Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top 10 Movies And Games Of 2012

1. Zero Dark Thirty - Establishes Kathryn Bigelow as one of the greatest current directors.
2. Looper - The year's most rewatchable film.
3. American Reunion - Vastly underrated sum-up to a poorly tarnished series.
4. That's My Boy - Adam Sandler's ridiculously funny return to form.
5. Snow White and the Huntsman - Visually stunning, with excellent storytelling and performances.
6. Marvel's The Avengers - A knockout culmination of a remarkable master plan in character design.
7. Moonrise Kingdom - Heartbreaking and magical.
8. Argo - Exciting storytelling and relatable performances.
9. This is 40 - A soulful and funny rumination on middle age.
10. Flight - Fantastic crash effects and a searing performance from Denzel Washington.

FOLLOWED BY, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER: The Master, Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

WORST MOVIE OF '12:  Girl in Progress
1. The Walking Dead - Episodic storytelling at its best.
2. Journey - An anti-game, really. Haunting and elegaic.
3. Retro City Rampage - A mesmerizing and joyfully haphazard celebration of all awesome things from ancient gamedom.
4. Double Dragon Neon - A mocking yet somehow respectful tribute to the greatest brawlers.
5. ZombiU - Survival horror done right, proving the Wii U's potential
6. Xenoblade Chronicles - Looks way too beautiful for a Wii game. It's also a groundbreaking RPG on several levels.
7. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition - Ports a PC RPG dynamo to consoles without hiccups.
8. Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition - Just like No. 7. Ethereal and imagination stimulation.
9. Trials Evolution - Endlessly replayable and mechanically impeccable.
10. Max Payne 3 - Fantastic revival of a severely dated shooter concept.

FOLLOWED BY, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER: New Super Mario Bros. 2, LittleBigPlanet Vita, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Assassin's Creed III, Nintendo Land, Persona 4 Golden, Far Cry 3, New Super Mario Bros. U, Dishonored

Jan. 1 Blu-ray/DVD Releases


Taking a break from the glittery vampire scene, Robert Pattinson stars as a hotshot financial guru who cruises New York City in luxury, riding around in a limo and taking care of his sexual, business and hygeine needs as he rides around. He seems to have a solid grip on life, but as the night goes on his world steadily falls apart. Director David Cronenberg keeps the claustrophobic story flowing at a rapid pace, and Pattinson shows genuine acting chops, carrying what amounts to something of a one-man show. Cronenberg's commentary and cast and crew interviews highlight the extras.

Justified: Season 3

The FX Western has truly hit its stride, with Timothy Olyphant honing his Clint Eastwood-like act as a U.S. Marshal who plays by his own rules. Bold writing and breakneck action scenes keep the show wily and unpredictable, save for the certainty that Olyphant's Raylan Givens character will always nail his man. Extras in the three-disc Blu-ray set include deleted scenes, nine cast and crew commentary tracks and a slew of making-of featurettes.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove to be one of the best actors at selecting scripts. In one of my favorite movies of 2012, he stars as an assassin-for-hire asigned to kill captors sent back in time by a powerful corporation. One of his marks is his future self (Bruce Willis), with whom he teams up to go on the run from the corporation they work for. Relentless action and a thought-provoking script grant the drama enormous appeal, and Gordon-Levitt and Wilson both deliver remarkable performances. The Blu-ray/digital copy combo includes director Rian Johnson's commentary, 22 deleted scenes and a slew of making-of featurettes.

Screeners were provided by the studios for review.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Promised Land

If M. Night Shyamalan made a movie about gas companies' pillaging of the heartland, Promised Land would be it. Meaning there's a "swing away" twist at the end that tries to explain everything but ends up pretty much ruining any credibility and relevance in the story instead.

If you see the movie, slip the projectionist a tip and ask that he dumps a soda on the equipment with 20 minutes left. You'll walk out of the theater without a resolution, but will at least be better off than those who are stuck watching the aliens get killed by water.

New "it" couple Matt Damon and John Krasinski teamed up on the screenplay and play rival tastemakers who storm a small town, manipulating the folk into voting their way on the issue of whether to let a giant energy company frack them long and hard, letting the town splash natural gas all over its farms and water in return for millions of dollars.

Damon, along with trusty sidekick Frances McDormand, is the big gas suit sent to use his silver-tongued devil charms to trick the yokels into the deal, while Krasinski is the idealistic hippie there to stop him with his goody bag of guerrilla tactics, while also finding time to pull a few outrageous pranks on Dwight.

Locked up in a game of spy vs. spy, Damon and Krasinski make for some entertaining one-upsmanship. They lock horns at a karaoke bar — unfortunately not in a singing competition, though — fight for the favor of a teacher/bar rat (Rosemarie DeWitt) and talk some crazy smack as they struggle for the soul of a confused, real-life FarmVille.

Director Gus Van Sant, who boosted Damon to stardom in Good Will Hunting, has the hunting part down pat here, but has a little trouble arranging the goodwill. This is one of those impassioned message movies that makes its point early on, then beats you over the head with it, haphazardly acknowledging the shades of grey without admitting they have any validity. The considerable star power and writing talent goes to waste, but it's to be down on a movie that's so watchable for most of the running time.

Promised Land has a lot of the pieces necessary for a watershed movie. I wish there had been less Shyamalan and more Ben Affleck, I guess. A little organic humor wouldn't have hurt, either. Because I also wish I had a double burger.

Starring Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand and Rosemarie DeWitt. Written by Krasinski and Damon. Directed by Gus Van Sant. 106 minutes. Rated R. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Django Unchained

Django may be unchained, but his movie could have used some tighter shackles. An editor could have gutted the movie into something that, while maybe not all that entertaining, at least wouldn't waste so much time. Quentin Tarantino himself should have taken out his Kill Bill katana and slashed the way too long, long, long, looooong movie in two. Then, instead of releasing it in two parts in different years, he should have thrown it away because it didn't live up to the standard of the rest of the work.

For his whole career, Tarantino has straddled and spanked the edge of hyperactive overindulgence like a wild pony. His attitude was "This is what's in my head, and I'm my favorite director ever, and if you don't like it too bad because I made this for myself."

Only someone with his talent could pull it off, and it's pretty amazing he's been able to do it for 20 years without embarrassing himself. That's because he's always covered his backside by whipping out prototypical Tarantino Awesomesauce and spraying it all over everything to the point that it didn't really matter whether or not his stories went anywhere.

Tarantino Awesomesauce is made of three ingredients: Smartass dialogue, weird music that nobody has ever heard of but him yet somehow grooves with the action onscreen, and out-of-nowhere actors knocking you down with performances even their mommas didn't realize they had in them.

Django Unchained has none of the Awesomesauce to flavor-up the bland, repetitive side dishes Tarantino serves up: Seven billion instances of people getting shot, erupting with intentionally fake-looking volcano squibs, and eighty trillion uses of the N word. Tarantino uses the N word here more than Smurfs say "smurf," and its diminishing returns hit the floor a few minutes in.

The performances are there from Yosemite Sam-style goofball Leonardo DiCaprio, doddering/sneaky Samuel L. Jackson, and especially gentleman dandy bounty hunter Christoph Waltz, but not from Jamie Foxx, who is such a lifeless, dead-eyed cypher that he may as well have been switched out for Kevin Sorbo.

There usually doesn't need to be much of a story in Tarantino movies, which are more lazy hang-outs than they are bullet trains, but there's so little interesting going on here that it needs one badly. All that's there are patched-together rags from Tarantino's past. There's the self-justified homicidal racist-killing rampage of Inglourious Basterds, an obsessive hunt like Kill Bill, an overly elaborate endgame heist like in Reservoir Dogs and blaxploitation trappings of Jackie Brown.

The framework is there, sorta, but the pieces don't fit. The core partnership of the Waltz and Foxx characters makes no sense. There's no good reason Waltz would risk his life and fortune to help the stranger, nor cause for Foxx's supposedly rage-filled, independent-minded character to latch on to a partner/master. They stay together because this is a buddy movie, and for no other reason.

All the problems could be forgiven if the movie sang, but the thing drags badly, all the more because you watch with such hope, thinking at some point the broken clock will be right and Tarantino will flash his usual magic. That wait will have to last until his next movie.

Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 165 minutes. Rated R.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The lone 12/24 Blu-ray/DVD release: The Words

The Words
Bradley Cooper may be getting the most attention of his career for his laudable turn in Silver Linings Playbook, but his performance in this film is an overlooked gem about a writer struggling with his own morals. In a story-within-a-story narrated by a successful author (Dennis Quaid), Cooper plays a desperate man who stumbles upon an old, unpublished masterpiece manuscript in a briefcase, which he plagiarizes and rides to success, putting his relationships with self-image and his wife (Zoe Saldana) at risk. Olivia Wilde is a stunner as an acolyte who approaches the Quaid character in a dark night of the soul. Extras include an extended edition and a slew of behind-the-scenes featurettes that examine the movie's making and characters.

A screener was provided by the studios for review.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Review: Les Miserables

While there's some value in making a slavish adaptation of a near-universally beloved stage musical, sticking to all the trappings of the play is a sure path to making the film feel like a translation rather than a similarly inspired production.

That's exactly the problem with director Tom Hooper's sturdy, flashy, yet ultimately inconsequential movie. He tries to outdo the stage production by going bigger, with flashier effects and huge-name actors in every role. Hooper's repertory, though, might have been better served by forgetting about the stage behemoth and drawing solely from Victor Hugo's pages. You know, the ones without the obnoxiously sung dialogue.

At the very least, an organic Les Miserables at least would have spared us having to suffer through Russell Crowe's singing.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. Crowe, while awkward, isn't all that bad. He toughs his way through a miscast performance, holding up his end as well as most anyone else.

I don't begrudge anyone who is fascinated by the film's every flourish. if you adore the play, this is your beloved object of desire on human growth hormone. The performances could have been hammy and forced, but instead are understated and elegant. Anne Hathaway, as a mother forced to disfigure her body and soul as she descends into a life of prostitution, is a standout, delivering probably the most impressive work of her career. Her haunting showing has stuck with me weeks after I saw the film, and goes a long way toward redeeming its cowardice.

And yeah, I think cowardice is the right term for Hooper's approach. It's as though the filmmaker was too afraid to take a chance after he had such success with The King's Speech. In dulling its edge and sticking so close to the stage, the movie lacks the Bastille-storming spirit of Hugo's source material. His movie feels like a pandering, disingenuous sleepwalk rather than a fiery-eyed rainmaker.

Les Miserable has no shortage of adaptations, and any new take on the material, especially at this level, needs to come with something new and bold to say. This filmed stage musical knows all the words, but can't hear the music.

Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Written by William Nicholson, Alain Boubill, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer. Directed by Tom Hooper. 160 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There were plenty of questions that caused fear for the coming of The Hobbit. Why did Guillermo del Toro abandon the project? How does one little children's book merit three friggin three-hour movies? Why have so many The Lord of the Rings characters who weren't in The Hobbit been shoved into the film?

And yet it turns out that one aspect not only obliterates any reservations, but makes you feel silly for ever having them. The reason: Peter Jackson.

Spectacular in every conceivable fashion, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shows the steady, inspired hand of its creator in every frame. On top of being one of the world's most formidable filmmakers, Jackson lives and breathes Tolkien, and his adaptations of the material feel like pure, undiluted inspiration.

A jubilant adaptation that not only improves on the source material but adds much to it, the film whets appetites for the latter two legs of the saga while telling a thrilling and complete story in its own right.

Methodical and deliberate, the story blossoms with a self-assured, confident pace. The setup, in which wizard Gandalf recruits the unwilling hobbit Bilbo into helping a band of dwarfs reclaim their dragon-ravaged homeland, has the air of the wedding scene early on in The Deer Hunter. Song and spirit are shared, belying the hard, soul-shifting road that lay ahead. Jackson trots out a new series of largely unfamiliar protagonists, making it easy to buy in and care about them as individuals. When they face hardships on the road to redemption, the pathos is palable.

The near decade that has passed since the last of Jackson's LOTR trilogy hit theaters have been kind to the effects department, spawning gorgeously detailed scenery and monsters that move and react with considerable rate. Much has been made about the movie's increased framerate, but if anything it enhances the digital palate that Jackson's effects team utilizes.

None of the technical wizardry would matter, though, unless the acting was up to par. And the cast, led by Martin Freeman in the title role, as well as the character actors who tackle the parts of his dwarf confederates, are all superb. The chemistry among the dwarfs feels rich and lived-in, while Freeman's meek, displaced turn hits just the right notes. And it's tough to expect anything than shimmering brilliance from the remarkable Andy Serkis, who inhabits the bonkers, royal we-commandeering mind of Gollum.

Like that sad, bug-eyed creature, moviegoers may not have realized how much they missed movies like this onscreen in the past several years. Yet we now have our precious back in hand, and here's to two more years of wild, sure-to-be-met expectations of supreme Tolkien mastery.

Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis. Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Jackson. Rated PG-13. 169 minutes.

Our 2012 Christmas Letter

Dear friends, families and recycling facility employees,

The year 2012 was another fantastic one in the Villarreal household. The highlight was our conscription of yet another recruit into our growing army. Zachary, who was a born a bit larger than expected, made the birthing process interesting. He arrived as a full-grown man, with muttonchops, a full neckbeard, a set of tattoos and a genuine “party in the back” mullet. The pediatrician tells us he’s in the 90th percentile of his “age group.” With “age group” in this case referring not to humans but to archaeological estimations of 5-month-old brontosauruses.

It was also a big year for our other kids. Five-year-old Luke started kindergarten. In less than a semester, he’s truly grown as a gentleman and scholar. He is now able to hum several versions of the Transformers theme song and perform remarkably accurate impressions of Super Mario’s nemesis, Bowser. It’s only a matter of time before Harvard comes calling, offering Luke a scholarship to kidnap Yale’s princess and stand guard over her in its castle.

Emma, meanwhile, is performing with similar excellence in preschool. She has honed her skills of editing and revision to near perfection. Take, for example, her improvement on the nursery rhyme that starts “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly,” to which Emma astutely added the line “I hope she dies.” She has also demonstrated formidable dead language translation skills. In the Christmas carol “Angels We Have Held on High,” the chorus goes “in excelsis Deo,” which Emma explains is actually “And Jesus was his name-o.” Doctors have yet to rule out the possibility that she was actually sired by Weird Al Yankovic.

For us, Phil and Jessica, the year has passed too quickly. To them, it seems like it was July only yesterday. That’s partially because in their minds, that actually is the case, being that the energetic and alert Zachary has not let them sleep a single minute since his arrival, thus making the second half of the year into one long, neverending day.

With that, we wish you a happy 2013. We must go now, before we collapse from exhaustion and our faces hit the keyboard. Oh, wait…. Adjasjfk;ldfjafkjasfjsf’kkkie

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review: This is 40

Middle age is life's way of mocking the human soul. The children you've spawned are Greek choruses on your shortcomings, perceived or otherwise. You've come to terms that you've spent half your life chasing your professional dreams, only to have drawn no closer and lost the momentum and spunk you had when you started the race. Parts of your body you used to be proud of now sag and are at risk of contracting cancer.

Judd Apatow plunges the stage of life for all its ample misery, just the way he did adolescence in Freaks and Geeks and quarterlife angst in Undeclared and Knocked Up. An expert in the dark comedy of hapless human disfunction, Apatow sheds the overindulgence that plagued Funny People to return to the tighter, smarter form that brought him fame.

You have to respect Leslie Mann for taking on the roles her husband hands her, because they're anything but flattering. The stuff Apatow writes for Mann is usually reserved for druken bar rants delivered by disgruntled, henpecked husbands. He starts off the movie with Mann irrationally flipping out on the verge of her 40th birthday, then stopping the action in a freeze-frame and stencilling the title onscreen and pointing at her crazy-eyed expression.

As marriages go, the bond between Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) is as solid as they come. Apatow could have gone a cheap and easy route by introducing conflict in the form of philandering, but he sticks with the higher-risk/higher-reward waters of zero-sum marital bargains and power plays. You know, the squabbles and deception loved ones share over money, time on the toilet, dietary needs and rectal examinations. The pained, fatalist kinship Rudd and Mann share feels authentic enough to hurt.

The supporting players are every bit as good as the leads. The couple's own kids, Maude and Iris, gamely play themselves, while Albert Brooks and John Lithgow are too-needy and too-distant grampas. Megan Fox is astutely cast as an absurdly hot and absurdly vacant employee at Debbie's store, and musician Graham Parker mocks his faded fame as the would-be savior for Pete's struggling record label.

There's not a whole lot of plot to chew on in the astoundingly long-for-what-it-is comedy, but that's just the way Apatow operates. His characters mope and founder rather than initiate conflict and react to story points.

