New in Home Entertainment – January 31, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

January 31, 2012

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Rated PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo
Available on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, and DVD

If you would have told me five years ago that the Transformers franchise would be one of the most popular in movie history, grossing more than 2.5 billion dollars internationally and countless more in home entertainment sales, I would have thought you to be crazy.  Sure the reviews for all three films have been mediocre, but that hasn’t stopped worldwide audiences from going to see them in droves and bringing them home to watch over and over again.  This third installment has proven to be the biggest one of all mounting an impressive $1.1 billion international gross and $3.5 million in the U.S.  If you thought the first two films were big, they don’t even hold a candle to the enormity of the third.  I would go into deep detail about the plot, but its apparent that not many care about story when it comes to these pictures.  They just want lots of robots creating havoc and that’s what they get.  At 154 minutes, the film feels a little long, but at least there’s the pause button at home so you can take care of that six pack of whatever you started drinking two hours ago.  Just don’t miss the finale where they take out the entire city of Chicago.  B

Thunder Soul
Rated PG for brief language and momentary historical smoking
Available on DVD

In the 60s and 70s Houston’s Kashmere High School Stage Band was consistently known as the best high school jazz band in the country.  Led by a great band director simply known as “Prof,” the band became a world-class standard-setting funk powerhouse that achieved success until the school superintendent made major cuts in the arts.  Now, 35 years later, the band is getting together to pay tribute to the legendary director who brought them all together.  If the the great premise and the 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes fail to peak your interest, then maybe the fact that this is a terrific local story that many here have never heard will have you checking it out.  I didn’t know what to expect, but I sure did like what I saw and heard.  This is one heck of an enjoyable documentary that will have you laughing, crying, and possibly even dancing.  A

Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Ryan Gosling is simply known as “Driver” in this little indie about a stunt car driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for either extra cash or maybe just the thrill.  After he falls in love with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan), his life makes a turn for the worse when her husband gets out of jail.  This is definitely one of the more surprising films this year.  If this film is anything it’s unpredictable.  Another word to describe it is cool.  The crazy script by Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman) is masterfully directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (who just won the Houston Film Critics Society award).  Perhaps of equal importance for the project is the eclectic collection of music from the 80s and that pink font for the credits.  I’ll admit that it’s a bit too violent and unsettling for my personal taste, but you can’t deny that it’s a well put-together film with a lot of entertainment value.  B+

Annie Hall and Manhattan
Available on Blu-ray

If the recent release of Midnight in Paris has put you in the mood for a Woody Allen-thon, then you have to check out these two new blu-rays being released this week by MGM and Fox.  Had Annie Hall not won the Oscar for best picture in 1977 (beating out Star Wars), Manhattan might have taken the honor away in 1979.  Both films run low on special features, but the new high def transfers look and sound great.  Also getting the blu-ray treatment this week are a slew of other great classics including Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Rebecca, and Notorious as well as Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. 

Red Tails

Red Tails

Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrance Howard, and David Oyelowo

Directed by Anthony Hemingway (HBO’s Treme)

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence

     The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is a classic American tale of courage, skill and perseverance.  While the U.S. Military did not allow the African American pilots to fight in the main combat arena until towards the end of the war, their record of kills vs. casualties as well as their success at protecting American bombers is a truly fantastic and almost unbelievable achievement.  So there is also no doubt that these brave men of the 332nd Fighter Group deserve to be heralded and have their story preserved in film.  The problem is that they deserve a much better legacy than this. 

     The 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen was a decent enough approach to the subject but had many problems.  That is probably why Executive Producer George Lucas and others at Lucas Films wanted to improve upon the story.  Unfortunately, the only thing that was improved upon was the special effects.  The aerial effects are truly spectacular and the fight sequences are surprisingly exciting.  I say surprisingly because while everything in the air is gold, everything on the ground is lame. 

