FILM REVIEWS


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ZOMBIE ATTACK IN “WORLD WAR Z” THRILLS WITH LITTLE GORE

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

WORLD WAR Z (Rated PG-13) The fact that “World War Z” is rated PG-13 may be more informative than the film’s advertising about the frightening aspects of a global zombie invasion.  Most zombie films are full of blood and gore. “World War Z,” directed by Marc Forster, relies on suspense and gnawing tension, as the zombie contagion spreads quickly into an almost irreversible apocalyptic demise of the Earth.

This is not George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”  It’s not even what Quentin Tarantino would likely envision if he had the chance.  The use of blood and gore is minimal. The film opens with Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations investigator and global troubleshooter, making breakfast for his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and two young daughters.

The morning TV news talks about a rabies outbreak in some desolate region of the globe.  Nothing appears to be completely out of the ordinary, but we are left waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, and it does soon. All hell breaks loose during the morning rush-hour drive in downtown Philadelphia, as Gerry chauffeurs his family.  At first, police helicopters cruise above and motorcycle cops rush through the streets.

 Then complete panic and havoc reigns, as cars are overturned and hordes of zombies chase down pedestrians and pull people from their cars.  The transformation to the undead state takes only a matter of seconds. Gerry’s experience with terrorism in global hotspots like Chechnya and Africa serves him well to get his family to temporary safety outside the city.

His former employers beseech him to join their efforts to battle the zombie plague.  But first, there’s the terrifying matter of trying to reach a safe zone in Newark for a helicopter extraction. Once onboard an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean, Gerry’s family is granted sanctuary as long as Gerry agrees to join a task force to hunt down the source of the contagion.

Now bearded and long-haired, Gerry looks more like a surfer than the savior of the human race.  There’s no explanation as to why he’s the essential guy to do a job that would seem to require scientific or medical training. Nevertheless, Gerry is immediately dispatched to an Army base in South Korea where it is suspected the outbreak began.  Meanwhile, North Korea figured out a way to address the threat, one that would be a boon for dentures.

Apparently, zombies are stirred to action at the sound of the slightest bit of noise, and so Gerry barely makes it back on to his plane and safely out of Korea.His next destination is Israel, a country that is faring well, for the moment, in the war against the undead, particularly in the walled city of Jerusalem. In what looks like the siege of an ancient medieval city, the zombie attack on Jerusalem, where the sheer number of the undead allows a pyramid of bodies to breach the wall, is one of the film’s most chilling action pieces.

Gerry teams up with brave yet wounded female Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz) to get to the airport, catching the last commercial flight out of a city that is rapidly falling into the clutches of the flesh-eating zombies. With the help of his new colleague, Gerry is hoping to make it a remote World Health Organization facility, where reportedly a group of scientists have isolated themselves from other colleagues already infected.

The airplane ride turns out to be another exciting action piece, which is better left as a surprise.  I will say, however, that riding first-class is a better idea than coach. Okay, a very implausible thing occurs, but Gerry and Segen, against all odds, make it to the WHO’s medical research facility, where the key to saving the human race may be found in a lab occupied by zombies. The trick, of course, is for Gerry to figure out a way to sneak into an undead-infested facility to retrieve toxic substances that may, or may not, prove effective in repelling the zombies.

Interestingly, the film’s climax doesn’t fit the chaotic, action-filled sequences that came before, when the fight against the zombies involved plenty of brute force.  And yet, “World War Z” sustains its thrilling suspense to the very end.  In fact, when Gerry inoculates himself and stares down a zombie madly clicking his teeth, it’s just as exciting.

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ACTION FIREWORKS AND SPECTACLE FOR “MAN OF STEEL” TO SOAR

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

MAN OF STEEL (Rated PG-13) Superman is an American action hero.  Born on Krypton but raised as farm boy Clark Kent in Smallville, Kansas, in adulthood he donned the cape and became a reporter at the Daily Planet. As a DC Comics icon, Superman always stood for truth, justice and the American way.  From George Reeves in early TV series to the memorable Christopher Reeve performances, Superman has been a reliable staple in the pantheon of superheroes.

“Man of Steel” revives the franchise from the moribund efforts of its most recent cinematic past.  Director Zack Snyder (“300”), who fancies loud spectacles, seeks a darker remake in tone but one that nevertheless goes into overdrive on the explosive action. First appearing in Action Comics #1, published in 1938, Superman quickly became a cultural phenomenon, winning fans around the world in live-action and animated form, running the gamut from old radio programs to modern video games and social mediConsidering the caped crusader’s iconic status, little-known British actor Henry Cavill, who has the chiseled good looks for the part, has hit the cinematic jackpot in the role of the titular character in “Man of Steel.”

As the new Superman, Cavill’s journey to Earth begins when he’s only a small baby, placed in a spacecraft by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the wise Kryptonian who wants to fight back against the despotic General Zod (Michael Shannon). The film’s introductory sequence is an effective, efficient introduction to life on the dying planet of Krypton, and General Zod stages a coup, resulting in the first of many battles.

Fueled by a lust for revenge against Jor-El, the merciless Zod, after escaping imprisonment, sets course with his loyal henchmen to Earth in search of Kel-El (the birth name of Superman). By now, Clark Kent, dutifully raised by his loving Earth parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), is adrift on his own journey of self-discovery, working on a fishing boat.

 It’s not easy for Clark to conceal his special powers, especially when innocent people are threatened by acts of nature or deeds of treacherous wrongdoing.  Clark refuses to be a bystander to misfortune or injustice. After Clark saves a crew on an exploding ocean-based oil rig, the film focuses on enough flashbacks to his childhood to show how the future Superman had a cross to bear, willing to shoulder responsibility while dodging the credit for heroic acts.

Superman’s incredible powers make him practically invincible, and yet he’s constantly trying to avoid drawing any attention.  Yet the hard-nosed reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) figures out there is more to the mysterious loner than his handsome features and charm.The dark side of Superman is that, even with the support of a doting Earth-bound family, he’s never come to terms with his extraterrestrial origins, and that has been cause for a lonely existence.

Growing up in a small Kansas town, Clark was unable to remain unnoticed under the watchful and increasingly suspicious eyes of his neighbors, because he could never keep his special powers completely under wraps. Informed by his Midwest values, Clark finds it difficult to ignore his gifts, and so he abandons all he knows and the family he loves, wandering in a metaphorical desert of odd jobs and emotional isolation in search of his true self.

Clark’s solitary existence is an existential dilemma, knowing he’s not of this planet but has a role to play.  Being an outsider does not conceal his true nature, and that’s what makes him intriguing to Lois Lane, whose job is all about uncovering and exposing the truth. On an expedition to uncover a spaceship frozen in the Arctic ice, Clark connects with the ghost of his father Jor-El, acquiring the famous cape and learning about his true potential.

Clark’s introduction to his full range of abilities could not come sooner, given that General Zod and his minions have a charted a path to Earth, with the total annihilation of human civilization as their primary goal. As the humans are powerless to defend themselves against Zod, Clark assumes the identity of Superman in full wardrobe, informing Lois that the “S” on his costume stands for “hope” in the language of Krypton.

A full-scale assault is launched on Metropolis, the destruction so overwhelming that skyscraper buildings topple like toy models made of matchsticks.  Director Zack Snyder loves explosive devastation, and it shows here.The obliteration of structures is so overwhelming because the crazed Zod is obsessed with taking down Superman, no easy feat considering they are equally matched with super powers.

And so it goes that the violent clash between two beings with unearthly powers is not quickly resolved.  I doubt fans will complain, but it does appear that “Man of Steel” continues the fight scenes longer than necessary. A good measure of the success of “Man of Steel” is the very likely return of Henry Cavill in a sequel.  I have no inside connection to the thinking at Warner Bros., but I would be surprised if the next installment is not already underway.

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COMEDY TEAM TRYING TO MAKE GOOGLE FUNNY IN “THE INTERNSHIP”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

THE INTERNSHIP (Rated PG-13) It’s hard to believe that until now the comedy team of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, fantastic cut-ups in “Wedding Crashers,” has not reunited since 2005.  Fittingly, I had to look that up on Google.  Or maybe it was Bing.

According to “The Internship,” Google, depicted as a Disneyland-style workplace for geeks and nerds, may be the happiest employment place.  After all, the Silicon Valley headquarters comes complete with a beach volleyball court, an indoor slide and free food in the cafeteria. The movie’s high concept is to take two borderline middle-aged Luddites and stick them smack into the middle of the high-tech corporate culture of Google, where smug young techies toil away at the latest app.

Billy (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Owen Wilson) are salesmen of high-end wristwatches, but their crusty boss (John Goodman) informs them that they are “dinosaurs” for trying to sell watches in the age of smartphones. Suddenly out of work and with no prospects, Billy and Nick flounder on their separate ways.  Nick flails at efforts to sell mattresses for his sister’s obnoxious boyfriend (Will Farrell in a cameo role).

One of them hits upon the idea of enrolling in an online university so they can become college students qualified to enter the summer internship competition program at the Google campus.This inspired thought is fraught with peril since neither Billy nor Nick has any real knowledge of computers, particularly how to write code or design applications.  I feel their pain.

They commandeer a public computer away from school kids at the public library to do an online interview with the Google staff.  Speaking loudly and mugging for the camera, they come across ridiculously funny.

It appears that a “diversity” program at Google includes the enlistment of clueless white guys who spend much of their time making 1980’s pop cultural references, often to “Flashdance.”Once they arrive at the Google headquarters, Billy and Nick discover that they need to join a team of fellow interns in order to enter competitions that will determine the recipients of full-time positions.

Billy and Nick, though affable characters, prove to be about as popular with the interns half their age as lecherous old men at a beach party hosted by hot college girls.

Fortunately for them, a few of the interns are such social outcasts that even fellow geeks and nerds have avoided them.  Reluctantly, Billy and Nick are accepted by default into a small group. The de facto leader, if you will, is Lyle (Josh Brener) who desperately tries to fit in by uttering ill-fitting slang words.  Then there’s Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), the sullen loner openly contemptuous of the old guys.

The token Asian is Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael), a guy so rattled by his domineering mother that he plucks his eyebrows as a form of punishment for his self-diagnosed failures. The only female in the group is Neha (Tiya Sircar), a bright, intelligent beauty who overcomes her social awkwardness and sexual insecurity with helpful platonic advice from Nick. As a team, these disparate characters have about as much chance of winning a competition as a one-legged man in a potato sack race.  Initially, the college kids all feel that Billy and Nick are holding them back.

Things start to turn around after a Quidditch match goes badly in the first half.  With Billy and Nick inspiring the group with a pop culture pep talk, they nearly score an upset victory. We’ve seen this before in films like “Revenge of the Nerds.”  Here, the outcast kids are taunted by the snotty British jerk Graham (Max Minghella), who claims to be both physically and mental superior to his classmates.

Billy and Nick are subjected to pranks as well, such as being tricked into looking for Professor Xavier and finding a wheelchair-bound lookalike at Stanford who takes great offense to their insensitivity to his resemblance to a fictional “X-Men” character. While Billy and Nick bumble through most of the tech assignments, their worldly experience and charming ability to sell things prove to be a saving grace.  This should come as no surprise. The two middle-aged guys have some creative ways to loosen up their socially discomfited and gawky teammates, including a side trip to a San Francisco disco/strip club in Chinatown.

The humor, though, is mostly at the expense of Billy and Nick.  Billy insists on developing a program for “on the line” instead of online.  Nick clumsily works a charm offensive on a pretty midlevel manager (Rose Byrne).  “The Internship” doesn’t capture the manic lunacy of “Wedding Crashers,” but it makes good use of the affable charms of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.The film may seem like an unnecessary, even perhaps unwarranted love letter to Google, but there are things about this tech world culture that seem oddly amusing.

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“FAST & FURIOUS” RUNS STRONG ON HIGH-OCTANE ACTION FORMULA

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

FAST & FURIOUS 6 (Rated PG-13)  If anyone is unfamiliar with the “Fast & Furious” franchise, it’s a fair guess that person has been living under a rock or is a captive in the police state of North Korea where American films are banned. Except for the disdain of pretentious, high-brow film critics, “Fast & Furious,” running strong in its fifth sequel on the fast-paced thrills of underground car-racing, is enormously popular with the Cineplex crowd.

 “Fast & Furious 6” is a laudable successor to “Fast Five,” when the grease monkey crew, lead by Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), first met up with the no-nonsense federal Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a man with even more muscles than Toretto. Once again, the racing enthusiasts, mostly accustomed to running outside the law, are drawn back into a high-stakes assignment that might ordinarily fall into the domain of a James Bond-type adventure.

Since the Brazilian heist, the crew has been laying low, with ex-cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) living with his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster) and baby child in the Canary Islands. Dom, Brian and the entire gang remain fugitives from the law, constantly looking over their shoulders, no matter where they travel.  Previous good deeds don’t get them a free pass.

Agent Hobbs re-enters the picture with an offer the gang could refuse, but if they did there’d be no movie full of fast car chases with vast amounts of destruction and mayhem left in their wake. The assignment involves taking down the malevolent leader of an elusive criminal outfit, one that has targeted the defense capabilities of the Western world, including an American military base in Europe. The villain is a bloke with a British accent named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who’s got his hands on a nuclear weapon designed for annihilation of the West.  Ernst Stavro Blofeld would be proud of his evil ambitions.

 Other than the fact that Dom and Brian love to drive fast cars on crowded streets, what’s in it for the gang?  Hobbs offers all of them full pardons if they will come to London and get behind the wheel to take down Shaw’s organization. Complicating matters somewhat is the reappearance of Dom’s old girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who suffers from amnesia but still remembers how to deliver powerful kicks and punches.

 Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson are back to provide some comic relief and tech support.  Gal Gadot, very much the beautiful model-type, knows her way around fast cars, while Sung Kang knows his way around this lovely crew member. Fast car chases take place in the narrow streets of London, with plenty of vehicles getting rammed and flipped in the air like an automotive circus act.  Later the action gets ramped up to a tank on a highway chase. The best, and yet most ludicrous, chase of all involves the villain’s cargo plane trying to achieve lift-off while dragging several of the crew’s cars attached to towing hooks. 

You may take a deep breath long enough to realize that this one sequence takes so long that it has to be the world’s longest runway.  But like most things in this film, the incredulous does not matter. Let’s be clear about one thing:  “Fast & Furious 6,” like its worthy predecessors, is mindless entertainment of the first order.  But it is exceedingly good and provides great payoffs for action junkies.

There’s no sense denying that everyone needs to check their brains at the door.  Realism is an expendable commodity.  All you need to do is to hang on for a great ride filled with excitement and stimulation. Some critics have so much contempt that they will arrogantly claim that the film appeals to, in the words of one unnamed source, “the least-common denominator audience.” 

 I shall wear this offense to the general populace as a “badge of honor.”  What we have here is cartoon fun in great abundance.  A condescending, patronizing and pompous attitude is unnecessary and counterproductive.  Insulting the audience’s taste is no way to win an argument about a film’s merits.

 If you enjoyed most, if not all, of the “Fast & Furious” films, particularly the last one set in Brazil, you will likely find this sixth entry to be a winner. “Fast & Furious 6” tips its hand at the end with the introduction of a well-known British action figure.  Yes, number 7 is on its way, and it could get interesting.

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WILD, CRAZY ANTICS OF “HANGOVER” DIMINISH OVER TIME

                                                             A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THE HANGOVER: PART III (Rated R) The wild and crazy times cannot last forever when the party scene begins to lose steam and fizzle out.  That’s pretty much the case with “The Hangover” franchise.The first “Hangover” film was, and remains, the best of the series.  The setting of Las Vegas for a bachelor party gone horribly wrong resulted in comedy gold. 

 The second film took the Wolfpack to Thailand, where the boys encountered their nemesis Mr. Chow and made a series of bad decisions, of which some were quite comical. Nevertheless, “The Hangover Part II” didn’t manage to completely capture the absurdist comic elements of the original.  So it appears a return to Vegas is now in order.

Now two years later, “The Hangover Part III” opens with the clueless member of the Wolf pack, Alan (Zach Galfianakis), a man-child still living at home, thinking it would be a good idea to adopt a pet giraffe.The group’s black sheep has ditched his meds and given into his natural impulses in a big way, resulting in a complete lack of good judgment while typically operating without boundaries. Alan’s family decides it is time for an intervention, and the best ones to help are members of the Wolf pack.  The boys plan a road trip to Arizona so that Alan can check into a rehab clinic.

They are not on their way to a bachelor party or a wedding in a foreign country, so what could possibly go wrong?  After all, Mr. Chow is locked up in a Thai prison. The pack’s nominal ringleader Phil (Bradley Cooper), the dentist Stu (Ed Helms), and the patsy Doug (Justin Bartha), having recovered from the disastrous trip abroad, think helping a friend should prove uneventful.

What the Wolf pack did not count on, however, was being kidnapped in the desert by the gangster Marshall (John Goodman), and his henchmen, including the one they group calls Black Doug (Mike Epps). Unknown to the Wolf pack, the psychotic Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) made a daring prison escape and is headed to Mexico to apparently recover a hidden treasure of millions in stolen gold bars.

Marshall claims that Mr. Chow absconded with his share of the purloined gold treasure, and knowing how the Wolf pack has interacted with the Asian gangster, he thinks they are his best chance to locate him and the loot. The hapless Doug is taken hostage to ensure that the Phil, Stu and Alan will hunt down Mr. Chow in Tijuana, recover the gold and return to Las Vegas within three days to save Doug from certain death.

 Mr. Chow, the coke head lunatic who popped out naked from the trunk of a car in the first film, proved to be funny when his scenes were limited to creating mayhem. In “Part III,” the Asian crime boss becomes a bigger part of the picture, but not to greater effect.  Now he’s not so much funny as he’s a menace to society and the group’s safety. Oddly enough, “The Hangover Part III,” as if it has run out of ideas for manic wackiness, veers off into a more earnest crime thriller, complete with scenes of violence and brutality that are occasionally punctuated with comic relief.    

 After betrayal and an unfortunate encounter with the Tijuana police, the Wolf pack must chase Mr. Chow to Las Vegas for the inevitable showdown, including a dazzling scene on the rooftop of Caesar’s Palace. The familiarity of the Vegas scene helps somewhat to return the film to its comic roots, though the appearance of Heather Graham, now a housewife retired from prostitution, adds little. Melissa McCarthy brings a nice comic touch in her cameo as a Vegas pawnshop clerk who gets all dreamy-eyed when she falls for Alan.

Don’t rush to leave when the credits roll, because half-way through there is a very funny scene that is reminiscent of the morning-after amnesia that worked so well in the original film.  Nothing in this film tops the physical disfigurement of Stu. Unfortunately, “The Hangover Part III” falls short of recapturing its initial brush with a truly innovative comic formula of unbridled mayhem. 

Having admired the wracked out originality of the first film’s hilarious antics, I was hoping for more of the same.  Though the overall outcome is somewhat disappointing, “The Hangover Part III” has funny moments that are enjoyable; there just aren’t enough.

 

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WIT, CHARM AND HIGH-OCTANE ACTION FUEL “IRON MAN 3”

A Film Review by Tim Riley


IRON MAN 3 (Rated PG-13) Shane Black made his mark in Hollywood mainly for original screenplays of high-octane action films such as “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout.”For “Iron Man 3” Black performs the double duty of writer and director.This duality explains, in large measure, why “Iron Man 3” has its fair share of loud noise and explosions, including the surreal destruction of Grauman’s Chinese Theater carried out by the red-eyed minions of a mad scientist.

To its credit, “Iron Man 3” works fairly well as a stand-alone entertainment, beginning with a flashback to New Year’s Eve 1999 at a swank affair in Switzerland, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) rebuffs the entreaties of a tech geek. Flash forward to the present, the nerdy scientist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), though still weird, now looks like a male model for Abercrombie & Fitch, albeit one with a diabolical plan for world domination, or possibly nothing short of global annihilation.

Killian holds a grudge that Tony Stark, whose alter ego is Iron Man, rejected his program for a project called Extremis, so now he’s in cahoots with an Osama bin Laden-style terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Apparently, Killian’s thugs are an army of zombie-like characters who outwardly look like normal humans, but they turn their bodies into a red-hot fury of molten flesh and then explode like human grenades for maximum devastation.

Worn out from too many superhero duties, the eccentric billionaire Tony Stark, suffers from anxiety, causing him to ceaselessly tinker with refinements to his armored Iron Man suit. This results in our hero being a mere mortal for much of the film. His old pal, Captain Rhodes (Don Cheadle), ends up carrying the load of action heroism. Meanwhile, Stark is also paying little attention to his love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Spurred on by taunts from Stark, the Mandarin launches a full-scale rocket assault on the industrialist’s Malibu seaside mansion, blowing the entire estate into a pile of rubble at the bottom of the ocean. In the manner of bin Laden’s videotaped threats, the Mandarin interrupts global television programming with diatribes intended to inflict fear of the latest terrorist assault.

Still fiddling with his metal suit, Stark tests a new system that allows him to fly through the air only partially armored while the other pieces hurtle in his direction as if he were a large magnet. Testing his prototype armored suit leads him to the backwoods of Tennessee where his only ally is a young orphaned kid (Ty Simpkins) who helps the superhero piece together the mystery of the Mandarin.

The clock is running because the Mandarin continues to hijack the airwaves and threatens to bring America to its knees if President Ellis (William Sadler) does not exceed to his outrageous demands. As expected in the Iron Man franchise, there are plenty of great action set-pieces, even if Stark spends much of his time outside his alter ego comfort zone.

Most spectacular of all is the hijacking of Air Force One, resulting in Iron Man having to fly through the air to rescue about a dozen people blown out of the plane, turning the exercise into what resembles an aerial circus act. Of course, as with all action-fueled adventures in the superhero genre, the climax is a spectacular battle on the massive loading structure at an unidentified shipping port.

The climactic showdown proves to be too big a job for just one man, so Iron Man is joined by his War Machine colleague, Captain Rhodes. The reunion of the pair allows for them to engage in easygoing banter. What makes the “Iron Man” franchise entertaining in many ways is the ease with which Robert Downey, Jr. infuses his character with affable wit and charm, along with a superb knack for delivering biting one-liners with facile nonchalance.

Without a doubt, “Iron Man 3,” fittingly as it is based on a comic book, has its cartoonish aspects. Nevertheless, it strives for a higher purpose than just being loaded with special effects. Though it is hard to imagine the “Iron Man” character inhabited by anyone other than the quirky, fevered Downey, the best of all this time around is Ben Kingsley, whose surprises should not be revealed.

If you are game to sit through endless minutes of credits (where it appears that half of everyone in Hollywood was involved in the production), there’s an amusing session of Tony Stark in a bit of psychoanalysis at the very end.


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THE CRAZY, WACKY WORLD OF “PAIN & GAIN” DELIVERS LAUGHS

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

PAIN & GAIN (Rated R) Hollywood delivers surprises when you least expect them.  Who would guess that director Michael Bay, famous for big-budget action films like the “Transformers” franchise, would come up with a stunning dark comedy? Bay likes to blow up things, wreaking havoc and creating mayhem, just for the fun of it.  As he indulges his every fiery whim, the director wants the audience to get its money’s worth for his love of gratuitous excess.