This is 40 feels more like the hyperextended pilot episode of a premium TV drama than a movie. No one comes of age, stops the evil land developer or kisses in the rain. After the credits roll, life goes on. Sure, it will suck, but it will be just funny enough to make it all worthwhile.

Starring Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Megan Fox and Albert Brooks. Written and directed by Judd Apatow. Rated R. 134 minutes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: The Guilt Trip

If there's one thing Barbra Streisand is great at, it's beying annoying. For hundreds of years, she's perfected her ability to make you cringe by her mere, grating presence. This is not a skill that usually makes for a good movie, but in The Guilt Trip, she's managed to find a film that does just that.

The Guilt Trip is a movie about how much it would suck to be forced to deal with Streisand for 95 minutes. It finds humor in that truly heinous prospect and strangles it out for your pleasure. In the easiest role of Seth Rogen's life, all he has to do is roll his eyes, bark snide comments and keep from killing himself and everyone wins. Streisand is a star of the silver screen again and Rogen is in a movie funny enough to make you forget Observe and Report and The Green Hornet.

For managing what the Focker sequels could not, and making a successful and charming Streisand commentary, Anne Fletcher deserves to be hailed as some sort of scientist making an amazing discovery, such as managing to turn nail clippings into crude oil.

Visibly agitated at being left out of the latest Judd Apatow movie, Rogen is at his bitter, hate-filled best. He's Andrew, an entrepreneur who has mortgaged his past, present and future on an awfully named drinkable cleaning product, and he hopes to make good on a national tour of the highest-bidding corporate retail sponsors.

Pitying his mom's inability to move on from her long-dead husband, Andrew decides to tote her along, hoping to hook her up with an old flame at the end of the sojourn. The result is part Planes, Trains and Automobiles, part Dumb & Dumber and part Tommy Boy. The comedy, for the most part, is based on misunderstandings and conflicts that arise from the different levels of love the characters share. As smothering momma Joyce, Streisand loves her boy like Chris Farley loved his dinner roll, and Andrew loves Joyce like bowling pins love bowling balls.

Rogen's palpable hatred of Streisand, shared by every living thing on the planet, is what lifts the movie up where we belong. Some may mistake the performance as an act; possibly the result of excellent chemistry between two gifted actors, but they are overthinking stuff. This is basically just a documentary of Streisand being herself, trying to break Rogen's soul with her mere presence, and Rogen trying to survive until Apatow rescues him once again.

Yet there is no hope of escape, and that's why the movie works so well. The mental and emotional torture Rogen endures translates to comic bliss. His sacrifice is filmdom's gain.

Starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand. Written by Dan Fogelman. Directed by Anne Fletcher. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

If there's a masterful cinematic trick in Zero Dark Thirty, it's the drama's ability to masquerade as truth. Taking on more of a documentary feel than the reverent re-enactment flavor of, say, Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow's film harnesses the plausibly messy brutality of counterterrorism.

The pounding headache of a film is nowhere close to a flag-waving tale of patriotic conquest you might have expected. Instead it's a blind, bloody manhunt that gawks unflinchingly at the murky morality of black ops, sick and bizarre interrogation routines and inspid backroom meetings that amount to throwing darts at a board to flail for success, collatoral damage of innocent lives be damned. Like Bigelow's similarly dark The Hurt Locker, the film is less interested in action than the angst that accompanies inaction.

That is, until it throws up its hands and becomes an action movie at the climax. Once it's time, Bigelow dispenses with the character study and philosophizing and transforms into a video game. The mesmerizing raid of the infamous Pakistani stronghold explodes in a dizzy whirlwind of justified, exuberant bloodlust.

But it's a final scene, involving Jessica Chastain is Maya, an American agent who tracks down Osama bin Laden with a Javert-like obsession, that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

Chastain, who has emerged from obscurity to acting's top echelons in the span of 24 months, seems willing to bleed for the movie's success. Her heart-darkened journey from eager, idealistic junior agent to hardened interrogator and finally to calculating tactician echoes the American culture's metamorphosis along the winding, decade-long labyrinth to catch and dispatch its bearded bogeyman. Having dedicated her existence to the job at the expense of her humanity, Maya hurts until she can no longer recognize the emotion, or any feeling whatsoever. She's maybe a more grounded version of the Claire Danes character in Homeland.

Other than Chastain's soul-baring performance, what I most respected about the film was its general indifference to telling a traditional story. Bigelow is more interested in leading toward pitfalls and dead ends than creating the mirage of a stepladder to the ultimate bin Laden slapdown. I felt sick, angry, exhausted and thrilled at different points. And once it was over, I was left a little empty, staggered by the artistry and sad that it was over. I was all too aware that something spectacular had just washed over me and was now gone.

Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Joel Edgerton. Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated R. 157 minutes.

Dec. 18 and Dec. 21 DVD/Blu-ray releases


Due out Friday, the fast-paced thriller tracks the efforts of a pompous but clever one-percenter (Richard Gere) whose world is being torn apart by multiple forces, including federal fraud investigators and the accidental death of his mistress. His bitter, distant wife (Susan Sarandon) engages in a parallel struggle, and his daughter and heiress apparent (Brit Marling) tries to keep the facade patched together. Riveting from the first scene to the last, the movie works excellently as a showcase for Gere's talents. Extras on the disc include commentary from writer/director Nicholas Jarecki, deleted scenes with optional commentary and a pair of featurettes that focus on Gere's character and the making of the movie.

Californication: Season 5

David Duchovny stars in his wry, cynical anti-romantic comedy, playing a sex-addicted celebrity author who can't keep out of his own way as he scrambles to keep his family life and career afloat while he tumbles into new territory as an action flick screenwriter. The series has seen better days, and hits something of a repetitive slump in its fifth outing. Occasionally the show recaptures some of its old punch, but it generally seems to be buckling under its own weight. Extras in the series, which oddly is still DVD-only and has still yet to come out on Blu-ray, are limited to episodes of other Showtime shows.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

By far my favorite of the three-film series, adapted from the series of Jeff Kinney novels, this chapter follows its hapless middle schooler protagonist (Zachary Gordon) through a summer of embarrassingly epic fail that could lead to his dad (Steve Zahn) shipping him off to military school. The kid masquerades as a country club worker to try to win the heart of his crush, pals around with his tubby best friend and tells slews of white lies that get him into Curb Your Enthusiasm-type trouble. Witty writing and game performances keep things lively. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes direcotr commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and some background featurettes.

Killer Joe

Due out Friday, this thriller is a blistering return to form for director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection). An unhinged Matthew McConaughey plays a Dallas lawman who operates as an assassin-for-hire on the side. He takes a contract from a family living in a trailer park with Double Indemnity-like delusions of quick wealth once a family member is knocked off. The clan bursts with personality, with a doddering dad (Thomas Haden Church), his impulsive, reckless son (Emile Hirsch), shifty-eyed mother figure (Gina Gershon) and dim, sheltered daughter (Juno Temple). A wily script, smoldering suspense and slick dialogue keep the drama lively. Extras include a look at the adaptation from the stage play, a cast Q&A from South By Southwest and Friedkin's commentary.

Liberal Arts

Director/writer/star Josh Radnor, Ted from TV's How I Met Your Mother, makes another quiet, introspective stunner to follow up his debut, Happythankyoumoreplease. He plays a New York college admissions adviser who, while returning to his Ohio alma mater to see off a favorite professor (Richard Jenkins), falls for a mature-beyond-her-years student (Elizabeth Olsen). The complicated relationship sends him running blind through an ethical and emotional minefield. What seems to be a rote, predictable plot veers off on wildly unexpected directions. Radnor's script also gives him and his co-star magnificent chances to work up intensity and bridled passion. Deleted scenes are the lone extras.

The Life and Times of Tim: Season 3

The Office Space-like HBO animated comedy continues to lap up deadpan laughs in its third outing, placing its hapless, meek title character (voiced by series creator Steve Dildarian) into a neverending vortex of humiliation. Tim handles endless abuse in the office, from so-called friends and in what passes for a love life. Mary Jane Otto and Nick Kroll turn in excellent voice work, contributing to the show's impeccable sense of comic timing. The set has no significant extras.