     Many will come away saying the acting is just plain lousy, but that’s not altogether true.  There are some decent performers here that should have had a better script to read from.  The dialog is very poorly written throughout and most of the characters are nothing more than cookie cutter caricatures.  I’m shocked that many of the characters even had names.  At least there was some personality given to the members of the 332nd, because the white characters in the film were treated like complete stereotypes.  There was “Racist General,” “Nice White Pilot,” “Racist Nazi Pilot” and many other completely contrived characters who only detracted from the power of the overall story.  But even the main characters suffered from a lack of substance.  The only member of the cast that got a sufficient plot line was that of Joe “Lightening” Little (Oyelowo) but his story alone couldn’t save the film.

     Another serious issue with the script is its historical accuracy.  It’s widely known that the Tuskegee Airmen were extremely successful, but this film makes them look invincible.  While they lost less than most, they lost many more than this film represents.  Their version of the war is almost like a video game where the hero has to make it at least to the end.  War movies by nature revolve around the loss of human life and to show war differently is both deceptive and dishonorable.  This lack of humility to the very idea of war distracts from the movie and steals away any credibility they manage to achieve.

     The fact is that there is potential greatness in this premise and the film itself could have been another Glory.  But rather than making an inspired and inspirational film, the filmmakers settled for a visually captivating movie that serves as a poor representation of the men who gallantly fought in WWII and surprised a nation.  C

New in Home Entertainment – January 24, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

January 24, 2012

Real Steel
Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

When I was a kid I used to have the old Mattel game Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em which placed you against a friend in a robotic boxing match.  Now, decades later, comes the real thing with Hugh Jackman as a retired boxer trying to make it in the futuristic sport of robot fighting.  While the film is based on a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson, and not on the classic game, you get the sense that there were a lot of fans of the game on the production team.  The good news is that the fight sequences are pretty fantastic just as you would hope.  The bad news is that the writing is not nearly as strong as the special effects.  The script is full of bad exposition and cheesy dialog.  Jackman is a very good actor, but its hard to overcome a bad screenplay.  Still, I was hoping for an entertaining film filled with over-the-top robot fighting and that’s precisely what I got.  B-

Paranormal Activity 3

Rated R for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The first two films in this now very popular franchise sent chills up my spine.  In fact, I found them to be absolutely terrifying.  With the success of the first two, a third was inevitable and this time around they chose a prequel.  Following the young sisters, Katie and Kristi, PA 3 sticks tight to the same trick, having the characters set up video cameras to capture the demon in action.  This time around the nuance has worn off though and while there are some creative scares and a lot of creepy material, the pic is not as effective at creating goosebumps.  B-

Rated R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sometimes your favorite movies are the ones that you expect very little from and then bop you over the head.  This was definitely one of those movies for me.  I honestly blew this one off thinking that I saw it the first time when it was called Funny People.  I was dead wrong.  This highly personal story based on the real-life relationship between writer Will Reiser and actor Seth Rogen is a powerhouse of a script about a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets a dire cancer diagnosis and subsequently fights it to the best of his ability while preparing for the worst.  It’s rare to have a film like this that is as funny as it is moving but the amazing cast and the material they had to work with allow for a terrific movie that will leave you very entertained.  A

Belle De Jour: The Criterion Collection
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

About a decade ago Martin Scorsese supervised spearheaded the restoration and re-release of this classic 1967 French film by famed director  Luis Banuel and now its Criterion’s turn with this new high-definition digital restoration.  This story about a Parisian housewife, beautifully portrayed by Catherine Deneuve, who fights the boredom of her empty life by becoming a prostitute is a fascinating character study that will leave you haunted.  This new edition comes fully loaded with tons of extras about the film and its legacy.  B+

New in Home Entertainment – January 17, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

January 17, 2011

Rated PG-13 for some violence and drug content
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD

Some would say that a good Christian film is an oxymoron, and I would say that while there is truth in that statement, that’s not always true.  Over the last few years we’ve seen some pretty decent examples of the genre including the Narnia series and To Save a Life.  Unfortunately, this new pic from the makers of the relatively successful films Fireproof and Facing the Giants is a bit of a dud.  Just like their previous films, the intention here is good.  The overall story about a group of cops who want to be better leaders of their families has the potential for a good family-friendly film.  After all, the filmmakers really want their viewers, especially men, to focus on their home lives and become Christians with integrity – and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.  The problem is that while they mean well, the message is clouded by some pretty poor examples of acting, writing and directing.  Some of the scenes are bearable, but much of the film is cringe-inducing.  If this is a genre you truly love, you might value the message over the media and find a way to enjoy the film, but if you are the average movie-watching public, this movie could be a real turnoff.  The good news is that the production looks and sounds professional.  I just wish that the production company, Affirm Films, would spend some of their profits on making sure their next film doesn’t suffer from these obvious problems.  C

The Guard
Rated R for pervasive language, some violence, drug material and sexual content
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD

In this indie favorite, Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart) is an exceptional but unorthodox cop from Ireland who teams up with an FBI agent (Ocean 11’s Don Cheadle) in order to track down a ruthless drug-smuggling ring.  Trying to stay away from the traditional cop buddy film genre, writer/director John Michael McDonagh gives the film a bleak look while providing a wry sense of humor that borders on the abstract.  The movie turns out to be funny and gloomy at the same time without coming off as a traditional dark comedy.  The characters are very different from the norm which gives the talented cast much to chew on.  If you are expecting Lethal Weapon, you’ll most likely be sorely disappointed, but if you are in the mood for a strange little dramedy with nice twists and unexpected dialog, you might find yourself having a good time.  B+

Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix

In 2010 the Broadway musical Memphis surprised the world by winning the Tony for Best Musical.  This interracial love story set in 1950’s Memphis tells the story of a white DJ who was instrumental in introducing the white world to black music.  The story feels like a hybrid of Ragtime and Hairspray but never quite achieves the power of either.  Most of the music is good although there are a few stinkers in the songbook.  The performances are all excellent except for that of the lead, played by Chad Kimball.  I know he was nominated for a Tony for the role, but I found his performance to be one of the most irritating and overrated performances in recent memory.  Still, I like the fact that more and more musicals are being released in this format and the fact that the show is still alive and well on Broadway and on tour proves that it has legs and is still capable of entertaining large audiences.  B-

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Starring Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks
Directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot)
Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and language

    There is a moment in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close where the young boy played by Thomas Horn covers his ears and yells at his father, played by Tom Hanks, begging him to not be disappointed in him.  It is a startling and rather tender moment that shatters any misconception that the boy is cold and unfeeling or anything besides strong, resilient, and a little obnoxious.  Taking place in New York City shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the boy is learning to live without his father who was killed while in the World Trade Center.  He worshipped his father and wants nothing more in life than to make him proud.  When he finds a key hidden in his father’s closet he goes on a desperate mission to discover what the key opens, even at the expense of missing school and practically abandoning his mother (Sandra Bullock).  Soon after he begins his search, his adventure is shared with an older man carrying an important secret (Max von Sydow) who is eager to aid him on his quest.

    I must warn you that this movie is a major tear jerker.  Some might call it manipulative, but it’s not overly so.  It’s just a subject matter that brings out a very strong emotional response.  But don’t think that this is merely a sad film.  It is about love and loss, but more importantly its about not giving up.  Even when all seems lost, all might not be completely gone.  It’s also very funny and incredibly moving. 

    Based on the best-selling novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the movie is a compassionate yet challenging look at what we as a nation lost on that “worst day.”  Through the boy’s eyes we see a world that can be cruel, but that can also be filled with love, laughter and adventure. 

    The acting here is absolutely top-notched.  It helps to have accomplished actors such as Hanks, Bullock and von Sydow, but Horn appears to have been up to the challenge of working with such a talented cast.  His character is that of a very different boy with possible high-functioning autism.  It’s a tough part and he did a splendid job. 

