On DVD & Blu-Ray: January 21, 2014

There are some films you simply take as solid ventures, so well crafted and acted that it is hard to deny the inherent quality of what you are witnessing on screen. Though there may not be anything strictly exceptional about the project overall you understand that it is an impressive accomplishment and a film to be admired if not completely adored. Thus is the case I run into with Captain Phillips, the latest from director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremancy & Ultimatum) that serves up a take on a true story that was well publicized in national news a few years ago and has Tom Hanks at the center of it. This combination of elements, including the director, are very well set-up to deliver something prestigious and well made. It is that perfect storm of concept and movie star with the added value of a legitimate director behind the wheel to steer it in the right direction that allows Captain Phillips to not necessarily strike you immediately as an impressive film, yet allows it to absolutely live up to the expectations those kinds of factors demand. While I wasn't overly familiar with the true life story of Richard Phillips I'd certainly heard of it and though the trailers didn't look as intriguing as I'd expected, but I was game as you can't go wrong with the formula and director Greengrass has the uncommon ability of making a thrilling film from real-life events where we already know how the story will end. He did this with United 93 by tapping into the human element involved and does very much the same here while allowing his lessons learned on the Bourne films to inform his restrained, but tension-inducing action sequences. What happens in this film could be broken down to a few very basic scenarios, but Greengrass is able to convey the heightened sense of alert, of fear, and that fear of the unknown into a real character as Hanks' Phillips goes through the tasks required of him from the Somali pirates that have hijacked his ship. Building the engagement of the audience through these set pieces and developing the characters at the same time is an achievement not to be glossed over and Captain Phillips executes this nearly every chance it gets. Full review here. B+

Remember six years ago when Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino decided to team-up and create an epic production that once and for all would pay obvious tribute to their love of exploitation films? It was awesome, right? Both Planet Terror and Death Proof had their own style and story while effectively re-creating the tone and look of those seedy, unrestrained 1970's flicks that weren't mainstream enough for big studios. While the combination of the two features were released under the banner, Grindhouse, the mainstream still didn't seem to take as much of a liking to the project as it ultimately wasn't the box office hit the directors had become accustomed to. Still, no one lost any credibility on the project as it catered exactly to the kind of high concept work the two directors were known for innovating. One of the many highlights of Grindhouse though turned out to be the fake movie trailers that played before and in between the features and thus the world was introduced to Machete. I went back and re-watched that original trailer that played before Planet Terror as well as watching a good portion of that Rodriguez film which only came to re-enforce the overly-negative opinion I have concerning the follow-up to the 2010 full length version of Machete, Machete Kills. One of the bigger issues of the first Machete was the fact it frequently became exactly the thing it was parodying while the sequel does so in even bigger strides while no longer even looking like or seeming to attempt to actually become a part of the genre Rodriguez was originally so intent on paying tribute to. There is a fine line though between showing affection and making fun of, and while both Planet Terror and Death Proof were able to play up the elements of these exploitation flicks to modern audiences in the form of laughs they at least had the craft and quality down pat. Machete Kills is little more than a parody, a rushed job with a nonsensical script and stunt casting that is clearly intended to fulfill the entertainment quota. The base purpose of these homages is to have fun watching the ridiculousness unfold while laughing at the countless references and cinematic commentary, but unfortunately there is no such fun to be had here anymore. Rodriguez has allowed the well to officially run dry. Full review here. F

As I'm not typically excited to see a Woody Allen film it came as a surprise when the trailer for his annual effort, titled Blue Jasmine, was immediately one that intrigued me and had me anxiously awaiting its arrival. After finally arriving I was again surprised by how taken I was with the film and the way in which it approaches its subject and above all, the craft of the writing. It has always been apparent, even to a Woody Allen-amateur like me, that the writer/director has a much stronger hand when it comes to his scripts than his direction. Still, Jasmine offers such a layered and complex character at the heart of its rather melodramatic story and is brought to life perfectly through an Oscar-worthy performance from Cate Blanchett (which she'll likely win) that we don't look to the film for answers concerning plot lines, but instead we watch it to see the path this tragic character goes down. There is never any doubt that Jasmine's plight will not be a happy one, but as much as I'm not overly-familiar with Allen's older works I know that much of it skews closer to comedy than any other genre and while there are a few laughs here and there throughout the film this is ultimately a very dour, very emotionally complex film to watch and invest yourself in. So much so that when the film does come to an end there is almost a sense of relief that we are finally able to break away from Jasmine's troubles and issues and happy to encounter our own once again. This may not sound like a necessarily good time at the movies and to be honest, it's not. Still, there is something to the titular character that draws us in where, if we were to encounter her in real life, would no doubt push us away. We are literally watching a train wreck in motion as Jasmine falls deeper and deeper into the depths of lunacy and yet we don't feel sorry for her as much as we come to examine how she became the woman she did and that is what Allen is interested in; subtly building on the details and leaving clues for his audience to not only see Jasmine as she is in her now, almost repulsive form, but how easily she came to be that person. This is top notch writing and acting presenting a gloomy character study with the most vital of energies. Full review here. B+

