Monday, December 31, 2012

Holiday Season Cinema Roundup 2012 Part 1

This hasn’t been the strongest holiday movie season I’ve experienced (how could it be without the Coen brothers or George Clooney?), but it’s a pretty strong one with a few entertaining epics, a couple of decent comedies, and one big overwrought musical competing for movie-goers attention.

So let’s take a look at what’s currently playing as the year is ending:

(Dir. David O. Russell)

Although it must be stressed that this is ultimately a best-case scenario rom com, this tale of a bio-polar Bradley Cooper getting together with Jennifer Lawrence as a neurotic widower has a punchy screenplay that’s energetically (and very loudly) delivered by the leads, including Robert De Niro, in one of his most invested performance in years, as Cooper’s Philadelphia Eagles superfan father. Chris Tucker, who keeps popping up after repeatedly escaping from Cooper’s former mental institution, adds to the film’s already plentiful laughs. Director and screenwriter Russell's last film, 2010's THE FIGHTER, was a winner as well, so here's hoping he's on a roll.

(Dir. Sacha Gervasi)   

Sacha Gervasi’s (2008's rock doc ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL) second film as director boasts a stellar cast - Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collett, and Danny Huston – but a not so stellar story. The conceit that every good idea that went into the making of the classic 1960 thriller PSYCHO came not from the Master of Suspense, but from his wife Alma falls flat in the midst of these fine actors being put through T.V. movie-ish motions. Read my full review here.


Peter Jackson takes us on another sweeping slog through Middle Earth in this prequel set 60 years before THE LORD OF THE RINGS series. Martin Freeman, best known as Tim on the mockumentary sitcom The Office [UK], stars as Bilbo Baggins who reluctantly finds himself on a quest with an unruly band of dwarves to overtake what looks like the Paramount mountain. I saw it in HFR (Higher Frame Rate) 3D, but, although it looked exquisitely sharp, it wasn’t as immersive an experience as I’d heard. Probably would’ve been just as well off with the 2D version.

There are some amazing heavily CGI-ed sequences, including battles and chases inside an elaborate underground city that comes off like THE TEMPLE OF DOOM times 100, but you can really feel its length (169 min.), and the idea that this is just part one of another trilogy seems to come more from greed than pure inspiration. 

But that's too cynical of me. This is really for the legions of Tolkien fans who can’t get enough of this stuff and will love spending more time with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, and getting cameos from Frodo (Elijah Wood), and Ian Holms as the older incarnation of Bilbo who presents the story as a flashback. What I enjoyed most was Bilbo's cave encounter with the slimy creature Gollum (once again beautifully played by motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis), which is nicely faithful to the original Tolkien text.

(Dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino’s blaxploitation Western is also a long-ass film (165 min!) that could’ve been served by better editing (sadly his long-time editor Sally Menke died in 2010), but it’s still a hugely entertaining epic that tackles revenge, slavery, and possibly contains the most excessive use of the “N-word” in cinematic history. 

Jamie Fox stars as a slave who gets freed by a former dentist played by Christoph Waltz who offers Fox a new job as a bounty hunter. Together, they set off to rescue Fox’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the plantation of the brutal yet charming Leonardo DiCaprio. The film drags a bit in DiCaprio’s company, which includes Samuel L. Jackson as his cruel conniving house slave, but when its “on” it's a blast. Read my full review here.

Coming soon: Part 2 of Film Babble Blog's Holiday Season 2012 Roundup.

More later...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tarantino's Overlong DJANGO Is Off The Chain

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

DJANGO UNCHAINED (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Three years after his revisionist World War II epic INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Quentin Tarantino is back with this blaxploitation Western, which tackles slavery, revenge, and how many times the “N-word” can be said in a 2 hour and 45 minute movie.

Almost as if he’s atoning for playing an evil Nazi in BASTERDS, Christoph Waltz portrays an abolitionist-minded bounty hunter who frees a slave named Django (Jamie Fox) from his sinister masters (James Remar and James Russo) in the deep south of 1859. 

Waltz recruits Fox to join him in his bounty hunting (“Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?”), and they set off to rescue Fox’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Leonardo DiCaprio as a brutal yet charming Mississippi plantation owner.

Tarantino takes his sweet time getting to DiCaprio’s plantation, as Fox and Waltz make their way across the terrain, beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson. At times the film comes off like a collection of comedy sketches loosely strung together. One scene, in which a Colonel Sanders-looking Don Johnson as another villainous plantation owner named Big Daddy argues with his men about the badly cut slits in their proto Klan hoods, feels like it could’ve been an outtake from BLAZING SADDLES.

Dinner at DiCaprio’s, with his house slave (an intensely invested Samuel L. Jackson), is also leisurely paced. Fox and Waltz, under the guise of slave traders, are trying to pull the wool over DiCaprio’s eyes and liberate Washington, but Jackson sniffs them out. This is one of those slow burning sequences that can only end in bloodshed, but Tarantino drags it out too much, which calls attention to how slim the narrative is.

The Spaghetti Westerns and ‘70s grindhouse movies that Tarantino is forever paying homage to didn’t have very layered storylines either, so that’s not too terrible an issue, but it’s sometimes tedious how he cares more about hanging out with his characters than putting them into challenging scenarios.