Pitch Perfect

Taking a Glee-like concept and resetting it for the college scene, the musical comedy follows the trail of a socially awkward, all-female singing crew that tries to pull together and croon its way to glory. Anna Kendrick shows remarkable singing talent as a student who reluctantly joins the squad, clashing with its prissy inner circle (Anna Camp and Brittany Snow). Taking the edge off is a boistrous teammate played by Rebel Wilson, who shows a Melissa McCarthy-like ability to steal scenes. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo hums with deleted and extended scenes, alternate takes and making-of footage.

Premium Rush

Due out Friday, this comedy-leavened action flick somehow manages to make the spandex-clad world of NYC bike couriers seem as intense as a Bond movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a daredevil messenger who's disconnected his brakes, weaves in and out of traffic and jousts with bike cops and motorists alike while unleashing a bevy of insane stunts. Michael Shannon plays an NYPD thug who's after JGL's package and Dania Ramirez plays a courier colleague who tries to wheel his way into the hero's heart. Intense action never lets its foot off the pedals. A pair of making-of featurettes make up the extras in the Blu-ray/digital copy combo.

Red Hook Summer 

Due out Friday, Spike Lee's quiet, understated coming-of-age drama follows a sullen boy (Jules Brown) who bristles as he stays with his bombastic preacher grandfather (Clark Peters), who struggles to keep his flock interested in his message while guarding a heinous secret from his past. Avoiding stars in favor of up-and-coming or little recognized actors, Lee uses the blank slate to flex his muscles as a storyteller, resulting ina  gritty and charming drama that reflects his earlier work. Lee's commentary and a making-of featurette highlight the extras.

Resident Evil: Retribution

Due out Friday, the dopey video game adaptation series continues to chug along, providing consistently invigorating action that covers up a threadbare plot and nonsensical dialogue. Taking things way too seriously as always, Milla Jovovich reprises her role as a dual-wielding zombie/mutant decapitator. Old pal Michelle Rodriguez is back in action; one of several former stars in the series who have been killed off only to make a head-scratching return. Reasonably decent CGI effects help keep the wild silliness somehwat feasible. The Blu-ray/digital copy combo is loaded with featurettes. Deleted and extended scenes are also there.

Shameless: Season 2

The under-the-radar Showtime gem, a comedy about a poor, trashy family trying to get by in Chicago's South Side. William H. Macy plays the alcoholic, chronically irresponsible patriarch, and Emmy Rossum is the early-20s firebrand who picks up much of his slack in keeping her five younger siblings in line. Pitch-perfect performances, insightful writing and frequent guest star Amy Smart, who plays a questionable influence on Rossum's character, keep the series unpredictable, helping the show grow stronger in its second season. Deleted scenes, a featurette on Rossum's character and actor interviews make up the extras on the Blu-ray/digital copy combo.

Trouble with the Curve

Due out Friday, Clint Eastwood's baseball drama sinks with as much of a head-scratching thud as his speech to the empty chair at the Republican National Convention. He plays a world-weary Atlanta Braves scout who is going blind and being shoved out the door by upper management. His old pal (John Goodman) gets him one last chance to prove himself on a North Carolina road trip, and insists his semi-estranged lawyer daughter (Amy Adams) tag along. Justin Timberlake pops up as a fellow scout, and Adams' convenient romantic interest, and he and the rest of the cast are left to trudge through the pticher's mound of cliches that make up the script. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo is light on extras, with only a pair of light featurettes on its basepaths.

Total Recall

Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel star in this remake of the 1991 sci-fi mind-bender. Farrell's character is a factory worker whose visit to a memory-altering facility sends him off on a series of wild life-and-death adventures. Like him, we're left guessing as to whether what's going on is fantasy or reality. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) casts a shadow over the proceedings as a domineering villain. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack comes with an extended director's cut, a gag reel and a slew of making-of featurettes. A nice bonus for PlayStation 3 owners is the inclusion of the God of War: Ascension demo.

Screeners were provided by the studios for review.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Dec. 11 Blu-ray/DVD releases

The Bourne Legacy 

If you can get past the distinct feeling that this is the Bourne B-team at work — Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass are nowhere to be found — you'll probably be able to enjoy this frenetic spy thriller for the guilty-pleasure romp that it is. Jeremy Renner takes over as Aaron Cross, a genetically enhanced superspy who government bad guys (led by a shot caller played by Edward Norton) want to wipe out in order to erase proof that the program that created him existed. An Army of one, Bourne out-maneuvers entire squads and weapons of mass destruction as he seeks to survive and help out a scientist (Rachel Weisz) who comes to his aid. Director Tony Gilroy keeps things moving, but his film doesn't do much to prove that the series hasn't gone stale. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes featurettes that spotlight the locations used during shooting, the Cross character and a scene in which he fights a wolf. 

Girls: Season 1 

Actress/writer/filmmaker Lena Dunham's scorchingly irreverent take on trying to get by in your 20s while living in the Brooklyn fishbowl is a fresh bright spot for HBO. Collaborator Judd Apatow lends his comic and emotional touches, telling deeply personal coming-of-age sagas that fascinatingly play out throughout the season. The show's sense of authenticity is a anecdote to the more fantasy-world stylings of Sex and the City. The Blu-ray set includes digital copies of every episode, interviews with Apatow, Dunham and the other cast members, commentaries and table readings.

Ice Age: Continental Drift 

Much like Madagascar, this animated talking animal series with a star-studded voice cast seems to be just coasting along, all too willing to recycle past plotlines and jokes, hoping families aren't offended enough to stop showing up. Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah and Seann William Scott do what they can to redeem the stale tale, thanks to the energy and chemistry they share. They could have used a better script, though. This adventure sees the prehistoric animals take to the seas, where they tangle with pirates as they try to reconnect with friends. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes sing-alongs, a pair of deleted scenes, several featurettes and music videos.

Family Guy maestro Seth MacFarlane breathes adorable/creepy life into the title character, a walking, talking plush teddy bear who is best pals with a manchild (Mark Wahlberg) who is torn between the toy and his girlfriend (Mila Kunis). Much like MacFarlane's animated fare — he also directed this — the movie is ludicrously funny much of the time, while occasionally too bizarre and nonsensical for its own good. Wahlberg does an admirable job of setting Ted up and staying out of his way to let him lap up the chuckles. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy includes alternate takes, a gag reel, an unrated version of the movie and a commentary track with MacFarlane, co-writer Alec Sulkin and Wahlberg.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Dec. 4 Blu-ray/DVD releases

Beasts of the Southern Wild — Director Benh Zeitlin belts out a harrowing tale of extreme poverty and parental neglet in the Deep South. Quvenzhane Wallis plays a 6-year-old girl who is pretty much forced to care for herself in her isolated bayou community. Her father (Dwight Henry) is ailing and pops in and out of her life with increasing rarity. The girl goes off on a journey to find help, confronting the outside world, and in a touch of magical realism, confronts mythical creatures. A fascinating peek into a hidden world that flourishes in the cracks of society, the film's emotionally devastating moments stick with you. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo features audition footage, deleted scenes with Zeitlin's commentary and a making-of featurette

The Dark Knight Rises — Director Christopher Nolan wraps up his Batman trilogy with a thud, coming up with a never-ending slog with an unintelligible masked villain (Tom Hardy) and a Batman (Christian Bale) who's not all that interested in being Batman anymore. Board meetings, prison pep talks and silly romantic interest Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) join the crazy train, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt pops up as a determined cop who quickly becomes Batman's best bud. A convoluted mess that fails to replicate the insight and depth of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, this movie is hailed by many as not only one of the greatest movies of the year, but of all time. I attribute the love as misplaced affection for the first two movies in the series. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes a slate of extras far more thrilling than the movie, including 17 making-of featurettes, and heartfelt documentaries about Nolan's efforts to close out the trilogy and the evolution of the Batmobile. 

Eastbound and Down: Season 3 — An unhinged Danny McBride wraps up his career as burned-out former baseball star Kenny Powers, who inches closer to his Major League comeback while toiling in the minors. The HBO comedy pokes fun at redneck stereotypes, allowing McBride to romp as a ludicrous caricature. Steve Little, as Kenny's hapless doormat of a sidekick, is an apt complement to Kenny's unearned bombast. Extras in the set include deleted scenes, outtakes and commentaries on each episode. 

Finding Nemo Blu-ray — Outside of the Toy Story movies, Pixar's 2003 undersea adventure has proven to be the pinnacle of what the groundbreaking studio can accomplish. The adorable little clownfish finally wriggles his way into HD, and the animation takes on a stunning look that makes the movie well worth watching again, even if you're seeing it for the 400th time and your kids know every line. Albert Brooks delivers one of his best performances as Nemo's dad, who is determined to find his lost son, and Ellen DeGeneres plays fantastically off of him as his flighty sidekick, Dory. The Blu-ray/DVD combo overflows with extras, including deleted scenes, filmmaker interviews, the short film Knick Knack.