“Pain & Gain,” a comedy of the absurd and devoid of major explosions, is definitely not a film in director Bay’s wheelhouse.  It would be like Mel Brooks directing an Ingmar Bergman-like depressing Swedish drama. The story is about three dim-witted bodybuilders at Miami’s Sun Gym, whose minimal brain power has been further atrophied by the use of steroids and other drugs, hatching a kidnap scheme of a wealthy fitness client. The ringleader is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer with delusions of grandeur who has been affected by a motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) to become in his words a “doer” instead of a “don’t-er.” 

 Lugo targets his filthy rich client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a man of dubious character himself who has likely acquired his wealth by less than savory means, sheltering money off-shore and investing in a string of franchise delis.To assist in his desperate scheme to achieve the American dream with ill-gotten gains, Lugo recruits fellow physical trainers Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson).

Doorbal has lost his sexual prowess due to an excess use of steroids.  This is a problem because he wants to marry his plus-size nurse girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) and settle down to suburban living. Recently released from prison, Doyle found Jesus on the inside and now wants a clean living, and yet the sway of Lugo leads him astray, to say nothing of his newfound fondness for cocaine.

The scheme is to kidnap Kershaw and force him to sign over his waterside mansion and numerous bank accounts.  The trio of losers is so bad at execution of the plot that it takes them several tries to nab their victim.  Each failed attempt proves funnier than the previous one. Once they have Kershaw stashed in a warehouse, the cretins engage in awkward and ham-fisted efforts to torture their captive into submission.  For his part, Kershaw proves very resilient and not easy to break. In fact, they can’t even kill Kershaw, who ends up in a hospital where the police find it difficult to believe the victim’s story.  Only a retired detective (Ed Harris) begins to suspect that his colleagues messed up.

Meanwhile, for a time, Lugo and company live high on the hog, buying expensive homes, and in the case of Doyle, snorting a lot of dough right up the nostrils. One of the funniest scenes involves Lugo clumsily trying to ingratiate himself with his new wealthy neighbors by hosting a Neighborhood Watch meeting, assisted by his two cohorts high on drugs.

This trio of criminal lame-brains is so incompetent that even their most egregious acts of violent unlawful behavior are patently ludicrous and thus disturbingly and diabolically funny. There’s nothing in this film that glorifies these thugs and their moronic plans, nor makes them into sympathetic characters.  No, these guys are first-rate losers, destined for the eventual fall. 

Like most delusional characters, they also don’t know when to quit.  Thanks to Doyle’s frantic need for coke money, a scheme to kidnap a porn king (Michael Rispoli) goes even more badly. “Pain & Gain” has a warped sense of humor.  A casual scene at a barbeque to destroy physical evidence appears inspired by the Coen Brothers (“Fargo,” a prime example). Every so often, a subtitle flashes on screen as a reminder that this is a true story, something that becomes increasingly difficult to believe since the entire chronicle of weird criminality is so utterly nutty.

However uneasy one may feel on occasions of some nasty violence being perpetrated, “Pain & Gain” is insanely funny, crazy, wacky, strange, weird, ludicrous, disturbing and often unsettling. Despite claims to the contrary, Michael Bay likely took a few liberties with the true story – you know, the obligatory dramatization needed for a two hour movie. In a follow-up to this movie, a smart move will require reading the series of articles, upon which “Pain& Gain” is based, from Miami New Times columnist Pete Collins.  I know that’s my plan.

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL UPDATE     

Speaking of Mel Brooks, as he’s mentioned above, one of the highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival, recently concluded in Hollywood, was the presence of the famed comedy director for a showing of “The Twelve Chairs.” Brooks talked briefly about his filming experience in the then-nation of Yugoslavia, cracking a few jokes about dictator Tito’s use of the country’s only vehicle on Saturday nights.

In the canon of Brooks’ comedies, “The Twelve Chairs,” sandwiched between “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles,” is often overlooked.  Among other things, it’s a subdued but comically brilliant skewering of the Soviet Union. TCM celebrated the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kramer’s zany comedy “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” a rare feat for a director whose career was all about message movies like “The Defiant Ones” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

For the festival, the film was screened in its original 70mm format on the big screen of the Cinerama Dome, which Kramer’s widow described as having been built exclusively for the release of this comedy. Sadly, the recently deceased Jonathan Winters was scheduled to appear with other cast members Barrie Chase, Mickey Rooney and Marvin Kaplan to talk about the filming.

“It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” is notable for the large cast of characters involved in a madcap search for buried treasure. Comic greats like Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Don Knotts graced the screen and are sadly missed.  Kramer’s homage to American comedy still stands as a masterpiece.

 

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INSPIRING, GRACEFUL “42” DELIVERS A HOME RUN

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

42 (Rated PG-13) As a fan of baseball, I eagerly anticipated “42,” knowing that the legend of Jackie Robinson is more than a great sports story; it’s a critical turning point in race relations leading up to the Civil Rights era. Celebrating the life of a true sports hero, “42” does not disappoint.  Though it has the look and feel of an old-fashioned sports drama, this film has an elegant grace and beauty for its realization of the post-war period.

Most baseball fans love nostalgia, particularly for old ballparks now long gone, like Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Forbes Field and Crosley Field.  With the help of CGI, these ballparks are lovingly recreated. The visual appeal of “42” is stunning, and great pains were taken to bring realism to all facets.  Even the magnificent Dodger Blue team bus pulling into a Philadelphia hotel parking lot is a gem.

The Jackie Robinson story is well-documented and given the fact that his uniform number 42 has been retired throughout Major League Baseball, there are few surprises about the first African-American to break the color barrier. Writer and director Brian Helgeland, an obvious admirer of the titular character, focuses his homage to Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on a tight schedule of the ballplayer’s quick move from the Negro Leagues to the Major League during the period of 1945 to 1947.

Not to be overlooked is the love story subplot in which Robinson, then playing with the Kansas City Monarchs, proves his devotion to his lovely future wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), a stabilizing, supportive presence. The central character pushing Robinson’s advancement into the Major League ranks, thus breaking baseball’s segregation, is Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a cigar-chomping crusty old white guy who sees Robinson for the talented ballplayer that he is.

To be sure, Rickey wanted to integrate baseball and he settled on Robinson, not just for his athletic abilities, but for his temperament and strength to endure the vitriol and abuse to follow. Well aware that his move to change the sports world was fraught with risk, Rickey wanted a player with the “guts not to fight back” when provoked.  He needed someone with the fortitude to endure the hateful taunts.

To his credit, Helgeland does not gloss over the sheer animosity and ugly fury that would greet Robinson playing with white players, even in Northern cities where race relations were supposedly marginally better. The news of Robinson’s arrival on the Dodgers team is not greeted with enthusiasm by the white players.  Almost to a man, they sign a petition that asks for the black player to be excluded from the team.

An underutilized Dodgers team manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), with one forceful outburst of vocal support for a talented player of any color, proves as great an influence as the vaunted Branch Rickey. Proving to be an enthusiastic hustler on the field, gifted base-runner and capable hitter, Robinson slowly wins over most, though clearly not all, of his recalcitrant teammates.

Yet, there is no greater unifying force than a common enemy.  In this case, it’s Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), a racist so vile that his vicious epithets hurled at Robinson turns the tide of public sympathy to the hero’s direction. Frankly, Chapman’s on-field tirade, whenever Robinson is up at bat, is not only humiliating to the black player, but it comes off as uncomfortably disturbing for the prolonged nature of its loathsome depravity. 

While some teammates remain indifferent or subdued, some players, like Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) and Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), embrace Robinson for being a great team player who badly wants to win for his club. In fact, Pee Wee famously put his arm around Robinson on the baseball field at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, showing his solidarity for a teammate abused by the taunts of the ballpark crowd.

Playing it safe in many respects, “42” is a thing of artistic beauty for its celebration of Jackie Robinson, a fitting tribute to a real hero that Major League Baseball honors each year on April 15th. Yet, unlike its namesake, “42” doesn’t take many creative chances in telling what should be a very complex story. 

Both Robinson and Rickey come off like candidates for sainthood, as if any character flaws should be ignored.The star of the show is Chadwick Boseman, a name unfamiliar to most.  His Jackie Robinson captures the grace, dignity and athletic prowess of a true American hero. “42” is all the better for his presence, and he makes this film well-worth watching.  In baseball parlance, “42” hits a home run.

 

 

96878_gal                         ACTION, STUNTS LIVEN UP “G.I. JOE” FOR DEVOTED FANS

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (Rated PG-13At this early stage, the year 2013 is shaping up as a busy one for hardcore action films, often starring or featuring aging superheroes who still have drawing power at the box office. Dwayne Johnson, not yet old but who’s been around for awhile, and Bruce Willis, who is charitably almost a member of the senior action circuit, have starring roles in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.” This latest film, based on the Hasbro toys, is a sequel to “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra,” a film I did not see due to some valid excuse.  I think I have a doctor’s note for missing the screening.

 In any case, with this type of action film, it hardly matters if you miss one of them, what with the action being largely generic and cartoonish, easily explained by any twelve-year-old boy. The film begins with some promise as Channing Tatum’s Duke and Dwayne Johnson’s Roadblock, elite squad members of the G.I. Joes, bond over some video games and family life. 

Unfortunately, Tatum doesn’t stick around very long.  He may have had a commitment to appear in another film that looked more promising for his future. The action begins with an incursion into North Korea to extract a prisoner.  Maybe that lunatic Kim Jong-un got an early look and decided this was as good a time as any to threaten nuclear war on the United States.

Out in the field, the G.I. Joes are betrayed by sinister forces, resulting in most of the group being eliminated in one horrific aerial attack of their base camp. The sole survivors are Roadblock, the new recruit Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and the tough but sexy Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki).  The assault appears to be the handiwork of Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey), but I am not entirely sure.

What is apparent is that the President (Jonathan Pryce) is a clone of the duly elected commander-in-chief.  As part of the Cobra conspiracy, the faux U.S. leader ordered the termination of the G.I. Joes. Meanwhile, up in the Himalayas, Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) are engaged in great martial arts combat as they attempt to capture the traitorous Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee).

 The fight sequences are even more dramatic and exciting when Snake Eyes and Jinx battle a slew of ninjas while flinging themselves on ropes tied to the sheer mountainside cliffs. Given that the alien force of Cobra has taken over the White House, Roadblock and his decimated crew turn to the only person who can help them in their dire need.

Retired General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), who coined the nickname for the G.I. Joes, is the only soldier to be trusted.  He also knows something combating diabolical plots. For someone no longer on active duty, General Colton’s private residence contains more weaponry and ammunition than an entire Army base.  In every room, there are hidden closets and cabinets full of assault weapons.

 Meanwhile, the fake President has convened a summit of nuclear powers, including North Korea, China, Russia, France, Britain, and India.  His dastardly plan is a game of nuclear chicken aimed to force all others to disarm. For reasons that are not really evident, the President appears bent on total nuclear annihilation of planet Earth.  A total wipe out of civilization seems counterintuitive if you seek world domination.  What is to be gained from a scorched earth?

 Of course, not everything makes sense in an action film like “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”  It’s all about the choreography of great gun battles, martial arts stunts and hand-to-hand combat. One thing “G.I. Joe” is not about is a sensible plot and snappy dialogue, though the faux President, smarmy and oozing with villainy, spouts some of the best nasty lines as if he were the bad guy in a James Bond film. The most underused character is Cobra Commander.  You’d think he would be a commanding figure of sheer malevolence and supreme villainy.  Instead, he’s practically a cipher. 

“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is a film likely to be reviled by critics.  Bu I think it offers its target audience pretty much what they want in an action film of this kind.  On the plus side, the film moves at a great pace with plenty of thrilling stunts.

 

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IN BLOODY, TENSE “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” AN ACTION HERO RISES

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (Rated R  “Olympus Has Fallen” is not the first thriller in which a valiant Secret Service agent saves the life of the president, and in fact, another in the same genre, “White House Down,” is still to arrive this summer. With director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) at the helm, this hardcore action picture so much has the distinctive feel of a “Die Hard” film that one can easily imagine a younger Bruce Willis as the hero.

Thus, a younger but no less gritty Gerard Butler is just right as ex-Special Forces tough guy Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent on the presidential detail until something goes horribly wrong. Though Banning made the correct decision during a frightful accident, his failure to follow an order from President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) gets him demoted to a boring desk job at the Treasury Department.

Naturally, Banning wants back into his old job of protecting the president, and his chance to return to action soon comes under the most calamitous circumstance when terrorists take down the White House. A small group of heavily-armed, carefully trained extremists launch a daring daylight ambush on the White House, overrunning the building and taking the president and key members of his staff hostage inside an impenetrable underground bunker.

 Not coincidentally, the violent attack occurs during a state visit by the Prime Minister of South Korea.  The terrorists are North Korean and they aim to turn America into an impoverished, malnourished nation much like their own forlorn homeland.

It’s an interesting topical subject, given the saber-rattling going on with North Korea’s recent nuclear threats and with that odious pint-sized creepy tyrant Kim Jong-un using the clueless Dennis Rodman as his propaganda stooge. The evil mastermind of the dastardly plot is Kang (Rick Yune), a reptilian scumbag who gets a kick out of terrorizing his captives, routinely capping someone in the head just to make a point.

The resourceful Kang, whose identity was tightly concealed, somehow managed to penetrate the highest ranks of the South Korean delegation.  Be aware that other traitors are in the midst as well. The siege of the White House is so incredibly well orchestrated that the brutal onslaught has an air of realism, even if the body count is incredibly high and despite the fact the invaders have unbelievably advanced weaponry and defensive armor.

 Nevertheless, even if the attack seems far-fetched, the assault is disturbingly inspired and frightfully alarming for the ease with which the plot is executed. The North Koreans are coldly efficient as they apparently gun down every agent defending the president and cause more damage to the White House than the British during the War of 1812.

 Among the captives in the underground bunker are the tough Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), an admiral and the vice president, who is here nondescript and soon to be forgotten, like Alben W. Barkley or John Nance Garner.  Kang’s mission is to force the United States to retreat from the Korean DMZ and to withdraw the Navy’s 7th Fleet from the Pacific.  Oh, and he wants the nuclear launch codes, and to get this, he is willing to torture and kill.

 Meanwhile, Banning turns into a one-man assault team, penetrating the White House, which he happens to know very well, to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with Kang’s thugs. The disgraced Secret Service agent takes delight in taunting Kang, while a bunch of high-ranking government officials, including the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman), designated as the acting president, are forced to accept Banning as their eyes and ears on the ground.

 But since this action picture is produced by Gerard Butler, we already know that his tough-as-nails action hero is not taking any prisoners and the fight against the enemy is fully engaged. There’s plenty of suspense sustained throughout the two-hour running time, and yet one can be forgiven for getting anxious for Banning to dish out the expected revenge to the president’s captors. “Olympus Has Fallen,” bloody, intense and violent, is a nice showcase for Gerard Butler’s action hero skills, and the rest of the talented cast performs just as agreeably.

In many respects, the thriller is formulaic and the action is barely distinguishable from numerous entries in the same genre.  Still, there is immense gratification in Agent Banning’s merciless quest to rout the enemy.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

The College of Cardinals, during the recent papal conclave, elected a new Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope.  All signs point to Pope Vincent as a decent servant. The same cannot be said for Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons), the cunning, manipulative patriarch of the Borgia family who ascends to the highest circles of power within Renaissance-era Rome.

With attention focused on the Vatican, it may be an odd bit of serendipity for the Showtime series “The Borgias” to get released on DVD now, but there you have it. “The Borgias: The Second Season” finds Alexander enlisting his family to take an oath of revenge on the great noble houses that dared to stand against him, causing his Papacy to face political turmoil once again.

Pope Alexander VI soon realizes that his real problems lie with his children, all of whom are growing up and defying his authority Daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) forges an unlikely alliance to plot to battle Vatican corruption, while sibling rivalry between the sons turns dark and ugly. It’s not likely there will be intrigue like this in Pope Vincent’s Vatican, but that’s why we have cable channels like Showtime.

 

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OZ THE GREAT” POWERFUL ENOUGH TO DAZZLE WITH EFFECTS

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (Rated PG) The director of the “Spider-Man” trilogy and “The Evil Dead,” among other titles in an eclectic resume, turned his sights to a cinematic prequel of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Sam Raimi also directed his baseball homage, “For Love of the Game,” starring Kevin Costner, and the supernatural thriller, “Drag Me to Hell.”  His filmmaking talents are abundant and diverse.

 If the grand Broadway musical “Wicked” can become a popular hit, why not tinker with “The Wizard of Oz” legend to be reinvented as the backstory of how the Wizard arrived in the Emerald City?Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the story of how the wizard came to be the wizard.  It’s the tale of a smalltime carnival magician, a charlatan and sly con artist, who arrived in a magical, fantastic world.

 Based on an imaginative screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, Raimi’s colorful invention follows Oscar Diggs (James Franco), an amoral circus huckster with dubious ethics. The setting is the black-and-white world of 1905 Kansas, where Franco’s fast-talking Oscar fools gullible audiences with cheap tricks and low-grade sleight-of-hand, aided by his frantic assistant Frank (Zach Braff).

 Oscar also employs his seductive wiles to woo beautiful young women, but his tryst with Annie (Michelle Williams) causes him to stir the wrath of a jealous circus strongman. Fleeing in a hot air balloon, Oscar is soon caught up in a fierce tornado sweeping the dusty plains, and as a result, he’s whisked away to the Technicolor world of the Land of Oz.

 Greeted like a conquering hero, Oscar is assumed to be the great wizard that is eagerly anticipated by the fearful inhabitants of the Land of Oz.  For his part, Oscar thinks he’s hit the jackpot of fame and fortune. Instead of meeting up with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, Oscar finds his new companions are the talking winged monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and China Girl, the porcelain doll, (voiced by Joey King).

 His protean charm and evident reputation as a seducer of women is immediately put to the test in the Land of Oz, where no less than three beautiful witches compete for his attention. Oscar’s first encounter is with the youngest of the trio, a beguiling but emotionally naïve Theodora (Mila Kunis), who bats her big brown eyes ever so seductively that Oscar is quickly smitten by her beauty.

Having doubts about Oscar’s intentions, Theodora’s older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is a schemer who can play both sides of the moral divide with great ease.  At first, Evanora seems convincing as somebody just looking out for the welfare of the Emerald City and its citizens, but shifts into a dark wicked mode when she feels threatened by the roguish stranger. 

 Then there’s Glinda, the Good Witch (also Michelle Williams), a beautiful creature whose motives, at the outset, are cloaked in mystery. Oscar is naturally drawn to Glinda because she’s the alter ego to Annie, his love interest that he left behind in Kansas when he made his desperate escape in the hot-air balloon.

The role of Oscar requires James Franco to come across as alternately slimy huckster and sincere savior of an oppressed people.  Franco does not appear completely up to the task to play this duality. This shortcoming is something of a problem for a story that focuses so intently on Oscar’s transformation from selfish con man to the gallant, altruistic Wizard of Oz.

 A lot of effort was also put into generating suspense about the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West, but the savvy viewer may pick up the telltale signs long before the magical revelation. In the end, with little surprise, Oscar summons the courage and will to organize a motley bunch of tinkerers, farmers and Munchkins to reclaim Emerald City from the evil machinations of the witches.

 The ruby red slippers, iconic songs and even Toto are missing here because the 1939 original version “The Wizard of Oz” is copyrighted intellectual property to which Disney has no claim or legal right to use.“Oz the Great and Powerful,” facing certain creative and artistic limitations, does the best that it can with the source material that is usable. 

 At the very least, this Disney version, which uses its 3D to great effect in limited but vital scenes, is a visual spectacle that is satisfying for the family audience. “Oz the Great and Powerful,” though not the great film one would have hoped for, is still powerful enough in its wondrous beauty to deliver the goods in a satisfactory manner.

 

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ROWDY COMEDY “HANGOVER” LOOMS LARGE FOR “21 AND OVER”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 21 AND OVER (Rated R) At first, I thought the film of week would be “Jack the Giant Slayer,” if only because it appeared more family-friendly.  Then, an unfortunate circumstance caused me to miss the press screening.

On top of it all, “Jack the Giant Slayer” looked like another derivative fairy tale film, most likely a subpar fantasy adventure that would fall below the standards of “The Hobbit” or even “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”  And so, the next best opportunity was a screening of “21 and Over,” another derivative film that is an obvious offshoot of “The Hangover” film, as the result of the creative writing efforts of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.

This time around the team of Lucas and Moore are the writers and directors of “21 and Over,” apparently having learned a thing or two on “The Hangover” experience about rowdy, crude comedy. One could easily sum up the plot, such as it involves one night of total debauchery, as a wild and crazy comedy that is undeniably a “Hangover” for the college crowd.

 Geared to frat house pranks made popular by “Animal House,” this film stars relative unknowns, which at least makes it easier to accept their lunacy as some sort of rite of passage. Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin), seemingly polar opposites in disposition, are old high school buddies who arrive at the fictional Northern Pacific University to celebrate the 21st birthday of an old pal.

 The film opens with this pair, looking bruised and battered, walking across the campus completely naked with only tube socks covering their private parts.  The manic nod to wackiness is almost immediate. The buddy in question is Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), a rather diminutive Asian-American student that everyone, and particularly his domineering father, expects to be the stereotypical overachiever.

 When Miller and Casey show up in a surprise visit, the studious Jeff Chang begs off from a birthday celebration because he’s getting ready for his critical medical school interview early the next morning. After a serious bit of cajoling, Jeff Chang (everyone calls him by his full name) relents, agreeing to one celebratory drink at a local saloon. 

 After all, Jeff Chang, who still looks like a teenage girl, is now unencumbered by the nuisance of using a fake ID to get past bothersome bouncers. Taking great pleasure in flashing his real ID to the stoic bouncers, Jeff Chang, loosened by copious amounts of alcohol, is soon flashing co-eds, downing shots and riding a mechanical bull.

 As the night progresses, Jeff Chang’s nearly perpetual state of inebriation to the point of being comatose leads to a series of comic misadventures. After a substantial amount of hard-partying, Miller and Casey, surprisingly lucid if not completely sober, decide to take Jeff Chang home so that he can be ready for his crucial interview.

The only problem is that Miller and Casey have no idea where their buddy lives, and no other students know him at all.  A tenuous lead that involves perky blonde Nicole (Sarah Wright) sends the boys on a wild goose chase. In search of Nicole, Miller and Casey drag Jeff Chang around like a rag doll, even invading a Latina sorority where they become engage in pranks that later lead to serious repercussions.

 Aside from paddling sorority pledges in lingerie, Miller and Casey also cause a near-riot at a pep rally, turning the school’s buffalo mascot into a rampaging beast that terrorizes the student body. The boys also tangle with some snotty frat boy types who happen to be rah-rah yell leaders, modeled after the same type of uptight jerks that were repulsed by John Belushi in “Animal House.”

 Bad taste gags abound, and yet much of this film is surprisingly funny.  In the pursuit of laughs, it goes for shameless physical comedy. The high (or low) point may well be when the drunken Jeff Chang, suddenly hungry, begins chewing on a tampon, mistaking it for a candy bar. Working a successful comedic formula, “21 and Over” is mostly an entertainment for the spring break crowd.  Those college kids sure have a lot of dumb fun, and they let us in on it.

