first movie, the more fun the movie was. Now basically it must rely on the minions to generate any interest in anyone above the age of four.

Thankfully, the minions are up to the task and the little yellow gibberish talking creatures steal the movie the way Gru once stole the moon. They’re getting their first movie of their own next year (referenced during the end credits) and I have higher hopes for that one, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Like most modern animated features, there are plenty of colors to keep the really little ones occupied, and plenty of slapstick humor to keep their older siblings in stitches. There isn’t as much really oriented towards their parents although they may find the scenes at the mall and in Eduardo’s rancho to be at least of mild interest. However, as much as they try to make Gru a kind of animated Maxwell Smart, the attempt fails – although it should be noted that Carell played the stumbling superspy in the recent Get Smart reboot and has at least some experience at it.

All the Bond-age in the world won’t save a movie with a lame plot and underdeveloped characters however and this one suffers from both of those ills. Some of the more elaborate gags elicited chuckles and some fell flat. Carell does his best with his odd Eastern European accent and Bratt, Coogan, Brand and Wiig do their best to support but most of the human characters are far too bland for us to care too much about. It’s the minions who capture our imagination and it appears that Universal is wisely going to place their focus there and quite frankly, that’s where it belongs.

REASONS TO GO: Minions, minions, minions! Gadgets and tomfoolery!

REASONS TO STAY: Lame plot and weak character development. Needs more despicableness.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of rude humor and some violence of a cartoon nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The phone number that Lucy gives Gru is 626-584-5723. If called, you’ll get to hear Lucy’s outgoing voicemail message.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; the reviews were pretty solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Death Note

Back to the Future


Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

(1985) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, George diCenzo, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Jay Cohen, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Harry Waters Jr., Donald Fulilove, Lisa Freeman, Courtney Gains, Jason Hervey, Maia Brewton. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people my age and slightly younger have a real soft spot for Back to the Future. One of the biggest box office successes of 1985, the movie has become a treasured icon of its age, a movie very much associated with the decade despite its time-travelling motif. Younger generations are well-versed with the film mostly from frequent cable and broadcast TV appearances as well as from their parents VHS and DVD collections. Either way, there are few movies of the last 30 years that have resonated the way this one did.

Marty McFly (Fox) is a frustrated high school senior. He lives in a kind of middle class hell, his mom Lorraine (Thompson) a somewhat prudish, somewhat bitter woman who knows the best days of her life are behind her. His father George (Glover) is a picked-on milquetoast who allows his boss, Biff Tannen (Wilson) to abuse him mercilessly, taking credit for work that George does. Marty yearns for something better, whether it be through rock and roll or through his girlfriend Jennifer (Wells). Even the town he lives in, Hill Valley, is in a state of decrepitude; its clock tower that was once the crown jewel of the town square hasn’t worked for decades since a chance lightning strike left it inoperable.

He is also friends with Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Lloyd), considered to be a crackpot by most (and it’s kind of understandable) but he’s been doing some research into time travel and thinks he’s found a way to make it work. Through a series of accidents, Marty gets into the time machine (which is in, appropriately enough, a Delorean) and is sent back to the year 1955. Through a further series of mishaps, Marty manages to prevent his parents from meeting and instead takes his father’s place convalescing in the home of his mom, who instead of falling in love with his dad falls in love with Marty himself.

Without plutonium for the reaction, Marty is stuck in 1955 but he may not be for long – if he can’t get his parents to meet and kiss on the dance floor of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, he’ll never have been born. And even if he does get them together, how is he going to get back home to 1985?

Zemeckis and Gale were at the top of their game here and for Fox it is the role that he is most associated with, maybe even more so than Alex Keaton from Family Ties. The movie was kind of a perfect storm of elements coming together in just the right way. It was a movie that fit the time, but it was also much more than just a sci-fi adventure flick with lots of thrills and great characters, although it is that as well. The movie was supposedly inspired by writer/producer Bob Gale finding one of his father’s high school yearbooks and wondering if he had known his dad back then would they have hung out together, an intriguing concept.

We rarely think of our parents as people, but they were all young once; they all had the bloom of youth in their cheeks, all had hopes and dreams, all loved and lost, all got into trouble with their own parents and all did exactly the same kinds of things you did yourself. We can’t really put them in that perspective however; we need our parents to be parents. It’s hard to see them as young kids who didn’t have all the answers and weren’t always right. We can’t see them as ourselves.