From the retro Columbia studios logo to the RZA’s “Ode To Django” that plays during the end credits, DJANGO UNCHAINED feels like a Tarantino movie through and through. It’s a profanity-laced dialogue-driven violent action comedy with well chosen cameos (look for Jonah Hill, The Dukes of Hazzard’s Tom Wopat, Tarantino (you knew he'd show up, right?) and the original Django himself, Franco Nero), set to a hip soundtrack (a mix of Ennio Morricone, hip hop, and even a little Johnny Cash), that could only come from the twisted mind of the 49 year old former video store clerk.

Fox puts in a solidly stoic performance as the title character, interacting superbly with Waltz, both obviously having a blast with Tarantino’s way with words. DiCaprio, sporting a devilish goatee, also appears to be having fun, but he’s not given a very interesting character. DiCaprio doesn’t come off as despicable as he’s supposed to be. It’s Jackson who takes that honor.

And, of course, it's a boy's club, so don't expect much from the women present - Washington, at least, makes her presence known.

DJANGO may be more for Tarantino fanatics than casual movie-goers, so if you don’t have much tolerance for the man’s particular brand of abrasive cinema, you won’t be won over. Fanboys will be picking it apart and poring over the inevitable much longer director’s cut (a four hour version may be released to theaters depending on the box office of this one) for years, but I doubt many of them will think its Tarantino’s best film.

So anyway, it's pretty a pretty ballsy move for the Weinstein Co. to release this movie, maybe containing the most excessive use of the N-word in cinematic history, on Christmas Day. It's a move that proves that, these days, a Tarantino movie, however crude the content, is a tent-pole event.

More later...

Friday, December 21, 2012

THIS IS 40 Is Funny But Enough With Your Family, Apatow!

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

THIS IS 40 (Dir. Judd Apatow, 2012) 

Although it’s being billed as “the sort-of sequel to KNOCKED UP,” I’m considering Judd Apatow’s newest to be the third in the Apatow family trilogy. 

We were introduced to married couple Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife of 15 years) and their two daughters Maude and Iris Apatow in KNOCKED UP in 2007, sans Rudd they appeared as different characters in Apatow’s 2009 comedy drama FUNNY PEOPLE, and now they revert back to their original incarnations to take center stage in THIS IS 40.

Set during a week that both Rudd and Mann turn the big Four-O, Apatow’s glorified 134 minute home movie juggles a bunch of fussy threads.

Let’s see, there’s the thread in which Mann is lying about her age - she’s even tells her doctor she’s only 38.

There’s Rudd’s fledging record label thread, staffed with Lena Dunham (HBO’s Girls), and Chris O’Dowd (BRIDESMAIDS), in which he’s trying to revive the career of British rocker Graham Parker (appearing as himself reunited with his great old band the Rumour).

There’s the story-line about the oldest daughter, 13 year old Maude Apatow, getting put on a Facebook “not hot” list by a boy at school, which results in a confrontation with the boy’s mother (Melissa McCarthy).

There’s the subplot about Rudd’s father, the always welcome Albert Brooks, continually borrowing money to take care of his young blonde triplets.

There’s the Mann’s clothing store thread, in which Mann frets over which one of her two employees (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi) stole $12,000.

There’s the story-line about Mann trying to reconnect with her emotionally distant father (John Lithgow).

In the mix as well is Jason Segel as Mann’s overconfident trainer (returning from KNOCKED UP), Robert Smigel as Rudd’s best friend, and cameos by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and North Carolina native singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.

Whew! It’s a good thing that KNOCKED UP’s Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl don’t put in appearances – there wouldn’t be room for them.

THIS IS 40 is Apatow’s most indulgent movie, but it’s packed with enough laughs to make it worthwhile for comedy fans. It’s funnier than FUNNY PEOPLE, maybe about equal to KNOCKED UP and 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, and the leads’ likability goes a long way.

Language-wise, it’s a hard R. It may actually be as profane as DJANGO UNCHAINED, albeit in a very different context. A scene with Melissa McCarthy (put her in and consider the scene stolen), maybe contains the most amusing usage of profanity in a comedy this year (stay through the end credits to see an extended version of this scene in which Rudd and Mann are about to lose it).

I hope with this movie, Apatow’s family trilogy is complete. Three movies featuring his wife and kids is enough. With this movie, and the inevitable tons of bonus footage that will surely be on its later Blu ray/DVD release, I really hope he can get all the humor derived from his household out of his system, and find the funny in other things.

More later...

Tom Cruise Confidently Strides Through Another Action Thriller Formula In JACK REACHER

Opening today at a multiplex near you: 

JACK REACHER (Dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 2012) 

As the tough as nails title character, Tom Cruise confidently strides through this overly familiar yet still solid action thriller formula.

Based on Lee Child’s 2005 bestseller “One Shot,” one of 17 novels featuring the army trained badass Jack Reacher, Christopher McQuarrie’s third film as director, concerns Cruise investigating what, at first, appears to be the random daylight killing of 5 people by a mysterious military sniper at PNC Park in downtown Pittsburgh.

“Get Jack Reacher!” the suspected shooter (Joseph Sikora) writes on a pad instead of confessing right before slipping into a coma, and before you know it, the suspect’s Defense Attorney (the Disney doe-eyed Rosamund Pike) is in Cruise’s company, as they both try to uncover the truth about the killings.

Cruise’s character, a self described drifter living off the grid, arouses suspicion from lead detective (David Oyelowo) and district attorney (Richard Jenkins), who happens to be Pike’s father.

