Friday, August 30, 2013

It's the 5th Anniversary Of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, So Here's The Top 5 Game Show Films

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Eckhart:

Today is the fifth anniversary of Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan's iconic Best Picture Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (reviewed on 12/16/08). The film, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30th, 1998, follows Jamal, played by Dev Patel, from his less-than-humble beginnings in the slums of Mumbai, India to his appearance on the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Though he was raised with little to no formal education, Jamal is able to correctly answer every question, resulting in Jamal’s torture and interrogation -- which is how the film opens. The show’s host and other authorities are convinced that Jamal has cheated, but through a series of flashbacks we discover the life experiences which gave Jamal every answer to the show.

The film takes away much of the tension that might have been aroused watching Jamal in the hot seat since audiences are aware he succeeds. However, this allows for more attention to be given to Jamal’s story, much of which still needs to be resolved after the game show concludes.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was famed for its cross-cultural music, vivid imagery, and unique game show plot line. Game show movies, though rare, have a special ability to create an introspective audience. While watching the cheering audience on screen, real viewers are given the opportunity to become quite self reflective. One audience may be cheering, while the other nervously sits on edge, waiting for the unavoidable catastrophe.

In honor of SLUMDOG’s anniversary, let’s look at five more of the best game show movies available today:

THE RUNNING MAN (Dir. Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)

It is the year 2017 (oddly close to us now) and the world economy has collapsed. In this new, military controlled police state where everything from TV, movies, art, and communication is censored, the government has discovered a new way to deal with criminals: prisoners can either serve jail time, or take part in a violent game show called The Running Man. Based off of Stephen King’s novel by the same name (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), we follow Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a former LA police officer who has been framed for murder, and then forced to compete on the show. As a contestant, he is viciously followed by “Stalkers,” the futuristic version of a bounty hunter.

Though Arnold disliked the way director Paul Glaser shot the film, claiming he “shot the movie like a television show,” some may argue this is the very factor which makes the film exciting. The look and feel of the film does feel similar to television shows, heightening our own anxiety as we wait to see if Ben succeeds in revealing the government’s secrets and proving his own innocence.

QUIZ SHOW (Dir. Robert Redford, 1994)

QUIZ SHOW is based on the 1950s game show scandal, when the show Twenty One was discovered to have been rigged. Though not completely accurate, the film stays pretty true to form, only adding slight embellishments to dramatize and turn the movie into an appropriately exaggerated version.

If we can recall, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is the more physically appealing contestant. It’s discovered that Charles is being fed answers in order to defeat his less-attractive competitor, Herb Stempel (John Turturro). Herb, who had been the legitimate reigning champ, is setup to fail due to his approval ratings being leveled out. After Doren defeats him, Herb fades into the background and Doren becomes an instant celebrity. Doren’s winning streak begins to take a toll, though, as he becomes more dependent on producers to feed him correct answers. Herb Stempel, in the meantime, brings in a lawyer that begins to investigate the show. From there, the secrets of Twenty One slowly begin to fall apart.

The film is definitely worth a watch, as it provides a surprising look at the crumbling and downfall of multiple men, both the contestants and those running the show.

STARTER FOR TEN (Dir. Tom Vaughan, 2006)

Possibly one of the least known films on the list, STARTER FOR 10 is a British film set in 1985 about a young student named Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) who wins a place on the University Challenge quiz team. While on the team, Brian deals with a hopeless crush on a teammate and the clashing worlds of Bristol University and his less posh friends and family back home. Brian represents that trivia geek and information sponge everyone knows (or possibly is himself).

Though James McAvoy is enough reason to give this film a shot, it was also produced by Tom Hanks. The film is wittier than most rom coms, since the leads are all intelligent people and their romantic entanglements are set against this unique, competitive atmosphere.


Directed by George Clooney who also stars in this film as the CIA operative Jim Byrd who recruits Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell), a TV producer and game show host of The Gong Show, to become an assassin. It’s unclear if the spy life of Chuck is real or imagined, but in reality Chuck Barris did exist, and did claim to work for the CIA. The real Barris was heavily involved in the production, ensuring that the film accurately reflected his memoir and point of view.

The plot follows Barris as he becomes increasingly successful in the realm of game show hosting, while at the same time lives out his double life as a spy. Though odd, and difficult to take as an honest biography, the film is fun to watch and features large names like Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, and Michael Cera.

THE HUNGER GAMES (Dir. Gary Ross, 2012)

The most recent and popular game show film today, THE HUNGER GAMES is the only film here advertised to a younger audience. The plot, as many know, follows young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after she takes her sister’s place as a chosen tribute for the only game show that exists in a dystopian future.

The game is a duel to the death between preteen and teen competitors from each of the twelve poor districts and the wealthy Capitol. The Hunger Games is used both as a vehicle for gruesome entertainment, but also as the means of controlling disenfranchised districts, employed by the Capitol dwelling authority figures who rule in this bleak, post-apocalyptic future.

Though marketed toward children, the movie deals with heavy themes, such as starvation, government abuse, the role of reality TV and the media in societal mores, and of course, murder. Based off the trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES follows Katniss as she first tries to survive the games, then subsequently spurs a rebellion, whether she wants to or not.

