Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: Bullet to the Head

Sylvester Stallone may be old, but he refuses to play the old guy. He takes on the same types of roles he did 30 years ago -- often literally, when he makes Rambo and Rocky sequels. He's taken out restraining orders against gray hairs, wrinkles and flab. His muscles are probably the great-grandchildren of his 1970s muscles, who have all decided to stick around.

His delivery in Bullet to the Head is as wooden and garbled as ever. That's as it should be. An enunciating Stallone is hardly a Stallone at all, and would be like a Bogart who didn't snarl as he spoke or a Jimmy Stewart who didn't stutter or stretch out his vowels. This is Stallone the persona, roaming the New Orleans streets as a hitman with a heart of deer antler extract, narrating his own story like a 1940s gumshoe while spitting out 1980s catch-phrases and good-natured ironically racist jokes that might have been taken at face value in the 1970s.

His de facto partner is Taylor (Sung Kang), a D.C. cop who's under deep cover, trying to track down some mob boss or other who's connected to an evil land developer who wants to tear down old barns before kids can save them by staging musicals. Taylor exists as a surface for Stallone to bounce the post-racist jokes off of, and to antagonize the anti-hero by hitting on his semi-estranged tattoo-artist daughter.

The broad outlines of the movie are as irritatingly and comfortinly predictable as possible, but the finer details keep you on your toes. Director Walter Hill, showing a whisper of the action-crazy bliss he established in The Warriors (1979), 48 Hrs. (1982) and Red Heat (1988), gleefully trots out one bad guy boss after another, letting Stallone and his compadres cap one without a thought before they can get into Bond villain-style explanations of their sinister plans.

Bullet to the Head is a little smart in the way it's so unapologetically stupid. It drags and sags a little, then doubles back to make things right with its utter, detached cool.

The silly affair is as disposable as a tinfoil bubble gum wrapper, but just as shiny. You could get by without it, but this is a little something more than another box to check off for Stallone completionists. The everlasting gobstopper of an action star has done far, far, better and indescribably worse. An average Stallone is still better than most anything you can find in this advanced age.

Staring Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Sarah Shahi and Christian Slater. Written by Alessandro Camon, based on a graphic novel by Alexis Nolent. Directed by Walter Hill. Rated R. 91 minutes.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Jan. 29 Blu-ray/DVD releases

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2

Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, about Batman coming out of retirement to take one last stab at cementing a legacy of stomping out crime, gets the second of its two-part animated film adaptation. The second volume is even more fascinating and fast-paced than the first, released in September. A jingoistic Superman comes into play, tangling with the Caped Crusader in a politically-tinged power play that involves Ronald Reagan. Moving and unabashedly mature, this is perhaps the finest Batman tale yet told. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo boasts a look at the adaptation, a digital comic and a featurette on the Superman-Batman clash.

Die Hard: 25th Anniversary Collection Blu-ray 

It's hard to beat the value proposition offered by the 2007 Die Hard Blu-ray compilation, but this one takes an honest stab at it by piling on a disc full of new extras. The new set, like the one from more than five years ago, includes the first four movies in the series. The new slate of extras is imprssive, paying tribute to the series' pop culture influences, its impact on the action genre, the choreography of the fight sequences and the makeup of Bruce Willis's unflappable hero cop, John McClane. Whether or not the bonuses are worth shelling out $40 for the new set rather than $30 for the old one is debatable.

Hotel Transylvania 

I was disappointed that this one didn't snag a best animated film Oscar nomination, because it was my second favorite movie in the category last year, after Wreck it Ralph. An exuberant and stupendously hammy Adam Sandler voices Dracula, an overprotective dad who has sheltered his annoyed daughter (Selena Gomez) while running his business, a sanctuary for creatures of the night that protects them from dreaded people. A romance inevitably unfolds, with Drac's daughter spurning the monster lifestyle to fall in love with a human visitor. Creative visual effects, clever writing and a dynamite voice cast that includes Steve Buscemi, CeeLo Green, Kevin James and Andy Samberg ratchets up the excitement level. The 3D/2D Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo oozes with extras, including the short Goodnight Mr. Foot, three deletd scenes, filmmaker commentary and a slew of entertaining background featurettes.

