Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie
Directed by Michael Bay (Transformers)
Rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use

    Apparently based on a true story, Pain & Gain tells the story of three moronic but ambitious body builders in Florida who jump head first into a kidnapping and extortion scheme that goes terribly wrong.  Unlike my slam on the recent home entertainment release of Gangster Squad, this story is apparently mostly true.  I’m sure liberties were taken and blanks were filled in with a lot of comedy, but these events did actually take place.  That three incredibly buff guys with not one brain between them could get as far as they did is staggering. 

    Billed as a low budget film by tentpole director Michael Bay (the movie is estimated to have only cost $25 million to make), Pain & Gain still looks like a bloated budget Hollywood picture.  The supporting cast, including Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Tony Shalhoub and Rob Corddry, turn in solid and believable performances, in spite of the subject matter.  I am especially impressed though with Wahlberg and Johnson who pretend to be the way many on the outside believe them to be in real life.  This is a brave feat and they dig into their roles with everything they’ve got. 

    What works best here is the extreme amount of comedy, even in the face of disgusting human behavior.  For instance, after a grisly crime, they stop to pump biceps, as if drawing power and emotional strength from the iron.  It’s as funny as anything I’ve seen this year, although I’ll admit that not everyone in the theater was laughing as hard as me. 

    The biggest problem with the film is that it is far too long at 130 minutes.  I expect that length from a big action film or an even a short epic, but for a  crime comedy it is far too excessive and it shows.  If this film were directed by almost any director other than Bay, I can guarantee the movie would be easily missing 20-30 minutes. 

    I also found there to be some little, almost unnoticeable inaccuracies.  I remember an old story about how David Lee Roth used to ask for no brown M&Ms in his technical guide, not to be a diva but to make sure the specs were followed precisely for safety reasons.  I feel the same way here.  If there are little tiny things wrong factually, how much liberty was taken by the filmmakers in the making of their “true story.”  Since its not a well-known tale then perhaps I’ll never know.  But I still have my doubts on how much is fact and how much is fiction.  B

New in Home Entertainment – April 23, 2013

New in Home Entertainment

April 23, 2013

Gangster Squad
Rated R for strong violence and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

We all know that the phrase “based on a true story” can be exaggerated but Gangster Squad just might be the worst abuse of that moniker that I’ve ever seen.  That being said, this overly-stylish little gangster movie about the notorious Los Angeles kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and a group of cops that take him on is a nice bit of mindless entertainment, but nothing more.  Overall, the performances are uninspired even though the actors look like they might have had a fun time filming.  The one positive note is that it makes me want to revisit one of my favorite crime dramas, The Untouchables, which I will most likely do this coming weekend.  C+

Promised Land
Rated R for language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Matt Damon and John Krasinski co-write and co-star in this little indie about a natural gas salesman (Damon) who goes into a small American town in order to convince them to allow his company to tap into their resources only to find opposition from a young out-of-towner (Krasinski) who is determined to thwart his every effort.  There are a lot of surprises here, especially given the subject matter, that lend to a very entertaining experience that is slightly less educational and preachy than it looks from the outside.  Hal Holbrook lends a nice voice to the film as a local who is not convinced of the company’s sincerity while Rosemary DeWitt plays the single girl in town forcing the two leads into a very unconvincing and contrived love triangle.  Damon and Krasinski are both terrific as the commercial arch enemies.  So while the film might look like a green-skewed message movie, it ends up just being an interesting story with a good cast and some nice twists.  B+

The Central Park Five

Not Rated
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Documentarian Ken Burns, famous for his award-winning stories about American history, tackles a great injustice played upon five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were arrested and convicted for raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989.  They spent between 6 and 13 years in prison until evidence proved them innocent.  As expected from Burns, this is well-made doc that will both infuriate and possibly reconfigure your paradigm about our justice system.  It flat out made me angry and helpless at the same time.  A


Starring James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson
Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language

    A young UK art auctioneer (McAvoy) gets entangled with a group of criminals (led by Cassel) when he protects a hugely valuable piece of art from being stolen by the crafty gang.  After the foiled heist and a bit of torture, they force him into hypnotherapy by a beautiful young therapist (Dawson) to try to remember where he might have put the painting once they realize that an injury sustained during the robbery has left him with amnesia. 

    I was shocked to see a Danny Boyle film released with such little fanfare.  After all, he is one of the most respected directors of our time and his films are usually so enjoyable.  This one saw very little attention and they didn’t even hold a press screening, which gave me a bad feeling about what I was about to watch.