Author Bio: Elizabeth Eckhart is an entertainment and film blogger for where she covers everything from new releases to retrospectives on forgotten cinema classics. She is highly anticipating the release of the next HUNGER GAMES sequel.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 8/27/13

Technically, summer isn’t over until September 21st, but most people consider it concluded once school is back in session. But I consider summer to be over when the first run of summer blockbuster wannabes hits home video. Such as Baz Luhrmann’s big ass adaptation of the classic 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel THE GREAT GATSBY, out today in a Blu-ray+DVD+UltraViolet Combo Pack, and a 2-disc DVD edition.

I saw the film when it came out last May, and thought that it was so full of quick cuts of glitzy bling that it felt like the movie was doing “jazz hands” in front of my face the whole time, especially as it was in 3D. It does have a capable good looking cast including Leo DiCaprio in the title role, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, and Joel Edgerton, who still looks like a butch Conan O’Brien to my eyes.

Special Features: A bunch of featurettes ranging from 9 to 30 minutes in length (“The Greatness of Gatsby,” “Within and Without” with Tobey Maguire, “The Swinging Sounds of Gatsby,” “Gatsby Revealed,” “The Jazz Age,” “Razzle Dazzle: The Fashion of the ‘20s,” “Fitzgerald’s Visual Poetry”), 15 minutes of Deleted Scenes (includes an alternate ending), and a vintage Trailer for the 1926 silent film version (the oldest film adaptation of the book).

Another film released at the same time releases today on Blu ray and DVD: Michael Bay’s true crime comedy PAIN & GAIN, starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie as boneheaded Miami-based bodybuilders who kidnap a millionaire businessman (Tony Shalhoub) in order to extort his fortune in a stupid scheme that goes way wrong. Sure, it’s a comic caper that the Coen brothers could’ve pulled off way better, but it has its share of funny moments. Oddly, neither the Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy package or the single disc DVD edition have any Special Features.

Ramon Bahrani’s AT ANY PRICE couldn’t get many moviegoers to pony up any price for it when it made its theatrical run earlier this year – seriously, it made less than a million – but it gets another chance on Blu ray and DVD (both 1-disc editions) this week. Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, and Kim Dickens star in the Iowa-set family farm drama that comes packaged with an audio commentary by Writer/Director Bahrani and Quaid, Toronto International Film Festival Q & A, rehearsal footage, and trailer.

Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s 2012 Norwegian drama KON TIKI, Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Film, also drops today on Blu ray (2-disc) and DVD (1 disc). Only a few Special Features: “Kon-Tiki: The Incredible True Story,” and “Visual Effects Featurette.”

Other notable titles out today: Mira Nair’s 2012 thriller THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, Neil Barsky’s 2012 documentary about former New York Mayor Ed Koch: KOCH (DVD only), Sang-yoon Lim’s 2012 Korean action film A COMPANY MAN, and the Criterion Collection titles: Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 Jack Benny classic TO BE OR NOT TO BE, and Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder (1969-1971).

The highlights of today’s TV series sets: The Walking Dead: The Complete Third Season, Sons of Anarchy: Season Five, Grey’s Anatomy: The Complete Ninth Season, and Elementary: The First Season.

More later…

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cate Blanchett Is A Hot Mess In Woody Allen's BLUE JASMINE

Now playing at an indie art house near you:

BLUE JASMINE (Dir. Woody Allen, 2013)

In Woody Allen’s newest, Cate Blanchett’s Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis is the definition of a “hot mess.” A former Manhattan socialite who was previously married to Alec Baldwin as a millionaire investment banker, Blanchett is now a penniless widow who has no home. This is due to Baldwin’s Bernie Madoff-style swindling that put him in prison, where he committed suicide.

Blanchett’s adopted sister, Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins (HAPPY GO LUCKY), takes her into her humble San Franciscan apartment, ostensibly until the disgraced down-on-her-luck lady can get back on her feet.

In flashbacks we learn that Hawkins was once married to Andrew Dice Clay (yes, that Andrew Dice Clay) as a construction worker named Augie, but they lost their savings because of a deal gone wrong orchestrated by Baldwin. Hawkins is now dating Bobby Cannavale (Third Watch, Boardwalk Empire) as an auto mechanic that Blanchett dismisses as just another version of Clay’s Augie.

Having never completed college, Blanchett takes a computer class while working at a dentist’s office, but she doesn’t appear to have the aptitude for it. Also she has to fight off the advances of her dentist boss, A SERIOUS MAN’s Michael Stuhlbarg (another Boardwalk Empire regular).

Things look up for Blanchett and Hawkins when they attend a ritzy party together and meet new suitors in the form of Peter Sarsgaard as an aspiring politician, and Louis C.K. (a fitting addition to Allen’s cinematic universe) as a audio equipment salesman.

It’s a pleasure to report that Allen’s 44th movie as writer and director is among his strongest films. The fluidity of how he flashes back and forward is flawless, never confusing the viewer as to what happened when, with the dialogue’s naturalistic flow filling in all the information needed.

The frazzled boozy Blanchett, a character that's a cross between Tennessee William's Blanche Dubois from STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and John Cassevete's Mabel from A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, carries it all along, accomplishing the neat feat of making you care about her, yet disdaining her actions often at the same time. It’s an Oscar worthy performance that’s impossible to look away from.

