Monday, September 30, 2013

Ron Howard’s Race Car Movie RUSH Is A Solidly Sincere Ride

Now playing at a multiplex near you 

RUSH (Dir. Ron Howard, 2013)

One thing Ron Howard, or Opie Cunningham as those of us older folk used to call him, is well equipped to do is make a race car movie set in the ‘70s that really looks and feels like it was actually made in the ‘70s. After all, he cut his teeth on his first full length feature film as film maker, the 1977 smash ‘em up car chase flick GRAND THEFT AUTO.

The gritty grainy look is dead on in Howard’s newest film RUSH, currently #3 at the box office, which dramatizes the real life racing rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, two Formula One drivers who competed for the title of World Champion in the 1976 season.

Chris Hemsworth, Thor himself, takes on the role of the arrogant beefy British playboy Hunt, while Daniel Brühl embodies the also arrogant tech-minded Australian Lauda, nicknamed “the Rat” on account of his overbite. Through wins and defeats on racetracks all over the world, we ping pong back and forth from the leads’ point-of-views, with pit stops in their personal lives: Hemsworth weds Olivia Wilde as supermodel Suzy Miller; Brühl gets involved with Alexandra Maria Lara as German socialite Marlene Knaus.

But, of course, the heart and pulse of RUSH is when these guys are behind the wheel of their fast machines. One of the most thrilling scenes comes midway through when Brühl’s Lauda gets in a near fatal crash in his Ferrari at the German Grand Prix. He escaped with severe burns after being trapped in 800-degree heat for nearly a minute. This, you might think, would be the end of one’s motor racing career, but in the case of the ultra determined Lauda, think again.

I went in not knowing nothing about Formula One racing history (or any racing history for that matter), but I often couldn’t tell if I was watching real footage or recreations in the riveting race sequences.

I’ve got to really hand it to Howard because I’ve learned that he uses very little film from that era - only two minutes of archive racing footage appears. Kudos to Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, longtime director of photography for Danny Boyle, for how perfectly they pulled this off. It’s a film that would aptly look fantastic on a screen at a drive-in.

Howard has been accused of having no discernible style as a film maker, and perhaps that’s true but throughout his filmography of broad comedies, sci-fi family films, heartfelt dramas, and Tom Hanks headers there is a discernible sincerity.

And Howard’s brand of sincere story-telling scores in every frame of RUSH. Along with delivering the authentic feel of ‘70s race car action, Howard gets great performances out of his cast – Hemsworth proves himself out of his superhero safety zone, and Brühl, best known for his work in the excellent GOOD BYE, LENIN!, shows why he’s somebody worth looking out for (he next appears as Daniel Domscheit-Berg in Bill Condon’s Julian Assauge thriller THE FIFTH ESTATE) - all to the tune of a sharp, well paced screenplay by Peter Morgan (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, THE QUEEN, FROST/NIXON).

The montage of photos and footage of the real Hunt and Lauda that shows up at the end is, of course, obligatory as the go-to device to cap off biopics and historical dramatizations, but here it fits because the film is so faithful to its source material that the imagery blends beautifully.

So, even though I’m not a racing fan, or sports fan of any type, I liked Howard’s race car movie. I guess my only complaint is its title – couldn’t they come up with something better? Something that doesn’t bring to mind the 1991 Jason Patric/Jennifer Jason Leigh thriller of the same name, a certain Canadian prog rock trio, and a loud mouth conservative pundit, maybe?

More later...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cloudy With A Chance Of More Of The Same

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn, 2013)

I’m not much of a fan of Sony Pictures Animation. If DreamWorks Animation is second to the mighty Pixar these days, then Sony Pictures Animation is a distant third. Still, I kind of liked 
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, their 2009 adaptation of a popular children’s book from the late '70s. 

I just recently caught up with it and found it to be a colorfully feisty blend of funny gags, and inventive visuals, with a great cast of voices headed by SNL’s Bill Hader. It was a hit with most critics and audiences too.

But its inevitable follow-up, releasing today everywhere, is such a standard-issue sequel that it seems to take seriously what Mad Magazine called “the Sly Stallone philosophy: If at first you DO succeed, do it over and over and over again!”

Hader returns to voice protagonist Flint Lockwood, the scruffy inventor who in the first film wrecked havoc upon his tiny fictional island hometown Swallow Falls with a machine that converts rain into food.

The sequel begins right after the first one ended with the island of Swallow Falls in need of a massive clean-up, as Flint and his new squeeze, TV weather girl in waiting, Sam Sparks (energetically voiced by the returning Anna Farris) start planning their future involving sharing an ultra customized house together. But then in swoops famous inventor and CEO of Live Corp, the Steve Jobs-ish Chester V (voiced by Hader’s former SNL cohort Will Forte) who offers Flint a dream job at his company in California.

It’s obvious up front that Chester has sinister purposes in mind involving the food polluted island of Swallow Falls, and the unveiling of his company’s new Food Bar 8.0, but Flint accepts the offer and he and his crew, including James Caan reprising his roles as Flint’s father, the also returning Baby Brent (another former SNL-er, Andy Samberg), Sam’s cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), and policeman Earl (Terry Crews in place of Mr. T for some reason), relocate to San Fran Jose, California.

This is where screenwriters John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, and Erica Rivinoja (none of whom worked on the first one) get to use a bunch of discarded jokes from the first one – wacky invention ideas that didn’t make the cut according to the original's DVD  commentary – until Flint is called upon by Chester to revisit his home island because the water-into-food machine is still causing trouble.

You see, what they’ve got now to top the perfect food storm of the first one is here to make the food come alive - “foodimals” Flint calls them - so there’s no shortage of animal/food crossover gags to go around.

