Friday, November 22, 2013

Matthew McConaughey & Jared Leto Make DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB Worth Joining

Now playing at an indie arthouse near you:

(Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)

Because of his strong performances in BERNIE, KILLER JOE, MAGIC MIKE, and even THE PAPERBOY, last year I tweeted: “I think 2012 may go down in movie history as the year Matthew McConaughey started to give a shit again.”

I stand by that statement, as the man puts in some of his finest work yet here as Texan Ron Woodroof, a real-life AIDs victim who distributed alternate illegal medication through a homegrown buyer's club in the mid '80s to early '90s.

When we first meet the scrawny mustached Woodroof, we see that he's a redneck who's all about rodeo, that is, when he's not working his day job as an electrician. The Texan (as is McConaughey) is livin' it up with cheap booze and cheaper women, until one day where he gets electrocuted on the job and wakes up in hospital and is by told that he's HIV-positive.

Woodroof, furiously complaining that this is a mistake because he's not a homosexual, throws papers at his physicians (Jennifer Garner and Denis O'Hare) from their charts around the room, and angrily storms out after saying: “I got a newsflash for y'all, there's nothing out there that could kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days!”

After doing some research and having some effective flickered flashbacks about just how sordid some of his partying was with intravenous drug use and all, Woodroof accepts his predicament and goes looking for treatment. He learns through the help of a disgraced doctor in Mexico (an almost unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) that the only AIDS drug legally available at the time, AZT, is poisonous, so he begins the business of transporting unapproved anti-viral meds across the Mexican border.

Speaking of almost unrecognizable, Jared Leto, in feminine makeup and tacky '80s tramp garb, shows up as a transsexual AIDs patient named Rayon, who forms an unlikely friendship with Ron. Well, actually it's pretty likely in an indie film context like this.

Both McConaughey and Leto both put their all into their roles, including the loss of 80 pounds between them to inhabit these characters, but the narrative isn't well served by choppy plotting and one too many throwaway scenes.

In one such scene, McConaughey's Woodroof tries to masturbate using the visual stimuli of photos of woman on the walls of his makeshift hotel room office only to get pissed off at a picture of T. Rex rock star Marc Bolan that Leto's Rayon taped up.

Or another in which McConaughey spies an attractive woman in line for treatment at his office, checks if she's HIV-positive, then it cuts to him having sex with her in the bathroom. This was more amusing but just as expendable, as these scenes do nothing by confirm what we already know - our protagonist is still not queer. These bits would be better as deleted scenes on the later Blu ray/DVD release, not cluttering up the storyline.

But overall there are enough weighty moments and excellent acting (even Garner brings a touching well-placed poise I've never witnessed from her before) to satisfy most movie-goers and create some deserved award season buzz.

With a more focused less erratic screenplay, DALLAS BUYER'S CLUB could've had a lot more power, but alongside a well chosen supporting cast McConaughey and Leto's invested performances shine through the movie's muddiness.

More later... 

The Cinematic Legacy Of The Kennedy Assassination

As today is the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Film Babble Blog looks back at the cinematic legacy of the history changing event:

I’m 44 years old, so I wasn’t alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But since the events of that tragic day in November of 1963, 50 years ago today, have been so thoroughly covered from every conceivable angle in countless movies, TV shows, and documentaries, not only do I feel like I was alive then; I feel as if I had actually been there smack dab in the middle of Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, on that fateful date with a better view of the historic hit than Abraham Zapruder had.

Oliver Stone’s 1991 conspiracy theory epic, JFK is largely to blame for planting such vivid yet false memories in my psyche, but it was an obscure film that I saw on television when I was a kid that laid the foundation. It was David Miller’s 1973 political thriller EXECUTIVE ACTION, the first film * produced about the assassination.

Told from the point of view of the evil men in power, including Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan as shadowy co-conspirators who plot Kennedy’s killing right down to the last detail, the low budget docudrama postulates many of the same theories, mostly having to do with alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald being a patsy, that Stone would later do up with higher production values in JFK.

EXECUTIVE ACTION largely drew upon the work of New York Legislator Mark Lane, whose 1966 bestselling book “Rush To Judgement” heavily criticized the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Throughout the ‘70s, the consensus that something much more sinister was up than what the public record allowed, was evident all over pop culture.

Alan J. Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) defined the label “paranoid thriller” (see also Sydney Pollack's THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, 1975) by building upon assassination theories with a premise about an evil company (the Parallax Corporation) that's behind pivotal political plots. Warren Beatty plays a reporter that tries to unravel the conspiracy, but ends up being unwittingly trained to be an assassin himself. A scene in which Beatty is brainwashed by a recruiting film, satirized in Ben Stiller's ZOOLANDER, gives a good idea of the movie's sinister tone:

In Woody Allen’s Oscar winning 1977 comedy ANNIE HALL, comedian protagonist Alvy Singer obsesses over the possibility that there was a second assassin to the point that a girl he briefly dates (Carol Kane) states bluntly the he’s “using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid having sex” with her. This surely received a lot of laughter from hip in-the-know audiences at the time, since post Watergate distrust of the government was at an all time high.

