On DVD & Blu-Ray: January 13, 2014

Though not initially overcome with excitement for this project the good word of mouth and box office success increased my interest in the latest from director Lee Daniels. This lack of excitement doesn't come from anything more than the fact I didn't really enjoy Daniels' last effort, The Paperboy. I completely expected to be intrigued by that film as it seemed a modern film noir with plenty of genre elements at play with solid actors like John Cusack and Nicole Kidman doing interesting work, but instead it was a disjointed mess of a movie that not even the renaissance of Matthew McConaughey could bring out of the gutters. With The Butler Daniels has decided to take on a different beast entirely and tell a historical drama but from the point of view of a quiet perspective, someone who stood in the rafters and saw time pass, decisions be made and did little on his own accord to influence those decisions other than simply be who he was. That he continued to fill a subservient position for such a period of time did more to change the hearts of those he never imagined and seemingly much more than the countless sit-ins and protests that we hear about when schooled on the civil rights movement. While Lee Daniels' The Butler is littered with stars, recognizable faces, names and historical events it is first and foremost the story of a man not many knew of before this film shined a light on and Forest Whitaker does a superb job of bringing that mans story to life. Add in the elements of his eldest son taking the opposite route and becoming entangled in those events we now recall with shame as played by up and comer David Oyelowo and an imperfect marriage that only comes to be appreciated in the correct way with the necessary passing of time and perspective as portrayed so effortlessly by Oprah Winfrey and at the very least have an engaging, very interesting film. Just because a movie is "based on a true story" (which if you do a little reading, you'll find much of this film has been manufactured) though and concerns an exceptional human being doesn't mean the film based on he or she will come out the same way. Lee Daniels' The Butler is not a great film necessarily, but it is a good one and yes, an important one. Full review here. B

I've only seen Brian DePalma's 1976 Carrie once before, last Halloween for that matter, and I had the same reaction to it I do to many "classics" that I've seen removed so far from when they were originally released that an honest reaction is hard to have and to speak negatively about a film deemed with that title, whether it has "horror" in front of it or not is typically taken as heresy. The film was fine enough for what it was and more than anything I enjoyed actually seeing those iconic moments put into context as well as featuring early performances from Sissy Spacek and John Travolta. Still, I wondered what we might get from an updated version of the story as the source material has always been an exaggerated twist on the effects of bullying and with that being a hot topic as of late not only would a re-telling of Stephen King's novel be timely and introduce the material to a new generation but it might also be able to instill some faith in these younger audiences of today that grew up on countless Japanese horror remakes and found footage flicks that there is more to the genre than these kinds of films and that scary movies don't have to be about the gimmick, but can actually relate to the issues of the real world. That being said, since 2003's re-make of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre there have been a slew of re-makes giving fresh eyes to the horror classics of yesteryear (or more the studios trying to make money off familiar brand names) and though the majority of them have been plagued by generally bad reception this new incarnation of Carrie is playing in a different arena because it at least seemed to have a few things going for it the others didn't. To say this is to refer to director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don't Cry) and her claim that her version of the film would be more of a strict adaptation of King's novel rather than pulling from the DePalma film. The added value of having such a prestigious cast that includes Chloƫ Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore didn't hurt much either. And with that all being said, this new imagining never comes off as bad or disrespectful, but in fact is fairly horrifying and effective if not for the fact it's overly familiar and ultimately a little pointless. Full review here. B-

Fruitvale Station is a difficult movie to deal with. It is a very moving picture that doesn't attempt to manipulate its audience or contrary to what you may believe going in, have an agenda more than telling the basic story of what happened on those fateful early hours of New Years Day 2009. Since its premiere at last years Cannes Film Festival there has been nothing but positive buzz swirling around the film and typically I'm speculative of these films that seem to garner unanimous praise based simply on the idea that if I look too much into the critical reception I will expect too much from the film rather than being able to take it in for what it is and what it was meant to be. I mention this because despite the fact I tried to avoid chatter around the film it is pretty impossible if you follow any film site, but also because none of that hindered my viewing experience. There is something very pure about the journey this film takes you on despite its content highlighting the downfalls and tragedy of a young black man in suburban America. Director Ryan Coogler makes his feature film debut with this simplistic, no frills approach to a story that needs nothing extra to make it as emotionally charged as the simple facts of the story leave us feeling. I go to the movies to see interesting stories, meet interesting characters and if I'm lucky become emotionally invested in the conflicts these characters come into contact with. We root for our protagonists and we hope they can conquer the challenges the antagonists present them with whether that be a supernatural force, an opposing government, or something more personal like a mental illness. What makes Fruitvale Station the exception to the rule is not that it is "based on a true story" but that it doesn't follow the conventional arc of a movie where we know what we're getting, we know there is no happy ending, and that even though we can't escape the heartbreak of the events this movie sheds light on there is a profound meaning to come from the way Koogler and his cast convey a story that might never be known to those outside the community it's documenting. There are no excuses for how wrong things ended for Oscar Grant, but if its any testament to his legacy this film will serve to both make people aware and inspire others looking to make a change.Full review here. A