So Flint and his friends make their way through the island of cheese spiders (giant cheese burgers with French fry legs and hundreds of sinister sesame-seed eyes), shrimpanzees, hungry tacodile supremes, peanut butter and jellyfish mosquitoasts, watermelophants, apple pie-thons, and all other kinds of cringe-worthy pun creations so that they can stop Flint’s machine from making more of these sentient beasts.

This allows for JURASSIC PARK-style sweeping shots of the land of the living food, something they apparently can't resist doing over and over.

Many of the same jokes from the first one are repeated, and the ultimate decision Flint has to make between obeying Chester to advance his career or going with his friends, who have started to form connections with the foodimals, is a halfhearted attempt to give the film some moral depth when you know it cares more about getting cheap laughs.

I giggled slightly a few times, but mostly stared at this sequel as it was fussily trying too hard to be funny and exciting at every turn. A running gag about Chester’s use of holograms gets increasingly annoying, especially as it figures heavily in the big climax set in a massive floating food fortress.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2 will probably satisfy hardcore fans of the first one for being more of the same. And, of course, kids who haven’t formed much in the way of critical thinking will probably dig it too. As for me, I got a nice meal of a movie the first time at the plate, but I feel overstuffed and a bit queasy after this round of sloppy seconds.

More later...

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Directorial Debut Deals With The Porn Addicted DON JON

Opening today at most multiplexes:

DON JON (Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013) 

Things have been going good in movieland for Joseph Gordon-Levitt the last several years. Since his breakthrough role in Marc Webb's (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, he's put in solid performances in a stretch of A-list work including being part of high-profile ensembles in Christopher Nolan (INCEPTION, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), and Steven Spielberg (LINCOLN) films, as well as heading choice action thrillers such as David Koepp's PREMIUM RUSH and LOOPER. Not to forget his touching and funny turn in 50/50. Yup, pretty good indeed.

The ultra-talented 32-year old's winning streak continues with his debut as writer/director: DON JON, about a womanizing New Jersey boy who prefers porn to real sex as we learn by getting the inside beat on his daily routines.

Yup, that's the subject matter Gordon-Levitt chose, but he handles it in an often hilarious and oddly touching manner. It's a comic yet thoughtful examination of an addicted everyman, that most people should relate to, that is, if they're not a prude about porn.

Gordon-Levitt's narration breaks down his character's life from Sunday confessions to family dinners to gym workouts to hitting on women at the bar most weeknights. Being a slick good lookin' guy, he scores often with girls he brags about being high on the 1-10 scale, but at the end of the night, after his newest conquest is passed out in bed, he's back on his computer.

This changes when he meets Scarlet Johansson at a club, who he definitely considers a "10," but she's not as easy as the girls he regularly takes home.

She makes him wait for it; work for it - through weeks of dates seeing movies he couldn't care less about - there's a funny fictitious chick flick they go to see featuring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway going through the predictable rom com storybeats. It reminded me of the fake film in the Coen Brother's BURN AFTER READING, "Coming Up Daisy," with Delmot Mulroney and Claire Danes that Frances McDormand would drag her dates to, but I digress.

Things get edgy when Johansson (with an accent that reminds me of a commercial parody she did on SNL several years ago where she was a Long Island pitch-woman hawking "Marble Columns") catches Gordon-Levitt watching porn, and makes him swear he'll never do it again.

This forces him to catch it when he can on the go on his phone in the car or in night class, a classmate, Julianne Moore, also catches him ("Excuse me, are you watching people fucking on your phone?") but she's so not as judgemental.

Some of the funniest scenes are set around the dinner table with the great casting of Tony Danza and Glenne Headly as Jon's parents (Don is an obvious nickname), and Brie Larson (recently seen in THE SPECTACULAR NOW) as his always texting sister. Though not as one-liner heavy, there's Neil Simon-esque sensibility present.

With her face forever in her phone, Larson is as quiet as Silent Bob throughout the film, but just like that Kevin Smith character, when she speaks it's something that's supposed to be a necessary insight.

The widowed pot-smoking Moore, who obviously has a lot more mileage in the sex/relationship department serves as sort of a Yoda to Gordon-Levitt, helping guide him to a better, less XXX-rated fantasy-filled, level of existence.

Gordon-Levitt's direction is as confident as his character - he gets flawless acting out of his co-stars (Danza is particularly "on"), there are few wasted shots (though some shaky framing), and a pleasing fluidity to the narrative that you know he cribbed from working with Nolan and Johnson (I'm sure Spielberg and rubbed off on him too).

DON JON is no mind-blowing masterpiece, but it's a Hell of a writing/directing debut for Gordon-Levitt. I laughed a lot, and enjoyed spending time with his characters. Its takes major cojones to make one's first film be about a smut addicted chronic masturbator, but it takes something more to be able to make the guy, via such strong charm and wit, somebody to care about as see him find his footing, away from the clutches of internet porn.

More later...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 9/24/13

Shane Black’s IRON MAN 3, one of the few big ass summer blockbusters I actually liked, heads the pack of new releases on Blu ray and DVD today. The Robert Downey Jr. comedy disguised as a superhero action epic is available in a plethora of different packages including a Three-Disc Blu-ray 3D / Blu-ray / DVD + Digital Copy edition, a Two-Disc Blu-ray / DVD + Digital Copy edition, a Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack, and a single disc DVD + Digital Copy.

Special Features: the interactive “Restore the Database Second Screen Experience,” a 15 minute featurette “Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter,” audio commentary with Director/co-writer Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce, a 11 minute behind-the-scenes featurette “IRON MAN 3 Unmasked,” an almost 10 minute featurette called “Deconstructing the Scene: Attack on Air Force One,” 16 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, “Exclusive Look at THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2 minutes), and a gag reel.