This movie kind of forces you to look at them that way and realize what a crap shoot it is that you even exist; one missed connection and you’d never have been born. But at the same time, it’s a fun ride (so fun that it became a ride at Universal Studios theme parks although they have since replaced it with Simpsons -themed rides) that never lets up and is huge fun from minute one to closing credits. Movies like that are few and far between. From the Huey Lewis and the News songs to the eccentricities of Doc Brown to the awkward humor of having Marty being hit on by his mom (which offended some critics at the time), the movie remains an icon of the 80s and if it is a bit anachronistic with its Delorean time machine, Walkman cassette player and Libyan terrorists, it is no more so than most movies which are all without exception a product of their times. This is a classic that should be an essential part of any collection.

WHY RENT THIS: An absolute classic, one of the best movies to come out of the 80s. One of the most beloved films of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find this a little dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality and mild violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox was still starring in Family Ties when he signed to do this film. Because of his television commitment, he filmed most of his scenes from 6pm until 3am, getting about five hours of sleep a night. Scenes set in daylight were filmed on weekends. He managed to film the entire movie without missing a single shot of his television show.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also an extended conversation with Fox. The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition also includes a TV special, Back to the Future Night made to promote the sequel hosted by the late Leslie Nielsen, the footage from both the lobby and the ride of Back to the Future: The Ride which once was a big attraction at Universal Studios but no longer exists. There is also an independent retrospective, Looking Back to the Future which was originally feature-length and has been considerably cut here. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $381.1M on a $19M production budget; this was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 80s.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast From the Past

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: In My Sleep

Seabiscuit


Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Michael Angarano, Ed Lauter, Gianni Russo, Sam Bottoms, Dyllan Christopher, Gary Stevens, Royce D. Applegate, Valerie Mahaffey, Michael O’Neill, Annie Corley, David McCullough (voice), Michelle Arthur. Directed by Gary Ross

There are true stories and then there is the truth. Hollywood has a habit of obscuring one for the other. I say this because upon first glance at this movie, one is going to believe that some of the men who are front and center in Seabiscuit were saints, or at least close to it. Be aware as you watch this, that it is more or less an idealized version of the true story that surrounded one of the most legendary racehorses of our time and don’t let that fact get in the way of a truly wonderful movie.

The Great Depression hit some men harder than others. For automobile dealer Charles Howard (Bridges), a car accident that took the life of his 15-year-old son was a forceful reminder that the sunny days of the ’20s were over. Although Howard was able to retain much of his fortune, he found himself searching to fill the empty void in his life, one that cost him his first wife (Mahaffey) although he would later find the spirited Marcela (Banks) while on a trip to Mexico.

For Tom Smith (Cooper), the end of a lifestyle that he loved and an era in American history came hand-in-hand. One of the last of the true range-riding cowboys, Smith found himself in an increasingly mechanized age where the once endless prairies had vanished into subdivisions, towns and fenced-off ranches. A man who had forgotten more about horses than most of the rest of the country combined actually knew, he found it difficult to find a good job utilizing the skills and knowledge he had accumulated over years in the saddle. Adjusting to the 20th century was proving difficult to a man who was born 50 years too late.

Red Pollard (McGuire) had gone through life fighting his way uphill for everything he had, literally. Forced into a foster home after financial difficulties had beset his family, he had a massive chip on his shoulder for most of the rest of his life. He had tried his hand at prizefighting, but wound up beaten, bloody and more often than not, alone. An excellent rider, he was considered to be too big to be a jockey and there were otherwise precious few jobs that involved riding horses.

These three men were united by an unlikely horse named Seabiscuit. Small, ungraceful and none too fast, Seabiscuit’s career on the racetrack had been less than spectacular. But then Howard bought the horse and hired Smith to train him, and Pollard to ride him. And it is this particular confluence of people, time and events that would create magic – and sports history.

At first, Seabiscuit was met with a certain amount of apathy. But as he began to win, the canny publicity hound Howard began to market his horse like no other sports figure in the country (except for maybe Babe Ruth). The right sort of people began to get behind the underdog horse, such as radio reporter Tick Tock McLaughlin (Macy). And Seabiscuit continued to win and win and win.

Off in the distance, coming from the east, War Admiral — thought of as the Perfect Racehorse — had won racing’s coveted Triple Crown. The snobbish Eastern bankers who own War Admiral think at first the undersized horse from the West Coast is beneath their notice. Howard pushes in the press for a match race, leading to an epic confrontation that pitted the two greatest horses of all time, who happened to be at their peaks simultaneously.

