The Book of Life


Viva Mexico!

Viva Mexico!

(2014) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Genesis Ochoa, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Sandoval, Grey deLisle, Dan Navarro, Sandra Echeverria. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez

They say the only two sure things in life are death and taxes. That’s not strictly true; there is one other sure thing – that love wins out over everything. All three of those items however are sure things in all cultures although they tend to put their own spins on everything. Take Mexico, for example.

At a museum a group of snot-nosed little brats are given a museum tour by the bemused Mary Beth (Applegate). She brings them into an as-of-yet unopened exhibit on Mexico and presents to them the Book of Life, an amazing magical book that contains all the stories ever written and proceeds to present to them a story from San Angel, a small village in Mexico. The town lives constantly in fear of the reprehensible bandit Chakal (Navarro).

There Manolo (Luna) comes from a long line of heroic bull fighters including his prideful father Carlos (Elizondo) and an acerbic grandmother (deLisle). His closest friend is Joaquin (Tatum) whose father died a hero. Joaquin wants nothing more than to be the hero his father was, if not greater. With them is Maria (Saldana), a headstrong little charmer whose father General Posada (Alazraqui) is alcalde of the village of San Angel. Both boys vie for the hand of Maria, who is sent away to Europe to learn manners.

When she returns, she is a beautiful young woman. Joaquin has become a heroic soldier in defense of the town and in fact, all of Mexico. Manolo shows potential to be the greatest Sanchez of them all but longs to be a troubadour, guitar in hand and spends most of his free time playing mariachi music with Pepe (Iglesias) much to the disapproval of his father. The two young men resume their rivalry although they continue to be the best of friends.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the village, two rulers of the underworld – La Muerte (del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba (Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten – have taken interest in the situation with Manolo, Joaquin and Maria and have enacted a little wager. If Xibalba wins, he gets to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered which is an eternal fiesta. Given that the Land of the Forgotten is a depressing wasteland, he will do whatever it takes to win the wager – including to cheat. He makes sure that not only does Manolo lose the wager but that he is bitten by a particularly venomous snake in the bargain.

Manolo awakens in the Land of the Remembered where souls who are remembered and loved by someone in world of the living, a colorful land that gets even more festive on the Day of the Dead (which is when I happened to see the movie – how is that for smart planning?) when the fiesta turns epic. Manolo meets his mother (de la Reguera) as well as other deceased members of the Sanchez family including the opera singer wannabe Jorge (Domingo). However, Manolo doesn’t want to be dead. He wants to return because his love for Maria is so strong.

Realizing that Xibalba had a hand in Monolo’s premature demise, Monolo’s family agree to help him go see The Candle Maker (Cube), a jovial god who is in charge of maintaining balance in the universe.  But the way to his domain is a perilous one and in Monolo’s absence San Angel is in mortal danger. Can Manolo save the day after he’s already dead?

The visuals here are charming and inventive, colorful and arresting. Based on Mexican folk art particularly the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the characters resemble wooden marionettes with a curiously human overlay. You’ve never seen anything quite like this.

While most animated features are fairy tales, this is folklore (there is quite a difference) even though the story is essentially an original one, it’s roots are in characters and symbols that exist in Mexican folklore traditions. Although a bit sugar coated and watered down, there is still some kernels of Mexico here and carry a flavor of that country that is as real and vibrant as a properly made guacamole.

Gutierrez wisely casts actors with distinctive voices that make their roles personable and memorable. He also casts a good deal of Hispanic actors in the role some of whom might be unfamiliar to you but are stars in Mexico, like telenovela heroine del Castillo, leading man Luna (who has appeared in a number of Hollywood films as well), action hero Trejo and comedians Iglesias and Cheech Marin.

There are also several gringos in the cast – Tatum, Elizondo (who is of Portuguese descent), Saldana, Ice Cube and Applegate. All of the cast, Hispanic and otherwise, perform admirably. The plot may be paper-thin and resemble typical animated plots in construction, but the visuals and Mexican cultural overlay elevate the movie from the typical.

Now there may be a few who take offense at some of the images – a giant mustache on Mexico as the center of a universe that looks uncannily like a sombrero and the characters who nearly all look like something out of a theme park version of Mexico with serapes, sombreros and facial hair adorning nearly every character. There is also the old trope of a woman being fought over like she’s the Publisher’s Clearing House prize. However, I suspect that this is not done so much as perpetuating stereotypes as it is making gentle fun of them as the filmmakers treat these things with affection. It is part of the Mexican culture to be humorously self-effacing.

