Friday, February 28, 2014

Liam Neeson Airplane Thriller NON-STOP Never Starts To Get Very Suspenseful

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

NON-STOP (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014)

For a film called NON-STOP, this new Liam Neeson airplane-set thriller starts slowly, and then has many rough draggy patches.

Continuing his recent career transformation into an aging action hero, Neeson stars here as an alcoholic air marshal on a transatlantic flight from New York City to London, who gets an anonymous text from somebody on board saying that unless $150 million is transferred into a secured account, they're "going to kill someone on this plane every 20 minutes." 

Despite having hit the bottle before the flight, Neeson does what he can to take control of the situation. Our gruff protagonist first suspects the other air marshal on board (Anson Mount), but it turns out he's being blackmailed by the same mysterious texter for smuggling cocaine, and a violent  scuffle in the men's room results in the film's first casuality - right at the 20 minute mark.

The gruff sweaty Neeson tries to keep this on the down low, but everyone around him, including Julianne Moore as a concerned seat-mate, and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery as a nervous flight attendant, know something horribly wrong is going on.

Lupita Nyong'o, who I predict will be taking home the gold Sunday night for her Supporting performance in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, has a really wasted part playing another flight attendant - I can't remember any significance she has to anything.

To lay out all the misleads and convolutions in John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach's screenplay would be pointless, but I will recount that when it's revealed that it's Neeson's account that the money is going to go to, everybody thinks he's the real terrorist hijacker behind this murderous mid-air mayhem at 30,000 feet.

But instead of tension being mounted, its layers of stupidity piling up - especially when it comes to Neeson breaking down in a big confession to the entire plane's population (and the world via passenger's cellphones) about how fucked up he is. This bit highly resembles the "Oscar Clip" parody that WAYNE'S WORLD did over 20 years ago. 

NON-STOP is not without style - it borrows from House of Cards the aesthetic of how texts pop up on screen in neat bubbles (it also borrows Corey Stoll from that popular Netflix show's first season to play an angry passenger), and cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano's frantic camera placement makes use of the claustrophobic space, but none of the strained stress it attempts to amplify add up to any genuine suspense.

But, hey, at least it's not TAKEN 3, right?

More later...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hey Kids! Funtime 2014 Oscar Picks!

It's that time of year again, time for me to post my predictions for the Oscars, which will air on ABC this Sunday night. I'm glad to see that the 86th Academy Awards Ceremony will be hosted by Ellen DeGeneres because she was very funny when she first helmed the show back in 2007.

I thought that last year's Oscar winners were one of the hardest rosters to predict in history, but I actually scored 18 out of 24 right. I seriously doubt I'll get as good or better this go around, but I'm still gonna give it the ole college try.

Oh yeah, I'll be live-tweeting the Oscars too: follow @filmbabble.


I thought this was a shoo-in when I saw it last fall, but then AMERICAN HUSTLE started gaining major momentum as an awards season favorite. GRAVITY has a lot of pull too, but I'm sticking with Steve McQueen's powerful historical drama. It just seems to have Best Picture written all over it.

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón for GRAVITY

3. BEST ACTOR: Matthew McConaughey for DALLAS BUYER'S CLUB

4. BEST ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett for BLUE JASMINE


I almost want to pick a wild card - say, Jonah Hill for THE WOLF OF WALL STREET - because there's often a surprise in one of the Supporting categories, but I'm still going with Leto.

6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Wild card: June Squibb for NEBRASKA)

And the rest:










16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Let it Go” from FROZEN









Okay, so as you can see - when I was in doubt on a technical award, I just went with GRAVITY.

As usual, stay tuned to see how many I get wrong.

More later...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 2/25/14

In case you need to catch up with the Oscar nominated movies before the big broadcast of the 86th Annual Academy Awards this coming Sunday (my predictions will be posted this Friday), you’re in luck today as two of the Best Picture nominees release today on home video. First up, there’s Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY, which is nominated for 10 Oscars, available this week in 3-disc Blu-ray, and 2-disc DVD editions. The extremely entertaining film, which concerns two A-list stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) as astronauts stranded in space, comes packaged with such Special Features as a 107 minute documentary (longer than the film!) “GRAVITY: Mission Control,” 37 minutes of Shot Breakdowns, “Aningaaq: A Short Film by Jonás Cuarón” (10 minutes), and a 22 minute mini-doc narrated by Ed Harris entitled “Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space.”

The second release competing for the big award is Alexander Payne’ s NEBRASKA, which is also up for Best Actor (Bruce Dern) and Best Supporting Actor (June Squibb) Oscars. It drops today on Blu ray and DVD, but both only have one bonus feature: an almost half an hour “making of” documentary. Though I doubt it’ll win any Oscars (Squibb could be an upsetter – you never know), it’s a fine film that deserves to be seen by a lot more film loving folks. Read my review here.

