The week’s titles fall into adult and juvenile categories with a few that might be appropriate for both. By its rating alone you won’t want to share “Extraction” (2015 / Lionsgate Premiere / 83m / $24.99 BR / R) with the kiddies. There’s a prologue in which Bruce Willis, as CIA agent Leonard Turner, loses his wife to terrorists because someone in the agency leaked his home address. Ten years later, he is taken hostage along with a briefcase sized gizmo called The Condor that can disrupt electrical grids, telecommunications and take over control of nuclear missiles. His son Harry (Kellan Lutz), now also an agent, but tied to a desk thanks to dad calling in favors to keep him out of the field, goes rogue to rescue dad and incidentally the rest of the world. Another agent, Victoria (Gina Carano), is dispatched to bring him in but Harry convinces her to join him instead (that they have history no doubt helps but it doesn’t hurt to look like Kellan Lutz). If there’s anything new in this scenario, I totally missed it but director Steven C. Miller has committed it to celluloid in a tight and thrifty running time and that alone makes it a commendable effort. It helps speed past some plot holes that are a tad troublesome and unlike some bloated exercises it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The actors are a capable lot, so it’s a bit of a disappointment they aren’t called on to do very much in the thesping department. On the plus side it’s refreshing that the action scenes are mostly of the hand-to-hand combat variety with a minimum of bang-bang. I’m getting mighty tired of so-called action films that are just endless automatic weapons fire.
For a more cerebral thriller, we have “Secret in their Eyes” (2015 / Universal / 111m / $34.98 BR+DVD combo / PG-13) with the kind of cast that could do it justice: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Alfred Molina. They portray a team of detectives torn apart when on a murder investigation the corpse turns out to be of Jess’ (Roberts) daughter. Attempts to bring the rapist/killer to justice are futile because the supposed perp is a snitch on the investigation of a possible terrorist plot. Ray (Ejiofor) becomes obsessed with the case and over a decade later he uncovers a new lead that he thinks will do the trick and so he contacts Claire (Kidman) who’s now a district attorney. But there is some doubt that the man Ray suspects may not be the same guy who was suspected back then. The film moves back and forth between the timelines of the present day and thee vents of 13 years ago (a different hairstyle for Kidman and some grey in Ejiofor’s hair keep the two clear). And as might be guessed from the title everyone has a secret though some – such as Ray’s unrequited passion for Claire –aren’t very private.
The film is a remake of an Argentinian film of several years back; I have not seen that so I can’t weigh in on whether this English language version is superior, inferior or merely unnecessary. It ports over the same scriptwriter (Juan Jose Campanella) so I must assume it is at least equal on that score. It’s a marvelously complex and subtle piece of work in the way it examines the tug of war between a criminal investigation and national security concerns (the 13 years ago setting for the back story places it smack at the point of heightened alert after 9/11). In its portrayal of ambiguous morality, obsession and revenge it’s quite fascinating. It’s difficult to say why Billy Ray’s film doesn’t engage, but I think it is due at least in part to a lackluster pace (not to mention a dreary look) that just drags things down. By the time this dour production wends its way to its surprise ending (which I’m fairly certain you won’t see coming much before it arrives) “Secret in Their Eyes” seems to have gone on forever and you’ll be less startled by its ending than relieved the film is finally over. The only thing to savor are the performances of Ejiofor and Kidman. Molina really doesn’t have enough to do and Roberts is, well, Roberts.