Of course, Seabiscuit plays with the heartstrings – unashamedly and sometimes unnecessarily. The story of the great horse is great movie material; it had been done before – in an godawful 1949 tearjerker The Story of Seabiscuit starring Shirley Temple – but the horse with a heart bigger than a nation’s pain deserved a much better biography and this is it. Bridges, Cooper and McGuire all handle their roles respectfully, trying not to succumb to the over-sentimentality of the script, and bringing the essence of the characters to life. They have a good chemistry together which is immensely important given that this is as much their story as Seabiscuit’s.

Director Gary Ross wisely lets the visuals speak for themselves; the racing scenes are well-executed. Although the story is Hollywoodized somewhat, the facts are actually stuck fairly closely to, which is to be commended. They also do a great job of recreating the gait and style of the legendary Seabiscuit.

The movie is inspiring, if occasionally treacly. The story itself lends itself to a big stage, and Ross provides it for his fine cast. Getting past the sentiment can be tricky, but this is a story about perhaps the ultimate underdog and the movie has in ten short years become a sports movie classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Great underdog story. Excellent chemistry among the leads. Inspiring. Terrific racing sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prone to over-sentimentality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexuality and there is some violence within the context of the sport.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sold 5.5 million DVD copies which at the time was a record for a drama.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on horse racing in the 1930s which includes not only the Seabiscuit-War Admiral rivalry but also other great horses of the era. The Blu-Ray includes newsreel footage of the actual race and an A&E channel special on the real Seabiscuit.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $148.3M on an $87M production budget; the film fell shy of recouping it’s production costs during its theatrical run although it turned a very tidy profit on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Now You See Me

 

Fast & Furious 6


Vin Diesel is heartbroken to discover that Michelle Rodriguez looks better in a wifebeater than he does.

Vin Diesel is heartbroken to discover that Michelle Rodriguez looks better in a wifebeater than he does.

(2013) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Paul Walker, Luke Evans, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Gina Carano, Elsa Pataky, Clara Paget, Joe Taslim, Kim Kold, Samuel M. Stewart, Shea Whigham, Benjamin Davies, Matthew Stirling, David Ajala, There Lindhardt, Magda Rodriguez. Directed by Justin Lin   

I’m not much of a car person. I seriously couldn’t tell a carburetor from an alternator. When I go car shopping, I look for dependable. I drive a Honda for god’s sakes.

Which would probably make the characters in this film franchise squirm in horror. Any one of them could rebuild an engine of a Ferrari with parts from a Camry with their eyes closed and half asleep. And can they drive? Hoo lawd! These gals and fellers could put a 12-wheeler through a doggie door in a steel house at 90mph. And this series has thrived on people who think that kind of thing’s cool.

In the sixth installment of the series, the members of the crew are living large internationally after their big score in Rio. However, things never stay quiet for long for these guys. Hobbs (Johnson) shows up at Dom’s (Diesel) door, not particularly welcome. Even less welcome is Hobbs’ request that Dom’s crew reassemble to nab an international bad guy who is out to assemble a super-weapon out of component parts. After all, as Dom is happy to point out, they’re all retired from the game.

But Hobbs has a wild card to play – a photo of Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez), Dom’s girlfriend who apparently was murdered in Fast & Furious. Nope. Like at least one other character in the series, she shows up from the dead (albeit with no memory) but as one of the crew of said Eurobaddie, Owen Shaw (Evans). This is all the incentive Dom needs. Family is family, after all so he puts out some calls.

Those phone calls find Brian (Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Brewster) as new parents, Roman (Gibson) and Tej (Bridges) living the high life in Spain, Han (Kang) and Giselle (Gadot) living together in Hong Kong. They agree to help Dom bring Letty back, but Dom wants more – pardons for everyone so that they can go home again.

While Mia and Dom’s new squeeze Elena (Pataky) stay home to guard the baby, Hobbs and his new flunky Riley (Carano) join up with the crew in London to see if they can catch the guy who has eluded Hobbs for years. But the stakes are sky-high, Shaw’s team is as skilled as Dom’s only more vicious and Letty can’t remember Dom at all – in fact the first time they meet face to face she shoots him. This isn’t like any other job; they will be betrayed from within and more than one member of Dom’s team won’t come back from this.