TELEVISION UPDATE

The ABC TV network is unleashing a new drama series, though one would easily guess that it derived its cue from another similar-themed but failed series of another network.  I am referring to “Red Widow,” which is not entirely dissimilar from “Mob Doctor,” a fall series already long forgotten.

The same fate may well await “Red Widow,” despite the best efforts of Radha Mitchell’s Marta, the daughter of a Russian mobster who wants nothing to do with the underworld. Trouble is, and this is not giving away any surprise, her husband Evan (Anson Mount) is killed as part of some sort of revenge plot for a heist gone bad.

 The grieving Marta must protect her three children at all costs, but a shadowy figure named Schiller insists that she must repay a debt owed by her late husband. Midseason shows are not usual successful, and “Red Widow,” slated for an expected eight episode run, may soon run out of sustainable interest. It doesn’t help when the most interesting character, in this case Anson Mount’s Evan, is bumped off in the pilot episode.

 

 

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ROCK SOLID DRAMA FOR HARROWING DRUG WORLD TALE OF “SNITCH”

 A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

SNITCH (Rated PG-13)  Remember when Dwayne Johnson was “The Rock,” the buff action hero?  He’s not that guy in “Snitch,” though he turns in a rock solid performance as a desperate father trying to save his teenage son from a lengthy prison stretch.  Johnson’s John Matthews owns a construction company in Missouri, where his only connection to the criminal world is his willingness to hire ex-cons if they are sincere in their efforts for a clean start.

Divorced from his first wife (Melina Kanakaredes), Matthews, now remarried with a younger wife (Nadine Velazquez), has been regrettably somewhat distant from his teenage son Jason (Rafi Gavron). In what appears to be a favor for a friend, Jason reluctantly accepts the shipment of a large package of ecstasy pills and is immediately caught by the feds and jailed for being a dealer.

To save his own skin, Jason’s so-called friend had allowed Jason to be framed for dealing drugs, thereby reducing his own sentence for participation in a crime. Unable and unwilling to snitch on someone else, Jason is sentenced to prison for a minimum of 10 years, even though he’s an innocent who just screwed up.

The federal prosecutor, Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), is an ambitious, driven person who just happens to be running for Congress, thus all too anxious to notch a big drug-dealing conviction. Matthews knows that his son has made a stupid mistake and doesn’t want him to stay behind bars where his personal safety is at stake as the result of beatings from fellow inmates.

In an attempt to get leniency for his son, Matthews pleads with U.S. Attorney Keeghan to help entrap real drug dealers as a way to make amends for his son’s indiscretion. The federal prosecutor is, at first, dubious about this offer, sharing our own disbelief that a straight-arrow family man could leave his comfort zone to infiltrate the treacherous underworld of drug cartels.

With serious misgivings, Matthews finds that it might be useful to use one of his newest hard-working employees, a former felon who did prison time for selling narcotics, to introduce him to some dealers. Ex-convict Daniel James (Jon Bernthal) has a wife and young son, and the last thing he wants to do is to get mixed up again with unsavory characters like Malik (Michael K. Williams), a local pusher.

Reluctantly pulled back into his old world, Daniel makes the introduction to Malik, and then Matthews is put to the test of making a delivery to members of a Mexican cartel and narrowly avoids harm during an ambush by a rival gang. Having proved his mettle and savvy in eluding the surprise attack, Matthews attracts the attention of Malik’s superior, a top player in the Mexican cartel who is known as El Topo (Benjamin Bratt).

Meanwhile, Matthews and Daniel are shadowed by federal agents, of which the most notable and interesting character is Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper), who looks like one of the bikers on “Sons of Anarchy.”

While Agent Cooper’s undercover cop appears to be unpredictable, the motivated crime-busting prosecutor Keeghan is single-mindedly determined to go after the big fish in the Mexican cartel. Keeghan’s motivation causes the stakes to grow exponentially, putting both Matthews and Daniel in the untenably tough spot of going up against a ruthless drug lord who would have no qualms about killing them both.

It would be a mistake to describe “Snitch” as an action picture full of violence and mayhem, similar to the spate of recent films where action trumped character development and significant plot lines. The action in “Snitch” builds slowly, though the danger always feels very real and the threat of violence is only one misstep away from erupting into the fore.

Much of the story, at least in the early going, is about Matthews anguishing over moral compromises he has to make, whether it is keeping his wife in the dark or implicating Daniel in an unwanted and perilous bargain. The climactic drug run is where the explosive action really gets in gear in a huge, satisfying way.  Dwayne Johnson steering an 18-wheeler in a destructive demolition derby of taking out pursuing, machine-gun toting criminals is a real delight.

Indeed, Dwayne Johnson may have dropped “The Rock” as his middle name, but he’s still got the physical chops to deliver the action goods. Balancing action and drama with aplomb, director and co-writer Ric Roman Waugh, a former stuntman, delivers an edge-of-your-seat thriller in “Snitch” that tells a compelling story.

 

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GOOD THING “DIE HARD” STILL PACKS A BIG ACTION PUNCH

A Film Review by Tim Riley

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (RATED R Though only half as old as the James Bond franchise, the “Die Hard” films hold the distinction of having only one actor in the role of wisecracking, hardboiled police detective John McClane. Showing few signs of slowing down, Bruce Willis has notched 25 years in his tough guy role of a New York police detective who manages, usually by trying to help a close family member, to get in the middle of messy situations.

 “A Good Day to Die Hard” takes John McClane far afield of his familiar turf, no longer fighting the good fight on American soil, usually against some nasty, silky Euro trash in sharp suits. This time around, at the film’s opening, McClane is dropped off at the airport by his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who warns him not to make a “big mess” of things upon his arrival in Moscow.

 Lucy wisely knows of what she speaks, having been McClane’s targeted family member in “Live Free or Die Hard,” the previous installment.  Now, it’s up to McClane to help his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney).  McClane can never ignore family in peril, even if Jack is being held in a foreign prison on a murder charge.  As he must, John McClane will get to the bottom of the matter.

Our hero arrives just in time for Jack’s show trial in a courtroom where he is supposedly giving testimony that may implicate Russian thief-turned-whistleblower Komarov (Sebastian Koch). Komarov poses a threat to his former partner Chagarin, a politician desperately trying to conceal his connection to the theft of weapons grade plutonium from Chernobyl.  So Chagarin’s thugs blow up the courthouse.

Ensconced in bullet-proof holding tanks, Jack and Komarov survive the blast and make a daring escape, while the assorted bad guys shoot up the place in what is only the first of many extensive shootouts. Meanwhile, John instinctively decides to help his son and Komarov escape from the villains, but Jack is not too pleased that his meddlesome father has arrived on the scene.

 An even bigger surprise is that McClane Senior, a renowned detective, has no idea that his offspring is an undercover CIA agent who is helping Komarov in order to foil Chagarin’s ascension to greater political power. At this point, the audience, and perhaps even the actors themselves, have only the vaguest notion of about the extent of the political intrigue and why Moscow is becoming like a war zone in an extreme videogame. 

This fifth installment of the “Die Hard” series, dispatching character development to the lowest priority status, is all about action, the more explosive and violent the better. What ensues is a spectacular, mind-blowing street chase that flattens and ravages more vehicles than the combined destruction of at least a decade’s worth of demolition derbies. 

The father-son team of John and Jack has little time for bonding while dodging bullets and firebombs, and then executing narrow escapes. Considering the brooding Jack harbors too many pent-up feelings of neglect, the glossing over of family drama is just as well.  McClane Senior tries to lighten the mood by calling his son the “007 of Plainfield, New Jersey.”

 The plot, such as it is, involves the unmasking of a prominent Russian figure, and in service of this objective is a virtual non-stop trail of violent action, with the McClanes surviving enough stunts that would kill or maim ordinary mortals. One thing missing is an abundance of McClane’s sardonic one-liners, and though I think that McClane yelled his ubiquitous “Yippee Ki-Yay” punch line, just about any dialogue gets lost in the clutter of director John Moore’s obsession to blow up stuff.

 By now, John McClane should be running out of relatives to save, but a “Die Hard 6” is reportedly in the works.  Though fast approaching 60, the still fit Bruce Willis seems far removed from collecting Social Security. Fans of the franchise should take to heart the title of “A Good Day to Die Hard,” knowing it’s a good day at the movies if all the chases, fights, shootouts and explosive stunts capably serve up the popular action thrills. 

Those who have enjoyed recent action films like “Parker” and “Bullet to the Head,” to name a few, would seemingly find “A Good Day to Die Hard” a good bit of satisfying action entertainment.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 Keeping to the action theme of this week’s film review, this is a good time to notice that Hollywood’s first great action hero was Douglas Fairbanks. Cohen Media is releasing a pristine new restoration print of “The Thief of Bagdad,” Fairbanks’ magnificent 1924 fantasy epic.

 “The Thief of Bagdad,” one of the biggest blockbusters of the silent era, is a dazzling “Arabian Nights” adventure fantasy, wherein Fairbanks’ dashing Ahmed is the thief who wins a princess. More contemporary action fare comes from stylish, tense Asian action thriller “4 Assassins,” where four colleagues reunite in a dangerous face-off.

 Ace hit-man Marcus Nang (Will Yun Lee) checks into a Hong Kong hotel room, waiting for his old colleagues, for reasons that remain a mystery. First to arrive is lovely Cordelia Leigh (Mercedes Renard), Marcus’ former lover and equally deadly killer.  The others soon show up, and then accusations fly, secrets are revealed and bullets let loose. Following the standard formula, “4 Assassins” culminates in an explosive showdown from which no one is safe.

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PASSABLE COMEDY “IDENTITY THIEF” STEALS SOME LAUGHS

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

IDENTITY THIEF (Rated R) Identity theft is a serious problem.  Just ask any victim.  But there’s no topic too serious that can’t be turned into a comedic adventure, given the right script. Starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, “Identity Thief” offered high expectations for some gut-busting laughs in a screwball comedy exploring the clash of diverse personalities.

As written by Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”) and directed by Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”), the upshot of “Identity Thief” is a more formulaic comedy, having something more in common with “The Guilt Trip. Still, there is laughter to be found here, if mainly because the plus-size Melissa McCarthy, much like she did in the insanely funny “Bridesmaids,” has a knack for stealing scenes.

For “Identity Thief,” McCarthy’s Diana is a big-haired, white-trash fraudster living in a small house in Winter Park, Florida crammed full of ceramic junk and other ill-gotten gains. A compulsive hoarder with bad taste, Diana lives it up at local spas, hair salons and local bars where she buys everyone rounds of drinks, all the while maxing out the credit cards of her victims.

 Her latest casualty is a poor schmuck with the gender-neutral name of Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman), a Denver family man with a pregnant wife (Amanda Peet) and two small children. The film has no problem straining credibility right from the very start.  You’d think that Sandy, an accounts supervisor at a large investment firm, would know better than to give out his vital information over the phone to a telemarketer.

Struggling to support his family and tired of dealing with his horrible boss (Jon Favreau), Sandy’s fortunes look up when he’s invited to take an executive position with an upstart competitor. And yet at the same time, all that he has worked for is suddenly threatened, after a gas station attendant tears up his maxed-out credit card and the police arrest him for having skipped a court date in Florida.

 Though some of the problems are sorted out, a Denver detective (Morris Chestnut) informs Sandy that his legal troubles could go on for many months because the culprit resides in another state. Given a week by his impatient new boss (John Cho), Sandy travels to Florida to confront Diana and to bring her back to Denver so that her testimony can clear him of still pending charges. 

 Needless to say, the fake Sandy is not willing to help the real one get his life back, and so a few fights are in the offing, resulting in the destruction of his rental car and harm to various body parts. Diana becomes more agreeable to Sandy’s plan to leave Florida when a pair of assassins (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I. “Tip” Harris) is gunning for her because she sold them phony IDs and credit cards that don’t work.

To add to her woes, Diana is also being pursued by a redneck bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), so crazed and unhinged in his chase that he’s a greater threat than the hired killers. The road trip to Denver proves to be a test of wills between the straight-laced nebbish and the wild child of reckless behavior.  Many fights, some physical, ensue.

At times, the mind games played by Diana are amusing.  But when she hooks up with an overweight cowboy named Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet), it proves humiliating for Sandy and uncomfortable for the audience. The story offers some momentary promise when Sandy resorts to unsavory tactics directed at his former corporate boss.  Unfortunately, Jon Favreau’s villainous Harold Cornish does not return to the action.

“Identity Thief” has its moments of fun, and yet it doesn’t quite fully connect in the possibilities of an odd-couple road movie.  It aimed for “Due Date” territory and proved about as engaging as “The Guilt Trip.” Nevertheless, “Identity Thief,” though stitched together with the standard comedic blueprint, presents enough amusement, thanks to the talents of Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

This column space often serves to announce the arrival of a new DVD release for a television series.  For the most part, I aim to focus on something unusual or vintage.Arriving unsolicited in the mail was a copy of “Gossip Girl: The Complete Sixth and Final Season.”  As you can imagine, I did not immediate load this into the DVD player.The only thing thrilling about the news release accompanying the delivery of said DVD was the fact that it revealed the 10 one-hour episodes of this season represent the final season.

This means, of course, that I will be spared any more installments of the “scandalous and seductive series” (to quote the over-exuberant press release). The press release breathlessly informs that Season Six opens with the Upper East Siders working together to find Serena, who’s gone off the grid.  I say if someone has gone off the grid, you just need to let the person go.

Other newsy tidbits reveal that Blair and Chuck reunite with a bang and Lonely Boy Dan writes a new tell-all book. Fans of “Gossip Girl” will probably want this new DVD.  As for me, I shall remain blissfully unaware of the identity of Gossip Girl.

 

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NO SUBTLETY FOR THE BLOODY, VIOLENT “BULLET TO THE HEAD”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 BULLET TO THE HEAD (Rated R) It’s a good thing that Sylvester Stallone is old enough to carry the Medicare Part A card, considering that he’s involved in enough bloody fights that he should end up in a hospital. Violent in the extreme, “Bullet to the Head” is a title so lacking in subtlety that one would have to have the IQ of an eggplant not to realize what exactly is in store when the anti-hero goes looking for revenge.

Stallone’s James Bonomo, affectionately called Jimmy Bobo on the mean streets of New Orleans, is a gun-for-hire who plays by his own set of rules, which apparently means killing people even more criminal than he is. The story opens as Jimmy and his partner Louis (Jon Seda) are on what appears to be a routine hit.  Their target is an ex-cop kicked off the force in Washington, D.C. in disgrace.

This dirty cop would seem the perfect fit for the nation’s capitol.  After all, he’s holed up in a swank hotel room with a Russian hooker and loads of illicit substances.  It’s just another case of art imitating life, given the recent news that a sleazy New Jersey senator favors underage prostitutes from the Dominican Republic. Once the job is done, Jimmy and Louis head to a seedy local bar to get paid, but instead of cash they are met with a double-cross that leaves Louis lying in a pool of blood, the vicious handiwork of a hit man named Keegan (Jason Momoa). 

Arriving in New Orleans to investigate a mob hit, Washington, D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) figures there’s some sort of connection with Jimmy Bobo. However, Kwon has no jurisdiction in the Big Easy and can’t go through the usual channels.  It’s just as well, considering that New Orleans is swimming in corruption, including crooked cops and politicians.

Reluctantly, Kwon teams up with Jimmy because he shares an equal grudge about the murderous thug who also killed his former police partner. At this point, “Bullet to the Head” turns into the oddest couple of a buddy movie, where two opposite sides of the law forge a wobbly truce to go after some really bad guys. Going by the book, Kwon lives by a real rigid code of honor and moral integrity, whereas the bombastic Jimmy is like a bull in a china shop, ready to break heads and limbs with no regrets.

Needless to say, Jimmy’s strong-arm methods are more efficient and effective, leaving no time for the reserved Kwon to read Miranda rights to a suspect. Making enemies for sniffing around where he doesn’t belong, Kwon becomes slightly more grateful for Jimmy’s tactics when his criminal partner saves his life in an ambush. When Kwon is wounded, Jimmy can’t take him to a hospital, so instead he gets his estranged daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi), a tattoo artist, to remove the bullet and patch him up.

 The plot tends to wander, but we can count on a host of colorful characters.  One of them is a shady lawyer named Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater) who knows how to throw a grand party at his Garden District mansion. The hit man Keegan is a fascinating adversary, unmatched for being the ruthless and relentless muscle with way too much sadistic pleasure in doing his dirty work. At the top of the criminal ladder is Robert Nkomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a wealthy immigrant real estate mogul who secured his fortunes from notoriously corrupt deals in Africa.

Intelligent, sophisticated and yet manipulative and dark, Morel is a formidable figure, with both government and police officials in his wallet.  He will stop at nothing to secure his ends. With double-crosses and greed pushing everyone’s buttons, “Bullet to the Head” is practically a non-stop parade of bloody brawls and deadly shootouts. Veteran director Walter Hill also knows how to push buttons, neatly setting up the flavor of an old school action picture straight out of the 1980s. 

This past month has been a virtual feast for fans of violent, brutal action.  We’ve had “Gangster Squad” and “Parker,” to name a few, and now “Bullet to the Head” fits right in with this pantheon of thrillers.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 Steven Spielberg’s creative hand has been behind many things, including a TV cartoon series called “Animaniacs” that first ran on FOX in the early ‘90s.  Now you can catch up with the slapstick adventures of Yakko, Wakko and Dot as Warner Bros. releases “Animaniacs: Volume 4” in a 3-disc DVD collector’s set. Lacking extras or frills, the DVD collection features 24 episodes from this fan favorite cartoon series following the wacky characters who were so crazy that the studio executives locked them in the water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot.

Though designed for laughs, each episode features educational segments that cover subjects such as history, math, geography, astronomy, science and social studies, often in a musical format.  Mostly, “Animaniacs” is about off-the-wall characters, such as Pinky and the Brain, two mice bent on world domination.  Chicken Boo is a giant chicken trying to integrate into human society.

Bobby, Pesto and Squit are the Goodfeathers, part of a New York mob of pigeons, who worship Martin Scorsese.  It’s an offbeat homage to “Goodfellas.” As advertised on the box cover, “Animaniacs: Volume 4” is the fourth and final volume of this Emmy Award winning series

 

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HARD-HITTING VIOLENCE MARKS “PARKER” FOR ACTION THRILLS

A Film Review by Tim Riley

PARKER (Rated R) The big guns have arrived in January, and this has nothing to do with the NRA.  Guns galore run rampant at the movies, from “Gangster Squad” to this week’s “Parker.” Even Hansel and Gretel are in the gun business, toting weaponry that would be the envy of mercenaries fighting battles from the sands of North Africa to the jungles of South America.

When he was a vampire hunter, Abe Lincoln didn’t use machine guns, as I recall, but the titular characters in “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” having escaped the gingerbread house, rely on the massive firepower of automatic weapons. The gun culture is more comfortably at home (if it can be stated this way) in “Parker,” only because Jason Statham is by now a very familiar figure as the tough guy in a string of action pictures, most of them requiring the use of you-know-what. 

“Parker” is notable because it is based on one of the many crime novels from prolific author Donald E. Westlake, who created the hard-boiled noir environment in which a professional thief became an iconic anti-hero. A veteran of hard-hitting action thrillers, Jason Statham is just right as charismatic bad boy Parker, a ruthless criminal who surprisingly operates under his own stringent ethical code.

 Parker is not your ordinary thug, though he will beat an adversary into an unrecognizable pulp.  He operates by a code of honor to only steal from those who can afford the loss and to bring no harm to the innocent bystanders. Above all, Parker is a thief, capable of extreme violence, but he’s not a psychopath, like some of the desperate criminals with whom he has to regrettably associate to get the job done.

The action begins brilliantly with a large caper at the Ohio State Fair, where an elaborate plan is in place to steal the $1 million take from the weekend gate receipts. Parker is recruited to the heist by Hurley (Nick Nolte), his crime world mentor and father of his girlfriend Claire (Emma Booth), to whom Parker is extremely devoted.

An expert at planning and executing seemingly impossible heists, Parker is daring and meticulous but all he requires from his crew is absolute loyalty and strict adherence to the plan. The Ohio State Fair robbery turns deadly because of a crew member’s reckless behavior, and as a result, Parker declines to join vicious crime boss Melander (Michael Chiklis) and his gang for their next big job. 

Not willing to take no for an answer, Melander’s gang of thieves turns on Parker with a brutal attack, leaving him for dead by the side of a deserted road.  The most inept member of the Melander crew is Hardwicke (Micah Hauptman), the spoiled nephew of a ruthless Chicago mob boss.  And he’s the one who supposedly administered the coup de grace to Parker.

But Parker survives the attack (the first of many such encounters), and after a quickly miraculous recovery, he is bent on vengeance against the men who betrayed him and made off with his share of the loot. Melander had boasted that the proceeds from the state fair heist were meant to finance a really major score of stolen jewelry.  And so Parker traces the gang to the glitzy confines of tony Palm Beach. 

 Posing as a wealthy Texas oilman, complete with the ten gallon hat and cowboy boots, Parker feigns interest in buying a big piece of local real estate. As luck would have it, Parker meets struggling real estate agent Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), who happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the island and its wealthy socialite inhabitants.

The extremely attractive Leslie tells Parker that she’s pushing 40 and still living at home, after a nasty divorce, with her soap opera-obsessed mother (Patti LuPone). Believe it or not, Parker keeps everything strictly professional and does not fall for Leslie’s obvious romantic interest in him, even after he’s seen her stripped down to her underwear.

 With her unexpected help, Parker uncovers the gang’s plan to make off with more than $50 million worth of jewels that are part of a famous estate auction. That Parker is a crisp, proficient killing machine is all the more reason that Jason Statham landed the role.  This movie is a perfect fit for the British actor, all the better for his gruff physical nature.

 With minimal dialogue, Statham’s anti-hero is the lone wolf vigilante who will go from one ferocious fight scene to the next with single-minded tough guy intensity. Not surprisingly, given Statham’s natural talent for considerable action, “Parker” is a coolly efficient action thriller that gets a lot of mileage from its protagonist.

Full of bone-crunching fights and profusely bloody battles, “Parker” is a bare-knuckles thriller that pumps the action adrenaline to a high level.

 

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 ARNOLD IS BACK FOR HIGH-OCTANE ACTION IN “THE LAST STAND”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THE LAST STAND (Rated R)  Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once famously uttered the unforgettable line: “I’ll be back.”  Of course, you have to hear those words spoken in a heavy Austrian accent, just to get the full flavor. Well, he’s now returned to his first starring film role since slinking out of Sacramento with a lot of personal baggage.  Aptly named for its climactic action, “The Last Stand” is undoubtedly not final for Arnold.

As an action hero, Arnold, now eligible to carry a Medicare card in his wallet, still has the physical chops, even when he has to acknowledge being old in the occasional obligatory witticism Schwarzenegger’s Ray Owens once had a stellar career in the LAPD narcotics unit, but a bungled operation somehow wracked him with remorse and regret, and so he settled in a sleepy Arizona border town to become the sheriff.

In Sommerton Junction, Sheriff Owens has little more to do than to threaten the town’s unbearable mayor with a parking ticket for leaving his fancy sports car in a red zone. Meanwhile, up in Las Vegas, federal law enforcement officials, led by FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), are transporting big-time drug cartel boss Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) to a federal prison.