While Pike goes to talk to the families of the victims, Cruise starts sniffing out a conspiracy, especially after being targeted by some thugs in a bar who were paid to put him down. The unflinching Cruise, puts them all down (except for the two that ran), of course, in a street-set fight scene that shows off the characters’ skills. Pretty standard stuff, we’ve seen lots of times before, but still entertaining in a tongue-in-cheek way.

Better is a brutally funny fight set in a tiny skuzzy bathroom, in which Cruise battles a couple of beefy boneheads wielding a baseball bat and a crowbar, but as amusing as this is, it’s a typical example of how the odds are always in our hero’s favor.

Cruise’s chief adversary is the almost as confident Jai Courtney, who’s the henchman of sorts to Werner Herzog, yes that Werner Herzog - the acclaimed German filmmaker, as the one-eyed, one fingered villain (definitely one of the better elements here), so we know exactly who’ll Cruise will have to face down in the construction site climax.

In the midst of the finale, in which Cruise is aided by the grizzled wise-cracking Robert Duvall as the owner of a nearby gun range (their first film together since DAYS OF THUNDER), I had more vivid feelings of déjà vu that I had experienced before in a movie. Its ultra derivative third act was so by-the-numbers, that I swore every single second has been done to death, right down to the dialog and deaths of the bad guys.

Director McQuarrie, who co-wrote VALKRIE also starring Cruise, is working from an established source, but he’s outfitted it to be just another standard movie star action vehicle. It’s got more class and style, largely due to Caleb Deschanel’s gritty yet sleek cinematography, than many of the recent offerings of the genre (the BOURNE re-boot, TAKEN 2, JOHN CARTER, et al), but it never reaches the heights of Sam Mendes excellent 007 entry SKYFALL, my choice for best action film of 2012. 

However, if you’re a fan of Cruise, it’s a must see. Now that it seems criticism of his crazy couch jumping, and scientology silliness, has faded, the man stands tall (yes, I know how short he actually is) as a major presence in the movies. 

As it was in last year’s far superior MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, it’s again a blast to go along on a ride with him, even through such a cookie-cutter crowd pleaser like this.

More later...

Friday, December 14, 2012

HITCHCOCK Has The Chops, Yet Doesn’t Quite Cut It

Opening today at a motion picture palace near you:

HITCHCOCK (Dir. Sacha Gervasi, 2012)

Anthony Hopkins’ impersonation of Alfred Hitchcock is effective in small doses, like, say in this “Turn Your Phones Off” PSA, and in some short scenes early on in Sacha Gervasi’s new biopic HITCHCOCK, but the longer the camera lingers on him, the more he’s just Hopkins in a fat suit with prosthetic make-up.

The makeup, mainly by Howard Berger, is good, some of the best I’ve seen in a recent movie, but I could never forget that it was Hopkins; he doesn’t disappear into the part like, say, Daniel Day Lewis does in LINCOLN, he just does a good but far from pitch perfect impression of the master of suspense, and the best I can say is that it’s slightly better than Toby Jones’ in the HBO movie THE GIRL, which premiered on the channel to little fanfare last month.

But Hopkins’ close-but-no-banana approximation of the movie-making legend isn’t one of the factors that makes this movie an often deadly dull melodrama.

Director Gervasi, who co-wrote one of Steven Spielberg’s worst films THE TERMINAL, yet made the excellent band bio-doc ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL, working from a screenplay by John J. McLaughlin focuses on Hitch’s (hold the cock as he says it), relationship with his wife Alma Reville, splendidly portrayed by a sly Helen Mirren, during the making of his controversial masterpiece PSYCHO in 1959-60.

The storyline is largely a behind every great man there’s a woman scenario as Mirren’s Alma provides Hopkins’ Hitch with every great idea that he needs to make his classic, right down to the idea to kill off the leading lady after the first 30 minutes. The leading lady is Janet Leigh, played by Scarlett Johansson, who doesn’t strongly resemble Leigh, but still captures her iconic image. James D’Arcy has a more accurate depiction of Anthony Perkins going on, but we spend so little time with him that it doesn’t make much impact.

Hitch has to deal with resistance from the studio, because of, you know, “Oh, God, Mother! Blood! Blood!” in the form of evil caricatures of Paramount studio heads (played by Richard Portnow and Kurtwood Smith sneering with all their might), which forces him to have to fund the film out of his own pocket.

This, plus Mirren’s flirtation with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), strains the marriage, but the stakes never feel very high here.

We don’t believe that Mirren is actually going to cheat on Hopkins, and we don’t think his fantasies about his blond leading ladies is going to be anything but fantasies, so, despite both brilliant British actor’s ace acting chops, neither story-line has much pull.

Only in a scene set during PSYCHO’s premiere, in which Hitch from the theater’s lobby, mimes conducting the audience’s screams along with Bernard Herrmann’s score in the film’s famous shower murder scene, does HITCHCOCK have fun with its material.

Otherwise, it feels like a standard movie made for TV (just a notch above the HBO biopic I previously mentioned), with very little cinematic oomph. 

This is extremely evident in the film’s framing device involving Hitch breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera like on his  Alfred Hitchcock Presents to open and close the film, and in a running thread that has 
Hitch being haunted by Michael Wilcott as serial killer Ed Gein, the inspiration for PSYCHO’s Norman Bates. These are nice ideas, but like everything else here, they never go anywhere.