Several new notable independent films hit home video this week: Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ coming-of-age teen comedy THE KINGS OF SUMMER, Paul Andrew William’s British comedy drama UNFINISHED SONG, Olivier Assayas’ 2011 French drama SOMETHING IN THE AIR, Rama Burshtein’s 2012 Israeli drama FILL THE VOID, François Ozon’s darkly comic IN THE HOUSE, and Rodney Ascher’s ROOM 237, the buzzed about 2012 documentary about the crazy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic THE SHINING.

Halloween may be over a month away, but out this week on the older films front is a bunch of titles getting a head start on the scary holiday: new to Blu ray releases of HALLOWEEN: 35TH Anniversary Edition, PSYCHO II & III, PRINCE OF DARKNESS: Collector’s Edition, and Steven R. Monroe’s new sequel to one of the most disgusting movies ever, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2.

In the non-scary new to Blu ray release department is the Criterion Collection release of 3 Films By Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman which consists of STROMBOLI (1950), EUROPE ’51 (1952), and JOURNEY TO ITALY (1952). As with all Criterion deluxe editions, The three feature films are enhanced by many Special Features including interviews (both new and archival), documentaries, short films, lengthy visual essays, an extensive booklet, and a audio commentary by scholar Laura Mulvey on JOURNEY TO ITALY. 

Also out today is a Blu ray/DVD combo of Stuart Rosenberg’s 1976 war drama VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED, and THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY: Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

TV season sets releasing today: Hannibal: Season One, Modern Family: The Complete Fourth Season, South Park: The Complete Sixteenth Season, Family Guy: Volume Eleven, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - The Fourteenth Year, Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series, American Dad! Volume Eight, and for those who are gluttons for punishment, Two and a Half Men: The Complete Tenth Season.

More later...

Monday, September 23, 2013


(Dirs. Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger, 2013)

The Morton Downey Jr. Show was the fastest rise and fall in the history of television” claims Bill Boggs, a former Executive Producer of the infamous late ‘80s talk show, in this biodoc now out on DVD and a pretty pricey Blu ray edition. Boggs is right on the money – I was a teenager at the time of the show and everyone I knew watched it, then, extremely suddenly, didn't.

If you had cable, which was only a 100 channels or less back then, you couldn’t help but come across The Morton Downey Jr. Show when channel surfing. It was a breakout hit in syndication so it was on several times a day on different affiliates. I knew people who recorded it on VHS tapes – surely the source of a lot of YouTube clips (look up Downey Jr. Show clips on YouTube and you’ll get 10,000 results).

It was one of those outrageous ‘I can’t believe this is on television’ shows in which the host, a chain smoking conservative loud mouth, would yell, and blow smoke, right in the faces of guests he disagreed with, goaded on by audience that former New York Mayor Ed Koch once likened to “a lynch mob.” It was often hilarious, especially as the guests got weirder (or more staged), but I guess I stopped paying attention to it at the same time everybody else stopped paying attention, and then it was gone.

Kramer, Miller, and Newberger’s documentary takes us through Downey Jr.’s background as the son of a famous singer, who at first followed in his father’s footsteps (he had one top 100 hit as a crooner), but then, after a stint as campaign consultant to Robert Kennedy, fashioned a persona based in part on the confrontational style of ‘60s talk show host Joe Pyne. The film features fascinating footage of Pyne that strongly makes this case.

Downey Jr.’s show lasted less than 2 years. An incident in which he claimed he was attacked by a group of neo-Nazi skinheads in a men’s room at the San Francisco International Airport was meet with suspicion of a hoax, and it led to his program’s cancellation. The consensus was cemented that this guy’s whole deal had been just an act all along.

After some failed comebacks – a show on CNBC in 1990; a few talk radio gigs in the ‘90s – Downey Jr. died from lung cancer in 2001. His legacy lives on it the waves of reality shows, angry political pundits on cable news, and anybody who’s ever gotten a mike and yelled at somebody on camera. “We made Al Sharpton!” Former Downey Jr. Show segment producer Rebecca Johnson says proudly at one point.

ÉVOCATEUR tells Downey Jr’s story well, with many insightful funny interview subjects (Chris Elliot, who parodied Downey Jr. on Late Night With David Letterman is one to watch for), and well chosen clips, but I could’ve done with less of the darkly grotesque animation by Murray John and Stefan Nadelman that's supposed to be connective tissue to the archival footage and photos. It's mostly unnecessary, and too obviously there to fill in the gaps where visual sources were lacking.

Otherwise this is a ballsy breakdown of an in-your-face TV personality who talked so much trash in his time in the spotlight that it’s still cluttering up our airwaves. It just comes out of different mouths now like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, pretty much all of Fox News, etc.

The best Special Feature on this release is a compilation of highlights from The Morton Downey Jr. Show called “Memorable Moments.” In one clip, Downey Jr. asks Joey Ramone (lead singer of punk rock gods The Ramones, of course) “What is your decadent lifestyle?” Joey replies without a pause, “Coming on the Morton Downey Show.”

Other Special Features: Audio commentary with the film makers, “Behind the Animation with Murray John,” and a less than 2 minute featurette “An Evening with Mort's Guest Kellie Everts.”

More later...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Scene Spotlight: The Final Casino Scene In CASINO ROYALE (2006)

Occasionally, I’m going to shine a spotlight on a could be classic scene from cinema history. This time around, let’s take a look at the final casino scene from Martin Campbell's 2006 James Bond film CASINO ROYALE.