The most lethal and wanted drug kingpin in America makes a spectacular escape from the FBI prisoner convoy, a daring mission that one would find in a James Bond or “Mission Impossible” film. In his break from federal custody, the fearless Cortez takes a female agent hostage and makes his getaway in a souped-up Corvette ZR1, capable of blowing past state troopers at about 200 miles per hour.

Back in Sommerton, the home front is especially quiet because most of the town has followed the high school football team to an away game. Yet, a suspicious gang of lawless mercenaries led by the icy Burrell (Peter Stormare) have set up camp outside of the Arizona border town, mainly for the purpose of assisting Cortez to get across the border into Mexico.

The feds realize that Cortez is headed toward the border but don’t figure that Sommerton is the logical place to make the crossing.  As a result, they are a little slow to bring Sheriff Owens into the loop. Before Cortez is even on the Sheriff’s radar, Owens and his small band of deputies run into a violent showdown with the mercenaries.  They are not really equipped to handle this initial encounter.

 The sheriff’s crew consists of the pudgy Mike (Luis Guzman), a source of comic relief; the earnest rookie Jerry (Zach Gilford); and pretty yet brave Sarah (Jaimie Alexander)it takes Sheriff Owens to figure out that Cortez is headed to Sommerton.  At first, FBI agent Bannister dismisses Owens as a backwater official way out of his league. Realizing that he is out-gunned and out-matched, Owens decides to beef up his fledgling force by deputizing two locals, one of them a current resident of the town’s only jail cell.

As the town drunk and local troublemaker, Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), who served in the Iraq War, is an obvious choice to be a reluctant recruit – sort of like Gene Wilder in “Blazing Saddles.” The other newly-appointed deputy is goofy gun museum owner Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville), who just happens to have a load of assault weapons and other heavy artillery that comes in handy in a “High Noon” type of showdown.

Of course, Knoxville is channeling his “Jackass” persona by engaging in comic mischief and crazy stunts for which his unhinged humor is most suited. In the same spirit as “Vanishing Point” and “Two-Lane Blacktop,” much of the action under South Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s command is a high-speed chase across the expansive wasteland of the Arizona desert.

 Cortez blows through the occasional state and local police roadblocks as if his car was a bowling ball knocking down pins to score a perfect strike. The inevitable showdown on the streets of sleepy Sommerton, where Owens and his crew decide to make their last stand, should come as no surprise to anyone mildly familiar with the action formula.

“The Last Stand” is a good old-fashioned shoot-‘em-up with the sensibility of a vintage Western, except that horses have been replaced by high-speed cars and the weapons have a lot more firepower than six-shooters. Schwarzenegger may be an aging action icon, but he still has enough kick that might serve him well for a couple more of these adventures before he rides off into the sunset. With a nice comedic flavor, “The Last Stand” proves to be goofy fun with its explosion of violence, car chases and general sense of mayhem. 

    

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A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

GANGSTER SQUAD (Rated R) Filled with violent gun play, the crime thriller “Gangster Squad” arrives in theaters after a six-month delay as the result of the studio’s desire to avoid a backlash in the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado.

As it stands, the gangster story set in the grimy world of post-war Los Angeles, circa 1949, no longer includes Tommy guns blazing in a crowded Graumann’s Chinese Theater.  That’s been replaced with a Chinatown shootout. Notwithstanding director Robert Fleischer’s concession to public sensibilities, “Gangster Squad” inhabits the macho world of hard-boiled cops engaged in an all-out war with a particularly nasty breed in the criminal underworld.

Similarities to “The Untouchables” abound, as Los Angeles Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) decides to put together an off-the-books task force to take down a criminal boss, in this case the infamous Mickey Cohen (a snarling Sean Penn).All doubts about the sheer depravity and vile nature of a vicious Mickey Cohen are dispensed almost immediately.  A gruesome scene of dismemberment of a rival gangster beneath the Hollywood land sign is disturbingly graphic.

Pushing back against the Chicago mob, Cohen is determined to run drug, gambling and prostitution rings with an iron-fist and without interference from outside forces To hat end, Cohen has many corrupt cops and judges in his pocket, and the incorruptible Chief Parker has no choice other than to recruit an elite squad that can operate outside the parameters of legal authority. For Chief Parker, the streets of Los Angeles have turned into a war zone where the traditional rules don’t apply.  He finds his team leader in a World War II veteran of impeccable integrity and gung-ho attitude.

The square-jawed Josh Brolin steps in as Sgt. John O’Mara, a fearless enforcer of the law regardless of the consequences.  His pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), though, is not too keen about his often reckless behavior.

With the LAPD tainted by many dirty cops doing the bidding of Cohen and his thugs, Chief Parker instructs O’Mara to put together his own team of trustworthy, honest enforcers. O’Mara ends up with a ragtag group that might be called the Dirty Half-Dozen by the squad’s detractors.  His top pick is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), an honest cop with a dim view of authority who also has some shady friends.

Wooters is also the most colorful, as well as brazenly bold, character.  For one thing, this ladies’ man is only too willing to seduce Cohen’s main squeeze, a femme fatale by the name of Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). The romantic subplot between Wooters and Grace adds some edge to the cat-and-mouse game between the gangster squad and its quarry, but mostly it allows Emma Stone, the striking moll, to look terrific in period costumes.

Meanwhile, O’Mara and Wooters are capably assisted by a decidedly mixed crew, in terms of heritage as well as skills.  The real veteran of the group is Robert Patrick’s Officer Max Kennard, a relic of the Old West who loves his trusty six-shooter.

Kennard’s sidekick is young Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), the rare Mexican member of the police force.  Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), looking great in a hat, brings experience from patrolling the heavily African-American community in South Los Angeles. The oddest fit to the gangster squad is the nerdy Officer Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), a surveillance expert who handles the technical aspects of the illegal wiretapping of Cohen’s office and home.

“Gangster Squad” is well-served by an outstanding cast, but the chewing of the scenery is done almost exclusively by the sneering and violently hotheaded Sean Penn, who often looks like his head is about to explode.

The action is mostly about the squad blowing up Cohen’s betting parlors and houses of prostitution, with a great chase of a drug shipment thrown in for good measure.  There’s also a jarring street battle in Chinatown with machine guns blazing away. A shootout in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel decorated for the Christmas holiday is choreographed to a ballet of flying bullets, with the nice touch of the slow-motion visual of tree ornaments shattered by gunfire.

Some critics are saying that “Gangster Squad” compares unfavorably with Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables,” a film with the similar theme of an incorruptible law enforcement group fighting organized crime.

Having not watched the DePalma film since its release in 1987, my recollection is too hazy to offer an opinion of the comparable merits.  My advice is to watch “Gangster Squad” unencumbered with preconceived notions if you like the gangster genre.To be sure, “Gangster Squad,” loosely based on true events, takes great liberties with actually happened.  Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable bit of pulpy film noir action with plenty of gunplay and gangland violence.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

Courtroom drama doesn’t get much better than “Perry Mason,” which initially ran for nine seasons, and then in later years returned with a series of TV movies Our focus here is on the original brilliant attorney played with great relish by television legend Raymond Burr. “Perry Mason: The Eighth Season Volume Two” is the latest DVD release.

Among its many qualities, “Perry Mason” maintained the same key players over the entire run.  Barbara Hale was always the faithful secretary Della Street and William Hopper was the investigator, Paul Drake Of course, Raymond Burr’s Mason often embraced his incredible detective skills by digging deep into the evidence to solve startling truths.  Don’t miss the fun.

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 COMEDY IN “PARENTAL GUIDANCE” PURELY FAMILY FRIENDLY

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 PARENTAL GUIDANCE (Rated PG Like most holiday seasons, this year has a few epics and a bunch of passable comedies.  In the former category, you’ve got “The Hobbit” and Russell Crowe singing during the 1832 Paris uprising, in a movie nearly as long as the French Revolution itself.

“Parental Guidance” falls into the grouping of the ostensible family comedies suitable for all ages at a time when kids are out of school and everyone is in a festive holiday mood. There was a decent reason to believe that the pairing of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, as traditional-minded grandparents with love in their hearts and hell-bent for family-oriented fun, would result in more than acceptable entertainment.

To a decent extent, Crystal and Midler bring a generational dimension of old-school parenting to the fore in a way that is alternately amusing and frustrating, the latter more so for their own kids than grandkids. Artie and Diane Decker (Crystal and Midler) have been the type of carefree yet caring parents that proved embarrassing to adult daughter Alice Simmons (Marisa Tomei), now married with three children of her own.

The Deckers live in Fresno, California, where the sports-obsessed, motor-mouthed Artie has been the baseball announcer for the Fresno Grizzlies.  Diane is as equally brash and loud as her husband. Meanwhile, Alice and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) live in Atlanta, which is almost as far away as you can get from Fresno while still remaining within the continental United States.

Alice and Phil want to slip away for a week’s convention trip, and Phil’s parents are not available for babysitting duty.  As a measure of desperation, they call for help from the “other grandparents.”Possessed of the Type-A parental gene, Alice and Phil are reluctant, to say the least, to turn over their three precious children to parents who may not follow their indulgent ways.

The kids have their own set of issues.  The oldest, Harper (Bailee Madison), is pushed constantly to practice her violin.  The older son, Turner (Joshua Rush), has a stuttering problem that causes him to be bullied at school.The youngest, Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), is oddly attached to his invisible best friend, a kangaroo named Carl.  But Barker is also the cagiest sibling, as he cleverly blackmails his grandpa into forking over hush money.

Before Alice and Phil can even pack their bags, the grandparents clash with the overly protective parents over child-rearing tactics.  As a result, Alice becomes a nervous wreck, adding to the discomfort that is mined for comic effect. Phil has designed an ultra-modern home where a computer monitors everyone’s movement, sort of a creepy Big Brother-is-watching surveillance system that decides, on its own power, to disrespect Artie.

Meanwhile, Artie decides to tackle problems with his own blunt methods.  For one, he candidly confronts Turner’s speech therapist over her questionable techniques.Since Artie was also recently fired from his announcer job, he makes the unwise choice of taking Barker with him on an audition with ESPN, making a fool of himself for trying to fit in with the extreme sports crowd.

Naturally, the grandparents make a ton of blunders in caring for the grandkids.  Though sugar has been banned from the household, Artie figures that the sugary treat of a nice cake won’t do any harm. Big mistake!What’s not a mistake, however, is that the loving grandparents and the kids finally reach a level of familial connection, though it involves something as simple as a backyard game of kick the can.

Artie also helps Turner overcome his stuttering with a clever use of a radio replay of Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run hit on a pitch by Ralph Branca during the 1951 Giants-Dodgers pennant playoff series. “Parental Guidance” falls into the trap of forging some of its comedy with the formulaic use of certain bodily functions.  Apparently, the filmmakers had to resort to juvenile humor to fill the vacuum in a movie that is well short of two hours.

On the other hand, this is a minor quibble with a film that is, for the most part, a family-friendly entertainment that offers plenty of laughs and heartwarming moments.“Parental Guidance” is not a film for jaded cynics.  Sure, it is rather generic, but it is a welcome relief to some of the corrosive junk that’s out there.

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 ACTION FORMULA CRUISES ALONG IN “JACK REACHER” THRILLER

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

JACK REACHER (Rated PG-13) If it weren’t for the “Mission Impossible” movies, Tom Cruise probably would not have yet established his bona fides as an action figure. “Jack Reacher” should eliminate any lingering doubts. Readers, though, of British thriller writer Lee Child’s novels may quarrel with the selection of the diminutive Cruise for the role belonging to a physically imposing person tall enough to be an NBA player. “Jack Reacher” may be a reach, at least with respect to the protagonist’s stature, but not for the end result of the gritty, emotionless realism that Cruise delivers with skillful intensity.

Cruise’s Jack Reacher, the film’s titular character, is an old-school operative, fascinating for his ability to live off the grid.  He’s a drifter who only travels by bus and doesn’t have a cell phone or credit cards. Having served in the U.S. Army with distinction as a military policeman, Reacher is now a loner who would prefer to forget about his past experiences, including his service during the Iraq War.

But the past rears its ugly head when former military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora) is the apparent shooter who picks off five people strolling along the riverfront walk outside of Pittsburgh’s baseball stadium. When the shooter is arrested, based on a trail of evidence that seems all-too-convenient, his first request is scrawled on a piece of paper:  “Get Jack Reacher.”

The mysterious Reacher, already a legendary figure, is not one who can be found.  Oddly enough, when he is needed, Reacher materializes as if summoned during a séance. The drifter has a history with the alleged shooter, but it’s not a favorable one.  The case against the prime suspect looks to be solid, right down to the fingerprint obtained from a quarter deposited in a parking meter at the crime scene.

Brilliant in math, logic and the power of deductive reasoning, Reacher sets out on an investigative search to solve the case, regardless of where the evidence points to guilt or innocence. The suspect is represented by Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), an able big-firm lawyer who just happens to be the daughter of District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins).

Thus, the case is complicated by the personal and professional conflicts between the DA and the defense attorney.  Add to the mix Detective Emerson’s (David Oyelowo) lack of enthusiasm for Reacher’s involvement.Always a step ahead of everyone else, Reacher advises Helen to find out more about each of the victims.  He’s also puzzled that an expert sniper needed six shots to kill the five so-called random victims.

As Reacher starts turning over rocks, suspicious characters just happen to show up in strange circumstances.  Shadowy figures are increasingly nervous that Reacher’s probing will uncover some problematic facts. A misunderstanding with a pretty girl (Alexia Fast) causes five guys to challenge Reacher to a fight outside a bar.  Not a good move, since the ex-Army cop dispatches these guys with relative ease.

Of course, this won’t be the last time that Reacher is required to use his impressive physical skills for some intense hand-to-hand combat with mysterious assailants. None of these encounters happens to be arbitrary confrontations with ordinary street thugs.  Except to the authorities, it’s obvious that nefarious things are occurring to cover up the truth.

How come a creepy guy who looks very much like director Werner Herzog (well, actually it is him), a Russian villain with missing fingers and a glassy eye, is manipulating a bunch of trigger-happy bad guys so as to keep James Barr as the only suspect? A nice touch to stir up a great action scene is a muscle-car chase in which Reacher’s pursuit of bad guys in a borrowed vintage Chevy Chevelle careens through the concrete canyons of Pittsburgh in the dangerous high-speed spirit of “The French Connection.”

Arriving late to the party is Robert Duvall’s gun-range owner, who unknowingly has evidence of a key person on the proxy grassy knoll and becomes an ally for the final showdown at a rock quarry. Having not read Lee Child’s “One Shot,” the novel on which the storyline is based, I suspect that essential plot points are missing or distorted, causing fans of the “Jack Reacher” literary franchise a fair amount of dismay.

As a cinematic enterprise, the Christopher McQuarrie-directed “Jack Reacher” delivers the basic pleasures of an action film with enough vigilante justice, fights and car chases to satisfy the indispensable formula. And so what if Tom Cruise comes up a little short for the size of the hero?  If the “Mission Impossible” days are over, “Jack Reacher” is the answer for an aging action hero’s quest to stay in the game.

TELEVISION UPDATE

As a writer, director, producer and actor, veteran funnyman Mel Brooks is getting some well-deserved recognition for his canon of work. HBO is currently running a special program entitled “Mel Brooks Strikes Back!,” a conversation between Brooks and Alan Yentob, creative director for the BBC.“Mel Brooks Strikes Back!” features clips from some of his classic movies and TV work, including “Your Show of Shows,” featuring Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner.

In the conversation with Alan Yentob, Brooks discusses his family and upbringing, his experiences during World War II and background stories about his films.Brooks is one of the few artists who have received an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony.  These awards attest to a career of comedy greatness. Coincidentally, Shout Factory recently released the DVD/CD box set “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy.” This DVD/CD combo includes his memorable short film “The Critic” which won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Animated).  To my knowledge, this short has never been released before.

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 TOLKIEN MAGIC DRIVES “THE HOBBIT” TO AN EPIC ADVENTURE

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Rated PG-13) Maybe I’m not the optimal reviewer for “The Hobbit,” but it’s the major film of the week, with Warner Brothers having persuaded its competitors that the box office only has room for one big epic release.First of all, I’ve never read the J.R.R. Tolkien novels and I barely made it through the first film of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Now along comes “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which is a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings,” or so I believe, since the action takes place 60 years earlier. The thought of watching a prequel stirred dread in my soul, if only because George Lucas, it can be fairly said, ruined the whole notion with the dreadful “Star Wars” prequels.

Being a novice to this whole Tolkien business, I was pleasantly surprised that “The Hobbit,” at least to this uninitiated amateur, was much more entertaining than I reasonably expected. Still, director Peter Jackson appeared to be in no rush during the film’s opening act to get things moving at a decent pace.  Instead, there is a lumbering amount of exposition to set up the raft of characters.

Nevertheless, for the apprentice viewer, there is much to be established, and aside from Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Wizard, it’s easy to get lost and fail to distinguish between the dwarves, elves and trolls. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) lives a contented, peaceful existence in his cozy home of Bag End in the Shire.  You see, Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys the complacency and quiet enjoyment of his wooded paradise.

Meanwhile, a group of 13 rowdy dwarves, led by the stoic, legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), seeks to reclaim their lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome Dragon Smaug.

To this end, the warrior dwarves, who are apparently unfamiliar with basic hygiene, show up at Baggins’ little Hobbit home, barging in as uninvited dinner guests.The party crashers are all part of the Wizard Gandalf the Grey’s (Ian McKellan) plan to draft the reluctant Baggins into a journey that will travel through the badlands of Middle-earth.

The destination lies somewhere to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, but to get there the group has to travel though some really treacherous lands, where constant peril abounds. This is where it gets interesting.  After an initial slow pace, the action heats up with many battles so fierce and intense that it should delight any action junkie, if not a rating stronger than PG-13.

In these fights, the hardy group takes on Goblins, Orcs and deadly Wargs, as well as a mysterious and sinister figure known only as the Necromancer.  I know that if “necro” is part of the name, then death surely follows. What I don’t know are the differences between a goblin, an orc and a troll.  It may be an issue of size, but of this I am certain, these are some of the ugliest creatures to roam the Middle-earth universe.

As time goes on, the initially timid Baggins gains confidence and strength.  These qualities are put to the test when Baggins meets the creature that will change his life forever, namely Gollum (Andy Sirkis). Gollum is a weird little dude who lives in a cave.  On the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Baggins, now alone with Gollum, discovers depths of ingenuity and courage that surprise even him.

Aside from Gollum’s playful yet oddly dangerous behavior, this creature mostly speaks gibberish and loves riddles.  Baggins is put to the test on an intellectual scale. The most remarkable thing to come from this encounter with Gollum is that Baggins gains possession of Gollum’s “precious” ring, one that holds unexpected and useful qualities.  The simple, gold ring is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth, and so it will play a big part in the future.

Let’s face it: whatever carping comes from critics who take apart Peter Jackson’s efforts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision to the screen, the die-hard fans will likely not care.“The Hobbit” runs almost three hours, and so it demands a lot of attention as well as patience, at times.  But from my vantage point, I would say the next installment will be worth seeing.

For the here and now, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” proves to be, at least for one who cared not so much for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, an unexpected pleasure.

 

 COMEDIC FORMULA OF “PLAYING FOR KEEPS” NEVER QUITE GELS

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

PLAYING FOR KEEPS (Rated PG-13) With his Scottish accent, tousled-hair and ruggedly handsome looks, Gerard Butler strikes all the right notes of charm and good humor for the starring role of a down-on-his-luck former soccer star in “Playing for Keeps.” An opening montage of grainy video clips establishes Butler’s George Dryer as a superstar on the international circuit.  He’s in the league of David Beckham and Pele (those are only names of famous soccer players that readily come to mind).

While “Playing for Keeps” may showcase the endearing magnetism of a carefree athlete, this comedy is not quite sure if it should focus on George’s romantic entanglements or his primary mission of rebuilding a relationship with his estranged son.

Retired from the game, George is a man adrift, now relocated to Virginia so that he can put his life back together and also reconnect, hopefully, with his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel). After a series of bad investments, George has to rent a guest house where he is always dodging the landlord.  His latest plan to get back on his feet is to land a job as a sportscaster.

Though his initial attempts at parenting are not very encouraging, George tries to establish a relationship with his young son Lewis (Noah Lomax), who has never really known his absentee father. Circumstances lead George to become the coach of Lewis’ soccer team.  Naturally, George’s talent inspires the kids to perform much better than ever, leading to some winning games with rival teams.

Meanwhile, the roguish George draws attention from an adoring class of new fans – soccer moms, consisting of attractive single women as well as unhappily married ones. Obviously, during his playing career, George was a womanizer who never lacked for female companionship.  Now he’s got women like Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman pursuing him with zestful lustiness.

The dilemma is that George is trying fitfully to at last become an “adult,” while the flirtatious soccer moms become a distraction in his quest to bond with Lewis. For another matter, George wants to prove to his ex-wife Stacie that despite his penchant for having a wandering eye, she is the only woman he ever loved.

Of course, an additional complication is that Stacie is soon to be married to live-in boyfriend Matt (James Tupper), a bland sort of fellow who is probably decent and caring, but not terribly exciting. George also has to contend with a really pushy soccer dad (Dennis Quaid) determined to make him his new best bud, convincing George to give his son more playing time and involving him in some dubious adventures.

The soccer moms also get pushy.  Greer’s Barb is all weepy and clingy.  Zeta-Jones’ Denise is calculating, dangling the prospect of a job opportunity at ESPN in front of George. Thurman’s Patti, a married woman, offers nothing but trouble.George does his best to fend off these advances, though it is obvious that this is no easy task for him.  Still, despite his faults, he’s got his mind fixed on repairing his past bond with Stacie.

At a certain point, “Playing for Keeps” tilts from the father-son bonding amidst the distractions from the fawning women to a greater focus on George trying to rekindle the romance with Stacie. George’s transformation from all-over-the-field playboy to reasonably reliable family man is not going to be a bombshell revelation to anyone.

And if anyone finds it surprising how the events unfold for George and Stacie, the educated guess is that you haven’t seen enough romantic comedies. The biggest surprise might be that “Playing for Keeps” is being released during the run-up to the holiday season, where films in wide release are generally grander in scale.  Consider the upcoming “The Hobbit” as an example.

“Playing for Keeps” may be formulaic and predictable, but it’s not without its appeal.  While Gerard Butler is charismatic, it’s Jessica Biel who delivers the best, most credible performance. Though it has its fun, “Playing for Keeps” is, regrettably, ultimately forgettable.  You may wonder how people like Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones decided this was a film worthy of their talents.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

DVD releases of recent films often offer new life for decent movies that never gained appropriate notice or had a limited theatrical release. Both may be true of “Why Stop Now,” an oddball comedy about the adventures of a young piano genius and his drug-addicted mom on a very bad day.

Piano prodigy Eli Bloom (Jesse Eisenberg) is on his way to the most important audition of his life, but first he has to drop off his mother Penny (Melissa Leo) at a drug rehab center. But there’s one little complication.  Since Penny’s not quite high enough and has to test positive to be admitted, mother and son end up at the door of her dealer Sprinkles (Tracy Morgan) in search of one last score.

