Pick of the Week

127 Hours

Thriller-drama; rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Trapped by a falling boulder, rock climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) survives for five days – recording his ordeal on a handheld camera and eventually using a dull knife to amputate his own arm.

The Lowdown: The film for which the term “harrowing” was apparently invented, “127 Hours” is hard on the stomach, for obvious reasons. But director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) works some weird miracles here in terms of filmmaking creativity.

As Aron’s mental and physical condition deteriorates, Boyle departs from the straight narrative with sequences of Aron’s hallucinations and dreams of family and friends. The movie then enters a kind of timeless space, and Franco delivers a performance that seems to tap into some universal life force. “There is no force more powerful than the will to live,” the film’s tagline informs us. Franco – robbed of the Best Actor Oscar last week, IMHO – will make you believe.

The Extras: A must-listen commentary track with director Boyle; deleted scenes; Blu-ray adds two mini-docs on Franco and Boyle’s collaboration and the real-life details of Ralston’s ordeal

The Bottom Line: Most assuredly one of last year’s best films, “127 Hours” is a marvel of storytelling verve.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Careful with that amputation scene – several audience members feinted straight away during the film’s theatrical release.

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Pick of the Week

Megamind

Animated comedy; rated PG for action and some language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Yet another animated send-up of comic book heroes and villains, “Megamind” brings the funny for both kids and adults.

The Lowdown: For my kids’ entertainment dollar – and I spend quite a lot of them – “Megamind” was the best animated comedy of last year, just ahead of “How To Train Your Dragon.” Similar in premise to the second runner-up, “Despicable Me,” “Megamind” concerns the fate of a cartoon supervillain turned hero.

Evil genius Megamind, voiced by Will Ferrell, is the archnemesis of Metro Man (Brad Pitt) and the designated bad guy of Metro City. But when Megamind finally vanquishes his foe, he discovers that being a supervillain is no fun unless you have a superhero to plot against.

Ferrell and Tina Fey, as TV reporter and perpetual kidnapping victim Roxanne Ritchie, provide a running comedic banter that keeps the movie genuinely funny for adults. As the extras reveal, Fey and Ferrell recorded and improvised their scenes together, which almost never happens in voiceover work. Meanwhile, the ace animation team provides lively action scenes and elaborate head bonks for the shorter set.

Extras: The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack features filmmaker’s commentary track; about a dozen interactive mini-docs, picture-in-picture elements and interviews; a trivia track; deleted scenes and the all-new animated short “The Button of Doom.”

The Bottom Line: To some degree, all animated comedies aim to appeal to kids and parents both; “Megamind” manages to play to each crowd surprisingly well.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Freeze-framing reveals that Megamind’s Dehydration gun has several other settings, including Demoralize, Deregulate and Decoupage.

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William Gibson is famous for a lot of reasons. His debut novel, “Neuromancer,” was the first book to the “triple crown” of science fiction awards – the Nebula, the Hugo, and Philip K. Dick Award. He arguably launched two entire genres of sci fi – cyberpunk and steampunk. And he coined the term cyberspace – about a decade before it actually existed.

Author William Gibson (photo: Michael O'Shea)

In fact, many now believe that Gibson’s sci-fi work in the 1980s actually determined the eventual trajectory of the World Wide Web. All those engineers and designers in the 1990s, after all, had grown up with Gibson’s books. When it came time to actually invent cyberspace, Gibson had already provided the conceptual blueprints.

But for science fiction fans of a certain intensity, Gibson is probably most famous for his utterly distinctive prose style. Dense, multivalent and hyper-specific, Gibson’s writing requires a lot of attention from the reader. His books have the effect of slowing the reader down, even as they depict a world where everything is moving impossibly fast.

This Tuesday at 7 pm, Gibson will be reading from his latest novel, “Zero History,” at the Reynolds Theater in the Bryan University Center at Duke. Gibson will also be signing books afterward, and the event is free and open to the public.

The third book to take place in Gibson’s contemporary setting, “Zero History” follows the fates of three characters – morally ambiguous marketing mogul Hubertus Bigend, musician and journalist Hollis Henry, and the chameleon-like recovering addict known as Milgrim – as they work to uncover a government conspiracy.

The new book shares many of the same characters and concerns as Gibson’s previous two novels, “Pattern Recognition” and “Spook Country. The setting? “About five minutes into the future.”

Speaking in his friendly, laconic drawl from a hotel room in Denver, the previous stop on his 20-city book store, Gibson spoke about 9/11 attacks, optimism for the future and the power of Googling.

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DVD Picks
Raleigh News & Observer
Glenn McDonald

Pick of the Week
Secretariat

Drama; rated PG for brief mild language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: The genuinely amazing and mostly true story of Secretariat, considered the greatest race horse to ever live.

The Lowdown: Starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich, “Secretariat” is a straight-up Hollywood fastball, thrown right down the middle. You know exactly what’s coming, and it still blows you away.