Jasmine's unraveling is often handled humorously, but there’s a deep sadness (hence the title) to her story that will works its way into your psyche and stay there for days.

Equal parts comedy and drama (I hate the term “dramedy”), BLUE JASMINE could be seen as a ballsy breakdown of how one from a lofty background (Hawkins says repeatedly that Blanchett was born with “the good genes”), could end up a street person: A riches-to-rags cautionary tale for our shaky financial times. It also works as a treatise on the development of delusion, and the personal dangers of vainly trying to keep up appearances.

Blanchett keeps romanticizing about how the standard “Blue Moon” was playing when she first met Baldwin, but each time the memory gets hazier. By the end it’s as jumbled as she is.

With such solid performances (aside from Blanchett – Baldwin, Hawkins, Clay, Cannavale, Sarsgaard, and C.K. are all terrific), a superb screenplay, the crisp colorful cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe (VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA), and the expected yet still pleasing jazz score, BLUE JASMINE proves that the 77-year old filmmaker can still wow us.

Blanchett’s Jasmine may be one Hell of a hot mess, but her movie is anything but messy. It’s simply hot stuff through and through.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Crammed With Killer Comedy, THE WORLD'S END Is A Funny As Hell Finale To The Cornetto Trilogy

Now playing at a theater near you:

THE WORLD'S END (Dir. Edgar Wright, 2013)

The third installment in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy is finally here and it's fuckin' fantastic!

For those who don't know, the series, which includes the 2004 zombie rom com SHAWN OF THE DEAD, and the 2007 action movie satire HOT FUZZ is called such because of a connection to the Cornetto ice cream brand that appears in each film.

At first glance, this new entry may look a lot like a British version of this summer's THIS IS THE END, the raunchy apocalyptic Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg comedy.

But here, the cast, made up of Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Constadine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan, aren't playing themselves (that is, exaggerated caricatures of their personas), and the backdrop isn't that of Biblical rapture; it's an alien invasion that the blokes uncover while on a pub crawl in their home town of Newton Haven, England.

Pegg, as a 40something n'er-do-well alcoholic who never grew up (he still wears the same Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and black trenchcoat he wore as a teenager), rounds up his old gang to again attempt the “Gold Mile” crawl of 12 pubs that they never completed two decades ago.

Pegg's former pals have all moved on into responsible adulthood and roll their eyes at the idea, yet they still join in, mainly because Pegg plays the sympathy card of his mother's recent passing.

Many pints are consumed by the group, except by the teetotaling Frost who orders water to Pegg's chagrin (“A man of your legendary prowess drinking fucking rain! It's like a lion eating Hummus.”), as they make their way from pub to pub, but they find that Thomas Wolfe was right about not being able to go home again.

Pub culture has been devoured by chains making the establishments all look alike, the aging bartenders don't recognize “the return of the prodigal sons” (as Pegg puts it), and, oh yeah, it appears that many of the townfolk have been replaced with robots.

Another similarity to THIS IS THE END is that THE WORLD'S END (the title comes from the name of the last pub on the crawl) is crammed with killer comedy.

Ultra comical fight scenes, rapid fire one-liners, and sight gags all hit their marks, while the characters' individual dilemmas - Constadine pines for Freeman's sister Rosamund Pike, Frost reveals his wife has left him, Marsan deals with running into a former schoolmate who bullied him, while Pegg is only concerned with partying (no matter what danger surrounds the fellows, Pegg's always pouring himself another pint) - don't get short shrift in the mist of all the silly sci-fi-tinged chaos.

The second in the trilogy, HOT FUZZ, had a juicy extended cameo by former 007 Timothy Dalton, but this tops it by having a better known Bond on hand: Pierce Brosnan as the band of blokes' former professor.

I love how the film never let ups or drags. Director Wright and lead protagonist Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay as they did for SHAWN and HOT FUZZ, provide an infectious energy, which the rest of the ensemble is entirely up to the task of. It had everything I wanted from it: tons of solid laughs, likable relatable characters, and satisfying story beats all wrapped up together in a package that's as witty as it is rowdy.

THE WORLD'S END is a fitting, funny as Hell, end to a what will surely come to be known as a classic comedy trilogy. A pint and a cone of Cornetto ice cream would be ideal to consume while viewing it for sure, but the movie is incredibly filling all by itself.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 8/20/13

I didn’t see Chris Wedge’s animated fantasy flick EPIC when it was released theatrically less than three months ago, but since it's one of the top 10 biggest box office flops of 2013 so far, I bet you didn’t either. Well, here it is out today on home video in three editions: a Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack (3 discs, includes DVD, Digital Copy & Digital HD), a 2-disc Blu ray (includes DVD + Digital Copy), and a single disc DVD. Special Features: Several featurettes (adding up to 15 minutes), a seven-part making-of mini documentary entitled “Mysteries of Moonhaven Revealed” (HD, 24:39), and the theatrical trailer.

Next up, Michael Haneke’s excellent 2012 French drama AMOUR, winner of the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year Oscars earlier this year, comes out today in single disc Blu ray and DVD sets. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (nominated for Best Actress Academy Award) star as an aging couple dealing with dementia in this film which sounds depressing but is absolutely essential viewing. Read my review: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR Earns Its Accolades (2/8/13). Special Features: A “Making of AMOUR” featurette, and a Q & A with Director Haneke.

