HOME (animated, 2015)

March 26, 2015

home Greetings again from the darkness. Depending upon your expectations for animated films, you will either find this latest from DreamWorks to be nice entertainment for kids, or a bit too simplistic for adults. Twenty years ago Pixar ushered in a golden age of animation with the first Toy Story, and the grading curve was forever changed. If you can accept that not every animated film need be an instant classic, the odds are good that kids will find this to be a very enjoyable hour and a half.

Oh (yes, that’s his name) is the friendliest and most energetic of all the Boovs, a society of technologically advanced aliens who change color based on emotions (similar to a mood ring). The Boovs also excel at running from adversity – especially when their enemy Gorg is chasing. When Captain Smek decides his Boovs will take over earth, he orders the banishment of all humans to Australia (kind of funny when you think about the history of that continent). Left behind is one youngster named Tip (short for Gratuity Tucci, one of the oddest ever screen names for a kid) and her pet, Pig the Cat. It turns out both Oh and Tip are misfits in their own world, and are forced to team up so that Oh can redeem himself and Tip can be reunited with her mother.

The main (and obvious) themes are: stay true to yourself, accept others for what they are (even if they are different from you), and family is important and worth fighting for. Tip is kind of a confusing character because she knows how to drive a car, but admits to being a 7th grader originally from Barbados. Oh has no Boov friends because he is so darned personable and he is always making mistakes – usually due to his desire to connect with others. Captain Smek’s false confidence catapults him into a leadership position, based mostly on his ability to retreat from the difficult decisions. Even the villain Gorg (who looks/dresses like Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) is simply misunderstood.

As you would expect, there is humor throughout … most of it at a level that those under age 11 will appreciate (that’s not a bad thing). These laughs come courtesy of bubble wrap, a cookbook, awkward dancing, and a hover car that runs on fast food staples like Nacho Mama, Busta Lime frozen drinks, and Burrito Torpedoes. There is a recurring gag showing clumps of earthly items deemed unnecessary by the Boovs, and this gives adults in the audience something to track.

Crucial to the film’s success is the voice acting. Oh is voiced by Jim Parsons as an E.T. version of Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”. His twisted version of the English language (“sad-mad”) is good for a few chuckles, but mostly his eagerness and openness make Oh a character kids will care about. Rihanna voices Tip, and has at least 3 songs on the soundtrack. She does well in capturing the strength and vulnerability of this character who is on a mission to find her mother. Also fun is hearing Matt Jones as Kyle, the ‘is he or is he not’ friend of Oh. Fans of “Breaking Bad” will recognize Mr. Jones as Badger from that series. Not quite as effective are Jennifer Lopez as Tip’s mother and Steve Martin as Captain Smek. Mr. Martin especially could have brought more spark and color to his role.

Director Tim Johnson (Over the Hedge, Antz) took the source material from Adam Rex’s book “The True Meaning of Smekday” and delivered an animated film with a refreshing approach – it doesn’t feature violence, inappropriate humor or a smart-ass kid that disrespects adults. It’s a shame that the unique color palette is quashed by the 3-D technology … and what’s up with the awful title? … but overall, this is one the kids can enjoy (especially if they are struggling to fit in).

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE BARBER (2015)

March 23, 2015

barber Greetings again from the darkness. There is a theory that to catch a killer, one must think like a killer. Young John McCormack is in the next room when his detective father, frustrated at being unable to put away a serial killer, commits suicide. Flash forward twenty years, and John is now himself a police officer intent on finishing his father’s work … and gaining a bit of revenge in the process.

The story picks up as John (Chris Coy) has tracked Francis Visser to a small town, where he is known as Eugene the town barber, a gentle and dignified friend to all. Scott Glenn portrays Eugene as a slow-shuffling elderly gentleman who doesn’t much appreciate profanity, rudeness or poor decisions. He is even friends with the local police chief (Stephen Tobolowsky), who accepts Eugene’s word on just about any topic.

The cat and mouse game between John and Eugene plays a bit like Sleuth (1972) where each participant sees himself as smarter than the other. Only this time, there are 17 previous murders to go along with the developments after Eugene agrees to mentor John on the fine art of stalking, planning and killing without evidence.

Beginning with a gypsy proverb: “You have to dig deep to bury your father”, the film seems to use that quote figuratively and literally, as being buried alive plays a role alongside the detective father’s ruinous obsession. Supporting work is provided by Kristen Heger, as John’s co-worker (and more), Olivia Taylor Dudley as the waitress looking to John for fun, and Max Arciniega as Eugene’s barber shop employee.

More attention to the John vs Eugene piece, and a little less to the various sub-plots, could have tightened up this thriller and elevated it to an even more suspenseful level. Mr. Glenn and Mr. Coy are both excellent, and at their best when sharing a scene. It’s a nice first feature from director Basel Owies, who has an eye for nuanced characters with a dark side.

watch the trailer:

 


MAN FROM RENO (2014)

March 22, 2015

man from reno Greetings again from the dark. It’s been awhile since we have seen a turtle movie that didn’t also feature pizza and nunchucks. While it’s true that the endangered exotic turtles in director Dave Boyle’s neo-noir potboiler don’t live in the sewer or wear masks, they do play a key role in his multiple-plot murder mystery co-written with Joel Clark and Michael Lerner.