There were several factors that seemed to weigh in on the idea that Enough Said might not be more than a film anyone would ever care to talk about, but would serve as a pleasant diversion only to end up somewhere down the road all but forgotten with its simple poster and intentionally low-key indie status. Both stars of the film, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, are well-respected names with extremely strong credentials as far as television work goes, but neither of them had ever become more than recognizable supporting characters in most of their big screen roles, though for some reason I always believed Gandolfini would grow into more of that unconventional leading man that attracted a built-in audience. All of this to say that the film took on much more weight with the passing of Gandolfini last summer. Suddenly, this was not only one of his last movies, but his very last starring role. Upon first seeing the trailer I didn't think much as it looked to be little more than an adult romantic comedy that explored love lifes after divorce and while likely intelligently written it also possessed a plot device that seemed rather hokey and something that might serve as the basis for a half-hour sitcom rather than an entire movie. What comes to be surprisingly effective about Enough Said though is that it isn't at all what you expect it to be. It doesn't play into the conventions of that otherwise despised genre that makes love look like an accessory rather than a necessity, but it takes on the emotion and all the baggage that comes with it in the varying relationships one has as they're passing through the middle section of their lives. This is as much about being a parent as it is developing a relationship. This is just as much about friendship and the different dynamics of every relationship as it is about a crazy coincidence that brings several different people together who share a common friend, and in some cases more than that. This is a film that subtly and comfortably approaches getting old while embracing the younger generations around it and while maybe not learning something from them, at least gaining a new experience that gives them a new perspective on life. Again, all of this to say that Enough Said is cute, often very funny, and one of the more purely enjoyable experiences I had at the movies last year. Full review here. B+

I've said countless times that horror is probably my least favorite genre and that I find little real pleasure in paying to see people killed or haunted and generally made uncomfortable for the sake of entertainment. I understand why people find it engaging and I have no problem watching scary movies, I just don't really look forward to it unless it's fall and the leaves and weather compliment the small towns that are often represented within the film. There is a strange, oddly comfortable layer of relatability and the fantasy of what might go down in these kinds of films is hopefully as far removed from your reality as possible. What makes this latest piece of original horror so enticing is that it could not feel more removed from the majority of its audiences likely realities, but that it is in on the joke the majority of its audiences would be making about it if it were legitimately trying to stir up some scares from us. You're Next is a low budget riff on the home invasion thrillers that have been sprinkled through the genre since its inception. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (who have both contributed to the horror anthologies V/H/S and V/H/S/2) made this film a little over two years ago (the film premiered at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival), but have been unable to secure a distribution deal for it and so it is with somewhat of a delayed reaction that we receive the film in all its goofy glory. To say I had fun with this film is to say something that might be easily misinterpreted, but trust me when I say You're Next works just as much as a horror flick as it does a comedy. There is brutal violence, a couple of specific shots that gave me the chills, and a body count that will appease anyone of the genre faithful, but on top of that it also has plenty of bad acting from its D-list cast, a musical score for the ages and dialogue that makes it even tougher for these already unskilled actors to allow us to even try and take them seriously. No, You're Next isn't a great film, it may not even be a very good one when we get right down to it, but to say it is not entertaining or that it doesn't have a certain charisma to it that pulls you in and elates your senses would be a tough argument to make and that alone is worth the recommendation. Full review here. B-

If there will be one positive thing remembered about the summer movie season of 2013 it will certainly be the number of coming-of-age tales released. Beginning with Mud and followed up almost monthly with The Way, Way Back and The Kings of Summer each of these represent fine films in their own right, but none of them will likely hit you the way The Spectacular Now does. The film eases into its story and successfully adds layer upon layer to its characters while subtly providing justifications for the paths they've chosen and the decisions they might make from this point out. It also does well to not create forced circumstances to make the story more engaging because it does this through the conflicts the characters create out of their personalities. In one of the more heartbreaking scenes we see Sutter (Miles Teller) have a conversation with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) where, as the scene progresses, we watch Sutter come to realize who he is through who is father is and what his future is looking like. It is a truly affecting scene and it demonstrates the best of what the film has to offer while being at its characters lowest points. The only issue the story faces is when it decides to throw a wrench in the machine during the third act and then not address it at all or at least recognize it in a fashion that satisfies the audience. There is real tension building in the film and though I have no intention of spoiling what happens in the final act, it is something that gave me a genuine shock and then was passed over as if we took it more seriously than necessary. I was really into the film, I knew these people and I came to care about them and then it all falls apart and wraps up faster than I could have anticipated. It was a rather disappointing conclusion despite the fact I thought I knew where the film was going and though it still didn't necessarily take the road most traveled it ultimately wasn't able to close on such promising beginning and middle sections. This doesn't make The Spectacular Now a bad film it only means that, like its characters, it is flawed and not yet perfected or ready for the world. It is in that fashion a perfect example of being able to encapsulate the mood and moments in life that its characters are experiencing and thus gives us that authentic sense of reality the performances and direction so accurately capture. Full review here. A-