The film, the 21st in the series, was the first outing as 007 for Daniel Craig, and it served as a reboot for Bond after the increasing silliness of the Pierce Brosnan entries.

A film I wrote about earlier this year, John Dahl’s 1998 poker-driven crime drama ROUNDERS is widely respected within the casino games community, on the grounds that the gambling is more realistically depicted than usual in Hollywood movies, but the gambling scenes in 
CASINO ROYALE put cinema over realism in a way that only Bond movies can. 

No one should ever expect gritty realism in a Bond film so when our secret agent hero faces off against arch villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) over a game of Texas Hold’em the stakes are absurdly high. Bond knows he has to win, because le Chiffre plans to use the winnings to aid terrorists, which gives the game an edge even the most gripping of cinematic poker games could never match.

In the scene, the game is down to four players - Bond, Chiffre, Fukutu (Tom So), and Infante (Ade) – with four million in the pot. Bond has the biggest stack of chips, and the coolest demeanor, of course. After studying his main opponent with his icy eyes, Bond puts his entire 40 million, 5 hundred thousand in on the next hand to the gasping of the roomful of patrons surrounding them. Chiffre follows suit, and puts his money, all $115 million of it, in the pot.

Watch the scene and feel the tension:

With so many glitzy gambling scenes throughout the series, it would be hard to say that this one is the best, but it's definitely in the top 5 I'd say. It also recalls that the first time we met 007 on the silver screen, portrayed by Sean Connery in 1962’s DR. NO, he was sitting in a tux at a gambling table. Some things never change.

More later...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 9/17/13

Marc Forster’s summer hit WORLD WAR Z heads the crop of Blu ray and DVD releases this week, available in a 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy package or a single disc DVD. The film, which as the front cover art displays, features Brad Pitt single-handedly saving the world from a global outbreak of zombies. After months of hype leading up to its theatrical release, the film was pretty disappointing (read my review from last June), but maybe it will have more of an impact on the small screen. Special Features: a couple of featurettes (“Origins” and “Looking to Science”), and a four part “Making of” documentary that explores in detail how such money shots as the masses of zombies scaling the tall fortress walls in Israel were pulled off.

Another film to which I gave a lukewarm review, Sofia Coppola’s THE BLING RING, also comes out today on both Blu ray and DVD. Coppola’s satirical true crime film, her fifth as director, is based on the story of a group of fame-obsessed teens who broke into the Los Angeles houses of celebrities such as Paris Hilton (who has a brief cameo), and stole millions of dollars worth of clothing, jewelry, cash, and swag. It’s interesting for about a third of it, but there’s not much substantial takeaway as you can read in my review: “THE BLING RING: As Superficial And Empty-Headed As The Girls It Depicts (6/21/13). For folks that find it more fascinating than I, there are a few substantial Special Features including the almost 23 minute featurette “Making THE BLING RING: On Set with Sofia, the Cast and Crew,” the almost 24 minute “Behind the real ‘Bling Ring’,” and the over 10 minute “Scene of the Crime with Paris Hilton.”

A film I missed in its brief theatrical run (not even sure if it came to my area), Henry Alex Rubin’s 2012 thriller DISCONNECT is out this week in single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. A sold ensemble including Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Andrea Riseborough, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, and Alexander Skarsgård star in what IMDb tells me is about “searching for human connections in today's wired world.” Special Features: Commentary with Direct Rubin, an almost 30-minute documentary “Making the Connections: Behind the Scenes of DISCONNECT,” a 4-minute featurette “Recording Session of “On the Nature of Daylight,” and the theatrical trailer.

Steven Soderberg’s terrific HBO telefilm from earlier this year, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his young lover Scott Thorson, is out today in single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. The glitzy biopic (well, not really a biopic as it only covers a few years of Liberace’s life), which was rejected by every major movie studio because it was “too gay,” has been nominated for 15 Emmy Awards, including nominations for Douglas and Damon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes home a bunch of them this coming Sunday night. There’s only one Special Feature, a 13 minute “Making of” featurette, but it’s an entertaining mix of interview snippets, archival footage of the real Liberace, and insights into how the costume and set designers were able to so convincingly pull off all the lavish surroundings of late ‘70s Las Vegas.

Also releasing today is Zal Batmanglij’s THE EAST, starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård (man, he gets around!), and Ellen Page as eco-terrorists. It’s a pretty decent thriller that’s at least worth a rental. A few other new films out today: Kyle Killen’s psychological thriller SCENIC ROUTE, Morgan O'Neill’s Australian surfing drama DRIFT, and Uwe Boll's thriller SUDDENLY, starring Ray Liotta, Dominic Purcell, and Michael Paré. That last title, a remake of Lewis Allen’s 1954 film noir thriller of the same name, is actually dumb fun, which is something, considering it’s, you know, a Uwe Boll production.

On the older film new to Blu ray front there’s a nice handful of horror and classic monster movies such as George A. Romero’s 1985 zombie classic DAY OF THE DEAD (Collector’s Edition), the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic DRACULA, Hammer Film’s 1966 Christopher Lee classic DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the 1935 Boris Karloff classic THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic THE WOLF MAN. I also can’t leave out the TREMORS Attack Pack which contains all 4 TREMORS movies (there were 4 of them?). Now, that’s a lot of scary classics that are now all Blu rayed-up!

TV season sets releasing today: Nashville: The Complete First Season, Leverage: The Fifth Season, The Mentalist: The Complete Fifth Season, Grimm: Season Two, Arrow: The Complete First Season, Bates Motel: Season One, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The 13th Season, and Golgo 13: Complete Collection.

