Friday, June 28, 2013

WHITE HOUSE DOWN: More Fun Than It Has A Right To Be

 Opening today at a multiplex near you:

WHITE HOUSE DOWN (Dir. Roland Emmerich, 2013)

So, yeah, it shares the same premise, and pretty much the same title as OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN from earlier this year (Olympus being the fictional code name for the White House in that movie), but Roland Emmerich’s WHITE HOUSE DOWN is bigger, dumber, and a lot more fun than that like-minded Gerald Butler action vehicle. 

They’re both stupid, but if watching OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN makes you shake your head, watching WHITE HOUSE DOWN makes you laugh out loud while you're shaking your head.

In Emmerich’s much more preferable take on the DIE HARD meets AIR FORCE ONE formula, Jamie Foxx is the President, Channing Tatum his Secret Service savior against an attack on the White House by a domestic paramilitary group. Actually, Tatum isn’t in the Secret Service; he just happens to be there applying for the job shortly before the hostile takeover occurs. 

Tatum gets turned down for the position by Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the chief Secret Service supervisor or something, so he takes his daughter (12-year old Joey King, who looks kinda like a tiny Sandra Bernhard) on a tour of the famous Pennsylvania Avenue residence.

Foxx (going from freed slave in DJANGO UNCHAINED to the Commander in Chief in six months - now there's an American success story!) is established right up front as a noble, dignified peace-seeking President of the people. 

Of course, one can’t help but think of Obama, especially when Foxx chews nicotine gum and mimics a few familiar mannerisms, but there’s no real statement being made here about our current administration, it’s just all in good fun.

Of course there’s corruption among all the President’s men with James Woods, seemingly reprising his role as H.R. Haldeman from Oliver Stone's NIXON, being the first baddie we can identify as a retiring Head of Presidential Detail who orchestrates the evil plan because he blames Foxx for the death of his son in the Middle East.

So Tatum’s tour group is taken hostage, and you know the DIE HARD drill - most of the action has Tatum, who strips down to the Bruce Willis-style wife beater tank top, and Foxx running around dodging machine gun bullets, getting into brutal fist fights, talking on walkie talkies, and making heroic wise-cracks all over the rooms, and hallways of the historical house.

There’s even a hilarious SUV chase all over the White House lawn to break up all the inside scenes. The leader of the thugs they fight, ZERO DARK THIRTY’s Jason Clarke is a particularly good bad guy, who gets angrier as the body count of baddies rises – these guys are usually related to each other or real close so there’s that revenge incentive growing.

Everybody appears to know how silly this all is, but they play every action movie cliché with a straight face, and that results in many genuine laughs, even if at times you can’t tell if something is intentionally funny or unintentionally funny. This move gleefully doesn’t care about the difference.

An incidental character, a know-it-all White House tour guide played by Nicholas Wright is responsible for some amusing moments as he’s personally offended by the thugs’ destruction of the house’s priceless artifacts. Michael Murphy has a thankless nothing role as the Vice President, who spends the movie aboard Air Force One, but Richard Jenkins has a better part as the Speaker of the House, but it’s a pretty transparent role too.

No matter, they’re just well-oiled parts of this machine of a movie that I bet movie-goers will enjoy than most of the other big ass offerings out there (WORLD WAR Z, MAN OF STEEL, and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, I’m looking in your direction). Emmerich has made big dumb disaster flicks before (INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2012), but this one has more appeal due to it tongue in cheek tone, and its confidently corny approach.

I’m tempted to call WHITE HOUSE DOWN the summer’s best brainless blockbuster wannabe, but then I haven’t seen FAST & FURIOUS 6 yet. So I’ll just say that it’s a gloriously stupid good time at the movies this summer (just in time for 4th of July celebrating), and a better DIE HARD movie than the last actual DIE HARD movie.

More later...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 6/25/13

The best new release on Blu ray this week has to be the 1965 Beatles classic HELP! The Richard Lester-directed musical comedy starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Victor Spinetti (Spinetti, who passed away a year ago at age 82, also appeared in the Beatles’ first film 1964's A HARD DAY’S NIGHTand their 1967 TV special Magical Mystery Tour), is available today in a single disc Blu ray edition (a new 2 disc DVD set also drops), which contains close to an hour’s worth of bonus material.

The digitally restored original film is joined by: “The Beatles in HELP!” (a 30-minute “Making of” documentary), “A Missing Scene” (a film outtake, featuring Wendy Richard), “The Restoration of HELP!,” “Memories of HELP!,” 1965 Theatrical Trailers (two original U.S. trailers and one original Spanish trailer), and 1965 U.S. Radio Spots. For more on HELP! read my review of a previous re-mastered edition of the film from November 7, 2007.

That’s the best, now for the rest headed by a couple of movies nobody, including me, went to see earlier this year: the Halle Berry thriller THE CALL, and the Steve Carrell/Jim Carrey comedy THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE, both out today in 2-disc Blu ray combo packs with UltraViolet, digital copies, etc (also out on single disc DVD sets).

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE also features Steve Buscemi, and sadly one of the last performances on film of the great James Gandofini, who passed away last week at age 51. That alone may make it worth watching. Special Features include deleted scenes, alternate takes, Line-O-Rama whatnot, 8-minute “Making Movie Magic with David Copperfield” featurette, gag reel and something called “Steve Gray Uncut,” which has an in-character Jim Carrey starring in “The Best of The Brain Rapist.” You read that right.

THE CALL also comes packaged with a bunch of Special Features such as a commentary with cast and crew (including Director Brad Anderson, Berry, and writer Richard D'Ovidio, an alternate ending, deleted and extended scenes, and 40 minutes of featurettes (“Emergency Procedures,” “Inside the Stunts,” “Michael Ecklund Audition Footage,” “Set Tour of the Call Center,” and “Set Tour of the Lair.”

