New Releases

Review: Runner Runner

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Runner Runner

Runner Runner is an enjoyable by-the-numbers tale of doublecross directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer). Scripted by Rounders and Ocean's 13 writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, it stars Justin Timberlake as Richie Furst, a Princeton whiz-kid who gets in over his head when he travels to Costa Rica to confront Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the online poker mogul who cheated him out of his college tuition.

Rounding out the cast are Gemma Arterton as Block's bewitching business manager/ex-girlfriend, and Anthony Mackie as the FBI agent pressuring Richie to turn informant.

Furman shoots from a handheld point of view with a narrow focus that makes the movie feel a little smaller than the lavish playboy surroundings where most of it takes place. The shaky-cam does little to liven up Affleck's wooden performance, which seems designed to prove his talents are best used behind the camera. At first jovial then progressively cruel, Block never expresses any emotions outside the range of Affleck's Dazed and Confused role as Fred O'Bannion.

Timberlake, on the other hand, is born to play the down-on-his-luck golden boy.  Relying on charisma, luck, and being just enough smarter than the other guy, his Richie is not far removed from his previous lead role as Will Salas in 2011's In Time, which at least had enough action and special effects to make it a more memorable film.

And that is the unfortunate bottom line for Runner Runner. The unusual title refers to a poker term for drawing two cards to make a winning hand, or in other words, being extremely lucky.  The movie is fun, it's brief at only 91 minutes ... and unfortunately it's unmemorable as anything but a minor vehicle for one star with the power to rate a better script and another with the cachet to direct his own efforts.

Review: Parkland

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Parkland

Some stories are just too big to tell in 90 minutes; one of them is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

This is the fundamental problem with Parkland, a well-intentioned attempt to take an intimate look at the Kennedy assassination from an unusual perspective. Parkland sets out to capture the chaos and emotional turmoil of November 22, 1963 and the three days thereafter, focusing on ordinary people -- Parkland Hospital staffers, FBI agents, and so on -- in extraordinary circumstances. But the film misses its target because the target is far too large.

Parkland wastes no time bringing us into the story. The movie opens only an hour or so before Kennedy is shot, and within minutes we're in a chaotic and bloody Parkland emergency room, where young surgical resident Jim Carrico (Zac Efron) frantically tries to save Kennedy. Assisting him is nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden). Carrico's efforts to revive the gravely injured president are futile, of course, but he works on Kennedy until the other attending physicians tell him to stop.

Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who was in the motorcade, tries to stay on top of many rapidly developing events. Sorrels meets with Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) and convinces the reluctant bystander to turn over his iconic home movie of the assassination to the authorities.

Fantastic Fest Review: Gravity

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Gravity"State of the art" is described on Wikipedia as "the highest level of development of a device, technique, or scientific field, achieved at a particular time." Ever so rarely, a film appears that advances the state of the art in filmmaking to the next level, becoming a benchmark by which other films are judged.

Recently (at least since the late 80s) this has been James Cameron's playground, as a string of blockbusters like The Abyss, Terminator 2, Titanic and Avatar all set new standards for the use of computer graphics in filmmaking. Of course, Steven Spielberg also joined him in the sandbox with Jurassic Park.

Now Alfonso Cuaron's heavily-anticipated Gravity sets a bar so high one could say without irony that it's in orbit. After more than two decades of computer-generated wonders in film, it is difficult to impress an audience that is already quite used to seeing every wonder a director can imagine. Computer-powered dinosaurs, spaceships, cars and robots make a trip to the cinema feel like stepping into The Matrix, but one thing that anyone with a lot of experience with video games can tell you is the processing power required increases exponentially as you add more objects to a scene. CG can do one object brilliantly. Various tricks allow Peter Jackson to create an army controlled by swarming algorithms or the zombies of World War Z to flow like water.

But there are shots in Gravity that prompt one to exclaim "God Himself made this film!" Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of objects crash into each other, ricochet, and break apart -- all while looking so detailed, so perfect, and each independently travelling along its own path.

Review: Enough Said

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James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said

Enough Said comes from the mind of writer/director Nicole Holofcener, whose works tend to focus on foibles and miscommunications among small groups of upper-middle-class characters. Some of her characters can be gratingly obtuse, yet always have a grain of something relatable about them. This movie differs from her earlier work in that it veers more towards the romantic comedy genre. It's still very obviously a Holofcener film, however.

Divorced masseuse Eva, played by the marvelous Julia Louis-Dreyfus, begins to date divorced museum worker Albert (the late James Gandolfini in his second-to-last film role), and attempts a friendship with new client Marianne (Catherine Keener). She also worries about her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway, webseries First Day), about to head off to college. These three relationships form the core of the film. Once Eva discovers that Marianne and Albert were once married, she decides not to tell either of them that she is involved with the other. What would a Holofcener movie be without things left unsaid?

Review: Don Jon

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don jon posterDon Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's feature directorial debut, riffs on the idea of the traditional romantic comedy by giving its leading man (Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the film) a life-dominating internet porn addiction. Though he holds fast to a squeaky clean gym/church/family routine and seems to be open to finding "the one," this sex-obsessed Jersey boy has no qualms about getting off whenever he can with the help of modern technology and a parade of anonymous women.