This nifty little web of clues and McGuffins centers on mystery writer Aki (Ayako Fujitani) and a small town Sheriff (Pepe Serna), and starts with a foggy night on a nearly deserted road. From there we get murders, turtles, a night of passion, deceit, paparazzi, secrets, and a rich Brit and his burly henchmen. And if that’s not enough, there is a professional impostor who takes identity theft to the extreme.

With the back and forth between English and Japanese dialogue, the film has the feel of a foreign film, yet it’s filmed mostly in San Francisco. The use of mood lighting and atmospheric sets add an element of intrigue. Heck, even one small hotel room gets used over and over for a variety of scenes. It’s a fun movie to watch and play along with.

Ms. Fujitani and Mr. Serna are both excellent in their roles, and support work comes courtesy of Kazuki Kitamura (The Raid, Killers), Hiroshi Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima), Rome Kanda, and Derrick O’Connor (Lethal Weapon 2). This was a favorite on the film festival circuit last year, and despite the use of a couple of false endings, it is one most fans of mysteries will enjoy.

watch the trailer:

 


LOADED (2015)

March 22, 2015

loaded Greetings again from the darkness. Road trips are one of the most common movie genres thanks to creative freedom with characters, settings and locales. The first feature film from writer/director Chris Zonnas give us the reunion of three old high school buddies as they battle current and past personal demons while driving from San Diego to San Francisco.

Reza (Kumail Nanjani) and Ethan (Patrick John Flueger) get a call from the father of their friend Alex (Andrew W Walker) who asks that they deliver his son to a rehab facility for treatment of his out of control drug and alcohol addiction. Of course, Alex has no interest in checking in, and most of the trip is spent watching the three age thirty-ish “boys” squabble about how pathetic the others are … all while expressing frustration and disappointment in their own life.

Alex was born with the proverbial silver spoon, and instead of finding his own path, he dulls his daily life with hard drugs and booze. Ethan was a once promising musician whose band had success with an early hit, but was unable to build momentum, and instead split up. With his broken dreams, Ethan heads half-heartedly into real estate. Reza seems to be the most successful with his career in public relations, a pretty wife, and a lovely home. Instead, the pressure from job and wife eats away at him on a daily basis.

Their trip has them crossing paths with a creepy mechanic (Robert R Shafer) who accepts an unusual form of payment for repairs, a tough-minded Sheriff (Michael Shamus Wiles) whose military background drives a practical approach to an unfortunate situation, and a sweet “lady truck driver” named April (Alexandra Holden) who develops a crush on Ethan when he kills it on Karaoke night.

For some reason, the trailer positions this as a rowdy comedy, when in fact it is mostly a drama with a few quips sprinkled in. There are a few missteps in continuity due mostly to the Ethan/April interlude – something that seems out of place as the boys are struggling to keep Alex away from hard drugs and an extreme solution. Still, Patrick John Flueger is the find here. He flashes some real acting chops (and a nice singing voice) and seems poised for a significant step into quality roles. His resemblance to Chris Hemsworth probably doesn’t hurt his chances.

Even if he hasn’t created an instant classic, Mr. Zonnas deserves credit for putting three guys together on a road trip and avoiding slapstick and gross-out humor, while instead focusing on emotional struggles that come with maturity and real life.

watch the trailer:

 


BACKCOUNTRY (2015)

March 21, 2015

backcountry Greetings again from the darkness. When the poster for a new movie compares itself to a genuine classic like JAWS, it immediately evokes skepticism and doubt. The first feature film from writer/director Adam MacDonald is based on a true story and somehow blends elements of horror and man vs. nature into a suspense-filled, gory, survivalist tale of a messy relationship.

Alex (Jeff Roop) has romantic visions as he and girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) head off into a Canadian Provincial Park for backpacking and camping. Alex can’t wait to show his citified girl his favorite lake lookout … the place he used to hike in his youth. It doesn’t take long for the cracks to start showing- both in the relationship and in Alex’s outdoorsman skills. With the slow build of dread, we know the couple is headed for something unpleasant … thanks to the preview, and the fact that a movie about a relaxing camping trip would be pretty boring.

The Park Ranger (Nicholas Campbell) just shakes his head as Alex refuses his offer of a trail map … a not so subtle jab at men for never asking directions. That combined with Alex poking fun at Jenn’s road flare, bear spray and cell phone usage provide the foreshadowing necessary for any viewers who appreciate being told where the story is headed. After a canoe ride, the couple hikes to the camp site where they encounter their first brush with nature: a rugged Irish guide (Eric Balfour) who offers his catch of the day served with a heavy dose of machismo. We are left to wonder if and when and how this creepy dude might again appear.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time until the couple is lost and we (and they) realize that’s the least of their concerns. See, their lack of communication has landed them right in the middle of black bear country … hungry black bears. A couple’s worst nightmare (a weekend with an incompatible partner) turns into a camper’s worst nightmare (being hunted by a bear). It’s at this point that Ms. Peregrym takes over the movie and we finally have someone to pull for.