A movie that didn’t come to my area (the Triangle area in N.C.) in its brief theatrical run, Juan Diego Solanas’ odd sci-fi flick UPSIDE DOWN, starring Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst, is out today in a 3D + 2D Blu-ray & DVD Combo, and a single disc DVD. It comes with a bevy of bonus stuff including a 25-min. “Making Of” featurette, storyboards, sketches, and deleted scenes.

Also out today: Pablo Larraín’s NO, starring Gael García Bernal, Patrick Wang’s IN THE FAMILY, Samuel Fullers’ 1969 cult classic SHARK!, starring Burt Reynolds, the Criterion Collection edition of Claude Lanzmann's acclaimed 9 1/2 hour Holocaust documentary SHOAH, and a couple of well regarded works by Jean-Luc Godard (1978's COMMENT ÇA VA? and 1987's KEEP YOUR RIGHT UP) get spiffy new Blu ray releases from Olive Films.

TV Series sets hitting the shelves: Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis Season Six, CSI: NY - The Final Season, MADtv Season Three, and Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids: The Complete Series (that’s all 8 seasons on 15 discs!).

More later…

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Film Babble Blog Celebrates 25th Anniversary Of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT

25 years ago today, Robert Zemeckis' innovative blend of animation with live action classic WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT was released in theaters. Guest writer Spencer Blohm, helps Film Babble Blog celebrate the anniversary with this insightful piece:


Almost everyone recognizes WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT as an iconic animated comedy-drama set against a gritty, noir detective novel background. What many don’t realize, however, is the lasting impact that this film had on both animated and live action films since its release.

An obvious innovation brought about by the hit 1988 movie was the development of the techniques used by director Robert Zemeckis, producers Frank Marshall, Robert Watts, and Steven Spielberg and their special effects crew. They were attempting to create a full scale human-cartoon hybrid world. That level of integration was truly uncharted territory, and the integration of both of these elements needed to be seamless. Since these techniques and procedures had not yet been developed, the team was left to figure it out for themselves.

It's amazing to think that scenes like the memorable shot of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse parachuting alongside Bob Hoskins were created with nothing more than green screen technology and the team's ingenuity. Their success paved the way for future special effects driven films, such as SPACE JAM and THE MATRIX.

The human-cartoon integration piece created a host of challenges for actors, voice talent and animators as well. Bob Hoskins, who played male lead Eddie Valiant, read his lines to fully costumed voice actors to help him stay in character. Mime artists and mannequins were utilized to further assist the live actors with spacing and interaction. The attention to detail that this project required was so great that Kathleen Turner, the uncredited but unforgettable voice of Jessica Rabbit, had to record her voice track before the animators could finish their work. This was due to their need to get the character's breathing drawn correctly. This team's work created the blueprint for developing future projects with similar challenges.

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT is also distinguished by the cooperation required by different cartoon studios and production companies to make the film happen. Many of the characters in the film are Disney characters, which is natural since this was a Disney production. However, quite a few of the other characters were created by Warner Bros. Studios. This cross-studio collaboration was (and still is) unique, and helped create a substantial interest in media that crosses the intellectual property of multiple studios. Currently, there is a whole sub-section of comic books and video games where characters come together in ways that would have otherwise been impossible.

Another achievement credited to this project is the impact it had on animated features that would follow. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, scripted by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman from the source material of the 1981 Gary K. Wolf  novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit, was not typical intellectual territory for a cartoon.

The plot and characters in the film were uncharacteristically adult in nature. From the literary influence of the crime novel genre to the background graffiti stating, "For a Good Time, Call Allyson Wonderland," this was new ground for animated production companies. The success of an animated film covering this ground paved the way for many future animated projects from the movies made by Pixar to South Park.

The Golden Age of Animation is the period of time when production companies used created theatrical animated shorts featuring such recognizable characters as Mickey Mouse and Popeye. These shorts eventually waned in popularity in the 1960's, when television cartoons began to overtake these shorts in popularity. 

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT introduced these characters to a whole new generation of fans. If it were not for the adventures of Eddie Valiant in Toontown, many of the popular children's shows on various networks today might never have happened.

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT was more than a detective story with cool special effects. It was an innovative feature film that had a wide reaching and profound impact on animation, film making and pop culture.

Author Bio: Spencer Blohm is a freelance television, film and video game blogger for He enjoys animation from the golden age of Disney shorts all the way to the newest releases from Japan and the online work of Flash artists pushing the genre forward.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

THE BLING RING: As Superficial And Empty-headed As The Girls It Depicts

Now playing in the Triangle at the Raleigh Grande, Crossroads 20 in Cary, and AMC Southpoint 17:

THE BLING RING (Dir Sofia Coppola, 2013)

With its superficial teenage girls on a crime spree premise, Sofia Coppola’s fifth film, THE BLING RING, should be paired with Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS, from earlier this year, for a double feature.

Based on the true story of a group of fame-obsessed teens who broke into the Los Angeles houses of celebrities such as Paris Hilton (who has a brief cameo), Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge, and Orlando Bloom, and stole millions of dollars worth of clothing, jewellery, cash, and personal items, Coppola’s film matches Korine’s with its high levels of glitz, and may also leave audiences with the same “what the Hell does this all mean?” bafflement.

Utilizing the internet (mostly sites like TMZ), and a shy male classmate (Israel Broussard), the girls led by newcomer Katie Chang, figure out when their targets are out of town, or attending an awards show or whatever, so they can infiltrate their domains, raid belongings, and imitate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, without having to do any of the actual work their idols did to get there.

Of course, in the case of Paris Hilton, who was born into extreme privilege, you can see how they justify their wrong doings, and why they return to her house over and over. Chang: “We’ve never taken enough to notice, I mean, it’s Paris Hilton!”