It is nice to see an animated feature that isn’t largely just like all the others. Even Pixar has put out one or two of these lately. In a year where family audiences have been under-served, this comes as a breath of fresh air. Hopefully families will embrace this movie rather than reject it because of its cultural element; the soft box office it has had leads me to suspect that there are some families who are choosing not to see it because they aren’t interested in the Mexican culture at all. I hope not, but I do have to wonder in a country that has not grown out of its racist tendencies yet (as evidenced by draconian laws in Arizona and a refusal to overhaul its immigration policies aimed squarely at keeping Mexicans out) that this beautifully made feature hasn’t been a bigger hit than it is – or deserves to be.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully inventive and beautiful animation. All the voices have character.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure if its making fun of racial and gender stereotypes or perpetuating them.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor and mildly scary images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Williams was approached to co-write a pair of songs on the soundtrack because director Jorge R. Gutierrez was a fan of his work in Phantom of the Paradise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corpse Bride
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ouija

New Releases for the Week of October 17, 2014


FuryFURY

(Columbia) Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Scott Eastwood, Anamarie Marinca. Directed by David Ayer

In the waning days of World War II an American tank brigade rolls through Germany making the final push for Berlin. As the crusty sergeant who commands one Sherman tank knows, it’s one thing to fight Germans in Africa and another thing entirely to fight them in Germany. It will be a long hard slog to make it to the end of the war, and it will be longer and harder once his tank is assigned to a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. He promised his crew he’d get them home alive but some promises are just beyond keeping.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: War

Rating: R (for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout)

The Best of Me

(Relativity) Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato. The newest Nicholas Sparks adaptation (does the man ever stop writing?) finds a pair of high school sweethearts who have been separated by a series of tragic events reunited after 20 years. Despite all the water under that particular Carolina bridge, the sparks remain there even though they are played by completely different actors.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language)

The Book of Life

(20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube. A young man vies for the heart of a fiery jalapeno of a woman but he has a rival in a famous matador. Unbeknownst to evil, supernatural entities have placed bets on who wins the competition but one of the entities cheats on behalf of the matador. Exiled to the Land of the Dead, the young man must traverse three wildly different worlds, face his greatest fear, return to the Land of the Living and win the heart of his love. With a unique style based on Mexican folk art, this might be the most original animated feature of the year.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images)

Men, Women and Children

(Paramount) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer. A group of high school seniors and their parents find the waters of dating in the age of social networking to be increasingly infested by sharks and other dangers. As the Internet changes the way we interact and the way we develop relationships, the older generation struggles to catch up while the younger generation merely struggles to survive.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout – some involving teens, and for language)

Guardians of the Galaxy


Just don't call him Rocky...it pisses him off.

Just don’t call him Rocky…it pisses him off.

(2014) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Laura Haddock, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Gregg Henry, Josh Brolin, Alexis Denisof, Tomas Arana, Lindsay Morton. Directed by James Gunn

So what makes for a great summer movie? Is it spectacle? Over-the-top action? Bigger than life characters? A mix of comedy, pathos, drama and action? A movie that puts you in a place where you can relax and forget all your cares?

Marvel Studios, the cinematic arm of Marvel comics, has been dominating the summer market ever since they broke out with Iron Man back in 2008. Since then, it has been one blockbuster after another as they have successfully created a shared cinematic universe in a similar fashion to the one they developed for their four color division, keeping audiences invested in the goings on and eagerly anticipating the next film in the franchise. This year has been particularly successful for the Marvel brand, not merely in box office (although that is the bottom line for most studio sorts) but also by delivering what are arguably the two best films in the brand both in 2014.

After Captain America: The Winter Soldier utilized a ’70s-style political thriller as a kind of framework for a superhero movie that had repercussions across the Marvel cinematic universe (and greatly affecting the TV series Marvel Agents of SHIELD) the House of Ideas has taken a bold move; to center on a little-known group of heroes in a space opera setting that is the final stand-alone installment in Marvel’s Phase 2 before next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

 

Peter Quill (Pratt) is an adventurer and thief who used to live on Earth before being abducted by a group of outlaws named The Ravagers on the night his mother (Haddock) passed away from cancer. Did I mention that the Ravagers are a group of aliens led by Yondu Udonta (Rooker)? Quill has more or less broken away from the gang and is on the deserted, lifeless and ruined planet Morag. As he jauntily dances his way through the ruins he eventually finds a nondescript orb, using high tech to capture the artifact in a nod to the Indiana Jones movies.

Turns out he’s not the only one who wants the Orb. A renegade Kree named Ronan the Accuser (Pace) needs the Orb which hides a devastating secret. He’ll stop at nothing to get it and sends Gamora (Saldana), an adopted daughter of Thanos (Brolin), a malevolent figure who has designs on ruling the galaxy. Ronan is merely insane, akin to a religious terrorist who means to impose his version of morality on the Galaxy which begins with exterminating the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps who have signed a treaty with the Kree’s ancient enemies the Skrull as well as with the Kree themselves. Ronan will not tolerate this and needs the Orb to exact his version of justice.

Yondu also wants the Orb to get the massive pay day that’s being offered for it but Peter is making his own deals these days, so Yondu sets a bounty on Peter’s head. A pair of disreputable bounty hunters, a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Cooper) and a humanoid tree named Groot (Diesel) who only speaks three words and in the same order every time – “I Am Groot,” want Peter and the Orb so that they can get paid.

