Action pack led by Gordon-Levitt duo

By Tom Von Malder | Jan 21, 2013
Photo by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Don’t I know you? Joseph Gordon-Levitt, right, confronts Bruce Willis, playing his 30-year-older self in “Looper.”

Owls Head — Looper (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 119 min.). The film is set in the year 2044. Thirty years in the future, time travel has been invented and almost immediately outlawed. Giant crime syndicates use time travel to send murder victims into the past, where it is easier to dispose of the bodies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, one of the loopers hired to be the executioners. They simply wait outside the spot where the bodies always emerge and immediately kill them with one shot from a blunderbuss. When one of these kills is the looper’s future self, it is called “closing the loop,” and that seems to be happening more frequently. Bruce Willis plays future Joe, who wants to survive so he can change things such that his future wife will not be killed by a syndicate. Future Joe’s plan is to kill three young boys, one of whom becomes the Rainmaker, who, in the future, takes over the syndicates and starts closing all the loops.

Even though he disagrees with his future self’s plan, Joe is put on a hit list as well by Abe (Jeff Daniels), who years ago was sent from the future to set up and run the loopers. Younger Joe has a clue to where one of the three boys are and he ends up bonding with the boy (a fine Pierce Gagnon as Cid) and his mother (Emily Blunt as Sara) while trying to protect them from his future self. This is a thinking person’s action film, which is often beautifully filmed, especially as it basically turns into a western by the end. There also is a stunning sequence in which we follow Joe’s progress through to his future life. Writer-director Rian Johnson has done an outstanding job. He and Gordon-Levitt also worked together on “Brink.”

Extras include audio commentary by Johnson, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt, which ends with Johnson answering filmgoers’ questions submitted by Twitter. There also are 22 deleted scenes (36:30; 17 are exclusive to the Blu-ray edition), including one that shows how Kid Blue (a looper played by Noah Segan) escaped death. Also exclusive to Blu-ray is a feature on the science of time travel (8:29), while both versions have a making-of feature (7:52), which includes how Gordon-Levitt’s face was re-arranged to look more like a younger version of Willis’ face, a look at the film’s music (16:18) and an animated trailer. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Premium Rush (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 91 min.). Joseph Gordon-Levitt again, this time as Wilee (yes, a reference to the cartoon coyote) a bike messenger in New York City who basically does it for the thrill of riding -- and without brakes, as he explains in his narration. The film opens with the instrumental portion of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and then Wilee flying in slow motion, so we know he is eventually going to get hit by a cab. The film then resets back 93 minutes, so we know it is almost going to be in real time. However, there are three lengthy flashbacks that fill in most of the background.

Wilee, who only makes “80 bucks on a good day,” is given a premium rush pickup and delivery. The sender turns out to be Nima (Jamie Chung), the roommate (actually in the process of being ex-roommate) of Vanessa (Diana Ramirez), another bike messenger who was Wilee’s girlfriend up until he was too busy to attend her college graduation. The delivery is an envelope, which, almost immediately, a man (Michael Shannon as Bobby Monday) tries to take away from Wilee. Wilee refuses to give up the envelope and the man pursues him in his car, basically trying to run Wilee off the road. Along the way, Wilee causes an accident and a New York City bicycle cop (Christopher Place) starts chasing him as well. Wilee manages to have the bike cop crash, but when he goes to the police for help, Wilee learns he is in deeper trouble than he thought.