Nominated for no Oscars (for good reason), Alan Taylor’s THOR: THE DARK WORLD, which I called a Marvel Mess Of A Sorry Super Hero Sequel on this very blog last November, is also out today on Blu ray and DVD. It comes with many Special Features including a 14-minute short “Marvel One Shot: All Hail the King” by IRON MAN 3 co-writer Drew Pearce featuring Ben Kingsley, Commentary (with Director Taylor, cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, and Tom Hiddleston), 32-minute Marvel Cinematic Universe documentary “A Brother's Journey: Thor & Loki,” 8 minutes of Deleted & Extended Scenes, Scoring Thor: The Dark World with Brian Tyler, (5 minutes), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Exclusive Look (4 minutes), and a Gag Reel (also 4 minutes).

Oscar nominee Jared Leto (Best Supporting for DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB) stars in Jaco Van Dormael’s epically weird MR. NOBODY, a 2009 sci-fi drama making its first U.S. appearance on Blu ray and DVD today. It’s a visually stunning film that blends elements of DONNIE DARKO and INCEPTION with Philip K. Dick-style invention that resembles a one-character CLOUD ATLAS at times, but it’s a long exhausting watch (the Blu ray features 2 versions – the 139 minute theatrical release and the 157 minute Director’s Cut). A terrific Leto stars as the title character, Nemo Nobody, who as an 118-year old man looks back at his life (or alternate lives), involving a cast including Sarah Polley, Rhys Ifans, and Juno Temple. Special Features: “The Making of MR. NOBODY” (45 min), Deleted Scenes 97 min), “AXS TV: A Look at How I Live Now,” and the trailer.

Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s excellent documentary MUSCLE SHOALS, which I saw last year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is also available this week. As I wrote back then, “The legendary ‘Muscle Shoals Sound’ gets its doc due in this rock, rhythm, and soul packed film that tells the story of two studios in the small Alabama town and the iconic artists who recorded there.” Special Features: Additional Scenes and interviews, 2 commentary tracks (one with Director Camalier; the other with Rick Hall, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, and Spooner Oldham), and the trailer.

The Criterion Collection has a bunch of choice titles debuting on Blu ray this week: Abdellatif Kechiche's 2013 lesbian love story BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, Steven Soderbergh's Depression-era drama KING OF THE HILL, Jean Luc-Godard's 1960 French New Wave classic BREATHLESS, and Roman Polanski's 1979 Oscar winner TESS (it won for Best Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design). Note: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR and KING OF THE HILL are available streaming on Netflix Instant.

The final new release I'm highlighting today is Bob Dylan - 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, a re-mastered re-release of the all-star tribute concert that went down at Madison Square Garden on October 16th, 1992, appearing on Blu ray for the first time in a Deluxe Edition. It's a colossal collection of music including three rock icons who are no longer with us, George Harrison (who would've celebrated his 71st Birthday today), Lou Reed, and Johnny Cash, who join an amazing roster of artists including Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Roger McQuinn, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young to perform a showcase of the music of the greatest songwriter ever (imho). The man being honored himself performs a few songs at the end including ensemble versions of “My Back Pages” and “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.” Special Features: 40 minutes of previously unreleased material including behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage, and interviews. This might be the most rewarding release this week.

More later...

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Laughably Bad Victorian-Era Romantic Thriller IN SECRET

Now playing at an art house near you, in my case the Colony Theater in Raleigh:

IN SECRET (Dir. Charlie Stratton, 2013)

Charlie Stratton’s adaptation of Neal Bell’s stage play, which was based on the 1867 novel “Therese Racquin” by Émile Zola, is such an overwrought exercise with simplistic soap opera dialogue that it sometimes plays like a parody of an Victorian era romantic thriller. A very bad parody, that is.

Set in France in the 1860s, the story sets up Elizabeth Olsen as a woman trapped in a loveless, sexless marriage to a sickly Tom Felton (best known as Draco Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER films), that was arranged by Jessica Lange as Malfoy’s, I mean Felton’s cold evil-eyed mother. Lange is also Olsen’s aunt so there’s that.

I’ve often thought that Lange sometimes brings a mental instability to characters that don’t necessarily call for it, but this one sure does. The power she wields over Olsen is unexplained as I kept wondering why doesn’t the girl just run away when told she has to marry Felton? Olsen in an aside says she didn’t think she had the strength to make it on her own, but I’m not buying it.

