Friday, May 31, 2013

WHAT MAISIE KNEW Isn't Just KRAMER VS. KRAMER From The Kid's Point-Of-View

Now playing in the Triangle area exclusively at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh:


(Dirs. Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2012)

It’s a scene that we’ve seen many times – a husband and wife are feuding, having a vicious argument, and the film cuts to a shot, usually in a dark doorway on the side, of their scared kid witnessing the row with a tear in his/her eye. But then it cuts back to the couple and stays with them.

In a welcome contrast, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s modern New York City-set update of Henry James’ 1897 book, has a scene near the beginning that has the arguing parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) going at it, but shows us their daughter Maisie, played by the 6-year old Onata Aprile, maneuvering her way through the apartment to avoid them as she finds money to pay the pizza delivery guy that they are oblivious to.

We can tell that Maisie is used to her folks fighting like she’s not there, and she even goes about playing a game of tic tac toe with the nanny (Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham) as they eat while Moore and Coogan continue bickering in the background.

Rougly 10 minutes in, we get the closest to the standard scene I described above in my opening paragraph, but the child doesn’t cry - she just observes quietly with concern.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW is almost completely told from Maisie’s perspective. We only hear the fragments of her parent’s feud that she hears, and we often see things from her line of sight.

Maisie sees her parents split up, then take up with new lovers, the snobby rich art dealer Coogan with the nanny Vanderham; the rock star singer Moore (they modernized the parents' occupations, of course) with a sensitive nice guy bartender (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård), and all Maisie can do is take it in with her wide worried eyes.

As she’s shuttled between her increasingly selfish and assholish parents, we see that her mother’s new young husband Skarsgård, and Coogan’s new young wife Vanderham genuinely care for the little girl, and might have a thing for each other as well.

When seeing some of Skarsgård’s affection for her daughter, Moore acidically tells him: “You don’t get a bonus for making her fall in love with you.”

Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright’s screenplay has a lot of insightful awareness as to how children process the doings of adults. Aprile presents Skarsgård for show and tell at School explaining to the other kids: “My father married my nanny, so the court made my Mommy get married too.”

It shouldn’t just be seen as KRAMER VS. KRAMER from the kid’s point-of-view however, there’s a more contemplative tone in which this film isn’t about taking sides or having someone experience a profound realization (well, there may be a bit of that at the end), and its observations are as open minded as Maisie is trying to be.

Amid all the messiness of the grown-ups’ relationships, Aprile’s Maisie just wants to play, draw, watch TV, i.e. be a kid, and retaining that innocence is near impossible around all the daily dysfunctions. Skarsgård and Vanderham recognize this, but to Coogan and Moore, Maisie is little more than a legal accessory. The real sadness of this situation is profoundly palpable in the film’s third act.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW is a rarity, especially during this overblown summer movie season, a well done drama about a child finding their footing away from their petty parents. There may be one too many shots of Aprile looking blankly at behavior she can’t comprehend yet, but it’s overall portrait of a child caught between the unhealthy lifestyles of blood relatives and the unconditional care given by relative strangers is a work of beauty.

More later...

LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED Needs More Than Likable Leads And Pretty Scenery

Opening today in the Triangle area at the Raleigh Grande 16 in Raleigh, and the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill:

(Dir. Susanne Bier, 2012)

With its lush yellow-toned poster featuring Trine Dyrholm in the arms of Pierce Brosnan against the backdrop of the seaside village of Sorrento, Italy, and its sun-drenched opening shots of that location set to the Dean Martin standard “That’s Amore,” Susanne Bier’s newest film sets us up for a piece of chick flick cheese.

And for the most part it is, but thankfully, even with the rom com trappings of a wedding that brings two people together that aren’t the bride and groom, LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED largely doesn’t go for cheap laughs. It’s a rom drama you see, and when it sticks to the strengths of the likable leads it has a genuine heart to it. It’s when it strays to the underwritten and predictable predicaments of the rest of the cast, that it falters.

Dyrholm, unknown ‘round these parts but a star in Denmark, plays a long married woman who finds out her husband (Kim Bodnia) has been cheating on her while she’s been undergoing treatment for Cancer. Because of the chemo, the demure Dyrholm wears a long blonde wig (the film’s Danish title, DEN SKALDEDE FRISOR translates to THE BALD HAIRDRESSER).

Without her no good husband, Dyrholm travels to Italy from Copenhagen to go to her daughter’s (Molly Blixt Egelind) wedding, but on the way at the airport she runs into (literally in her car) Brosnan as one of modern cinema’s most enduring clichés – the cold overworked businessman who’s always on the phone, and doesn’t have his priorities in place. Brosnan is on his way to the same wedding, that of his son (Sebastian Jessen) to Egelind, so, of course, they share a cab when they get there.

You know the drill – the couple, inevitably fated to be lovers, are annoyed by one another, but circumstances bring them together. Brosnan is a widower whose deceased wife’s sister (the delightfully obnoxious Paprika Steen, veteran of two previous films with director Bier) has had the hots for him for ages.