Because Penny is in debt and Sprinkles is low on product, Eli unwittingly must play negotiator as the unlikely team hit the streets in search of drugs. A screwball comedy, “Why Stop Now” is wacky and absurdly funny.  Where else would you find obstacles in the drug search that include a Revolutionary War reenactment and a foul-mouthed sock puppet?

 

TALKY YET VIOLENT THRILLER BLUNTS “KILLING THEM SOFTLY”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Rated R) The bleak landscape of small-time gangster thriller “Killing Them Softly” rests not just with urban decay, but with the backdrop of the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Based on the George V. Higgins novel, “Cogan’s Trade,” this criminal enterprise film involves petty hoods and sleazy losers who are pretty much oblivious to world affairs and the economic meltdown.

As if to create a sense of impending doom, “Killing Them Softly” makes plentiful use of radio and TV clips of posturing by various political figures to underscore the gravity of America’s financial crisis. The political chatter is little more than background noise to the crooks and wiseguys who foolishly scheme to rob a high-stakes mob-protected poker game.  Even in a bad economy, they just want a quick score for big bucks.

A longtime hanger-on in the underworld, Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), now in the dry-cleaning business, has come up with a slick plan to rob the card game run by regular dealer Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). To complete the actual theft, Johnny turns to jittery young crook Frankie (Scoot McNairy), who is fresh out of jail and flat broke.  In other words, Frankie is the perfect patsy.

For his part, Frankie makes the dubious choice of tapping for a partner his drug-addled friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a gleefully seedy Australian junkie whose latest criminal enterprise involves dog theft. The Markie Trattman card game is a convenient target because Markie once imprudently boasted of his complicity in a robbery of one of his own mob-protected games.

Naturally, the conspirators are only too certain that the mob’s suspicion will fall immediately upon Markie, the guy most likely to know all the inside information. With more bluster than brains, Frankie and Russell manage to pull off the robbery and escape without being recognized.  But only a fool believes in a foolproof plan.

And there’s the rub.  While the low-rent hoods are congratulating themselves, the mob takes drastic steps to deal with this situation, bringing in the seasoned enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Dealing through the mob’s buttoned-up middle manager Driver (Richard Jenkins), Jackie is hired to investigate the heist and restore the criminal status quo.  It won’t be easy or pretty.

While Jackie is cool, cynical and detached, his usually efficient manner is constrained by the bureaucratic mentality of the unseen mob bosses who expect Driver to communicate their instructions.

The essential imperative for Jackie is not only to mete out punishment, but to deliver a message to would-be thieves that no one is beyond the reach of a criminal enterprise jealously guarding its turf. Though he’s the consummate professional, Jackie finds it’s frustrating to navigate mounting complications, so he brings in trusted colleague Mickey (James Gandolfini) to assist with the assignment.

The once reliable Mickey has now become surprisingly unpredictable, seeing how he’s much more interested in overindulging in alcohol and prostitutes than taking care of business. A gangster thriller that involves contract killers is bound to be violent.  “Killing Them Softly” certainly has its share of mayhem, including one of the most brutally grotesque beatings of recent memory.

But this crime story plays out to a different tempo than others in the genre.  Indeed, the violence is either sadistically brutal or just simmering below the surface, keeping the audience on edge. Surprisingly, the hoodlums are often garrulous, talking at great lengths often to the point of annoyance. This is particular true when the dimwitted Frankie and Russell prattle on like high school stoners.

The political context frequently gets in the way of the film’s essentially nihilistic worldview.  Quite frankly, it seems unlikely that hoods would hang out in dive bars where C-SPAN is the TV channel of choice. “Killing Them Softly” also goes against the grain by doing unusual things like making Ray Liotta a relatively sympathetic figure and James Gandolfini even more malevolent than his turn on “The Sopranos.”

The film’s saving grace is Brad Pitt’s unflappable, subdued performance as the world-weary hired gun.  And when his Jackie has a conversation with Mickey or Driver, it’s worth paying attention. “Killing Them Softly” is not effortlessly categorized, and as such, it may not find its audience easy to reach.  In short, this film was not made for hardcore action junkies.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

This column space has frequently extolled the virtues of vintage TV series being released on DVD.  I am not about to stop the practice now. Once again, it is a pleasure to announce the DVD release of a classic detective show, this time “Mannix: The Final Season,” where Mike Connors still does the hard-boiled, gritty private eye gig.

“The Final Season” is the eighth year that Connors’ Joe Mannix defies the rules and protocols while fighting crime on the streets of Los Angeles. The series also prominently featured Gail Fisher, who had the distinction, according to Wikipedia, of being one of the first African-American actresses to have a regular TV series role.

Whatever the case, Fisher and Connors made a great team in fighting the bad guys.  “The Final Season” demonstrates that the series retained its vitality to the very end. “Mannix: The Final Season” offers nearly 20 hours of high-speed car chases, flying bullets and fistfights.  Through it all, Joe Mannix takes a beating and keeps on ticking.

 

GUTSY KIDS-AS-HEROES GET THE JOB DONE IN “RED DAWN”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

RED DAWN (Rated PG-13) During the height of the Cold War, at a time when President Ronald Reagan identified the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” director John Milius tapped into the 1980s zeitgeist with the original “Red Dawn.” The 1984 film became a cult-classic that showcased young actors Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, and Jennifer Grey, along with a slightly older Patrick Swayze.

The original premise of “Red Dawn” involved the Soviets invading the United States, followed by the resistance movement that arises when a group of heroic teenagers band together to repel the occupying force. Fast forward to 2012, and the principal foe is now North Korea, launching a full-scale attack on the Pacific Northwest.  You’d think that China would be the more likely invaders, but they are probably waiting to see if we’ll repay our national debt first.

The face of the enemy has changed, but the tactics employed by the guerrilla insurgency are pretty much the same.  Once again, it’s up to a bunch of kids to be the frontline of freedom fighters. A few minutes pass after the obligatory introduction of the primary teen characters, and “Red Dawn” kicks into high gear with a most unexpected aerial attack of North Korean paratroopers descending on Spokane, Washington.

A murderous, cruel Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee) moves his troops so quickly through town that barely a handful of teens make a getaway to the woods outside town, while most others are rounded up like concentration camp victims. Jed (Chris Hemsworth), an Iraq War veteran, and Matt (Josh Peck), the high school quarterback, are brothers whose father, Tom Eckert (Brett Cullen), is a ranking police officer.

The Eckert family has the natural instinct to fight back.  As such, Jed, as the result of his military training, becomes the de facto leader of a budding rebel group that includes mostly Matt’s high school pals.As the quarterback of the high school football team, Matt enlists classmates and friends, including Robert (Josh Hutcherson), the tech geek, and Daryl (Connor Cruise), the mayor’s son.

Other members of the core group include Danny (Edwin Hodge), the star receiver and Matt’s best friend, and Toni (Adrianne Palicki), a pretty girl with a major crush on Jed.  Meanwhile, Matt’s cheerleader girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas) is incarcerated in an internment camp.

As a battle-tested Marine on leave, Jed knows what it takes to live off the land while improvising effective insurgent attacks upon the unsuspecting North Koreans who may be growing complacent after the ease with which they conquered the Pacific Northwest.

Early on, the North Korean invaders prove themselves to be murderous villains, randomly killing civilians for the slightest infractions and generally terrorizing the population into subservience. Bonding as a team, the rebel youth take on the moniker of “Wolverines,” in honor of the football squad.  That Jed’s younger brother is a hothead results in some complications, considering that he’s fixated on liberating his girlfriend from a heavily guarded prison camp.

Nevertheless, the Wolverines gradually become more efficient in carrying out random acts of violence against the symbols of foreign occupation, going so far as to wipe out command posts, patrol unitsss and fortified areas. “Red Dawn” becomes the fantasy revenge picture it was intended to be. The idea of North Korea successfully invading America is far-fetched, to say the least, but the audience nonetheless delights in well-orchestrated action sequences that involve plenty of explosions and gunfights.

During the course of the insurgency, the young fighters are joined by a trio of grizzled retired Marines led by the spirited Tanner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), just in time for a major vital assault on the occupier’s main communications center. “Red Dawn” is solid for its action, which mainly requires the insurgents to take their fight to the streets in a gripping attempt to outwit and overcome the intruders, causing major disruptions with nicely timed explosions and gunfire ambushes.

Notwithstanding the wickedness of the communist enemy, “Red Dawn” seems so implausible that if the lunatic Kim Jong-Il were still alive, even he would probably have a difficult time accepting the premise.  But the little creep would be thrilled with the notion.The bulk of “Red Dawn” is all about the action, thereby becoming the type of contemporary action thriller that is, simply put, satisfying popcorn fare.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

A gangster film that plays more like a Western, “Lawless” captured the brutality of a Prohibition-era battle between moonshiners and corrupt lawmen.  Now it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Inspired by the biographical novel “The Wettest County in the World,” the film version of the adventures of the Bondurant Brothers follows a quest for a piece of the American Dream, albeit an illegal one.The three brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) fight to maintain their hold on the bootlegging business that is under attack from urban gangsters.

The youngest brother aspires to become Public Enemy No. 1, reaping the benefits that go along with the trappings of a dangerous criminal. A mysterious woman named Maggie (Jessica Chastain) enters the picture, working in the family business and becoming the girlfriend to the oldest brother. Living up (or is it down?) to its name, “Lawless” has plenty of brutal violence, with guns blazing aplenty.  Special features include “The True Story of the Wettest County in the World.”

 

 HISTORY SHINES WITH BRILLIANT, IMPASSIONED “LINCOLN” EPIC

 A Film Review by Tim Riley

 LINCOLN (Rated PG-13) Steven Spielberg delivers a brilliant masterpiece on American history with “Lincoln,” from a screenplay based in part on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Fear not, history is far from a ponderous, tedious exercise with this lively exploration of the full measure of this great president, a man whose passion and humanity is on full display.

The rich human drama that played out near the end of the Civil War is all the more impressive because Daniel Day-Lewis skillfully makes Abraham Lincoln the tall, elegant and imposing figure of authority that history informs us was the case. To its everlasting credit, “Lincoln” dwells on the final four months of the 16th president’s life and presidency, when a shattered nation teeters on the very real possibility of the Union forever dissolved.

History, but not the movie, enlightens us on Lincoln’s use of Draconian emergency powers during the Civil War, such as the suspension of habeas corpus and outright media censorship. There’s very little battlefield action here, and what there is merely sets the tone for certain political necessities that follow from ending the war so that the United States is once again whole.

“Lincoln” the movie focuses on the extraordinary steps that the president took in doubling down on the war effort, not merely to end the Civil War but to push for the enactment of the 13th Amendment that would permanently abolish slavery.

Most of the action takes place during the month of January 1865, when the re-elected Lincoln makes an all-out effort to secure passage of the Amendment in the ill-tempered House of Representatives. The president relies on the help of Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), powerful chairman of the House Way and Means Committee and a fiery and often irascible advocate of the abolitionist movement.

Lincoln’s secretary of state William H. Seward (David Strathairn), a former political adversary during the 1860 election, was an indispensable ally in the fight to save the Union, and as such, he helped, albeit reluctantly, organize a lobbying effort to spread patronage in an ingenious vote-buying scheme.

Some comic relief comes from a trio of lobbyists (John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson) who run around Capitol Hill offering lucrative government jobs to the very Democratic congressmen who were not otherwise inclined to abolish slavery by any measure. Meanwhile, plenty of fireworks take place not just in the halls of Congress but inside the White House as well.  Sally Field fully realizes the complicated role of Mary Todd Lincoln, alternately supportive of her husband or so emotionally overwrought as to be a thorn in his side.

We often catch the Great Emancipator in a pensive mood as he wanders late at night through the White House tormented by the pressing burdens of his office.  On top of that, he’s a vulnerable husband and father who must cope, respectively, with his demanding wife and the ongoing grief of son Willie’s death.

More family drama intrudes with Mrs. Lincoln’s insistence that oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) not join the war effort.  Even against the president’s wishes, Robert wanted to join the Union Army, not seeking any favor because of his station in life.

Without the knowledge of Secretary Seward, Lincoln sends a delegation to Richmond in an attempt to negotiate the surrender of the Confederacy.  Meanwhile, he has to stall this peace effort just long enough to pass the 13th Amendment.

The political intrigue in the nation’s capitol is fascinating.  Lincoln realizes that unless the abolition of slavery is enshrined in the Constitution, the reconstituted Union is unlikely to pass the Amendment when Democratic representatives from the South join the Congress.

Politics in its rawest form is fully on display in the contentious debate over the abolition of slavery.  The sharp-tongued Thaddeus Stevens is a wonder to behold as he skewers the hypocrisy of his Democratic adversaries.

The most theatrical aspects of “Lincoln” occur as the result of debates in Congress about the 13th Amendment.  One great showdown involves Congressman Stevens’ heated and acerbic tongue-lashing of pro-slavery Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace). The portrait of Abraham Lincoln that emerges is a man of raw paradoxes, one who is funny and solemn, as well as shrewd and vulnerable.  The president dotes on his youngest son and is a playful storyteller, but he’s also a fierce power broker and astute commander.

Thrust into the high stakes battle to save the American Union, Lincoln comes into view as a master strategist brokering deals with members of the opposition as well as recalcitrant members of his own party. It’s never a good idea to come away from a movie with the notion that the historical figures have been depicted with accuracy and fairness.  “Lincoln,” though, seems like an honest attempt to capture the essence of one of the most compelling figures in the history of mankind.

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is ambitious filmmaking at its best.  This brilliant film shows that the president was not just a multifaceted statesman and military leader, but also a dedicated and introspective family man coping with an enormous number of challenges. Daniel Day-Lewis is simply superb as Abraham Lincoln.  If he’s not nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, I would question the judgment of the voters.

TELEVISION BOOK UPDATE

A period drama of the early 20th Century, “Downton Abbey” is a smash hit on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic,” soon to return in January for its third season.Meanwhile, to satisfy the legions of fans, St. Martin’s Press has released the beautifully illustrated “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey,” highlighting the history of the popular show.When Season 3 of the award-winning TV series opens, it is 1920 and the occupants of the Great House are waking up to a world forever changed by World War I.

New challenges to the established order and new guests abound, with more intrigue, rivalry and romance than ever.  In this new era, different family members arrive, include Shirley MacLaine. “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey” ties in nicely with the upcoming third season.  The book is lavishly designed and gloriously illustrated and full of intimate detail.

 

ACTION THRILLS OF JAMES BOND THRIVE AND SURVIVE “SKYFALL”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

SKYFALL (Rated PG-13) This year is the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and “Skyfall” is the 23rd film, as long as you don’t count Sean Connery’s return in the unofficial “Never Say Never Again.”

 Appearing in his third Bond film, Daniel Craig is the sixth person in the role of the suave secret agent, as long as you don’t count Barry Nelson from a 1954 TV movie and David Niven, Peter Sellers and others from the 1967 spoof “Casino Royale.”

As a James Bond fan, I can’t resist another bit of trivia.  Roger Moore holds the record for playing Bond in seven of the official films produced by Eon Productions. And though Roger Moore brought his own inimitable jocular style to the part, Sean Connery remains, for most Bond enthusiasts, the best of the lot.

Yet, with “Skyfall,” Daniel Craig, who possesses the requisite style, wits and brawn for Ian Fleming’s creation, has solidified his standing as the heir apparent and nearly, if not yet completely, equal in stature to Connery. Is “Skyfall” the best of all Bond films, as some proclaim?  “Goldfinger” and “From Russia With Love” are arguably the gold standard.  As a straight-up spy film, “Skyfall” certainly measures up with the very best.

True to the franchise tradition, the film starts with a taut, thrilling motorcycle chase through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and across rooftops, culminating in a breathtaking fight on top of a speeding train, which doesn’t end particularly well for Bond. Sam Mendes, a director known for more serious work, is equally adept at the escapist fare, though in the early going you’d think he was just brushing off the instruction manual from the “Bourne” films.

After the dazzling title sequence, which includes singer Adele belting out the theme song, Bond ends up at a coastal town in the south of Turkey to recuperate and contemplate his next move. A terrorist attack on the MI6 headquarters in London jolts Bond.  His loyalty to his boss, M (Judi Dench), demands his return to action, even if he’s forced to undergo physical and mental training to qualify for duty.

It matters little to Bond that he’s not completely in shape.  He needs to help M, whose authority and position is being challenged by officious government bureaucrats eager to move beyond the ossified spy business.Enter Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), new chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.  He’s going to poke around in the dark corners.  Meanwhile, Bond is the only ally that M can trust.

As part of the new regime, Q (Ben Whishaw) is a youthful, mop-haired computer geek who disdains the usual gadgets.  He tells Bond that the agency doesn’t issue “exploding pens” anymore. Bond’s assignment is to resume the chase of the killer who made off with a list of MI6 agents working undercover in terrorist groups around the globe.

The chase takes Bond to an exotic high-rise in Shanghai and then to a casino in Macau where Komodo dragons prove to be more dangerous than Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers. Bond’s image as the ladies man is rekindled when he hooks up with the exotically beautiful Severine (Berenice Marlohe), who proves indispensable to locating the chief villain.

Not surprisingly, the bad guy is somewhat exotic himself.  The oddly blond-haired Silva (Javier Bardem), a supercilious fop with exaggerated mannerisms, is motivated by a twisted sense of revenge to kill MI6 agents. Though Silva is captured on his island hideaway, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that, much like Hannibal Lecter, he not only plays mind games but is not easily confined in what should be an airtight cell.

Because all hell is breaking loose in the British intelligence world, M is forced back out into the field and teams with Bond as the only option for getting the malevolent Silva to emerge from the shadows.The preening, arrogant Silva, backed up by a platoon of nameless thugs, eagerly takes the bait.  M and Bond set up shop at an old family estate in Scotland, setting the trap.To the delight of 007 fans, Bond retrieves the revered Aston Martin DB5 out of mothballs.  The car has a limited purpose, not even using its ejector seat.  Still, it’s a nice reminder of the glory days.

An interesting element to this Bond story is that M plays a greater role than usual.  On the run together, Bond and M have more room to explore their special relationship that is based on mutual respect. For another thing, we also get much more insight into Bond’s background and events from his childhood.  “Skyfall” reveals Bond’s inner life in a way that the movie audience has never seen before.

Notwithstanding some of the psychological and emotional elements, “Skyfall,” above all, has plenty of high stakes action to keep the thrill level in overdrive. I should not forget to mention the presence of Bond’s fellow field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), who’s not only beautiful and talented, but is revealed to have a special connection at the film’s conclusion.

“Skyfall” is a superior film, allowing one to take solace from the fact that the inferior “Quantum of Solace” was merely an aberration in the recent Bond pantheon. Director Sam Mendes has set the bar high for the next Bond film.  One can hope that he’s willing to do a sequel.  Meanwhile, “Skyfall” is the must-see picture.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

“Perry Mason,” the popular TV series that inspired a genre of courtroom dramas, recently returned to DVD release with “The Seventh Season – Volume Two.”At the end of November, keep an eye out for “Perry Mason: The Eighth Season – Volume One,” which will offer 773 minutes of running time.

Raymond Burr ignited the screen as brilliant attorney Perry Mason, who will stop at nothing to crack the most impossible cases.To uncover the truth, Mason had help from his secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper). It always fun to watch Perry Mason use detective skills to trick and trap witnesses into unwittingly admitting their guilt in the case.

 

THRILLS, HUMAN DRAMA AND RAW EMOTION TAKE “FLIGHT

            A Film Review by Tim Riley

 FLIGHT (Rated R) Film director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) appears to be outside of his comfort zone with “Flight.”  But then, anyone contemplating an airline trip shortly after watching this film may be slightly edgy and not in a comfortable place.

“Flight” opens with a terrifying scene.  No, I am not referring to Denzel Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker enjoying an all-night party of sex, booze and cocaine with a hot flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez).

This hotel room party scene occurs prior to Whitaker’s morning flight to Atlanta.  The thought that he pulls himself together with lines of coke at the hotel and a few snorts of vodka on the plane may be the scary part. Captain Whitaker, notwithstanding an addiction to drugs and alcohol, is an exceptional pilot, having earned his wings in the Navy.  In the cockpit, he is a commanding, steady presence.

On the ground, Whitaker’s personal life is an entirely different story.  His ex-wife only wants to talk about financial support.  His teenage is resentful of his father’s emotional absence.Two portraits of Whitaker’s character begin to emerge after the fateful plane crash, which by now must be familiar to most moviegoers who have seen the TV ads or trailers.

After initial exposure to Whitaker’s lifestyle, “Flight” delivers what is inarguably the most harrowing flight disaster ever conceived and put on film. In a terrible storm, Whitaker artfully steers his passenger jet to smooth skies and away from severe turbulence, much to the joy of grateful passengers.

Yet, from the beginning, his younger co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) appears to be extremely nervous, but that’s more likely due to his suspicion that Whitaker may be operating at less than the optimal level.Shortly thereafter, the calm skies fail to offer any confidence when the plane’s hydraulic system malfunctions and the airplane plunges into a steep dive, causing extreme panic for the frightened passengers.

Actually, everybody is afraid, even the flight crew.  Except for Whitaker, who maintains surprising equilibrium as he tries to figure a maneuver that will avert a crash from which no one would walk away. Whitaker inverts the plane, flying it upside-down so as to pull out of the uncontrolled descent, thereby buying some time in which to right-size the aircraft in time to land in an open field.

Of the 102 persons on board, 96 survive, thanks to Whitaker’s brilliant if unorthodox efforts.  Suddenly, he’s a hero, sort of like Captain Sully Sullenberger, and eagerly pursued by news reporters. Despite his heroics, Whitaker was also injured in the crash, and after getting out the hospital, he hides out at his grandfather’s old farmhouse to avoid the media glare.

At first, Whitaker dumps all the booze hidden in cabinets and drawers.  He befriends pretty, young Nicole (Kelly Reilly) at the hospital, and invites her to stay with him when she is evicted from her shabby apartment. Oddly enough, Nicole, a recovering drug addict, seeks to convince Whitaker to clean up his act, even taking him to an AA meeting where he can barely sit still.

Meanwhile, the feds start investigating the crash site and the remains of the plane, and a toxicology report reveals Whitaker’s excessive levels of booze and drugs in his system.  The pilot faces serious criminal charges.Whitaker’s old Navy buddy Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), a pilots’ union official, wants to help, and brings aboard a hotshot lawyer (Don Cheadle) to work some legal magic.

The pressure builds on Whitaker.  He is not exactly cooperative with the legal team or the airline honchos.  The inevitable relapse to more booze and drugs soon follows. In less capable hands, Washington’s flawed Captain Whitaker would be likely viewed as a rather unappealing, selfish drunken loser with few redeeming qualities.

To the contrary, Washington brings his considerable charm and affability to a role that might not otherwise elicit sympathy from the audience.  Still, it is rather uncomfortable to keep rooting in his corner “Flight” is not a spiritual journey, but it does take substantial measure of a fallible man’s soul, probing many of the dark corners of his self-destructive behavior.

Just like the jetliner featured so prominently, “Flight” has its share of flaws.  The startlingly crash sequence is a stunner, and Denzel Washington is steadfastly on top of his game.  But there are some plot holes.It should be noted that John Goodman, channeling his character from “The Big Lebowski,” brings comic relief as Whitaker’s drug-dealing enabler.“Flight” is definitely a worthwhile entertainment, delivering one unapologetically hellacious ride.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 Like a broken record, this space keeps touting the release of favorite classic TV series on DVD.  “Mr. Lucky” and “Peter Gunn” were truly vintage shows.Now we are back to the more recent past, celebrating the DVD release of another season of “The Streets of San Francisco,” a gritty police drama from the 1970s.