Chang and Broussard are joined by Emma Watson, Claire Julien, and Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story), in both their thieving conquests and their after heist partying, two aspects of the film that get really repetitive. At least Coppola lays off the quick-cut fever dreaminess of Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS in these scenes, allowing cinematographers Christopher Blauvelt and Harris Savides cameras to linger on shots and luxuriate in the surroundings a bit more.

In one of the films standout visuals, actress/model Audrina Patridge’s two level modern glass-box of a house is seen in an unbroken night-time long shot as Chang and Broussard enter and ransack her goods (it helps that so many of these stars usually leave a sliding glass down unlocked. As the camera slowly moves in, the shot absorbs more and more until the house fills the entire frame. If only the rest of the film could be as engrossing.

It’s hard to tell if Coppola, who wrote the screenplay based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspect Wore Louboutins” (this is the second time this week I’m linking to a Vanity Fair article), is condemning these girls, living vicariously through them, or satirizing them. A strong case could be made for the latter when considering the character of Watson’s ditzy home schooling mother (Leslie Mann), or some of the outrageously empty headed dialogue spouted by these careless criminals.

There’s also an unsettling surrealism when taking in that the scenes set in Hilton’s house were actually filmed in Hilton’s house, in all its gaudy glory (Hilton’s face is on pillows, posters, and framed magazine covers everywhere you look), because she had to approve the recreation of something that she said made her feel incredibly violated, but somehow it’s okay since she’s friends with Coppola and it’s now art, or something.

THE BLING RING is ultimately as superficial and empty headed as the people it depicts. It has nothing to say about them except to ask ‘isn’t it crazy what they did?’ There’s no statement about disgusting excess or the silliness of stardom (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's THIS IS THE END actually tackles those themes much more thoroughly), there’s just these girls going from one heist in the Hollywood Hills to another until they get caught. They say stupid stuff while they’re committing crimes; they say stupid stuff when they get arrested.

Sure, it’s crazy that this really happened, but it’s not that surprising, and it’s not worth this 90 minute examination.

More later...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

WORLD WAR Z: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at a multiplex near you:

WORLD WAR Z (Dir. Marc Forster, 2013)

These aren’t the slow “walkers” like on AMC's hit show The Walking Dead, these zombies run at intense speeds, jump long distances, and swarm into a tangled mangled mess of flailing limbs coming at you in 3D in this adaptation of the bestselling 2006 novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel).

But since there’s so much quick cut action, a lot of it in darkness, the zombies aren’t really coming at you, except in chaotic glimpses. Perhaps blame the fact that it’s a PG-13 production, but the zombies here are hard to get a good look at in early scenes set in a Philadelphia traffic jam captured by herky-jerky-cam, a shadowy stairwell in a New Jersey slum, and a dark rainy runway in Korea where they’re mainly seen as spastic silhouettes.

These are locations that Brad Pitt, as a retired United Nations investigator, encounters the blood-thirsty undead as he travels the earth trying to figure out how to stop the zombie apocalypse.

Pitt had managed to shuffle his wife (Mireille Enos) and daughters (Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jerins) to safety aboard a U.S. Naval ship, but despite wanting to stay with his family he’s talked into saving the world by his former U.N. boss (Fana Mokoena) so he rolls up his sleeves to get the job done.

Pitt co-produced this big ass epic, touted as the most expensive zombie movie ever with its budget of $400 million, so it makes sense that it’s his character’s singular story. We follow him to Israel because they somehow were more prepared for the zombie outbreak, having quickly constructed enormous walls around their cities to protect themselves.

It’s too bad that Pitt doesn’t share with their officials that they should keep the noise down, something he previously learned in Korea, because their loud chanting, aided by misguided microphone use, draws the zombies to pile up in large numbers to scale the walls (this is one of the movie's big money shots). 

Anyway, Pitt, joined by Daniella Kertesz as a wounded Israeli soldier (Pitt had to chop her hand off because of a zombie bite), board a plane, which of course seems quiet and safe at first, but in the bathroom, you got it – a zombie!

The airplane’s fate here won’t make anybody forget the spectacular plane stunt work in last summer’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (or even the fall’s FLIGHT for that matter), but it’s still one of the film’s most gripping and exciting sequences.

However, when watching this and the rest of the movie I kept thinking that it really didn’t look like $400 million was up there on the screen. 

But I know that there were many re-writes and re-shootings (as this Vanity Fair piece details) in which Lost and PROMETHEUS writer Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard (CLOVERFIELD) were brought in to not just merely punch up Matthew Michael Carhan’s screenplay, they were recruited to create a new third act and ending and that's what added hugely to the film’s already bloated price tag.

That third act, largely taking place in fluorescent-lit labs at the World Health Organization in Wales, has Pitt testing a theory about a possible anti-zombie vaccine. 

The suspense has pretty much been drained from the movie at this point, and the lack of an emotional connection is pretty numbing too. 

Throughout the film, nobody seems to react to their former family, friends, or colleagues having turned irreversibly into these scary creatures, they just know immediately that they have to get the Hell away from them. When watching people they used to work with at the Wales institute on monitors now zombified, a random comment like “oh, jeez, that was Dr. Rosenthal – what a loss,” would be expected, but the screenwriters seem to be more concern with stating plot-points than at least fleshing out the humans to have at least a few more recognizable feelings than the zombies.

AMC’s flawed but enjoyable The Walking Dead may meander at times, but it compellingly regards this relatable factor with characters struggling with losing their love ones. 

Here a kid that sees his father become infected and change (it takes 10 seconds in this film) never shows anything but a survival instinct as he joins Pitt and family on a helicopter to safety. That kid’s thread is never followed up, like a lot of characters that are trotted out – hey, there’s Lost’s Matthew Fox for a second as a a U.S. Navy SEAL! Oh, nevermind. He’s gone.