Other New Release titles today: Mark Steven Johnson’s Robert De Niro/John Travolta action thriller KILLING SEASON, James Marsh’s SHADOW DANCER, Ryûhei Kitamura’s NO ONE LIVES, and Malcolm D. Lee’s atrocious looking SCARY MOVIE 5.

Ramona S. Diaz’s DON’T STOP BELIEVIN’: EVERYMAN’S JOURNEY, a documentary about how the San Francisco Journey found their current lead vocalist on YouTube, is also available today, but on DVD only. A Special Edition of the film is a WalMart, which sure says a lot, doesn’t it? My review of the film, which I saw a screener of last March, is here.

A much better documentary, Shola Lynch’s FREE ANGELA & ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS, also drops on DVD (+Digital and UltraViolet) today. The film, which I saw at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last April, tells the story of radical activist Angela Davis, whose trial on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy riveted the nation in the early ‘70s. No Special Features are listed for it, but a film as packed with archival footage, interviews, and powerful Nixon-era imagery doesn’t really need any.

The Criterion Collection adds a couple of Satyajit Ray titles from a half a century ago, THE BIG CITY (1963), and CHARULATA (1964), to their roster on Blu ray today. Both have tons of supplements, as they call ‘em, including fancy booklets. Also on the older titles new to Blu ray front, there’s Peter R. Hunt’s 1981 action adventure DEATH HUNT, starring Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin; Melvin Frank and Norman Panama’s 1954 comedy KNOCK ON WOOD, starring Danny Kaye and Mai Zetterling; another Danny Kaye comedy, Melville Shavelson's ON THE DOUBLE (1961); Norman C. McLeod's 1951 Bob Hope comedy MY FAVORITE SPY, and Alan Rudolph’s largely unseen 1980 rock comedy ROADIE, starring Meatloaf and Art Carney.

TV series sets releasing today include Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Third Season, The Good Wife: The Fourth Season, Star Trek: Enterprise: Season 2, NCIS: The Complete Tenth Season, Revenge: The Complete Second Season, and Parenthood: Season Four, among many others I'm sure.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Anti-SeaWorld Doc BLACKFISH Makes A Convincing Case


(Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)

Between Marion Cotillard’s on-the-job accident at a ocean theme amusement park in Jacques Audiard’s 2012 French drama RUST AND BONE, and this new documentary concerning a 12,000 pound Orca whale - still a tourist attraction in Orlando, Florida, to this day despite having killed three people - SeaWorld has been taking quite a beating on the indie art house circuit lately.

BLACKFISH, playing now at the Colony in Raleigh through Tuesday night (the 27th), and at the Carolina Theatre in Durham August 19th-August 28th as as part of Magnolia Pictures’ Summer Documentary Series, focuses primarily on a 32-year old male whale named Tilikum.

Through the testimonies of experts like orca researcher Ken Balcomb, and whale researcher David Duffus, we learn SeaWorld’s controversial history of capturing killer whales such as Tilikum, the circumstances that led to three tragic deaths (the most recent: trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010), and the corporate spin on the casualties that resulted.

Director Cowperthwaite, who also wrote and edited the film with Eli B. Despres, builds the well paced narrative by way of amateur video, surveillance camera footage, and clips from local and national news coverage.

Some critics have likened it to a thriller, but while it does have chilling (and sometimes disgusting) moments of scariness) it’s more just a particularly dramatic documentary to me. It’s got an emotional resonance strong enough to make Pixar reconsider the ending of their sequel to FINDING NEMO (FINDING DORY, due in 2015). I admit, it had me tearing up at times. Tearing up over a killer whale, that's right.

At a brisk 83 minutes, BLACKFISH is a concise, and intensely watchable film that makes a strong case that killer whales should not be contained in tiny quarters for the purpose of entertaining humans. 

Sure it’s biased, as SeaWorld claims in a written statement criticizing the film, but since no representative of the major amusement park chain agreed to go on camera (an ending disclaimer tells us that SeaWorld officials repeatedly declined to be interviewed”), and all the huge amount of anecdotal evidence from scores of scientists, researchers, former SeaWorld trainers, and noted Orca experts, how could it not be?

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

KICK ASS 2: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

KICK ASS 2 (Dir. Jeff Wadlow, 2013)

It’s been three years since Matthew Vaughn’s super hero action comedy KICK ASS, but Jeff Wadlow, taking over the sequel as director, duplicates the look and tone of the original so faithfully that it feels like it’s only a few months later in the lives of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz as “Kick-Ass” and “Hit-Girl” respectively.

These, of course, are their super hero names, but their characters' real names aren’t that important so let’s move on. Although Taylor-Johnson is 23, he can still pull off the shaggy awkward demeanor of a high school student. It doesn’t matter that in the meantime he’s played an ultra-hip drug dealer for Oliver Stone in SAVAGES, or Count Vronsky in Joe Wright’s ANNA KARENINA, here he’s convincingly that conflicted kid again.

Mainly because of her tininess, Moretz (now 16) doesn’t look like she’s gotten older either. Moretz’s confidence does get beaten down a bit, as she deals with the ins and outs of high school popularity and an overprotective godfather, Marcus Chestnut as her dead father’s former police partner, but she’s still got plenty of that stuff that Lou Grant hated. Spunk, I think it’s called.