Hope Springs — This story of a spoiled marriage is pretty much the polar opposite of The Notebook. An elderly couple (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) who have long since given up on romance decide to shake things up by attending a marital counseling retreat. Steve Carell sheds his wacky typecast to play their calm, measured therapist, who serves as a referee to the couple's emotional outbursts. The reason the story hits so hard emotionally is the chemistry between Streep and Jones, who seem to palpably resent each other while still harboring a flash of attraction. Filmmaker commentary, a gag reel and a closer look at the performances of the two leads highlight the Blu-ray/digital copy combo.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green — The dull, uninspired family drama stars Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton as a couple whose wish to become parents comes true in the form of Timothy (CJ Adams), a boy who sprouts up overnight in their backyard garden. Seriously. The sudden new addition to their family causes all sorts of uninteresting problems, and director Peter Hedges' film deals with them in painfully boring ways. The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes Hedges'c ommentary, a making-of documentary and a look at Glen Hansard's creative process behind the making of his end credits song.

The Simpsons: Season 15 — I've come to like Fox's routine of releasing The Simpsons seasons on Blu-ray nearly a decade after the shows air. It avoids franchise fatigue for an impossibly long-running show and gives viewers a chance to go back and give fresh viewings to episodes to see how they've held up over time. The 2003-2004 season had a bunch of episodes that remain funny with age, including My Big Fat Geek Wedding, Smart and Smarter and Today I am a Clown. Each episode gets a commentary track, and there are also deleted scenes and sketch galleries.

Step Up Revolution — My favorite entry so far in the underappreciated series shifts the setting to Miami, where a flash mob headed up by resort waiters tries to win a YouTube contest while halting the plans of a mean 'ol land developer. The no-name cast was obviously chosen for its dancing ability rather than acting proclivity, but that's OK because the dopey plot is just an excuse to thread together the dance numbers, each one more insane than the last. Example: One show-stopper ends with dancer-welders having spontaneously constructed a giant robot statue outside a business plaza. The movie is a delicious flavor of crazy that I couldn't get enough of. The Blu-ray/digital copy combo includes deleted scenes, choreography breakdowns, music videos and spotlights on the cast.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Nov. 27 Blu-ray/DVD releases:Men in Black 3, Lawless, ParaNorman

Lawless — The Prohibition-era thriller, based on real lives of the moonshine-running Bondurant clan, casts Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as brothers who try to throw their weight around, facing off with a corrupt lawman (Guy Pearce). Gary Oldman burns up the screen as a controlling thug, Jessica Chastain is a dancer who gets mixed up with the brothers, and Mia Wasikowska checks in as a preacher's daughter whom LaBeouf's character is sweet on. An engaging thriller from wire to wire, the movie is a step in the right direction for LaBeouf, who takes a break from silly action movies to show some range. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes filmmaker commentary, a featurette on the real-life Bondurants and deleted scenes.

Men in Black 3 — Due out Friday, this unasked for sequel re-teams Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as wise-cracking, alien-battling secret agent partners. As agent J, Smith time-travels back to 1969 to prevent Agent K (played by Jones in the present, and Josh Brolin back in the day) from being assassinated. Smith had been out of the game for several years, but he re-asserts his star power with authority, maintaining solid chemistry with both Brolin and Jones. The special effects are more silly than convincing, but they work for an action comedy. The high-end set includes 3D and 2D Blu-ray versions of the movie, as well as the DVD and digital copies. Extras peek into the effects, a gag reel and loads of making-of featurettes that look at the 1969 sets and break down some of the more memorable scenes.

ParaNorman — In one of the better animated movies released this year, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, John Goodman and Casey Affleck lend their voices to a gothic  tale about a sad boy with a The Sixth Sense-like ability to speak to ghosts. He comes of age after he discovers a secret behind a witch's curse and rounds up some kids to save the town. Although the story lacks imagination, the visuals and atmosphere are refreshingly morbid, reminiscent of Coraline. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes filmmaker commentary, as well as several featurettes that take you through the animation process.

Sparkle — Due out Friday, the drama stars Jordin Sparks in a remake of a 1976 film about a Supremes-like group who rise to fame in the 1960s. In her final role before her untimely passing, Whitney Houston plays a mother who disapproves of her daughter's choice of career. The melodrama is paint-by-numbers, but Sparks shines in her many show-stopping musical numbers. CeeLo Green and Derek Luke make solid impressions in supporting roles. The Blu-ray/digital copy combo includes filmmaker commentary, a tribute to Houston and a making-of featurette.

Transformers Prime: Season 2 — The re-imagining of the 1980s-spawned vehicle-robot warriors saga is sharper, more coherent and just flat-out better than any other take on the material, including any of the Michael Bay films. In season two, the Autobots and Decepticons stumble onto some previously unknown facts about the destroyed planet they used to share, learning it might be possible to bring it back to life. The set includes all 26 episodes, a San Diego Comic-Con panel, as well as interviews with the show's creative staff.

Screeners were provided by the studios for review.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: Red Dawn

If you doubt North Korea could ever generate the firepower to assault the United States, the Red Dawn remake will put those fears to rest instantly. The movie explains exactly how the North Koreans would get it done:

Step one: Wait until the U.S. sends all its troops away to foreign wars, leaving the homeland vulnerable.

Step two: Blast the entire country with The Matrix Revolutions-like EMPs, knocking out the power while maintaining communications with magical Game Boy Advances.

Step three: Borrow heavy weaponry from Russians, who are still secretly Soviets who want to take us over just as badly as they did in the Reagan era, but are waiting for just the right moment to ride the coattails of a crazy dictatorship.

Step four: Have nothing whatsoever to do with China, your communist superpower ally who have been cleanly erased from the movie, despite having served as the villains in the original version, which was supposed to come out in 2010, before the powers that be thought twice about offending a country that we borrow so much money from and lords such a hefty trade deficit over us.

The North Koreans' plan covers all contingencies but one -- that a ragtag squad of high schoolers and their siblings might scurry into the woods, setting up a guerrilla resistance that will undermine the occupation from within, providing a shining light for the rest of the country to follow via a ham radio program.

Chris Hemsworth leads the way as Jed, a soldier who is back in town apparently using the G.I. bill to work on a degree on alcoholism. When he's sleeping one off, he wakes up to a dawn... A RED dawn. Parachuting North Korean troops fire madly at innocents, roll through the streets with tanks and herd timid surrender monkeys into work camps. Worse still, the North Koreans drop bombs that make American toy soldiers' on boys' shelves topple over. This, kids, is what the pros refer to as "symbolism."

Not having any of that, Jed gathers up his brother (Josh Peck), a hotshot high school quarterback who plays by his own rules, and assorted hangers-on and hightails it to the family cabin, where they will plan their resistance. He coaches his charges in the ways of Rambo-like special operatives through that most effective method of training -- the montage.

Once the kids are all montaged up, they're unstoppable forces of patriotism. They blow up transport vehicles, pop out of little holes in the ground to shoot up bad guys, level entire buildings and spray-paint "Wolverines" -- the name of the local high school football team -- on building walls. The North Koreans have the payback coming, being that they're cruel enough to park their tanks on the Wolverines' football field.

The movie works as a silly parade of ridiculous but fascinating action sequences, but flops as political fiction or coherent melodrama. The dialogue is hackneyed and the performances are Power Rangers-esque, and the script hews too close to the dramatic turns of the original, without managing to tap into a nerve that matches the Cold War paranoia the first movie fed off of.

The North Koreans are clownish parodies of bogeymen, no more threatening than Scooby-Doo villains. There's never a fear that they will succeed in their idiotic mission, because they're so incompetent and comically incompetent. At least they've got big guns, even if they don't know how to use them.

But still, they would have gotten away with it, if not for those darn kids.

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Adrianne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson, Josh Peck and Isabel Lucas. Written by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore, based on the 1984 screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius, which was based on Reynolds' story. Directed by Dan Bradley. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

The new Twilight movie is the opposite of the old ones. Meaning it's actually good. Sure, there are millions upon millions of people who will tell you all of the Twilight movies were not only good but so mind-blowingly awesome that they inspire the need to shriek with glee at the opening credits. But those are the people with the superhuman ability to not only endure boring, ridiculous things, but somehow appreciate the qualities that are hidden to nonbelievers.