Shortly after the couple and matriarch Lange move to Paris to open up a some sort of fabric shop (that never has any customers), while Felton works in an office, Oscar Isaac (currently starring as the title character in the Coen brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) pops up as a childhood friend of Felton’s. Isaac is a suave charming aspiring artist who Olsen falls madly in love with in a series of overly artsy soft focus sex scenes (one even has the light through a window glaring on the lens). Imagine gruff movie trailer announcer’s voice: “The love they had could only be shared…In Secret.”

Because of the times or whatever, Olsen and Isaac can’t just run away together so the word “accident” comes up regarding Felton, which is a shame because he’s the only one here with the appropriate accent. The three go on a boat trip that ends in murder as Isaac drowns Felton. We don’t see this happen except for fleeting flashbacks later in the film, but we get what happened when Olsen and Isaac come back wet and screaming, claiming that Felton was standing, dancing I think, and tipped the boat over. 

Not sure why they felt it was necessary to show us a ghastly shot of Felton's corpse - it creeped me out more than it did Isaac when he went to the morgue to identify the body.

The lovers have to wait to get together or else they’ll be suspected for murder, and guess what, the heat has died off for some reason. The plotting gets more and more ludicrous in the last third, with Lange developing some disease that causes her to lose her voice so she’s unable to point out to anyone that Olsen and Isaac murdered her son. Lange even goes to the length to spell it out in messy ink on the store’s floor.

The swelling strings of Gabriel Yared's (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, COLD MOUNTAIN) score try to intensify the events but come off as laughably bad as everything else.

When I’m watching a film that I know is an adaptation of a book I haven’t read, I sometimes find myself thinking ‘oh, this is probably a lot more compelling or plausible on the page.’ I thought that a lot during this film, but folks who’ve read the original novel may get a lot more out of it than me - I'm fairly certain Zola's text wasn't the
trashy romance novel that this film makes it look like.

Stratton's full length feature directorial debut, IN SECRET is a dreadful melodrama, that wastes the energy of talented actors (for some reason they cast Mackenzie Crook, best known as Gareth from The Office UK, to just stand around and make obvious observations), while its contrivances waste the time of the audience. For sure, one of the first of the worst movies of the year.

More later...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Short Film Showcase: Adam Pyburn's “Thread”

A co-worker of mine at the Colony Theater in Raleigh, Adam Pyburn, who is also a talented freelance video editor, recently finished a short film called “Thread.” Pyburn posted the film on YouTube and described it on his Facebook profile as concerning “the last time I threaded a 35mm projector before the theater switched to digital projection.

I was so touched by the nearly 5 minute short, of which Colony General Manager Denver Hill said was “part nostalgia, part how-to” (from the theater's Facebook page), that I wanted to share it with my readers. So here it is:

I asked Adam a few questions about his film:

Film Babble Blog: Can you tell me how “Thread” came together; what inspired it?

Adam Pyburn: “It was filmed July 12th 2013, right before the 9 o’clock showing of BEFORE MIDNIGHT that Friday night. It wasn’t the last time that projector was used before (or after) renovations, just the last time that I used it before the digital transition - and in all likelihood the last time I’ll thread a 35mm projector.

I had just gotten my first DSLR two month prior and had been meaning to put the projection threading process on video. I knew the end was near for 35mm, and it wasn't clear that we would keep even one film projector. So once we got the final dates on the digital renovations I picked a shift and brought my camera.

I just used available light, which is kinda harsh up there, but in black & white the contrast worked well, and created more of the bittersweet, timeless look I was aiming for. Though, admittedly I didn't plan the shoot as well as I would if I did it over again. All the set up, shots, and retakes took a little over an hour to film, and I spent about two days this week editing, tweaking the graphics, and adding music.

FBB: Was the music you composed written for the film or was it something you had before?

AP: “The chords had been in my head for the last few months, but I hadn’t found a context for them until this project. The credit music was just ad-libbed based on the main music. It was bittersweet to film and edit this video, but in the end I think the pieces came together just about the way I wanted them to.”

More later...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 2/18/14

Game of Thrones: The Complete Third Season leads the pack of new releases on home video today. The wildly popular HBO show, based on the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by author George R. R. Martin, returning for its fourth season on April 6th, is available on DVD in a 4-disc set or in a 7-disc multi-format edition (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy). The wealth of Special Features consists of 12 audio commentaries with cast and crew, Deleted/Extended scenes, and a bunch of featurettes including “Inside the Wildlings” and “Roots of Westeros.”

The not as popular Showtime series Nurse Jackie has its Season 5 available today in 3-disc DVD or 2-disc Blu ray sets. I’ve previously not been partial to the hospital-set dark comedy drama despite Edie Falco’s solid work in the title role, and this season with its jaded jerky characters’ aimless storylines, sure didn’t change that. Still, fans should at least know that this release includes a gag reel, deleted scenes, several episode commentaries and a few featurettes.