More later…

Monday, September 16, 2013

IN A WORLD...Where A Woman Makes A Really Likable Directorial Debut...

Now playing at an indie art house near you...

(Dir. Lake Bell, 2013)

There are quite a few things I really liked about this film, the directorial debut of Lake Bell, who also wrote, produced, and stars.

First off, I liked the premise: Bell is a Los Angeles vocal coach who gets a chance to break into the male dominated profession of doing voice-overs for movie trailers when the powers that be decide to bring back the “In a world…” phrase that used to open seemingly every preview.

Next, I liked the cast that populates the film including Fred Melamed as Bell’s father, a voice-over legend second only to the real-life late Don Lafontaine, comedian Demetri Martin as Bell’s co-worker who has a crush on her, Ken Marino (The State, Party Down) as a slimy voiceover talent who Melamed is grooming to take over his position, Micheala Watkins (SNL) as Bell’s sister who’s married to Rob Corrdry (The Daily Show, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE), and Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation), and comedian Tig Nattaro as cynical sound engineers.

I liked Bell’s screenplay, which is full of good lines, well observed insights into this little explored segment of show business, and relatable characters.

I liked the third act cameos that I won’t spoil, the composition of many shots by cinematographer Tom McArdle, and that it taught me that the Golden Trailer Awards, now entering their 14th year, is a real event.

Yes, Bell’s IN A WORLD is a very likable movie.

Previously, Bell has appeared in such TV series as The Practice, Boston Legal, and Children’s Hospital, or in films like IT’S COMPLICATED, WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, and the recent thriller BLACK ROCK, but she’s never really stood out.

Here Bell really earns the spotlight with her relatable neurotic lead portrayal and by crafting a comedy that’s inventive, unpretentious, and as appealing as she is.

Melamed, who has appeared in 8 Woody Allen films and put in an acclaimed performance in the Coen Brother’s A SERIOUS MAN, makes the most of his juicy role here. With his character’s vanity largely on display (and embodied in his young girlfriend Alexandra Holden), Melamed never fails to amuse whenever he’s on screen. 

When Melamed finds out that his daughter may be up for a major trailer voice-over gig for a HUNGER GAMES-esque quadrilogy, the one that’s going to bring “In a world” back, he calls off his retirement to compete with Bell and Marino for the job. His parental pettiness, especially as he's on the verge of accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Trailer Awards, is hilariously palpable.

Unfortunately, more on the sitcom side is a subplot involving Watkins coming close to cheating on her sandwich obsessed hubby Corrdry, but that bit of comic conflict doesn’t get in the way of the fun here – in fact the way it wraps up features one of the film’s funniest and touching moments.

So again, Bell's film is extremely likable, but more importantly it's a refreshing low key comedy that cares about its characters. In a world (sorry) of excruciating amounts of blockbuster bombast, that's really something to embrace.

More later..

Friday, September 13, 2013

THE FAMILY: Besson's Really Redundant De Niro Mob Comedy

Opening today at a theater near you:

THE FAMILY (Dir. Luc Besson, 2013)

Seeing Luc Besson’s new mob comedy THE FAMILY makes me wonder if Robert De Niro will be remembered by future generations for his roles that poked fun at his image as a scary Mafioso type, more than the classic roles in which he actually portrayed a scary Mafioso type.

Here De Niro plays a former New York mob boss, living in France with his wife (Michelle Pfeifer) and teenage offspring (John D'Leo and Glee’s Dianna Agron) under the witness relocation program.

The set-up obviously recalls the end of GOODFELLAS, in which Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill complains about getting egg noodles with ketchup when he orders spaghetti with marinara sauce after being relocated to the suburbs for snitching on his former buddies.

THE FAMILY’s wiseguy fish-out-of-water premise also recalls the 1990 Herbert Ross-helmed Steve Martin/Rick Moranis comedy MY BLUE HEAVEN (incidentally written by the late great Nora Ephron who was married to GOODFELLAS screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi).

But those reference points are over 20 years old now, so after countless spoofs of modern mafia movies, as well as six seasons of HBO’s dark comic drama The Sopranos, every trope THE FAMILY trots out has been done to death. Adapted by Tonino Benacquista from his 2010 novel “Badfellas” (that’s right), THE FAMILY has a few funny lines and a couple of decent gags, but the overly familiar structure (along with the high volume of convenient convolutions in the storyline) can't help but highlight how redundant it is.

De Niro spends the movie either trying to write his memoirs - an activity frowned on by Tommy Lee Jones as a CIA agent assigned to protect the undercover family – or trying to get somebody to do something about the brown water coming out of his house’s taps. De Niro’s worn-out character trait is that he speaks softly but will do violent damage to any non-relative who says something offensive to him. One scene has him dragging a fertilizer plant CEO behind his car for suggesting he switch to bottled water.

Pfeifer, also no stranger to this territory (see Jonathan Demme’s 1988 mob comedy MARRIED TO THE MOB), along with D’Leo and Agron, handle matters in the same abrasive manner. Pfeifer blows up a grocery store for snide remarks made at her expense by the clerks, D’Leo arranges for a brutal beating of his high school bully, and Agron makes like KICK ASS’s Hit-Girl when she takes a tennis racket to the head of a fellow student who puts the moves on her.

Trouble is that the film is so boringly broad that these scenarios have no ambition over getting cheap laughs from indiscriminate audiences. It also tries to go where it really shouldn’t when De Niro is invited to a local film club for a screening of the 1958 Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin movie SOME COME RUNNING, but there’s a mix-up and GOODFELLAS is shown instead. Besson’s film hasn’t earned that attempt at a meta moment, especially as it only aims for the funny from Jones’ grumpy cat reaction to De Niro yet again being unable to control.