That same year, John Landis' KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, the first film to feature the comedy stylings of ZAZ (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) of AIRPLANE! and NAKED GUN fame included a commercial parody for a fictitious Parker Brothers' board game called Scot Free. A four member family is seated around a kitchen table playing the game, made up of a miniature mock-up of Dealey Plaza, as a voice-over announcer sets up the premise: “Your team has just assassinated the President - can you get away scot free? Shake the dice and see...

A few years later, a surreal and somewhat comical take on the cluster of conspiracy theories came along: William Richert’s WINTER KILLS (1979), starring Jeff Bridges as Nick Keegan, the brother of a slain President, of course, the victim of secret forces. The controversial film didn’t get much of a theatrical run, VHS copies of it were rare, and its out of print now on DVD (a 2003 edition of it can be found on eBay) so it’s a bit of obscure title that few people have heard of, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Bridges’ very “un-Dude” performance as the Robert Kennedy-ish hero neatly heads an impressive cast including John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, Elizabeth Taylor and Toshirô Mifune in an outlandish scenario yet again involving evil men pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The usual suspects of mobsters, the military, and power hungry oil barons are trotted out, as Bridges investigates the wide-ranging suspected cover-up.

Apart from the TV miniseries “Kennedy” starring Martin Sheen, and various PBS documentaries, the ‘80s were relatively free of movie treatments of the mysteries surrounding the Kennedy assassination, but it’s funny to note that in Ron Shelton's BULL DURHAM (1988), Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis delivered a speech to Susan Sarandon listing his core beliefs, and one of them was “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.”

A few years later, Costner would be speechifying the complete opposite at length as New Orleans investigator Jim Garrison in Stone’s before mentioned opus, which recently played at the Crossroads in Cary to mark the anniversary. 

Stone’s movie is the biggest production to date dealing with the events of November 22nd, 1963, and definitely the most star studded. The film is largely accountable for the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game because Bacon appears alongside a cast that features seemingly everybody who was working in the early ‘90s including such A-listers as Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Donald Sutherland, Ed Asner, Sissy Spacek, and so on.

These folks help distill the information Stone displays down to further his theory, informed by decades of other’s research and speculation, that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy that stretched through the military industrial complex, involving the CIA, and anti-Castro Cuban nationals. Newsweek welcomed Stone’s movie with a cover story that had the headline: “The Twisted Truth of ‘JFK’: Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted,” yet in the same issue had a very favorable review of the film by David Ansen. That sums it up neatly: JFK is an entertaining and thought provoking movie, but it’s just a movie, it shouldn’t be taken as historical record.

In the years after JFK, Danny Aiello played Jack Ruby, the Texas nightclub owner who shot and killed Oswald in RUBY, Clint Eastwood played a Secret Service agent who was in Kennedy’s detail that day in Dallas in IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993), and the long running Fox television program The X-Files revealed that its chief antagonist, the Smoking Man played by William B. Davis, was the real gunman who shot the President from inside a sewer drain along the route of the motorcade.

Yep, JFK’s tagline, “The story that won’t go away,” really is truth in advertising.

More recently, Peter Landesman’s drama PARKLAND, concerning the aftermath of the assassination with another cast of big names (Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Effron) partly set at Parkland Hospital where Kennedy’s body was taken after the shooting, played briefly last September at the Raleigh Grande. The film effectively captures the chaos and confusion in the air on Nov. 22, 1963 and the days after, but it’s not concerned at all with conspiracy, and it doesn’t really add anything to the cinematic history of the world-changing events of that date.

Neither does the National Geographic Channel’s telefilm adaptation of Bill O’ Reilly’s best seller “Killing Kennedy,” which premiered earlier this month, though there’s some fun to be had watching Rob Lowe take on the President’s Boston accent. O’Reilly isn’t a fan of conspiracy theories so it’s a pretty dry run through the facts.

We may never get the answers to the questions about what really went down that day, but one thing’s for sure: whether it’s another feature film, a new documentary (there are tons of them on cable these days), or an episode of a ‘60s-set TV show (Mad Men did their Nov. 22, 1963 episode in their third season), we are destined to relive the JFK assassination again and again until we shuffle off this mortal coil.

* Mel Stuart's 1964 documentary FOUR DAYS IN NOVEMBER was technically the first film produced about the assassination, but this essay concerns the dramatizations of the event.

More later...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Best Of The Goodbyes To Blockbuster

Truth be told, the empty Blockbuster above closed way before the recent announcement that the company was closing every last store. I drive past it a lot since it's near the vet my wife and I take our cats to, but it's telling that I never stepped inside it when it was open.

