Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce
Directed by John Hillcoat (The Road)
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity

    Set in the world of illegal bootlegging in Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia, three brothers (LaBeouf, Hardy and Jason Clarke) who run a successful still are on top of the world until a corrupt official (Pearce) attempts to try to take his share of their earnings.  

    Over the past few years I have become quite a fan of director John Hillcoat.  His films The Proposition and The Road are two of my favorites from the last decade.  He has a knack for taking gritty projects and making them so real you can practically wipe the dirt off the screen.  If you haven’t seen those two films, check them out.  But I recommend you avoid Lawless.  You could easily accuse me of bringing in too high of an expectation, and you’d probably be right.  After all, you have a director with vision combined with an artistic writer (Nick Cave) and a cast full of solid actors.  So I would say I have a right to my lofty expectations.  I’m just sad that the film fell way short.  

    So here’s one of the problems – the film isn’t bad, but it’s not great either.  Part of the issue is that while the cast is very good, the actors either aren’t right for the roles or the choices the actors make for their characters aren’t right for the film.  Shia LaBeouf seems like he is trying too hard.  Guy Pearce seems like he is in the wrong movie.  Jessica Chastain is too clean, too out of place.  I do think Tom Hardy and Mia Wasikowska were well chosen but their performances would have been so much better had the rest of the cast been appropriate.  Gary Oldman is the only actor who really knocks it out.  Unfortunately he’s only in the film for a few minutes.  Which brings me to my second problem.

    The script by Nick Cave is not terrific.  There are some great elements to the film and some unforgettable visuals (not sure who gets the credit there) but overall the script makes the film seem as if it is trying too hard to be a Coen Brothers film and not a John Hillcoat project.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the sense of humor that permeates throughout much of the picture, but I failed to reach an emotional connection to any of the characters.  I was okay with any of them dying.  Even when your heroes are criminals – that’s not a good thing.  Also, one thing that can make a mediocre film great is an evil villain and Pearce as the antagonist is more annoying than evil.  I love a good maniacal bad guy but the character Pearce brings to the screen I just want to flick in the head and tell him to go away.  The one character I am afraid of here is Gary Oldman’s gang leader.  I just wish they had found a way to make him a more pivotal part of the story and cast.  

    So while I really wanted to enjoy what could have and should have been a stellar period crime drama, I found myself picking out problem after problem that could have very easily been fixed.  C

New in Home Entertainment – August 28, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

August 28, 2012

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

If you think its quite a stretch to make a movie based on the Hasbro game Battleship and throw in an alien invasion then you aren’t alone.  Unfortunately, not only did they run with this idea (and spend over $200 million on it) but they decided to make the alien/U.S. military battle a turn-based skirmish and they even made the alien weapons look like the original game pieces.  The film is not just dumb but unpatriotic as well.  I’m surprised the U.S. Navy allowed a film to use their ships in a battle where the Americans are the aggressors.  After all, the aliens only killed after being threatened and they chose not to kill unarmed citizens.  Apparently we just kill and think later.  Maybe that’s why the film only pulled in $65 million here and over $300 million worldwide: making fun of American policy, even in regards to an imaginary alien invasion, is an entertaining spectator sport.  D

The Pirates!  Band of Misfits
Rated PG for mild action, rude humor and some language
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D

From Aardman Animation, the British animation house responsible for Arthur Christmas and Wallace & Gromit, comes the only bright spot so far in this year’s crop of mediocre animated features.  Following the adventures of Pirate Captain, a kind-hearted pirate leader that dreams of notoriety amongst his peers, The Pirates provides a swashbuckling good time with a sense of humor that aims its sights more at adults than children.  This is a downright hysterical movie that serves up a treasure chest worth of entertainment.  I wouldn’t be surprised if at the Oscars this year The Pirates forces Pixar to take a step off the plank.  A-