It takes a lot to make something look effortless. Whether you're talking about beauty or comedy, two things that don't often share the same space, it is necessary to have a large amount of preparation or thought in order to perpetrate something genuine into a format where the atmosphere is all but that and still allow such a precise quality to shine through. It has always been said that comedy is much harder to understand, much harder to pin down and really get right than say, a serious drama. Comedy is purely subjective, to every single person that is witness to it and to be able to craft a piece of art that doesn't come off as pretentious in its intention or narcissistic in its execution is to somehow be able to convey your dislike of certain aspects of society without alienating what might make up your audience. Comedy is about being up-front and honest, about peeling back the obvious that we don't like to acknowledge and in that we not only find ways to relate to the subjects of a piece, but we come to find what side of the fence we land on in the perspective of the creator and how that person who is specific to a region, generation, or political party might take on the world and view the issues and how we might solve them, or in the case of comedies, why it is necessary to laugh at most things. In the case of In a World... the sole creator and architect is credited to Lake Bell, the actress you've probably seen a million times in smaller parts and supporting roles whose name escapes you. As the writer/director/star of the film she is able to take on not only the voice-over industry and the role that women play in it (or don't) as well as the ideas and observations about the legacy of parents and its impending pressure on their offspring that results in a lack of support as well as the dynamic of relationships and how it's the details of the companionship rather than the details of the person that make it work and ultimately worthwhile. There is admittedly a ton of stuff going on in the movie but Bell, at the head of her first feature, somehow manages to shepherd these ideas and situations into a cohesive piece of work that ends up feeling beautifully funny and yes, effortless. Full review here. B+

The original title of this film added a slightly indulgent "The Unnecessary Death of" before stating its titular protagonists name. I still thought that the title until I realized it had been cut short to simply introduce us to Shia LaBeouf's character and the man in which we would be following on this journey that's described simply as him finding love in a Romanian beauty only to become entangled in the drama her intimidating and very violent ex-husband brings to her life. The film is being modest though in this description as Charlie Countryman has much more to it than a simple love story and both visually and dramatically it is consistently striving for something more, something important and more substantial than what it appears to be on its surface. I can see how it would be easy to take this film as first time feature director Fredrik Bond finding his footing and infusing writer Matt Drake's screenplay with a strong sense of style and visual flair that would allow it to appear as nothing more than an exercise in artistic freedom, but as I took the film in I couldn't help but to feel they were really trying to accomplish something here. Drake has only penned a few screenplays in the past, his only feature being what couldn't have been more than a sketch outline for 2012's Project X, but once that forgettable paycheck project was out of the way it seems he was ready to really invest in something he was creating and thus we have the plight of Mr. Countryman. I've always had a soft spot for LaBeouf simply because I enjoyed Even Stevens and was happy to see him go on and find success in big-budget blockbusters, but as he's grown it is clear he wants to challenge himself and feels a want to find material that is more satisfying for him to look back on, something he might actually be able to be proud of when he hits fifty; at least moreso than watching himself run from CGI robots. With this film he has at least proved he has the capability of accomplishing such a feat even if the overall project may seem somewhat lacking. Despite the name change there are still plenty of over-indulgences in the film as it's never sure of what it wants to be and its tone skips around so much that we sometimes don't know with what context we're supposed to accept a scene, but more times than not Charlie Countryman is an entertaining if not introspective look at how the soul compensates for loss and continues to love. Full review here. B-

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