You don’t need to have seen PSYCHO in order to follow what’s happening in HITCHCOCK, but if you haven’t seen PSYCHO, then what are you doing considering going to see this mediocre movie, this glorified dramatization of a “making of” featurette? Go watch PSYCHO!

More later…

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Announcing Film Babble Blog's Sister Site: Pop Goes The Babble

I’m proud to announce my new blog:

I’m overflowing with pop culture material that’s not about movies, so it seemed like it should get its own site. My reviews and features about television shows, and rock ‘n roll will now be the realm of Pop Goes The Babble, which will be a more indulgent blog mainly about whatever I’m into at the moment.

So far there are only 2 posts:

Pop Goes The Babble’s Favorite Album of 2012: Bob Dylan’s Tempest (12/12/12) An essay that I wrote back when the album came out, but never posted gets its proper home here.

An excerpt: “Dylan’s previous album, 2009’s Together Through Life, had its off-the-cuff, live-in-the-studio charms, but Tempest is a vast improvement in arrangement, production, and songwriting, with lyrics that are as sharp as the singing is raggedy.” 

Babblin’ about the rocking but exhausting 12.12.12 Concert:

My re-cap of last night’s mammoth rock star-packed concert at Madison Square Garden to raise money for the Robin Hood Relief Fund benefiting victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Hope you check out the site and give me feedback as it goes. Thanks for your support!

More later…

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Read Bush Sr.’s Lips In New HBO Bio-Doc

41 (Dir. Jeffrey Roth, 2012) 

Our 41st President, George Herbert Walker Bush, tells his story in this HBO produced bio doc releasing today on DVD. In the film, which premiered on the premium cable channel last June, Bush Sr. guides us around his peaceful beachfront property in Kennebunkport, Maine, and sits down with director Jeffrey Roth’s to muse over the highs and lows of his life in and out of the political spotlight.

Although I’m not a fan of the man, watching the film helped put Bush Sr.’s life in better perspective for me. The one-termer is mainly remembered in the world of pop culture via appearances on The Simpsons (voiced by Harry Shearer), THE BIG LEBOWSKI’s appropriation by the Dude of his “this aggression will not stand” statement, and Dana Carvey’s exaggerated impression on SNL reruns, so he’s greatly humanized here.

In tons of sepia-tinted photographs we learn how Bush was highly competitive in his youth - he was a soccer captain, a football quarterback, and a basketball player. In one of his most affecting anecdotes, Bush speaks of his time in the Navy in World War II. Some of the most fascinating footage the film has to offer is of his rescue at sea on September 2nd, 1944 after his plane was shot down.

From there, prompted by the occasional soft-spoken (and often soft-ball) question by Roth, Bush touches on his marriage, his college years at Yale, his oil company career, his senate runs, C.I.A. Director duties, loyalty to Nixon (he sadly says he believed Nixon was innocent as long as he could), and eight years of going to funerals as Reagan’s Vice President in the ‘80s.

This gives us over an hour of material before we get to Bush’s four years in the White House. It’s funny that his V.P. Dan Quayle is never mentioned (we see his name on campaign signs in pictures and footage, and there’s maybe a fleeting shot or two of him but his name is never said). As Quayle was possibly the most ridiculed Vice President in history maybe this is a good idea, and it should be noted along the same lines that Bush talks more about every breed of dog he’s owned than he does of any of his six children.

May hot button topics are glossed over - his son’s much criticized presidency is only mentioned in passing, the Japan vomiting incident never comes up, and the stern elder refuses to talk about Ross Perot, etc. – so this is as respectful a portrait as you’d expect, one that could play on a loop during the visiting hours at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Bush does express regret for that “Read my lips, no new taxes” promise that he didn't keep, but that doesn't stain the glorified puff-piece portrait Roth and HBO are painting here.

However, Roth’s bio-doc isn’t boring as one might reasonably expect it to be.

The well edited 100 minutes goes by swiftly, with a wealth of perfectly chosen images and video (footage of Bush, having just lost the election for a second term, greeting Clinton in the Oval Office is particularly moving), so perhaps it’s a stocking stuffer gift idea for that Republican relative who reveres the former president. Those people exist, right?

The 88-year old Bush Sr. right now is recovering in a Texas Hospital for a lingering cough, so even though it’s sanitized for his protection, 41 is an apt look back at the man’s none-too-shabby legacy.

More later...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Blu Ray/DVD Reviews: We Can Be Heroes & Angry Boys

Up until very recently I had not been familiar with the comedy stylings of Australian comedian Chris Lilley. 

Lilley is very popular in his home country with a few TV shows, which are now out new to DVD and Blu ray (Lilley's second program Summer Heights High was released on DVD in 2009) all of which utilize the mockumentary approach much like the various versions of The Office, Modern Family, et al, and feature Lilley playing all the main characters, despite gender or race.

While Lilley is certainly talented, with a good grasp on accents, personality tics, and timing, he comes off more as an Australian Jamie Kennedy, than a one-man Monty Python. Speaking of Monty Python, I was reminded of a BBC executive that John Cleese once played on the classic Flying Circus series that said of the program: “Frankly I don't fully understand it myself, the kids seem to like it.”

That was definitely the case with Lilley’s 2005 series We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian Of The Year, out now in the U.S. on DVD. The show follows five minor celebrities, who have been nominated by friends and family for the Australian of the Year award. Lilley portrays all five of the characters - six actually as the cast includes a pair of identical twins.