The film is at its best when we are riding with Wilee (and his four riding stand-ins) through New York City. It is a bit of a rush, with the low-angle cameras and the cameras mounted on the bike. Also, when Wilee comes to intersections, we see what his mind envisions as he tries to plot out a safe course, including some hard landings when the possible path intersects with a vehicle of even a baby carriage. The film, directed and co-written by David Koepp, has three lengthy chase sequences, all set up differently. There is bike versus car, a bicycle race through Central Park and the more stunt bike riding in the police impound yard. During the credits, we even see the aftermath of a stunt that did not go well for Gordon-Levitt. The extras include a 12:51 look at the stunts and a 9:30 look at the making of the film. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Taken 2 (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13/NR, 92/98 min.).
The first “Taken” established Liam Neeson as the most unexpected action star of the year. In the film, he character, ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills, had to battle to rescue his kidnapped daughter (Maggie Grace as Kim) from Albanian kidnappers. The sequel is merely a reshuffling and far too routine, despite Luc Besson being a co-writer. The film opens with the Albanian burial of all those whom Mills killed in the first film. Murad Krasniqi (Rade Sherbedgia), the father of one of the slain, vows revenge and launches a plan that is set in motion when Mills attends a work meeting in Istanbul. Mils has invited his ex-wife (Famke Janssen as Lenore) and daughter Kim to join him for a vacation, as Lenore is having man problems.

This time, Lenore and Mills are kidnapped, but the kidnappers do not search Mills very well. He has a hidden cell phone with which he contacts Kim. Kim then helps her parents escape. It is quite clever how Mills leads Kim to finding him. Although I doubt it realistically could be accomplished (hand grenades are involved). There is another rooftop chase -- these always look nice in foreign cities -- but Mills all-too-routinely mows down his enemies. The film is Ok, but not as good as the first; and while it could generate a sequel, one hopes it does not (although Kim and her new boyfriend could get taken … again, let’s not go there). Director Olivier Megaton mishandles the fight sequences and even car crashes a bit by filming in too-close. In what fight scene in a dark alley, it actually was difficult to tell who was who. Extras include an alternate ending (25 minutes and radically different as Lenore is in a totally different place), five brief deleted scenes, a five-minute interview with Neeson, tools of the trade (3:32) and the unrated version can be watched in an enhanced Block Ops Field Manuel mode with pop up video-style enhancements that show maps of each location, facts about the characters, and running tallies for how many people Mills has killed or injured and the distance he has traveled (in both miles and kilometers). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Dredd (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 96 min.).
The British comic book character has been around for 35 years and there was a 1995 film, “Judge Dredd,” that starred Sylvester Stallone. Here it is the same character, but a much different film, and an unexpectedly good film at that. It is set in the same future in which most of the United States is a nuclear wasteland, with 800 million people squeezed into Mega-City One, which stretches from what was Boston to Washington, D.C. The law are the Judges, given the authority to be judge, jury and instant executioner. The overall set-up here is a bit like the Indonesian film, “The Raid: Redemption.”

Dredd (Karl Urban) has just been assigned a probationary rookie (Olivia Thirlby as Cassandra Anderson, whose backstory is she is an orphan with the ability to read minds). Anderson has barely failed her final exam twice, but the head of the Judge program wants to giver her one more try -- in the field. Dredd and Anderson pick up a call on three men thrown to their deaths -- after being skinned alive -- in Peach Trees, a 200-level apartment complex that houses 75,000 and has a 98 percent unemployment rate. It also turns out to be the headquarters of mob boss/drug dealer Ma-Ma (Linda Headey with some serious facial scarring), who has begun distributing the new “in” drug, Slo-Mo (it slows down perception of time, thus leading to many cool slow-motion shots in the film). When Dredd and Anderson seize one of Ma-Ma’s lieutenants and start to bring him in for questioning, she has the building locked down. What commences is an all-out shooting war, as Ma-Ma puts a kill order out on the two Judges, meaning they potentially have thousands of enemies.

Extras include a 14:27 look at the character’s 35 years in comics (this is very good), a prequel motion comic narrated by Urban, and featurettes on making the film, the visual effects (the film was in 3D in theaters), Dredd’s gear (including his famous Lawgiver gun that fires six types of bullets) and Peach Trees. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Total Recall (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13/NR, 118/130 min.).
While “Dredd” was a reboot, “Total Recall” is both a remake and a new film. Perhaps, it should have let go of the old more, and for fans of the original with Arnold Schwarzenegger bringing his sense of humor to the project … well, the humor is gone, as well as Mars. Instead, this film presents the United Federation of Britain and The Colony (Australia) as the only two habitable spots left on the Earth, after extensive chemical warfare. They are connected by The Fall, a high-speed transportation system that goes through the planet’s core. (OK, that probably is not possible, but it makes for some interesting scenes.)

Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, who lives in The Colony and commutes to work in Britain, where he is part of the assembly line that creates the armor for Chancellor Cohaagen’s (Bryan Cranston) soldiers. Opposite Cohaagen is the Resistance, led by Matthias (Bill Nighy). The film starts in mid-action, an escape sequence that turns out to be a recurring dream. Basically, the film stays in chase mode 90 percent of the time. Do not look for character development here, and frankly, the unpeeling of Quaid’s mind, or multiple identities, gets way to confusing. When Quaid goes to Total Rekall to have memories of an adventure implanted, and they are those of a spy, a warning goes off that he already has such memories, just as the police raid Total Rekall. Quaid goes into full automatic kill mode, downing 10 agents. Then, when he gets home, his “wife” (Kate Beckinsale as the never-say-die Lori Quaid) tries to kill him. In the course of their battle, she reveals she has only known Quaid for six weeks and that Cohaagen is hiding him as a sleeper agent. Then, of course, is the now almost obligatory roof chase; however, this one is interesting for its setting -- as in it occurs on a platform with lots of space beneath it. Overall, the city has a very “Blade Runner,” which is somewhat appropriate as both dystopian source stories were written by Philip K. Dick, being the short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” in this instance, and the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” for “Blade Runner.”

The film’s non-stop chase action, while excellently filmed, is wearying, and, at times, Beckinsale’s character seems more like a Terminator. The second chase sequence, involving cars in auto-controlled lanes, is even more gigantic. One cool special effect is the phone hand-implants. Overall, the film’s lack of soul, for want of a better phrase, makes it much less satisfying than it should be. Extras, however, are plentiful, starting with the ability to watch the film with behind-the-scenes insight from director Len Wiseman, a gag reel, a look at designing The Fall, and science fiction versus science fact. Exclusive to Blu-ray are the 12-minute longer director’s cut, an alternate ending, director’s audio commentary, a Playstation 3 playable game demo of “God of War: Ascension,” and featurettes on pre-visualization of the fight and chase sequences, and breakdowns of key action sequences and stunts. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Resident Evil: Retribution (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 96 min.).
In many ways, this fifth film of the series is a lukewarm rehash of what has gone before, yet it also sets up a sixth installment, which should have much bigger action. The film opens with a literal replay of the fourth film’s closing sequence -- and I was worried about remembering where we left off! -- that is played backwards. Alice (Milla Jovovich), the former security head for Umbrella Corp. at the Hive, where they developed and sold biological weapons in Raccoon City, then recaps everything (how the T Virus escaped, turning mankind into the hungry walking dead, but mutated in her body to give her special strengths and powers), before the ending is replayed in real time. That’s a waste of 7:45 already. Alice then awakes in bed -- she is married, with a daughter, a husband and longer hair (haha) -- then the T Virus zombies attack the house.  Then comes a fight sequence in a fake Moscow, in which she is armed with a gun and a chain; it is mostly against a white background -- probably for the 3D version. Eventually, Alice is told she is in the Umbrella Corp. testing facility beneath the ice cap in northern Russia, a place no one has ever escaped from. However, Ada Wong (Bingbing Li) helps her escape her cell and leads her to weapons, so they can fight their way to a rendezvous with the four-man and one-woman rescue team sent by Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts). Of course, the Red Queen computer launches all kinds of deadly countermeasures.