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

HBO’s series about New Jersey gangsters during the age of prohibition turned in a spectacular first season, leaving the sophomore season mighty big spats to fill.  Unbelievably they came through with more surprises and plot twists than anyone could have imagined.  Following the path set by season one of Game of Thrones where no character is safe, Empire created a world this past year where everyone seemed to be in real danger.  I absolutely loved the extreme amount of tension built into each and every scene and the acting by the talented cast gives you an idea of what it must have been like to deal in booze during that tumultuous period.  A-

New in Home Entertainment – August 21, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

August 21, 2012

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

Texas is full of colorful characters and this tale based on the true story out of Carthage, Texas is living proof.  Back in the 90’s, a local funeral director named Bernie (Jack Black) was a beloved member of the community who became close friends with the meanest lady in town (Shirley MacLaine) after her husband died.  About half the film uses actors and the other half is interviews with the actual townspeople of Carthage who tell their versions of the story.  While I’m sure folks outside of Texas might enjoy this film, I’m pretty sure that Texans will absolutely love it.  Had this movie been a Hollywood affair, I’m fairly certain it would have made fun of Texas; but under the control of Texas-based writer/director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) it shows the state and the people from it in the best possible light and manages to tell a story that you’ll be sharing with your friends for years to come.  A-

A Separation
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Persian with English Subtitles

Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year was this amazing Iranian film about a husband and wife who are going through a divorce because she wants to leave Iran and take their daughter and he needs to stay in Iran to take care of his ailing father.  What at first looks like a divorce drama turns into a complicated scenario that leaves you fascinated at both the Iranian legal system and the moral choices the characters must make while facing the worst of dilemmas.  It’s hard not to be completely consumed by the story (which was also nominated for best screenplay).  This is truly one of the best films of 2011 and one you won’t soon forget.  A

The Dictator
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It’s been a good year for comedy so far and The Dictator has been one of the best.  Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Aladeen, a crazy Dictator from a third world country who is forced to become a homeless American foreigner after an attempted coup.  It is so over-the-top that you can’t help but like Cohen’s crazy creation and the message at the end gives the story a touch of gravity you don’t expect.  A-

Rated G
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Disney has really stuck to their guns when it comes to their commitment to release nature documentaries on Earth Day under their Disney Nature label.  This newest film is extremely interesting.  I’m not sure if they ever intended it to be a movie about nothing more than Chimps, but once they discovered a male leader adopting and caring for an orphan, a beautiful story evolved that became the selling point of the film.  Overall, the film has beautiful cinematography (as is expected) and the story of the two chimps works well, but the rest of the tale seems forced, as if they needed to fill Tim Allen’s narration with something else exciting and they didn’t know quite how to do it.  I found myself even more fascinated by the documentary on how they made the film.  That story alone is worth checking out the disc.  B

Rated G
Available on Blu-ray

This week Disney is adding several films to blu-ray including The Rescuers/Rescuers Down Under, The Aristocats, Lady and the Tramp 2 and The Tigger movie.  All of these are very mediocre representations of Disney animation but one release is definitely worth mentioning.  Pocahontas wasn’t their biggest hit, but it sure is a great animated feature.  The animation itself is lovely and the music was strong enough to earn two Oscars (song and score).  To this day, the Farewell scene is one of my favorite pieces of movie music.  Now if only they didn’t have to taint the set by adding in the not-so-great Pocahontas 2.  The good news is that you don’t have to watch it.  B+

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Celeste and Jesse Forever
Starring Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg and Elijah Wood
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use

    Jesse and Celeste (Jones and Samberg) appear to be a couple madly in love.  They are touchy-feely to an extreme all the while making cute voices together and completely annoying their friends.  They seem to be the happiest couple on Earth.  Here’s the catch: they are getting a divorce.  They have decided that they are better friends than lovers and it is time to leave their romantic relationship behind.  