Although I have a lot of video store experience, I never worked at a Blockbuster. I worked at several North Carolina competitors - Video Review, North America Video, Action Video, and finally VisArt Video (a few of these are still in business) - which were often the stores that people would go to when they couldn't find what they wanted at Blockbuster. None of these places had much of a dress code, so I was happy I never had to wear the khaki pants and blue Oxford shirt Blockbuster employees had to wear, but I do remember being envious at how clean their stores were.

Anyway, a bunch of folks online (and on TV) have been saying goodbye to the chain, so I thought I'd share some of what I think are the best of the obits.

First up, this amusing photo taken at a Hawaii Blockbuster tweeted by @blockbuster went viral last week:

It was accompanied by the tweet: The last BLOCKBUSTER rental 11/9 Hawaii 11PM @ThisIsTheEnd #BlockbusterMemories @Sethrogen @JamesFrancoTV @JonahHill

Seth Rogen, the star, co-writer and co-director of the last film rented, THIS IS THE END, saw this post and tweeted:

@blockbuster: The last BLOCKBUSTER rental 11/9 Hawaii 11PM @ThisIsTheEnd #BlockbusterMemories ” this is nuts and sad

Nathan Rabin, formerly of the A.V. Club, was once a Blockbuster employee himself, and he wrote this  heartfelt farewell for

“R.I.P. Blockbuster: A Conflicted But Sincere Video Store Requiem”

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live jumped into the saying goodbye to Blockbuster game with a digital short featuring Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Beck Bennett, and Michael Patrick O'Brien as Blockbuster employees who find it hard to cope when learning that the store is done. Host and musical guest Lady Gaga cameos in the clip as some kind of queen of VHS/DVD rentals that the guys hallucinate in their desperate stupor. Check it out:

Over at, Matt Zoller Seitz put together a collection of tweets in which folks wrote lyrics (sometimes full songs) in the style of Bruce Springsteen about Blockbuster's demise: 

“They Closed Down The Video Store In Philly Last Night: Laments For Blockbuster In The Style Of Bruce Springsteen”

It's funny, and actually touching stuff, including a choice submission by a friend of Film Babble Blog, William Fonvielle, of Filmvielle.

Another friend pointed out this piece by Alex Pappademas at

Finally, there's this good thoughtful read at by S.T. Vanairsdale:

So farewell Blockbuster, I'll salute you every time I drive by your abandoned store on Capital Boulevard here in Raleigh, even after they open something else there. Now I'm gonna go watch something on Netflix Instant.

More later...

Monday, November 18, 2013

10 Memorable Marquees In The Movies

Regular visitors to this blog (there must be a few, right?) may be aware that I have a bit of a thing for movie theater marquees. I regularly post pictures of local theaters like the Colony Theater and the Rialto Theater’s marquees here in Raleigh on the sidebar (in the old days it would be the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill when I lived there), and I have them collected on Facebook in the “Movie Theater Fun File!” section of my profile.

So since it’s been a while since I've put together a good ole Film Babble Blog list I thought I’d get back in the game with this top 10 of memorable marquees that have appeared in the movies throughout the years:


It was a running gag throughout Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar winner ANNIE HALL that protagonist Alvy Singer (Allen) would drag his girlfriend (Diane Keaton in the title role) to see Marcel Ophüls' THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1969). The marquee shot above comes from the end of the film, after the couple has broken up, when Allen runs into Keaton coming out of a screening of the four hour documentary about Nazis at the Thalia Theater, which used to exist on 95th Street off Broadway (it's an apartment building now). It's a long shot so it's easy to miss that Allen's date is Sigourney Weaver, in her first film appearance. A bonus Woody Allen marquee appears at the top of this post.


This is one of hundreds of well chosen details that helped Richard Linklater's 1993 cult comedy drama classic DAZED AND CONFUSED so convincingly recreate a day from May of 1976. Hitchcock's final film, released a month earlier, appears in a few early shots on a standing marquee for a drive-in in the background of the film mostly set in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. It works as both a piece of a time capsule capture, and a shout-out to the master of suspense.

This, and #4, are inside-jokes. In Don Siegel's 1971 cop classic DIRTY HARRY, Clint Eastwood's iconic Harry Callahan character enters a San Francisco burger joint in one shot in which a marquee advertising Eastwood's previous film, PLAY MISTY FOR ME (also '71) can be seen around the corner. Nice plug, Clint!

The same type of thing happens in David O. Russell's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK from last year. While leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are arguing in front of a theater midway through the film, a marquee advertising Ryûhei Kitamura's little seen 2008 thriller THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, which starred Cooper, is fairly visible - partially obscured but still obvious.


During a very funny falling-in-love montage set to Herman Hermit's “I’m into Something Good” in David Zucker's 1988 comedy classic THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD, Leslie Neilsen and Priscilla Presley exit a Los Angeles movie theater laughing their asses off. The camera pans up to the marquee:

It's a cheap laugh, but still always gets me.

