As the September movie doldrums continue, this weekend brings two films about dysfunctional families. But that’s where the similarites end.
The New Stuff:
Is it a warmhearted family comedy? Is it a bloodlusting mob flick? Writer/Director Luc Besson tries to have it both ways, and his all-star cast is caught in the crossfire. Robert De Niro plays an ex-mobster who, along with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their streetwise kids, relocates to rural France as part of the Witness Protection Program. But the family keeps slipping back into their old ways (arson, extortion, and in one case the beating of a plumber with a baseball bat), and when a hit squad turns up, virtually the entire neighborhood winds up dead on the way to a “happy” ending. Besson seems to be going for something new: cruel whimsy. As the French would say, c’est tres terrible.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car
Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed, and costars in this quiet, shambling story about two families — one from London, another from Alabama — colliding in the South of 1969. There are some truly fine performances here, especially Robert Duvall as the family patriarch who has an obsession with fatal car accidents (hence his excitement when a traveling display of Jayne Mansfield’s death car comes to town). Thornton gives himself a meaty role as a disturbed World War II vet, and the rest of the cast, including Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, and Tippi Hedren add extra ingredients to create a tasty family stew.
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20 Feet From Stardom
A stand-up-and-cheer documentary about the backup singers who make music’s biggest stars sound their best.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Lovers don’t get a lot more star-crossed than those played here by doomed small-time crooks Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). But director David Lowery has created a visually poetic yarn that recalls 1970s movie visionaries like Terrence Malick and Arthur Penn.
One of the great truisms about grownup movie lovers, at least of the female persuasion, is that they’re nuts for all things Jane Austen. Here, Keri Russell plays a modern woman who, in search of her own personal Mr. Darcy, visits a Jane Austen theme park.
If you’re an actress, get yourself directed by Woody Allen: Here he casts Cate Blanchett as a latter-day Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers in San Francisco. Smart, tragic, and funny, it’s Woody and Cate at their best. FULL REVIEW
Briskly paced and smartly directed by John Crowley (Boy A), this political thriller is propelled by its ripped-from-the-headlines premise — terrorism and over-the-top government surveillance — and undeniable chemistry between stars Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall. Jim Broadbent, his big blue eyes magnified to “Precious Memories” scale by a pair of Coke bottle glasses, is great fun as a possibly compromised attorney. FULL REVIEW
The Frozen Ground
John Cusack is scary good as the calculating killer of young women and Nicolas Cage is touchingly vulnerable as the detective trying to stop the maniac before he strikes again. Filmed in and around a grungy-looking Anchorage, Alaska, the film will not be featured on the local Chamber of Commerce website. FULL REVIEW
Not to be confused with Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 shoot-em-up starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, this action flick has Ethan Hawke as a retired race car driver who steals a sweet Shelby Cobra Mustang (along with its owner, played by Selena Gomez) in the course of trying to save his wife from a cruel criminal. Said bad guy is the main grownup movie lover’s lure here: He’s played by the always-interesting Jon Voight.
Ashton Kutcher has some genuine moments as Steve Jobs, but this biopic never seems to get the core of Apple’s founder.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
The title might have worked better as Forest Whitaker Is the Butler, or maybe Oprah Winfrey Is the Wife of the Butler. No matter; audiences are flocking to see Whitaker as White House butler Cecil Gaines, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. FULL REVIEW
One Direction: This is Us
This movie puts you in the place of your parents, rolling their eyes as they accompanied you to a matinee of “A Hard Day’s Night” The British boy band One Direction will never be another Fab Four, but they are the hottest thing on the planet right now, so if your kids or grandkids need a grownup companion for this concert/documentary flick, feel free to volunteer for 90 minutes of harmless, well-scrubbed pop.
A by-the-numbers plot ultimately foils this would-be thriller, but there’s still some fun to be had in watching Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford (in a skull-baring buzz cut!) go mano a mano as big business rivals.
Director Brian De Palma shows his old flair for style — his inventiveness with a camera here recalls Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables. But the story of two ambitious women (Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace) facing off in the corporate jungle doesn’t quite click.
Director David Twohy (The Fugitive) has helmed all three Riddick movies, starring Vin Diesel as the gravel-voiced interplanetary convict/adventurer. Here we go again with Riddick, well into middle age, still kicking butt like a muscle-bound, bald-pated pro.
Almost everyone has to read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, and in 1965 all those kids buying all those books enabled its author, J.D. Salinger, to retire to his New Hampshire home and hide from view for the rest of his life. This documentary studies the enigma of Salinger — and the obsession of those who insisted on following him into his solitude. FULL REVIEW
This bighearted drama traces the story of a Savannah, Georgia duck hunter (Jim Caviezel) and his lifelong friendship with a freed slave (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The terrific supporting cast includes Sam Shepard, Hal Holbrook and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford, but the real star is the lavishly photographed Savannah marsh wilderness, sprawling and lovely as the story itself.
James Cromwell (Babe, L.A. Confidential) gives the performance of a lifetime as an 87-year-old man who builds a small house for his ailing wife (a radiant Genevieve Bujold) with his own two hands. That is, until local bureaucrats start butting in. FULL REVIEW
The Way, Way Back
It’s a coming-of-age comedy starring Liam James as a confused 14-year-old kid, but he’s surrounded by one of the great grownup casts of the year: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell.
The Ultimate Life
Director Michael Landon Jr. continues the story begun in the successful 2006 film The Ultimate Gift. Sadly, the original’s James Garner is absent, but there is a fine grownup cast on hand nevertheless, including Peter Fonda, Bill Cobbs and Lee Meriwether.
Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson plays the wife of Nelson Mandela (Terence Howard) in a biopic that traces the entire arc of her life — from a village child to social worker to sometimes brutal anti-apartheid activist. Hudson is impressive and Howard is handsomely stoic, but the real beauty here is South Africa itself, lushly photographed by Mario Janelle.
World War Z
Brad Pitt stars in a classy, nerve-jangling thriller about a virus that’s turning the world’s population into an army of flesh-eating fiends. In concept and execution, the most grownup horror flick of the summer.
The World’s End
Reuniting after 20 years, five friends expect to get good and plastered on an epic pub crawl. What they don’t expect is to find the town populated by sinister robots. Writer/Director Edgar Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg are responsible for the razor-sharp comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz; The World’s End likewise finds a way to be both smart and raucous.