 

Then there’s Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) who doesn’t want the Orb or Peter – he wants vengeance on Ronan who murdered his entire family. When he espies Gamora battling Peter for the Orb, he figures he can start moving his way up the ladder by sending Gamora to the sweet Hereafter. However, since all of this is transpiring on Xandar, the Nova Corps arrest the whole lot of them and send them off to prison.

Gamora reveals that she intends to betray Ronan and keep the Orb from him permanent-like as the Orb conceals one of the Infinity Gems, an artifact of immeasurable power that can level planets and wipe out civilizations. Quill, normally the most mercenary of men, grows a conscience but figures that the five of them can escape from this inescapable prison, avoid Ronan and is henchmen Nebula (Gillan) who is also one of Thanos’ adopted “daughters,” and Korath (Hounsou) a fearsome fighter. If they can keep from killing each other while they’re doing it, so much the better.

James Gunn is an inspired choice to helm this film; as previous movies on his resume like Slither and Super showed, he has a quirky sense of humor and a stylish visual sense. One of the things he utilizes to full effect is a group of songs from the 60s and 70s that Peter has collected on the Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1 which his mother gave him prior to her death and is his sole link with his life on Earth. The tape (which is available for download or on CD) has some amazing songs that have a certain cheese factor but are actually all pretty damn catchy, ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and  “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (the latter two both classics for different reasons). It’s one of the most engaging soundtracks in recent years.

This is a galaxy that may be far, far away but there’s an awful lot that’s familiar about it too. Part of the reason for that is that Gunn takes the time to develop all of his characters. It isn’t just Quill and Gamora, the two leads, who are given personalities, but all five of the Guardians and to a certain extent, some of the villains as well – Yondu, Ronan and The Collector (del Toro) all become defined, fleshed-out characters that everyone in the audience will root for – or against as the case may be.

 

Pratt, who has mostly been known for supporting roles but made some career headway in Parks and Recreation, establishes himself as a lead movie star here. He’s funny, but also handles his action sequences with aplomb and when the time comes for him to be heroic, handles that aspect nicely. He has a great deal of screen presence and seems comfortable being the film’s center. While Saldana’s chemistry with Pratt isn’t as incendiary as I would have liked, the rest of the crew all come off pretty well.

The characters of Rocket and Groot are just as real as the flesh and blood actors is; there is a moment near the very end of the film when Rocket lets down his guard and we see his pain in a very real way. It is one of the most moving moments of the film alongside of young Peter mourning his mother. I think it isn’t unfair to say that the two CGI characters very nearly steal the film. One of the moments I loved most in the movie is Groot getting absolutely medieval on a bunch of Ronan’s thugs, beating the holy crap out of them to the point of overkill, then turning to Peter – a.k.a. Star-Lord by the way – and giving him a sheepish grin that had the whole theater in stitches.

I don’t often give perfect scores to summer movies but this is one that is getting one. This is as entertaining a movie as I’ve seen in years. I’m not big on going to see a movie more than once in theaters – there are only a very few that I’ve done that with – but as I write this, I’m getting ready to head down to the IMAX 3D theater at Pointe Orlando to see it a second time, this time in 3D IMAX. So you still want to know what makes a great summer movie? Just watch this.

REASONS TO GO: Great balance between humor and action. Spectacular visuals. Career-making performance by Pratt. Rocket and Groot work so much better than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like sci-fi, you don’t like superheroes, you don’t like Marvel or you don’t like movies in general.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel recorded all of his dialogue in a number of languages including Spanish, Mandarin and French so that the same voice can be heard in every version.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serenity

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sex Tape

New Releases for the Week of August 1, 2014


Guardians of the GalaxyGUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

(Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro. Directed by James Gunn

Peter Quill, a human adventurer in the far reaches of the galaxy – okay, maybe thief is a better word – acquires a strange and mysterious orb. What he doesn’t know is that the persistent and enigmatic Ronan the Accuser covets that item. What he also doesn’t know is that the orb possesses terrifying power. When the chickens come to roost – not that there are chickens in the far reaches of the galaxy – it will be up to Quill and a ragtag group of bickering teammates to keep that orb out of the hands of Ronan if the galaxy is to remain safe.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

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

Boyhood

(IFC) Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke. Richard Linklater’s acclaimed new film is already on track to appear on an awful lot of top ten lists at the end of the year. Linklater filmed the same actors portraying a family, particularly through the point of view of the son, over a twelve year period. The rocks and shoals of growing up are told with a soundtrack that keeps pace with the boy’s tastes in music year after year.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use)

Get On Up

(Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Dan Aykroyd. The story of James Brown, who rose from impoverished conditions, abandoned by his own mother to become the Godfather of Soul. Brown is one of the most influential figures in the history of music but is often relegated to a less important status behind white artists, many of who themselves were influenced by Brown. In other words, it’s about damn time.