Now, I want you to understand something up front – this isn’t reality at all. There are car stunts that defy gravity, plot points that defy logic and human bodies getting beat up so bad that they defy death. Da Queen and I were consistently making the “jumping the shark” signal to each other (an inverted V on one hand with two fingers on the other making a parabolic arc over the first) throughout the movie. And you know what? It didn’t matter. As ludicrous as this movie often is, it doesn’t matter – the entertainment quotient is so sky high that you ignore these lapses and just enjoy the ballet of man, machine and road.

Vinnie D and the Rock are both fairy limited at this point in their careers in terms of acting ability. That isn’t a knock or a criticism, they both I think understand what their comfort zone is and tend to stay well within it. While that may make for some fairly one-dimensional performances (and occasionally have) they are both also highly charismatic so their own personalities tend to inflect themselves on their characters. It so happens I like hanging out with these guys (or would if I knew them personally) so that isn’t a bad thing at all.

There’s a lot of posturing, a lot of attitude and some great stunts and car chases. While there is a nod to the underground racing roots of the series, the franchise is way beyond that now which is a very smart move – I think the car racing thing got old after the first one and they’ve really allowed themselves to appeal to more than a niche audience, which explains that their highest box office numbers have come with the last two films.

There is a cut scene at the end that you should hang out for – it explains one of the most notorious continuity lapses in the series and introduces a surprise new character in one of the great twists you’re ever going to see in a cut scene (up there with the reveal of Thanos).

This is great summer entertainment and has helped make a solid opening to the 2013 summer blockbuster season. There is definitely a Fast & Furious 7 in the works (already scheduled as of this date to open on July 11, 2014) which the cut scene sets up. As much as a non-car person that I am (as delineated above) and as much as I was disinterested in the series for the first four movies, the last two have made me a fan and I can’t wait for the next one.

REASONS TO GO: Varies the formula from the first two movies nicely while sticking to the things that made the first movie great. More Jeong is never a bad thing.

REASONS TO STAY: Scattershot much more than the first two films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence and automotive mayhem, some swearing and a bit of sexuality..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Rodriguez didn’t have a driver’s license when the series first started and only obtained one after filming began on the first film in the franchise.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; critics surprisingly have gotten behind this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job (2003)

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frances Ha

The Rundown


The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

(2003) Action (Universal) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Seann William Scott, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Walken, William Lucking, Ewen Bremner, Jon Gries, Ernie Reyes Jr., Stuart F. Wilson, Dennis Keiffer, Garrett Warren, Toby Holguin, Paul Power, Stephen Bishop. Directed by Peter Berg

Hollywood is in short supply of action stars these days, with the usual suspects getting long in the tooth, short at the box office or departed to other careers. But the search for new blood netted a real find in The Rock. Wrestling star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a success in The Mummy Returns and its spin-off, The Scorpion King. Now he’s cast in a more mainstream action flick, and the Hollywood powers-that-be were anxious to see if The Rock could open a movie that doesn’t have a built-in audience.

With material this good, he sure can. Here he plays Beck, a beleaguered bounty hunter who really wants to be a chef. He does the bounty hunting gig to pay off a debt to Walker (Lucking), a shady character who arranges to clear Beck of all obligation and supply him with enough stake to open his dream restaurant if he can retrieve one last item: the gangster’s son Travis (Scott) from the Amazon. Beck agrees to the deal.

With an incomprehensible Irish pilot named Declan (Bremmer), Beck arrives in a pimple of an Amazon town that’s run by the nefarious Hatcher (Walken) as his own personal kingdom, brutally forcing imprisoned laborers to mine gold. Beck wants no part of this; he’s just there for his man. However, Travis has actually found the location of a priceless treasure called El Gato. The local rebels want it to finance their fight against Hatcher; Hatcher wants it because he’s greedy. Travis wants it to make his reputation.

The pair go into the jungle to find the item, accompanied by the beautiful bartender Mariana (Dawson). Along the way, they run into a pack of libidinous monkeys, combative men of tiny stature with a predilection for vines and kicking the Rock around like a bitch, and an interesting fruit that gives the consumer a unique viewpoint.

It’s hard to classify this; it could be a comedy with action, or an action film with comedy. Both sides of the equation work marvelously. The Rock is able to lampoon his own persona while enhancing it, and has plenty of acting chops. The time is not far off where he will be tackling roles that we wouldn’t ever have associated with a pro wrestler.

