Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to February

february

It may only be February, and half of the country may still be buried under a foot of snow, but there’s a decidedly pre-summer feel to this month’s releases – the time of year when studios unleash a barrage of popcorn-friendly movies on audiences that aren’t deemed important enough for the summer season. Delayed blockbusters with big-name stars? Check. Unnecessary sequels to cult comedies? Check. Edgy comic book adaptations with breakout potential? Check and check. In fact, the February slate is so different from what we typically expect that instead of the usual hoard of Valentine’s Day shlock, women get a film about BDSM instead. How kinky.

“Jupiter Ascending”

Who: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, James D’Arcy and Sean Bean
What: A lowly caretaker who is actually intergalactic royalty teams up with a genetically engineered warrior to stop a tyrant from taking control of Earth.
When: February 6th
Why: It’s never a good sign when a movie gets postponed, especially one as big as “Jupiter Ascending,” but what really set off alarm bells was the decision to move it from a prime summer release date to the dead zone of February. The studio claims that the delay was to provide the Wachowskis with extra time to polish the visual effects, but that’s just Hollywood talk for covering up a deeper issue. Whether it’s because “Jupiter Ascending” isn’t very good, or because the sibling duo’s last film (“Cloud Atlas”) performed so poorly at the box office, there’s a reason why Warner Bros. suddenly lost confidence in the movie. And when you have Channing Tatum playing a half-werewolf bounty hunter, that’s bound to happen.

“Seventh Son”

Who: Ben Barnes, Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander
What: A young man is apprenticed to the local Spook to learn to fight evil spirits, and his first great challenge comes when the powerful Mother Malkin escapes her confinement.
When: February 6th
Why: If you thought the delay of “Jupiter Ascending” was bad, that’s nothing compared to “Seventh Son,” which has seen its release date change three times over the past two years. Originally scheduled for early 2013, the fantasy film – which is based on the first book in Joseph Delaney’s young adult series – actually boasts a really good cast, including Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Olivia Williams and Kit Harrington of “Game of Thrones” fame. Unfortunately, this looks like pretty standard sword-and-sorcery fare, with Bridges basically playing a variation of the Rooster Cogburn character from “True Grit” and “R.I.P.D.” Fans of the genre will probably get a kick out of it, but it’s unlikely that “Seventh Son” will have much life beyond that.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service”

Who: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong and Michael Caine
What: A veteran secret agent takes a young upstart under his wing just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius.
When: February 13th
Why: After satirizing the superhero genre with “Kick-Ass,” the creative team behind that film (director Matthew Vaughn, co-writer Jane Goldman and comic book writer Mark Millar) returns with an equally over-the-top take on spy films. Developed separately from the Millar-penned comic on which it’s loosely based, Vaughn’s big screen adaptation looks a lot more fun, bursting with the energy and humor that was lacking in Millar’s version. It’s incredible to think that Colin Firth was never considered for the James Bond gig, because he’s perfectly cast as the badass super-spy, while newcomer Taron Egerton is already garnering acclaim for his debut role. Early buzz for this one is through the roof, and if you’ve seen the trailer, then you can understand why.

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Blu Tuesday: Fury, The Book of Life and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Fury”

WHAT: It’s April 1945, and while World War II has all but ended, the U.S. military makes its final push through the Germany to wipe out the remaining Nazi resistance. On the front line is Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), a seasoned tank veteran who’s been fighting with the same crew since North Africa. But when their assistant driver is killed in action, clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is ordered to replace him, despite having no experience on the battlefield.