 

See the trailer, clips, interviews, premiere footage, a promo and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Musical Biography

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug use, some strong language and violent situations)

Living is Easy With Eyes Closed

(Outsider) Javier Camara, Natalia de Molina, Francesc Colomer, Ramon Fontsere. Based on actual events, an English teacher in Spain who is obsessed with his hero, John Lennon, decides to take a road trip to Almeria in hopes of meeting his idol who is making a film there. Along the way, he picks up a couple of runaways and together the three will find a deeper meaning in their journey than they were expecting.

See clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

Out of the Furnace


Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

(2013) Drama (Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Dendrie Taylor, Carl Ciarfalio, Nancy Fosser, Bingo O’Malley, Jack Erdie, Gordon Michaels, Angela Kauffman, Charles David Richards, Tommy Lafitte, Tiffany Sander McKenzie. Directed by Scott Cooper

Times are tough. You don’t need to go to a movie to tell you that. In the Rust Belt, the manufacturing  jobs that were once the bread and butter in the region have been shrinking away, slowly disappearing from view. That leaves the residents there scrambling to find other ways to make money.

Russell Baze (Bale) is one of the lucky few who still has employment at a steel mill. He lives with a young woman named Lena (Saldana) who adores him and the two are talking about starting a family. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is back home from a tour of Iraq in the army. Sure their dad (O’Malley) is dying of cancer but they have his  brother and their Uncle Red (Shepard) to help them out. Things could certainly get a whole lot worse.

And then they do. Russell is involved in an incident not his fault that results in him getting sent to jail for a few years. Things begin to fall apart. Rodney goes back to Iraq. Their father dies. Even Lena leaves him, taking up with the chief of police Wesley (Whitaker) of their small town outside of Pittsburgh. All of a sudden things don’t make sense quite as much.

When Rodney returns and Russell finishes his time in jail, they both need to pick up the pieces. For Russell, that means obsessively stalking Lena and getting his job back at the mill while fixing up his dad’s old place. For Rodney, that means bare knuckle fights to pick up cash for a debt he owes to local bar owner and dealer of all things shady John Petty (Dafoe).

Rodney needs more money to fix up his debt however and he cajoles Petty into getting him a fight in rural New Jersey where a meth kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things. Like any decent mountain community, they don’t cotton to no city folk telling them how to run things. When things go bad, Russell is left to pick up the pieces and do the right thing for his brother.

First of all, this is a movie that isn’t well-served by its trailer. It gives away an important plot twist and intimates that this is a different kind of movie than it is. The trailer implies that this is a thriller and quite frankly, that element of the movie only takes place over the last 20 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is more of a drama which is how I’m characterizing it now.

Cooper, whose first feature was Crazy Heart takes a completely different turn here on this his second. The milieu is much bleaker which is saying something considering that his last movie was about an alcoholic country singer whose career is fading into the twilight. Cooper has a knack at capturing working class life and working class people. As an actor himself he also manages to wring some excellent performances out of his actors.

Bale delivers just such a performance. He’s low-key and soft-spoken throughout most of the film but rage boils in him and sometimes boils over. He’s a decent man at heart but life has thrown just about everything at him he can tolerate and then some. There’s a scene with Saldana on a wooden bridge in which he tries to rekindle things after he gets out of prison that is so heartbreaking that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. In fact, it’s not just Saldana and Bale that do good work here – nearly every member of the principal leads is mesmerizing.

Harrelson is also noteworthy as the villain. When DeGroat meets Russell for the first time in Petty’s office and the two have words, Russell asks him “You got a problem with me?” and DeGroat responds “I got a problem with everybody” and that encapsulates the character. He’s as mean as a rattlesnake and prone to outbursts of violence as evidenced by the very first scene in which DeGroat beats a man half to death for intervening when DeGroat assaults his date at a drive-in. Harrelson captures that meanness and rage. There’s nothing redeeming about DeGroat, no qualities at all that make things around him better. He’s a cancer in his community that everyone is afraid to operate on.

There are a lot of good things about this movie but for some reason I couldn’t connect with it. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a movie quite as bleak as this. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little bit too long. Maybe the ending scene which didn’t ring true and was followed by an extraneous coda did me in. Or maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea to begin with. Da Queen was very taken by the movie and would have given it a significantly higher score than I did – she was frankly surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as she did because normally I go for these sorts of films.

For whatever reason I didn’t here and that can be taken for whatever grain of salt you wish to give it. The elements are all here for a good movie and in fact you may well find it to be more rewarding than I did. For me there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it – unrelenting violence and despair with nothing at the end that made me think it was all worth it. Perhaps that was the point. In any case, I found this a movie in which the ingredients were superior but it didn’t add up to a gourmet dish.