After the effort De Niro put into his Oscar nominated role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, it's disheartening to see him once again walk through a role. The man seriously doesn't seem to care about being the center of another self-referential mafia-themed farce - the ANALYSE THIS/THAT films should've been where he drew the line.

TV spots for the THE FAMILY highlight that Martin Scorsese was involved as one of the executive producers, even blaring an early ‘70s Rolling Stones track on top of clips (no Stones music appears in the movie) to shade the proceedings with his presence. This is an un-wiseguy move as it just calls into attention how much this film misses the mark.

Scorsese hasn’t directed De Niro since 1995’s CASINO, but a future collaboration – THE IRISHMAN based on the Charles Brandt book “I Heard You Paint Houses” - is reportedly in the works. Here’s hoping that will come together soon, because after the mess Besson has made here stumbling blindly around Marty’s territory, a clean-up crew is sorely needed.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 9/10/13

J.J. Abrams’ summer smash sequel STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS heads the pack of new releases on Blu ray and DVD this week. Having enjoyed Abrams’ 2009 reboot, I was disappointed in the follow-up as you can obviously tell in my review entitled “STAR TREK Into Disappointment” (5/16/13). But even fans who loved the film may be disappointed in its home video release as the Blu ray+DVD+Digital Copy package (also available in a 3D Starfleet Phaser Limited Edition Gift Set) only boasts a bunch of featurettes as its bonus material, with no commentary, deleted scenes, or an extensive “making of” documentary. This is surely because there will surely be a more expansive Special Edition someday, so fans thinking about purchasing it should maybe take that into consideration.

To take advantage of the release stardate (sorry) of the newest film in the long-running franchise, Paramount is putting out a bevy of Star Trek titles on Blu ray including Star Trek: The Original Series – Origins, STAR TREK: Stardate Collection (a box-set of 10 movies with additional content), and new individual Blu ray or DVD editions of each of the previous ST films.

Also out this week: Suzanne Bier’s LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED (read my review from last May), Tina Gordon Chism’s TYLER PERRY PRESENTS PEEPLES, Alex Gibney’s documentary about Julian Assange’s infamous website WikiLeaks: WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS (DVD only), Richard Raaphorst’s sci-fi horror flick FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY, Nick Murphy's 2012 crime thriller BLOOD, Kieran Darcy-Smith's 2012 mystery drama WISH YOU WERE HERE, and David Mamet's HBO telefilm PHIL SPECTOR, which despite starring such classy types as Mamet, Al Pacino (in the title role) and Helen Mirren is a pretty trashy affair.

The Criterion Collection has a few notable titles out today that are new to Blu ray, both with choice bonus features. First up, there’s Edouard Molinaro’s 1978 French comedy classic LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, which is enhanced by a new 20 minute video interview with director Molinaro, 30 minutes of Archival Footage, a 22 minute interview with professor Laurence Senelick about the film’s history and influence, original theatrical trailers, and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic David Ehrenstein.

Martin Ritt’s 1965 thriller classic THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD also gets the deluxe Criterion treatment with over 4 hours of Special Features including an interview with John Le Carre, an hour long BBC biodoc entitled “The Secret Centre: John le Carre,” audio excerpts from an 1985 interview with director Ritt conducted by film historian Patrick McGilligan, a featurette in which cinematographer Oswald Morris discusses select scenes, an audio commentary, a Set Designs featurette, an episode of the BBC program Acting in the 60's focusing on Richard Burton, and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Also on the older films new to Blu ray front is Kurt Neumann's 1958 Vincent Price classic THE FLY, Dario Argento’s 1970 Giallo genre landmark THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, John Schlesinger's MARATHON MAN (1976), Anthony Minghella's Patricia Highsmith adaptation made into a Matt Damon vehicle THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, and the largely forgotten 1998 Nicholas Cage caper that was Brian De Palma's SNAKE EYES.

The BBC/HBO mini-series Parade's End, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, also hits home video this week in 2-disc Blu ray and DVD sets. The 5-part series is joined then sole bonus feature of playwright Tom Stoppard, who adapted Ford Mattox Ford's Parade's End series of novels from the 1920's for the production, getting interviewed on KCRW's The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell.

Other TV series sets hitting home video today include Homeland: The Complete Second Season, The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Sixth Season, Castle: The Complete Fifth Season, Supernatural: The Complete Eight Season, Blue Bloods: The Third Season, and Luther 3.

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Friday, September 06, 2013

Moviegoers Looking For Fun Should Rid Themselves Of The Desire To See RIDDICK

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

RIDDICK (Dir. David Twohy, 2013)

About a month ago, I was unaware of the Riddick series, starring Vin Diesel, which began in 2000 with the sci-fi action thriller PITCH BLACK, continued with 2004’s THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, and now, nine years later concludes with the simply titled RIDDICK.

I say “concludes” as wishful thinking, because this third installment is a forgettable entry in one of the most forgettable sci-fi franchises ever.

Diesel, who co-produced, reprises his role as the indestructible intergalactic bad-ass ex-con who we catch up with here stranded on a yellow-tinted planet full of CGI-ed creatures running amok, including evil prehistoric-ish predators that resemble a blend of scorpions and lizards, and much more agreeable dog-like animals that look like a mix of zebras and hyenas. Diesel befriends one of the dog-like whatevers, who seemingly understands every word he says because, you know, it’s that kind of movie.