Screeners were provided by the studios for review.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Jan. 22 Blu-ray/DVD releases

End of Watch

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play young, idealistic LAPD cops who aim to make a name for themselves while pounding the mean streets of South Central. The story unfolds through a found footage narrative, purportedly shot by the cops as they patrolled their beat, which features an improbably high amount of shootouts and other deadly confrontations. The performances and chemistry of the lead and believable, improvised dialogue keep the drama grounded. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes writer/director David Ayer's commentary, deleted scenes and a slew of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

For a Good Time, Call...

Graynor and Lauren Miller get together for a comedy about mismatched Manhattan roommates who team up for a lucrative phone sex business. Taking the same concept as Two Broke Girls and taking it on all sorts of joyfully dirty tangents, the movie rarely fails to deliver the good time promised in the title. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo includes the theatrical and unrated versions of the film, deleted scenes, filmmaker commentary and a making-of featurette.

That Obscure Object of Desire Blu-ray

Luis Bunuel's final film is also one of his finest efforts. In the 1977 masterwork, the filmmaker explores obsessive lust through the warped lens of a wealthy widower (Fernando Rey) who longs for an ever-out-of-reach younger woman (played alternately by Carole Bouquet ad Angela Molina). He chases her desperately, venturing into dark, disturbing territory. The film features background interviews, a featurette on the odd yet appropriate dual-actress casting and a retrospective of Bunuel's career.
Screeners were provided by the studios for review.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Jan. 15 Blu-ray/DVD releases

Farewell, My Queen 

This sumptuous French film delivers a far more authentic take on the final days of Marie Antoinette than what Sofia Coppola delivered in her 2006 take on the material. Diane Kruger shows the youthful monarch quickly evolve from a sheltered, near-oblivious untouchable to a marked woman whose life and institution are crumbling at her feet. Lea Seydoux plays a member of the court whom Antoinette invites into her inner circle, becoming privy of her sexual relationship with a duchess (Virginie Ledoyen). A plot unfolds that tests the Seydoux's character's loyalty, leading to an excruciating finale. A making-of featurette and filmmaker interview round out the disc.

Hannah and Her Sisters Blu-ray

Woody Allen's 1986 relationship dramedy rounds up Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Dianne West and Barbara Hershey for a wince-inducing tapestry of failed marriage, sibling rivalry and midlife discontent. Allen's talent for witty screenwriting and note-perfect observational touch are in full force, and his stunning cast never fails to mesmerize. The disc lacks extras.

Life's Too Short

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant continue to keep pumping out offbeat HBO comedy series, this time taking a mokumentary angle in which famed little person Warwick Davis (Willow) plays a pathetic, desperate-for-attention version of his real-life self. Consistently funny and bittersweet, the narrative allows Davis to do some excellently insightful work, providing a peek into something that seems like genuine perspectives on fading stardom and social double standards. The DVD set is light on extras.

Taken 2 

Liam Neeson reprises his role as a former CIA agent who rescued his daughter from a kidnapping. Now he tangles with the dad of one of the scumbags he killed in the 2008 film, seizing his wife and holding her captive in Turkey. While Neeson is as intense as ever, proving himself time and again to be a reliable action star, the story feels tired and worn-out. The proceedings don't flow with the raw urgency of the first film, taking on the forced tone of a Die Hard sequel. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack includes a bonus unrated cut, deleted and extended scenes, alternate ending and a smattering of background featurettes.