REASONS TO GO: Solid performances throughout by an excellent cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long. The ending was quite the letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence, some pretty strong language and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie playing at the drive-in during the opening scene is Midnight Meat Train.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill Christmas movie festival begins!

New Releases for the Week of December 6, 2013


Out of the Furnace

OUT OF THE FURNACE         

(Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Bingo O’Malley. Directed by Scott Cooper

A steel mill worker cares for his terminally ill father by night and waits for his brother to come home from Afghanistan. When he finally does arrive home, his brother is damaged, feeling betrayed by the country he gave so much to defend. He winds up falling in with a dangerous crowd. When his brother disappears, the mill worker discovers a whole new world, one which the law of the land is immaterial and  a ruthless criminal boss make the rules. What that boss didn’t count on was taking on a mill worker who will absolutely stop at nothing to find his brother.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, language and drug content)

Adventures of the Penguin King

(Cinedigm) Starring the voice of Tim Allen. A young King Penguin, absent from home for three years, returns home to find a mate and start a family. He will find that more challenging than he could ever imagine.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Nature Drama

Rating: PG (for some mild language)

Muscle Shoals

(Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Bono, Keith Richards. A small town in Alabama becomes the center of the musical universe when a recording studio starts to churn out hit after hit. Some of the most iconic songs in the rock, blues and country genres have come out of this studio which continues to be significant today.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, language, smoking and brief partial nudity) 

R…Rajkumar

(Eros International) Shahid Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha, Sonu Sood, Ashish Vidyarthi. A courier for a notorious drug lord falls in love with the niece of a rival drug lord.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR 

Star Trek Into Darkness


Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

(2013) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Amanda Foreman, Jay Scully, Jonathan H. Dixon, Aisha Hinds, Joseph Gatt, Deep Roy, Anjini Taneja Azhar. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The trouble with taking on an icon is that the bar is impossibly high. You’re not going to please everybody, particularly the diehard old guard fans of the franchise. The fever pitch of shrieking outrage usually begins with the second film in the reboot. J.J. Abrams knows that better than most; he has had his fingers in the hands of three beloved franchises – Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is his second film in the reboot of the Trek franchise. The first got some grudging respect from the notoriously difficult-to-please Trek fandom who might very well turn their noses up if Gene Roddenberry were resurrected and turned up to direct a new Trek movie.

The new film starts out with a terrorist attack in London, ramps up with a conspiracy to militarize Starfleet’s science and exploration mission (think of NASA with missiles and bombs) and finishes up with the appearance of a familiar foe.

Normally I’m one to describe the plot in great detail, but I think I’m going to abstain this time – for one thing, I found that knowing little about what was to occur in the movie made it far more delightful. Knowledgeable Trekkers and those fairly familiar with the canon of the original series will find lots of references here, from Harry Mudd to Transwarp drive to tribbles. There is also a great deal of referencing one of the original series most popular episodes and most beloved films but not exactly as you might remember it.

Abrams has re-energized the franchise without a doubt. Part of the success of the reboot has to do with the casting – each of the choices are spot on. Pine in particular takes the essence of Captain Kirk created by William Shatner and loses some of the mannerisms that made the character a bit of a parody in later years. Pine understands the basics of the legendary Captain – the recklessness, the ego, the brilliant strategic mind and the penchant for womanizing, but takes out the quirks – the stunted speech patterns, the over-reaction reactions and the writers have kindly aided his cause by giving Kirk fewer pronouncements and more self-analysis.

Quinto also makes a terrific Spock, although I noticed in this movie that his jaw seemed a bit more set and he looked a little less like the original Spock in a lot of ways, but he does capture the constant war between the emotional human side and the cold, logical Vulcan in him. The trauma of Vulcan’s fate in the last film weighs heavily on him, although he doesn’t show it.

The relationship between Spock and Uhura is an interesting one, given that this is a recent invention. Zoe Saldana gives the character a little more action-orientation than Nichelle Nichols did in her day; I like also that the writers give her a lot more to do than being a glorified answering machine. She is much more a member of the team than she was in the original series, where much of the planning, decision making and risk taking was done by the male members of the crew. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Cho is a worthy successor to George Takei as Sulu. One of the great regrets I have when it comes to Star Trek is that we never really got to see too much of Sulu as Captain – in the couple of instances when we did see it Takei was amazing. Cho gets an opportunity to take command as Sulu and makes the most of it; I’m kind of hoping we see Cho in a spin-off someday.

Pegg is one of the world’s outstanding comic actors and while Scotty becomes more of a comic figure than he was in the original series (although depicted as a heavy drinker he had his share of drunk moments that James Doohan played beautifully) the main thrust of his character is his brilliance as an engineer and we get that from Pegg as well, although he is a bit more willful than the original Scotty and in one of the new film’s most underrated scenes stands right up to Kirk, something I don’t recall seeing the character ever do before but was a welcome moment here.