WHY: Dayid Ayer has always made macho movies, and it’s a trademark that he wears like a badge of honor in his WWII drama, “Fury.” Though it’s nice to see the writer/director taking a much-needed break from the crime thrillers that have dominated his career, “Fury” also represents” a more mature piece of work for him, showcasing his growth as a storyteller without abandoning the gritty style that sets the movie apart from the countless others in the genre. Revolving an entire film around a tank may not seem very compelling, but it’s actually what makes “Fury” such a refreshing take on the WWII conflict. Ayer captures the claustrophobia and helplessness of the whole tank experience, while the actors form a great camaraderie that feels every bit as genuine as the bond that real-life tank crews undoubtedly developed from spending so much time together. Though it doesn’t stray from the psychological horrors of warfare, “Fury” is most enjoyable when the titular vehicle is unleashed on the battlefield, including an edge-of-your-seat showdown between three American tanks and the bigger, stronger German Tiger tank, as well as a climactic standoff between Wardaddy’s crew and a battalion of SS soldiers. It’s fantastically intense stuff, delivering a raw and unflinching look at the brutality of WWII that stands as one of the best war movies of the past decade.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes over 50 minutes of deleted scenes and four featurettes covering production, the film’s authenticity and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Book of Life”

WHAT: The spirits La Muerte (Kate de Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a wager about which childhood friend – bullfighter/musician Manolo (Diego Luna) or heroic soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum) – will marry the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana). But when Xibalba interferes by tricking Manolo into the underworld, he enlists the help of his deceased family members to escape.

WHY: If you happened to catch any of the TV spots for “The Book of Life” – which were largely comprised of footage of the voice actors in the recording booth – you’d think that the studio was trying to hide a bad film behind famous faces like Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana. Thankfully, that’s not the case, because although “The Book of Life” is a pretty formulaic kid’s film, what it lacks in originality from a narrative standpoint, it makes up for with some gorgeous visuals, unique art design and a strong message. It also boasts some cool mariachi-style versions of popular songs by Radiohead, Mumford & Sons and more, though the film isn’t without its flaws. The story’s love triangle is so lopsided in favor of Manolo that it’s embarrassing, while the casting of Tatum (even if he’s just providing a voice) seems really insensitive considering there are plenty of Hispanic actors that would have been a better fit. Granted, they don’t have the same box office draw, but for a movie that’s so engrained in Mexican culture, “The Book of Life” should have taken the high road, even if it doesn’t have a drastic effect on the overall experience.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Jorge R. Gutierrez, a trio of featurettes on production, art direction and the soundtrack, a new short film and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Mortdecai”

Starring
Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky
Director
David Koepp

There’s no sugar-coating it: Johnny Depp is in a rut, and if he’s not careful, he could end up like Nicolas Cage really soon, because “Mortdecai” is bottom-of-the-barrel bad. Though the actor has earned criticism for his proclivity to play eccentric oddballs, he seems to be having a lot of fun here as the mustachioed title character. Unfortunately, he’s the only one, because this throwback to the goofy capers of the 1960s isn’t even remotely entertaining. In fact, it fails on just about every level, so committed to its ridiculous premise that it doesn’t bother to step back and recognize what an unholy mess it is. “Mortdecai” could have been the spiritual successor to Peter Sellers’ “Pink Panther” series, but it has more in common with Steve Martin’s terrible reboot.

Depp stars as Lord Charlie Mortdecai, a British art dealer who’s fallen on hard times. With his family’s estate in danger of bankruptcy, he agrees to help his old university friend, Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) – who just so happens to be in love with Mortdecai’s wife, Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) – with a murder case that’s linked to the theft of a lost Goya painting… for a finder’s fee, of course. Aided by his loyal manservant/bodyguard, Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany), Mortdecai launches an investigation into the missing masterpiece, only to discover that it may contain the code to a Swiss bank account filled with Nazi gold. Everyone wants the fabled Goya for their own reasons, including an American billionaire (Jeff Goldblum), a Russian mobster (Ulrich Thomsen) and a freedom fighter (Jonny Pasvolsky) intent on using the money to fuel his rebellion, but first, Mortdecai must prove that it even exists.

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Blu Tuesday: The Drop, Lucy and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Drop”

WHAT: When the Chechen-owned drop bar that he works at is robbed by a pair of amateur thieves, well-meaning bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) are tasked with finding those responsible. Meanwhile, Bob finds a wounded pit bull in a trash can and decides to adopt it, but when the previous owner (Matthias Schoenaerts) resurfaces looking for trouble, he must decide how far he’s willing to go to protect the mutt and the woman (Noomi Rapace) helping him care for it.