Meanwhile, it’s pretty obvious that Brosnan’s son Jessen, is gay so there’s that thread in this not fully fleshed out farcical framework, as well as the oafish Bodnia’s floozy fiancé (Christiane Schaumburg-Müller) that he stupidly brings along to the event with no consideration to Dyrholm. These all appear to be misplaced conventions for an all out comedy all bouncing off each other in a lavish Italian villa, and they clash inappropriately with the chemistry Brosnan and Dyrholm have together.

Folks should also note, especially folks that hate subtitles, that this is a Foreign film for the most part. The former James Bond, Brosnan, speaks the Queen’s English, but his character is fluent in other languages, which is handy because 70% of the movie is spoken in Danish.

Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Morten Søborg, LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED has its charms, but it really needs more than the likability of its leads and its pretty scenery to make it anything special.

More later...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Awful AFTER EARTH Is More Will Smith's Bad Than M. Night Shyamalan's

Opening today at nearly every multiplex in America:

AFTER EARTH (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2013)

“Together we will survive.” Will Smith, as some sort of intergalactic General, declares this to his son Kitai, played by his real son Jaden, after their spaceship has crash landed on a hostile abandoned Earth, 1000 years in the future in M. Night Shyamalan’s newest.

Thing is, these could be the real-life words of Smith re-assuring his offspring that he can carry a summer sci-fi action vehicle of his own, but, don’t worry, Daddy will be there on the sidelines to talk him through it. You see, Smith’s character broke his legs in the crash, and he’s determined not to smile, make a wisecrack, or do anything that would draw attention away from his kid’s screen-time.

Jaden looks worried and overwhelmed at this prospect, and he should be as he’s far from a polished actor, but his father, who had the story idea (writer/game designer Gary Whitta and Shyamalan fleshed it out somewhat into a screenplay), surely talked him into it with the selling points that sci-fi and the start of the summer movie season have paid off for their family many times in the past.

Well, in this tedious tale decorated by unspectacular CGI (I’ve seen episodes of Battlestar Galactica from five years ago that had more impressive special effects – hard to believe this reportedly cost $150 million), nothing pays off as nothing interesting happens at all.

Jaden is haunted by memories of his sister (Zoe Kravitz) being killed by some monstrous alien beast, and now has to fend off all kinds of crazy creatures (“everything has evolved to kill humans,” Smith explains) as he makes his way to retrieve a beacon in the far-off wreckage of their ship so they can return home to Nova Prime (the planet Earthlings relocated to).

To make the trip, Jaden needs a supply of inhalers to help combat the poisonous air. This means time is of the essence, which doesn’t make sense that they would stop for a lengthy dramatic speech by Smith to his son through whatever they call Skype in the future. I mean, sure it was dark and rainy, but it seems like Jaden should’ve kept moving. Sure wish the movie did.

It all leads up to what’s supposed to be a big ass climatic battle with another alien beast (which again, is crafted from un-compelling CGI), in which Jaden finally heeds his father’s advice and conquers his fears. Yawn.

This family vanity project (it’s co-produced by Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, her younger brother Caleeb Pinkett, and Smith’s long-time business partner James Lassiter), recalls how Shyamalan based his much reviled flop LADY IN THE WATER on a bedtime story he told to his children.

These big budget acts of nepotism may boast their family’s morale, but they contribute nothing to the art of cinema, nor do they make for anything close to passable entertainment.

With its poorly acted protagonist, complete lack of narrative or thematic drive, and sluggish pacing, AFTER EARTH joins the string of failures that Shyamalan has produced for now over a decade. Even what used to be a sure thing, i.e. a Will Smith summer sci-fi project, couldn’t reverse the filmmaker’s downward spiral.

To be fair, the blame of how bland this movie is should rest more on Smith’s shoulders than Shyamalan’s. It’s Smith’s glorified bedtime story starring his son; M. Night is just laying in it.

More later...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 5/28/13

This week's releases are cluttered with season sets of TV shows I haven't seen, and movies I've never heard of, but, hey, you can’t always have A-list titles to cover, right? 

On the shows I haven’t watched front, there’s the 2 disc DVD-only edition of Longmire: The Complete First Season, the A & E crime drama starring Robert Taylor, Katee Sackhoff, and Lou Diamond Phillips. The show, the second season of which premieres this week, comes packaged with only one Special Feature: a featurette entitled “The Slow Burn: Shooting Longmire.” From the good reviews I’ve read, and the fact that it was A & E’s highest rated scripted drama last summer, it looks like something possibly worth checking out.

Another show I’ve been considering checking out is Doctor Who, but I’m overwhelmed by 50 years of episodes, and all the layers of mythology. Those who are all caught up in it most likely will already know about today’s release of Doctor Who: Series Seven - Part Two, available in both Blu ray and DVD 2-disc sets. The eight episodes of the second half of the season are only joined by two episode prequels: “The Bells of Saint John” and “Clarence and the Whisper Men,” both only running a few minutes. Hmm, seems like that they could’ve fit all that on one disc.

What they did put out today on one disc, aptly as it’s only an hour long, is the Christmas Special Doctor Who: The Snowmen, available on both Blu ray and DVD.