6. A double feature of A BOY'S LIFE and WATCH THE SKIES in GREMLINS

The fictitious film titles on this marquee seen in Joe Dante's 1984 classic GREMLINS are Spielbergian in-jokes. A BOY'S LIFE was the original title of E.T. and WATCH THE SKIES was the early working title of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, so the fake double bill presents a double nod to the film's executive producer. This marquee has been mentioned before on this blog as has:


This marquee for the phony film SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY (previously covered in “Film Within Film Follow-up Fun” 7/13/07), seen in the 1977 ZAZ sketch comedy movie THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is part of a running gag through many of the films of John Landis. It comes from a line from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY that the director liked enough to feature in the form of billboards, posters, and more than one marquee.

8. A double bill of DEEP THROAT and MEATBALL in SLAP SHOT

This marquee glimpsed in the background of a parade shot on the streets of Jonestown, Pennsylvania in George Roy Hill's classic 1977 hockey comedy SLAP SHOT proudly displays a double feature of Gerard Damiano's 1972 pornos DEEP THROAT (possibly the most famous porn film ever) and his lesser known, but presumably just as filthy MEATBALL.

I also featured this one before (“10 Self Referential Or Crossover Moments In The Films Of Lucas And Spielberg” 5/20/08), but couldn't resist including the marquee of JAWS 19 that Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) encountered in the future in Robert Zemeckis' BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II (executive produced by Spielberg) here because, you know, hologram shark! Also the fact that the director of the 19th film in the JAWS franchise is credited to Spielberg's son Max Spielberg (born in 1985) is a nice touch.

I'm including this one because I used to climb up a ladder and change the marquee a lot at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill when I worked there from 2004-2009. So I appreciated that Quentin Tarantino's and Eli Roth's revisionist World War II romp, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, included a scene in which Mélanie Laurent's character Shoshanna is taking down the lengthy line of letters that spell out “German Night Leni Riefernstahl in Pabst's THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU.” Thankfully, I rarely had to put up that many letters.

Post note: I should definitely note the cool blog Marquees in Movies, which houses a collection of screenshots from movies showing movie theater marquees. I, ahem, borrowed that great screenshot of SLAP SHOT from them.

More later...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

New Releases On Blu ray & DVD: 11/12/13

Along with many other critics, I was super disappointed by last summer’s Superman reboot, Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL as you can read in my review. The Christopher Nolan-produced film, in which Henry Cavill steps into the famous red boots for the first time, was still super successful, being the highest-grossing Superman movie ever, so it’s now available in several different Special Edition sets. 

The most expensive package, at just under $50, is the Limited Collector's Edition (pictured above), which features the theatrical version of the film in 3D hi-definition, hi-definition and standard definition, and also includes a limited release metal “S” glyph with acrylic glass stand. Around the same price is the Collectible Figurine Limited Edition Gift Set (Blu-ray + DVD + Ultra Violet Combo). For folks on tighter budgets, there’s the 3-disc Blu ray + DVD + UltraViolet Combo Pack, and 2-disc Blu ray and DVD editions.

Special Features: “Journey of Discovery: Creating MAN OF STEEL” (the full length film with interviews and visual commentary inserted), a couple of nearly hour-hour long making-of documentaries (“Strong Characters, Legendary Roles,” “All Out Action”), a 6-minute featurette “Krypton Decoded,” a 2-minute Superman 75th Anniversary Short, a History Channel-style featurette called “Planet Krypton,” and, for some reason, the “New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth” featurette from THE HOBBIT Blu-ray (?).

Another summer hit, David Soren’s TURBO from DreamWorks Animation, also releases this week. The family favorite, featuring a snail (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who dreams of winning the Indy 500, is out in a 2-disc 3D and non 3D Blu ray/DVD Combo Packs and a single disc DVD edition. Special Features include a bunch of short featurettes, music videos, a deleted scene, “The Race – Storyboard Sequence,” segments with Head of Character Animation Dave Burgess showing viewers how to draw the film’s lead characters, and an interactive featurette called “Shell Creator.”

One of the year’s best documentaries, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s BLACKFISH, hits home video today in single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. Read my review: “Anti-Sea World Doc BLACKFISH Makes A Convincing Case” (8/19/13). Special Features: Commentary with Director Cowperthwaite and Producer Manny Oteyza, a bunch of featurettes full of Orca facts, “A Note From Gabriela Cowperthwaite,” and the theatrical trailer.

I had a pretty lukewarm reaction to Noah Baumbach’s vehicle for his girlfriend Greta Gerwig, FRANCES HA, when I saw it last June (my review: “FRANCES HA: She’s Undateable & Her Film Is Just Barely Watchable”), but that was very much an minority opinion as its 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and its addition to the Criterion Collection today proves. Supplements on the Director-Approved Special Edition include conversational featurettes with Peter Bogdonich speaking with Baunbach, and filmmaker Sarah Polley with Gerwig, a conversation about the look of the film between Baumbach, director of photography Sam Levy, and creative director Pascal Dangin, and a booklet featuring an essay by playwright Annie Baker.