This is the Twilight that bridges the two camps, which is as impressive a feat as getting Romney voters to affix I Heart Obamacare bumperstickers to their pick-up trucks, or Red Sox fans to wear pinstripes.

Director Bill Condon accomplishes this feat of wonder by using the cinematic technique known as Making Everything Opposite From Before.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 sprays a fire hose of sulfuric acid on all the annoyances from the first four movies. Instead of fragile courtships and unfulfilled longing between a 100-something-year-old undead demonbeast stalker and a sullen teenage girl who's all about that kind of thing, you get rock'n vampire-on-vampire sex.

Instead of a poor, put-upon werewolf boy who won't take the hint that object of his obsession is just not that into him, you get an assertive wolfman who exacts sweet revenge on the condescending couple by claiming their Miracle-Gro daughter as his to protect and, uh... I'd rather not know what else.

Instead of brooding vampires who sparkle and play baseball, you get amazing X-Men vampires -- let's call 'em X-Pires -- who shoot electricity and a lethal substance that can only be described as "death smoke' out of their palms, mind-control their friends and enemies alike and rip each other's heads off.

About those vampire heads. They're not so much ripped off as they are popped. Not unlike Legos. The movie made me long for the inevitable Lego Twilight video game, with a level entirely based on comical vampire head-popping.

You'd almost mistake this rock-em-sock-em version of Twilight for The Expendables 3 (X-Pendables 3?) if it didn't have so much Lilith Fair music, or the required narration-quotes that prove that Stephenie Meyer -- while a great storyteller -- is a supbar dialogue writer.

"Even though I was no longer human, I'd never felt more alive," or something close to that, Bella (Kristen Stewart) muses, making me realize that even though I am not hovering above a toilet, I'd never felt more of a need to puke.

But there is far more great than awful here. Starting with Bella.

Now that she's fully transformed into a vampire, Bella is free to drop her quiver, stare-at-the-ground and roll-eyes act to show some attitude. She wrestles mountain lions, leaps off mountains and emits a magic cloud-shield that can block the attack of any other X-Pire. She conjures Lilith-fair-music-backed montages of past Twilight romance scenes, as if to mock their inadequacy. Now THIS is a Bella worthy of having a vampire and werewolf fighting over.

And man, is there some great fighting in this movie. The slim story exists to put together a fang-baring rumble in the middle of a meadow, pitting good X-Pires from most ethnic group against evil, hooded Italian X-Pires. It's a 20-minute throw-down that would rival any prison riot, complete with gnashing werewolf teeth, X-Pire head popping and the very crust of the earth cracking, as if even the ground we walk on is impressed enough to unleash a broad, appreciative smile.

I wouldn't say this good Twilight is so good it makes it worth suffering through four awful ones worthwhile, but it's most rewarding to those who endured all the pain of the past four years in order to taste the sweet, sweet nectar of an X-Pire prison fight.

Finally, there is something we can all agree on: Twilight is awesome. Trust me, I'm shrieking on the inside.

Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner and Ashley Greene. Written by Melissa Rosenberg, adapted from the Stephenie Meyer novel. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why Silver Linings Playbook is the worst kind of sports movie

A movie that makes itself about the culture of a specific team and its tribe, much like a movie that makes itself about a video game, is doomed to failure and the sneering rants of the material and people it claims to know and show.

This is just a fact we fans of sports and movies must accept. We can accept fictionalized nonsense like Jerry Maguire and stylized insanity like Any Given Sunday, because they use mostly made-up players. What's harder to take is a movie that tries so hard to get things "accurate" but has no interest in the details.

Silver Linings Playbook, from NYC native director David O. Russell, is the worst type of sports movie.

It's a movie that Philadelphia Eagles fans will adore for all its references to the team and its fans' anxieties, traditions and hang-ups. It's a movie that Philadelphia Eagles fans will hate for its lack of consistency, existing in a meta-world in which the team has a smattering of players it's picked up (Nnamdi Asomugha), cut (Donovan McNabb) and traded away (Kevin Kolb) in the last few seasons.

The movie gets too many things right to get so much wrong. It understands the team's uncanny ability to inspire as much pride in its consistent, Andy Reid-infused competence and seething hatred of its consistent, Andy Reid-infused tendency to inexplicably collapse at crucial moments. It understands that the Eagles pet name to fans is "The Birds." It understands that the Eagles' fans are some of the most pathetic and downtrodden subsets of humanity, prone to sneering cynicism when the team wins, shame coupled with genuine shock when it flops — the same reaction of a dog when it's put outside for the third day in a row for chewing up the same sofa seat three days in a row — and ignorant, fierce loyalty that only a Cubs fan could sympathize with.

It's a movie that says a game against the Seahawks ended with a specific score, before later announcing a Seahawks game had a different score, incompatible with the first one — meaning either the screenwriters forgot they had already had characters reference the score earlier in the movie — or, more disconcertingly, that the movie takes place in a world in which the Eagles play the Seahawks twice in the regular season in the same year, a situation that's  impossible since the teams aren't in the same division.

Robert De Niro plays an obsessive-compulsive man who credits his superstitions for the team's success and blames the failures of his son, Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is recovering from breakdowns of his mind and marriage. His wife (Jacki Weaver) dons a Kevin Kolb jersey. Let's go ahead and excuse this as a commentary on her sense of misplaced nostalgia and loyalty, one that applies to the way she forgives Pat for flipping out and hitting her earlier in the movie.

What's inexcusable is a radio reference to Donovan McNabb (final Eagles season: 2009)  as the team's current quarterback, followed with a shot of a tailgating fan in a Nnamdi Asomugha (first Eagles season: 2011) jersey.

For the purposes of this movie, Michael Vick doesn't exist, which is just as well, given his lack of presence in box scores of his fantasy owners.

I have no allegiance to the Eagles, but as a fan of the Arizona Cardinals, winners of the last three matchups between the teams, I consider them my property and am disappointed to see my things mistreated.

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

You could say Pat Solitano doesn't have much going for him. Freshly yanked by his mom from a mental hospital after having been locked away for beating his wife's lover nearly to death, he's broke, socially awkward and directionless. An otherwise good guy who's prone to violent outbursts when he's off his meds -- which he always does his best to be -- he's not allowed to use a phone or contact his estranged wife.

On top of all that, he basis his self esteem on the performance of the perennially underachieving Philadelphia Eagles. When the team loses, as it always does, his crazytown dad blames him for not sitting in the right chair.

Playing a pitiable, psychologically damaged goofball is something new for Bradley Cooper, who is usually cast as a wise-cracking con man in The Hangover movies or the heroic stud in thrillers, like The A-Team and Limitless. For once, he's the guy to laugh at instead of with, but he's so aw-shucks earnest that you feel bad for chuckling at his failures.

Well, you feel bad for a while, until he starts hooking up with Jennifer Lawrence. And not just any Jennifer Lawrence, an emotionally unstable, sexually aggressive, highly flexible, spandex-wearing version of Jennifer Lawrence. Then you're convinced that whatever problems he's got don't mean nothin' and he's the luckiest bastard on the planet.

Lawrence's character is named Tiffany. She's a widow in her early 20s whom her sister (Julia Stiles) regards as a big enough loser to hook up with Pat, the best pal of her henpecked husband.

Yeah, you read that right. That's Saved the Last Dance Julia Stiles, in an actual acting role in an actual movie. Silver Linings Playbook is something like a lost and found of good actors, including Chris Tucker. And yeah, that's Friday "and you know this, maaan!" Ice Cube's sidekick Chris Tucker, acting in his first movie in half a decade, and his second in the last 11 years.

To that lost and found actor list you can also add Good Script Choosing Robert De Niro, who had been kidnapped by aliens 20 years ago and swapped out for Awful Script Choosing Robert De Niro. It's nice to have Good Script Choosing Robert De Niro back, if only for a moment.

Finding and sticking with the right tone in a black comedy like this is tough, but director David O. Russell, who's worked it in Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, knows what he's doing. Sure, the Lawrence character is unrealistic -- someone who is born not of flesh and blood but horny screenwriters' late-night fantasies. But it doesn't matter. She works in the film, either as a necessary narrative conduit for Cooper's self-discovery arc, or because she's Jennifer Lawrence in spandex. Not sure which.