Also out today TV-series season set-wise is Beware the Batman: Shadows of Gotham Season 1 Part 1, The Six Million Dollar Man: Season 5, Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Epic Series (the original '70s one), and Gentle Ben: Season Two – you know, the ‘60s show about a kid (Clint Howard, Ron’s brother) whose best friend is a kindly bear? Dennis Weaver was on it too.

Today is sorely lacking in any major new movie releases, but on the indie film front, Jill Soloway’s AFTERNOON DELIGHT is a likable cringe comedy that shouldn’t be overlooked. Kathryn Hahn stars as an unsatisfied housewife (married to How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor) who befriends Juno Temple as a stripper, or “sex worker” as she refers to herself. Quentin Tarantino picked this film as one of his top 10 films of 2013 (something that the back of the DVD/Blu ray box states in all caps), and while I wouldn’t rank it that high, he’s got a point as Hahn’s increasingly unhinged performance is killer and the writing has an intelligent warmth. Bonus Features: Commentary with writer/director Soloway and Hahn, 13 + minutes of deleted scenes which are actually worth watching, a nearly 10 minute Behind-the-scenes featurette, and the theatrical trailer.

A few other little seen films hit home video today: Christopher Hatton’s 2013 sci-fi thriller BATTLE OF THE DAMNED, Erik Matti’s Fillipino crime flick ON THE JOB, J.T. Petty’s comic horror HELLBENDERS, and Woo-Suk Kang’s actioner FISTS OF LEGEND.

On the older film re-issue front today, there’s the Criterion Collection Editions of Wes Anderson’s charming 2009 animated Roald Dahl adaptation FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009), and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 spy thriller FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, as well as a Collector’s Edition of Sam Raimi’s DARKMAN, the 1990 Liam Neeson superhero flick that I guess has a cult following.

Also out this week as a Walmart Exclusive on DVD (also available on Digital HD And Video On Demand), is the latest release by singer, comedian, celebrity impressionist, and America’s Got Talent winner Terry Fator, “Terry Fator: Live in Concert.” Filmed live at The Mirage in Las Vegas, the performance features Fator opening with a big strained song number intro that I didn’t know performers still tried to pull off these days. Coming off like a cross between crooner Wayne Newton and puppeteer Jeff Dunham, Fator does a series of bits with Muppet-esque dummies that can only be considered extremely light comedy.

Having never seen Fator’s act before this, I’ll contend that he’s a fine ventriloquist (his skills at not moving his lips are more impressive than most I’ve seen) and his impersonations are mostly dead-on (his Stevie Wonder especially), but his characters are largely stock caricatures (especially country singer Walter T. Airedale, one of the oldest parts of his act in obviously more than one way), and the material is made up of eye-roll inducing cheap gags. Special Features: Commentary, “Leroy and Me” music video, “Walter’s Preshow Message,” and “Walter’s Presidential Campaign Endorsements Part 1” & “Part 2,” and a few more featurettes.

More later...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Robotic Re-Imagining Cops Out

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

ROBOCOP (Dir. José Padilha, 2014)

I’ve blogged before that sometimes the only worthwhile thing about a remake is that it reminds you of how good the original was. That’s definitely the case with this.

Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP, which I first saw and loved as a teenager in the summer of 1987, was a hard R-rated sci-fi action satire that was as full of laughs as it was thrills. José Padilha’s new remake/re-imagining/re-whatever the hell you call it is only full of itself. It’s as streamlined and mechanical as the Robocop suit itself (now in shiny black!), and it only loosely resembles its way superior source material.

What it’s most lacking is a sense of fun. This is immediately apparent in what first-time screenwriter Joshua Zetumer came up with as a framing device involving segments of Samuel L. Jackson as a loud conservative cable-TV host who debates the ethics of using robots for law enforcement and asks his viewers “Why is America so robophobic?” 

With his obvious talking points and Al Sharpton-esque hair piece, Jackson’s character isn’t even developed enough to carry a 4-minute Saturday Night Live sketch – his only funny moment comes when one of his trademark blurts of “motherfucker” is bleeped.

Then there’s Gary Oldman as Robocop’s compassionate creator, a scientist for OmniCorp (OCP, Omni Consumer Products in the original), who works for a cold conniving Michael Keaton as CEO. Like Jackson, these are great actors, but they’re just talking cogs that take on tons of exposition that we have to wade through before our metallic hero even leaves the lab.

At least Jackie Earle Haley as Robocop’s trainer and Jay Baruchel as OmniCorp’s Head of Marketing have a few almost amusing moments, but still nothing worth quoting.

The virtually unknown Joel Kinnaman (well, I didn’t know who he is) is the new Robocop, who, like Peter Weller in the original, starts off as Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy who gets killed by sinister forces and begins life anew as the cyborg property of a massive corporation.