“The Streets of San Francisco: Season Five: Volume One & Volume Two” brings back Michael Douglas as the college educated Inspector Steve Keller, teamed up with veteran detective Mike Stone (Karl Malden). Season Five heralds the arrival of a new colleague.  Richard Hatch stars as inspector Dan Robbins, who has a lot to learn about being a police detective on the streets of San Francisco.The DVD is presented in full screen format, with a total running time for both volumes clocking in around 1,200 minutes of excitement and thrills.

 NO CLOUD HANGING OVER DRAMATIC BRILLIANCE OF “SESSIONS”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THE SESSIONS (Rated R) The big movie of the week is “Cloud Atlas,” an ambitious and dazzling epic spanning five centuries that explores questions about life and the human condition.Six separate stories unfold in multiple timelines, where characters meet and reunite from one life to the next.

The Wachowski siblings, who had teamed as the writers and directors of the “Matrix” trilogy, are part of the creative team for “Cloud Atlas.”  That may tell you enough about what to expect.

Now, I lost nearly three hours of my life watching “Cloud Atlas,” which has its undeniable moments of cinematic brilliance, but I could not bring myself to spend time writing about it.I can see why the film appeals to many critics.  They often love films heavy with artistic pretension, mystical qualities and unfathomable storylines.

At this point, I am merely going to pivot to a film that is more worthy of critical acclaim, even if its audience appeal may be relatively limited.“The Sessions” has also scored well with film critics, but for reasons that are easier to digest and comprehend.  The acting alone is superb and transformative, but the story is very moving.

Based on the autobiographical writings of California poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, “The Sessions” tells the story of a man who lived most of his life in an iron lung and was determined, at age 38, to lose his virginity.

To that end, the film is based on O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which recounts his resolve to experience the emotional and physical pleasures that had eluded him. In a role that is challenging, similar to what Daniel Day-Lewis experienced in “My Left Foot,” actor John Hawkes delivers an impressively transformative performance of Mark O’Brien, who is unable to move any part of his body below his neck.

That Mark can only move his head from side to side, using his mouth to hold a stylus for typing and dialing the telephone, has not curbed his ambition to live life to the fullest. Stricken with polio at the age of 6, Mark can only stay outside of his iron lung for a few hours a day.  He managed to graduate from UC Berkeley.  A practicing Catholic, he also attends mass regularly.

His religious conviction is important.  He confesses to his priest (William H. Macy) that he has had no luck in the conventional approach to love, but he wants to consult a sex surrogate who helps the disabled.

The role of parish priest Father Brendan is apparently a composite figure of several priests that Mark O’Brien consulted as he grappled in his angst over the moral predicament of his virginity.Enter Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a sex therapist who approaches the assignment with Mark from a professional clinical perspective.

Right up front, Cheryl sets boundaries by telling Mark there will only be six sessions and that the objective is for her client to be able to sustain sexual activity in a normal relationship. It may seem a bit awkward, but Mark relies on his attendant Vera (Moon Bloodgood) to escort him to his “sessions” with Cheryl. What seems even more discomfiting is that Helen Hunt bares her entire body to fulfill her task.  We’re talking full frontal nudity that you just don’t see in mainstream movies.

But Hunt handles her nudity with dignity and grace.  There’s no real element of tawdry prurience in play.  Hunt’s Cheryl is believable as the dedicated sex therapist. When sex enters into any relationship, it is not easy to keep feelings at bay.  A bond of comfort and compassion forms between Mark and Cheryl.  A glimpse into Cheryl’s private life informs that the whole therapy business is, at best, tricky.

The movie belongs to John Hawkes, as much is asked of him to play a disabled character in a physically difficult and challenging role, even though he is an actor of remarkable versatility. Filled with humor, drama and emotion, “The Sessions” is a brilliant film that is not only entertaining, but demands our attention to the inspiration of the indomitable spirit of Mark O’Brien.“The Sessions” is a likely contender for Oscar consideration in several categories, and deservedly so.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

Just recently, this space was celebrating the trend of releasing on DVD classic TV series that are either long forgotten or unfamiliar to younger audiences. Vintage detective series are usually a lot of fun.  This is no less true for the iconic character of Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens), a handsome, suave detective tough enough to take on the hardest of hard cases.

Though some episodes of “Peter Gunn” have appeared on DVD in the past, now the complete collection of all 114 original episodes are being released as “Peter Gunn: The Complete Series.” From his unofficial office at the smoke-filled jazz club “Mother’s,” private eye Gunn keeps an eye on the colorful cast of patrons, including his gorgeous girlfriend Edie Hart (Lola Albright).

Gunn’s girl is a singer at the jazz club, which draws musicians, pool hustlers, con artists and other characters, some unsavory. Despite his stiff standard fee, Gunn’s reputation keeps the customers lined up for his services, some of them even referred by his police buddy Lt. Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi).

“Peter Gunn,” just like the classic TV series “Mr. Lucky,” was created by Blake Edwards, with the music scored by Henry Mancini. The Emmy-nominated series ran on NBC from 1958 to 1961.  Any fan of detective series and classic TV will want to own “Peter Gunn: The Complete Series.”

 

 THRILLS IN “ARGO” LIFTED BY STUNNING ELEMENT OF TRUTH

 A Film Review by Tim Riley

 ARGO (Rated R) Based on real events, “Argo” is a dramatic thriller that chronicles the life-or-death covert rescue operation of six Americans trapped in Tehran after the fall of the Shah. On November 4, 1979, as the Iranian revolution that installed Ayatollah Khomeini in power grew intense, militants stormed the U.S. Embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage.  Wow, talk about shades of recent terrorist activity against Americans in Libya; this movie is topical.

Those old enough to be familiar with the Jimmy Carter years will certainly remember this day of infamy, and the long, slow ordeal that ensued for well over a year afterwards.What people are most likely to recollect, aside from the horror of an ongoing hostage saga, is the failed rescue attempt made by Army helicopters that crashed in the Iranian desert

Much less well-known is how six Americans at the Embassy managed, in the midst of turmoil and chaos, to slip away and eventually find refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The presence of the Americans at the Canadian official diplomatic residence posed great danger for the guests as well as the host government.  The insane militants, if not the brutal Iranian regime, would likely execute all of them as spies.

From the very moment the U.S. compound is under assault, the tension is palpable and frightening.  Embassy staff scurries to shred sensitive documents, even as they are petrified for their own safety. Back home in Washington, CIA officials ponder how to save the stranded six houseguests.  Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an expert at extricating sensitive people from the world’s hotspots, including Iran.

 Needing approval from his direct superior, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez starts kicking around ideas for extraction, quickly dismissing impractical schemes like having everyone ride a bike 400 miles to the border. Having worked with Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) on other CIA missions, Mendez hits upon the idea of fabricating the cover story of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a tacky sci-fi film.

 To make the idea work, Mendez recruits veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to produce a fake movie that Siegel claims will have “to be a fake hit.” Though the Siegel character is a composite of several Hollywood producers and moguls, Arkin brings to the role an outrageously funny perspective on the art of staging the cheesiest conceivable film.

 The ruse won’t fly unless Mendez and his Hollywood buddies create a believable backstory for the bogus film production.  They find a script for a film with the titular name of “Argo” and put together a production team. The producers go so far as to design posters, stage table readings, take out ads in the trade papers and hold a big press conference to launch the film production.

Armed with a new identity as a Canadian film producer, Mendez obtains a visa and flies into Tehran to join his “film crew” – the six Americans in hiding. With little time to enact his plan, Mendez has to coach the Americans in the art of impersonating key personnel of a film crew convincingly enough to get past the Revolutionary Guards handling security at the airport.

Working with the American government workers is not an easy task.  They are naturally dubious about a mission that sounds too fanciful and off-the-wall.  One or two are almost hostile about the rescue attempt, even after the Canadian government gives them official passports. “Argo” also deftly recreates the tension and simmering hostilities that infuse the ongoing street demonstrations by crazed militants.  The fear of exposure at any moment is a tangible reality for all concerned.

 When things get too stressful and tense in Iran, the film wisely cuts away to scenes in Washington and Hollywood, where the frantic activity of secret agents and film moguls brings much needed comic relief. You have to hand it to Ben Affleck for doing great work in his dual role of focal actor in the grand scheme and directing the entire piece of solid work.

Since “Argo” is a Hollywood production, some liberties are taken with the actual story, but it’s all for the benefit of heightened suspense. One of the great fabrications is the apprehensive scene at the airport just before boarding, followed by the Iranian guards’ frantic last ditch effort to catch the Americans on the tarmac.

“Argo” is an exciting action thriller that maintains a keen element of surprise even though we know the outcome.  This is a real hit based on real events.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

It may sound like a broken record, but I really enjoy the evident trend of releasing classic TV series, some long forgotten, on DVD for new and old generations to enjoy. “Mr. Lucky,” starring the dashing John Vivyan as a suave professional gambler, lasted one season more than 50 years ago, but was a hit show nonetheless.

Blake Edwards created the show, which featured the excellent music of composer Henry Mancini.  Edwards and Mancini collaborated on a number of films. In the stylish adventure-crime series “Mr. Lucky,” Vivyan’s Mr. Lucky was teamed with his good friend Andamo (Ross Martin) running a successful casino in Andamo’s homeland of Chobolbo.

 After a brush with the country’s corrupt dictator, they lose everything when Andamo is discovered running guns to the rebels in Mr. Lucky’s yacht, Fortuna. Their fortunes take a turn for the better when Lucky wins enough money gambling to buy another yacht, which he christens Fortuna II.

Lucky and Andamo turn the yacht into a floating casino, and then an upscale restaurant, anchored in international waters off the American coast. “Mr. Lucky: The Complete Series” finds plenty of adventure for the duo when the yacht brings them into contact with numerous criminals and people hiding from criminals.

BRUTAL, VIOLENT “TAKEN 2” MAKES THE GRADE ON SECOND TRY

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

TAKEN 2 (Rated PG-13) Liam Neeson is now an action hero, and as such, he’s practically required, as a condition of membership in this elite fraternity of players, to do a repeat performance.

In “Taken,” Neeson proved he could wipeout a lot of Eurotrash bad guys while hardly working up a sweat.  “Taken 2” is really, in so many ways, just more of the same. Arguably, the basic premise is still in play.  A kidnapping occurs.  Neeson seeks revenge.  Plenty of villains get killed in the process.

But, at least, “Taken 2” offers a few twists.  This time around, Neeson’s Bryan Mills, a retired CIA operative who now provides private security services, is the target from the outset. The film opens with a graveside mass burial ceremony in Albania, where criminal boss Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija, reliable bad guy character actor) mourns the death of his son and others.

Murad’s son was the Albanian thug who had kidnapped Bryan’s daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) in the original film so that she would be forced into the sex slave trade Of course, none of this matters to the amoral Murad, who only cares that the brutal death of his son, at the hands of Bryan, should be avenged in a most horrific way.

In any event, Albania is a mere road trip from Istanbul, where Bryan has completed a job protecting a certain Arab sheik and his retinue from unseen threats. Back on the home front, Kim is dating a new boyfriend, though her dad barely hides his suspicions.  Meanwhile, Bryan’s ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), the mother of Kim, is now separated from her second husband.

Hence, a family reunion, of sorts, takes place in Istanbul, when Bryan mistakenly believes good times loom with a sightseeing tourist adventure in a city that is truly unique. Indeed, Turkey’s most populous city makes for as much scenic backdrop as did Paris in the original “Taken.”  Yet, Istanbul offers opportunity for plenty of exciting roof top action, such as has occurred in a couple of “Bourne” films.

When Murad and his thugs arrive in Istanbul, they learn that they just might get a hat trick for abducting the entire Mills clan.Instead, Bryan and Lenore are snatched, while Kim stays behind at the hotel to enjoy the pool.  Lenore is tied up and left hanging upside-down, while Bryan is chained to a pipe nearby.

The resourceful ex-spy manages to dial Kim on a cell phone while his hands are still bound together, and then proceeds to work with her on plotting their location on a map using a complex process. At this point, I should mention that hand grenades and an assortment of other weapons that Bryan keeps locked up in a special metal suitcase come in handy.

Eventually, Bryan gets free but not in enough time to save Lenore from being moved to another secret hiding place.  Suffice it to say, Murad and his goons never have a chance in this lopsided battle. Taking over from co-writer Luc Besson, French director Olivier Megaton stirs up the kind of suspense that made the first “Taken” such a big hit.

“Taken 2” makes great use of the exotic Turkish locales, using the narrow streets for plenty of car chase action, though we’ve seen much better chases in the “Bourne” films and even the original “Taken. To be sure, the first “Taken” was more imaginative and had better character development (primarily for the more diverse villains) and even more innovative stunts and use of weaponry.

However, “Taken 2” is a capable, solid action picture that delivers the goods that just about fan of the original could expect or desire.  If you walked into “Taken 2” having loved the original, I would find it hard to believe that your feelings won’t come close to being the same this time.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 Dean Martin, a member of the Rat Pack, never seemed to take himself too seriously, and as a result, he was always fun to watch. The versatile actor starred in all kinds of film genres.  His best Western was probably “Rio Bravo,” in which he starred with John Wayne.

Now coming to DVD is an old Western in which Dean Martin played a notorious bandit.  In “Something Big,” Martin’s Joe Baker has a dream to do “something big.”The running joke is that everyone believes Joe is up to something, but no one knows what or even how big it actually is.

As part of his adventure, Joe seeks out a Gatling gun from a black marketer, but the price for this weapon is an exchange for an attractive woman. So Baker kidnaps a female traveler off of the stagecoach, only to find that she’s the wife of the commandant (Brian Keith) of the local Cavalry detachment.

The kidnapped woman is Honor Blackman, who gained fame for her role of Pussy Galore in the James Bond classic “Goldfinger.” Fans of Dean Martin (and count me in this group) should enjoy this classic Western film about an outlaw’s journey of love, deceit and violence.

 

CLEVER TIME TRAVEL THRILLS RUN THROUGH “LOOPER”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

LOOPER (Rated R) Like many science-fiction films, “Looper” envisions a dystopian future where criminals run everything and the urban landscape is as bleak and unforgiving as anything in “Blade Runner” and similar successors in the genre.

The dehumanized future is just around the corner, set in the Midwest of 2044, where graffiti is abundant, rusted vehicles are abandoned, crime runs rampant and streets are overrun by the homeless. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s visions of the future are neither predictable nor pedestrian.  If anything, his previous films (“Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom”) reveal a creative streak to make something unique that is rich with layers and meaning.

“Looper,” which uses time travel as a means rather than an end, creates a mind-bending universe that is filled with moral implications and temporal paradoxes that engage the viewer in thought-provoking contemplation. More importantly, though the film is clever and challenging, “Looper” is above all an exciting thriller that sustains its thrills on an existential yet essentially simple premise.

In the year 2044, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe is a hit man known as a “looper,” who carries out his duties on targets identified by gangsters from the future. By the year 2074, time travel exists but it is illegal, mainly due to the implications of changing history, and so the criminal underworld has taken over the time-traveling business.

The gangsters of the future send their victims back to 2044, gagged and tied up, with sacks over their heads.  Someone like Joe is waiting in a cornfield to blast them with a blunderbuss, no questions asked.The victims are dispatched back in time with bars of silver or gold attached to their bodies, the reward that is owed to the looper carrying out the assassination.

Part of the bargain for great wealth and leading a life of excitement is that each looper will grow old enough to be sent back in time to be killed by his younger self.Things get ugly when the normal chain is broken.  It happens to Joe one day when his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) materializes at the designated spot, but Young Joe is momentarily distracted and Old Joe goes on the run.

Joe’s crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels, looking and acting more like Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”) is displeased that Young Joe did not “close the loop,” meaning that he failed to kill his older self at the appropriate time. The contemporary Joe is something of a hipster.  He likes to take drugs by means of eye drops, drive his bright red sports car around town and sleep with his dance hall hooker girlfriend Suzie (Piper Perabo).

All of Joe’s favorite things are put at great risk, including his practice of French with a diner waitress, when Abe orders a hit by thugs who use precision weapons, called “gat guns.” Meanwhile, a shadowy figure from the future, the criminal boss of the entire underworld known only as the Rainmaker, decides that the time has come to eliminate all of the loopers.

Now in the contemporary world of 2044, both Young Joe and Old Joe meet up in a remote diner for conversation that is revealing for the pragmatic aspects of the predicaments that face the present and future Joes. While the younger Joe wants to kill his future self, the older Joe wants to track down and slay the future Rainmaker who ruined his life by killing his Chinese wife.  Of course, this mission is complicated by the fact that the Rainmaker is probably a kid in 2044.

On the run from Abe’s thugs, Young Joe takes refuge at the isolated rural home of farmer Sara (Emily Blunt), a single mother who is raising her troubled but brilliantly gifted young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). That Sara is intensely self-reliant and handy with firearms is important to the story, but it’s the special nature of her child that is even more important to Young Joe’s willingness to remain in hiding at the farmhouse.

Even with prosthetic enhancements, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does not really resemble a younger Bruce Willis.  But that doesn’t matter in the least.  These are two strong actors who bring emotional resonance to their roles. All that matters is that “Looper” is a first-rate science-fiction thriller that cleverly sustains interest in the violent machinations of a strange underworld culture of futuristic assassins who are more than one-dimensional figures.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 Vintage television shows being released on DVD are always a welcome development, and even more so when the classic westerns are made available. When Clint Eastwood was a young man, he had a featured role as ranch hand Rowdy Yates in “Rawhide,” an action adventure story about a group of brave men led by trail boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) on dangerous cattle drives across the West. “Rawhide: Season Five, Volume One and Volume Two,” with a total running time of nearly 1,600 minutes, is presented in full screen format on DVD.

Little needs to be said about “Bonanza.”  It remains one of the longest running and most popular of all television westerns. “Bonanza: The Official Fourth Season, Volume One and Volume Two” follows the High Sierra adventures of the Cartwright family, wise patriarch Ben (Lorne Greene) and his three sons (Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon).

The Cartwright clan attempts to maintain and operate their sprawling timberland ranch, the Ponderosa, in an era of violence and lawlessness in 19th century Nevada.  Mixing action and adventure with personal relationships and emotions, “Bonanza” is quality television that stands the test of time with generations of viewers.Both “Rawhide” and “Bonanza” DVDs are important additions to any collection of TV westerns.

 

EASTWOOD SCORES WITH DEFT HANDLING OF “THE CURVE”   

 A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (Rated PG-13) Whether in the position of actor or director, Clint Eastwood, an octogenarian, remains one of the very best in the business of making filmLongevity has served this iconic legend extremely well.  In recent years, with some notable exceptions, Eastwood has been working behind the camera.  In his last film, “Gran Torino,” Eastwood’s starring role was directed by none other than himself.

But for “Trouble With the Curve,” the directing reins were turned over to longtime associate Robert Lorenz. Playing the role of a crusty, aging baseball scout, Eastwood probably required little direction.  He could walk through the part half-asleep and adlib most of the dialogue on the fly.

 Indeed, Eastwood is in fine form as baseball veteran Gus Lobel, a scout who uses his old-school instincts and intuition to assess the potential of young players laboring for obscure minor league teams. Gus’ contract with the Atlanta Braves is due to expire, and though his boss and friend Pete Klein (John Goodman) wants him to stay on, an obnoxious front office hotshot (Matthew Lillard) is looking for any excuse to dump the old-timer.

 There’s an old saying that goes something like this:  “Old age and treachery beat youth and skill every time.”  I think this fits the storyline fairly well, except that Gus is more adept at cunning and guile, than outright deceit. But first, Gus has some major hurdles to clear.  His eyesight is beginning to fail, causing him no end of distress and anxiety.

Still, he needs to hit the road to assess a minor leaguer hailed as the next big thing. Meanwhile, Pete asks the old man’s daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to help out on what could be Gus’ last road trip.  Mickey grew up around baseball but has been estranged from her dad for years. What’s more, Mickey is bucking for partnership at her law firm and is embroiled in a big case that just might be the biggest break of her career.  With the legal brass getting anxious, this is no time for a frivolous journey.

Yet, Mickey’s initial resistance crumbles and she joins her old man on a road trip so unglamorous that they stay in budget motels and frequent honky-tonk bars.  But at least the bickering pair starts the slow process of reconciliation.  As you can well imagine, baseball is merely the backdrop to a story of misunderstanding and life’s regrets, along with the hurt feelings and foreseeable remorse.

 In the backwater regions of the South, Gus and Mickey focus their scouting attention upon a local phenomenon named Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a beefy home-run hitter who recalls the towering prowess of Babe Ruth. But, the hitting machine Bo is not a swell guy.  He demeans the local peanut vendor and brags endlessly about how his career trajectory will be a magnet for willing female groupies. On a more pleasant note,

Gus and Mickey come across the handsome, friendly Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a former hot pitcher recruited by Gus who had to retire from the game after blowing out his arm.  Now he’s a scout for the Boston Red Sox. The story also needs a romantic subplot, so Mickey and Johnny start to fall for each other, even if the presence of the doting Gus may somehow put a damper on the looming passion.

 While coping with physical limitations, Gus still has the knack for finding and assessing talent.  He stakes his reputation on making judgments based on personal scrutiny, rather than using computer models. “Trouble With the Curve” is an appropriate title in many ways.  For one, it accurately measures the unseen problems with prospect Bo Gentry, though the cranky old scout taps into his lingering doubts with ease.

For another, Mickey and Gus can find redemption only if they get past the curveballs tossed in their direction.  We develop a rooting interest in seeing things neatly patched up between them. Hardly a novel observation, “Trouble With the Curve” is the antithesis of “Moneyball,” which celebrated the use of new technology.  That “Moneyball” remains an excellent film takes nothing away from this salute to old-school virtues.Though Eastwood did not direct “Trouble With the Curve,” he owns this picture.  Here’s hoping that he can still play the role of old crank in a few more movies. To be sure, the storyline in this film is rather expected and conventional, but “Trouble With the Curve” scores at least a solid triple right into the deepest corner of the outfield.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 If you can’t keep up with TV shows during their original run, at least we have DVD releases that bring everyone up to date “The Mentalist”, still running on CBS, is the kind of show that requires your attention, particularly to details. Just as the fifth season is getting underway, “The Mentalist: The Complete Fourth Season” follows the exploits of a California Bureau of Investigation consultant.

 Simon Baker’s Patrick Jane is also a former faux-psychic obsessed with finding Red John, the serial killer who murdered his family. In the fourth season, Patrick learns the true price of revenge and deals with the fallout from his actions of the previous season. Yet, the unconventional Patrick continues to use his razor-sharp skills of observation and psychological manipulation to bypass the system and solve the toughest crimes in his own inimitable way. The Mentalist: The Complete Fourth Season” includes a special feature about how the show seeks to create the “appearance of reality” when it comes to police procedures.