As they set up at the end of the first film, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (you know, McLovin!) is set on avenging the death of his father, and being a mobster’s kid he is in the financial position to create a new alter ego, which he calls The Mother Fucker, and hire tons of goons to do his dirty work as he isn’t in the physical position to carry it off himself.

While Moretz retires her purple tights, Taylor-Johnson joins a group of likewise-minded vigilantes called “Justice Forever,” headed by Jim Carrey as camouflaged Christian/former mafia enforcer who calls himself “Colonel Stars and Stripes.” Carrey is here to fill in the superstar space left by Nicholas Cage, who played Hit-Girl’s dad in the previous one, but despite a showcase scene in which he leads the ragtag costumed community into crashing a poker game of a bunch of Chinese sex traffickers, he isn’t given much to do.

Wadlow’s screenplay keeps the jokes coming, mostly as one-liner asides, but a lot of them failed to make me laugh out loud. A running gag about Mintz-Plasse assigning super villain names to his hired hands, such as “Black Death” and “Genghis Carnage,” got a few chuckles out of me from the offended reactions of John Leguizamo as his assistant: “Isn’t that a little bit incredibly racist?”

Clark Duke, returning as one of Taylor-Johnson’s best buds who adopts a super hero persona named “Battle Guy, was also amusing here and there, but like Carrey, he’s seriously underutilized too.

After a bunch of set-up sequences, some of which involve inspirational speeches, with the theme being “this is who you really are!” and the killing off of just the exact people you think will be killed off, the movie attempts its climatic pay-off: a warehouse battle between the good and evil armies, with Moretz having it out with Olga Kurkulina as the muscular Mother Russia, while Taylor-Johnson and Mintz Plasse fight on the rooftop above.

KICK-ASS 2 works overtime to top the first one, but the result is massive overkill instead of fun entertainment. It beats what few ideas it has into the ground, and its strewn with underdeveloped characters, like Lindy Booth as Kick-Ass’s new love interest, who goes by the moniker “Night Bitch.” Seems she’s just there to have somebody that Mintz Plasse can threaten to get to our hero, but that unfortunately amounts to some horribly misguided rape jokes.

A story-thread borrowed from HEATHERS, has Moretz getting back at a clique of popular high school girls, headed by Claudia Lee, that dissed her, by way of having a football player pull a “ditch date” on her in front of everybody! The bitches! Moretz’s revenge consists of projectile-vomiting and projectile-diarrhea so there’s that element of gross-out humor for you.

Only if you’re a huge fan of the first KICK-ASS, should you race to the theater to see this sequel. It has ‘wait for video’ written all over it.

Maybe it’s that the fatigue that’s formed over years of super hero movies, and that the freshness of the formula has long worn off, making this seem about as innovative in the ‘let’s try to satirize the genre’ game as that failed Seth Rogen GREEN HORNET flick from a few years back, but, however you slice it, KICK-ASS 2 is nowhere near as charming or funny as its predecessor. But worse, its shock value is worthless.
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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Top Notch Profile Of Power Pop Band Big Star Returns To N.C.

In what sounds like it could’ve been a sequence, or at least a deleted scene, from Cameron Crowe’s 2000 semi-autobiographical rock comedy drama ALMOST FAMOUS, teenage Rolling Stone scribe Crowe, along with rock critic legend Lester Bangs joined over a hundred other rock music journalists who have traveled from all over the country to attend the first and last National Association of Rock Writers Convention in Memphis, Tennessee on Memorial Day weekend in May 1973.

A 16-year old Crowe walked barefoot around the Holiday Inn convention center and Lafayette's Music Room in downtown Memphis during the event that included panel discussions, the midnight premiere of Sam Peckipah’s now classic Western PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (featuring Bob Dylan in a supporting role), and performances by the little-known musical acts Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers, Skin Alley, and a little local band named Big Star.

The gig was one of the few live appearances of the band who only recorded a few albums (three if you count 1978's Sister Lovers and Big Star leader Alex Chilton sure didn’t), and, despite strong reviews, didn’t catch on with the public at large during their brief existence from the early to mid ‘70s.

But as the legend goes, Big Star (then a trio made up of Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens) rocked the house and, in the words of rock writer Pete Tomlinson, “turned a crowd of drunken freeloaders into drooling disciples.”

Anecdotes about the convention are among my favorite stories about how the Memphis power pop combo, originally fronted by the late greats Chilton and fellow guitarist/songwriter Chris Bell, attracted critical acclaim, but not hit record status in Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s excellent new documentary BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME, currently in limited release at indie art houses across the country.

I saw and loved the film when it screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, North Carolina last April, so I'm glad it's returning to the Carolina starting on August 19th-August 28th as as part of Magnolia Pictures’ Summer Documentary Series (check the Carolina's website for show-times). 

BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME (the title comes from a lyric in their haunting song “Big Black Car” from the before mentioned Sister Lovers album) is a film that rock lovers, documentary lovers, and especially rockumentary lovers shouldn’t miss.