There are also “guest” characters; Greenwood as Pike is a bit of a mentor and a lot more of a father figure to Kirk. Alice Eve is gorgeous and plays her pivotal character as a lot more than you might guess from the surface – and the writers leave room for future glimpses of her character. Peter Weller, who had a couple of appearances on the Enterprise TV series, plays an admiral here whose character might remind long-time fans of an admiral who had a small but pivotal role in one of the last movies featuring the original crew.

That leads us to Benedict Cumberbatch whose character is…well, not who he appears to be. Fans of the original series will doubtlessly guess early on who he actually is but for now let us say that he is a brilliant adversary worthy of Kirk and Spock and whose appearance is done in what I believe is the proper way – coming into the series sideways, making the surprise all the more pleasant (although again savvy Trekkers will either know from Internet chatter who he is or guess based on the clues the filmmakers give us early on). Cumberbatch is an up-and-coming actor who looks to have a brilliant career ahead of him, and based on this film is already getting some scrutiny for some plum roles in franchise films. Before you know it this man is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Bet on it.

The stakes are higher here and the effects are as crazy good as they were in the last Star Trek film. I chose not to see it in 3D – who wants to see those annoying lens flares in 3D? – and I think that’s a wise choice. Some of the scenes are set in pretty dark places and the 3D glasses will only make it murkier. Besides, I didn’t get the sense that 3D would have added anything to the experience.

I liked the movie just a smidge less than the first one; what pleased me most is that the filmmakers are developing the characters in just the right way to set up more thoughtful episodes in the future. While there was some underlying commentary about the militarization of space, the usefulness of drones and of terrorism in general, this is still a little more action-oriented than fans of the original series may like but that does make the movie more palatable to non-fans. Oh, and you get to see Klingons too.

In my review of the first film I wondered if Abrams could repeat his successful reboot in the second film. The answer is a resounding yes. This is great entertainment not only for Trekkers but for general audiences as well, managing to thread the line nicely. Certainly this bodes well for the future of the franchise and with the 50th anniversary of Trek’s debut in 1966 only a few short years away, one can only be hopeful that there are a lot more places for the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go.

REASONS TO GO: Pine turning out to be an excellent Kirk and the rest of the supporting cast works well also. Nice effects, battle sequences and stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit all over the place.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty intense battle sequences in space as well as some pretty nifty fisticuffs.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Scotty (the late James Doohan), makes a cameo appearance as a transporter technician working alongside the current Scotty in the transporter room.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100; pretty impressive reviews for a Star Trek film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Russian Ark

New Releases for the Week of May 17, 2013


Star Trek Into Darkness

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Peter Weller, Alice Eve. Directed by JJ Abrams

The rebooting of the beloved science fiction franchise continues as Captain Kirk takes the gallant crew of the Enterprise where maybe they shouldn’t go – deep into his own hubris. When a terrorist attack shocking in its brutality leads to the presence of an advanced weapon and a killer hidden within Starfleet itself, Kirk decides to capture or kill this man who may bring down the entire Federation to suit his own agenda – and destroy the Enterprise and her crew in the process.

See the trailer, clips, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Opening today in IMAX 3D; Opening tomorrow in Standard/3D

Genre: Science Fiction

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

Hating Breitbart

(Freestyle) Andrew Breitbart, Orson Bean, Michelle Bachmann, Keith Olbermann. Conservative gadfly and Internet blogger Andrew Breitbart upended traditional journalism in much the same way Fox News changed the way television news viewed objectivity in reporting the news. Liberals hate him; conservatives venerate him. He unearthed the ACORN scandal and published the tweets that ultimately took down Congressman Anthony Wiener. Love him or hate him, you must admit he is passionate about his beliefs.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for some language)

The Iceman

(Millennium) Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta. Richard Kuklinski seems to be a fairly normal guy. A loving husband, a devoted father and a pillar of the community, he lives a quiet suburban life. But that life hides a shocking fact; Richard Kuklinski is a contract killer for the mob who has murdered more than 100 people by his own estimates. Based on a stunning true story.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Crime

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language and some sexual content) 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl


Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2003) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Mackenzie Crook, Damian O’Hare, Lee Arenberg, Zoe Saldana, Angus Barnett, Giles New, Vanessa Branch Directed by Gore Verbinski

I didn’t do handsprings when Disney said it was making this movie based on its popular ride, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. After all Country Bears left a stench so thick in theaters the year previous that some exhibitors were forced to fumigate.

However, someone at Mouse House got the brilliant idea to turn over the movie to überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, who in turn had the brilliant idea to hand the directing reins to Gore Verbinski, who directed The Ring and Mouse Hunt but more importantly, was responsible for the invention of the Budweiser Frogs. Finally, Verbinski had the even more brilliant idea of casting Johnny Depp as one of the nefarious pirates. The result is one of the best adventure movies of recent years.