 

THE DECEPTIONS OF HIGH FINANCE  IN THRILLING “ARBITRAGE”

    A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

ARBITRAGE (Rated R) On or around the Labor Day weekend, the quality of films, particularly those in wide release, tend to be sub-par.  The public realizes this, which explains why box office receipts are always lower. The trend of inferior product continues even beyond the holiday.  We should note that the umpteenth version of “Resident Evil” has just been unleashed.  Enough said. The gems are to be found in films of limited release, which means good luck finding them at the local multiplex outside of the major urban centers. One such film is the feature directorial debut of young writer Nicholas Jarecki.  “Arbitrage,” a taut and alluring suspense thriller, is so entertaining that it seems written and directed by a seasoned pro.

“Arbitrage” is a film worth finding, because more than being a truly suspenseful thriller, it is cast with brilliant actors in roles large and small.  The biggest presence of all is that of Richard Gere, whose distinguished looks, accented with silver hair and nicely tailored suits, makes him appear to be the perfect Wall Street billionaire hedge-fund magnate. Gere’s Robert Miller, approaching his 60th birthday, is fully in command of his trading empire, living the high life in a New York mansion with his socialite wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon).

  Miller is the very portrait of success in American business and family life.  His brilliant daughter and heir-apparent Brooke (Brit Marling) is the chief financial officer of Miller Capital.But behind the gilded walls of his mansion and financial empire, Miller is in over his head, desperately trying to complete the sale of his trading company to a major investment bank. His personal life is also in turmoil because his delicate balancing act includes an affair with French art gallery owner Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta), a mistress far too demanding of his time and attention. The financial problems, though, are the most immediate and troubling.  Miller has borrowed $412 million from a fellow tycoon, who is growing impatient, to cover up some major losses in a Russian mining deal gone bad.

 Worse yet, Miller has concealed his money problems from his daughter Brooke, who could end up on the hook for the fraud that is being perpetrated under her nose. At home, his wife Ellen is growing restive over Miller’s infidelity and duplicity.  She’s not too happy about pesky NYPD detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) poking into their affairs. Unfortunately, Miller was involved in an auto accident that he is going to great lengths to cover up, using the help of young Harlem kid Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of his former chauffeur. It would be best not to say much about the accident, other than to note that it leads to great complications for Miller’s business and personal life, particularly as the NYPD detective’s relentless pursuit really puts the tycoon in a huge bind.

  There’s plenty of moral ambiguity going around on all sides.  Indeed, Miller is a scoundrel, but Richard Gere plays him with so much charisma that you have to wonder if the director has misplaced his sympathy. Then, you have Roth’s detective Bryer breaking the rules in order to pin a crime on Miller, while the tycoon pays for the services of several high-powered attorneys to game the system. In the main, “Arbitrage” is the gripping story of a well-heeled man caught in an ever-tightening trap of his own making.  Richard Gere embodies this character with passion, charisma and drive.  Gere’s performance is worthy of Oscar consideration, and that’s good reason enough to enjoy this entertaining suspense thriller.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 If new movies prove unsatisfying, it appears that plenty of TV series are getting released on DVD at this time of year. One of last season’s favorite new TV comedies, “Suburgatory: The Complete First Season” provides all 22 half-hour episodes plus the special featurette “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell: Life in Suburgatory.” The satirical comedy series centers on Tessa (Jane Levy), a witty New York City teenager who is forced to relocate to the suburbs with her dad, George (Jeremy Sisto). Accustomed to the urban jungle, Tessa goes into culture shock, because suburbia represents to her a unique version of hell.

   The updated version of “Hawaii Five-O,” now starting its third season on the CBS fall schedule, has scored a big success as a hit crime drama. “Hawaii Five-O: The Second Season” is being released on DVD and Blu-ray, including all 23 episodes and several features, including “Aloha Action! Take 2” which highlights the show’s dramatic stunts.Alex O’Loughlin stars as Detective Steve McGarrett – a far different head of the Five-O Unit than Jack Lord.  But then, Scott Caan, a New Jersey transplant, is also a very distinctive Danny “Danno” Williams.“Hawaii Five-O” is worth watching because the crime stories are riveting and the chemistry of the officers in the special unit is truly enjoyable.

 

FAST ACTION, TWO-WHEELED THRILLS

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

PREMIUM RUSH (Rated PG-13) The results of a full employment act for stuntmen are on display for the extreme risks of riding bikes at breakneck speed during peak New York City traffic in “Premium Rush.”One could become exhausted watching primo bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dodging speeding cars and crazed cabbies while trekking practically the entire length of Manhattan.

Befitting the film’s fast pace, the action is set entirely in one day, late in the afternoon, when Wilee is summoned to pick up and deliver an envelope for a seemingly routine “premium rush.” But there’s nothing routine about the ticking clock, which literally appears at crucial moments, that requires Wilee to deliver a package from Columbia University to a shop in Chinatown.

Immediately after picking up the envelope from a Chinese student (Jamie Chung), Wilee is confronted by the mysterious Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who attempts subterfuge to falsely intercept the envelope. The stranger did not count on Wilee’s credo of delivering a package, no questions asked, with great speed and dispatch, especially when a deadline is at stake. A great chase ensues, which pretty much eats up the clock for the duration of the film.  It turns out that Monday is a bad cop bent on stealing a marker worth about $50,000.

Detective Monday is up to his eyeballs in debt to a bunch of Chinese gangsters.  Playing Pai Gow with reckless abandon, the cop has an obvious gambling problem.  He owes big bucks in a hurry.Monday pursues Wilee by car, but he’s no match for the wily bike messenger who has the uncanny ability to strategize every move to avoid accidents.

We are treated to insights in Wilee’s mind as he figures the odds of one false move versus another.  Oddly enough, the choices avoided, charted on screen, often lead to some comic relief. Aside from a lot of fast peddling, there is some time for character development, though we don’t find out much.  Wilee apparently went to Columbia Law School, but didn’t want to take the bar exam and end up wearing a suit.

Although a smart guy, Wilee chooses to work for low wages in a dangerous job.  He loves the thrill of riding a bike with only one gear and no stopping. Riding a bike with no brakes is a good metaphor for who Wilee is and how he operates.  The persistent Detective Monday and a NYPD bike cop annoyed by Wilee’s traffic infractions are consistently outwitted by him.

Other than his bike, Wilee also cares for fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), his on-again, off-again girlfriend who fails to appreciate that Wilee only lives for the moment. For additional obligatory dramatic conflict, Wilee contends with extremely competitive co-worker Manny (Wole Parks), a cocky, arrogant rival with an expensive bike who’s always putting moves on Vanessa.

While Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s daredevil bike rider is an appealing character, the biggest scene stealer is Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop.  Flailing away in Chinese gambling dens, Shannon is a marvel to watch in his progressive meltdown. The essence of “Premium Rush” is basically very simple.  At a compact running time of 91 minutes, the film’s focus rests mostly with the fast-paced two wheel thrill rides.

Bonded in a tight-knit group, bike messengers in the Big Apple have formed their own subculture, part of it on display but not fully explored.  Their real stories would likely be very interesting. To heighten the bracing experience of daredevil biking, “Premium Rush” relies on actual high-action activity with intense, physical stunts.  The element of realism is stimulating for any action junkie.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

I never would have imagined that a good thriller, with plenty of adrenaline rush, would have come from a Norwegian film, but “Headhunters” is the proof. When released theatrically, “Headhunters” generated a lot of good buzz, but in limited release it wasn’t able to attract a wide audience.

Your good fortune is that “Headhunters” is being released on DVD, with the added bonus that the film may be watched in English without annoying subtitles. Aksel Hennie’s Roger is a charming scoundrel and Norway’s most accomplished headhunter.  He is living far beyond his means and has taken to stealing art to subsidize his lavish lifestyle.

When his wife, a beautiful art gallery owner, introduces him to a former mercenary (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who possesses an extremely valuable painting, Roger decides to risk it all to get his hands on it. Not surprisingly, things go horribly wrong, and Roger turns out to be the hunted man.  “Headhunters” is clever, scary, thrilling and even funny.  This is an independent film jewel not to be missed.

MAGICAL, DELIGHTFULLY ODD YET AMUSING “TIMOTHY GREEN”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN (Rated PG) Where is it written that every film released in the summer must feature explosions, gun play, car chases and even superheroes trying to outwit each other?

Just when you think that originality is somehow more uncommon than airline carriers arriving on time, along comes the inspiring, magical story of “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” Writer and director Peter Hedges, who previously adapted his first novel “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” into a feature film, is the right person to bring enchantment to the screen with this new Disney film.

Oh, by the way, unlike so many other summer films, this one truly is an entertainment for the entire family, with the exception of only the very youngest who are mainly drawn to animated stories. There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about a happily married couple living in the idyllic rural town of Stanleyville where the main industry is a pencil factory.

Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) are eager to fill one void in their otherwise pleasant lives.  The couple has been unable to produce a child of their own. One night, they write on paper all the great qualities they would love to have in a child, such as a great heart, a sense of humor, honest disposition and the ability to score a winning goal in a big game.

All the notes about an ideal child are placed in a wooden box and buried in the garden.  Even though the area has been subject to a drought, a thunderstorm that same night delivers precious water to the garden. Low and behold, a 10-year-old boy named Timothy (CJ Adams), covered in mud and leaves, suddenly materializes at the doorstep of the Green household.

The Greens introduce themselves by their first names, but Timothy is quick to call them Mom and Dad, and thus begins an interesting fantasy saga about a little boy who brings familial love where it did not fully exist. Naturally, Timothy is unique and different, all the more so since leaves sprout near his ankles.  Yet eager to fit in, Timothy wears long socks, even while swimming, to cover his flaws.

Though his status would be impossible to explain, the Greens don’t even bother to say much of anything to relatives who arrive the next day for a long-planned family picnic. The family dynamic proves interesting.  Cindy’s sister Brenda (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has her own “perfect” children, is disdainful of the new arrival.  But Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh), with his own quirky sense of humor, feels an immediate rapport with the amusing Timothy.

Meanwhile, Jim’s father (David Morse), known as Big Jim, remains aloof and never gave approval to his own son, but Timothy just might crack the old man’s façade of cold detachment. Of course, the small town is filled with oddball characters, such Dianne Wiest’s Bernice Crudstaff, the uptight wealthy boss of the Pencil Museum where Cindy Green works as a docent.

Other characters have no particular charm or endearing quirks, such as Ron Livingston’s Franklin Crudstaff, the uncaring boss at the Pencil Factory where Jim Green is a supervisor. In the age of the Internet, the factory faces hard times and may have to close.  But Timothy, with the help of his only friend Joni (Odeya Rush), saves the day with an inspired new product.

Because the film needs a villain, Franklin Crudstaff tries to take credit for Timothy’s invention, but there’s probably no need to tell you whether he’ll be unmasked for his deception. Cynics will scoff at the family fairy tale of Timothy Green’s “Odd Life,” and their thoughts may well be derisive, scornful, sarcastic and even hostile.

Yet, an open mind to the simple pleasures of “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” which is by no means flawless in its execution, may prove more rewarding.  A little cuteness and suspension of disbelief never hurt anyone. Indeed, the simple story of a childless couple and their special “gift” is emotional, heartwarming, funny and deeply touching, and so “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is undeniably magical.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

Just recently, this space of the column celebrated the good fortune of vintage TV detective shows being released on DVD. This week it is time to commemorate another classic 1970s police drama that starred a young Michael Douglas as the college educated inspector Steve Keller. If you didn’t guess, another season of “The Streets of San Francisco” is getting the full screen format treatment in two volumes.

“The Streets of San Francisco: Season Four: Volume One & Volume Two” DVD sets combined provide nearly 20 hours of thrilling crime drama entertainment. Along with Michael Douglas, the series starred the wonderful Karl Malden as the 20-year veteran detective Lt. Mike Stone.

Douglas’ inspector Keller may have a lot to learn about being a police detective, but Malden’s Lt. Stone is the perfect mentor.“The Streets of San Francisco” is a great police drama with excellent storylines and great performances from the winning combination of Douglas and Malden.

 

ACTION THRILLS REBORN FOR REVAMPED “BOURNE LEGACY”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THE BOURNE LEGACY (Rated PG-13) Matt Damon always demonstrated his best acting chops as the conflicted superspy Jason Bourne in an eponymous series of action thrillers that made him a true action hero for the ages.

It all started with “The Bourne Identity,” and the great thrills, including some of the most spectacular chase scenes ever filmed, continued through two equally impressive sequels. Now along comes “The Bourne Legacy,” aptly named since Matt Damon’s presence is pretty much limited to a Wanted poster and a TV news bulletin designed to scare the general populace.

This much is sure: Damon’s rogue spy Bourne was always on the run, with shadowy government agents, mercenary operatives and other assorted riff-raff and bad guys in hot pursuit. Often, it was hard to separate the good guys from the bad, but that seems to be a big part of the franchise’s appeal to the closeted secret agent in all of us action junkies.

“The Bourne Legacy” brings a new superhuman agent to the front lines of danger.  Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross picks up the mantle of the operative who must go underground to save his skin and expose double-dealing. We first see Cross half-naked in the freezing wilderness of Alaska, as he jumps into a lake to retrieve a canister filled with survival medicine necessary to his training mission.

Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, Admiral Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) and Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) are in full damage control mode as Congress probes the existence of rogue spy operations in which they are complicit.

Suddenly, Cross and other operatives around the world that are members of something called The Program are targeted for elimination, only because their superiors decide to leave no evidence behind of their existence.

While battling the elements of Alaska and the hungry pack of vicious wolves, Cross ingenuously outflanks the drones that are programmed to blow him to smithereens. It would be easy enough for Cross to go deep undercover, but he’s a chemically-enhanced agent who needs regular doses of pills to stay fit physically and mentally.

Even the scientists who developed the special medicine are put at risk, and Cross is able to locate Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) just in time to extend her life expectancy. Cross mistakenly believes that Dr. Shearing holds the key to turning up the needed pills, but in reality she tested his blood samples and had nothing to do with the making of pharmaceuticals.

However, the good doctor knows that there’s a way to get Cross off the medication, but it requires a trip to the Philippines where the chemicals are manufactured.

While Cross and Dr. Shearing try to stay in hiding until they can get out of the country, Colonel Byer and his crew are utilizing first-class technology to hunt down the rogue agent and the doctor. The most suspenseful moments involve Cross using his ingenuity so that he and Dr. Shearing may elude the dogged colonel’s high-tech hot pursuit.

Not surprisingly, shortly after Cross and Dr. Shearing arrive in Manila, Byer has dispatched an army of assassins to take them out.  Boy, does this guy mean business.The chase scenes in Manila are brilliantly staged.  First, there’s Cross skipping across rooftops and running up the sides of walls.

Then, there’s the street chase on foot and motorcycles.  Cross and Dr. Shearing ride through city streets and jump over obstacles like Evel Knievel on steroids. Oh, I forgot to mention there’s one key difference between Aaron Cross and fellow agent Jason Bourne.  Cross knows his past and does not suffer from memory issues.  At this point, maybe I need one of those blue (or is it green?) pills for enhanced mental skills.

However, I digress.  “The Bourne Legacy” may not live up to the expectations of the previous installments, but it does stand alone as a decent entry into the canon of “Bourne” action thrillers.It’s probably a safe bet to say that a fifth “Bourne” is on the way, but will Matt Damon return in some capacity more substantial than a fleeting glimpse?  I am betting that Jeremy Renner will get ever more comfortable in his role.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

Readers of this space probably know that I have a fondness for vintage detective dramas that had a good run on network television.

That’s why I can share with you my delight in the return of Robert Urich as the handsome, fun-loving Las Vegas private eye Dan Tanna, who lives in a converted warehouse. “Vega$: The Third Season, Volume 2” is being released on DVD with 11 full episodes and no frills at all, unless you count the “episodic promos” included.

The sharp-eyed private eye tools around Sin City in his vintage red Thunderbird solving private cases, while also being on retainer to a wealthy casino owner (Tony Curtis). Helping Tanna along the way is his smart and sexy assistant Bea (Phyllis Davis) and goofy legman Binzer (Bart Braverman).  Greg Morris appears as Lt. Nelson, lending a hand when necessary. After all these years, “Vega$” holds up better than a Royal Flush at a poker tournament.  It’s a lot of fun.

 

EFFECTS AND ACTION DRIVE THRILLS IN “TOTAL RECALL”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

TOTAL RECALL (Rated PG-13) If you remember, “Total Recall” starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone in a science-fiction thriller, based on a Philip K. Dick story, about a man with erased memories that come back and trigger all sorts of mayhem.

The new “Total Recall,” to be sure, is a remake of the 1990 film, but there a lot of differences, which I will not dwell on because my memory has pretty much failed me and, well, it is time to move on.

What is new is the setting of Earth, in the not-so-distant future, where chemical warfare has rendered most of the planet uninhabitable, with the exception of Australia and the United Kingdom. Australia is called the Colony because it is a suburb for migrant workers, while the British islands are now called the United Federation of Britain (UFB), the upscale city center, home to the elite and government leaders.

Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid works in a factory that assembles the robotic police force known as Synthetics, droids that look like cheap imitation Imperial storm troopers on loan from “Star Wars.” Living in the Colony, Douglas commutes to his job in an elevator-like chamber that rockets through the Earth’s core in mere minutes.  It’s a nifty contraption that might be used as a selling point for high-speed rail, though we don’t know about the cost overruns.

The landscape in the squalid Colony is reminiscent of the bleak world of “Blade Runner,” but here the drab architecture is so gray that it recalls the Stalinist era of unappealing public housing. In science-fiction movies, life in the future hardly ever looks very promising.  I guess if it really looked like a utopian dream, it wouldn’t seem all that intriguing or result in a compelling story.

Unfortunately, familiarity with the theme of “Total Recall” does not make for an entirely persuasive account of one man’s struggle against the governmental leviathan.  But it’s still fun to see a dogged guy take on the villains.

But for recurring nightmares, Douglas would probably remain comfortable coming home at the end of the day to his attractive bride Lori (Kate Beckinsale). Yet, something nags at his conscience, and he pays a visit to Rekall, a company that offers to create pleasant memories with the help of a chemical implant.

The session goes horribly wrong when the Rekall process triggers Douglas’ repressed memories of his past life as a secret agent. Alarm bells go off and the UFB security forces descend on the laboratory.  When the dust settles, Douglas has killed about two dozen federal agents in a big shootout.

Forced to go on the run, Douglas quickly learns that there are very few people he can trust, least of all his wife, who turns out to be a highly-trained UFB operative skilled in martial arts and all sorts of weaponry. That Douglas is considered a person of interest to the government controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) is something of a puzzle, because we are not entirely sure for what side Douglas was once a spy.

Because the government run by Cohaagen is so autocratic and ruthless, there is the inevitable resistance movement that the Chancellor’s minions are relentlessly seeking to destroy. The rebel leader is identified as Mathias (Bill Nighy), who is so well-hidden that not even his own operatives know the actual location of his hideaway.

Once on the lam, Douglas is aided in a getaway in a thrilling high-speed levitated auto chase by rebel commander Melina (Jessica Biel). Apparently, Douglas and Melina had a previous history together, but the chases and confrontations with the opposite forces leave little room or time to rekindle the old romantic flames.

“Total Recall” is heavy on action and great special effects, leaving insufficient time for existential reflection on the troubling implications of the dystopian universe in which the oppressed are trapped under the thumb of the evil Cohaagen.

Fear not, this film is, above all, filled with graphic action and brutal violence, and Douglas Quaid becomes an effective action hero, albeit one without any special or unusual powers. Visual effects, large and small, represent remarkable feats in “Total Recall,” from the complex moving parts of the elevator systems to the simple glowing cell phone implanted in Douglas’s right hand.

It matters not at all that logic is sometimes missing, because the end game, sought by director Len Wiseman, is to deliver the action goods.  Well, the director succeeds, even though few of us may recall his movie to any great degree mere weeks from now.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

Tom Selleck delivers some of his best work as small-town police chief Jesse Stone, in a series of eponymous TV movies that have aired for years on the CBS Network.

I recently became hooked on the “Jesse Stone” TV movies, most of which I found readily available at my local supermarket at bargain rates. “Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt,” apparently the eighth installment, is being released on DVD, without the benefit of any special features.

But never mind the extras.  The “Jesse Stone” franchise is riveting entertainment, in which Selleck’s effective crime fighter is a conflicted character with a troubled past. It would help immensely to catch up on the previous films, mainly so that you are familiar with the great cast of characters on both sides of the law.

Even so, “Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt” stands quite well on its own.  Just know that Selleck’s police chief, who had been forced into retirement, is called back to duty in this installment. Returning to his job, Selleck’s Jesse Stone does not disappoint with his uncanny ability to use his intuition to sort through a maze of misleading clues.

 

BATMAN’S “DARK KNIGHT” TRILOGY “RISES” TO GRAND OCCASION

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Rated PG-13) Starting with “Batman Begins” in 2005, writer and director Christopher Nolan envisioned an epic trilogy for the story of Gotham’s Caped Crusader, a superhero without any real superpowers.

The conclusion arrives in spectacular fashion with “The Dark Knight Rises,” which begins at a point eight years after “The Dark Knight,” notwithstanding the fact that the second film was released in 2008. A lengthier passage of time allows for the consequences of actions taken by Batman and others, including Commissioner Gordon and D.A. Harvey Dent, to have percolated into a state of palpable anxiety.

Action begins with a daring opening sequence that would be the envy of any James Bond film.  An incredible skyjacking of another aircraft gives us our first chilling glimpse of the evil embodied by terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy).Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), having retired the Batman cape and cowl in his subterranean hideaway, has turned into a Howard Hughes-like recluse at Wayne Manor, absent the neurosis of keeping a germ-free environment.

To allow Gotham the veneer of law-and-order serenity on the surface, Batman slinked away into oblivion, taking the blame for the demise of Harvey Dent, whose martyrdom brought an end to crime in the metropolis. The sensitive and sensible Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), his conscience wracked by the truth, knows only too well that the crime-free status of Gotham is predicated upon lies.  Soon enough, he will need Batman’s return.

Trouble is quickly brewing from multiple sources.  Corruption is evident below the surface.  A slimy businessman is taking a run at a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises. True malevolence arrives with thuggish terrorist Bane hatching a plan to undermine the institutions of the city, beginning with a violent assault upon the Stock Exchange. A terrifying figure, Bane has his face covered in a strange mask that serves not to conceal his identity, but to regulate the transmission of painkilling medication.  Bane resembles Darth Vader, but without the charm.

Notwithstanding Bane’s unvarnished villainy, the first bad guy to seize Bruce Wayne’s attention is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar he catches in the act of lifting family jewels from the Wayne Manor safe. Of course, Selina represents Catwoman, but oddly enough she is never called Catwoman.  For his part, Bruce is intrigued by the cunning sexy vamp’s facile ease of delivering witty quips and sharp barbs.

Selina brings welcome humor to a film that is heavy on a dark, gloomy mood.  She also helps get Bruce’s Batman back into the game, considering that he’s out of shape and still healing from old physical wounds. In a way, Selina helps Batman to focus his attention on the bigger problem posed by Bane’s terrorist plot to destroy Gotham with nuclear weapons, but not before bringing down the city’s financial empire.

As if inspired by the French Revolution and the attack on the Bastille, Bane and his thugs launch an assault on the local prison to free those incarcerated by the Harvey Dent law that brought an end to crime. Having rigged bombs in the city’s sewer system, Bane figures a way to trap most of Gotham’s police force below ground in subway tunnels and other passageways.