Walken is, as always, worth the price of admission all by himself. A scene where he tries to explain the Tooth Fairy to a group of tribesmen is a classic. Scott, best known as Stifler in the American Pie movies, is satisfactory as a second banana. He’s smarmy and self-centered, but audiences can still empathize with him. Dawson has become a terrific leading lady; previous to this she had appeared in Men in Black 2 and had been intriguing there.

Director Peter Berg also did a wonderful black comedy called Very Bad Things which was in fact a very good thing. As with that film he deftly weaves the action and comedy elements into a cohesive whole, a very much more difficult task than it sounds. While best-known to the public as an actor on the Chicago Hope series, he’s also directed some fairly decent films since this one including Friday Night Lights and Hancock. However, in the interest of full disclosure he also directed the alien invasion film Battleship as well.

Had this been released during the summer, The Rundown would have been a massive hit. As it stands, it came in under the radar to a very large extent; it didn’t make my list of must-see fall films that year and as a matter of fact, a lot of critics wrote it off until they actually saw it. What it did turn out to be was the movie that was the bridge the summer blockbusters with the fall and winter hits in 2003. It’s safe to say we can all smell what The Rock is cooking: stardom and this was a very key ingredient in that dish.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s charisma and charm is in full flower. Well-written, poking fun at the Rock’s image while enhancing it. Nice action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Rock wasn’t as good an actor as he would later come to be and some of the scenes are a bit awkward. A bit cliché in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of violence (although nothing too over-the-top) and some crude dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a cameo by legendary action star Arnold Schwarzenegger as a patron in the bar scene. He happened on the set while filming an appearance as The Terminator for the Super Bowl. He was approached to do the shot and was agreeable. Fans have pointed to him saying “Have fun” to Johnson as a passing of the torch from one action legend to another.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on actor Christopher Walken and a parody feature on an E!-style channel about the monkeys.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $80.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was unsuccessful on its theatrical run although I understand it has since become profitable on home video.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Tamara Drewe

Johnny English Reborn


Rowan Atkinson gives himself a little touch-up.

Rowan Atkinson gives himself a little touch-up.

(2011) Spy Spoof (Universal) Rowan Atkinson, Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Daniel Kaluuya, Tim McInernny, Pik-Sen Lim, Richard Schiff, Burn Gorman, Isla Blair, Mark Ivanir, Stephen Campbell Moore, Roger Barclay, Eric Carte. Directed by Oliver Parker

The world needs its superspies. Suave men ridiculously well-dressed who can toss a grenade with one hand while holding a perfectly made cocktail in the other while spouting a witticism as dry as his martini. We need them. Really we do.

That is to say, we need Johnny English (Atkinson) but the urbane spy no longer needs the world. After a disaster in Mozambique which led to a world leader getting assassinated on Johnny’s watch, he has retired to a kung fu monastery where he is undergoing rigorous training to get a Zen-like calm back although what getting kicked in the nuts has to do with Zen I’m not quite sure.

Then he gets word that he is needed at MI-7 (now known as Toshiba British Intelligence in one of the film’s better jokes) and reports to Pegasus (Anderson), the agency’s chief. It appears that another assassination is in the offing and the contact who knows anything about it will speak only to English. Johnny is given a hero-worshipping Agent Tucker (Kaluuya) to assist and is watched like a hawk by psychiatrist, Kate Sumner (Pike) whom he develops a more intimate rapport with.

In the meantime he must contend with supercilious agent Simon Ambrose (West), an octogenarian hit woman with a deadly vacuum cleaner (Lim) and a clever and deadly opponent who always seems to be at least one step (if not more) ahead of English and his colleagues. Plus, it seems, there may be a mole within the agency. Someone evidently forgot to call the exterminator.

I have to admit first off that Rowan Atkinson is a taste I haven’t yet acquired. He has legions of fans for his efforts in “Blackadder,” “Mr. Bean” and in dozens of film appearances over the years but I haven’t ever really found him to be my taste, so take anything negative I say about him with a grain of salt. He is a gifted physical comedian but for whatever reason I’ve always found him to be too lowbrow. He is the equivalent of a fart joke and there are plenty enough of those here.

There are a lot of Bond references here as there must be in any self-respecting spy spoof but at times you get the sense that there isn’t any sort of real imagination here particularly in regards to the story. It seems like something we’ve seen a million times before, not only in Bond but it traditional suspense movies and in other spoofs, like “Get Smart” for example.