Kinnaman is a likable enough presence, but his brand of angst is wrong for the character, but then so is this entire setup which has the unfortunate notion to make the slain cop’s wife (Abbie Cornish) a bigger part of the story. In the original, Weller’s wife and son thought he was dead and moved on, but here Cornish and 12-year old son (John Paul Rutton ) stick around hoping to get some quality time with what’s left (only part of his head, heart, lungs and one hand) of nearly dead dad.

These attempts at giving ROBOCOP more of an emotional element are strained and un-moving, the solving his own murder mystery thread goes down such a routine avenue, and the noisy and badly shot shoot ‘em up scenes contain no excitement.

Except for its seamless CGI and solid cinematography by Lula Carvalho (CITY OF GOD), ROBOCOP is a big formulaic fail on many levels, but if it gets some kid or kids to seek out the original then at least it’s succeeded in something.

It inspired me to re-watch Verhoeven’s ‘80s classic to see if it still held up, and it indeed does – from Weller’s sharply tough performance to choice turns by Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, and especially Kurtwood Smith (best known as the surly dad on That ‘70s Show) as the vicious villain, to the KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE-style commercial parodies throughout. It remains a smart snarky spin on the action movie tropes of the Reagan era with a bit of Troma-type gore splattered throughout. Sure, it was schlock, but it was top notch schlock.

Padilha’s safe PG-13 version has no guts or glory, yet still wants to be taken seriously with all its talk of robot ethics and commentary on commerce. But it simply just doesn’t add up to anything even worth buying for a dollar.

More later...

Friday, February 14, 2014

THE PAST: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today in the Triangle at the Colony Theater in Raleigh, the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill, and the Carolina Theatre in Durham:

(Dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2013)

In his follow-up to the excellent Oscar-winning 2011 drama A SEPARATION, writer/director Asghar Farhadi again deals with divorce, Iranian style.

Ali Mosaffa plays a man who returns to a not so picturesque Paris from Iran to finalize his divorce to his French wife (Bérénice Bejo, best known for her Oscar nominated performance in THE ARTIST). 

Bejo, who has two daughters from a previous marriage, is now in a new relationship with an Arab man (Tahar Rahim, star of Jacques Audiard’s acclaimed 2009 prison drama A PROPHET). Rahim has a son (the cute scene-stealing Elyes Aguis) and a wife who has been in a coma for eight months. So yeah, things are complicated.

Bejo’s oldest daughter (the 16-year old Pauline Burlet) is suspicious of the situation with her mother’s new boyfriend, which calls for Mosaffa to investigate what happened while he was away. Turns out Rahim’s wife’s coma was caused by a suicide attempt, and he is still legally married to her. Other revelations, including the involvement of one of Rahim’s employees (Sabrina Ouazine) at his dry-cleaning business, come to light as Mosaffa gets closer to the truth.

What’s most pleasing is how THE PAST (French title: parcels out its plot points with leisurely precision. The use of spare dialogue, free of messy exposition, lightly layers the story, as Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari’s carefully placed camerawork carries us from one emotionally meaty scene to another.

Despite having to wear a slightly ill-fiting hairpiece, Mosaffa excels as the conscious of the film in his measured acting. We can feel that the heat between he and Bejo, who as a woman caught between anxiety and anger shows much more range than before, hasn't completely faded.

Rahim appears so sullen and distant that it's hard to see how he and Bejo got together, but as the film goes on we get telling inklings of his true sensibility. These all feel like real people that we are eavesdropping in on.

THE PAST isn't as sharply powerful as A SEPARATION, but it's an immersive mixture of solid storytelling and flawless acting that's full of passion for the people it depicts. It's less a cultural statement than it is a meditation on how the hidden connections beneath a fractured family can be felt long before they are revealed. 

More later...

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 2/11/14

The biggest new release on home video this week has to be Gavin Hood’s ENDER’S GAME, last year's adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s hugely popular sci-fi novel from the mid ‘80s, which is out today in 2-disc Blu ray or 1-disc DVD editions. I enjoyed the film when I saw it last November (my review: ENDER’S Big Screen Video GAME, 11/4/13), but honestly I haven’t thought much about it since then. 

The film, which stars Asa Butterfield as a young fighter pilot in training with a stellar cast including Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley, is packaged on Blu ray and DVD with two commentaries (one with Director Hood, the other with Producers Gigi Pritzker and Roberto Orci), a collection of eight featurettes that make up a 49-minute “Making Of” documentary, over 10 minute of Deleted/Extended Scenes, “Inside the Mind Games” (a 4 minute look into the movie’s motion capture techniques), and theatrical trailers.