Also out today: David Gordon Green’s comic drama PRINCE AVALANCHE, starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch; Christian Petzold’s 2012 German drama BARBARA; Diablo Cody’s drama comedy PARADISE, starring Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, and Octavia Spencer; James Cullingham’s music biodoc IN SEARCH OF BLIND JOE DEATH: THE SAGA OF JOHN FAHEY (DVD only); and another notable music documentary: Laura Archibald’s GREENWICH VILLAGE: MUSIC THAT DEFINED A GENERATION.

On the older films out today front, there’s the 25th Anniversary Edition of Katsuhiro Ohtomo’s AKIRA, Oliver Stone’s JFK gets all done up in a 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector’s Edition, the Criterion Collection presents the Blu ray debut of Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece CITY LIGHTS, and Kino Classics puts out their 2-Disc Deluxe Remastered Edition of F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922).

Finally, Dexter: The Complete Final Season, containing maybe the worst finale episode of any series ever, drops today on Blu ray and DVD. The entire run of the popular Showtime series, starring Michael C. Hall as a Miami-based blood splatter analyst/serial killer of other serial killers, is also available now in Dexter: The Complete Series Collection. The 25-disc Blu ray, and 33-disc DVD boxes are neatly packaged to recreate Dexter’s blood sides collection.

More later…

Friday, November 08, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD: A Marvel Mess Of A Sorry Super Hero Sequel

Now playing at multiplexes in all of the 9 realms:


(Dir. Alan Taylor, 2013)

One thing certainly hasn’t changed for me in this follow-up to both Kenneth Branaugh’s 2011 origin story, and Joss Whedon’s 2012 super hero ensemble smash THE AVENGERS:’s Thor, portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, remains my least favorite member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

However Hemsworth, who showed some decent chops in Ron Howard’s RUSH earlier this year, isn’t the one to blame. It’s the fault of screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely who fail to make the Norse God into much of a compelling character. They also don’t succeed in creating much excitement in their unwieldly plotline, which I struggled to follow through tons of nonsensical exposition and a bunch of boring set pieces.

This installment deals with Thor being forced to team up with Loki (Tom Hiddleston, reprising his villainous role from THOR and THE AVENGERS) in order to stop an ancient race of Dark Elves led by Malakith (Christoper Eccleston) from conquering the 9 realms, of which Earth is one. Threading through this is the threat of a floating red fluid life force called the Aether that infects Thor’s love interest, the returning Natalie Portman.

Also reprising their roles from the first one are Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father, Idris Elba as Norse God Heimdall, Stellan Skarsgård as Dr. Erik Selvig, Rene Russo as Thor’s stepmother, and for comic relief there's Kat Dennings, taking a break from her trashy sitcom Two Broke Girls.

So there’s a likable cast caught up in all this mayhem, and fans of the formula will surely appreciate the surprise 
appearance from one of the other Avengers, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, and the requisite after the credits stinger, (sadly Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson doesn't pop up as he’s busy with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. these days), but these elements just don't have their usual zing here.

No matter how high they try to make the stakes, what with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, it never really seems like Thor or anybody or anything is in any danger. 

As you’ve probably seen in the trailers, Thor obliterates a ginormous rock monster into tiny boulder bits with just one swing of his mighty hammer and then casually tosses off a standard action hero one-liner: “Anyone else?” This got a big laugh at the screening I attended, but I groaned. The scene is intended for us to be impressed by the power of our protagonist, but for me it perfectly displays that the indestructible Thor is one smug douche. And people say Superman is boring.

Of course, we don’t trust Loki to begin with so none of the twists in their scenario have any impact, but there’s a little fun to be had with Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s bickering - a little. 

Unfortunately again there’s zero chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman, who acts like she’s an awkward lovesick character in a fluffy rom com, except when she’s in an alien space junk-induced trance in strained close-ups.

THOR INTO DARKNESS, sorry, THOR: THE DARK WORLD doesn’t even try to be bigger and better than the first one. It’s just another big ass CGI-saturated sequel outfitted in useless 3D – seriously, I can’t recall a single instance of the imagery being helped by the tediously trendy device.

The only real surprise for me was the odd bit of casting of Chris O’Dowd, the Irish comic actor who comedy fans know as Kristen Wiig's love interest in BRIDESMAIDS and Roy in the British sitcom The IT Crowd, as a guy who goes on a blind date with Portman early on in the movie before Thor returns to earth.

O’Dowd is only in two scenes: the date scene which gets interrupted by Dennings, and a later bit in which O’Dowd phones Portman for a second date, and his signal somehow helps her and Thor reconnect to another realm or something, I can’t remember exactly how.

O’Dowd is on the sidelines disconnected from all the chaotic events, with no character being straight with him, or caring that he has no idea what’s going on. In the mist of this Marvel mess, I so know how he felt.

More later...

ALL IS LOST: the Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art house near you:

ALL IS LOST (Dir. J.C. Chandor, 2013)

After his last few preachy pleas for relevancy (LIONS FOR LAMBS and THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, which he both produced and directed), Robert Redford has redeemed himself with his role as a man stranded at sea in ALL IS LOST, J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to his directorial debut MARGIN CALL.