Thinking he’s had enough (a sentiment the audience is sure to share), Diesel’s Riddick activates a beacon that brings two groups of bounty hunters to hunt down the bald space thug. Not long after landing, the crews - one led by a sleazy Jordi Mollà who aims to “bring back Riddick's head in a box,” the other led by Mark Nable, the father of one of the characters in PITCH BLACK who has an obvious vendetta – find a message written in blood on the wall of one of their spacecraft: “Leave one ship and go or die here.”

The tough blonde Katee Sackhoff as one of Nable’s “mercs” is on hand to make us wish this was an episode of Battlestar Gallactica, and be the target of some homophobia as her character is gay.

Blood is splattered via a bunch of gory deaths, with the thin as sliced cheese narrative completely dwelling on Diesel’s ability to outsmart everybody and everything that tries to take him down.

Diesel wears black welder’s googles, but he removes them dramatically every now and then do we can see his silver corneas – a characteristic that gives him “night vision,” which I guess is an effect that comes off better in the multiple video games Riddick has appeared in over the years.

The sluggish pace, dreadful dialogue, and lack of a single interesting story element makes this one of the most boring movies of the year. When watching one of the supposed to be climatic battles involving Riddick fighting off attacking slimy serpents atop a sharp cragged desert rock in the drizzle I wondered: 'why on Earth am I supposed to be rooting for this guy?'

Whether blindingly sun-drenched or bathed in shadowy darkness, the imagery is as bland and unimaginative as the rest of it. It was a good idea to get MAD MAX cinematographer David Eggby, who also shot PITCH BLACK, on board, but Twohy, Oliver Butcher, and Stephen Cornwell's screenplay seriously didn’t give the man much to work with.

At least RIDDICK is on par with how awful the preceding chapters were. I mean there can’t be somebody out there who has expectations for a sci-fi action masterpiece here, right? Only Vin Diesel fans, extreme gamers, or folks who get off on crappy sci-fi flicks will be entertained. Everyone else, especially moviegoers looking for a fun time at the multiplex, should rid themselves of the desire to see RIDDICK.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Coming Soon: Rotimi Rainwater's Debut Drama SUGAR

This Friday, Rotimi Rainwater's debut drama SUGAR about youth and teen homelessness hits theaters. The film aims to educate the nation about issues that have the power to cripple the country.

Check out the trailer:

Based on true events, SUGAR is the story of a young girl with a troubled past trying to survive on the streets of Venice Beach. Sugar suffers from PTSD after losing her entire family in a horrific car crash. She survives with her group of outcast friends on the streets of Venice Beach trying to find their own place in the world.

Shenae Grimes (SCREAM 4, 90210) stars as the title character, with Marshall Allman, Corbin Bleu, Austin Williams, and Nastassja Kinski (!) filling out the rest of the cast.

From executive producer Elliot Broidy and Rotimi Rainwater, the film goes into limited release on September 6th, 2013.

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 9/3/13

Louis Leterrier’s star studded comic thriller NOW YOU SEE ME, which was something of a surprise hit early in the summer, heads the pack of new releases on Blu ray and DVD today. Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine star in this piece of passable entertainment about a group of magicians who pull off international heists that often reward their audiences with riches while pissing off the police. Its tag line “The closer you look, the less you'll see” is a rare example of truth in advertising.

The 2-disc Blu ray set features an extended cut of the film along with the theatrical version, with Special Features including a commentary with Producer Bobby Cohen and Director Lettelier (on the theatrical version Only), a few featurettes (“Now You See Me Revealed,” “A Brief History of Magic”), deleted scenes, and two trailers (teaser and theatrical).

Ariel Vromen’s THE ICEMAN, featuring an intense performance by Michael Shannon as Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski (read my review), releases this week in single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. There are only two short featurettes included as Special Features – “making of” and “behind the scenes” segments – but they’re better than nothing.

One of the best documentaries of the year, Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL, her investigation into her complicated family ties, also drops today but only on DVD, and with no Special Features. That doesn’t make the film any less essential viewing.

Other notable feature films debuting on home video today: Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM, Dante Ariola’s Colin Firth/Emily Blunt comedy ARTHUR NEWMAN, Gorō Miyazaki’s 2011 animated hit FROM UP ON POPPY HILL, Craig Sisk’s THE ENGLISH TEACHER (starring Julianne Moore), Pablo Berger’s Spanish black-and-white silent fantasy film BLANCANIEVES, Matthias Hoene’s British thriller comedy COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES, and this last summer’s Syfy Channel sensation SHARKNADO.

On the older films new to Blu ray front, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 psychological thriller MARNIE, starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren, previously available only as part of a Hitchcock box set, gets its own individual release on the popular new format. It’s joined by Mario Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD (1971), Michael Gornick's CREEPSHOW 2, and Richard Rush's 1967 Jack Nicholson vehicle HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS.

TV season sets out today include Person of Interest: Season Two, Spartacus: War of the Damned - The Complete Third Season, The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Fourth Season, Scandal: The Complete Second Season, Criminal Minds: The Eighth Season, The Office: Season Nine, Parks and Recreation: Season Five, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Complete Season 8.

More later…

Ariel Vroman's Dark Thriller THE ICEMAN Now Out On Blu Ray & DVD

Out today on Blu ray and DVD:

THE ICEMAN (Dir. Ariel Vroman, 2012) *

Film Babble Blog favorite, Michael Shannon was seen by millions stepping into shoes once worn by Terrence Stamp for the role of the iconic villain General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot MAN OF STEEL this last summer.

But late last spring, movie-goers got a thorough sampling of Shannon’s skills as a very different sort of bad guy in Ariel Vroman’s true story crime thriller THE ICEMAN, now out on Blu ray and DVD.