Also out today is the movie that many thought Robert Redford was sure to get a Best Actor Oscar Nomination for: J.C. Chandor’s ALL IS LOST, now available in both 1-disc Blu ray and DVD versions. Redford alone owns the screen in this tension-filled tale of a man stranded at sea, as I noted in my review last year (ALL IS LOST: The Film Babble Blog Review, 11/8/13). Special Features include Filmmaker Commentary with Chandor, “Preparing for the Storm” Featurette, “Big Film, Small Film” Featurette, 3 vignettes (“The Story,” “The Filmmaker: J.C. Chandor,” and “The Actor: Robert Redford”), and “The Sound of ALL IS LOST” Featurette. This bonus material is good ‘n all, but I really wish Redford had done a commentary. I mean, his character barely speaks in the film so it would be nice to hear him take us through what he went through making the film. Oh well.

A movie that I missed in its theatrical run, but am very curious about because a friend (Kevin Brewer of postmodcast) chose it as his favorite film of 2013, also releases today: Ridley Scott’s THE COUNSELOR. The Cormac McCarthy-scripted thriller, available in 2-disc Blu ray or 1-disc DVD editions, stars Michale Fassbender as a lawyer who gets caught up in the crazy world of drug trafficking along with Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, and Javier Bardem. The R-rated theatrical cut is joined by such Special Features as The Unrated Extended Version (21 minutes longer!), and the featurettes “Truth of the Situation” and “Virals.” Again, I’ve got to check this one out.

Kevin McDonald’s (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, STATE OF PLAY, MARLEY) latest film, HOW I LIVE NOW, drops today in both single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. Based on the popular young adult novel by Meg Rosoff, the British drama stars Saoirse Ronan as an American teen sent from New York to live with her cousins in England as a war appears to be breaking out with terrorist attacks on London. Ronan has the unfortunate factor of looking and sounding like Lindsay Lohan at times, but her invested performance strongly carries the film even through overly artsy sex and dream sequences. Special Features: Interviews (with Cast, Director, and Author), Behind the Scenes Comparisons, Deleted Scenes, “Making Of” featurette, and AXS TV: A Look at HOW I LIVE NOW, and the Theatrical Trailer.

“We sang a fun song in a church,” Masha Alekhina of the Russian punk rock protest group Pussy Riot told Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report last week in answer to the question “what did you do that got you arrested?” Folks wanting more context should check out Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s 2013 documentary PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER releasing today on DVD. Though the footage is fascinating, the film, which I first saw at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last April, could be better structured, but it’s still a worthwhile watch. Bonus Features are spare, only a Skype Q & A with Pussy Riot’s Katya Samutsevich and the trailer.

Other notable films releasing today on home video: Nick Ryan’s K2 climbing documentary THE SUMMIT, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s little seen biopic DIANA starring Naomi Watts as Princess Di, Jared Hess’ AUSTENLAND starring Keri Russell, Malcolm D. Lee’s THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY starring Monica Calhoun and Morris Chestnut, Brad J. Silverman’s Christian music drama GRACE UNPLUGGED, Bryan Fogel’s Jewish rom com JEWTOPIA, and Nicolas Aaron Mezzanatto’s Navy SEALS action flick SEAL PATROL

TV series sets out today: Sherlock Season Three, Newhart: Season Two, Dallas: The Complete Second Season (Larry Hagman’s last), The Americans: Season One, Red Skeleton Show – The Lost Episodes, and the 15th Anniversary Edition of Farscape: Season 2

More later...

Making The Most Out Of The Mediocrity Of THE MONUMENTS MEN

So yeah, I'm not alone thinking that George Clooney’s fifth film as filmmaker, THE MONUMENTS MEN, is his weakest effort yet despite its exceedingly strong cast. Sunday evening, I discussed the movie, currently #2 at the box office, with my friend Kevin Brewer on his podcast (postmodcast) who found it be “banal.” 

I agreed and sadly mused that it was such a waste to assemble such a mighty group of actors - Clooney fronts a crew made up of Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin (Best Actor Oscar winner for THE ARTIST), Cate Blanchett, and the guy from Downton Abbey (Hugh Bonneville) – and give them so little distinctive to do.

Clooney, who co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, has a promisingly noble premise in his hands involving a troop of aging oddballs who don battle fatigues to advance to the front lines of World War II to recover stolen art from the Nazis, but the execution is so boringly by-the-numbers. It’s no surprise to me that the film has a 34% Rotten rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

It’s great that Murray can do so much with just a few dry facial expressions because the screenplay gives him no memorable dialogue to work with here.