The trailer:

My review for the Raleigh News & Observer:

“Documentary about pop band Big Star plays in Durham (August 16, 2013)

Read more here:

My interview with film’s co-director Drew DeNicola at the Artery Blog at

“Filmmaker Drew DeNicola discusses his documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” (August 14, 2013)

Alongside the Carolina Theatre in Durham, BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME will also have these other N.C. screenings:

Wednesday, August 21st: 
a one-night showing at Aperture Cinema in Winston Salem at 7:30 p.m. Pop artist/producer Mitch Easter, who’s interviewed in the film, will be on hand for a Q & A after the film. After the screening there will be “An Evening of Big Star” at The Garage (111 West Seventh St.), with local musicians, including Michael Slawter, Doug Davis, Henry Heidtmann, Ken Mohan and Corky McClellan, playing choice Big Star covers. The show starts at 9 p.m. $7 ($1 discount with your ticket from the Aperture's BIG STAR doc screening).

The next night, Thurday, August 22nd, there will be another one-night screening at the Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville. Check their website for show-times.

Lastly, there’s a soundtrack album out for the film, a double LP or single CD that has a great mix of Big Star’s best songs, but in demo, alternate take, and “movie mix” versions. Like the film itself, it's a great primer, but one that has a lot of cool discernible differences to the tracks fans know by ear. The Big Star #1 Record Glow-In-The-Dark Slip Mat (seen above) that you can get with it is pretty cool too. Order the soundtrack here.

So to sum it all up: watch the trailer, read my review and interview with co-director DeNicola, see the movie, fall in love with Big Star, buy the soundtrack and their other albums - then, live a happier life.

Got it?

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 8/13/13

Antoine Fuqua’s action thriller OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN heads the batch of new releases today on a 2-disc Blu ray/DVD Combo edition (includes UltraViolet Digital Copy), and a single disc DVD version. The movie, starring Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, and Aaron Eckhart is as standard issue as the floating heads poster art on the packaging (as you can read in my review from last March), but there’s tons of Special Features anyway.

They include a couple of minutes of Bloopers, and several featurettes (“The Epic Ensemble,” “Under Surveillance,” “Deconstructing the Black Hawk Sequence,” “Ground Combat: Fighting the Terrorists,” and “Creating the Action: VFX and Design”) equaling roughly a half hour. After the nearly identical WHITE HOUSE DOWN, which I actually preferred, flopped earlier this summer, don’t expect be any more DIE HARD at the White House movies anytime soon.

A movie I missed, as did most folks did, when it was in theaters last April, Jason Zackham’s THE BIG WEDDING, also drops today on Blu ray and DVD, both in single disc editions. The poorly reviewed comedy stars Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, and, here’s the kicker: Katherine Heigl. Only one Special Feature on this clinker: a 16-minute featurette entitled “Coordinating THE BIG WEDDING.”

A film that fared much better is also available today: Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s modern day adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 novel WHAT MAISIE KNEW, out now in 2-disc Blu ray and 1-disc DVD editions.

Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham, and the 6-year old Onata Aprile star in the well done divorce drama that I wrote wasn’t just KRAMER VS. KRAMER from the kid’s point of view in my review during its theatrical run in Raleigh last May. Special Features: a director’s commentary with McGhee and Siegel and a little over 7 minutes of deleted scenes.
I wasn’t alone in being unimpressed by Peter Webber’s post-World War II drama EMPEROR, starring Matthew Fox and Tommy Lee Jones as General McArthur, as most critics hated it and audiences stayed away in droves, but here it is in spiffy single disc Blu ray and DVD editions with a bevy of bonus features anyway. Special Features: Commentary with Director Webber and Producer Yoko Narahashi, a 15-minute featurette “Revenge or Justice: The Making of Emperor,” deleted scenes, Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery, Historical Photo Gallery, and the theatrical trailer. So, if there are actually any EMPEROR fans out there, well, they should be pleased.
Robert Redford’s preachy political thriller THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, another bland offering out today on home video, also gets the single disc Blu ray (Blu-ray + Digital Copy + UltraViolet) and DVD treatment. The film which I called a “star studded dud” in my April review, comes packaged with 4 featurettes: “Behind the Scenes: The Movement,” “Behind the Scenes: The Script, Preparation and The Cast,” “On The Red Carpet” (from the New York premiere), and “Press Conference,” with Robert Redford, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling and Jackie Evancho. Man, that bonus material sounds almost as thrilling as the film itself! I kid.

In my book, or more accurately on my blog, the best older title new to Blu ray this week is James Frawley’s 1979 family friendly classic THE MUPPET MOVIE in what’s billed as “The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition.” Extras include such featurettes as “Director Jim Frawley’s Extended Camera Test,” “Pepe Profiles Present Kermit: A Frog's Life,” ‘Doc Hopper’s Commercial” (long live Charles Durning!), original trailers, and something called “Frog-E-Oke Sing-Along,” in which viewers can sing along to a few of the soundtrack classics (“Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along,” and “Can You Picture That”) with the help of dynamic text.

Another great retro release of a movie making its debut on Blu ray this week is the Criterion Collection edition of John Frankenheimer’s 1966 thriller SECONDS, starring Rock Hudson, one of my all time favorite conspiracy movies. 