A story device straight out of a 1980s high school comedy gets Tiffany to bribe Pat into training with her for a dance competition, and their training montages are intercut with the Eagles' season. No doubt the deleted scenes will show a disgruntled Stiles staring holes through Lawrence's spandex, bitter that the last dance is not saved for her in this movie.

You can tell where the romantic comedy part of the movie is going all along -- gee, will Pat stop obsessing over his wife and fall for Jennifer Lawrence in Spandex? -- but it doesn't matter, because the movie is funny and smart enough to distract you away from its nonsensical silliness.

Either that or because it's got Jennifer Lawrence in spandex.

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker and Julia Stiles. Written by David O. Russell and Matthew Quick. Directed by Russell. 120 minutes. Rated R.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Review: Arbitrage

If there were a movie about Mitt Romney, no one other than Richard Gere could play him. Just as Romney, unfairly or not, is typecast as an over-privileged, condescending, out-of-touch d-bag, those are pretty much the only roles Gere gets. Good thing Gere is better at Romney at doing what he does.

In Arbitrage Gere plays Robert Miller, a master of the universe who made a killing on betting on the housing bubble to burst. The world regards him in awe, as some sort of visionary — the Nate Silver of derivatives trading. But inside, Miller's world is dissolving. He's overextended, getting by on credit and image rather than cash. The feds are hunting him down, determined to send him and possibly his innocent heiress/business associate daughter (Brit Marling) to jail for corporate fraud, and then there's the bone-crusher, involving his mistress, a car accident and a sloppy cover-up.

Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki's drama tracks Miller's frantic struggle to keep things together by any means necessary. On the surface Miller appears to be a nice enough guy, but he's got a calculating, cold-blooded side that thrives on an uncontrollable survival instinct. He'll call in any favors he feels are owed to him and throw anyone in range under the bus to spare his own hide. The drive that got him to the top works to tear himself down even as he flails at the pieces of his life.

Susan Sarandon sparkles as Miller's socialite wife, who has made peace with the fact that she's married not to a man, but to an image that must be impeccably maintained, lest the trappings of her silver-lined life vanish. She, too, though, is a survivor, and is prepared to lock horns with her husband, using his betrayals as a bargaining chip to ensure she makes it out of the collapse intact.

Moving at a frenetic, Michael Clayton-like pace, Arbitrage is a gripping, if insignificant race to the bottom. I'm not sure why the movie was tabbed for awards consideration — there are no standout performances to fall in love with — but the film is a rugged page-turner, which is more than you can say for drawing room dullards that can dominate the season.

Starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth and Nate Parker. Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki. 107 minutes. Rated R.

Review: The Sessions

Cheryl is not a prostitute. Played by an oft-naked Helen Hunt, she says this over and over again, maybe to convince herself as much as her clients. She does, after all, accept money for sex. She's a sexual surrogate, and the therapy she provides is the type of healing Marvin Gaye used to sing about.

Taking cues from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, writer/director Ben Lewin's film is a study of spiritualism and sexuality through the eyes of a man held prisoner inside his own body. Based on the life of polio-stricken poet Mark O'Brien, who is played with beautiful empathy John Hawkes, the film regards the paralyzed, iron lung-bound, close-to-death man as a man who asks not for pity, but for help and grace.

A devout Catholic, he seeks approval from his priest before he hires Cheryl to not be a prostitute while still having sex with him. Lucky for him, he finds the coolest priest ever, played by William H. Macy, who is fine with breaking the whole no-sex-before-marriage rule, given Mark's circumstances.

The suspense and drama boil down to a few questions:

* Is Cheryl getting sweet on Mark, who falls instantly in love?

* Will they be able to work their way up to actual sex within Cheryl's strict, six-session limit?

* Will Mark gets the fulfillment he seeks, spiritually and, ahem, otherwise, or will the whole thing just pile onto his lifelong frustrations?

Methodical and awkward, the narrative unfolds painfully, while never losing its grip on the tender subject matter. You feel as embarrassed as Mark does when Cheryl disrobes, as if you're snooping on a moment too private for the eyes of an outsider. But also, you get the feeling that Cheryl, who is determined to keep a clinical, professional approach to a passionate act, wouldn't mind the audience.

The performances by Hunt, Hawkes and Macy are all stunning, and I'll cheer any awards they receive. Their film is more than a skin flick, despite it definitely being that. Just as Cheryl is more than a prostitute, while definitely still that.

Starring Helen Hunt, John Hawkes and William H. Macy. Written and directed by Ben Lewin. 95 minutes. Rated R.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Review: Skyfall

Skyfall is an awesome James Bond movie until it gets tired of all that, goes a little crazy and turns into a not-so-awesome Home Alone movie.

There you are, watching a solid Bond until suddenly the Home Alone phase kicks in and there you are with a booby trap-laden house that adorable little Kevin, uh, I mean tough, gritty James Bond, uses to knock off a sneaky gang of terrorists one by one. Well, sometimes four by four.

Nothing against Home Alone and its wacky slapstick antics, but you'd think a superagent with 50 years of experience would be able to think of a better plan than running off to booby trap a mansion. Then again, maybe all that experience is exactly why Bond does what he ends up doing. After half a century you start to run out of ideas and just start repeating things you saw in Macaulay Culkin movies.

It's eyebrow-raising to see an Oscar-winning director like Sam Mendes take on a Bond flick. His presence can mean one of two things: That the American Beauty/Road to Perdition filmmaker is adding resonance, style and depth to a franchise known for its bombastic silliness, or that he's hard up and slumming for a paycheck. With Skyfall, both turn out to be true.

What the movie does well, it does very well. Start with the villain, a hackerterrorist (if that wasn't a word before, it deserves to be now, thanks to this movie) played by Javier Bardem, back in the full-throttle creeptastic zone he entered in No Country for Old Men.

His name is Silva, and he's the definition of beast mode. He can easily escape an underground plastic cell that looks like the one Magneto was trapped in at the end of the first X-Men movie. He can gross people out by pulling out dentures and revealing hillbilly teeth. He can tie James Bond to a chair and share his evil plans while totally getting to second base with him. Vampish Bond girls are a well-known phenomenon, but for a minute there, Silva is the first Bond guy.

There's more. Silva is so good with computers that he can push a button and make anything, anywhere explode. Sure, his plans for world domination may be lacking in creativity -- he grabs a hold of the proverbial file that lists the identity of every embedded secret agent around the world -- but he carries out  his cliche antics with a flourish that recalls Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

Craig is nearly as intense, continuing to do his Jason Bourne-style Bond thing, dispensing the usual tricky Bond gadgets for the old-fashioned technique of shooting guys in the face. Craig's Bond seemingly learned how to fight from Call of Duty and has little need for disguises, compulsive womanizing, awful sex puns or jetpacks. Lucky for him, his Steve McQueen cool makes up for his lack of self-aware sass.

Mendes and his screenwriting crew try to flesh out the characters, tying Bond, Silva and M (Judi Dench) together with a dark past. The effort is far deeper than the usual Bond villain motivation, but seems a little forced and stiff, requiring characters to swap exposition-revealing monologues to fill us all in on who's got a grudge against who and why.

I could have done without the way the movie tries to issue a Batman-like origin for Bond that explains his drive and dedication. The character works better as a mysterious cipher you can't quite peg rather than a scared little boy who has built a hardened shell in which to hide.

Although the writing may be off, the action is superb. The movie is best when it shuts up and blows stuff up, sending Bond off on a wild spree of collapsing subway tunnels, blistering shootouts and lungs-burning chases.   The first hour and change is nearly all action, and it's impossible to wipe the grin off your face. The movie could have ended at the halfway point, failed to wrap up most of its plot threads and just said "Hey, that's all for now. Come back for the sequel," and would have left me with nothing to complain about.

But this is a Bond movie that wants to be more, and by reaching too far, it ends up missing greatness and pulling down Home Alone. It's enough to make you clasp you hands to your face while that grin turn into a look of shock, much like that of little Kevin when he tries to shave.

Starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw and Naomi Harris. Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, based on Ian Fleming's characters. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rated PG-13. 143 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: Wreck-it Ralph

If you're going to rip off an animated movie, make it Toy Story.

That's the path plowed by Wreck-it Ralph, an animated Disney comedy that answers the question kids ponder: What do video game characters do when the arcade is closed?

They only ask that question, though, after wondering "What's a video arcade?" and "Why would people keep popping quarters in a machine when they can just download games for a buck on their iPhones?

The best answer parents can give to those inquiries from their adorable offspring is "Shut up. Just watch. Stop ruining the movie for me."