This is definitely aimed at youngsters. The humor really is on that level. Parents will get the references; kids will love the toilet humor and pratfalls. It’s really quite inoffensive and has moments that you might chuckle nostalgically at but it got little more out of me. Those who love Atkinson will probably get a lot more out of it than I did. It’s not a bad movie – heaven knows there’s much worse out there – but by the same token it isn’t going to remain in your memory banks for very long.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nifty gadgets and Atkinson, though an acquired taste, never disappoints.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is terribly juvenile and the plot stale and predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of rude humor, some cartoonish violence, a few choice bad words and some sexiness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simon Ambrose is said to have attended Eton College. In reality Dominic West, the actor that portrays him, actually did attend Eton.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $160.1M on a $45M production budget; this was a big hit but nearly all of it overseas. Only $8M came from domestic box office which virtually guarantees we’ll see another Johnny English movie but possibly not over here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mystery, Alaska

The Mummy (1999)


Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

(1999) Adventure (Universal) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, John Hannah, Kevin J. O’Connor, Oded Fehr, Jonathan Hyde, Erick Avari, Bernard Fox, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Ipale, Patricia Velasquez. Directed by Stephen Sommers

 

Note to Hollywood filmmakers: now this is how to do monster movies in the 21st century. Something old (the setting), something new (the effects), something borrowed (the premise), something blue (a couple of racy outfits). Even 13 years later this still remains a standard.

Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is an adventurer in the tradition of Indiana Jones. He’s smart, strong, a crack shot and as it happens, one of two survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Hamunaptra, the legendary (some would say mythical) Egyptian city of the dead. It’s reputed to be the resting place of the treasure of the Egyptian pharaohs.

It’s also the resting place of Im-Ho-Tep, the high priest of the dead and murderer of Pharaoh Seti II. Even back then they frowned on regicide a little; ol’ Im-Ho-Tep got the nastiest Egyptian punishment there is which is to be slowly devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles after being entombed while still alive. That definitely leaves a mark (those Egyptians could be pretty nasty when they wanted to be).

Cut to the 1920’s. After Evy Carnahan (Weisz), a sweet-natured librarian discovers a map to the legendary lost city, she enlists O’Connell, Jonathan (Hannah) her ne’er-do-well brother and a corrupt Warden (Djalili) – read designated victim – to help find the site, where the Book of Amon Ra, which contains the secrets of Egyptian magic, is also said to reside.

What they do find when they finally get there is the Book of the Dead. This awakens Im-Ho-Tep, who is mighty steamed – as you would be if you had been buried alive with flesh-eating beetles. He brings with him the ten plagues of Egypt (the ones in Exodus – check out The Ten Commandments if you aren’t up on them) and the ability to control the elements.

He wants to re-animate his dead lover (after 2,000 years, a fella’s got needs) and kidnaps the librarian to do so. From here on in, it’s a roller-coaster ride of dazzling special effects, spine-tingling thrills and daring escapes.

This is one of the best movies — in terms of sheer entertainment — that’s come down the pike since, say, Aliens or at maybe even the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark. It moves at breakneck speed and visually is superb eye candy. Director Stephen Sommers took a fairly hackneyed monster movie and turned it into a franchise for Universal, which sorely needed one.

And Brendan Fraser as an action hero? Who’da thunk it, but it works. Fraser is very likable, in the tradition of Jimmy Stewart. Weisz, then at the beginning of a career that has brought her an Oscar to this point, did a good job as the plucky heroine and Hannah set the bar for the comic relief. Fehr, playing a kind of Guardian of Hamunaptra, shows some Arabic hotness for the ladies and makes a credible action hero in his own right but you’re not watching the movie for the acting. It’s all about More and Bigger and Louder, and The Mummy delivers.

While some of the scenes are a bit too intense for younger children in general, this is one fine family entertainment that you’ll want to add to your video library. particularly if you have teenagers in the house.

WHY RENT THIS: Fun and entertaining. Re-invents the classic movie monster film. Great CGI effects for their time. Weisz and Fraser make an attractive heroic couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes are a bit grisly and may be too scary for smaller kids.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and a bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Ardith Bay, the character Fehr plays, is an anagram of Death By Ra. It is also the name of the character played by Boris Karloff in the original 1932 version.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: In the original DVD release there was a  text Egyptology feature that is actually quite informative. The 2001 Ultimate Edition includes a timeline of the reiging Pharaohs of Egypt. The 2008 Deluxe Edition included a storyboard to film feature. All of these are available on the DVD version as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $415.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster, spawning two sequels and a spin-off franchise.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Outsourced