He also pursues real women as he prowls the bars each week (hence his "Don Jon" nickname), but only for one-night stands he can later brag about to his friends. Each Sunday, he nonchalantly confesses his activities to a priest, recites his penance while lifting weights and doing pull-ups, and then does it all again.

Jon's sin-and-repent cycle is knocked off course when he meets Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson, who does the blonde bombshell role perfectly). He falls for her purely based on her looks, but as opposed to the one-sided relationships he's used to having with the women he summons to his computer screen, Barbara has demands. She thinks he should further his education and get a better job. She wants their friends and family to meet. She loves seeing cute, dumb movies and makes him watch them, too.

At first Jon goes along with this new life plan, but one of her stipulations might be too much for him to handle. Barbara is appalled to find out he watches porn (even before she knows the extent of his habit) and tells him to stop. As beautiful as his new girlfriend is, Jon still craves the easy detachment of his longtime hobby, and it's soon clear that his porn addiction isn't so much a psychological condition as it is a signifier for the fact that he has no idea how to relate to people.

Because he is so emotionally stunted and Barbara's character is never given much to do besides be bossy while looking gorgeous, what follows is a journey that soon grows a little frustrating. It's hard to tell who Jon and Barbara really are -- do they even know? They saunter around with flashy confidence, but there's not a whole lot going on beneath the facade.

Fantastic Fest Review: Metallica: Through the Never

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Metallica: Through the NeverMy first thought on seeing an extended preview for Metallica: Through the Never was that it looked like Metallica's attempt to create for themselves an icon like Pink Floyd The Wall. On viewing the movie at Fantastic Fest, my impression was cemented by one particular scene where a rioting crowd faces off against a line of police in riot gear.  Director Nimród Antal foregoes the surreal animated scenes that marked The Wall's flights into fancy, but the thematic resonance is unmistakeably clear.

Chronicle's Dane DeHaan is Trip, a roadie for the band whom we see arriving before the concert on a skateboard. Told to stay nearby in case he is needed, Trip walks out into the arena where he watches as a time-lapse view of concert preparations is set to "The Ecstasy of Gold."

From there, the music almost never stops. As the concert launches into full swing, Trip is given a map and a gas can and told to go find a missing truck that contains something of vital importance for the concert. His mission, presented in cuts during and between Metallica's nonstop performance, takes him into a riot of heavy-metal proportions.

Filmed on location at two concerts in Canada (Rogers Arena, Vancouver, BC and Rexall Place, Edmonton, Alberta), Metallica: Through the Never is flashy, loud, gritty, violent, riotous and as revolutionary as Metallica's music.  Crews construct a statue of the goddess of justice that comes crashing violently to the stage as Lars Ullrich sings the words "Justice is gone" from "And Justice For All." An electric chair is suspended above the stage arcs with lightning from an array of Tesla coils in a display as awesome as it is violent. The entire concert is pandemonium akin to a show from the group Survival Research Laboratory.

Above, around, and through all this, Antal takes the audience through the concert as if it were a ride at Disney. The effort to edit as many as 30 cameras at once is phenomenal, but he makes it look effortless. Despite the inevitable comparisons, this is more a concert film than The Wall.  As a concert film, it invites no comparison. It is unbeatable. Metallica: Through the Never opens this weekend and is a must-see for Metallica fans.

Review: Baggage Claim

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Baggage Claim poster

Oh, Baggage Claim, I wanted to like you. I really did. A romantic comedy wherein a flight attendant (Paula Patton, Precious) attempts to meet up with ex-boyfriends in hopes she can get engaged before her sister's wedding in 30 days sounded like a fun proposition (though silly, certainly). Unfortunately, Patton can't carry this ridiculous film. I kept wishing that Jill Scott, wasted here as close friend Gail, was the lead instead.

As Patton's Montana reclined on a hotel sofa (BTW, this movie is like a feature-length ad for Renaissance Hotels) talking on a phone to Gail, it struck me as too obvious that there was no one on the other end of her prop phone as the camera filmed her on a soundstage. If Patton can't convince me that she's playing this character, well, I just don't know. She holds a simpering grin through about two-thirds of the film. We only really see her personality in spurts.

This is as much director David E. Talbert's fault as anyone's. The screenplay, which he wrote, is based on a novel -- which he also wrote. I sincerely hope Montana in the book is more of an actual character, because she's not here. (Now again, if Jill Scott had played her, maybe things would be different...)

The plot of Baggage Claim is sadly predictable -- as soon as Derek Luke's character was introduced, I could see where things were heading. William and Montana have been friends since childhood, have never dated, but live in the same Baltimore apartment building ... on the same floor, even. How convenient!

Scott, Jenifer Lewis as Montana's wedding-happy mom, and the airline support staff recruited to help Montana in her quest (played by La La Anthony and Affion Crockett among others) are the high points here. I'm happy to see Derek Luke in any film, really, and he gives an earnest performance in this film.