    The unromantic romantic comedy was bound to happen.  After all, a very large percentage of real life love stories don’t end happily ever after – so why should they in the movies?  I’ll admit that it’s a clever premise with a lot of promise.  So you’re probably wondering – why is this on Sony’s independent label, Sony Pictures Classics, rather than Sony’s premiere label?  Why is this showing in art house theaters instead of the local megaplex?  My only guess is that even though it has some decent mainstream stars and an interesting plot, it is far from a mainstream movie.  

    When you think of a film like this its easy to picture a horrid and depressing movie that will make you cry and leave you hating the opposite sex.  Luckily for the audience, the subject matter is heavy but there are enough jokes thrown in to keep it light.

    The relationship itself is easy enough to believe.  Celeste and Jesse still love each other very much, but Celeste has a great career and Jesse is a slacker.  She doesn’t think she can handle a relationship like that, leaving divorce to be the option.  But when she starts to look at both her age and the men available for her, and when she sees that Jesse’s options seem much brighter, a story unfolds that provides for a lot of honest emotion and empathy.  

    Unfortunately, those jokes which serve to lighten up the picture are sometimes not as funny as the writers think they are and the movie, like the relationship, starts to unravel.  I found myself really wanting to like the movie and the direction it was going in, but I was distracted and disappointed by much of the writing.  And in my distraction, I found the picture too easy to be picked apart.  I simply wanted something more substantial.  It was like the project wanted so badly to be the next When Harry Met Sally, but just couldn’t muster up the right magic to make it really work.  C+

New in Home Entertainment – August 14, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

August 14, 2012

Rated PG
Available on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy Combo Edition

When Jaws was released in 1975 it took the world by storm.  This legendary horror film by director Steven Spielberg not only created the “summer blockbuster” but also managed to scare millions of people around the world from going in the water.  37 years later, Jaws is getting the blu-ray treatment and it still holds up.  The new restoration looks and sounds beautiful and there are hours of extra features to dig through after you’ve revisited.  The only thing missing from the new set is a commentary.  Personally, I would love to watch the film while listening to Spielberg, Dreyfuss and gang discuss all the great old stories about the trials they went through while in the process of making history.  But for now I’m just glad to take in one of my favorite movies in this format.  A+

The Hunger Games
Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

With the Hunger Games books being the supposed next best thing since the Twilight series, I was incredibly skeptical about how good the teen-crazed movie could be.  After all, unless you’re a teenage girl, it’s a safe assumption that you think the Twilight films have thus far blown chunks.  I firmly believe that it’s the low expectations of pop culture media that have driven the success of this film, both critically and at the box office.  After the lights came up I was so relieved that director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) delivered a high-quality action/drama.  There was actually good acting and the production values were solid.  It was like they knew the challenge would be to create a film that had huge potential to be bad and thus sidestepped most of those seemingly inevitable pitfalls.  My biggest concern is that this is R-rated subject matter and the story would have been much better served with that R.  Everything was so toned down that it became a bit distracting.  I understand the financial decision behind a PG-13 rating, but it certainly wasn’t the best way to serve the material.  B+

Dexter: The Sixth Season
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I was afraid this would happen.  They’ve run out of juice for our favorite serial killer-killing vigilante.  Up to now, we’ve seen some amazingly frightening stuff come from Michael C. Hall and gang, but this last season went laughably over-the-top.  The season starts out with some potential when two new killers begin a religious-based murder spree in Miami, but between the obvious plot twist that you can see through several episodes before it’s revealed to the apparent time-filler episode “Nebraska” that is more out of place and silly than frightening, the season just leaves you with a feeling of been there/done that.  I hope the producers find a way to freshen things up so Dexter can go out on a high note.  C

The Raid: Redemption – Unrated
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Indonesian with English Subtitles

Under the ill-advised guidance of a police captain with ulterior motives, a SWAT team enters a building filled with thugs and criminals in order to capture the mob leader that runs the show.  It’s easy to understand how a film like this could grow into an international sensation.  The story isn’t the best, but the action is intense and well-choreographed for its entirety.  This super-violent martial arts showcase is one incredible fight scene after another until you are left out of breath at the end.  If you are a fan of this genre, you will love this film.  And if you don’t like reading subtitles on foreign films, don’t worry – there isn’t much to read and what there is to translate pretty much needs no translation.  A punch to the gut sounds the same in any language.  B