Other shows that I’m not familiar with that drop today: Covert Affairs: Season Three (4-discs, DVD only), Suits: Season Two (4-discs, Blu ray + UltraViolet, and DVD), George Gently: Series Five (2-discs on Blu ray, 4-discs on DVD), and Red Widow: The Complete First Season (2-discs DVD only).

New movies releasing today on Blu ray and DVD that I’d not heard of before: Kasper Barfoed’s THE NUMBERS STATION, a thriller starring John Cusack and Malin Akerman, which is rated at 30% at Rotten Tomatoes so it looks like I haven’t been missing much, and Scott Stewart’s sci-fi horror flick DARK SKIES, starring Keri Russell, rated at 35% at Rotten Tomatoes - also pretty unappealing looking.

What does look appealing is Cate Shortland’s LORE (93% RT rating), an Australian-German production about five German children of an SS Officer who journey through their devastated country in the days after the end of World War II to get to their Grandmother. Saskia Rosendahl, in the title role, got some Australian award action as the strong teenager who leads her sister and three brothers. Special Features include a few brief featurettes, an alternate ending and deleted scenes. Incidentally, despite this home video release, LORE will be opening exclusively in the Triangle area at the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill, N.C. (my hometown) on Friday.

Horror fans may be interested in Patrick Rea’s NAILBITER  (2013), starring Joicie Appell, Emily Boresow, and Jason Coffman, out today only on DVD. The indie release, about a family forced to take refuge in a seemingly abandoned storm cellar from a deadly tornado, (IMDb description), comes with such Special Features as two commentaries (one with cast, one with crew) and a “Storyboard to Screen Comparison” featurette.

On the older film front, Mike Leigh’s 1990 comic drama LIFE IS SWEET, starring Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman, and Claire Skinner, gets the Criterion Collection treatment, in a package (available on both Blu ray and DVD) that features a new high-definition digital restoration, a recently recorded audio commentary featuring director Mike Leigh, an audio recording of a 1991 interview with Leigh, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt.

Some other older titles releasing today: Three John Wayne movies (1940's DARK COMMAND, 1941's LADY FROM LOUISIANA, and 1942's IN OLD CALIFORNIA), Joseph McGrath’s THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (a beautifully bizarre 1969 British comedy starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr making its Blu ray debut), and Nancy Buirski’s excellent documentary THE LOVING STORY, which I saw at its North Carolina premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival back in 2011.

As usual, check out Amazon’s extensive list of titles (i.e. much more than I could even hope to cover) for more of today’s releases.

More later…

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Now playing at every shopping mall multiplex in North America:


(Dir. Todd Phillips, 2013)

Nobody actually has a hangover in THE HANGOVER PART III (well, except during the end credits – sorry if that’s a Spoiler!), but the movie itself is a hangover from the events of the first two films.

The premise of this second sequel to the 2009 smash hit, billed as “The Epic Finale To THE HANGOVER Trilogy,” is thankfully different from the first two (PART II was identical to the first except that it was set in Bangkok), but it still follows the same pattern of normal guys (Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms) getting more and more trapped in the circles of insane people (Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong). 

Writer/director Phillips shoots the HANGOVER movies in the style and tone of action thrillers; they don’t resemble the comic worlds of the Apatowian universe at all. This approach doesn’t appeal to me because the humor, what genuine little there is here, feels misplaced.

But onto the plot, this time written by Philips and Craig Mazin (also co-writer of the second one) which concerns Jeong escaping from jail in Thailand, and conning the “Wolfpack,” as Alan calls them, into stealing a bunch of gold bars from John Goodman as an angry crime boss.

Goodman, who so could've phoned his part in, kidnaps Justin Bartha, who always gets the short end of the stick in these movies, leaving Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis to track down Jeong in, you guessed or saw the trailers or TV spots, Las Vegas.

Now, I love Galifianakis and think he’s one of the most hilarious stand-up comedians working today, but his clueless character shtick again wears out as early as the end of his second scene.

That scene by the way features Jeffrey Tambor reprising his role as Galifianakis’s father, again exasperated by his dysfunctional son’s behavior.

As the likable yet slightly douchy Phil, Cooper does as well as he can with the hectic material, and just like the last couple of entries, Helms’ characterization largely consists of being frustrated and baffled by Galifianakis’s extreme stupidity. Come to think of it, Helms functions as an audience surrogate for anybody who doesn’t think this stuff is as funny as the cast and crew supposedly do.

As for Jeong, he's doing the same over-the-top shenanigans he did in the previous films, and on Community, and both cases it's gone way beyond tiresome (especially on the post-Dan Harmon episodes of the NBC sitcom).

I like these guys, but all three HANGOVER movies are over-hyped lame comedies that have a measly minimum of actual laughs. Bet you can take all the funny moments in this one and make a less than 5-minute Funny or Die video clip out of it. 

Bet that would include a few moments of Melissa McCarthy’s bit as a pawn shop owner/Billy Joel fan that Galifianakis flirts with, and with hope would edit out the useless Heather Graham cameo and more importantly the shot of the giraffe decapitation presented as the movie’s big opening joke. It’s one that has mostly been spoiled by the heavy marketing of this movie, but be prepared to see a particularly grotesque shot more if you pony up admission.