    The good news is that while the film has no chance of becoming a hit – it is still somewhat interesting.  Boyle has a signature style that captures your attention and doesn’t let go until the very end.  The bad news is that the subject matter isn’t nearly as enticing as you think its going to be after the first act. 

    The performances here are all solid and really showcase the actors’ talents.  I’m convinced that Boyle has a real gift for getting exactly the right performances from his casts and this film is no exception.  In addition, his pacing is phenomenal.  Yes the production feels a little ADD, but what a way to dress up a movie. 

    That being said, the story itself is where the film suffers.  I love the idea of art theft, but the movie is really about hypnotherapy and the twist that leads to the third act (for which I can’t disclose).  Unfortunately, by the time the third act came around I lost empathy for all of the characters and just wanted to see how they’d survive or meet their doom.  I wasn’t cheering for anyone.  When that happens, you are ultimately taken out of the picture and, in my opinion, just wasting time.  C+

New in Home Entertainment – April 9, 2013

New in Home Entertainment

April 16, 2013

Django Unchained
Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

In Django Unchained, a freed slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) helps the man who freed him (Christoph Waltz) with some bounty hunting in exchange for a hand in getting back his wife from a notorious slave owner (Leonardo DeCaprio).  If you’ve been in a box and aren’t familiar with writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s unique style, then fair warning – his films can be offensive to some.  If you are a fan of his work or just enjoy edgy movies – then you should love his newest western.  It is incredibly violent but still extremely fun to watch.  The jokes will hit you from all sides as will a few blood splatters.  I found this to be about as entertaining as you can get and was excited to see the film take home a couple of Oscars for both Screenplay and a supporting actor trophy for Waltz.  A

Unrated but contains graphic violence and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Local Houston area film maker Larry Wade Carrell writes, directs and stars in this terrific little indie horror B-movie about a mentally disturbed man (Dylan Horne) who goes on a killing spree when a tragedy occurs with his loving young niece (Grace Powell).  Sure its a genre movie with a low budget, but its great to see how good a local project can get with limited dollars and only one star (Michael Biehn) in the credits.  The overall production is more than decent and the pacing of the story makes it one you should check out when reaching for your next horror film.  B

Future Weather
Available on DVD

Yet another good little indie is this film by Jenny Deller about a brilliant young 13-year-old girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) whose mother abandons her leaving her only $50 to fend for herself.  With a reluctant grandmother (Amy Madigan) to care for her and a caring school teacher (Lili Taylor) to inspire her, she become a responsible adult much sooner than she should.  Sure its a little Lifetime-y, but if you are in the mood, this is a well-acted, well-written story that most will find engaging.  B

Repo Man: The Criterion Collection
Rated R
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Alex Cox’s cult classic about punks, capitalism and an alien invasion is getting the Criterion Collection in this loaded set.  In a career-making performance, Emilio Estevez is a young hoodlum who starts repossessing cars to make a few bucks when he attempts to take back a car with a hefty reward and something deadly in the trunk.  The film is a crazy and sometimes incoherent mess, but it sure is interesting and keeps you on your toes.  If you are a fan you will love this set which includes a new 2K digital transfer, a collectors book and more special features than I’ve ever seen on a single disc.  B-

New in Home Entertainment – April 9, 2013

New in Home Entertainment
April 9, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson
Rated R for brief sexuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Late last year when I heard Bill Murray was going to be in a biopic about President Franklin D. Roosevelt I immediately thought that one of my favorite actors would be the talk of the town come awards time.  Boy was I wrong.  This little indie about the indiscretions of the great leader has some potential, but rather than living up to that potential, it turns into one of the most dreadfully boring movies in recent memory.  The movie comes in at 94 minutes but the thing plods along so slowly that you are lucky if you fall asleep and unlucky if you try hard not to and succeed.  The performances are merely adequate and while the production itself is quality, the directing by veteran Roger Michell (Notting Hill) is just painful to sit through.  C-

Planet Ocean
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

From Yann Arthus-Bertand (Home) comes this spectacular straight-to-video documentary about the ocean with a story that is unique among its green-themed colleagues.  Visually stunning, the film is intended to drum up support for a movement, but rather than just say “look how pretty our planet is – please save it” this doc goes into scientific details that are much intended for a more educated and open-minded audience.  Exploring the natural mysteries of the ocean as well as its relationship to humans and commerce, the movie will end up making you feel much more intelligent than before you sat down to watch it, and without the preachiness of other recent nature docs.  This film was presented to the leaders of the Rio+20 conference in June 2012 and is sure to be a staple in science classrooms around the world.  A

John Dies at the End

Rated R for bloody violence and gore, nudity, language and drug content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