The candidates include former policeman Phil Olivetti (semi-famous for saving nine children from a bouncy castle tragedy), Chinese physics student and aspiring actor Ricky Wong, suburban housewife turned odd athlete Pat Mullins, popular private school-girl Ja'mie, and Daniel Sims, who was nominated for donating one of his eardrums to his near-deaf brother, Nathan.

Over the course of six half hour episodes director Matt Saville cuts back and forth between this loony lot as they prepare for the state finals. A fitting example of the level of humor is when the scrappy teenage Daniel Sims shows us scores of photographs with his brother Nathan giving the camera the finger in each one. If that sounds like hilarious material then this may be the show for you.

But apart from the occasional amusing line, and some likable comic energy present, there wasn’t a lot of solid comedy to chew on. Lilley is a likable chap, and there’s plenty of palpable comic energy present, but many of the situations (including housewife Pat’s sport of rolling to get from place to place) are really forced with none of the organic-feeling funniness of the best of Christopher Guest’s ensemble work – to name a master mockumentarian.

Fans of Lilley will be happy with this set though, as it contains over two hours of deleted scenes, and outtakes, a behind-the-scenes documentary, extended episodes, and Ricky Wong’s (the wrongest character here by far) performance of “Indigeroo” at the The Logies (whatever the Hell that is).

Lilley reprises the Sims’ indentical twins in his globe-trotting 2011 series Angry Boys, which unlike We Can Be Heroes is now available on Blu ray as well as DVD. It’s another mockumentary series, this time exploring the lives of a batch of troubled boys (of course all played by Lilley), so, yep, it’s more of the same.

But hold on, this has Lilley in blackface! That’s right as African-American rapper S. Mouse, Lilley colors his skin to play yet another hip hop artist who didn’t actually come from a life on the streets; he had a fluent rich family including a father who didn’t do drugs and abuse him.

It’s really not that it’s so offensive that a white Australian man is playing a black character, it’s more that it’s disappointing that it’s such a dated comic stereotype that’s been done to death.

Lilley also portrays Jen Okazaki, a manipulative Japanese mother of a skateboard champion son who is being marketed as being gay when he’s not – this is one of the funnier storylines, but that’s not saying a lot.

The remaining characters are a champion surfer Blake Oakfield, and Ruth “Gran” Sims (Daniel and Nathan's 65 year-old grandmother), a guard at a juvenile detention facility with questionable methods of dealing with the inmates.

Lilley, who co-directed along with Stuart McDonald, and Jeffrey Walker, keeps the show rolling watchably along, but the plot-lines don’t go anywhere interesting. The conflicts the characters face can be seen coming, as well as the jokes, way before they arrive, and the nature of each scenario being about taking these people down a few notches from their perceived stations in life reeks of overdone obviousness.

It also doesn’t help that the humor gets much cruder in Angry Boys, and even pretty disgusting (Blake loses his testicles in a gang fight which results in a close-up I wish they’d cut). This would have been fine, if, you know, laughs accompanied this attempt to be edgier.

There’s an un-ambitious nature to the writing, a laziness to the set-ups that results more in eye-rolls than laughs. At least there’s a higher number of gag attempts which is good because at 12 episodes it’s twice as long as Lilley’s previous series. The set consists of 3 discs with the run of episodes contained on the first 2, with the third disc being six hours (!) of deleted scenes, bloopers, and music videos satires. So again, the kids who seem to like this stuff will be well served.

More later...

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Blu Ray Review: Eastbound & Down: The Complete Third Season

Danny McBride’s crudely deluded Kenny Powers character keeps on losing while still thinking he’s a winner in the third season of Eastbound & Down out today on DVD and Blu ray.

McBride’s raunchy redneck shtick, which can be very funny but is often embarrassingly painful, is better served up by HBO in these half hour episodes than in misguided movies like YOUR HIGHNESS. Here, the mulleted has-been baseball star’s hard-partying behavior is neatly contained in easy to digest scenarios which don’t wear out their welcome, that is, unless you watch all eight of them in a marathon.

After the second season’s seedy adventures in Mexico, Kenny returns to the states and joins the Myrtle Beach Mermen baseball team. 

We catch up with our profane pervert of a protagonist on the beach with a boogie board that sports an image of the Confederate flag with a marijuana leaf in the middle. 

From there we go to the ballpark to meet the team’s relief pitcher, Shane Gerald, played by SNL’s Jason Sudekis, who McBride calls his best friend, to the irritation of his assistant Stevie (Stevie Janowski). At his son’s first birthday party, we learn from the returning Katy Nixon as April that Kenny hasn’t paid child support, and that she may regret having the baby.

That sets up the season’s arc - Kenny having to take care of his baby Toby after April takes off (Kenny left her at the end of the first season so it makes some sort of twisted sense). Kenny, of course, doesn’t take being a father seriously - he tells his college aged girlfriend (Alex ter Avest) “you think I wanna fuckin’ hang out with my fuckin’ son? Hell no, I’d much rather being doing cocaine and watching the SAW movies on DVD in your dorm room with you.” 

Will Farrell reprises the role of cocky corrupt car dealer Ashley Schaeffer from the first season in a few segments this season, the best of which might be in the second episode “Chapter 15,” but the most successful storyline that goes through the third and fourth episodes concerns Shane dying from a drug overdose (he was snorting coke to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,”) and Kenny trying to connect with his identical twin brother Cole (also played by Sudekis).