WHY: Adapted by esteemed crime writer Dennis Lehane from his own short story, “The Drop” doesn’t have the same cynicism as past adaptions of the author’s work, but it’s a grimy little crime drama that harkens back to the great Sidney Lumet films of the 1970s. This is a movie that places mood and character above all else, and though it comes with the undesirable label of being James Gandolfini’s final screen appearance, “The Drop” is a well-paced and expertly acted film that serves as a fitting end to one actor’s career and the exciting emergence of another. Gandolfini shines as the wannabe tough guy who thinks he deserves more respect than he gets, but this is Hardy’s movie through and through, delivering an unusually subdued turn that becomes more impressive by the minute as he carefully peels back each layer of his character. Director Michaël R. Roskam and Lehane also deserve a lot of credit for their respective parts in crafting the movie, because although it hits all the familiar beats of a slow-burning crime thriller, there are just enough small nuances that allow it to stand on its own. Hollywood doesn’t make too many movies like this anymore, but “The Drop” is a perfect example of why it should.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Michaël R. Roskam and author Dennis Lehane, there’s a collection of deleted scenes with option commentary and five production featurettes, including a profile on the late James Gandolfini.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Lucy”

WHAT: An American student (Scarlett Johansson) living in Taiwan is forced to become a drug mule for the mob. But when the experimental substance implanted in her stomach accidentally leaks into her system, it grants her the capacity to tap into her brain’s full potential and unlock new abilities.

WHY: On the surface, “Lucy” sounds like a typical Luc Besson film, complete with a kickass heroine and goofy premise. But while the movie starts off that way, it eventually devolves into a metaphysical mess that’s equal parts “Tree of Life,” “Limitless” and “Transcendence,” with a not-so-subtle nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though Besson is clearly intent on exploring deeper, philosophical themes with “Lucy,” he doesn’t seem to know what they are, or at the very least, able to convey them in a manner that doesn’t come across as just a bunch of gobbledygook tacked on at the end of a lifeless action thriller. The material prevents Johansson from doing anything other than look like a deer in headlights for 90 minutes, while Choi Min-sik is wasted as the one-dimensional villain and Morgan Freeman’s only purpose is to explain all the bullshit sciencey stuff. The film is also surprisingly short on action, which makes you question why Besson felt the need to package it like one of his usual genre movies at all, because although it’s nice to see the director stepping out of his comfort zone and taking bigger risks narratively, the problem with “Lucy” is that it none of it really works.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and a look at the science behind the film, namely the debate about the idea that humans only use 10 percent of their brains.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Movie Review: “The Wedding Ringer”

Starring
Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Alan Ritchson, Olivia Thirlby
Director
Jeremy Garelick

The premise for “The Wedding Ringer” has a blind spot the size of Texas. If someone were to actually do what Kevin Hart’s character does here, it would not be long before they ran into one of their former clients’ spouses, or a girl they hooked up with after the reception, or a family member of the wedding party (you get the idea), while pretending to be the new character. Not to mention, the movie wrings laughs out of a scenario where men spin a hideous web of lies to their wives-to-be as a means of impressing them, which is the worst possible way to start a marriage. It’s a house of cards, with a near-zero level of plausibility, and yet, “The Wedding Ringer” works in spite of all of these things. Hart and Josh Gad have great chemistry, the script is surprisingly smart for such a broad comedy (they don’t stoop to making the supporting characters dunces in order for the plot to work), and there is an underdog mentality to it that is intoxicating.

Doug Harris (Gad) has a problem. He’s about to get married to out-of-his-league Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), but he doesn’t have any friends, and therefore no best man or groomsmen. The wedding planner sniffs this out (Gretchen, conveniently, is still in the dark about this), and suggests that Doug meet Jimmy Callahan (Hart), who runs a business providing services for men who need a best man. Doug, however, doesn’t just need a best man: he needs a best man and a whopping seven groomsmen, something Jimmy has joked about but never executed before. The groomsmen Jimmy recruits are less than ideal, but Doug goes along with it given the circumstances. As Doug and Jimmy get to know each other – Jimmy has a strict ‘This is a business arrangement, and we are not friends’ policy – and as Gretchen’s family gets to know Jimmy, lines get blurred.

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