Review: Rush

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Rushhere have been all kinds of sports movies: ones that focus on teams coming together, teams facing mighty odds as underdogs, or a lone athlete and the story that built his/her legendary status. Recently, there has even been a film, Warrior, focused on two opponents but neither was a villain, putting the viewer at odds as to who to root for.

Rush focuses on two opponents as well, but it does something Warrior didn't, bringing a fresh spin on the sports movie genre. While focusing on the story of the opponents, Rush also manages to focus on the psyche of each individual and what really drives them as competitors. You understand so much about each of these two men, especially Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), who can't be seen as a simple "villain" to James Hunt's (Chris Hemsworth) "hero" because neither fits the role.

In the 1970s, Formula One Racing had just ascended to the ranks of the more popular sports in the world at the time, and at the height of that popularity, one man became the face of it. James Hunt was charismatic, handsome, carefree and in general the type of man that all men wanted to be. Bursting onto the scene was a hypercompetitive individual that couldn't have been more of a polar opposite of Hunt. Niki Lauda wasn't conventionally handsome, was curt with other drivers and not well liked. The feeling was often mutual. While there was a lengthy roster of drivers, every race seemed to boil down to these two men who captivated the world with their competitiveness, but few ever understood the respect these two men had for each other.

While the driving sequences are spectacular, they are secondary to the performances that the two leads accomplish in Rush. Brühl, at Ron Howard's direction, takes you into the mind of a competitor like no other sports movie ever has. You understand that he will let nothing stop him from achieving what he has worked so hard for, not even spending close to a minute in an 800-degree inferno of a car crash. He's not great at emotions, as his proposal to his future wife illustrates hilariously in a sad sort of way. No matter what you end up feeling about Niki Lauda, you can't ever think of his as a villain, because James Hunt never did.

At the same time, Hemsworth's turn as James Hunt is that of what you might think of any professional athlete. He chases women, drives away the ones closest to him, and competes for a championship not because he's worked for it, but because he feels like his presence alone is worthy of being named champion. Most of the movie is spent conveying the fact that Hunt hates that Lauda is constantly there, but the moments where his respect for Lauda comes through make this a remarkable sports movie about two competitors.

Review: Short Term 12

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Short Term 12

No one who sees Short Term 12 will be surprised that writer/director Destin Cretton spent two years working in a group home for at-risk teens.

A riveting story about such a home, the film feels so authentic and emotionally on target that it's obviously the work of someone with first-hand experience. Short Term 12 is, in a word, real.

And painfully so. Based on Cretton's 2008 short film of the same title, Short Term 12 pulls no punches as it tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), the twentysomething lead supervisor in a foster-care facility for kids whose worst enemies are their own families. All her charges are in a world of hurt, from Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a quiet but sometimes violent 17-year-old who's about to age out of the system, to Sammy (Alex Calloway), a perpetual flight risk who's more child than teen and who slumps into a deep depression when his therapist has all his dolls taken away.

Grace is dating one of her co-workers, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). The two have a solid long-term relationship; they also have no trouble separating their personal and professional lives, leaving their relationship at home while helping the kids.

Review: The Family

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The Family PosterA favorite cable television series in recent years for me has been USA Network's In Plain Sight about U.S. Marshals charged with relocating and protecting federal witnesses. The dramatization of people who must adjust to a new life with a new identity is engaging and thought provoking. How does a person not only leave behind their friends and relations, but also change their occupation or interests to avoid detection?

Based on by French crime fiction author Tonino Benacquista, writer/director Luc Besson's The Family provides darkly humorous insight of a former Mafioso and his family's existence within a federal witness program. When extortion and illegal activities are all you've known for your entire life, it's not easy to adjust to a different lifestyle -- even in the idyllic setting of the French Riviera or the historic and slower-paced Normandy.

Robert De Niro portrays Fred Blake/Giovanni Manzoni, who has a $20 million dollar bounty on his head after ratting out the boss to the Feds. Several years have passed since the Manzoni family had to leave their Brooklyn home and yet they still haven't quite given up old habits. Wife Maggie Blake (Michelle Pfeiffer) has a knack for setting off explosions and son Warren (John D'Leo) sets up extortion and bribery schemes in his school.

Only 17-year-old teen Belle (Glee star Dianna Agron) desires a somewhat normal life, with a fantasy of true romance to save her from her family's restrained existence. Meanwhile the family's handlers, including Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), keep a watchful eye on the Manzoni clan. Settling in doesn't go too well for the family, and it's not long before a flock of hitmen descend on their small hamlet to eliminate the Manzonis.

The casting of The Family is a mixed bag, with De Niro playing his typecast role with natural humor. Pfeiffer also nails it as a Brooklyn mafioso wife who misses the good life, yet loves her husband and children fiercely. Agron appears miscast as the daughter of a mafioso -- she's able to display the Manzoni sociopathic tendency towards rage and violence, but her perfect features and lack of a Brooklyn accent are glaring against the rest of the Manzoni family. At 27, Agron is outgrowing her ability to realistically portray a high-school teenager.

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