Special Features: the 15-minute video interview “Alec Baldwin on SECONDS,” a mini-documentary “A Second Look,” “Palmer and Pomerance on SECONDS” (a new visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance), Archival Footage, a short video interview with Director Frankenheimer, “Hollywood on the Hudson” (a rare WNBC news special shot on location in Scarsdale, New York, during the filming of SECONDS in 1965), commentary with director John Frankenheimer from 1997, and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt.

TV series sets available this week include Girls: The Complete Second Season, Once Upon a Time: The Complete Second Season, Enlightened: The Complete Second Season, The Mindy Project: Season One, and Southland: The Complete Fifth and Final Season.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Adventures In Altman Appraisal: CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974)

In many ways, Robert Altman’s 1974 rambling ramshackle of a comedy CALIFORNIA SPLIT is the ultimate gambling movie. It gives us a few days in the lives of George Segal and Elliott Gould as compulsive gambler buddies who live, breathe, then almost choke on gambling (well, not really - but they get mugged twice because of it).

We follow the duo as they go on a bender playing poker (the title is slag for high-low-split poker), betting on horses and boxing matches, even waging $20 on a bar bet if they could name the Seven Dwarves, only pausing to have some drunken downtime with Gould’s prostitute room-mates (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles).

There’s not much of a plot beyond that, but with the backdrop of the gambling scene in Los Angeles and Reno in the early ’70s, and Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue technique in full bloom (aided by then new eight-track stereo sound), the film gets you caught up in its authentic-feeling flow. And you can almost smell the cigarette smoke, stale alcohol, and sweat in the dingy dives and seedy surroundings in every scene.

Altman pulls off this effect by populating the film with real professional gamblers such as former world champion Amarillo Slim, and extras from Synanon (an organization for ex-addicts), and having them all blab at once (you know, like in real life). Segal and Gould blather on themselves, sometimes scat singing on the side, through the nonstop chatter until they settle on the scenario of making one last score.

Odd characters the pair encounter in their journey through the counter-culture of gaming for high stakes include a young Jeff Goldblum, who would also show up in Altman's next film NASHVILLE; Altman regulars Vincent Palmieri and Jack Riley, and Bert Remsen as a transvestite in possible the movie's oddest scene.

At first I would think that this almost 40 year old film would only appeal students of ‘70s cinema or mostly American or Canadian gamblers, but the citizens from today’s world of online gambling would surely take to the motion picture’s celebration or sorts of being a player, no matter where they hail from.
Segal, who blows off his job writing for a magazine, finds himself with a large debt to his bookie Sparkie, played by the film’s screenwriter Joseph Walsh, due to a losing streak he feels was caused by Gould being out of town.

However, in the movie’s Reno casino-set finale, Gould, with a bloody bandage on his nose from a bathroom brawl, comes on like a “cooler” to his friend. Segal, back on a major winning streak, keeps sending Gould away from his table, which gets funnier and funnier as Gould sulks about not having any money, and even tries to get into another game with only a candy bar to gamble with.

A movie as much about the intense highs that people playing these games for a living will experience as it is the crushing lows. Segal is drained empty at the end, and it’s obvious that the gig is up for him. Gould however doesn’t appear to have anything else to do, and his half joke of living at the races for the rest of his life is probably the route he’ll actually take.

In Mitchell Zuckoff’s “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009), Walsh was quoted at length about being disappointed that the director altered the final scene. Walsh: “He didn’t film the ending I wrote…They’re talking to each other at the end and Elliot finally says, ‘You’re going home? Oh yeah, where the fuck do you live?’ I didn’t write that. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What happened to this character?’”

Reportedly, Segal felt that the character was spent, having won but “there was no special feeling.” Altman agreed and went with that idea much to Walsh’s chagrin.

I can understand the frustration a writer has with having their work changed without their input, but Altman didn’t get where he was by following the letter. CALIFORNIA SPLIT was so loose that at times that it hardly felt like there was a script at all (a lot of it was indeed ad-libbed), so a crucial change that occurred to an actor and approved by the director seems naturally in the spirit of Altman’s entire canon.

Out of print on DVD, CALIFORNIA SPLIT is overdue for a new re-mastered release on home video. It would be a perfect title for the Criterion Collection, as they’ve put out deluxe editions of many choice Altman titles in the last decade. In the meantime, it is available for sale or rent on Amazon Instant Video, and I’ve seen it pop up on Netflix Instant every now and then.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Competent But Uncompelling ELYSIUM, This Week's Sci-Fi Summer Flick

Now playing at nearly every multiplex in America:

ELYSIUM (Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his 2009 Oscar-nominated DISTRICT 9, a late addition to this summer’s sci-fi spectacular sweepstakes, is #1 at the box office right now. It’s also received better reviews than the likewise themed OBLIVION, and AFTER EARTH (that last one wasn’t too hard), but it still felt all too routine to me. 

Set in the dystopian future (is there ever any other kind of future in the movies?) of 2154, in which Earth has become a third world planet, with the rich people having relocated to the luxurious orbital habitat of the title. “Elysium” looks like the bicycle-wheel shaped space station in 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY, except that it contains a lush green utopia in which violins are always playing, while well dressed people lounge around sipping wine all day.