To Rome with Love 

Woody Allen, who writes, directs and appears in this madcap, Rome-set comedy of interrelated characters, is still a capable filmmaker, but his comic touch isn't what it used to be. It's still fun to see him round up a gang of acolyte megastars and do his thing though. As always, Allen's cast is staggering. Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz and Alec Baldwin all show up, with Allen playing a retired opera director who longs to make a comeback, and Eisenberg as Allen's younger, neurotic surrogate, who juggles romances with Gerwig and Page. The jokes are hit and miss, but overall the movie is a marginally enjoyable romp. A background featurette takes a rare peek into Allen's filmmaking process, and cast interviews pepper the extras.

Screeners were provided by the studios for review.

Friday, January 11, 2013

What I Learned from the Guinness World Records 2013 Gamer’s Edition

Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition books are known for providing benchmarks to gauge your own skills against the history’s greatest, but the latest volume provides so much more.

This year’s edition is chock full of valuable knowledge about the 2012 gaming year – or at least about the 2012 gaming year as of the book’s copy deadline of September, as viewed through the lens of marginally informed editors.

I do my best to keep up on gaming news, but the book – which came out Jan. 13 – boasted plenty of mind-blowing nuggets that I somehow had missed.

Here’s what I learned:

* Controversially hiding DLC characters on a disc can net a game a world record. Street Fighter X Tekken snagged the Most DLC Characters in a Fighting Game for the clever tactic. (Page 94)

* EA Sports’ NBA Live franchise, the torch holder for the Best-Selling Basketball Franchise, is “back on track with a scheduled NBA Live 13 Reboot,” despite the vaporware having been canceled in September. Swoosh! (Page 160)

* There is a redeeming quality of the much-derided Vita title Resistance: Burning Skies. Says the book, “The first FPS on a portable console to use dual stick control also has an online option to give gamers the novelty of enjoying deathmatches on the bus or even in the bath!” Which is nice, because slogging through a game with a Metacritic rating of 60 can leave you feeling a bit dirty. (Page 30)

* That despite what rimshot-seeking, sexist comedians of the 1980s would have you believe, females actually can drive, at least in Mario Land. Thirteen-year-old Leyla Hasso, as of Sept. 19 2013, held 30 of the 40 possible time trial records on the PAL version of the game.  Oddly, there is no mention of a male version of the record in the game, nor any distinction between male and female records elsewhere in the book.  (Page 134)

* Draw Something is the Fastest-Growing Multiplayer Mobile Game, for having picked up 50 million players in the 50 days following its launch in February 2012. This despite the game having hemorrhaged 5 million players in May, after the Zynga takeover of developer Omgpop.

* No one does solar system volume like EVE Online, except for EVE Online. The book hails EVE Online for boasting the Most Solar Systems in an MMO, breaking its own record in March 2009, expanding its universe from 5,431 to 7,699 solar systems. (Page 109)

* Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the world record holder for Most Advanced Hand-held Platform Game, despite not being all that good (Page 112).

The publisher provided a copy of the book for review.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: Gangster Squad

Judged by modern standards, Gangster Squad is a pretty terrible movie. It gives haters plenty of hate to make unsweetened haterade with, and share it with one another at haters' balls, which are the types of parties everyone says they'll go to before bailing out at the last second with lame excuses.

Count me among those who bail. Gangster Squad may be a poor movie, but it's a top-a-the-heap gangsta pitcha. That's "gangster picture" pronouned in the voice of a 1920s newsreel announcer in 1940s gangsta pitchas, in case you were wondering. And as a gangsta pitcha, it's a heck of a video game.

The look, vibe and narration are straight out of the video game L.A. Noire, which is a distillation of the sorts of pulp fiction that Quentin Tarantino sent up and paid tribute to in Pulp Fiction. Gangster Squad is so pulpy, Tarantino probably will remake it next year, with Christoph Waltz as Mickey Cohen and Quentin Tarantino as Random Australian Guy Who Is In The Movie For No Reason Whatsoever.