Highly shellacked and polished in the usual Disney fashion, the movie relates the saga of Secretariat, the race horse who, in 1973, won the Triple Crown and broke a few dozen records that still stand today. Lane is great in the role of Penny Chenery, the feisty owner who stands her ground in the old boys’ club of horse racing, and Malkovich lets some genuine warmth shine through as the eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin.

Director Randall Wallace finds interesting ways to switch up the texture on what is essentially a series of horse races, and skillfully parallels the human drama concerning Penny and her family. It’s all surprisingly dramatic and inspirational, considering that everyone knows the ending.

The Extras: The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack has director’s commentary track, deleted scenes, two short production docs and some archival race footage.

The Bottom Line: “Secretariat” can really mess with a guy’s film snob credentials. This was one of my favorite movies of 2010.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: When Secretariat died in 1989, it was discovered that his heart was two-and-a-half times the size of the average horse.

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DVD Picks – January 21, 2011
Raleigh News & Observer
Glenn McDonald

Pick of the Week
Jack Goes Boating

Comedy/romance; rated R for language, drug use and some sexual content; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Two working class New York City couples try to find honesty and intimacy in the cold, dark city winter.

The Lowdown: Directed by and starring veteran actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Jack Goes Boating” is based on a play and moves to the slower rhythms of the stage. As the painfully shy but good-hearted Jack, Hoffman gives another of his detailed character portraits. Jack works as a limo driver for his uncle’s business, but finds new inner resources when set up on a blind date with Connie (Amy Ryan), another damaged and withdrawn New Yorker. John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega play the film’s other featured couple, whose long partnership is threatened by secrets and betrayals.

Not a lot happens in “Jack Goes Boating,” and what does happen goes down verrry slowly. But if you can adjust to the film’s pacing, you’ll find a moving and funny story of the trials of love. “Jack” excels at evoking that kind of rich, exquisite sadness you can only really get at the movies. Have they invented a name for that feeling yet?

The Extras: Deleted scenes, theatrical trailer and two production featurettes concerning the adaptation form stage to screen.

The Bottom Line: A subdued but deeply felt love story with amazing performances from the four leads.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Hoffman may be the least vain screen actor ever – Jack is chubby, schlubby, frequently shirtless and failing spectacularly in an effort to grow dreadlocks.

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Game Picks – January 14, 2001
Raleigh News & Observer
Glenn McDonald

TouchMaster: Connect

Parents with children currently in possession of the handheld Nintendo DS gaming system may be familiar with this dilemma: Sitting in an airport, or standing in a long line, kids are at a distinct advantage. With that little handheld, they can while away hours on end without looking up. I suppose, for adults, that’s what Blackberries, iPhones and Droids are for. But frankly, I’m not ready to be that connected yet.

Touchmaster Connect

More my pace is “TouchMaster: Connect” (DS, $19.99, Rated E), a collection of 20 mini-games for the DS designed to appeal to the aging old-school gamer out there. “TouchMaster” spans the typical array of mini-game genres – card games, a few strategy and action titles, some trivia – and packages it all together with on-screen tutorials and easy-to-learn control schemes.

I dug into this collection quite a bit over the holidays, returning to play probably a dozen of the games more than once. I’m clinically addicted to four or five of them, too, and that’s a pretty decent batting average for a mini-game collection. Most successful are the variations on Bejeweled and Tetris style puzzlers, and the sole included trivia game has a surprising level of depth. One thing I’d have liked to see included – a decent Mahjong game. I can kill days with a decent Mahjong game.

As you might expect, “TouchMaster” has some new social networking options that integrate with Twitter and Facebook on the Internet-enabled DSi handheld. Also: online leaderboards and local wireless multiplayer on selected games.

I suspect I’ll go the rest of my life without feeling the urge to post my Solitaire high scores online. But then again, who knows? The times, they are a changing.

DVD Picks – January 14, 2011
Raleigh News & Observer

Glenn McDonald

The Social Network

Drama; rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Director David Fincher (“Fight Club”) teams with writer Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) to detail the creation of Facebook, maybe the most influential (insidious?) social phenomenon of a generation.

The Lowdown: One of the year’s Oscar frontrunners, “The Social Network” is a marvel of modern movie-making. A fictionalized account of the creation of Facebook, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the brilliant and damaged Harvard student who more or less invented social networking as we now know it.

Sorkin’s screenplay features his patented brand of impossibly eloquent dialogue, and director Fincher keeps everything moving along at the pace of a contemporary thriller. The movie is most interesting, however, in its ideas and implications. “The Social Network” might appear to be another morality play about ambition and greed, but what it’s really concerned with is the dramatic flux of modern communication in the digital age.

After all the noisy interpersonal drama plays out, you’re left feeling a strange unease. Fincher has threaded his themes of deception and authenticity throughout, and these are the anxieties that linger.

The Extras: Two separate commentary tracks with all the major players, plus five more mini-docs on technical aspects of the film.

The Bottom Line: A very intelligent drama with a lot on its mind, “Network” also works as a fast and furious thriller.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Actress Rooney Mara has been cast as Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming remake of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

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