Set, as titles tell us, “170 nautical miles from the Sumatra straits” over eight days, the film starts with Redford being awakened on his yacht by water gushing into his cabin. While he was sleeping, his boat had hit a large stray shipping container floating in the Indian Ocean.

Things don't look that bleak at first, as Redford patches up the hole, and bails out the water, but a violent storm that's soon approaching ensures that his boat is in big danger.

Apart from an opening monologue via voice-over concerning last regrets and apologies, we barely hear Redford speak, and we don't get any back story about his character or get any idea where he's going or why. All we can deduce is that he's a smart resourceful guy, who's wealthy enough to own an expensive yacht.

But despite still having a lot of fight left in him, the 77-year old can't seem to get a break as whenever he thinks he's found some breathing space, a few moments of safety, another life threatening predicament rears its head.

It's a very sad scene indeed when his boat completely sinks and our protagonist, who's only credited as “Our Man,” moves to an inflatable raft, with only a few cans of food, some potable water, and several flares to get him by.

Redford is able to head his raft to the shipping lanes, but he finds that it's extremely difficult to get seen by the large passing cargo ships, even when firing off flares. 

Desperate, defeated, sun burned, broken down, and surrounded by sharks, Redford doesn't just drop an f-bomb at one of his lowest moments; he launches it into the heavens, cursing all creation for what looks like will be his ultimate doom.

ALL IS LOST feels longer than its 106 minute running time, but I mean that in a good way, as it's a riveting journey that never drags as it takes us intensely step-by-step through Redford's worsening situation, and wrings every bit of emotion possible out of it.

The ocean here, starkly shot by cinematographers Frank G. De Marco and Peter Zuccarini, is as vast and scary as outer space is in GRAVITY, another 2013 tale of survival under extreme circumstances that shares similar levels of stressful scariness.

In this spare yet engrossing as Hell story, Redford gets off of his Sundance soap box ass, and reminds us how committed and vital an actor he still is.

More later...

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 11/5/13

As I wrote in my review last summer, I found Roland Emerich’s WHITE HOUSE DOWN, to be bigger, dumber, and a lot more fun than Antoine Fuqua’s like-minded OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN from earlier in the year. But guess which one was more successful and is getting a sequel? That’s right, not the one I liked. Oh well, maybe Emerich’s Jamie Foxx/Channing Tatum vehicle can pick up more of an audience when it releases on home video today in a Two Disc Combo (Blu-ray / DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy) package and a single DVD editon (+UltraViolet Digital Copy).

WHITE HOUSE DOWN’s Special Features include a Gag Reel, a bunch of featurettes with interviews, behind-the-scenes breakdowns, and an examination of the contributions of Cinematographer Anna J. Foerster equaling around an hour.

A summer hit that I proudly missed, Dennis Dugan’s GROWN UPS 2, the second go around with Adam Sandler and his buddies ( Kevin James, Chris Rock, and David Spade, but this time not Rob Schneider), also drops today on 2-disc Blu ray combo, and 1 disc DVD editions. Special Features on the film that grossed over $240 million despite having only a 7% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes include Deleted Scenes equaling only a few minutes, and less than 10 minutes of featurettes. Surprising, as I thought they’d really load this sucker up with much more crap, but in this case, less is definitely more.

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, Peter Landesman’s PARKLAND, which takes its name from the hospital where Kennedy was taken after being shot, comes out this week also in 2-disc Blu ray and single disc DVD editions. Zac Efron, Ron Livingston, Billy Bob Thornton, Gil Bellows, Colin Hanks, and Paul Giamatti star in this depiction of the world-changing events in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 through the next few days after. Special Features: Director's commentary with Landesman, and Deleted Scenes.

Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012) gets its inevitable Extended Edition box this week, with a new commentary by Filmmaker Peter Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens and a ton of featurettes, on 3D Blu ray and DVD, alongside TWILIGHT FOREVER: The Complete Saga Box Set, which captures all the TWILIGHT films together with bonus material aplenty on 10 Blu ray discs, and 12 DVDs.

Also out today: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's Kristen Wiig vehicle GIRL MOST LIKELY, James Franco's William Faulkner adaptation AS I LAY DYING, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedmans' LOVELACE (starring Amanda Seyfried as '70s porn star Linda Lovelace), Edward Burn's comedy drama THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS, Greg Mattola's Larry David HBO telefilm CLEAR HISTORY, Gilles Bourdo's French biopic RENOIR, and Aram Rappaport's marketing comedy SYRUP.

On the older films front there's the 30th Anniversary Edition of Philip Kaufman's THE RIGHT STUFF, ELF: 10TH Anniversary, Bob Clark's comedy classic A CHRISTMAS STORY: 30th Anniversary, Burny Mattinson's MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL: 30the Anniversary Special Edition, and Richard Donner's SCROOGED: 25th Anniversary Edition.