Sporting a shaved head, and careful not to flash his blinding grin too often, Matt Damon stars as an earth-dwelling ex-con who has dreamed of going to Elysium since he was a kid played by Maxwell Perry Cotton. Damon pines for Alice Braga as a nurse with a daughter (Emma Tremblay) dying of leukemia. Braga wants to take Tremblay to the luxurious city in the sky, because every mansion there is equipped with Med Pods, magic medicine machines identical to the auto-surgery machines in PROMETHEUS, that can cure any disease.

After getting radiation poisoning from an accident at his factory job, and learning he will die in 5 days if not treated, Damon makes a deal with a shaggy smuggler (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura), that involves stealing valuable info from the mind of evil Elysium CEO (a suitably chilling William Fichtner).

The real villain of this bloated action exercise is Sharlto Copley, who was the hero in DISTRICT 9, but here is an over-the-top mercenary agent, working for a ruthless Jodie Foster as the power-hungry Secretary of Defense.

Running around in a role that doesn’t require a lot of acting, Damon puts in a workmanlike performance (much of it outfitted in a heavy robotic exoskeleton), but the energetically ragged Moura steals the show as the smuggler/revolutionary “Spider.” If only the movie had the passion and edge to equal Moura’s.

In noisy MAD MAX-style fight-scenes and chases, the sun-splashed CGI is convincing, but the story that’s supposed to immerse us into all this spectacle is sorely lacking. Nothing that Damon, Moura, and Braga face when they get to Elysium amounts to much, and Sharlto’s yelling of his simplistic and clichéd dialogue kept getting on my nerves.

Foster’s odd accent that made me think she may have studied Carrie Fisher’s weird half British, half American accent in STAR WARS (still not calling it A NEW HOPE! Never!), and her character’s arc is really underdeveloped.

That’s another element that makes it seem like Blomkamp should’ve written another draft of the screenplay before going into production. The political perspective is nowhere as polished as in DISTRICT 9, and the over-formulaic feel of the narrative is hard to shake.

Still, in Moura’s performance, the fast frantic pacing (it certainly isn’t boring), and the effective imagery, there may be enough pluses to make it worth matinee admission.

ELYSIUM is a competent, but uncompelling popcorn picture, but in these Dog Days of summer, it may be one of your best bets at the multiplex.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Blu Ray Review: BLACK ROCK

Now out on Blu ray and DVD:

(Dir. Katie Aselton, 2012)

At the beginning of a thriller, especially one with such an ominous title as BLACK ROCK, when a few friends get together to go camping saying over and over how much fun they are going to have, movie-goers obviously know that their experience is going to be anything but.

We, the audience, are the ones who supposedly are going to be having fun, watching them get into dangerous predicaments, all the while wondering which of them is going to get out of there alive.

But in Katie Aselton’s follow-up to her directorial debut, the anti-rom com THE FREEBIE (2010) what starts off promising due to dialogue scripted by her husband actor/writer/director Mark Duplass (SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, The Mindy Project), who also co-executive produced with his brother/co-collaborator Jay Duplass, becomes a grueling and all too familiar struggle for survival.

Aselton herself stars with Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell as a trio of friends who take a boat out to a small island off the coast of Maine, mainly because Bosworth wants Aselton and Bell to reconnect after years of estrangement. Bell had slept with Aselton’s boyfriend back in the day, and despite agreeing to go along on the camping trip, Aselton is still not over it.

While drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels, and eating from cans of SpaghettiOs on the beach, the women are startled by three young men (Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, and Anslem Richardson) carrying rifles, who happen to be hunting on the island.

Bell recognizes Bouvier from their childhood, and before you know it the two groups are partying together around a campfire as night falls. It’s revealed that the three men served together in the military in the Middle East where something f’ed up went down that led to their dishonorable discharge.

A drunk Aselton comes on to Bouvier and lures him into the woods, but it gets out of hand when he violently forces himself on her. Screaming and unable to break free, she bashes Bouvier in the head to death with a rock. Crazed by this, Paulson and Richardson capture the women, with the intent to kill them. The women are able to escape from their angry unhinged tormentors and the hunt is on.

Paulson, who folks may remember as Don Draper’s younger brother on Mad Men, makes a convincingly evil presence that can’t be talked down, but Richardson is so transparently this horror film’s token black character, and we all know what happens to them.

That’s only part of the predictability, as is when Bosworth declares that “it’s time to stop being stalked, and start stalking.” A sequence with the women trying to get to their boat in the dark of night is marred by tons of unnatural lighting - surely the moon and the fellow’s flashlights wouldn’t provide that much lighting in that environment. I know many movies have night scenes that are unrealistically lit, but here it’s really distracting.

Aselton’s direction and acting is assured, but there’s no interesting angle on this material. Its short running time (83 min.) attests to its lack of ideas. It’s dead in the water, when it so could’ve been DELIVERENCE with a difference.

The themes of women finding their strength while bonding are buried under a less than riveting hide and seek scenario, with an ending that doesn’t have the impact it’s desperately trying for.

Aselton and Duplass, who made their acting debuts together in Duplass’s and his brother’s THE PUFFY CHAIR (2005) and appear together on the FX sitcom The League, have talent to burn, but BLACK ROCK is a far from fleshed out thriller that ends up in a routine rut.

* This review originally appeared in the May 16th, 2013 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

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