Although I like Janowski, who hasn’t been on anything else besides Eastbound, I wasn’t into how the show constantly humiliates his character, and his cheating on his wife (Elizabeth De Razzo) scenario didn’t go anywhere interesting.

The beautifully skuzzy Don Johnson returns as Kenny’s father, but the real news is that Lily Tomlin appears as his bowling champion mother. Matthew McConaughey, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, and in a deleted scene, Val Kilmer, make cameos, but sadly there’s very little John Hawkes as Kenny’s brother, but obviously that’s because he’s got a busy movie career happening.

For better or worse, season three is pretty much the same quality as the first two seasons, so if you weren’t a fan before you won’t be won over, but folks who “get” McBride, and director/co-writer Jody Hill’s brand of bawdy, lowbrow humor will be highly satisfied with this 2 disc set.

Special Features: Extended scene of “Dinner at Schaeffer’s” (more fun with Will Ferrell from “Chapter 14”), commentaries on every episode (some of which are funnier than the episodes themselves), 48 minutes of deleted scenes including a way too long segment of Stevie cutting off his hair and shaving his head and eyebrows, and over 8 minutes of outtakes, which have their fair share of laughs.

More later...

Monday, December 03, 2012

Win 2 Chris Lilley Series On DVD

Do you know who Chris Lilley is?

If so, do you think he’s funny? If you can tell me who he is and why exactly - in nice detail (use some examples of funny quotes to make your case if you want) in 100 words - you think he’s funny, you could possibly win two Chris Lilley series on DVD – his 2005 show We Can Be Heroes (2 discs) and his most recent program Angry Boys (2011) (3 discs).

Both series are being released tomorrow, December 4th.

Email your entries with the heading - Chris Lilley Giveaway - to

The best entry will get the DVDs immediately mailed to them so please send your contact details.

Entry deadline is midnight, Tuesday. This contest is for U.S. residents only.

More later...

Saturday, December 01, 2012

ANNA KARENINA: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now showing in the Triangle area at the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh, at the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill, and in Durham at the Carolina Theatre:

ANNA KARENINA (Dir. Joe Wright, 2012)

I have to say upfront that I am “Anna Karenina”-illerate. 

I have never read Leo Tolstoy’s 1868 novel, nor have I seen any of the 1,056 TV and movie adaptations (I think this is an accurate number; I’m too lazy to confirm it on IMDb or Wikipedia). All I knew going in was the basic premise, and that this is the third in director Wright and Keira Knightly’s “literary trilogy” (previous installments were 2005’s PRIDE AND PREDJUDICE, and 2007’s ATONEMENT).

Wright’s new adaptation of ANNA KARENINA largely sets the tale of a love triangle that ripples through Moscow’s high society in a lavish old theater that evolves within the production into whatever backdrop is needed. The effect is mesmerizing in the choreography of the players, and the camera work that includes several stunning unbroken shots - at least I think they were unbroken, some cuts may have been invisible to my eye.

So Keira Knight, as the title character, works around the ropes, pulleys, curtains, footlights, and appropriate props, to portray a virtuous woman in a loveless marriage to Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (a balding, bearded, and quite boring Jude Law). Knight meets Aaron Taylor-Johnson (KICK ASS, John Lennon in NOWHERE BOY) as the dashing Count Vronsky, and they begin an affair together.

In a secondary storyline, Domhnall Gleeson as Konstantin Levin, retreats to working along with the peasants after his marriage proposal was rejected by the young blond beauty Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who gets involved with Taylor-Johnson. You see, it’s complicated.

Obviously, since this is a 2 hour and 10 minute adaptation (written by legendary screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard), of a 864 page book, the movie has to gloss over a lot of story details, but the last half of the film got a bit too jumbled for me narratively. It was also got harder and harder to be immersed in these people’s lives, as Knightly goes a bit over the top at times, Law is overly-passionless, and Taylor-Johnson’s pretty boy pose mostly just blends into the scenery.

However, overall the film casts a pleasing spell with its intriguing theatrical framework even though that concept gets dropped for a bit in the middle of film. A ballroom dance sequence is one of the most striking, though I’d be hard pressed to name that arm movement dance they’re doing. Background dancing couples freeze as the principals pass, with the exquisite choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui again coming into play. It’s an incredibly inventive way to tackle one of the most standard scenes in all of historical romance drama.

A horse race scene comes close, but I’m not even going to try to describe how they pull that off.

Maybe if I was as in love with the aching close-ups of Knightly as cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s camera is, I would be into the poetry of these people’s plight, but really caring about how this woman is shunned by the aristocracy was really beyond me. 

Still, ANNA KARENINA has considerable merits, and folks who have a history with this material will surely get a lot out of it. It does make me want to read the book, and maybe check out another adaptation (I hear the 2000 miniseries is good), so I consider it a success for introducing me to one of Tolstoy’s most loved works, and for its meta theatrical take on this oft-told tale.

More later...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Talky KILLING THEM SOFTLY Gives Us A Lesson In Gangster Economics

Opening today in Raleigh and the Triangle area:

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012)

Although this film is based on the 1974 crime novel “Coogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, fans of The Sopranos are going to find its trappings familiar. Not only because it features Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, and series regulars Vincent Curatola, and Max Casella, but because its scenario set-up about low level idiots that try to get ahead by robbing a mob protected card game is ground well trodden by David Chase’s iconic characters.