Director MacDonald does follow the Jaws template in teasing us with danger and not showing the bear until deep into the movie, but any other comparison would be quite a stretch. Still, there is plenty of tension and we even get that odd line between horror and humor – involving Jenn’s diamond grab in the heat of the moment. Nothing is held back in the fight between man and bear, and we see more than enough in the aftermath.

The park makes for an incredibly beautiful setting and a stunning backdrop for hiking and canoeing and bear fighting. The film could have been titled “Dummies Go Camping”, but really the commentary on modern relationships is probably more telling than the reminder of Nature’s power. Finally, a tip of the cap to Mr. MacDonald for including the Dwight Twilley song “Looking for the Magic” in the initial car trip … great song and fitting to the theme.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GUNMAN (2015)

March 20, 2015

gunman Greetings again from the darkness. Sean Penn becomes the latest addition to the AARP action hero club … a very crowded club these days. Unfortunately for Mr. Penn, he lacks the smirky charm of Bruce Wills, the uber-cool of Denzel Washington, and he fails to generate the empathy of Liam Neeson. He simply doesn’t come across as a very likable guy, and certainly not someone we can root for.

Based on the novel of Jean-Patrick Manchette, the movie starts out in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Penn is a mercenary disguised as part of a mining security detail. The first 20 minutes are convoluted and introduce numerous characters and sub-plots that leave us wondering if there are any good guys here … other than Penn’s idealistic doctor girlfriend played by Jasmine Trinca. A sure sign of a weak script is a film that is bookended by “newscasts” to explain both what is going to happen as well as what just happened.

Pierre Morel directed the first Taken movie, and his cast is stellar: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance. Somehow that combination delivers a hokey, over-acted, cheesy dialogue mess featuring absurd shoot-outs and action sequences that try to convince us Penn is some kind of quasi-superhero. His transformation from geopolitical hit-man to humanitarian is tough to buy, and it’s downright chuckle-inducing to see the times he manages to show off his sculpted torso. We can only assume his personal trainer received a bonus for each shirtless scene.

The story bounces from Africa to London to Barcelona to Gibraltar and back to Barcelona. It does include the best use of a live bull so far this year, though the actual bullfighting is somehow one of the least gruesome segments of the entire film. The film isn’t as sneaky as it thinks it is in making a statement about multinational corporations raiding Third World resources. Evidently, the message is that former assassins can be forgiven if they are re-born as committed to humanitarian causes, but capitalistic companies cannot possibly justify their work in impoverished areas.

All of the above could be shrugged off if so many wasted opportunities didn’t consistently frustrate. Penn has scenes with all of the other actors mentioned above, but there is almost no interaction between the others. Why no confrontations between Idris and Javier? How about one sequence with Penn, Javier and Winstone squaring off? So many fun actors, but so little cross-over. Frustration may be the best overall description for this one, and it encompasses everything from script to dialogue to camera work.

watch the trailer:

 


TWO MEN IN TOWN (2015)

March 18, 2015

two men in town Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rachid Bouchareb, a long time festival favorite, has taken the general story of writer/director Jose Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title and relocated it from France to a New Mexico border town. It touches on many elements such as rehabilitation of criminals, small town justice, human personality traits, freedom and justice, and conversion to Islam.

Opening with the silhouette of a brutal murder against the sunset in a New Mexico desert, the film has a western feel replete with the sense of doom and impending showdown. Forest Whitaker stars as Garnett, a paroled man who has just been released after serving 18 years for killing a deputy. Despite a life of crime that began when he was 11 years old, Garnett was a model prisoner who obtained his GED and mentored others while becoming a converted Muslim. His words make it clear he wants to put his old life behind and start fresh – however, his actions show he still struggles with explosive anger issues.

In a move that seems counterintuitive, Garnett is confined while on parole to the county in which he killed the deputy. The local sheriff (Harvey Keitel … who else would it be?) sets about making things difficult for Garnett, and expresses anger at his release while the “deputy is still dead”. The idealistic parole officer is played by Brenda Blethyn, so the stage is set for the clash of philosophies: trust and rehabilitation vs historical behavior and justice. Adding one more challenge to Garnett’s new world is the presence of his old crime boss played by Luis Guzman, who of course, wants him back in the business.

While many folks all over the globe struggle endlessly to find love; Garnett is 2 days out of prison when he falls for the local banker played by Delores Heredia. Herein lies the problems with the movie. The love connection just happens too quickly. Guzman is never the ominous presence of a truly bad guy. Keitel only gets to offer glimpses of his disgust at Garnett’s freedom. These three characters are all severely underwritten despite the efforts of three fine actors.

If not for the terrific performance of Forest Whitaker, the film would fall totally flat. It’s his screen presence that keeps us watching, hoping against all odds that he will find the peace he so desperately seeks. There is a wonderful scene with Whitaker and Ellen Burstyn, and a couple of the scenes with Whitaker and Blethyn are powerful, but the other pieces just never pack the punch necessary for this one to fully click.

watch the trailer:

 


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