The A & E reality series Duck Dynasty celebrates the upcoming season with their DVD-only release I'm Dreaming of a Redneck Christmas, which repackages the finale for season 2 finale as a stand alone holiday release. This appears to be a greedy move as one can get the entire season for just a few dollars more so buyer beware.

Other TV season sets releasing today include Mad Men: Season 6, Law & Order: The Thirteenth Year, Magic City: The Complete Second Season, Saved By The Bell: The Complete Collection, Ice Road Truckers: Season 7, Boy Meets World: Complete Collection and the entire run of the popular BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous aptly named Absolutely All Of It.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

ENDER’S Big Screen Video GAME

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

ENDER’S GAME (Dir. Gavin Hood, 2013)

Two things I’m not going to do: compare this film to Orson Scott Card’s original 1985 novel, and recount the controversy over the author’s outspoken hatred of homosexuals. This is because I haven’t read the book, and the views of Card, who hails from my home state North Carolina, are well documented on these internets, as are the calls within the LGBT community to boycott the movie.

As its #1 at the box office (take that, boycott!), audiences have found what I found out when attending an advance screening last week - Gavin Hood’s ENDER’S GAME is, simply put, a rock solid sci-fi flick.

It’s also one of the most successful attempts to make a big screen video game vividly come alive, something that Hollywood has been trying to do since the early ‘80s in movies like TRON and THE LAST STARFIGHTER. Here, the tried and true premise of kids’ gaming skills being put to the test in actual intergalactic combat fully envelops the viewer like never before, largely thanks to its lavish IMAX scope.

Set in the year 2086, in which Earth has been attacked by an alien race called the “Formics” (they were called “Buggers” in the book, but that could be seen as an anti-gay slur), and the International Fleet is training a bunch of young cadets via intense simulations and drills to be able to fight off the next invasion. The star pupil, Ender Wiggin (the brilliant Asa Butterfield from HUGO), is recruited by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis, always making the most out of supporting roles) to attend Battle School, located on an elaborate space station orbiting the earth.

War game after war game goes by, with Butterfield sharpening his skills under Ford’s tutelage. Man, there is a lot of over serious strategizing, and military minded mumbo jumbo, but Hood, who adapted Card’s novel for the film’s screenplay, keeps it all moving with an entertaining precision aided by sparkling visuals.

Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT) puts in a poignant performance as one of Butterfield’s classmates who becomes his best friend and ally, while Moisés Arias (KINGS OF SUMMER) affectively flares his nostrils as a pint sized adversary along the way to the inevitably climatic battle simulation, which houses the film’s big thematic fake-out.

In what will likely become his fourth major franchise, Ford tops his almost unrecognizable role in Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42 earlier this year, by showing he can give a damn again as the gruff Graff. Ford’s iconic presence is one that Butterfield’s Ender and audiences trust, bringing a stately gravitas to his overseer position, and it’s enjoyable to see him act alongside Sir Ben Kingsley in a brief bit as half-Maori war legend Mazer Rackham sporting a pretty prominent face tattoo.

Despite growing up on STAR WARS and Star Trek, I don’t consider myself a sci-fi guy, and I’m certainly not a gamer, but ENDER’S GAME kept me interested with its neat narrative and absorbing sense of purpose. Anyone who’s felt the competition in the air of a locker room can attest to the tone that this film nails. It also deftly captures the coming-of-age realization of how manipulative the world of adulthood can be. 

Now, these are pretty fancy themes indeed to be embedded inside a film that could just function as eye candy. Hood’s adaptation of Card’s creation succeeds in being a big screen video game with a brain.

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Friday, November 01, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now opening at a theater near me today, that is, exclusively in Raleigh at the Rialto Theater:

(Dir. Steve McQueen, 2013)

12 YEARS A SLAVE, the third full length feature by 44-year old British filmmaker Steve McQueen, is going to be the movie that everybody feels that they absolutely have to see this season. But don’t go mistaking it for just another piece of big issue Oscar bait, for it’s a powerfully personal story driven by an exemplary performance that movie-goers will benefit greatly from experiencing.

The British born Chiwetel Ejiofor has shown he’s got the actorly goods before in numerous movie and television roles, but here he works his worry lines like never before as Solomon Northup, a New York native who was born free but kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

The film, based on the real life Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same name, focuses without shuddering on Northup, renamed Platt by his abductors, as he tries to survive unspeakable conditions for over a decade on a Louisiana cotton plantation.

Ejiofor’s Northup would get beaten, brutally lashed, if he protests that he’s not a slave so he resigns himself to the misery of the hand he’s been dealt, and, despite the movie posters showing him on the run, largely doesn’t try to escape (on an errand he take off through the woods at one point but runs into some evil white men hanging slaves and thinks the better of it).