The Royal Tenenbaums: Criterion Edition
Rated R for some language, sexuality/nudity and drug content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

In 2001, after having been blown away by his previous two films Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, I had the joy of seeing Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.  I say joy because that is exactly what this film is to me.  Yes its a tale of a despicable man and a highly dysfunctional family, but regardless, I love every minute of this comedy whether it be a scene of pain or pleasure.  Gene Hackman heads up this incredible cast including Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen and Luke Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover and all wonderfully narrated by Alec Baldwin.  This new Criterion treatment (Criterion released the film before on DVD back in 2002) has a director-approved newly restored digital transfer along with several nice surprises.  A

New in Home Entertainment – August 7, 2012

New in Home Entertainment

August 7, 2012

The Lorax
Rated PG for brief mild language
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D

I must sound repetitive since I think I’ve prefaced most of my animated reviews lately by stating that we are in a drought when it comes to good animated features, but I believe it’s absolutely true.  Take, for instance, this latest Dr. Seuss picture based on his book The Lorax.  It is a very beautiful film to look at overall, but the story and the writing are just blah.  To me, there seemed to be an agenda for getting kids to care about the environment, almost as if this film were meant more as propaganda rather than entertainment.  Sure that’s important, but geez the message gets old quick.  I found myself bored to tears after 30 minutes and I noticed the kids were right there with me.  C

Rated PG-13 for drug content, thematic elements and some violent images
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

If you’ve ever wanted to possess a great knowledge of the man who put Reggae music on the map, you must check out this documentary about Bob Marley by Oscar-winning director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland).  This journey through the life of the iconic musician follows his short 36-year-long life on Earth and the legacy it has left behind.  Using interviews from family, band-mates and others in his life, as well as fantastic archival footage and dozens of recordings, you will find yourself with a new appreciation and deeper understanding of the music legend.  A

Le Havre: The Criterion Collection

Available on DVD and Blu-ray
French with English Subtitles

The internationally-acclaimed Finish director Aki Kaurismaki is famous for his style of deadpan comedies.  While not well-appreciated in America, his films are huge overseas.  His latest opus Le Havre won the 2011 FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for the Palme d’Or, but received very little attention here stateside.  The pic follows an aged shoe shiner who helps a young African boy evade the French authorities in the coastal city of Le Havre.  It’s a nice little tale that might not have you in stitches, but will surely put a smile on your face.  B+

Grimm: Season One
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sure this new NBC show about a descendant of the Brothers Grimm who uses his inherited abilities to take down unseen evil lurking among us sounds like just another fantasy/horror show trying to steal True Blood’s and Supernatural’s audiences, but once it gets going, it starts to develop its own unique identity and thus becomes a fun hour-long diversion.  At times the dialog will have you rolling your eyes, but you tend to accept it while waiting for the scares to pop up.  After this first season, I’m very interested to see where they’ll take this genre series.  B-

Full Metal Jacket: 25th Anniversary Edition
Rated R
Available on Blu-ray

I can’t think of a better way to honor this infamous Kubrick film about the Vietnam War than this amazing new blu-ray set by Warner Brothers.  Newly remastered and containing tons of new features including a 40-page book containing rare photos and production notes, this set is very worthy of replacing your 2007 blu-ray release.  A

The Preacher’s Wife
Rated PG for brief mild language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This classic 1996 remake of The Bishop’s Wife by Penny Marshall starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington is a bit sappy and a lot cheesy, but still a heart-warming tale of an angel who is sent down to Earth to help a preacher and his wife revive their marriage, and in turn begins to fall in love with the wife.  Watching it again now on blu-ray brought a few tears to my eyes just thinking about Houston’s demise, but I also found it to be a great way to remember the legendary singer.  B-