Few people outside of Batman and Commissioner Gordon grasp the immediate gravity of the situation, though rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) displays earnest integrity and courage with great conviction, earning himself a leading role in the fight for Gotham. Other key players are Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the steady hand on the weapons programs needed to fight crime, and new Board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy philanthropist interested in an environmental project.

During much of the early going, the angst-ridden Bruce Wayne is attended by his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine), who grows increasingly frustrated that his boss has retreated so fully from engagement with the outside world.

Egged on by the wisecracks of Selina and the dastardly acts of Bane, Bruce Wayne undergoes training to bring himself into fighting shape, as the inevitable showdown with the masked villain is a real doozy.“The Dark Knight Rises” delves into social-political issues of the day, though one could reasonably come away with differing opinions or interpretations.

Corruption and treachery are not limited to the establishment.  Bane’s thugs run a kangaroo court where the death penalty is imposed freely and without due process by Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). One could ask if the violent attack on the Stock Exchange is an expression of discontent with income inequality or does it represent the Occupy Wall Street movement taken to the reprehensible violent extreme of mob rule anarchy?

Pondering the philosophical implications of perhaps conflicting points of view is a mental exercise soon overcome by brutish, sustained violence.  To be sure, Bane is clearly a nihilist committed to destroying many innocents.  What does not appear so debatable is that “The Dark Knight Rises,” with exciting chases, superior effects and spectacular stunts, is not far removed from the comic-book underpinnings created by Bob Kane and published by DC Comics.

 

AMUSING PREHISTORIC ANTICS CONTINUE TO FLOW IN “ICE AGE”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

 ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT (Rated PG) If you take your kids to the movies, you could do far worse than the fourth installment of “Ice Age.”  You could have taken them to something wholly inappropriate, like “Savages” or the Katy Perry puff piece. Actually, “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” nicely done in 3D, while it treads little new ground, is amusing and entertaining in a primitive fashion fitting for its prehistoric times.

 “Ice Age 4” explains that Scrat the hyperactive squirrel, forever chasing the elusive acorn, is responsible for the continental breakup, as his pursuit takes him to the earth’s molten core. This cartoon franchise succeeds or not, depending on your point of view, in rehashing the familiar themes of camaraderie and fidelity that bind a misfit bunch of mammals acting out the equivalent of a Fifties’ sitcom.

 Leading the pack is the clueless woolly mammoth Manny (voiced by Ray Romano).  He and wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) cope with mildly rebellious teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), who’s thinking about the cute boy who has all the wit and charm of a drug-addled surfer. Manny’s closest friends are Diego (Denis Leary), the grouchy saber-toothed tiger and Sid (John Leguizamo), the dopey sloth who provides immediate comic relief.

 A sudden continental drift separates Manny, Diego and Sid from their friends and family members.  Cast adrift on an ice floe, they try to figure a way home, a task made more complicated by less benevolent creatures. Introduced to an element of danger and intrigue, the “Ice Age” pals discover they are not alone in being stranded on the high seas with land nowhere in sight.

A nasty orangutan named Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), who flies a skunk from his mast to represent a pirate flag, is roaming the ocean with a mangy crew of thugs in search of illicit treasure.  One member of the pirate crew gets noticed by the crusty Diego.  The slinky, silver-haired tigress named Shira (Jennifer Lopez), though initially hostile, proves to be a promising love interest for the bachelor tiger.

The slothful, doltish Sid provides enough laughs on his own.  But this time, his wacky granny (Wandy Sykes), abandoned by other family members for constantly talking a nasty game, proves to be an amusing addition to the adventure at sea.  A meaningful plot and coherent story are not prerequisites for enjoyment of this lighthearted comedy.  For good measure, homage to “Braveheart” is rendered an essential part of an uprising against the scurvy pirates.

 A side from great use of the 3D device, “Ice Age: Continental Drift” allows the greatest pleasure in the often absurd banter between the characters, with the best lines going to the sloths Sid and Granny and a dim-witted walrus (Nick Frost) on the pirate crew. Moving at a fast pace, with a running time of 87 minutes, everything stays afloat in “Ice Age,” much like the unsinkable pirate iceberg.  This franchise will continue to drift blissfully along to success as family-friendly entertainment.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 Some of the best television is occurring on the cable networks, from “Mad Men” on AMC to “Burn Notice” on USA to even several shows on the TNT network.

 One of the fun series of cable’s last season was the TNT series “Franklin & Bash,” an offbeat legal drama about the escapades of two young, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants street lawyers. Now in DVD release, “Franklin & Bash: The Complete First Season” captures the adventures of Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), the confident ladies’ man with a knack for connecting with the jury, and Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer), his quick-witted best friend.

The unconventional duo, newly recruited by a legendary button-down law firm run by Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell), shakes up the establishment with their quirky courtroom approach to every new case. Operating as a team, Franklin and Bash are good lawyers, despite their wild antics, shocking tactics and irregular courtroom theatrics.

 The three-disc DVD set, with all 10 episodes, includes many bonus features, including a blooper reel, behind-the-scenes specials, and a man cave tour of the Franklin and Bash bachelor pad/home office.This amusing, smart series has already started its second season, so hurry now to get “Franklin & Bash: The Complete First Season” and catch up on the fun.

 

GRUESOME, VIOLENT “SAVAGES” FITS THE BRUTAL ACTION BILL

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

SAVAGES (Rated R) Brutal, violent nihilism runs rampant in Oliver Stone’s “Savages,” as if the director was channeling his basest instincts from “Natural Born Killers.”

The famed cinematic master has stepped off his soapbox, foregoing his predictably preachy tendencies to swaddle his audience in a torrent of political and societal diatribes. If there’s a message to be found in “Savages,” it is a cautionary warning that the uninitiated had better give up any thoughts of poaching on the turf of violent Mexican drug cartels.

To drive home that point, a videotape warning is delivered early on to two laid-back Southern California dope peddlers.  Enemies of the cartel are grotesquely beheaded. The warning is directed to Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson).  These two childhood drug-dealing buddies live a lavish lifestyle in an oceanfront pad in tony Laguna Beach.

A veteran of the Afghanistan war, Chon brought back home powerful cannabis seeds from his several tours of duty in the war-torn country famous for drug crops Battle-scarred and muscle-bound, Chon uses his Special Ops training and war-zone skills to be the physical protector of an elaborate marijuana production plant.

The shy, quiet Ben, a former biology student and the brains of the operation, happens to be so mellow that he spends time in Africa doing charitable work. Ben and Chon share more than just an interest in weed.  In a strange love triangle, both of them share the love of the free-spirited Ophelia (Blake Lively), who goes by the name of O.

Using their smarts and ingenuity, the two guys have created a very powerful strain of marijuana with an unusually high level of THC.  Stoners would call it “good stuff” or words to that effect. While the California trio would love to enjoy the surfing lifestyle, their success draws the unwanted notice of a vile Mexican drug cartel run by Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) and her violent henchmen.

At first, the cartel sends guys in suits offering a sweet deal to partner with Ben and Chon, which anyone with a half-brain would instantly recognize as the first volley in a hostile takeover. After being rebuffed, the Mexican cartel ups the ante with violent warnings of decapitation, leading to the kidnapping of O where she’s threatened with immediate physical harm.

The American boys scheme a big money heist from other drug dealers to buy O’s freedom, but that ploy fails to do the trick. As ruthless Elena leaves the dirty work to others, she dispatches her chief enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a decidedly vile monster to get what she wants.

Unlike a savvy chess player, Elena doesn’t figure that Ben and Chon would turn the tables by kidnapping her beloved daughter attending college in the States. A key player in the twisted tale of corruption and double crosses is John Travolta’s slimy, crooked DEA agent, a man on the take from every drug operation north and south of the border.

Del Toro is brilliant as the volatile, raging sociopath, while Travolta brings a welcome element of dark humor to his role of a corrupt official with flexible convictions.  These delightful two are like characters from “Pulp Fiction.” Often, the villains are the ones to liven up the action, and that’s certainly the case here.  Hayek’s coldly malicious drug lord is mere icing on the cake.

Bouncing back from the disaster of “John Carter,” Taylor Kitsch provides an explosive performance as the smoldering anti-hero, ably assisted by Aaron Johnson’s less savage portrayal of a sidekick. “Savages,” a brutal, violent action film, is, after all, savage.  This is fitting for an Oliver Stone who decided to roll the dice to exploit the savagery of the raging drug wars.

The film’s ending may prove troubling for many viewers, because it is both self-indulgently clever and preposterous.  Other than that, “Savages” is a good movie for the cold-blooded warring drug cartel genre.

 

PIXAR PROVES “BRAVE” WITH INSPIRED TALE OF WILLFUL ARCHER

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

BRAVE (Rated PG) Indeed, 13 is a lucky number for Disney and Pixar, as the mystical legend of a courageous princess in “Brave” represents the 13th full-length animation feature coming from the collaboration of two studios known for animation.

“Brave” is an unusual combination of “Braveheart” and “The Hunger Games,” in which the main protagonist is a high-spirited Scottish girl, skilled in archery, with a wild mane of untamed red hair and a fiery disposition to match.

Determined to carve her own path, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is the headstrong daughter of the physically imposing King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and cultured Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Her independent streak was evident from a childhood interest in becoming a proficient archer, developing the same kind of unladylike talent perfected by Katniss Everdeen.

Merida is the product of her father, King Fergus, a loud, boisterous Highland warrior of immense size and unbridled passion, who lost his leg to the demon bear Mor’du during a fierce fight. Fergus delights in endlessly regaling his daughter and her younger triplet brothers (all with bright red hair) with stories of his wild outdoor adventures.

By the time Merida reaches her teen years, she’s a chip off the old block – sword fighting, scaling cliffs and shooting arrows while riding her trusty steed Angus through the woods. But as far as mother Queen Elinor is concerned, Merida’s destiny is not galloping through the rugged Highlands with her bow in tow.

The Queen’s plan for her lovely, but obstinate daughter is to uphold age-old royal custom and accept an arranged marriage to one of three suitors representing the kingdom’s unruly clans. The clans are summoned to Castle DunBroch to compete in the Highland Games, but the lords are soon outraged when Merida defies a sacred tradition.

The offspring of the lords are lacking in many ways.  In a contest for Merida’s hand, they compete in an archery tournament, but are disgraced by the princess’ nimble marksmanship. As the clans revert to their history of fervent feuding and brawling, Merida gallops away from the castle on Angus, heading for the darkest reaches of the forest where a Stonehenge-like plateau leads to the home of an ugly old sorceress.

Moving into the familiar territory that comes with animated stories involving royalty, “Brave” turns to the supernatural sorcery that comes when a spell is cast by a hideous, toothless ancient witch (Julie Walters). At this point, I would rather not reveal the outcome of the magic spell, but the story pivots even more to the difficulties of the conflicted mother-daughter dynamic.

Human actions and desires often have unintended consequences, a truism which becomes painfully obvious and a thorny dilemma for a regretful Merida. Not only did Merida’s earlier exploits unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, the witch’s grant of an ill-fated wish compounds the troubles that the rambunctious red-haired princess is unable to avoid.

The charm of “Brave,” apart from celebrating the appealing heroine’s pluck, is the heartening message of the importance of loyalty to family, overcoming the rough patches of fleeting discord and hardship. The exuberant Merida appears destined to enter the pantheon of great Disney animated characters, a spirited heroine equipped with physical talents unmatched by any of the other female royal figures.

“Brave” is visually complex, with Scottish Highlands beautifully illustrated.  It’s a period piece with historical references, and as such, the film is anything but formulaic. While “Brave” involves great storytelling and humor, it has its dark, violent moments that might be a bit too bleak and scary for really little kids.  Otherwise, it is, as they say in the vernacular, all good.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

It’s been mentioned several times before in this space that the detective drama “Mannix” was one of the best of its kind on network television. Now being released in a DVD set is “Mannix: The Seventh Season,” an action-packed series in which the episodes are as fresh and original as the first season.

Mike Connors is the hard-boiled and gritty private eye Joe Mannix, who defies all the rules and protocols as he fights crime on the streets of Los Angeles. While he gets help from his pals at the LAPD, Mannix’s most loyal secretary Peggy (Gail Fisher) is a key player in running his investigation business.

Another classic 1970s police drama starring Hollywood icon Michael Douglas returns to DVD with “The Streets of San Francisco: Season Three, Volume One.” In addition, “Season Three, Volume Two” is also being released on DVD, so you have to buy two sets to get the full season.

The extra expense may be worth it considering that Douglas, playing a young, college educated Inspector Steve Keller, was tutored by Karl Malden’s veteran detective Lt. Mike Stone. “Mannix” and “The Streets of San Francisco” make a great combination of thrilling TV crime dramas from a golden age of this genre.

 

REVISIONIST HISTORY FOR “ABRAHAM LINCOLN” GOES TO EXTREMES

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (Rated R) History buffs will be aghast at the revisionist history of the exploits of one of our greatest presidents in the fanciful “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Other than a few basic facts about the 16th president that are barely accurate enough to lend a patina of minimal credibility, this movie is off the rails in terms of historical accuracy.

Anyone who sees this movie and believes they have learned something about slavery, the abolitionist movement and the Civil War should be permanently disbarred from voting or participating in civic affairs. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, is so patently ludicrous on its face that you expect to be witnessing a comical farce, as if Woody Allen and Mel Brooks teamed up to rewrite history.

Interestingly enough, this film reminds me of the Broadway musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” another fictional account of presidential leadership. Even more curious is that Benjamin Walker, starring as the film’s titular figure, played the role of our nation’s 7th president on the Broadway stage.  This young man has a future playing chief executives, though the corpulent William Howard Taft may be too daunting a challenge.

The story begins in our hero’s childhood, when he witnesses the brutal killing of his mother by vampire businessman Barts (Marton Csokas). In early adulthood, Lincoln has a chance encounter with mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), which leads to intensive training in the fine art of vampire-killing.

Trading on Lincoln’s reputation as a rail splitter, our nation’s first superhero finds his slaying talents rest with his ability to frantically wield a mean silver-tipped axe. Once relocated to Springfield, where Lincoln works as a store clerk by day and studies law at night, he still manages to engage in nocturnal hunting, with thrilling showdowns with the undead.

Meanwhile, Lincoln’s mentor Sturgess cautions that he should avoid social entanglements, such as marriage.  Then, the young aspiring lawyer meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). If you had any doubt that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was anything but fiction, skepticism would quickly rise to the surface when the celluloid Mary Todd proves to be much prettier than the real one.

The best part of the film is arguably the early phase of Lincoln’s adulthood, living in Springfield, as he becomes engaged in civic life and romances Mary Todd, while killing vampires at night. In a jarring bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand, the film suddenly jumps to early 1861, with the now-bearded Lincoln ensconced in the White House while the Battle of Fort Sumter triggers the Civil War.

Now it can be told that General Robert E. Lee commanded an army in which the Confederate troops were vampires, so resistant to ordinary weaponry that the Battle of Gettysburg was a Union massacre. According to the film, President Lincoln is so distressed at the Union’s defeat on the battlefield that he is tempted to surrender.  If that were the case, we would now have a Confederate flag with 50 stars.

The alarming trouncing of the Union troops in Pennsylvania allow for a resourceful Lincoln to concoct a brilliant battlefield plan that will finally vanquish the South. Getting to that pivotal battle leads to some incredibly thrilling action sequences, including Lincoln and his cohorts battling the undead on top of a speeding train.  A stampede of wild horses involves a tense chase.

According to revisionist history, the fate of our free nation hangs on Lincoln’s inevitable showdown with Adam (Rufus Sewell), the leader of Vampire Nation who just happens to live on a plantation in the vicinity of New Orleans.

Anyone who has ever visited the French Quarter is likely familiar with the tourist trap peddling of voodoo potions and haunted mansions. Apparently, President Lincoln did not eliminate all vestiges of the supernatural.  Nevertheless, he’s quite the energetic axe-wielding superhero.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is patently ridiculous.  Understandably, some may find it distasteful that the memory of a great president is trivialized.  Yet, this is too preposterous to be taken seriously. For a sequel, I would propose “Teddy Roosevelt: Zombie Slayer.”  His robust “cowboy” image would be just perfect for another American superhero.

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

Finding some odd gems of old TV shows that finally get released on DVD is always a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t get much better than the early ’70s live-action series “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp,” a three-disc collector set of all 17 episodes.

In the spirit of “Get Smart,” ABC’s action-adventure/comedy spy series aired on Saturday mornings, starring a cast of chimpanzees whose performances were dubbed with human voices. Lancelot Link (voiced by Dayton Allen), along with partner Mata Hairi (Joan Gerber), are top agents of the Agency to Prevent Evil (APE), a secret organization led by Commander Darwin.

“The Love Boat’s” Bernie Kopell is the chief nemesis Baron Von Butcher, the leader of CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan), an evil league bent on world domination. “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp” is a wonderful bit of monkey business.  The show represents the only known time that James Bond was spoofed by simians.

 

BAD TASTE AND LAUGHS RUN AMOK IN SANDLER’S “THAT’S MY BOY”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

THAT’S MY BOY (Rated R) The mere mention of Adam Sandler’s involvement in another raunchy comedy will send some smug, high-brow film critics into paroxysms of utter despair and contempt.

For that reason alone, it’s a guilty pleasure to see the Brooklyn-born comic gleefully poke the snooty type right in the eye.  “That’s My Boy” does the trick, in spades. The film is rated R for the following reasons: crude sexual content throughout, nudity, pervasive language and some drug use.  That’s the least of this film’s offenses.

Hide the women and children from the multiplex.  This Adam Sandler production is clearly intended for a male audience that revels in juvenile humor and stunted emotional development. “That’s My Boy” is a comic variation of the Mary Kay Letourneau story, the middle-school teacher who gained national notoriety for a torrid affair with her 13-year-old pupil, resulting in not one, but two, offspring.

The outrageous film story begins when Sandler’s young teen Donny Berger meets the girl of his dreams.  Only trouble is she’s his smoking hot teacher, Mary McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino). While serving detention for Ms. McGarricle, Donny picks up lessons that are not on the curriculum.  It all goes bad during a very embarrassing moment at the school assembly.

The teacher is sent to the women’s state prison for statutory rape, leaving Donny to raise their love child after he turns 18-years-old. Not surprisingly, Donny was not prepared to be a dad; his parenting skills were nonexistent.  For starters, he named his son Han Solo Berger and had a large tattoo of the New Kids on the Block etched on his back.

Because the young Donny was involved in a scandalous affair, he became a minor celebrity who enjoyed a period of tabloid fame for being seduced by a sexpot teacher.  For a short time, he cashed in on the infamy of this scandal with a reality TV show. Now, thirty years later, Donny is an obnoxious, blustering alcoholic loser from the wrong side of Boston.  Wearing his hair in the style of an 80’s boy band member, Donny is hardly ever without a can of Budweiser in hand.

Meanwhile, Han Solo, who left home and changed his name years ago, is now successful Wall Street executive and hedge fund manager Todd Peterson (Andy Samberg). Remaining the perpetual slacker, Donny is in big trouble, owing tens of thousands to the IRS.  He figures that getting in touch with his son is the only way to get the money he needs to stay out of jail.

Todd, who suffers from anxiety, is about to be married to the lovely Jamie (Leighton Meester), who comes from a snooty rich family living in a seaside mansion. The desperate Donny shows up for the wedding weekend, introducing himself as an old friend of Todd and bringing the bride-to-be a totally inappropriate wedding gift.

Donny’s scheme is to arrange a father-son reunion with the mother (Susan Sarandon) at the correctional facility, where a big payday awaits with a filmed interview on a tabloid TV news program. For the time being, the self-absorbed Donny, misguided in his attempts to reconnect with his estranged offspring, turns the weekend of wedding festivities upside down.

To liven up things, Donny enlists the help of his old pal Vanilla Ice (playing himself) so that a dull bachelor party evening is not ruined by Jamie’s uptight family. Donny gets the bachelor group to visit Classy Rick’s Bacon and Legs strip club, where the featured stripper is very overweight black dancer Champale (comedienne Luenell).

Sandler affectionately populates the film with a group of interesting characters.  New York Jets coach Rex Ryan appears, improbably, as an extreme New England Patriots fan who advises Donny on financial matters.  James Caan is a belligerent priest. Tony Orlando (yes, the singer) plays Todd’s slimy boss.  Singer/actress Ciara plays Champale’s daughter Brie.  Even former child star Todd Bridges makes an appearance as Vanilla Ice’s colleague at a fast food joint.

The odd thing about Adam Sandler is that even when he plays the most outrageous, juvenile loser, he manages to retain a certain measure of sweet-natured personality. As for “That’s My Boy,” this offensive, over-the-top comedy is filled with unrelenting raunchiness, gross-out humor and bad taste.  Still, there are plenty of laughs in this film, if you let yourself go.

FILM BOOK UPDATE

Once in a while, an interesting film book comes to my attention, thanks to the efforts of a vigilant publicist. Those who love horror films, the cheesier and sleazier variety, will probably get a kick out of “The Slasher Movie Book.”

This book, by J.A. Kerswell, chronicles the glory days of the horror subgenre that brought murder, mayhem and corn-syrup blood to the big screen. Greatly illustrated with stills and colorful posters, “The Slasher Movie Book” provides an unmatched exploration of the early foreign influences of the slasher genre.

The book serves as a guide to classic cult hits “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” as well as more obscure flicks such as “Savage Water” and “Bloodbeat.”Filled with trivia and interesting facts, the best feature of this book is the graphic retro poster art.  Horror aficionados will love this artful tribute.

THIRD TIME CHARM FOR ANTIC, COLORFUL, FUNNY “MADAGASCAR”

A Film Review by Tim Riley

 

MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED (Rated PG) Recently, I mused that sequels may sound good on paper but don’t work out as nicely as intended.  “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” may well scramble this dynamic. Of course, it’s been seven years since the original and one presidential election cycle since the first sequel.  As a result, there may be a void in my memory bank.

Still, “Madagascar 3” is so lively, boisterous, funny and colorful that the realization of a second sequel is a worthy endeavor even though multiple directors and writers are attached to this project. The quartet of Central Park Zoo animals have always been the central focus of the “Madagascar” franchise.  Their presence is not only elemental but vitally agreeable.

Ben Stiller voices the handsome, pensive lion Alex, who frets uneasily about his role as king of the jungle.  Nervous giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) appears to be less of a hypochondriac this time around. The garrulous zebra Marty, voiced by Chris Rock, delivers his thoughts at break-neck pace.  Meanwhile, hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) remains blissfully cheerful.

As the film opens, this quartet misses their old New York home so much that they have recreated the island of Manhattan out of mud and clay in the middle of the African desert. They are stranded in the misbegotten corner of the African continent because the penguins and monkeys took off for Monte Carlo where they are attempting to beat the casino at the gambling tables.

Making their way across the Mediterranean, the quartet launches an elaborate plan to foil the schemes of the traitorous tuxedoed birds and their chimpanzee henchmen. Orchestrated commotion at the casino is a funny chaotic scene, but it brings the unwanted attention of a fierce animal control officer named Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand).

Captain DuBois’ idea of dealing with runaway wildlife is to bag Alex as a trophy to be put on