The 3D conversion doesn’t do the movie any favors either. I can’t think of a single instance where the in-your-face format was effective. The film’s visual appeal is already dicey with its dull gray tones, the addition of the all too typical blockbuster gimmick of the day just detracts even more from the experience. 

It doesn't help either that Forster’s ham-fisted direction, formerly on display in the 007 dud QUANTUM OF SOLACE and 2011’s MACHINE GUN PREACHER, barely keeps the film afloat through the chaotic camerawork by cinematographer Ben Seresin (TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, UNSTOPPABLE). 

As this summer’s event movies go, WORLD WAR Z is not as all over the place as IRON MAN 3, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and MAN OF STEEL are, but its narrow focus on Pitt’s heroics doesn’t make it any more powerful, especially when the entire ordeal boils down to Pitt being able to walk down a hallway through a hoard of zombies without getting bitten. All the socio-policital commentary in the book has been discarded so that we can have the standard race-against-time to save the day scenario, but then that's what the audience wants, right?

Inevitably, after its best shots and moments have been Spoiled by its heavy promotion over the last several months, Forster’s film can’t help but feel anticlimactic. 

Folks who swarm in messy mobs just like the zombies to see it this weekend will most likely find that large chunks of it work as surface level entertainment, but overall its a mediocre and over-reaching opus that has nowhere near the gritty gravitas it’s going for.

More later...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 6/18/13

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER was a giant flop for Warner Brothers back in March, but what’s a studio to do but pretend it wasn’t when it hits the home video market? That’s definitely what they’re doing today with the release of the movie in a shiny new Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy Combo Pack (it’s also available on a single disc DVD). Like just about everybody else, I didn’t see it on the big screen, but for those who are interested, I’ll report that the bonus material includes deleted scenes, a gag reel and an interactive feature called “Become a Giant Slayer,” which contains a bunch of featurettes with titles like “Suiting Up” and “The Magic of a Beanstalk.”

A film I did see in its theatrical release, Dustin Hoffman’s likably fluffy directorial debut QUARTET, starring Academy Award winner Maggie Smith, Golden Globe winner Tom Courtenay, Academy Award nominee Pauline Collins, Golden Globe nominee Michael Gambon and BAFTA Film Award nominee Billy Connolly, is also out today on Blu ray and DVD, albeit in much more modest single disc Blu ray and DVD editions. Special features include a commentary with Hoffman, and a few Behind-The-Scenes featurettes.

Another film releasing today on home video that I quite enjoyed, is Chan-wook Park’s psychological thriller STOKER, starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Good, and Nicole Kidman. Alongside Digital and UltraViolet versions, the fine film is packaged with a bevy of Special Features: the mini-doc “An Exclusive Look: A Filmmaker's Journey,” deleted scenes, a few Behind the Scenes featurettes, Red Carpet Premiere: Emily Wells’ performance of “Becomes the Color,” image galleries, and a free song download.

I proudly didn’t see MOVIE 43, the comedy anthology fiasco directed by a gang of directors headed by Peter Farrelly, when it was released in January, but now that it’s out in what’s called an “Outrageous Edition” on Blu ray and DVD…well, I probably still won’t watch it. But with its all star cast including Chloë Grace Moretz, Emma Stone, Gerard Butler, Stephen Merchant, Richard Gere, and Elizabeth Banks (who also directed a segment), and Richard Roeper calling it “the CITIZEN KANE of awful,” I can’t deny being a little curious about it. Not sure why it calls itself the “Outrageous Edition” when it only has a couple of meager Special Features: a trailer and a featurette titled “Find Our Daughter.”

A movie I wish I’d skipped, the directorial debut of THE HANGOVER scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, 21 & OVER, drops today in a 2-disc Blu ray package (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack), and on a single disc DVD. The extremely crappy college party comedy concerning the unfunny misadventures of a trio of douches (Justin Chon, Skylar Astin, and Miles Teller) is now joined by Special Features that don’t sound so special - a few featurettes and a gag reel. Bet those are as inessential as the film itself. Read my review of the film from the day it originally opened here.

TV show season sets releasing today: Call the Midwife: Season Two, Body o
f Proof: The Complete Third Season, Workaholics: Season Three, and Wilfred: Season Two.

On the older films new to Blu ray front there’s Criterion Collection editions of Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor’s 1923 Harold Lloyd classic SAFETY LAST! (one of the Special Features is  the 1992 American Masters biodoc of Lloyd, THE THIRD GENIUS), William Cameron Menzies’ THINGS TO COME (1936), and Frantisek Vlacil’s MARKETA LAZAROVA (1967). 

On the non-Criterion older films front, the Kino Classics Remastered Edition of OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934), starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard, makes its debut on Blu ray. Besides trailers of other classics, the release’s sole Special Feature is pretty special: a feature length biodoc of Somerset Maugham, the British writer who wrote the 1915 novel the film is based on.

More later...

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Few Fine Films Keep The Summer Movie Season From Sucking

Although summer doesn’t officially start until later this week (Friday, June 21st), the summer movie season has been long underway. So far we’ve had a slew of big ass sequels (IRON MAN 3, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, FAST & FURIOUS 6), a few flops (AFTER EARTH, THE INTERNSHIP), and a couple of surprise hits (NOW YOU SEE ME, THE PURGE). 

Some okay popcorn picture action there (and some suckage), but nothing that notable.