This gangsta pitcha, though, doesn't have scenes like Tarantino's movies do, but missions. And those missions are less L.A. Noire than Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne and Black Ops Negative 3, the unreleased prequel based in 1940s gangsta pitchas. L.A. Director Ruben Fleischer is obsessed with creating ludicrous and cheesy ways for armies of trenchcoat-wearing, fedora-donning cops and mobsters to shoot what the NRA would vehemently deny are assault rifles (because assault rifles don't exist and are just a lie propagated by government schools, much like the distributive property of algebra).

As top cop John O'Mara, Josh Brolin shoots everything on the screen until all the flashing red dots on the radar circle stop blinking.

Ryan Gosling, as his smarmy, womanizing sidekick, has a differrent job, which is to mumble "hey girl" to Cohen's girl, Emma Stone, until she becomes his emotional plaything. (This only takes the "hey" in the very first "hey girl" to work, by the way.) Sean Penn's job as Cohen is to snarl and rage around breaking stuff in his high-class dining room. Meaning he basically plays himself.

My favorite moment in the movie comes when Brolin's conscience gets to him and he starts questioning whether or not he's better than the gangsters he's going after, being that he too shoots up public places in desperate power plays. This wouldn't be as cool if it wasn't followed by what happened next; that he forgets all that because the gangsta pitcha video game tells him it's time for the END BOSS FINAL MISSION, in which he and the gangster squad most open fire with their non-assault rifles on a gangster-fortified fortress, eliminating all the red dots on the radar until it's time for the final Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots fistfight, which also has much in common with the Rocky Balboa-Tommy "Not-An-Assault-Rifle-Homonym" Gunn final throwdown at the end of Rocky V.

The world doesn't have enough movies in which the good and bad guy dispense with the guns to slug it out like men in the final battle, but if the trend started by Gangster Squad holds, 2013 will feature approximately 26 such movies. That will still leave us a few short of the quota required for everything to be right with the universe, but it will have to do for now.

Starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Seann Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi. Written by Will Beall. Directed by Ruben Fleishcer. 113 minutes. Rated R.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Jan. 8 Blu-ray/DVD releases


Erasing the memories of the crummy 1995 Sylvester Stallone adaptation, director Pete Travis enlists Karl Urban to play the helmet-wearing one-stop-shop cop/judge/executioner in a crime-ridden dystopia. He grudgingly totes along a trainee (Olivia Thirlby) as he takes on a scar-faced gangland hooker-turned-mastermind (Lena Headey). The action is crisp and entrancing, while the dialogue is as good as you could hope for in something like this, stopping short of embarrassing the actors. The Blu-ray/digital copy combo boasts featurettes that take a look back at the history of the comic book source material, as well as the making of the film. There's also a prequel motion comic.

Enlightened: Season 1

In one of Laura Dern's wackier roles, she plays a burned out corporate cog who tries to live down an infamous episode that leaves her jobless and dependant on her condescending mother (Diane Ladd). The HBO dramedy probes the silliness of office politics, while taking an honest and appreciable look at mental illness. While not always relatable, Dern is always fascinating to watch. Cast and crew commentaries and episode summaries fill out the set.

Episodes: Seasons 1 and 2 

The bitingly funny, network comedy-skewering Showtime series continues to evolve in its second frame, tracking the ups and downs of a British writing couple's efforts to stick by a bastardized version of ther U.K. hit. In a pompously self-deprecating role as himself, Matt LeBlanc turns in some inspired work. As the show-within-a-show's star, LeBlanc plays off his persona of an oblivous, entitled meathead with aplomb. More assured and quickly paced than in its promising first season, the show has truly come into its own. The two-disc set, which includes both seasons of the series, is light on extras.

Tim Burton's somewhat overlooked homage to the roots of horror films shines brightly, keeping his masterful record with animated movies intact. It's a tale of a boy who longs to bring his dead dog back to life with his scientific ingenuity. The heedlessly macabre tone treats its audience with respect without slavishly condescending to kiddos for easy chuckles, and the visual style, which pays tribute to 1930s and 40s horror classics, is elegant and haunting. The 3D and 2D Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo is loaded with extras, including the short films Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers and the original Frankenweenie, a look at the animation process and a music video.