It’s one of many places that made me so thankful that THE HANGOVER PART III isn’t in 3D like every other summer blockbuster wannabe out there. I’m also very thankful that they are promising that the franchise is closing up shop and that this will be the last one.

It better be because three of these dark gross-out anti-comedies is three too many.

More later...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Upcoming Blockbuster Wannabes (With Trailers!)

I went to see THE GREAT GATSBY 3D, which wasn’t that great, last weekend and like usual when I go to the multiplex I get exhausted before the main attraction even starts because of the bombastic noisy trailers for upcoming blockbuster wannabes. 

At least the theater, the Raleigh Grande, didn’t pile too many on like some others do. The bombast started with SUPERMAN RESTARTS, sorry, MAN OF STEEL, the new Superman reboot starring Henry Cavill and directed by Zack Snyder (300, WATCHMEN, SUCKER PUNCH) coming out on June 14th.

The epic trailer looked incredibly promising, albeit Christopher Nolan-ized (Nolan executive-produced), and I like the idea of Russell Crowe as Superman’s biological father Jor El from Krypton, Kevin Costner as his Earth father, and especially Michael Shannon as General Zod. Here’s hoping that it at least strikes a more successful chord than Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS. Check out the trailer:

The following trailer, for THOR: INTO DARKNESS, sorry, THOR: THE DARK WORLD, due out November 8th, really suffered by comparison to the MAN OF STEEL one. 

Alan Taylor takes over on directing duties from Kenneth Branagh for the sequel to the 2011 Marvel Universe entry, in which Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as the Asgardian warrior for the third time (the second was in last year’s smash THE AVENGERS). Natalie Portman also returns in this CGI-saturated super hero flick that has Thor battling…uh, I’m not sure. Actually I couldn’t get a sense of the plot, except that Portman goes to Thor’s dimension or whatever you call it, from the roughly 2 minute trailer, which you can see below, but looks like there’s lots of action and stylized violence just like you’d expect. 

Lastly, one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, Marc Forster’s WORLD WAR Z, based on the book by Mel Brooks’ son Max Brooks, was advertised in a trailer also filled with quick cuts of thunderous action. Brad Pitt stars in the film (the trailer doesn’t make his occupation clear, but it's some kind of government job) that consists of swarming zombies (they move much much quicker than in The Walking Dead) overtaking the earth. The film has a budget of over $200 million and from the looks of this preview, it looks like it’s all up on the screen. Check it out the trailer for WORLD WAR Z, opening the week after MAN OF STEEL on June 21st in IMAX 3D and plain ole 2D:

More later...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 5/21/13

Today’s releases feature a plethora of titles that I missed when they were released theatrically early this year. 

First up, former California Govenor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in a decade (THE EXPENDABLES movies? Consider those cameos.), Kim Ji-woon’s THE LAST STAND comes out in single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. The action flick about Schwarzenegger as a small town Sherriff battling a Mexican drug lord, which looks like it could possibly be big dumb fun, comes with a smattering of Special Features including a nearly half hour featurette entitled “Not In My Town: Making THE LAST STAND,” a few shorter featurettes (“Cornfield Chaos: Scene Breakdown,” “The Dinkum Firearm & Historic Weaponry Museum Tour”), Actor-Cam Anarchy: with Johnny Knoxville and Jaimie Alexander, and over 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes.

Another I missed, and barely noticed the existence of, Richard LaGravenese’s TWILIGHT-wannabe BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, starring Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert, hits the shelves in a double disc Blu ray package and in a single disc DVD. Special Features a 24-minute collection of behind-the-scenes Featurettes, 8 minutes of deleted scenes, trailers, and a TV spot. I seriously doubt I’ll be queuing this up.

A few films I’m actually interested also drop on Blu ray and DVD today: Fisher Stevens’ STAND UP GUYS and Steven Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS

Available in 1-disc Blu ray and DVD editions, STAND UP GUYS stars the awesome trio of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin as old school gangsters who get together to pull off one last job. Sure, it sounds clichéd as Hell, but I heard good things here and there and will likely give it a whirl this week. Stevens provides a director’s commentary, and other extras include a few featurettes, and a few minutes of deleted scenes. 

Soderbergh’s psychological thriller SIDE EFFECTS, available in a double disc Blu ray set or a single disc DVD package, once said to be one of the director’s final projects before retiring (he’s since said he’s only taking a film-making sabbatical), stars Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum in a tale about a young woman (Mara) who gets prescribed an experimental new medication called Ablixa. Special Features are pretty paltry: a 3 minute behind the scenes featurette, and a couple minutes of fake commercials for the fictional drugs depicted in the film. 

True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, right in time for the upcoming 6th season of the wildly popular HBO series (premiering on June 16th) is also out today in a spiffy (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy) box set. I’ve not been a regular view of the show before, but the fine folks at HBO sent me a review copy of the nicely packaged season so I’ve been making my way through it. I usually like to watch shows from the very beginning, but I’ve gathered bits and pieces about what’s been going on in the Southern sometimes ultra-trashy world of Sookie Stackhouse, played with punchy energy by Anna Paquin. Since I don’t know all the back stories, and my grasp on the mythology is far from formed, I can get a bit lost, but the show moves fast and has a lot of sordid sex scenes so it’s pretty damn watchable. 

5 commentaries featuring cast and crew members are included, as are such extras as something called “advanced viewing mode,” in which gives viewers the options of getting 4 different angles on each episode along with trivia, production notes, character bios, and histories (hmm, maybe that’ll help me get up to date). There’s also an “Autopsy” of episode Six “Hopeless,” “Authority Confessionals,” and a few more featurettes.

Also from HBO, a film I reviewed when it premiered on the premium cable channel last November, Brett Morgen’s Rolling Stones documentary CROSSFIRE HURRICANE is now out in single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. The doc, which I considered a “purposeful primer of their formative years” although it adds little new for long-time fans, is enhanced by bonus material made up of of live and TV performances from the mid ‘60s (9 songs in all), an interview with director Morgen, and the theatrical trailer.

Notable retro-tinged releases today are PBS’s American Masters documentary about the legendary comic actor/writer/director Mel Brooks (Robert Trachtenberg's “Mel Brooks: Make A Noise”), the Criterion Collection edition of Haskell Wexler’s 1969 cult classic MEDIUM COOL, and Warner Bros. celebrates the 30th anniversary of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION with a new special edition Blu ray (also 1997’s VEGAS VACATION, which wasn’t from National Lampoon incidentally, makes its Blu ray debut today).

Paul Borghese’s gritty crime drama ONCE UPON A TIME IN BROOKLYN, starring Armand Assante William DeMeo, Cathy Moriarty, and Ice T comes out on DVD today. Its plot sounds a bit like STAND UP GUYS – guy gets out of prison and gets back into illegal activities – but I bet that there’s a distinctly different tone happening. Director’s commentary, interview with Borghese and DeMeo, and deleted scenes. 

Lastly, a few horror titles drop on DVD this week: H.P. LOVECRAFT’S COOL AIR, directed by Albert Pyun is out now only on DVD with no Special Features other than a trailer gallery, and AFTER DARK ORIGINALS: DARK CIRCLES, the full length directorial debut of Paul Soter, one of the Broken Lizard comedy team who brought you SUPER TROOPERS and CLUB DREAD. Soter appears with actor Johnathon Schaech, and blogger Ryan Turek on an audio commentary, and the sole other extra is a DARK CIRCLES behind-the-scenes featurette.

More later...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

STAR TREK Into Disappointment

Opening today at nearly every multiplex in the galaxy:

(Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2013)

At first, it seemed that it was just that this sequel was just messier and less fun than Abram’s 2009 reboot. That the freshness of how that movie so entertainingly re-established Star Trek’s most iconic characters with new faces had faded.

But as the quick-cut convolutions of the plot swirled around my head, aided by the heavy lens flare (now in 3D!), I began to shudder. Abrams, along with screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, were no longer simply paying homage, they were blatantly ripping off scenarios, dialogue, and the emotional pull of what many consider the best of the original run of STAR TREK movies.

Of course, I’m talking about STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (from here on: STII: TWOK).

Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel to Robert Wise’s STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) was a game changer for the franchise. The first one, which brought the cast back from the popular '60s TV series in part to capitalize on the STAR WARS craze of the late ‘70s, was seen as too cerebral, and worse – boring, but the second one was a terrific action adventure that appealed to both fans and a mass audience, without sacrificing the smarts (largely thanks to an excellent screenplay by Jack B. Sowards and Meyer).

Abrams had already touched on STII:TWOK in his first installment of STAR TREK, with the Kobayashi Maru element (the no-win scenario Starfleet test) and a few lines, but here the allusions are out in full force starting with Benedict Cumberbatch as a villain from 300 years in the past that, c’mon, everybody knows going in who he’s going to turn out to be.

The entire cast returns headed by Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, who again lives to ignore Federation regulations, have sex with alien women (he’s in bed with two of them early on), and perform death defying stunts at early possible chance.

Their amusing rivalry has died down, so Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock are settled into the friendship as seen on the old series, and Spock’s romantic relationship with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), something that was somewhat shocking when it was introduced 4 years ago is also background fodder here. As for the rest, Karl Urban as McCoy, Simon Pegg as Scotty, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and John Cho as Sulu, they’re around mainly to say their character’s classic lines (McCoy: “Damn it Jim, I’m a Doctor not a torpedo technician!”).

So the movie has Kirk being demoted for breaking the Prime Directive (you know, the deal where Starfleet can’t interfere with the development of an alien civilization) in the film’s big ass opening volcano sequence, then made First Officer under Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood, also returning from the previous film). When Pike is killed by Cumberbatch (who has some effectively sinister moments but is no Ricardo Montalban) in a gunship in a violent assault in San Fransisco, Kirk and crew chases him down with the Enterprise to the Klingon territory of Kronos.

With the Klingon entanglements, sometimes confusing negotiation tactics, and muddled back story about Cumberbatch’s people each encased in hollow photon torpedoes, I got a bit drowsy, but I snapped too when I realized they were not only trying to replicate the high points of the 2009 reboot (revealing that they can do something new with warp speed, Leonard Nimoy cameo, etc.), they were mounting a re-approximation (with an obvious variation) of one of the highest points of the entire franchise, i.e. Spock’s death scene in STII:TWOK.

No doubt, some folks are going to enjoy that they did this. The film goes so by fast, with a lot of kinetic energy surrounding the immaculate CGI, that movie-goers are likely to get caught up in it all, and then love that they recognize the set-up with some of the same dialogue as it unfolds, but when I saw that they were so transparently aping what worked so well in the past it felt forced and a bit desperate to me.

I also didn’t buy the extra villainy of Peter Weller’s (ROBOCOP!) angry Starfleet admiral Marcus (father of Alice Eve as Carrol Marcus, another element from STII:TWOK), who threatens to destroy the Enterprise and everybody on it just to get to Cumberbatch.

On The Daily Show earlier this week, Abrams admitted, as he has many times before, that as a kid he was never into Star Trek, adding that “it always felt too philosophical to me.” Here it really shows that his STAR WARS-ified sexed-up version of the world that Gene Roddenberry created just aims to be mindless entertainment. 

At its previous best, say in STII:TWOK, Star Trek was never mindless, even in its most failed forays, say the William Shatner-directed STAR TREK V, it had an aim to question and seek out new possibilities.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, surely to be a blockbuster knocking IRON MAN 3 out of the #1 position at the box office this weekend, is a disappointment on many levels, the biggest one being that it retreads sacred ground with no new purpose.

Now Abrams will go off and reboot STAR WARS (set for Summer 2015) for probably even bigger box returns. That franchise is obviously better suited for him (and he’s actually a fan of it) so I hope the Force is strong with him in that galaxy, because he really broke the Prime Directive of this one.

More later...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 5/14/13

Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer’s CLOUD ATLAS, starring Tom Hanks (Reader Digest's most trusted man in America), along with Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Ben Whishaw (all playing multiple roles), comes out today in a Blu-ray/DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy Combo Pack and a standard stand-alone DVD release. The film, which I called “epically entertaining but empty” in my review when the film was released theatrically last October, is joined by 7 “Focus Point” featurettes that add up to around an hour.

Next up, the newest addition to the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE franchise, John Luessenhop’s TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D is out today in a 3D Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital Copy + UltraViolet package and a single disc 2D DVD (also contains Digital Copy + UltraViolet). I don’t have a 3D TV so I can’t speak for that aspect, but the movie, which picks up where Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original film ends (with footage from the first to boot), is pretty trashy and stupid, yet still fun, if you have no issues with gory deaths that is.

TEXAS CHAINSAW comes with a mess of Special Features including three (!) commentaries including and a “Chainsaw Alumni” commentary featuring stars Bill Moseley, Gunnar Hansen, Marilyn Burns and John Dugan, eight featurettes, an alternate opening, and the theatrical trailer. This is reportedly a reboot to kick off a new 6-part series to rival the SAW franchise. If that’s the case, count me out.

Roman Copppola’s really strange looking A GLIMPSE INSIDE THE MIND OF CHARLES SWAN III, starring Charlie Sheen, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray, is also among today’s releases in single disc Blu Ray and DVD editions (no Digital copies or UltraViolet included here). It got awful reviews (it holds a 16% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but I still can’t help putting it in my queue. Special Features: a 25 minute “making of” featurette, a 12 minute segment about one of the real life graphic artists whose work inspired director Coppola, and a commentary with Coppola, who also co-wrote the ill-fated production. 

On the older film front, today’s releases include a Criterion Collection edition of Delmer Dave’s classic 1957 Western 3:10 TO YUMA on both Blu ray and DVD, three Hal Hartley films (his 1989 debut THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, 1988’s THE BOOK OF LIFE, and 2005’s THE GIRL FROM MONDAY) also hit both formats, as does Sam Raimi’s 1985 comedy CRIMEWAVE, co-written with the Coen brothers, another film I gotta queue up. 

Finally, the 21-disc Fraggle Rock: 30th Anniversary Collection is available from (on DVD only, which is just as well since the image is often as fuzzy as the Fraggles themselves), containing all 96 episodes from the HBO show's mid '80s run with a bunch of Special Features (2 discs worth) and a Red Fraggle mini-plush. 

If this set is way too much of Jim Henson’s Fraggles than you or your kids can take, there is a neat 6 episode sampler DVD also out today: “Meet the Fraggles” (pictured above on the left) which has some of the best episodes from the show’s 4 seasons, especially the wonderful song-filled first episode “Beginnings,” which is one of Henson’s best half hour productions ever, and considering how good the 5 seasons of The Muppet Show are that’s saying a lot. Speaking of The Muppet Show, seasons 4 and 5 are still not available on DVD! Somebody do something about this!

As always for a complete list of what’s out today on Blu ray and DVD check out Amazon’s New Releases department.

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Soulful Warmth of THE SAPPHIRES

Now playing at an art house near you: 

THE SAPPHIRES (Dir. Wayne Blair, 2012) 

The Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd, best known to British audiences for his role as Roy on the TV show The IT Crowd, and by American audiences for his part as the flirty cop in BRIDESMAIDS, gets his chance to carry a film as the lead in THE SAPPRIRES, a late ‘60s era band biopic about an Australian girl group, that at times comes off like a spirited mixture of THAT THING YOU DO and GOOD MORNING VIETNAM. 

Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy, and Shari Sebbens play the young indigenous women whose soulful singing of country songs encourages O’Dowd to manage them for a tour to entertain the troops in Vietnam.

The scruffy lush O’Dowd (playing a Melbournian), convinces the spirited but mouthy group to drop what he calls the “country shite,” and take up soul music by way of a montage in which he coaches them into being a more polished and presentable act, with choreography, matching dresses and a new name: the Sapphires.

As O’Dowd and his new singing sensations travel the rough terrain of Vietnam, the film can feel pretty montage heavy, but the string of short scenes flows amusingly enough. There have been many many movies that have covered the same 1968 ground, i.e. the escalation of the Vietnam war, but that’s mainly backdrop here as the focus is on the relationships of these women.

Mauboy may be the lead singer, but Mailman, who O’Dowd says is “mama bear,” to the “little baby cubs” of the others, has the most affecting presence, especially in a monologue detailing her family’s strife fraught back story. Tapsell brings amusing feistiness to her underwritten role, and as the light-skinned cousin who feels she has the most to prove, Sebbens gets to have a likable bit of romance on the side with Tory Kittles.

Based on a popular Australian play by Tony Briggs, which was loosely based on true events his mother and aunts experienced, and co-scripted here by Briggs and Keith Thompson, THE SAPPRIRES is a colorful charmer with a top notch soundtrack.

Songs by Creedence, Sam & Dave, and are in abundance, but the film is at its most toe-tappingly tuneful when Mauboy takes the mike and belts out superb renditions of Motown and Stax standards, as well as the winner “Gotcha,” a new original (written by Mauboy with Louis Schrool and Ilan Kidron).

Sure, there are the predictable “based on a true story” trappings like overused archival footage, and the obligatory photos of the real folks with tidy sum-ups of what became of them, and when Googling the original band you’ll find that O’Dowd’s character is completely ficticious, and only two of the women from the original group went to Vietnam as backup singers for other artists, but I was so won over by the film’s soulful warmth that I could put those things aside.

Starting Sunday night, May the 12th, O’Dowd will be starring in Christopher Guest’s new HBO series Family Tree which looks to be right in line with Guest’s classic ensemble improv comedies WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, and A MIGHTY WIND. After seeing his ace chops on ample display in THE SAPPHIRES, it’s now a show I’m looking forward to even more.

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Thursday, May 09, 2013


(Dir. Leslie Iwerks, 2012) 

It should be no surprise that the large sha
dow of Orson Welles’ iconic classic CITIZEN KANE looms over this new documentary, out now on DVD about the media empire that William Randolph Hearst built. 

It’s something that can’t be ignored when viewing the old newsreel footage, hearing tales of Hearst’s political life and lavish San Simeon palace, with even the packaging for the DVD looking like it was designed for it to be shelved next to KANE in one’s home video collection.

But a half hour into Iwerk’s engrossing film, impeccably narrated by William H. Macy, Hearst, described here as “one of the world’s most powerful and controversial figures,” passes away (at age 88), the narrative shakes free of Welles' cinematic clutches as it takes us through the ups and downs of the Hearst Corporation in the post-World War II era.

In the age of flourishing consumerism and ultra specialization, magazines like Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan revitalized themselves through the leadership of Ellen Levine, Diana Vreeland, and Helen Gurley Brown, who Hearst Corporation CEO Frank A. Bennack, Jr. says is “one of the most important figures in the history of this 125 year old company.”

Levine, now Hearst Magazines Editorial Director, the first woman to edit Good Housekeeping (90% of women’s magazines were run by men at the time) tells us that Good Housekeeping still thrives because its “the only magazine that I’m aware of that will refuse an ad if its claims cannot be proven.”

The late Vreeland, who not long ago was the subject of her own individual biodoc, DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (2011), is given a graceful segment in which we see examples of her experimental influence, via many magazine covers and double page spreads.

But while the Hearst Corp. was having success with these magazines, there was trouble in their newspaper divisions. San Francisco Herald Examiner employees held a strike in 1968 that resulted in injuries and one death, and ended with the paper being engulfed by the non-union Chronicle. Anybody who has been following the current struggle of print media to stay alive will be way into this material.

Iwerk’s film gets less interesting when it gets to the Hearst Corps acquisitions in the more familiar world of cable television, but maybe that’s because I don’t care as much about the history and inner workings of ESPN.

This doc makes a strong case for the modern media television landscape made up of 24 hour news channels (not to mention the yellow journalism of Fox News), reality shows, and self help gurus (Oprah is here to testify about her magazine O, a Hearst publication), is one largely of William Randolph Hearst’s devising. As in: it’s still his world we just live in it. It’s hard to imagine that Hearst’s fictional doppelganger Charles Foster Kane’s empire would still be a major power, which might be the real testament to the man.