But director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik, re-united with his THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES star, Brad Pitt, has loftier goals that just staging a big screen Sopranos episode. Dominik sets the story in New Orleans in 2008, and we are taken back to the days of Obama getting elected during the country’s economic collapse via a string of television screens in the background always tuned to the news. The underlying implication is that the mafia is yet another American corporation whose business model is faltering in these tough times.

Pitt, with slicked back hair, shades, and goatee, plays an enforcer for the mob who’s brought in to track down the three low level idiots who thought it was a good idea to rob a high-stakes card game run by the fidgety stressed-out Ray Liotta. Liotta, is in real hot water with this theft, because he’s robbed the game before himself, and he’s going to take the blame for this one.

An often smirking Richard Jenkins, brings his Nathaniel Fisher (the all-knowing ghost dad on Six Feet Under) confidence in his part as Pitt’s contact, a jaded mob lawyer, who says matter-of-factly that “this is a business of relationships,” ever so slyly adding to the movie’s not-so-subtle set of themes.

Gandolfini shows up as a boozing burn-out of a hitman that Pitt seems to think he needs in order to pull off the job. Gandolfini and Pitt have a few intense and intimate scenes together; one on one exchanges in which you feel their history together both as these shady guys, and as actors who’ve worked together for 2 decades, starting with Tony Scott’s TRUE ROMANCE. 

Despite some vivid violence (this movie is where to go to see Liotta getting the shit beaten out of him), it’s a dialogue-driven film, all about the sit-downs. The power and thrust of the film’s thesis can be found in Pitt’s parked car consultations with Jenkins, Gandolfini’s meaty monologues, and the frightened babbling of Scoot McNairy’s Frankie (one of the idiots involved in the card heist), who steals the movie out from under the bigwigs when he’s onscreen with his perfectly unhinged performance.

As McNairy’s partner in crime and stupidity, Ben Mendelsohn (ANIMAL KINGDOM) is also effective as a seedy heroin addict you can’t believe anybody would trust to get them coffee, let alone pull off a dangerous job.

Pitt, who is one of 17 (!) different producers on this project, provides a solid performance, but it’s nothing we’ve never seen him do before. Still, the man’s particular brand of presence is never bland.

Sort of like a mash-up of GOODFELLAS and MARGIN CALL, KILLING THEM SOFTLY may be a bit too talky for its target audience. 

Because of its marketing, which highlights the stars, the stylishness and the one explosion, audiences are likely to think that it’s a different movie than it is - much like Anton Corbijn’s THE AMERICAN, which looked like a commercial George Clooney action flick, or Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, which looked like a commercial Ryan Gosling car chase thriller. Both turned out to be artsy cerebral takes on their genres, and while film buffs like me loved them, I knew many folks who were turned off.

This take on the gangster drama genre deserves an audience’s attention, even if the dry tone that Dominik creates, along with the immaculately shot framework (by cinematographer Grieg Fraser) surrounding some of the year’s most astonishing acting, ultimately makes more of an impression than any of the political points he’s attempting to make.

More later...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Blu Ray Reviews: THE EXPENDABLES 2 & A Stallone 3-Fer

And now, what Film Babble Blog readers (all six of them) have been waiting for: A Stallone-centric post!

(Dir. Simon West, 2012)

Sylvester Stallone and his army of aging action movie icons are back in this big noisy sequel that’s actually better than the first one. Don't get me wrong - it's a bad movie, but it's a much more gloriously stupid experience the second time out.

2010’s THE EXPENDABLES only had a grasp on half a formula, but the follow-up is full on formula and much more big dumb fun. 

It also tops the first one by having much more of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis, who both just put in cameos in the original, and it has a lot more explosions - the first 10 minutes feels like it’s packed with more explosions than in Michael Bay’s entire career! There’s a lot more CGI-ed blood splatter too.

This time, Stallone along with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews, (Steve Austin doesn’t return, and sadly there’s no Mickey Rourke) are taking on Jean-Claude Van Damme as an evil arms dealer. 

There’s a new Expendable, the young Liam Hemsworth, but the second he starts talking about one last mission before he goes home to his girlfriend we know he’s going to die (my wife called it, and she was on her laptop not even really paying attention to the movie).

As if Stallone, along with co-writer Richard Wenk, knew that there was way too much testosterone on the screen, we’ve also got the addition of Chinese actress Yu Nan, as a CIA agent brought in by Willis. Nan is in charge of the movie’s MacGuffin, a computer that contains the location of tons of plutonium, but is it any surprise that the plot doesn’t matter?

It’s just an excuse to get all these guys together for a bunch of shoot-outs, stunts, quick-cut instances of hand to hand combat, and, yep, ginormous explosions all set in Foreign locales (Bulgaria, China).

The film really falters in its downtime when we are reminded that these guys aren’t great actors, something the horribly written dialogue immensely highlights. 

Willis, maybe the best actor here, is given what’s possibly the single worst line of 2012: “For all this male pattern badness I’ve got to put you in the deepest darkest hole at Gitmo.”

There’s more humor here than before too, albeit some is unintentional, like when Chuck Norris in what amounts to a cameo, throws a bad guy out a window yet still fires his machine gun at him. 