This is definitely one of those movies that parents like me are frighteningly overeager to drag their kids to, rather than the other way around. That's because of the trailer, which gives away the movie's best scene: Disgruntled villain Wreck-it Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) seeking comfort in a gaming bad guy support group that includes Bowser, Dr. Robotnik a pair of Street Fighter guys and a generic zombie. As soon as I saw that trailer either me or my 5-year-old jumped up and down with glee, declaring it to be the best movie ever based on that scene alone. I'll leave it to you to guess which of us it was.

While watching the full movie — which unfortunately does not consist entirely of support group meetings — dampened my enthusiasm a bit, it still gave me to grab the arm of 5-year-old Luke or my 3-yaar-old, Emma and inappropriately shout "Oh my gosh did you just see that!!" Prompting them to shush me.

Director Rich Moore, a veteran of animated TV (The Simpsons, The Critic, Futurama), crams his first feature film with enough gaming references to make you toss up your hands like a dead 8-bit Mario in Super Mario Bros. What the movie lacks in cohesive story it makes up in appreciation for a youth well wasted pouring lunch money into thirsty coin slots.

Strip away the gaming references — and the movie does just that in its feet-dragging middle act — and it's debatable as to whether Wreck-it Ralph is still a good movie. The film sputters when it focuses on the mechanics of its silly plot, involving Ralph's efforts to retrieve a hard-fought medal from sprightly kart racing character Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who is determined to show up her condescending competitors by winning the big race at the end of the movie. Ralph was a made-up guy from a made-up game, except for the fact that there is a real Wreck-it Ralph game now, which in turn is based on this movie, so he's actually... Sorry, my brain just melted.

Also along for the ride are Ralph's archrival Fix-It Felix (Jack McBreyer), modern shooter Rambo-woman Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and about ten thousand real and made-up game characters voiced by the likes of Mindy Kaeling, Ed O'Neill, Adam Carolla, Dennis Haysbert and Horatio Sanz. There are parallel stories of redemption, yadda yadda, and one emotional moment that managed to make Luke start to cry, but otherwise this is a copy of the Toy Story plot that left the pathos untouched.

Like most any game, Wreck-it Ralph is most fun when it's messing around without a particular goal. Like when Ralph heads over to the Tapper machine to drown his sorrows in what's described as "root beer" but what we all have known for 29 years is just beer. Or when he's chatting up gibberish-speaking Q*bert. Or, yeppers, that support group scene. Wreck-it Ralph himself may be a brute known for breaking stuff, but I'm happy to report his film did not break my games-loving heart.

Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch. Written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston. Directed by Rich Moore. Rated PG. 108 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: Fun Size

I guess it's called Fun Size because the marketing team wasn't cool with more accurate titles such as Drudgery Size, Fun Sighs or Don't Watch This Awful Movie.

The Halloween-themed comedy nails the "trick" part of the deal but is light on the "treat" part of the equation.   Put it this way, the movie's funniest character is the only one who doesn't talk.

Director Josh Schwartz, who has directed several episodes of just about every CW show you could imagine, seems to be going for the wacky 1980s teen comedy vibe of Weird Science and Adventures in Babysitting -- the kind of movie in which little kids slip into strangers' cars and people pull out and shoot guns for no reason, and everyone is cool with it.

Victoria Justice, or as her birth certificate identifies her, Miniature Megan Fox With Slightly More Acting Ability, manages to escape from the cage Nickelodeon keeps her in to star in a movie. She plays Wren, a social outcast who goes to the one school in the country in which ridiculously attractive girls aren't popular. This would be Wren's big night to move up into the A list and make out with a dreamy popular kid at his big party, except for the fact that her mom is forcing her to take her 8-year-old brother (Jackson Nicoll) trick-or-treating.

The kid, who doesn't talk either because he's distraught that his dad died or he refuses to recite anything in the idiotic script, scampers off into the night. Wren recruits a fellow dork (Thomas Mann) who's got a crush on her to escort her around town searching for her brother in an obstacle course of bonkers mishaps that will have you cackling -- at yourself, for mistakenly thinking you had a good idea by spending money on tickets to this thing. 

On the rare occasion something funny happens, the movie goes and screws it up. Case in point, when a giant, robotic fast food chicken sign falls down and starts making sweet love to a Volvo, all the extras stand around laughing at it way too hard, Hoovering away the moment. Then we get more footage of the chicken rocking the Volvo's world, and then still some more. And more over-laughing. 

Wren's bestie, April (Jane Levy), is such a great pal that she jokes constantly about the kid being lost and urges her to forget about it and go to the big party. There's far too little screen time spent on the kid, who could play Jay and Silent Bob's lovechild in the next Kevin Smith movie and will definitely make a solid street mime one day.

Chelsea Handler, age 37, must have an agent to fire since she's already getting miscast as mommy of people like 19-year-old Justice, which is almost like casting the Olsen twins as Elizabeth Olsen's grandmas. Awkwardly, Handler's character exists in the movie only to be made fun of for how old she is.

Johnny Knoxville, on the other hand, needs to give his agent a shoulder rub because he somehow managed to score him an acting gig in a non-direct-to-video flick for the first time since people thought making a movie of The Dukes of Hazzard was a great idea. Knoxville plays a thug whose big moment comes when he confronts a flaming bag of poop.

There are many applicable metaphors in that scene, but I'll leave you to interpret them as you see fit.

Fun Size boils down to a rotating festival of three separate, equally dull movies: Wren's boring chase, the kid's amusing-but-disturbing escapades and Handler's desperate attempts to claw her way out of the screen and strangle those responsible for sticking her there. As far as Halloween-season entertainment options go, you'd be better off bobbing for apples embedded with razor blades.

Starring Victoria Justice, Chelsea Handler, Jackson Noll and Josh Pence. Written by Max Werner. Directed by Josh Schwartz. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Review: Argo

It may be hard to believe in our peaceful times, but back in 1979, the United States didn't get along so well with Iran, which seized 52 hostages from the American embassy in protest. They would have taken six more had they not escaped and holed up in the Canadian embassy until the CIA rescued them by masquerading as a movie production.

It's a story so outrageous and silly, not the least because it was known by such as stupid name as the Canadian Caper, that it would be laughed out of production meetings had it not actually happened and were it not backed by documents declassified in 1997. It was such a brazen, daredevil operation that it can only be dramatized by Daredevil himself.

Ben Affleck produces, directs and stars in a Ben Affleck production of a Ben Affleck film about Ben Affleck being Ben Affleck. Also, Affleck Affleck Affleck.

Affleck has come a hell of a long way since he pranced around as a blind superhero in red tights. With Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now this film, he's developed an untouchable resume as a filmmaker that's almost stunning enough to make everyone forgive him for starring in Gigli, Jersey Girl, Reindeer Games and Paycheck. Almost.

He plays CIA operative Tony Mendez, who concocts the idea to rescue the hidden hostages by dreaming up a movie so awful that Affleck would have starred in it 10 years ago. It's a sci-fi film called Argo about a planet that looks exactly like Iran. It's up to Mendez and the hostages to convince Iranian officials that the movie was commissioned by a Hollywood studio that dispatched six Canadian crew members that need to do some location scouting just as the hostage crisis is going on.

Affleck is good enough in the role to chase away rumors that he was only cast because he was sleeping with the director. The ever scarier-Bryan Cranston breaks good in playing a CIA boss who champions the caper amid a doubting home office. Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the guys who have the easiest part of the mission -- to stay home and answer an office phone in case dudes at the Iranian airport call to check out whether or not Argo is a real movie.

Affleck makes the movie resemble something made in the late 70s or early 80s, thanks to all the period detail, including feathered hair, sideburns, 'staches and giant collars. If it's tough to add suspense to a story that history dictates will turn out OK for the good guys, the movie doesn't show it. Certain doom seems to be waiting for the escapees at every turn, narrowly avoided by equal parts moxie, misdirection and luck. The intensity starts as a slow grind and continues to ratchet up until the end, when you've warped both armrests with nonstop squeezing from your trembling fingers.

There's only one significant flaw in the movie, but it is a major one. It's that A Flock of Seagull's "I Ran (So Far Away)" is not the theme song. If you can overlook that shortcoming, you'll likely be entranced by Argo. If you cannot overlook that shortcoming you will hate it and Affleck will have to deal with life without your approval.

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Taylor Schilling. Written by Chris Terrio. Directed by Affleck. 120 minutes. Rated R.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.