McQueen (wish he’d use a middle initial or something so people would stop asking me if he’s *THE* Steve McQueen) populates his film with recognizable actor folk like Paul Giamatti as a cold slave trader, Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave owning preacher, Paul Dano as a particularly abusive foreman, and Michael Fassbender as the worst of the worst slave drivers who constantly refers to Northup and his people only as his “property.”

All the white people aren’t evil however as Cumberbatch appears to have some compassion, and Brad Pitt (one of the film’s co-producers) shows up as a wizened Canadian carpenter and abolitionist, who just may be able to help Northup out.

Aided by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who shot the director’s previous films, McQueen makes use of long takes and lingers on some shots in a effectively stirring manner that makes us feel what our poor protagonist is going through intensely. One scene, in which Dano strings up and attempts to lynch Northup, has our suffering lead left dangling with only the tips of his toes touching the ground as the other slaves continue their daily activities quietly behind him.

These harsh incidents are indeed hard to watch, but to fully appreciate the severity of what went down they are a vital necessity. Elements such as Adepero Oduye as one of Ejiofor’s fellow slaves crying uncontrollably over being separated from her children from one scene to the next are as harrowing and haunting as cinema can possibly achieve. Fassbender, who previously starred in McQueen’s SHAME, embodies a creature of pure cruelty so convincingly that you can feel the audience’s hatred of him in full force. There won’t be much sympathy for Sarah Paulson as his wife either, for she’s a wretched piece of wrong-minded menace as well.

Folks may compare it last year’s DJANGO UNCHAINED, but while they may share similar subject matter and may equal each other in the heavy abundance of the use of the “N-word,” Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist revenge fantasy was a cartoon compared to McQueen’s heartfelt and heartbreaking work here with its blindingly faithful to reality rawness.

12 YEARS A SLAVE is McQueen’s best film and one of the best of the year by far. It demands to be seen and felt by everybody who is unafraid to see and feel how somebody can endure such Hellish torture, and survive to tell their tale. It can seem like ancient history, especially as we now have a black President, but here we are reminded that it really wasn't that long ago that there were these horrible conditions in our country, and the repercussions of these injustices are still largely felt to this day. As Faulkner famously said, The past is never dead. It's not even past.

It seems these days, the only way to even begin to get past such horrors is to fully acknowledge them. The unflinchingly honest 12 YEARS A SLAVE is here to make it even harder to look the other way.

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The Lame, Almost Laugh Free LAST VEGAS Isn't Completely Lifeless At Least

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

LAST VEGAS (Dir. Jon Turteltaub, 2013)

Four Oscar winners - Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Kline - join together for a film that will win no Oscars.

The famous foursome play friends since childhood (forget that their ages range from 66 to 76) who hit Vegas for some bachelor party shenanigans in this crappy comedy that critics everywhere are calling THE HANGOVER for the geriatric set.

I’m not a fan of THE HANGOVER movies, but they at least have more of an attempt at a narrative; LAST VEGAS just piles on a bunch of city of sin set-piece ideas (the guys judge a bikini competition, get in a bar fight, pretend to be mob bosses, etc.) that seem right off the top of the head of the film’s screenwriter Dan Fogleman (CARS, CRAZY STUPID LOVE, THE GUILT TRIP).

The bare as bones back story is that in their youth, Douglas and De Niro’s characters had been in a love triangle of sorts with a girl who chose De Niro. The gruff as ever De Niro is now a widower who’s angry at Douglas, now engaged to woman half his age, for not coming to his wife’s funeral.

Other loose story threads are that Kline has been given a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” card from his wife (Johanna Gleason) so he’s got a HALL PASS thing going on, and that Freeman is sneaking out on his overprotective son (Michael Ealy), who thinks his old man is going on a church retreat.

Another Oscar winner, Mary Steenburgen, pops up as a torch singer in a rundown lounge, all smiling and amused at the guy’s antics. Predictably Douglas and De Niro both fall for her in scenes devised to give the proceedings some emotional weight, but end up feeling shoehorned into this glib series of geezer sex gags.

There’s also the cringe-worthy scenario of the fellows bossing around Jerry Farrera (Turtle from Entourage). Their Parks Hotel concierge (Weeds’ Romany Malco) told Farrera that the guys are the heads of four crime syndicate families so he’d be scared into serving them. That obviously means that there’s terrible tough-guy jokes in the miserable mix to contend with too.

I have to say though, that castling Turtle does nail the air-headed Entourage guys-bonding-through-partying ethos the film is going for. The energy the leads put into their performances does elevate the flimsy material at times I also feel I should add.

But while it’s far from lifeless, LAST VEGAS is a lame, almost laugh-free, piece of PG-13 fluff that will please only incredibly undemanding crowds. 

It’s funny (funnier than anything in the movie, anyway) how Kline comes off like William H. Macy in WILD HOGS. That is, the one guy that you’d thought wouldn’t get caught slumming it up in such commercial dreck like this. However, more power to him because he looks like he’s having a better time than anybody else onscreen. I can't help thinking that his character and performance so deserve to be part of a much better movie.

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