When a new street drug emerges that allows its users to travel across time and dimensions starts to have some undesirable side effects, two college dropouts attempt to save mankind from a very weird invasion.  Normally I would have never even watched a film like this but seeing Paul Giamatti as an actor and executive producer piqued my interest.  Unfortunately, I found the film to be overly bizarre and hard to follow.  Also, I am convinced that the filmmakers were trying too hard to make a cult classic that they forgot to create an enjoyable experience.  It seemed to me that much of the humor was completely random and that current street drugs might have taken part in the actual writing of the project.  Ultimately it feels like a student film that got lucky enough to have an A list actor show up on the set.  C-

Ginger & Rosa

Ginger & Rosa
Starring Elle Fanning, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks and Annette Bening
Directed by Sally Potter
Rated PG-13 for mature disturbing thematic material involving teen choices – sexuality, drinking, smoking and for language

    Ginger and Rosa are two teenage girls growing up in London during the 1960s, trying to figure themselves out as well as the world around them.  In the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis, as well as family strife at home, Ginger must come to terms with her lousy choice in friends and her less than ideal parents. 

    In spite of coming in at only 90 minutes, this little indie feels oh so long, mostly due to its extremely uncomfortable subject matter.  For half of the film you wonder where they are going with the story and then the second half you wish they hadn’t gone there.  I don’t want to give anything away, but I think its safe to say that this movie takes its audience to a pretty miserable place. 

    That being said, its not a horrible film just because its not an entertaining one.  Elle Fanning is budding into an exceptional actress and if she keeps turning in these kinds of performances she just might beat her sister Dakota in the race to win an Oscar.  The rest of the cast, even while playing very ugly characters, also turn in great performances. 

    Ultimately this film is about loss of innocence as seen through the eyes of a young girl.  Not maybe in the way these stories are traditionally told, but definitely in regard to a naive teenager coming to the realization that adults lie and scheme and also make huge, huge mistakes that manage to drag down everyone around them. 

    The biggest warning I must give here is that you must be in the mood for a film such as this.  Personally, I wasn’t, and it made a huge difference in my overall enjoyment, making it more of an intellectual exercise rather than a great or even decent movie-going experience.  C+ 

New in Home Entertainment – April 2, 2013

New in Home Entertainment

April 2, 2013

The Sweeney
Rated R for violence and language throughout and some sexual content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Based on an old 70’s UK TV show which most Americans will have never heard of, The Sweeney is the name of an elite group of police officers tasked with taking out armed robbery and violent crime in the streets of London.  Led by a tough old brute, played by Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast), the group of cops will do anything to take down the bad guys, even if it means bending or breaking a few rules.  Winstone and his team are a lot of fun to watch, even if the plot is completely predictable and the the dialog needs a translator, or at least subtitles, to help navigate the way.  Overall the film is likable and will satisfy most fans of British crime dramas.  B-

To the Arctic
Rated G
Available on DVD and Blu-ray/Blu-ray 3D

This short IMAX documentary explores the arctic by following the lives of a mother polar bear and her two cubs as well as a group of walrus and caribou.  You get the feeling that the walrus and caribou were just there to fill time since they probably didn’t have enough polar bear footage, but even if that is the case, the film is still a decent enough nature doc.  The photography, especially the daring underwater footage, is spectacular and really looks great on a big home theater system.  Too bad the preachy narration by Meryl Streep starts to get annoying very fast. They could have made a simple and impactful point by showing their example of arctic ice melting, but instead opted to pelt the audience over the head with climate change talk that essentially states “what part of this are you idiots not getting?”  I wish they had an audio track that simply muted Streep and boosted the many Paul McCartney songs placed throughout.  B-

The Sandlot: 20th Anniversary Edition
Rated PG for some language and kids chewing tobacco
Available on Blu-ray

Yes, The Sandlot was released on Blu-ray just two years ago, but since it’s now 20 years old I guess we need it again.  The film itself is a great tribute to youth and baseball and its hard not to find some nostalgia while watching.  I am surprised that they didn’t put together some great special features here to make this new edition stand out a bit, like maybe a reunion commentary track, but then again, I’m not sure I have enough interest to do anything except watch the movie again.  B

Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War
Available on DVD

I remember the ads for this Time Life miniseries running on television so many years ago, and now, decades later, I finally got the chance to see this 26 episode documentary covering the entire length of the Vietnam War.  I really only intended to watch a few episodes, but since most of them run under a half-hour, and because the series is so engrossing, I managed to sit back and watch the whole thing in one long sitting.  It is a fascinating look at the war that cost us way too many American lives and really dives into the good, the bad and the ugly of the conflict.  The set is dated for sure, but that only adds to its authenticity and impact.  A