“My All-American” (2015 / Universal / 118m / $34.98 BR+DVD combo / PG) is one of those inspirational sports movies, based on an actual story of course, that Hollywood has felt impelled to deliver unto us for decades. It tells of young Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock) who because of his size is considered an unlikely footballer but through determination and faith becomes a star player for his college team. And then he gets the career-ending and life-threatening news that he has bone cancer and his leg must be amputated. Do I need to say more? How about “from the writer of "Rudy" and "Hoosiers” as the case art trumpets? It’s directed by him (Angelo Pizzo) as well and he has the formula down pat. There’s not a single moment here you won’t anticipate and if you’re part of the target demographic, I suspect you’ll be thrilled. I can’t help but ponder – and not for the first time – if life is really stuffed so much more full of clichés than movies where they make stuff up because inevitably these “based on a true story” flicks are nothing but a ratbag of old chestnuts (there’s even a “Win this one for the Gipper!” moment). I suspect that any script dealing with real people, living or dead, is so heavily blue-penciled by the subject or survivors that not a whiff of honesty can remain. I was pleased that Rudy’s faith (surely part of his dogged persistence to fight through the pain and continue playing) was presented matter-of-factly rather than sledgehammered home. Those faith-based movies could learn a trick or two from the approach taken here. “My All-American” succeeds as well as it does because of the performances. Whitrock is rarely off-camera and he carries the film admirably; Aaron Eckhard is his usual solid self (I’ve never seen him deliver a disappointing performance), and Sarah Bolger is charming as Freddie’s girlfriend. This isn’t a bad movie but it is a very ordinary one.
Likely to be of interest more to balletomanes than anyone else, “Secundaria” (2013 / First Run Features / 96m / $24.95 / NR) follows three dance students through several years of their training in Cuba’s National Ballet School. For these young artists, dance is not just a creative calling, it’s a way out of poverty. That alone should make things more compelling for the average viewer than what Mary Jane Doherty has realized. There’s no sense of getting to know the two young women or the young man under – well, I was going to say scrutiny but there’s nothing as deep as all that going on here. Had there been there is one turn of events that might not have taken the filmmaker quite so much by surprise. It may be the tenuous political situation between our two countries was somehow responsible; perhaps Doherty was reluctant to dig or maybe the youngsters were disinclined to be very open. But the superficial treatment extends throughout the documentary. We get no history of the school nor any insight into its artistic vision; whatever the instructors are telling their charges is not subtitled. Even the footage of the young performers in competition is of brief duration. There are several aspects here that could have been intriguingly explored but the film is perfunctory.
“I Can Be President” (2011 / First Run Features / 22m / $12.95 / NR) is also brief but then it’s designed primarily for young viewers and short attention spans. There is some history here, mostly in the countdown of our nation’s occupants of the Oval Office with a few tidbits tossed in along the way (such as which one was so fat he got stuck in the White House bathtub). Mostly what’s here are the observations of elementary schoolers about the presidency, often wildly inaccurate in a “Kids Say the Darnede,st Things” kind of way (please tell me I’m not the only one old enough to understand that reference). Parents thus won’t be bored and I strongly suggest they be on hand to correct such misinformation as the president having the power to bring about worldwide flooding. The section where some of the youngsters explain why they’d want to be president includes one fellow who aspires to be the first Muslim Commander in Chief (no we haven’t had one yet despite what you might have heard) and a little girl who wants to be the first president who’s both female and Jewish (rather odd when you think about it we’ve never had one of the latter in 200 years).
Pure entertainment with no deeper purpose is on hand with “Shaun the Sheep: Sheep on the Loose” (2009 / Lionsgate /42m / $14.98 / NR) and “Shaun the Sheep, season 2” (2011 / Lionsgate / 280m (2 discs) / $14.98). These stop motion shorts are all episodes from the TV series that Britain’s Ardman Studios produced for several years. The first compilation is six of them from the first season (the full season is also available and at the same price, by the way). The show involves a farmer, dim of sight and possibly dimmer of wit, his faithful dog – who not only herds the sheep but seems to run the farm – and a flock of sheep that is far smarter than they’re letting on to the farmer (they’ve mastered welding for starters). The closest comparison to these often wild mini-tales would be the old Looney Tunes shorts but there is much here that also recalls the old silent and early talkie one-reelers – there are even some wink-wink-nudge-nudge references to Laurel and Hardy and Marx Brothers routines sprinkled throughout that will likely tickle those who catch them. The chief character is of course Shaun, who is nominally the flock leader, though his wooly fellows ignore him as often as not. I’m personally more taken by the long-suffering pooch and the baby lamb with his teddy bear and pacifier. Some of the funniest moments are of the latter in some danger but finding it tremendous fun. These are no comedy classics (Ardman’s own “Wallace and Grommit” works are superior) but compared to what’s out there otherwise for the kiddies (some of which has been reviewed here) these are brilliant and they win’t insult the intelligence of adults or kiddies.