Short Term 12 is a slice of life dramedy that will suck you in immediately and have you engulfed in the world of its timid characters that are doing nothing more than trying to do their part to make a difference in the world with an approach that truly means something to them. This film is one of those rare cases where I walked in knowing little to nothing about what I was going to experience, but was pleasantly surprised to find a well balanced tone of what mirrors real life the closest. None of us live completely within the bounds of these genres that Hollywood has so conveniently put together so as to garner massive audiences for each one that cater to the dominant attitude one might carry. Despite the fact humans generally tend to gravitate towards specific personality traits or uncontrollable factors that determine how they are perceived the majority of us live a life filled with moments of equal highs and lows. Granted, this range of emotions is usually reserved to be explored in the smaller, less expensive films that tackle more singular subjects and therefor may have a more narrow audience looking for it, when they are done well they can likely appeal to whoever stumbles upon them and it seems Short Term 12 has the potential to have that appeal. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton has expanded his 2008 short film of the same name into feature length form and in doing so has given himself room to explore the devastating effects of what mental, physical and sexual abuse have on children and not just in the immediate aftermath but years and years on when you would hope the victim might have been able to look past and move on. It is as much an enlightening and inspirational film as it is a heart wrenching and extremely personal documentation of the individuals who have experienced such disgusting encounters and have had to grow and learn to adapt in a world that often times expects them to get over it without ever being able to accept the fact they might live what most of us would call a "normal life". With a strong script and some purely exceptional performances Short Term 12 turns out to be one of the more affecting films of the year that has probably been seen the least. Full review here. A

We hardly notice them, yet it is their voices that are as recognizable as any of the names we could associate with countless hit songs over the past few decades. It is their voices that sing the hooks, that let out those soulful "Ooohhhss" and "Ahhhhhhs" that will get stuck in our heads for days and that we undoubtedly credit to the artist with their name on the cover of the album for taking the time to record themselves. It is a pity really, but it is the nature of the game. It is the nature of the industry in order to preserve that "special" quality that surrounds those we qualify as superstars and go on to sell millions of records. There is a fine line between the talent of a lead singer, a solo artist and those singing back-up, but, as Bruce Springsteen informs us, it is a long walk to the front of the stage and one that isn't the easiest of transitions. There is much in the way of transformation there and it isn't just about being a singer, it is about being an entertainer. At one point Sting brings up American Idol and how the accelerated climb of those auditioning to supposed superstardom makes the quality of their success paper thin. I agree in more than one way, but American Idol and shows like it, while every once in a while hitting the right balance of talent and appeal (Kelly Calrkson, Carrie Underwood), have really proven why it is so difficult for someone to become bigger than themselves, bigger than their talent even and that is the ego and the ability it takes to put ones self on display that is necessary for someone to truly appeal to the masses and not just be a good singer. With 20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville takes us on both a journey and exploration to where back up singers became more than just simple singers, but attitude that embellished the mood and emotion of the songs they were featured on. We are given insight to some of the more seasoned back-up singers in the game, peoples whose voices we've heard numerous times yet never known the face that goes with it as well as those who are in the thick of it right now and the difference between those who enjoy basking in the space where they don't have to worry about the stress that comes with having their name on the marquee and those who are anxious to make the leap from the back to the front of the stage, a leap that doesn't always pan out for reasons that are most of the time just as unknown as the names we come to discover through this film. Full review here.

What is a tragic character study comes to light slowly in David Rosenthal's A Single Shot. With its southern gothic tones that nearly dip their toes into the horror genre at certain points we tread lightly along with lead character John Moon (Sam Rockwell) as he sulks through the woods that provide the backdrop to his now barren trailer where he lives and waits, pointlessly, for the return of his wife and son. I have yet to see any previous directorial efforts by Rosenthal prior to his latest, but it is clear he has a gift for being able to access the inner-workings of his characters minds and translate them to the screen without resorting to over-indulgent tactics that exclude some audience members. Either that or he was extremely lucky to land someone as versatile and gifted as Rockwell to play his lead character that starts his journey as a man desperate for normality without the intelligence to see what it might actually take to get back to that point. We are subjected to Moon's journey as things only begin to unravel. As the title suggests, a single shot sets off a chain reaction of cat and mouse that allows the film to become much more generic than its tone and prestigious cast would indicate. The nearly two hour film moves at a somnolent pace and doesn't return to the surprising or poignant place it began in until its final scene where, miraculously, we are provided with a genuine emotional payoff that I didn't see coming. That final scene made me want to re-consider my overall opinion of the film, but as I thought through the piece as a whole it seemed too much an intriguing start and perfectly balanced conclusion with a messy middle that comfortably fell into conventions rather than a film who had the nerve to stick with its protagonist and trust that his psyche alone was worth following. There are films that make you question what exactly you're looking for in them and when you have to ask that question it usually means there is no clear objective or that the film itself isn't sure what it wants to be. That is the vibe that comes from A Single Shot as I could see that it wanted to be a dark and brooding story from the untold diaries of backwoods Appalachia, but it didn't necessarily know where to go to accomplish that and so instead became a familiar thriller with the saving grace of Sam Rockwell at its center. Full review here. C+

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