Also there’s a bunch of shout-outs to the principal’s previous roles - Schwarzenegger, who is told that he may be terminated, mocks Willis’ “Yippee Ki Yay” catchphrase from DIE HARD, Rambo is mentioned, and Norris’ nickname is “Lone Wolf.” That’s fine by me, these guys can self reference all they want, it only adds to the film’s awareness that it’s a colossal collection of action movie clichés, a thorough homage to the genre’s ‘80s heyday.

Stallone was right to hand over direction duties to Simon West. West (CON AIR, the first LAURA CROFT) is no wunderkind, but his handling of all this noisy spectacle, along with veteran action cinematographer Shelly Johnson, comes together much more cohesively than Stallone’s ham fisted helming of the first one.

My biggest complaint is that for a Blu ray of a new movie, the image is really grainy, grimy even, and out of focus at times, but I’ve read that it looked that way in theaters. Maybe that’s just keeping in line with how crappy visually the ‘80s action standards this movie apes were, but I doubt it was that intentional.

Special Features: By far the best of the bonus material is a half hour featurette called “Big Guns, Bigger Heroes,” which puts THE EXPENDABLES movies in their proper context by examining the rise of the action film genre in the Reagan era. Other features include an audio commentary by Simon West, featurettes entitled “Gods of War,” “On the Assault,” “Guns For Hire” (about real life government mercenaries for hire), a couple of minutes of deleted scenes, and a gag reel.

Bonus Blu ray review:

Released last August right when THE EXPENDABLES 2 hit theaters, was a 3 film collection of Stallone titles: RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, COP LAND, and the lesser known LOCK UP.

I’m not usually a fan of those DVD or Blu ray deals that you see for sale in supermarkets or big- box stores that package random films together or in this case, three films by a well known actor, but if you’re a fan and are running out of shelf space, maybe they’re ideal. It doesn’t bode well that the Blu ray cover sports an image of Stallone with a mustache and shades that’s not from any of the films in the set (it’s from GET CARTER), but the movies aren’t bare boned like in other packages; they feature all the bonus materials that accompanied their DVD special editions.

Makes me wonder why they didn’t just package the first 3 Rambo movies together, but I digress. The first Rambo film, originally just titled FIRST BLOOD (Dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1982), holds up as Stallone as his sweaty best as a dead-eyed Vietnam vet taking on the entire police force of a small town in Washington, largely because the local hard-ass Sherriff (Brian Dennehey) is an asshole.

Dennehey thinks Stallone is just an aimless drifter, but a grizzled Colonel (Richard Crenna) corrects him: “You don't seem to want to accept the fact you're dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare, with a man who's the best, with guns, with knives, with his bare hands.” So Rambo builds traps, destroys a lot of property with a machine gun, and blows up buildings (there were a lot more explosions than I remember when I saw it as a kid), but actually doesn’t kill anybody.

Stallone, who co-wrote, gives a crazed cried-out speech at the end, that plays the sympathy card for Vietnam vets who got a raw deal for what it’s worth, then a laughably dated power ballad (“It’s a Long Road,” written by Jerry Goldsmith, sung by Dan Hill, whoever that is) plays over the end credits. Great cornball stuff through and through that’s been satirized a zillion times yet still packs a whallop. Funny how the picture quality of the FIRST BLOOD Blu ray is a lot sharper than THE EXPENDABLES 2 Blu ray too.

Special features include the alternate ending in which Rambo dies, a half hour featurette (“Drawing First Blood”), and two commentaries – one by Stallone, the other by writer David Morrell.

An odd choice for this 3 Blu ray set, is James Mangold’s COP LAND (1997), which Stallone himself described as a more thoughtful film than he had been known for when he hosted SNL to promote the film’s release. It is, but despite its amazing cast, including Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Rapaport, Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, Arthur Nascarella, and John Spencer, and cool premise (the town of Garrison, New Jersey is run by corrupt New York City cops who reside there), the movie isn’t fleshed out enough to really make an impact, and it comes off like second hand Scorsese.

Still, it’s one of Stallone’s best roles: Freddy Heflin, the schlubby (he gained a gut for this part) good guy Sheriff of Garrison, who’s pushed around by just about everybody, as he pines for Annabella Sciorra (married to one of the corrupt cops). I love that the guy falls asleep drunk on his beat up couch listening to Springsteen’s “The River.” For once, Stallone pulls off a performance of pained powerlessness with none of his trademark alpha-male-isms. It’s also cool to see De Niro and Keitel sparring in their last film together, along with almost every Sopranos bit player you can think of on the sidelines. Plus it has a great well paced bloody ending, so, hmm, maybe I'm selling this one short.

Special Features: Commentary with Stallone, Patrick, Mangold, and producer Cathy Konrad, a 15 minute featurette (“Cop Land: The Making of an Urban Western”), and deleted scenes.

Lastly, there’s John Flynn’s 1989 prison thriller, LOCK UP, which puts Stallone behind bars under the evil eye of Warden Donald Sutherland. This is the cheesiest of the Stallone offerings in this set, with a supremely cheesy score by extremely cheesy film composer Bill Conti. A skinny Tom Sizemore (it was his 3rd film) is on hand for comic relief as a fellow inmate, and Sutherland (mostly spending his role looking menacing out the window) has a great hammy speech (“This is Hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour”), but this is a by-the-numbers rundown of prison movie clichés, that wears out its welcome really fast.

Special Features: Only a 6 minute “making of” featurette, the theatrical trailer, and a lame Stallone profile, but that’s just as well.

Okay! I think I’ve had as much as I can take of “The Itallian Stallion” for now.

More later…