But this last weekend, while all eyes were on the mammoth Superman re-boot, MAN OF STEEL, one of the best films of the summer (and of the year so far) snuck into local theaters: Richard Linklater’s BEFORE MIDNIGHT

The art house indie, which as the third in a series is actually another sequel, is a charmingly talky romantic drama that continues the story of Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), a couple of star-crossed lovers who first met in 1995’s BEFORE SUNRISE

Read my review of BEFORE MIDNIGHT in the Raleigh News & Observer last week: “‘Before Midnight’ talks a blue streak and that’s a good thing” (June 14, 2013).

Another movie that opened last week that I quite enjoyed, albeit in a completely different way, is Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s THIS IS THE END.

Unless you’ve been hiding out in a hole in the ground you should know from the massive advertising that the outrageous and über crude comedy concerns Rogen and a bunch of his Hollywood player pals, including James Franco, Jonah, Hill, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, and Danny McBride, playing themselves dealing with the world literally going to Hell while they’re all partying at Franco’s fortress of a mansion.

Read how funny I thought it was in the Film Babble Blog review: “The Apocalypse Hilariously Hits Seth Rogen & Gang In THIS IS THE END” (June 11, 2013).

The summer movie season continues this week with the most expensive zombie movie of all time, WORLD WAR Z, a Pixar prequel, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, and a few interesting looking indies: Zal Batmanglij’s ecological thriller THE EAST, and Josh Whedon’s modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.

Here’s hoping that there’s something there that will join BEFORE MIDNIGHT and THIS IS THE END in keeping this summer movie season from being a suck-fest.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

SUPERMAN: The New Nolan-ized Reboot

Now playing at mulitplexes from here to the Phantom Zone:

MAN OF STEEL (Dir. Zack Snyder, 2013)

The time is as good as any for a new take on the most powerful comic book superhero ever, but Zack Snyder’s (300, WATCHMEN, SUCKER PUNCH) reconstruction of the Superman movie mythos is a big bombastic bore.

A great cast has been assembled, including Henry Cavill as the caped crusader, Russell Crowe as Superman’s Kryptonian father, Kevin Costner as his Earth dad, Amy Adams as Daily Planet reporter/love-interest Lois Lane, Lawrence Fishburne as her editor/boss Perry White, Richarh Schiff (The West Wing) as some sort of all-knowing scientist, and, best of all, Michael Shannon as the evil bent-on-revenge General Zod, but Snyder working from a screenplay by DARK KNIGHT co-writer David S. Goyer, overcrowds the storyline with spectacle, repetitive dialogue, and needless convolutions making it difficult to connect with anything on screen.

You know the drill – before Krypton explodes, Papa Crowe (probably the actor who brings the most gravitas to the film) puts his new born baby (touted this time as the planet’s first natural birth in centuries) in a spaceship to Earth, where he’s found by a kindly middle-aged couple (Costner and Diane Lane) living on a farm in Kansas, who name him Clark Kent.

As the boy grows up he recognizes that he has great powers, learns of his origin, and heeding the advice of his step-dad Costner to conceal what he can do, he goes on the road anonymously going from town to town working different jobs until his powers get in the way and he has to move on just like David Banner (Bill Bixby) did on the old Incredible Hulk show.

Huh? Wait a second, that’s not really part of the classic Superman story is it? Sure doesn’t feel like it should be here, but whatever. In this version, Lois Lane figures out that Clark Kent has powers before he even puts on the suit; she never knows Clark and Superman as 2 different people. I’m fine with that – it would be too much to ask for an ace investigative reporter (one that’s won the Pulitzer Prize, mind you) to be fooled by a pair of glasses, so they don’t introduce the element of our hero working at the newspaper until the end. Makes me miss the comically over-sized glasses that Christopher Reeve wore as Clark back in the original ‘70s-‘80s SUPERMAN movies, but, oh well.

Also unlike that run of movies, that got progressively worse (the first two were great, the third and fourth ones, not so much), there’s no Fortress of Solitude made out of new age crystals, no Lex Luthor, and barely any humor.

Shannon is perfectly cast as General Zod (stepping into the mighty shoes worn by Terrence Stamp in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and SUPERMAN II), but it’s an exposition-heavy role, with the actor looking like he’s in a permanent bad mood (resembling grumpy cat at times), but it’s still one of the more successful elements on display in MAN OF STEEL, because of how invested Shannon is in it.

Zod and his minions attack Metropolis, with tons of buildings getting destroyed (we don’t seeing many people dying but from what we see it’s impossible that there wasn’t a large death toll) and start taking over Earth so that they can make it New Krypton or something. The cityscape alien attack sequence was much better done in THE AVENGERS (not to mention SUPERMAN II), and the climatic one-on-one battle between Superman and Zod just has them pummeling each other from one set-piece to another with no excitement (they punch each other through buildings over and over).

Meanwhile Fishburne and a few other Daily Planet folks are running through the rubble, for some reason they’re some of the only survivors of the attack, but the film never took anytime to establish them as characters to care about.

The British-born Cavill makes for a fine Superman aesthetically, and he’s got the American accent down, but his is also a blank slate of a character that I had trouble forming any connection to. The charisma that Reeve had in the iconic role, and that Bryan Singer tried to capture with Reeve clone Brandon Routh in 2006’s SUPERMAN RETURNS is sorely missing, but that fault lies more with the writers/filmmakers than with the man in the cape.

One thread that really didn’t work for me had to do with the scrambled narrative that jumps around, and way too often to flashbacks of Earth dad Costner saying that the world isn’t ready for a man of incredible powers yet. They draw this out too long, when you know that the world is as ready as it’s ever going to be, and Costner’s death in a tornado, which his son could’ve saved him from, doesn’t make any sense.

In SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, Glenn Ford as our hero’s adoptive father died much more poignantly from a heart attack – something Superman could never have saved him from (well, unless he spun the world back in time), and it had a richer meaning to his maturation; here the man’s death doesn’t teach any lesson except that he’s wrong and his son should’ve revealed himself much earlier. I really don’t get what they’re waiting for. The movie doesn’t give any discernible reason except to stretch out Superman’s angsty development and Costner’s part.

The dark gritty approach to the material, which undoubtedly came from Executive Producer Christopher Nolan, who shares a “story by” credit with Goyer, isn’t right for this area of the D.C. Comics universe. I’m not saying Superman should be nothing but sunny warmth, but there’s no triumphant thrill to seeing our hero save the day here – he doesn’t even show concern for the many who undoubtedly died in the huge devastation on Metropolis.

MAN OF STEEL is a by-the-numbers summer blockbuster wannabe that forgot to have any fun with its source material. Ultimately, it's a ginormously fussy film pulled in so many directions that it's un-engaging and dull. 

Technically, with its well chosen cast and vast array of nonstop visual effects, Snyder and crew have made a serviceable popcorn picture, but next time out (and with all the money that it has already made, there certainly will be a next time) I’m hoping they’ll remember to add more heart, humor, and actual heroism to this not quite re-booted franchise.

More later...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

FRANCES HA: She's Undateable & Her Film Is Just Barely Watchable

Now playing in Raleigh at the Colony Theater, in Durham at the Carolina Theatre, and in Chapel Hill at the Chelsea Theater:

FRANCES HA (Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2012)

Things that came to mind while watching indie “it” girl Greta Gerwig as a lanky loser of a New York-based dancer in Noah Baumbach’s newest, FRANCES HA: She’s adorkable; she’s a mess; she’s irritating; she’s endearing; she’s embarrassing; she’s self absorbed; she’s undateable; can she really still be considered an indie “it” girl?

I dunno, but the next-to-last thought, “undateable” is something I couldn't help thinking because it’s said about the title character throughout the film, mainly by her roommate (Michael Esper), but then by Gerwig herself when reflecting on her own cringe-inducing awkwardness. It could be an alternate title to the movie.

Because it’s in black and white and concerns pretentious New Yorkers, Baumbach’s seventh film as writer/director and second collaboration with girlfriend Gerwig, (GREENBERG, starring Ben Stiller, was their first), can’t help but recall Woody Allen (particularly MANHATTAN), and its portrait of aimless young women in the big city echoes Lena Dunham’s hit HBO show Girls (especially in the casting of Girls regular Adam Driver as a member of Gerwig’s social scene), but sadly FRANCES HA has neither of those influences’ depth.

Gerwig’s Frances (to explain why the movie’s title is FRANCES HA would be a Spoiler I guess), a woman in her late ‘20s who’s been treading water for years as an apprentice for a dance company, loses one of her strongest bonds when her BFF (Mickey Sumner) gets engaged to be married.

This leaves Gerwig to have to figure out alone what to do with her life, as she bounces around couch surfing at friends’ places, stays with her parents in Sacramento (played by her real parents: Christine and Gordon Gerwig), and then even winds up on a two day trip to Paris (where she wastes most of by oversleeping) where, like at the other locations, not much happens.

Gerwig, who co-write the screenplay with boyfriend Baumbach, is a likable presence but this characters’ collection of quirks never fully forms into somebody to relate to or be entertained by, unless nodding one’s head in disapproval at questionable decisions equals entertainment.

While it can be refreshing to see a grainy black and white shaky cam production in this season of CGI spectacle, FRANCES HA ultimately has a less to say than most of the big ass summer movies in the top 5 at the box office right now.

It may work as a showcase for Gerwig’s finely tuned quirkiness, but as a fully functioning film, her and Baumbach’s little art project is a non-starter. Despite a few choice moments, and a few instances of solid acting (as Gerwig’s best friend, Sumner is terrific – especially when her character gets drunk), the movie is as flighty and disconnected as its lead protagonist is. Undateable? Try just barely watchable.

More later...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 6/11/13

The two biggest titles releasing today, Sam Raimi’s OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (no colon) and Tommy Wirkola’s HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, are both the stuff of modernized fairy tale fodder, which makes it hard to believe that Tim Burton had nothing to do with either of them.

Anyway, OZ, starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and a bunch of green screen/CGI effects, which I wrote was “Not a bomb, but no magical masterpiece either” (3/8/13) is available now in the standard Blu-ray / DVD / Digital Copy package. Special Features include six featurettes: “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz” (10 minutes), “My Journey in Oz” (a 22 minute sampler of a video journal by Franco). “China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief” (5 min), “Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas To Oz” (11 min), “Metamorphosis” (8 min), “Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions” (7 min), and 5 minutes of bloopers. My review from its theatrical release last March is here.

HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, which I liked a lot less, is out in a likewise Blu-ray / DVD / Digital Copy edition, but adds a UltraViolet copy. Its Special Features are only 3 featurettes: “Reinventing Hansel & Gretel” (15 min), “The Witching Hours” (9 min), and “Meet Edward the Troll” (5 min). None of these extras are likely to sway me from re-thinking my description of the film last January that went like this: “From the same lack of inspiration that brought you ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’” comes this muddled mixture of the action genre with fairy tale mythology.” Read the rest of my review here.

Having only seen the film on a crappy truncated VHS release back in the ‘80s, it’s cool to see that Paul McCartney and Wings’ ‘70s concert film ROCKSHOW is out now on both Blu ray and DVD, marking the first time in over 30 years that the full over 2 hour program is available to the public. There’s only one bonus extra, a 10 minute backstage featurette entitled “A Very Lovely Party,” but the 30 songs of vintage Beatles, solo, and Wings classics from McCartney and crew’s 1976 tour of North America contained in this package should be satisfying enough on their own.

I skipped Ric Roman Waugh’s SNITCH starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson when it was released theatrically early this year, but folks who are into such action genre exercises should know that its new release (Blu-ray + UltraViolet + Digital Copy) is outfitted with Special Features like a 50 minute ‘Making of’ doc entitled “Privileged Information,” commentary with Director Waugh and Editor Jonathan Chibnall, and deleted scenes.

A more appealing looking title from earlier this year out today on both formats is Im Sang-Soo’s South Korean erotic thriller THE TASTE OF MONEY, available with sparse extras (“Behind the Scenes” featurette, trailer) on both 1-disc Blu ray and DVD editions. Other new movies hitting home video today include: Quentin Dupieux’s WRONG (Blu Ray + Digital Copy), and Jared Moshe’s 2012 Western DEAD MAN’S BURDEN (only on DVD).

Last week, this New Releases feature reported about the release of the Lifetime TV movie RING OF FIRE, a biopic about June Carter Cash as played by Jewel. This week, another RING OF FIRE comes out, but this one is a TV miniseries produced by REELZ about an oil rig causing a volcanic eruption in a small town starring Michael Vartan, Terry O'Quinn, and Ian Tracey. Since end-of-the-world scenarios are hot right now, maybe more folks than who saw it when it aired last March will check out this release (available in both 1-disc Blu ray and DVD editions), but probably not. Its lone Special Feature is a Sneak Peek of Reelz’s follow-up miniseries Eve of Destruction, which aired in April and is releasing next month on Blu ray and DVD.

Despite getting mixed reviews and a lot of internet ridicule for its unrealistic and pretentious agenda, Aaron Sorkin’s preachy HBO series The Newsroom was renewed for a second season that premieres next month (July 14, 2013). Folks who want to catch up with the trials and tribulations of self righteous news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), his neurotic executive producer (Emily Mortimer) and his mostly inexperienced staff at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel can pick up The Newsroom: The Complete First Season now out on 4-disc Blu ray (+ DVD Combo + Digital Copy) and DVD sets. 

Special Features include “The Rundown,” (an 25 minute long discussion about the show with Sorkin, Daniels, Mortimer, Waterson, executive producer Alan Poul and co-executive producer Greg Mottola), five commentaries with Sorkin, Poul, Daniels, Waterston, Mortimer and others, “Mission Control” (a behind-the –scenes featurette), “Inside the Episodes” (individual featurettes about each episodes), and deleted scenes. Now folks who loved hating the show will have a lot more material to “hate watch.”

The complete first season of Netflix’s much hyped series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as ruthless U.S. Representative Frank Underwood, hits Blu ray and DVD today in 4-disc sets. The very entertaining and addictive show, episodes of which were directed by David Fincher (SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB, ZODIAC, THE SOCIAL NETWORK) and Joel Schumacher (a much less impressive filmography including THE LOST BOYS, BATMAN FOREVER, and THE NUMBER 23 - see what I mean?), also stars Robin Wright, Kate Mara, and Carey Stoll. Like many people did when all 13 episodes dropped on the streaming service last February, you can still watch the whole season in a little over half a day, because this release has no bonus material (no commentaries, featurettes, nothing) to add to the running time. No word yet about when the second season, now in production, will air.

Despite its similar title to the Will Smith sci-fi summer bomb AFTER EARTH, the History Channel’s 3-Disc Collection, AFTER PEOPLE, out today on DVD only, is a fascinating breakdown of what life on this planet would be like if the entire human population went extinct. Made up of 4 extended programs from the History Channel series Life After People, the set has no Special Features, but at its 288 minute running time, they’re really not needed. It may be too intensely scientific for some folks, but the insights and speculations, as well as all the CDI-ed global destruction, should strongly draw most interested viewers in.

On the older film front, titles new to Blu ray out today include a couple of early ‘70s Clint Eastwood Westerns (John Sturges’ JOE KIDD and Don Siegel’s TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA), Phil Alden Robinson’s 1992 Robert Redford thriller/comedy SNEAKERS, and the Criterion Collection edition of Igmar Bergman’s 1957 classic WILD STRAWBERRIES.

More later…

The Apocalypse Hilariously Hits Seth Rogen & Gang In THIS IS THE END

Opening this evening at a multiplex near you:

THIS IS THE END (Dirs. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, 2013)

In a scenario that was no doubt conceived between bong hits, Seth Rogen and his gang of Hollywood player pals - James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel - all play themselves facing the end of times when the Apocalypse hilariously hits Los Angeles during a wild party at Franco’s house.

After the nearly laughless endeavors that were THE HANGOVER PART III and THE INTERNSHIP, comedy lovers have reason to rejoice this season, because the directorial debut of Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg (SUPERBAD, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) is surely the funniest film of the summer.

I laughed more than I remember laughing at a screening in a long time, and with the lines and sight gags coming so quickly, I feel like I may have laughed over and missed a whole other movie’s worth of jokes.

It starts off amusingly on an easy going meta level of these people being relatable guys despite having been in hit movies, with Baruchel, who starred with Rogen in Judd Apatow’s short-lived Fox series Undeclared (2001-02) before going on to be in films like SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, flying out to hang with his best pal Rogen in L.A.

Baruchel doesn’t feel comfortable around Rogen’s other buddies - i.e. the rest of the cast - so he doesn’t want to go to a party at Franco’s fortress of a house in the Hollywood hills, but Rogen talks him into it.

The party that the full of himself Franco is hosting is filled with other celebrities playing exaggerated comic versions of themselves including Michael Cera (one of the funniest as he portrays himself as a coked-up bisexual douche), Paul Rudd, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Emma Watson, Jason Segel, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (you know, McLovin!). When firestorms and sinkholes start appearing, some of the famous folks present are immediately goners, but the core crew of the six above-the-title stars hole up in Franco’s mansion, divvy up supplies, and try to figure out how to survive the Biblical rapture.