Will Turner (Bloom), an apprentice blacksmith and sword maker in the Caribbean colony of Port Royal, is in love with Elizabeth, the governor’s daughter (Knightley). Her somewhat bumbling father (Pryce) has made a far better match for her, betrothing her to a dashing naval commander (Davenport). Will takes solace in capturing a cunning pirate named Jack Sparrow (Depp), late of the infamous Black Pearl, who is scheming to retake the ship and crew — who left him marooned on an uninhabited isle.

Unlike Gilligan, Sparrow escapes and makes his way to Port Royal, only to be thrown in the hoosegow and sentenced to be hanged. His sentence is interrupted by the Black Pearl itself, with its new commander, the bloodthirsty Barbossa (Rush), which storms Port Royal, wreaking great destruction and mayhem. The plucky Elizabeth is taken, no doubt to be ransomed back to her wealthy father. The British navy makes a cursory search for her, but knows a ransom will have to be paid.

Turner takes matters into his own hands, breaking Sparrow out of jail and enlisting his help save his ladylove. Sparrow is to get his old ship back in the process. Sparrow agrees, and the two sail off headed for the lair of the Black Pearl. To this point, it’s pretty much a routine pirate movie.

Now is where the movie really gets interesting. It turns out that Barbossa and his crew have no intention of ransoming the girl back. They are under a terrible curse, one laid on them by angry Aztec gods for having stolen sacred gold. The crew have become the living dead, whose condition is revealed by moonlight. They are invulnerable and immortal, but unable to partake in the pleasures of the flesh that their wealth would buy them. Desperate to become human again, they need to reassemble the entire Aztec treasure and sacrifice an innocent human to placate the gods.

Elizabeth has the last ingot, and she makes a nifty innocent sacrifice. Turner takes great exception to that plan.

This is the kind of movie for which summers were made. Beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted and a nifty storyline to boot, with plenty of eye candy to satiate even the most jaded moviegoer.

Depp, in particular, is absolutely out of this world. He seems to be half drunk all the time, and all drunk half the time, but his charade of inebriation hides a keen mind and a terrifying tactician. With an airy wave of his hand, Depp tosses off bon mots like Dean Martin, but when the scene calls for swordplay, he is unusually graceful and adept.

Of course, Bloom can handle a sword himself, as he has shown in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He makes a compelling romantic lead, but is simply blown out of the water by Depp. Knightley is lustrous, yet retains enough spunk to make her character interesting. In fact, all of the major and minor characters here are interesting; they seem to fall in the Disney family ethos, but have edges rough enough to make them appealing to a more mature crowd.

Rush is absolutely delicious as a film villain, as he was in Mystery Men. He’s completely terrific here. Verbinski has a wonderful sense of scope, and the look is as epic as any pirate movie from Hollywood’s heyday. He throws in wonderful visuals of cursed pirates that owe only their concepts to the Disney ride, enough so that one can recognize them in the movie, but definitely much farther developed than the more primitive animatronics of the theme park attraction.

Pirate movies haven’t been much in vogue of late, but this one will change all that. This is much fun for the entire family, and a movie you are sure to want to own so you can enjoy the ride over and over again. Michael Jackson must have eaten his own liver back then – he famously constructed a copy of the ride that inspired the movie on his Neverland ranch for quite the pretty penny. He could have waited and bought the DVD instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Depp creates an iconic character. Great story and an awesome curse. Wonderful effects and just enough comic relief to keep the movie balanced without degenerating into parody.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unreasonable fear of pirates…

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of cartoon-ish violence and a few disturbing images that the very small might be frightened by. However for most kids this is pure Disney fun, particularly your overactive little boys.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The ship used to play the HMS Interceptor is a real, working sailing vessel. It is the Lady Washington and serves as the tall ship ambassador for the State of Washington. It was also the same ship used in the holodeck sequence of Star Trek: Generations in the opening sequence where Picard performs the wedding ceremony for Troi and Riker.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD-ROM feature (remember them) on the original DVD release includes the ability to “pirate” up a personal photo (you can do that now with an app on the average smart phone). There are also production diaries, a blooper reel and a featurette on the Disneyland ride. The featurette on the sequence in which the moonlight first reveals the true aspect of the pirates is superior to others in the same ilk.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $654.3M on a $140M production budget. The movie was an international blockbuster and started up a multi-billion dollar franchise for Disney which is rumored to be actively looking to get a fifth film in the series going as of this writing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Blood

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Beautiful Creatures

The Words


The Words

Bradley Cooper tries to explain to Zoe Saldana why she can’t be in The Hangover III

(2012) Drama (CBS) Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, Ron Rifkin, John Hannah, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean, James Babson, Brian Klugman, Zeljko Ivanek, Elizabeth Stauber. Directed by Brian Klugman and Len Sternthal

 

Writing is near and dear to my heart. I am fascinated by words and like to use a lot of big ones. I don’t apologize for that. Communication is my job and I like to be precise about it. Still, as I’m fond of saying, I don’t write because I want to; I write because I have to. Those who write for a living will tell you that they didn’t pick their particular career choice; it chose them.