In our podcast chat, Kevin and I singled out Murray because we’re both big fans. I brought up how many directors often screen films during pre-production to their cast and crews to get the gist of what they’re going for – i.e. Paul Thomas Anderson screened Sidney Lumet's 1976 classic NETWORK to his team before filming began on MAGNOLIA – and that maybe Clooney should’ve shown Murray’s STRIPES (Dir. Ivan Reitman, 1981) to his people before they tackled the material. This occurred to me when watching Murray go through THE MONUMENT MEN's lamely written basic training scene. Kevin said that and THE DIRTY DOZEN (Dir. Robert Aldrich, 1967) would’ve made a good double feature for them.

I mean, Murray’s latest appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, in which he flew in on wires dressed as Peter Pan and had a shave during the interview, is absolutely more of an event than this movie.

This could be seen as a Major Spoiler but I also disliked how the ending was a slight re-write of the ending of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, a film that THE MONUMENTS MEN often feels like a comic companion to in its tone, the appearance of Damon as a heroic soldier, and the coming ashore to Normandy beach scene with its swelling score (Alexander Desplat aping John Williams). 

Here, the conclusion has Clooney’s character (played by Clooney’s 80-year old father Nick Clooney) decades after the War visiting a museum to view some of the art they saved with his grandson. It’s the same Spielbergian “was it all worth it?” sentiment.

But then my wife liked the movie, and even teared up at times. She posted a picture on my Facebook wall of one of the main pieces of art that was featured in the film: Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child inside Bruges Cathedral. It touched her because she’d seen it in person. She said that “it’s very unusual to find a Michelangelo outside of Italy. It’s in a tiny little church in a town that looks like medieval Belgium – not like huge Vatican stuff – a tiny little church, and they have a Michelangelo and it’s beautiful.”

I can appreciate that personal connection, but it still doesn’t elevate THE MONUMENTS MEN for me to being any more than a competently made yet majorly mediocre piece of film fodder.

It’s not an embarrassingly bad experience – just one that doesn’t take any risks or have any real oomph to it. A scene in which Damon steps on an unexploded landmine in a cave and his fellow cast members try to figure out how to help him is a good example of a bit that could’ve been hilarious but only ends up mildly amusing.

At its best, “mildly amusing” is really all THE MONUMENTS MEN has to offer.

More later...

Friday, February 07, 2014

THE LEGO MOVIE Clicks Together Into A Supreme Piece Of Entertainment

Opening today at a multiplex near you... 


(Dirs. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014)

How did this family film based on a long running line of toys, released in the dumping ground of February, turn out to be actually a lot of genuine fun?

I attended a screening last week of this movie shortly after visiting my sick 16-year old cat at the Animal Hospital so I wasn't really in the mood to see what looked like nothing more than a feature length toy commercial, one in which every single shot could be considered product placement, but very quickly the whole thing clicked together into a supreme piece of entertainment.

Every piece fit especially Chris Pratt's (Parks and Recreation, ZERO DARK THIRTY, HER) extremely likable performance as Emmet, a generic yellow construction worker mini-figure who is thought to be the chosen one to save the Lego universe from the evil plans of Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell).

Lord Business schemes to freeze all the various worlds of Lego (The Old West, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Medieval Times, etc.) with the use of what's called
The Kragle (actually a tube of Krazy Glue that had a few letters rubbed off) on Taco Tuesday, no less.

We are first introduced to Pratt's Emmet in a big busy production number set to the beautifully banal pop song parody
Everything Is Awesome, written by Shawn Patterson and performed by Tegan and Sara along with the musical comedy group The Lonely Island (the rest of the score by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh is top notch as well).

This energetically silly sequence sets in place the satire of conformist consumerism of which Emmet is a happy participant - his favorite song is whatever's the #1 hit of the day and his favorite TV show is the stupid sitcom Where's My Pants? (shades of IDIOCRACY's Ow! My Balls! but PG-rated).

Emmet's life changes when he meets Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks), a punky fighter girl that thought she was the chosen MasterBuilder, which are sort of like the Jedis of the Lego universe.

Speaking of Jedis, there are cameos from the STAR WARS world of Legos including Anthony Daniels reprising his iconic C-3PO voice, and Billy Dee Williams once again putting on the charms as Lando Calrissian, while voice actor Keith Ferguson puts in a passable Harrison Ford impression as Han Solo.

But the major guest appearance that steals the show is Will Arnett (Arrested Development, The Millers) as Batman, a terrific take on the ominous gravel voiced Dark Knight of recent vintage which is pure comedy gold. Every line out of Arnett's mouth made me laugh, and I loved that his version of Batman makes techno music on the side that's supposed to be as dark and brooding as he is - he plays a track he composed entitled Untitled Self Portrait" on the Batmobile's stereo system (stay through the end credits to hear the whole song).

