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.