Movie Review: “The D Train”

Starring
Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Russell Posner
Directors
Andrew Mogul & Jarrad Paul

If you followed the news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, then you know that it was a very busy year for acquisitions, including Andrew Mogul and Jarrad Paul’s directorial debut, “The D Train.” Of course, not every movie that gets purchased at Sundance is a surefire hit, and based on the tepid reaction that the film received from attendees, it makes you question why IFC would spend a cool $3 million for the distribution rights. Though it boasts a pair of bankable stars in Jack Black and James Marsden, and features a surprising twist that’s better left unspoiled, this dark comedy about how far someone is willing to go to become popular falls disappointingly flat.

Black stars as Dan Landsman, a schlubby loser who works for an antiquated consulting firm in Pittsburgh and serves as the chairman of his high school’s alumni committee. After seeing popular classmate Oliver Lawless (Marsden) in a Banana Boat sunscreen commercial on TV one night, Dan devises a plan to fly out to Los Angeles and convince Oliver to make an appearance at their upcoming 20-year reunion in the hope that it’ll get more people to attend and earn him the respect of his peers. Dan doesn’t have any trouble tracking Oliver down, but when a wild night of partying takes an unexpected turn (hint: it gives the term “bromance” a whole other meaning), he becomes strangely infatuated with the struggling actor, leading to much bigger problems in his personal and professional life.

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Movie Review: “Maggie”

Starring
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Aiden Flowers
Director
Henry Hobson

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen hasn’t been as triumphant as it should’ve been. In addition to the abominable David Ayer picture, “Sabotage,” the former California governor has appeared in a number of disappointing efforts, including his charismatic cameos in the consistently underwhelming “Expendables” franchise. But for the first time in a long time, not only does Schwarzenegger star in a film worthy of his name, but one that’s way out of his comfort zone, lending considerable emotional depth to the deadly serious zombie drama, “Maggie.”

A few months after the necroambulist virus struck the nation, the rate of infection is beginning to dwindle. Day by day, there are less infected roaming the streets. In no way is the country returning to normal, though, with many families and loved ones still being torn apart by the disease. Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) is a Midwest father of three. His oldest daughter from a previous marriage, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), escapes from home after becoming infected with the virus in fear of harming her family. This doesn’t stop Wade from searching for his daughter, and once she’s found, Maggie is brought home. But she only has a few weeks left to live, and it’s up to Wade whether to have her quarantined or kill her himself before she “turns.”

That’s about as much plot as there is in director Henry Hobson’s film. Don’t expect Arnold to fight off zombies or search for the cure to his daughter’s illness. “Maggie” is driven far more by character than story. It’s a quiet, slow burn – albeit a little too slow at times. Even with a 95-minute running time, writer John Scott 3’s screenplay is pretty thin, and although that’s acceptable because it’s not the film’s priority, even for what it is, “Maggie” could have used a few trims and some tightening up.

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Blu Tuesday: Selma, Black Sea 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.

“Selma”

WHAT: When Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Council are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight in the civil rights movement, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act.

WHY: Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but very important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of audio commentaries – one with director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, and another with DuVernay, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick – there are behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s origins and production, some deleted scenes, a collection of newsreels and photos from the period, and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Black Sea”

WHAT: After he’s fired from his job at a marine salvage company, submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) assembles a group of former employees (half British, half Russian) to search the Black Sea for a Nazi U-boat rumored to be carrying approximately 80 million dollars in gold.

WHY: Submarines are the perfect setting for a thriller – they’re dark, claustrophobic and offer no hope of escape – which is why it’s so surprising that there aren’t more films that take advantage of them. Granted, there are probably more than you think, but very few are any good, and “Black Sea” can count itself among that exclusive group. Not only is the movie a welcome return to form for director Kevin Macdonald, who sort of fell off the map after his 2009 remake of “State of Play,” but it reaffirms why Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Law delivers yet another excellent performance as the under-pressure captain who sees the mission as his last chance at redemption, and he’s surrounded by a cast of reliable supporting players like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Smiley. The “us vs. them” mentality between the British and Russian crew members provides plenty of suspense as their greed and paranoia builds throughout the film, and while certain character actions don’t exactly make sense (as things go from bad to worse, the wrong people are blamed), “Black Sea” manages to stay afloat thanks to its engaging premise, solid performances and taut direction.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald and a short making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Starring
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany
Director
Joss Whedon