Interview excerpts (much more of which can be found in the Bonus Features) from film critic Leonard Maltin, journalist/newscaster Dan Rather, NY Times Cultural reporter Robin Pogrebin, Hearst Magazines President David Carey, Fashion Designer Ralph Lauren and a few Hearst family members provide a lot of insightful anecdotes, but the lesser known Bennack Jr., who Houston Chronicle VP Jeff Cohen calls Hearst’s “spiritual heir,” may be the most engaging of the talking heads here.

The film concludes with a sequence about the building of the Hearst Tower (with some cool time lapse photography on hand), which was the first skyscraper planned in New York after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

It may be seen as an ass-kissing tribute to the legacy of an overblown titan that glosses over a lot of darkness, but CITIZEN HEARST is a zippy informative overview of an American dream like none other.

Bonus Features: The “Hearst Castle” episode from the A & E television series America’s Castles, and over 30 minutes of deleted footage broken into 3 segments: “Growing Up Hearst,” “Hearst Tower Art Collection Tour By Gil Maurer,” and “State of News.”

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 5/7/13

Today’s biggest release is the Tom Cruise action vehicle JACK REACHER, available in a Two-Disc Blu ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy package or a single disc DVD. The film, which I called a “cookie cutter crowd pleaser” in my review last December, is augmented by such Special Features as two audio commentaries (one with Cruise and Director Christopher McQuarrie; another with composer Joe Kramer), and three featurettes (“When the Man Comes Around,” “You Do Not Mess with Jack Reacher: Combat & Weapons,” and “The Reacher Phenomenon”).

Next up, at the same time that Jessica Chastain was getting a lot of buzz (and an Oscar nomination) for ZERO DARK THIRTY early this year, she was also appearing in Andrés Muschietti’s horror flick MAMA, out today on both single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. Special Features include a commentary with brother and sister collaborators director/co-writer Andy Muschietti and producer/co-writer Barbara Muschietti, deleted scenes, the original “Mama” short film that inspired the production, and a few “making of” featurettes. 

For reasons that elude me, a 2009 movie from high tech schlock meisters Neveldine/Taylor (the CRANK films, JONAH HEX, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, and some other crap), that wasn’t liked much by critics or audiences, the Gerald Butler sci-fi action thriller GAMER, has been retro-actively outfitted in 3D for a new Blu ray release today. As the previous Blu ray release of the film, from 2010, has more bonus material (including a couple of commentaries) than this new version only containing a few featurettes, it seems this new edition’s only draw is its 3D conversion. Sure isn’t enough to draw me in as for it was a pretty bad film to begin with. 

A much better Blu ray experience of battle action can be found on the new History Channel special WWII From Space, which boasts that it’s “America’s war as never seen before from the unique vantage point of space.” That means this Blu ray features CGI recreations from a satellite view of such major historical World War II events like Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and Stalingrad. 

It may sound cheesy (and it is in shots that too much resemble the angles from Michael Bay’s 2001 atrocity PEARL HARBOR), but overall the approach is pretty impressive, with the vivid shiny imagery, along with interview sound-bites from experts like Lt. General Raymond V Mason, Richard Overy (author of the bestseller “How The Allies Won The War”), and Pulitzer prize winning historian David Kennedy helping to provide an immersive overview. No Special Features, but that’s no biggie. 

Another worthwhile release today on the historical documentary front is Leslie Iwerks’ CITIZEN HEARST, only available on DVD, which examines the vast media game-changing empire of William Randolph Hearst, that Orson Welles' immortal classic CITIZEN KANE apparently only tangentially touched on, with the tagline: “125 years in the making.” The well-made, swiftly-paced, and nicely narrated (by William H. Macy) film is enhanced by such bonus material as the “Hearst Castle” episode from the A & E television series America’s Castles, and over 30 minutes of deleted footage.

Also on that front is the release, also only on DVD, of the 4 part HBO documentary series Witness: A World of Conflict Through a Lens, from executive producer Michael Mann, executive producer/director David Frankham, and director Abdallah Omeish. Respectively the programs cover Juarez, Libya, South Sudan, and Rio as covered by three noted combat photographers (Eros Hoagland, Michael Christopher Brown and Veronique de Viguerie). No Special features, but with a running time of 187 minutes, it sure doesn’t need any.

Finally, an interesting indie called STARLET, directed by Sean S. Baker (TAKE OUT, PRINCE OF BROADWAY), hits Blu ray and DVD in single disc editions. Mariel Hemingway's 21-year old model/actress daughter Dree, stars as a flighty young woman living in the San Fernando Valley with stoner roommates (Stella Maeve and James Ransone), who befriends a cranky 85-year old lady (the late Besedka Johnson in her only film role). Bonus material: commentary with director Baker along with cast and crew, audition/rehearsal footage, and a few featurettes.

For more of today’s new releases, check out Amazon’s extensive list of titles (i.e. much more than I could even hope to cover).

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