There is one good car chase sequence, but there also is an over-abundance of slow-motion fight sequences that, frankly, with have seen before. Co-stars include Michelle Rodriguez, Kevin Durand and Johann Urb among the rescuers, and Sienna Guillory as the evil Jill Valentine, who leads the efforts to kill Alice, Ada and their rescuers. Extras include outtakes, a creatures feature and two audio commentaries, one by writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt, and the other by Anderson and actors Jovovich and Boris Kodjoe. Exclusive to Blu-ray are two deleted scenes and three extended scenes, six behind-the-scenes featurettes and the interactive Project Alice database. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Men In Black 3 (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 106 min.).
The long-awaited third film is not as good as the first, but better than the second. Sparking the film is a fine performance by Josh Brolin as the younger version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K. Agent J (Will Smith) has to go back in time, to when the United States was first launching its space program, to defeat Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), the one-armed Boglodite imprisoned and de-armed by Agent K, who plans to kill the younger K and thus wipe out both the loss of his arm and his years spent in prison. This is more a straight-up science fiction film, with plenty of humor and driven by character. That makes it succeed. Extras include a making-of feature, a gag reel and a Pitbull music video. Exclusive to Blu-ray are progression reels, a look at the visual effects, a spot the alien one-person shooter game, a look at creating both the 1999 and future versions of Men in Black HQ, props and costumes and detailed looks at four sequences with cast and crew. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 94 min.).
The third film in the series is both a case of diminished returns and throwing everything but the kitchen sink into it. The latter probably is due to the rapid growing up of actor Zachary Gordon, who plays Greg Heffley, the main character. All the other main characters are back too; they include Devon Bostick as rocker/older brother Roderick, Steve Zahn and Rachel Harris as the parents, and Robert Capron as his best friend Rowley. Summer vacation is here and all Greg wants to do is play video games all day; however, his father has a different idea: an unpaid internship at his office. Greg gets invited to the country club by Rowley, whose parents have a membership, and he likes it so much that he goes there almost every day and lies to his father that he has a job there. Of course, Roderick has to talk his way into being sneaked in as well, as he wants to impress Holly (Peyton List). Meanwhile, after a talk with his wife, dad decides to do things with Greg, like fishing, Wilderness Explorers camping and other disasters. Funniest bits are a tennis match and a performance by Loded Diper, Roderick’s punk band. Extras include the animated short, “Class Clown”; a gag reel; 10 deleted scenes, including an alternate ending;; audio commentary by director David Bowers; and an FX Movie Channel promo with clips from the film and interviews with cartoonist Jeff Kinney and his wife. Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku (Japan, 1967-68, Criterion, 4 DVDs, NR, 336 min.).
Every once in a while, Criterion issues a rather off-the-wall release compared to its usual fare of film classics. This four-film set is on the budget Eclipse line that comes without the usual bevy of extras. After the success of the “Godzilla” films, many Japanese studios tried to replicate the formula with their own brand of monster movies. While Schochiku Studio was better known for elegant dramas by such directors as Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, the company did create these four wacky films. “The X from Outer Space” (1967, 88 min., 2 stars), complete with opening theme song, tells of an expedition to Mars that is turned back by a flying saucer, but not before something attaches itself to the space ship. That sample, when unleashed, turns into a giant chicken-like beast (I kid you not) as the film turns into a rubber suit movie. As ridiculous as the monster looks, there is some fun in watching its rampage. By the way, it is called Guilala). Some time also is spent at the Moon base, including a too-long bit of the men bathing and the women showering.

“Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell” (1968, 84 min., 2.5 stars) is kind of a cross between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “It Came from Outer Space.” An airplane -- back in the days when smoking was allowed on planes! -- encounters a weird red sky, just as a message is received about a possible bomb on board. They find a rifle, and then an armed man takes over the plane. However, a UFO causes the plane to crash -- this is all before the credits, mind you. Passengers include politician Mr. Mano and, conveniently, a researcher in space biology. After being lured to the now-landed UFO, the possible assassin in the group is taken over by a blob-like entity that enters his forehead and controls him into killing the others. The film is a bit philosophical. “The Living Skeleton” (1968, 80 min,, 2.75 stars) is a black-and-white film that opens in the middle of the takeover of a boat by mutineers (after some gold bullion) and the subsequent massacre. Three years later, a couple scuba diving find skeletons on the bottom and a big fog bank arrives at the coastal town. Everyone thought the boat had sank in a typhoon, but now the apparent ghost of one of the victims seems to be getting revenge on the original robbers. The ghost’s twin sister, who assist a local priest, thinks she can hear her dead sister calling to her. I swear the film borrows James Barry’s James Bond music with only minimal changes. The fourth film is “Genocide” (1968, 84 min., 2.5 stars), and what monster movie collection would be complete without an insects-gone-wild movie. A swarm of mutant insects (basically ordinary bees were used) forces down a plane carrying an H-bomb. It turns to be a new species that was bred by a mad scientist to get revenge on Germany for what happened during World War II. Actually, the film is less horror and more an antinuclear, pro-environmental statement.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 136 min.). Of course, Criterion also continues to releases its wonderful versions of classic films, most in Blu-ray as well now. This classic horror tale, based on the Ira Levin bestseller, was director Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut. Mia Farrow plays a young expectant woman whose neighbors, played by Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon (in an Oscar winning performance), seem overly friendly. John Cassavetes plays her self-involved husband. Rosemary becomes convinced that there is a satanic plot against her and her baby. For this restored digital transfer, there is an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. A new documentary (47 min.) features new interviews with Polanski, Farrow and producer Robert Evans. There also is a 1997 radio interview with author Levin, as well as a documentary (71 min.) on the life and music of Polish jazz musician and composer Krzysztof Komeda and an illustrated booklet with an essay by Ed Park and Levin’s afterward for a 2003 edition of the novel. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Brazil (1985, Criterion, 2 Blu-ray discs, R, 142 min.).
Terry Gilliam’s controversial masterpiece is a dystopian tale that stars Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, a daydreaming everyman, caught in the soul-crushing gears of a nightmarish bureaucracy. One day, Lowry discovers that one of the agency's computers has made an error, resulting in the elimination of an innocent man, Archibald Buttle. The last name of the man that should have been eliminated, a criminal with a long record, is Tuttle (Robert De Niro). Lowry quickly informs his boss (Ian Holm), who authorizes a refund check. While delivering the check to Buttle's widow, Lowry encounters the beautiful Jill Layton (Kim Greist), who looks a lot like the girl he has been spending time with in his dreams. As he attempts to find out more about her, his life spirals out of control. The film is filled with humor (as one would expect from a member of Monty Python), but it also gets right several prophetic elements. This edition contains the 142-minuite director’s cut (a 131-munte version was released theatrically), as well as the 94-minute commercially released version that was only shown on syndicated television and includes alternate takes, as well as new footage and dialogue. Carried over from the 1996 DVD version are the audio commentary with Gilliam and, on disc two, the definitive “The Battle of Brazil” documentary. There also is a six-part production notebook on such aspects of the film as the special effects and the film’s look, and a 30-minute on-set documentary. The illustrated booklet includes an essay by film critic David Sterritt. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 4 stars

Purple Noon (France/Italy, 1960, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 117 min.).
I’ve always loved this version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Directed by Rene Clement, it stars Alain Delon -- indeed the film helped make him a star -- as Tom Ripley, a duplicitous American charmer in Rome to bring back his rich, devil-may-care acquaintance Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) back to San Francisco. Ripley has been promised $5,000 by Greenleaf’s father for accomplishing the task. However, there is more than friendship here, as Ripley actually intends to take over Greenleaf’s identity, after killing him. In addition to Delon’s strong performance, the film boasts wonderful photography of coastal Italy by cinematographer Henri Decae (Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”). There also is a marvelous score by Nino Rota (who worked extensively with Federico Fellini). The film is presented with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Extras include a new interview with Clement scholar and author Denitza Bantcheva; archival interviews with Delon and Highsmith; and an illustrated booklet with an essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien and excerpts from a 1981 interview with Clement. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3.5 stars

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