But Baruchel is the only one who actually believes it’s the rapture, the others stupidly dismiss that idea as much as they do him, as Hill and Franco seem to see themselves as rival BFFs to Rogen, while Robinson and McBride, who shows up uninvited and unwanted, are only thinking of themselves.

The film puts the same amount of energy into jabs at the silliness surrounding friendships, and the selfishness of stardom, as it does the scads of gross-out humor involving a severed head being kicked around the room, drinking one’s own urine (how Robinson is able to sell this with charm is a gag to behold), and, via some not bad special effects, a 60-foot Satan with a swinging penis (that’s right). This non-cynical approach to this ridiculous material reveals over and over that these guys’ only concern is pure comedy, and they go all out trying to give the audience as much as they can take.

Things that made me laugh: the makeshift sequel to PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (virally released as a fake trailer on April Fool’s Day earlier this year) that the gang produces to amuse themselves (Rogen: “We should make sequels to more of our movies.” Franco: “How about we not do ‘Your Highness’”), how Hill identified himself when praying (“It’s me, Jonah Hill, the guy from ‘Money Ball’”), McBride’s arrogant and obnoxious behavior (funnier here than on Eastbound & Down) that lead to him getting kicked out of the house, and how the film wraps up in a pop culture-fied heaven (don’t think that’s really a Spoiler!).

Looks like former mentors and collaborators Apatow (whose name is surprisingly absent from the credits here), David Gordon Green (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, MY HIGHNESS), and SUPERBAD director Greg Mottola weren't needed by Rogen, Evanberg, and crew to help bring the funny this time.

Practically everything that was supposed to be funny in THIS IS THE END was, though I’m sure in a film with such a high volume of jokes, one-liner, sight gags, and scatological silliness in it had some misfired groaners here and there. I was just laughing too hard at the stuff that hit to notice them.

More later...

Friday, June 07, 2013

Vince Vaughn & Owen Wilson Goofing On Google Doesn’t Go Very Far

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

THE INTERNSHIP (Dir. Shawn Levy, 2013)

Using the tried and true tropes of the slobs versus snobs/underdogs become winners formula, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson take on the ginormous corporation that is Google in this slightly funny, but completely disposal comedy.

But they don’t really take on Google, so much as kiss its ass by portraying it as a tech world Mecca that those well below retirement age, such as with the 40-something Vaughn and Wilson out on their asses after their boss (John Goodman) closes their company, would dream of having as their workplace.

As the not-so-tech savvy yet slick talking salesmen who wormed their way into an internship with the search engine empire, Vaughn and Wilson are looking to re-ignite the comic spark that made their previous collaboration, 2005's WEDDING CRASHERS, a huge hit, but like a lighter that you keep flicking but can’t get a full flame going, this effort should be tossed into the waste bin.

That’s not to say there are some legitimate laughs here and there, Vaughn’s power-riffing and Wilson’s way with a one-liner made me chuckle every now and then, but it’s as if they reached the minimum quota of sure-fire funny and thought it would suffice.

The funny bits are all up front such as a Skype interview Vaughn and Wilson do from a library with The Office’s B.J. Novak, in which the duo dance around their disqualifications amusingly, and the film also shoots its wad early by placing its Will Ferrell cameo (as a sleazy mattress salesman that Wilson briefly works for) in the first 15 minutes.

Not much interesting happens in THE INTERNSHIP after the mild chuckling dies down.

Vaughn and Wilson get together with a scruffy group of outcasts including Josh Brener, Dylan O'Brien, Tiya Sircar, and Tobit Raphael to compete against several other teams for the coveted award of employment at Google, and the challenges they tackle (creating a new app, developing call service skills, marketing a pizza restaurant) are dull sitcom-ish scenerios.

Max Minghella (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) is the chief antagonist, as the leader of a rival group of interns that he verbally abuses, and The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi as a snooty internship program leader looks down on our supposed heroes, but is mainly there to be a straight man to Vaughn.

In the obligatory scene in which the group needs to loosen up so they hit a bar for some partying shenanigans, there’s a predictable run-in with a group of blonde frat types headed by Brian F. Durkin, who the Woody Allen-ish Brener zings by calling Biff Tannen (a BACK TO THE FUTURE reference – will the kids today get it?) while he's hitting on a stripper (Jessica Szohr).

It’s another instance where the film feels like just an amalgam of set-pieces from a bunch of ‘80s comedies, like STRIPES and BACK TO SCHOOL.

There is the difference that while Bill Murray in STRIPES (and all his roles of the period) had what A.V. Club writer Phil Dyess-Nugent recently called his “signature fake sincerity” going on, and Vaughn, despite his motor-mouth show-biz hipster speak, actually is sincere.

Murray would tell you that you’re the best, schmoozing you all up, but then he’d be out the door once you’re on his side (or not).

Vaughn, in this movie, when he wants Mandvi to like him and be his friend, he means it and he won’t take no for an answer. It’s endearing, but hardly a trait that elevates this lame enterprise.

Director Levy has made a career out of mediocre comedy fare like this (See: CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, THE PINK PANTHER remake, the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM movies, or, better yet, don’t see them), so this one’s suckiness is no surprise.

With its bright primary-colored atmosphere, free food (Vaughn takes ample advantage of this perk), and its unconventional work environment, Google does indeed look like a worker’s paradise. However, the half-assed conventions of this movie just reduce it to a stylish backdrop behind a couple of wiseacres trying in vain to get down with youth computer culture.

If you love these guys and have to see THE INTERNSHIP because you thought WEDDING CRASHERS was the greatest movie ever, at least opt for a matinee. This almost 2 hour infomercial for Google and the continuing comic relevance of Vaughn and Wilson is seriously not worth a full price admission.

More later...