Clay Hammond (Quaid) is reading from his latest best seller. A comely grad student named Daniella (Wilde) approaches him from the audience and asks him for more detail about his story than he had given during the reading. Clay, who is separated from his wife, is a little tipsy and responds to the flirting. He starts to tell her about it.

Rory Jansen (Cooper) has dreams of being a writer. He works for three years on a novel, pouring out his heart. It’s good, he’s told but not great. He, like many struggling writers, begins to collect rejection slips like Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons. His girlfriend Dora (Saldana) is supportive; his dad (Simmons) not so much, although there is clearly affection between them. It’s just that dear old dad wants his son to grow up and take responsibility, understanding that not every dream is achievable.

Rory and Dora (which sounds a bit like a preschoolers cartoon – couldn’t you have come up with better names than that?) eventually get married and wind up honeymooning in Paris (which is a bit pricey for struggling young newlyweds but let’s assume they got it as a gift) and while antique hunting Dora finds a beautiful old valise which she buys for Rory to use at his new job in the mailroom at a literary agency.

Still, Rory is depressed about his stalled career and wonders if he has the talent to be somebody. His depression begins to create a gulf between him and his friends and even between him and Dora. Then Rory finds a manuscript in the valise, one that has been sitting there for a long while. He begins reading it. He can’t put it down. It’s almost like a slap in the face; here is the novel he’s always wanted to write and someone else has written it. He becomes obsessed with it. He wants to know what it would be like to write something like that, so he takes the typewritten manuscript and types it, word for word including the misspelled words, into his laptop. He leaves it there and forgets about it.

But Dora finds it. She insists that he take it to an agent so he does. The agent (Ivanek) loves it. It gets published. The little book becomes a sensation. At first Rory feels guilty over plagiarizing the work but reasons that it was a means to an end; the novels he couldn’t get published now have deals and all due to this forgotten manuscript. He wins awards and becomes rich. His relationship with Dora becomes stronger.

One day while reading on a bench in Central Park, an old man (Irons) sidles up and sits nearby. The old man recognizes him and gets his copy of the book autographed. Then the old man tells him a story; the story of a young man (Barnes) in Paris after World War II. The young man becomes smitten with Celia (Arnezeder), a waitress in a sidewalk cafe. She falls in love with him. They marry but after a tragedy they separate. He becomes disconsolate without her. He writes a book, one he pours all his heart and soul into. The words flow out like a river. It is finished in two weeks.

He sends it to her and she reads it. She’s amazed and agrees to come home. Unfortunately, the valise she put the novel in got left aboard a train. It disappears – and it’s absence comes between the young man and Celia just as surely as a brick wall would.

The line between fiction and fact blurs a little in The Words. It isn’t about writing so much, although the demon in Rory that compels him to write, that compels him to be adored for it, is one I know all too well. But this is a story about guilt and how it gets into a relationship insidiously destroying it from within. It destroys people as well.

The three stories are all interrelated, but which ones are true and which ones are fantasy are pretty much left up to the interpretation of the audience (my take? All three). It is a story inside of a story within a story which while not an original means of telling a story is nonetheless not an easy one and takes a deft hand to pull off, which it is here.

It helps to have some strong performances from the male leads, and the filmmakers get them. Irons is one of those actors who looks and sounds great even when uttering banal lines. He’s memorable when onscreen and his scenes with Cooper are among the best in the movie. Quaid also has some fine moments although he is little more than a framing device. Still, there’s some thought and depth to his character.

The women don’t fare as well – Saldana gets the most screen time among them but for the most part the women in the movie aren’t developed quite as well as the men are. They are entirely reactive and serve either as ornaments or as plot devices. It’s not a commentary on them as actresses; more of a commentary on the writing.

It is meant to be literate and there is a bit of the hoity toity “writers are special” attitude that movies about writers sometimes get. And, as a movie about words, there are a lot of them. Much of the action moves through dialogue and there are voiceovers throughout. And while you may not see everything coming (to their credit the filmmakers refuse to spell things out although you can pretty much figure things out) the story isn’t what you’d call ground-breaking.

Still this is a smart movie that also appeals to the heart. The Old Man is a figure you will have a great deal of sympathy for, even though much of his dilemma is of his own making. I have to say I was inspired to go and do some writing after seeing this, even though that’s something I do every day. Writing movie reviews is one thing. Writing something that counts, something that means something to somebody and gives them insight to life or at least their own soul – that’s an entirely different thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful and literate. Inspires me to write. Fine performances by Irons, Quaid and Cooper.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly talky. Story is a bit been-there done-that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly rough language in certain places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rosamund Pike was considered for the role of Daniella but it eventually went to Olivia Wilde.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100. The reviews are horrible.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax

ERNEST HEMINGWAY LOVERS: The book that inspires the Young Man to writing is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Jackal