Also scoring big laughs are appearances by Liam Neeson as Lord Business' two-faced henchman Bad Cop/Good Cop, Channing Tatum as Superman who is annoyed by the man-crush the Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) has on him, Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother, THE AVENGERS) as Wonder Woman, Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny in Philadephia) as '80s Space Guy, Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) as the unicorn/anime concoction Uni-Kitty, and Morgan Freeman as the MasterBuilder Wizard Vitruvius.

In the movie's amazing climax, Directors/writers Lord and Miller, the filmmakers behind CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and 21 JUMP STREET, take this Lego adventure to a whole new level with a surprise twist that I won't spoil that takes the heights of comic invention here to comic genius. Again, I won't say what it is, but it floored me and the audience I was in, and I bet when these guys hit upon the idea they were doing cartwheels all over the writer's room.

THE LEGO MOVIE cleverly builds upon the playthings coming to life themes of the TOY STORY trilogy and WRECK-IT-RALPH almost as if they're interconnected blocks with round-peg parameters that it can snap together with. It also has an actually inspirational message about improvising outside of the box, and the self awareness to kid about it (Freeman tells Emmet: “I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it's true.")

I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed THE LEGO MOVIE as much as I did (one only complaint is that they stay too long in The Old West world). During its rich and rewarding 100 minute running time, I was transported away from my worries (mostly about my ailing aging kitty) and had a blast. What more can you want out of a movie?

Postscript: Just in case any cat lovers out there are curious - my cat is doing much better these days.

More later...

Thursday, February 06, 2014

THE GREAT BEAUTY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening Friday in the Triangle at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh, the Carolina Theatre in Durham, and the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill...

(Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

On a trip through Europe last year, my wife and I stumbled upon an exhibit entitled “Fellini and the Arts” at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, Germany. On display were hundreds of the late Italian filmmaker’s drawings, photographs, documents, costumes, props (including the original moulding of Donald Sutherland’s head for FELLINI’S CASANOVA) – all reminders of the vividly wild worlds of decadence and introspection the director created for nearly fifty years on film until his death in 1993.

So when word was going around that Paolo Sorrentino’s newest film, THE GREAT BEAUTY (Italian title: LA GRANDE BELLEZZA), was extrememly Fellini-esque – a modern update of LA DOLCE VITA many critics have called it – I was incredibly intrigued, but while the comparisons are valid, this film has a heartbeat (a techno beat at times) and a vision that are all its own.

Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo stars as one of my favorite film archetypes: an author of a very celebrated debut book who never came through with a follow-up (see D.OA., WONDER BOYS, STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING, SINISTER).

So Servillo poignantly portrays a once promising novelist turned high society magazine columnist who looks back on his life with a renewed self awareness. This happens a few days after the over-the-top rooftop rave of his 65th birthday party (a flashy and fun opening sequence) when he finds himself going through a “what does it all mean?” phase while he suavely schleps in expensively tailored suits around some of the Rome’s most exquisite sights.

Such material can bring fears of pretentious pontification, but Servillo’s jaded journalist attacks pretentions at every turn. When interviewing a question evading publicity seeking performance artist (Anita Kravos) whose act consists of head butting the wall of an aqueduct and speaks of living on extra sensory vibrations, Servillo sensibly states that “all I’ve heard is un-publishable fluff. You can’t charm me with things like: ‘I’m an artist, I don’t need to explain.’”

In another stand-out scene, Servillo savagely rips to shreds the criticisms and boasts of a fellow socialite/writer (Galatea Ranzi) with his savage wit and an honesty that doesn’t spare his own status. Somehow, by the end of their exchange Servillo appears to have compassion and empathy for his verbal victim when he speaks of her “untruths and fragility.” There’s a great beauty in that, I can’t help saying.

Though it’s Servillo’s show, notable characters on the sidelines include Giovanna Vignola as the writer's blue-haired dwarf editor, Carlo Verdone as a struggling playwright friend, Sabrina Ferilli as an aging stripper that Servillo has a few genuine moments with, and Roberto Herlitzka as Cardinal Bellucci, who brushes our protagonist off when he asks questions about his spirituality.

Herlitzka is one of the protectors of a 104-year old Mother Theresa-like nun (Sonia Gessner), who Servillo poses his existential concerns to. But like everybody else, Gessner just asks “Why did you never write another book?”

Even with its immaculate imagery that could serve as an erotic ad campaign for the splendors of Italy, I wanted more of THE GREAT BEAUTY to be more dialogue-driven by way of Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s layered screenplay, but the sumptuous cinematography by Luca Bigazzi makes the point to 'screw the meaning of it all, just look at how beautiful the scenery is' better than these folks’ words ever could.

As for the Fellini-esque-ness of it all, the thing I hope it most resembles the great Italian masters' work in is that it wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, like 4 of Fellini's films did, at this year's Oscars.

More later...