    The story and the script here are what make the film so special.  To come up with such an amazing idea for the novel and then to have it terrifically adapted by Academy Award winner Eric Roth (Forest Gump) is an amazing feat which seems so effortless here. 

    A lot of credit also goes to Stephen Daldry who has become quite a masterful story teller.  He never shies away from tough material and seems to always churn out great movies.

    Lastly, unlike the other two big 9/11 films, I think it’s a movie that audiences can get behind.  It’s a very unique tale that many will find a deep connection with.  A

New in Home Entertainment – January 10, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

January 10, 2012

Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season
Rated TV-MA
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

While HBO’s True Blood is certainly a popular replacement for their hit shows The Sopranos, Rome, Six Feet Under and Deadwood, HBO was in desperate need for another critical hit and it certainly found it in Boardwalk Empire.  Set in the 1920’s in the very corrupt Atlantic City, New Jersey, Empire follows the life and times of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) who takes advantage of prohibition in order get rich off of the illegal booze trade.  As you expect, there are many folks who try to get in the way including his former protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and the feds led by Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon).  From the lavish production design to the pitch perfect writing and acting, this is one heck of a great drama which proves once again that television is sometimes immensely more entertaining than the movies.  A

Rated PG-13 for some strong language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

While I can appreciate baseball, I’ve never really loved the sport, but one thing I do love is a good baseball movie and Moneyball certainly falls into that category.  Loosely based on the true story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), Moneyball follows Beane during the historic 2002 season when he chose to use statistics rather than traditional scouting in order to assemble a ball team that could fall within his budget and win in the postseason.  The movie works so well in its off-the-field moments that it almost doesn’t matter that the gameplay scenes rather stink.  That is mostly due to the talent of Pitt as well as his by-the-numbers assistant played by Jonah Hill.  The pic is a real crowd pleaser and should leave you with a big grin on your face.  B+

Killer Elite
Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Supposedly based on a true story, Killer Elite follows a contract killer (Jason Statham) who is forced to do a complicated mission in order to save the life of his mentor (Robert De Niro).  With a talented cast like this you would think there was a chance to be a strong action thriller.  While Statham is his normal kick-butt self and his scenes are fun to watch simply due to his antics, the convoluted plot only makes for a good head-scratching and the writing is, for the most part, total crap.  So if you are just looking for a rental with decent action, you’ll probably enjoy it, but if you are expecting something great from a great cast, you will most likely be disappointed.  C

New in Home Entertainment – January 3, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

January 3, 2012

Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Director Stephen Soderbergh (Traffic) loves to assemble big casts of A-list actors and place them masterfully into ensemble films.  Here he tells the story of a fictitious pandemic starting from the very first victim until its tragic end.  Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet all combine forces to provide an idea of what could very well happen if a deadly contagious disease traveled the world today.  It’s a grim tale well told and aside from the ending which was a bit too tidy, it’s a very solid film.  Not only will it entertain you but it also provides a nice “what if” scenario that is extremely believable.  B+

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Rated R for violence and terror
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

While this indie horror film about a young girl haunted by miniature monsters is sold as a Guillermo Del Toro film, don’t be fooled.  Del Toro wrote the screenplay but the film was directed by first time feature director Troy Nixey and the lack of experience shows.  The premise of the film isn’t bad, and the creatures are fairly creepy, but the movie is poorly directed and lacks any scares aside from the big one seen in the trailer.  Perhaps if Del Toro would have taken on a larger role this film might have been a nice twisted macabre masterpiece, but instead it is a forgettable dud.  C-

Mildred Pierce: The Collector’s Edition
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

HBO once again proves that they are the king of miniseries with this terrific adaption of the novel by James M. Cain about a divorced single mom (Kate Winslet) in Depression-era Los Angeles who struggles to maintain even a strained relationship with her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).  Directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) the story is very different from the 1945 Joan Crawford classic and with its 344 minute running time it becomes more of an epic than a drama.  The performances from Winslet and Guy Pearce are most definitely worthy of their Emmy wins and the overall production is a remarkable feet for HBO to have accomplished.  A-