Seconds into the film, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is already overdoing it. It opens with an assault on a Hydra base, and the team is kicking ass, but with the exception of a fantastic shot straight out of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” it’s underwhelming, a more elaborately choreographed and at the same time less thrilling version of the battle sequence at the end of “The Avengers.” The ‘bigger is better’ mentality is to be expected, but what isn’t expected, or appreciated, is the “Transformers”-like fixation it has with breaking stuff (as in entire cities) for no reason, and worse, there are no consequences for doing so. On top of that, writer/director Joss Whedon’s normally snappy dialogue is woefully lacking. Whedon has said that he’s walking away from the Marvel universe after this (Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” are taking the reins on the next two “Avengers” movies), and after seeing “Ultron,” it makes sense; from the looks of things, this movie killed him.

Inside the aforementioned Hydra base is a gold mine of military weapons, both mechanical and human, created by Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). He’s used Loki’s scepter to give orphaned twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively) superhuman powers, namely (and again, respectively) super speed and all sorts of telekinetic abilities. The Avengers do not get any of Hydra’s data, but they do acquire the scepter, and in studying it, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the brilliantly stupid idea to convert the scepter’s alien power source into an artificial intelligence that will work to achieve world peace, an idea he’s had for years but has never been able to perfect. This time, it works, and the new consciousness, which he had nicknamed Ultron (James Spader), has a plan for peace on Earth. Unfortunately, his plan involves the extinction of mankind.

Wanda can get people to see things, namely their worst fears. We see the nightmares of everyone she touches, except for Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who goes on to do the most damage: he terrorizes a large city, the very thing he spent years of his life in exile in order to prevent. Of all the nightmares that the audience absolutely has to see, this is the one. Instead, we get Hulk’s reaction to his visions without context, which culminates in a ridiculous street fight between Hulk and Iron Man that does tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage (though it admittedly has a good laugh halfway through). Everything about this is wrong, and the opposite of what Whedon normally stands for as a storyteller. Just one line explaining that Stark will pay for everything, or that the Avengers are losing the people’s trust, would do. We get neither.

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Blu Tuesday: The Gambler, Inherent Vice 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 Gambler”

WHAT: After falling into debt with a pair of dangerous men, college English professor and degenerate gambler Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is given seven days to pay or else. When his mother (Jessica Lange) gives him the money to clear his debt, only to blow it at the casino instead, Jim is put in a precarious position when one of the loan sharks (Michael K. Williams) threatens the lives of his two students.

WHY: Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a curious beast. It’s based on a film that’s just obscure enough that a remake wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers, yet is well-regarded by those who have seen it. In other words, the 1974 original starring James Caan isn’t exactly holy ground, but there’s not much to improve on either, which makes this Mark Wahlberg vanity project feel every bit as irrelevant as the story it’s trying to tell. Wahlberg’s character is such a miserable asshole that it’s very difficult to identify with him, despite some punchy dialogue from writer William Monahan, and to make matters worse, the actor is terribly miscast in the role. At least the gambling scenes are handled with style and verve, dripping in tension and absolutely painful to watch. But while the movie does a great job of illustrating Jim’s self-destructive nature, it never digs any deeper into the root of the problem, which makes it seem fairly hollow as a result. “The Gambler” had all the right ingredients – a great cast, a talented director and source material that’s already proven to work – but it’s a disappointing misfire that fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise.

EXTRAS: There’s a collection of featurettes covering the production process (including the differences between the 1974 original and Rupert Wyatt’s remake, location shooting and costumes), as well as six deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Inherent Vice”

WHAT: Pothead private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of his free-spirited ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) and her real estate mogul boyfriend, Mickey (Eric Roberts), which may be connected to a series of other cases involving a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang.

WHY: After years of toying with my patience, Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the movie, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the film’s big joke, it’s not a very funny one. It feels complicated for the sake of being complicated, eventually becoming so mired in all the twists and pointless subplots that it doesn’t even know what it’s about anymore. Even worse than the gaps in logic is the punishingly long runtime, which is filled with dense, drawn-out conversations that go nowhere except lead to another similarly long-winded exchange. Joaquin Phoenix nearly holds the whole thing together with his amusingly daffy performance, but he’s the only bright spot in a movie that really should have been a lot more enjoyable.

EXTRAS: There’s a deleted scene and some fluffy promotional material, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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