Shannon portrays New Jersey-based mafia contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who the film’s post script tells was believed to have killed over 100 people. Kulinski was called “The Iceman” because he’d often freeze the bodies of his victims so that cops would have difficulty determining the time of death (so no, it’s not like “The Ice Truck Killer” on Dexter), and because of the man’s cold as ice demeanor.

It’s a demeanor that Shannon really nails with stoic precision, and with enough charisma to woo Winona Ryder as the woman who married the murderer and had two daughters with him, without knowing how he was bringing home the bacon.

Shannon goes from working in the sketchy pornography business (he tells Ryder he’s dubbing Disney cartoons), to doing hits full time, while his family thinks he’s a currency trader.

For his third full-length film as director, Vroman has made a gritty shadowy movie that has traces of ‘70s Scorsese in its DNA, along with the grimy aura of latter day reality based true crime sagas as John McNaughton’s HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1990) and Jonathan Hensleigh’s KILL THE IRISHMAN (2011). There are many moments that this film mostly set in the ‘70s, looks like it was actually shot in that era with its grainy textures and authentic looking lighting.

Ray Liotta, still working on perfecting his Henry Hill scowl from Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic GOODFELLAS adds to the dark décor as a Gambino family crew boss Roy DeMeo (one of the few real names used in the film) who’s constantly breathing down Shannon’s neck, while Chris Evans effectively brings the sleaze as a fellow hitman, Robert ‘Mr. Freezy’ Pronge, who drives the ice cream truck the killers make morbid use of.

Shannon bounces around the streets of New York doing hits, visiting his jailbird brother (Stephen Dorff), and doting on his wife and kids, though in one wild instance of road rage, his temper gets the best of him, and he scares his family half to death chasing down some schlub who made the mistake to yell profanities at our cold-blooded killer after a mild automobile accident.

There is some strained pacing, and like so often the Carter-era fashions and facial hair looks way fake (as has from ANCHORMAN to ARGO), but these factors I can forgive.

THE ICEMAN, follows a familiar dark biopic path, but Michael Shannon’s power and intensity is well captured as this unredeemable soul who can’t help but be anything but a son of Satan, its cast which includes a cameo by James Franco, and an unrecognizable David Schwimmer (it’s true - I didn’t know it was him until the end credits) is beautifully chosen, and it’s the best acting I’ve seen by Ryder in ages.

So before you get bombarded by the big ass Superman reboot hoopla, consider taking in this more subtle piece of Shannon’s work. With this and his superb turn in Jeff Nichols' TAKE SHELTER (Shannon also appears in Nichol's MUD still in theatrical release), the man has well proven he can carry and be the core of a very fine film. Here’s hoping the films will get finer.

* This review originally appeared in the May 30th, 2013 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer. It has been slightly written to reflect its release on home video.

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Monday, September 02, 2013


(Dir. James Ponsoldt, 2013)

Perhaps this post’s heading is a bit extreme, but since I missed the press screening for this film when I went on vacation in July, I kept hearing about film critic types in these here internets going absolutely gaga for it. So sure, my expectations may have been too high, but despite thinking that it was a well made melodrama with some fine acting, THE SPECTACULAR NOW felt like a big screen Afterschool Special to me.

However, I will say upfront that Miles Teller, as the slick talking protagonist Sutter Keely, redeems himself for being the obnoxious center of attention in the awful teensploitation flick 21 AND OVER earlier this year. Teller deftly portrays a hard drinking (he seems to always have a flask in hand) high school senior that has no plans for the future, because he lives in the “now.”

After being dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson), Teller gets wasted one wild night and on the way home passes out in the lawn of the nice girl from school that he never noticed before, played by Shailene Woodley, best known for playing George Clooney’s precocious daughter in the DESCENDANTS.

The two fall in love but face a rocky road together as she has dreams of leaving their sleepy small town life (the film was mostly shot in Athens, Georgia) and going to college in Philadelphia, but Teller just wants to stay put and keep partying.

Our boozy boy Teller, who works at a men’s clothing store under boss Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad), got his philosophy of life from his deadbeat dad of a father (seen here portrayed by a great sweaty Kyle Chandler). Jennifer Jason Leigh, sadly in too small a part, as Teller’s mother, had the right idea in trying to shield her son from his extremely unfit father. This is something Teller learns, along with Woodley, when they take an ill fated road trip to meet up with Chandler.

An obvious staple of teen romance films is a prom scene, and to the credit of Pondsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who based the screenplay on the 2008 young adult novel by Tim Tharp, it’s a nicely understated scene. A glowing, and of course lit, Teller looks around at his schoolmates and says: “This is the youngest we're ever going to be.” We’ve all known somebody who prides themselves on always being the life of the party, and in that moment Teller nails being able to say something as stupid as that and making it almost seem profound.

With the naturistic rhythms of their acting nicely complimenting each other, Teller and Woodley are a very believable couple. The film framing them stays too much on the surface of all the events it depicts though.

I liked but didn't love Poldsoldt’s previous film, SMASHED (2012), his second as director, which was also concerned with the effect of alcoholism on a relationship. I haven't seen his first film, 2006's OFF THE BLACK, but the IMDb description says it has Nick Nolte as “an aging, disillusioned alcoholic” so it would be understatement to say I'm sensing a theme here.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW has a fair share of truthful heartfelt moments, but it's not hard enough on its lead character. It seems to just want us to shake our head disapprovingly at him, but know he'll ultimately shape up and fly right.

But then, so many movies don't have this kind of unpretentious thoughtful tone, and don't even try for the realism that's certainly on display here, so maybe I'm being too hard on it. I mean, come to think of it, there were some excellent Afterschool Specials.

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