Game Change 

A dead ringer for Sarah Palin in the role, Julianne Moore anchors the Cinderella story of the former Alaska governor's rise to the political stage when John McCain (Ed Harris) tabbed her to be her running mate in the 2008 presidential election. In the eye-popping political thriller that catalogs the campaign's surge and fade, Moore captures Palin's magnetic appeal, as well as her eager overconfidence and cut-throat backroom demeanor. A digital copy and a pair of making-of featurettes fill out the extras.

Hit & Run

Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell get together for an action comedy that's so forgettable it's tough to piece together the plot right after you've seen it. Shepard plays a reformed criminal in witness protection, guarded by an overzealous U.S. Marshal (Tom Arnold), who escorts his girlfriend (Bell) on an oddly dangerous ride to a job interview. Bradley Cooper and Jason Bateman embarrass himself by sleepwalking through bit parts in the pointless and humor-free affair that's livened occasionally by some cool stunt driving. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo inclues deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Screeners were provided by the studios for review.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Review: The Impossible

The Impossible must be called The Impossible because it's impossible to come up with a more generic title than The Impossible. Since movies are generally about seemingly impossible things that are shown to be possible onscreen, it's possible that just about any movie could be called The Impossible, thus it should be impossible that any filmmaker is willing to name his film The Impossible.

And yet, as The Impossible proves, it is possible for a movie to be called The Impossible.

Good thing for this movie with the impossibly dull title that it's impossibly good.

Spanish director J.A. Bayona, known for the 2007 horror film The Orphanage, which is so good it makes you want to high-five everyone you see, has clearly not spent the past five years playing sudoku. Instead, he must have been doing whatever it takes a budding filmmaking phenom to shake off a sophomore slump. Perhaps his activities included turning down chances to direct Resident Evil and/or Smurfs movies while brushing up on his digital tsunami recreation technique.

Instead, he and his team have fashioned a film that manages to be inspirational while soaked in the darkest of horror trappings, all wrapped up in - here's that word again - impossibly brilliant special effects and makeup that make it truly seem as though Naomi Watts was beaten about by a vividly rendered Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004, separated from her husband and children.

That husband would be Ewan McGregor, who rounds up two of the kids, only to toss them aside in order to find his wife and, apparently, the only child he really cares about. That would be his firstborn son (Tom Holland), who hangs out with his mom until she gets swallowed up by a questionably effective Southeast Asian healthcare system that Tea Partiers will surely somehow blame Obamacare for.

This is a weird story, yes. But it works because of the tear duct-flushing storytelling, passionate acting and ludicrously spot-on effects that show the tusnami's distruction on both macro and micro scales.

Based on a true story involving a family of Spaniards, the story shifts the ethnicity of the cast for no other reason than to underline the assumption that natural disasters only matter if they happen to English speakers. The thinking must have been that the compromise was a necessary evil in order to get as many people as possible to see the movie. The switcheroo is irritating at first, but only if you bothered to see where the movie came from. And it's easy to get over it due to the magnitude of the performances by watts and McGregor help you get over it.

Now that The Impossible is finally lurking into theaters after an under-the-radar platform release, you really should get out there and see it. You can not only do a heck of a lot worse these days, like maybe getting stuck with watching Russell Crowe sing all his dialogue or watching Quentin Tarantino reduced his command of the English language to a single, vile word. And, dare I say, it's nearly impossible to do better than buying a ticket to The Impossible.

Starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland and Samuel Joslin. Written by Sergio G. Sanchez. Directed by J.A. Bayona. 113 minutes. Rated PG-13.

How To Save $1,000

The Hampshire Review tells you how, borrowing some tips from Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel.