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from the Raleigh News & Observer

The video game genre known as survival horror plays by a certain set of rules. These games generate thrills through atmosphere and tension rather than straight-up action, and limited resources give the player a sense of desperation. Running and hiding is often a better option than standing and fighting.

“Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” is a nice example of survival horror done right, and by “nice” I mean “utterly terrifying.” Horror fans who like to scare themselves silly – whether by game, movie or book – will appreciate the experience that “RE7” provides. When executed properly (heh), survival horror games are unlike any other storytelling mode.

Returning players will already be familiar with the “Resident Evil” vibe – creeping horror punctuated with sudden scares by nightmare beasties. As the title of the new game suggest, the series also plays with our deep biological fears of infection and contamination. “RE” specializes in squirm-inducing environments designed to punch you right in the brain stem.

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Film review: The Guard

November 25, 2011

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

It’s like the old Irish proverb says: Nothing can ruin a good cup of tea like running afoul of an international cocaine smuggling ring.

"The Guard"

In the often funny, often indecipherable Irish comedy “The Guard,” Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, the unorthodox but honest cop who patrols rural County Galway in Ireland. Boyle is no saint – he has a standing arrangement with the local escort service and enjoys sampling the occasional clubs drugs he pulls from the pockets of delinquent teens. When a local crime figure is found with a professionally placed bullet in his head, Boyle regards the death as a proper comeuppance, more a paperwork nuisance than a crime.

But as played by Gleeson in a rich comic performance, Boyle also has a shaggy nobility and a rigid code of honor. He protects the local kids, visits his ailing mum, and stubbornly defies his better-dressed, on-the-take superiors down at headquarters. Boyle’s routine is disrupted, however, with the discovery of a major cocaine smuggling operation in sleepy Galway. Read the rest of this entry »

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

It’s no secret that the newspaper business is in trouble. Dozens of papers across the U.S. have folded in the face of rising distribution costs, declining ad revenue and competition from digital sources.

“Page One: Inside the New York Times” is a fascinating documentary that roots into the challenges the industry faces, by focusing on America’s flagship newspaper, The New York Times.

You don’t have to be a policy wonk or media nerd to enjoy “Page One” – but it helps. From the first frame, director Andrew Rossi dives into the deep end of the pool, trusting that his audience is sophisticated enough to keep up.

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originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Well, it’s official. Ed Helms is a movie star. And he can thank his director for that.

The former “Daily Show” correspondent and veteran ensemble player (“The Hangover,” “The Office”) headlines “Cedar Rapids,” the year’s first genuine sleeper comedy hit. As it turns out, “Cedar Rapids” was directed by Miguel Arteta, author of last year’s sleeper comedy hit, the Michael Cera freakout “Youth in Revolt.”

This is particularly relevant, because the success of “Cedar Rapids” comes as much from Arteta’s sure-handed direction as it does with Helms’ leading performance.

It goes like this: Small town insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) is recruited to attend the industry’s regional conference in the (relatively) big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim, who has never left his hometown and is dating his grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), is overjoyed but ill-prepared. If naivete were potato chips, Tim would be Frito-Lay.

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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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Pick of the Week

Waiting for “Superman”

Documentary; rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: A powerful documentary that examines the failures of American public education by following several students through a frighteningly broken system.

The Lowdown: The year’s first must-see DVD, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a tremendously effective and deeply compelling documentary from director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) regarding the sorry state of the U.S. public school system.

I didn’t think I’d ever see a documentary as terrifying as “An Inconvenient Truth,” but “Superman” comes pretty close. Simply put, the American public school system is in deep crisis, threatening the future of an entire generation of students – minority and inner city kids in particular.

Guggenheim, a ridiculously gifted filmmaker, uses all the tools of the documentary form to make his persuasive case. Interviews with pioneering educators are juxtaposed with startling statistics. In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are eight times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, ineligible for 90% of jobs, and are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate.

The film also follows several families as they try to navigate the public school system, or more accurately, to avoid it. We see parents from both the inner city and the wealthy suburbs entering their kids into lotteries to attend charter and magnet schools. The film’s final scenes are quietly devastating as these students watch their future being determined by a random drawing.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, “Superman” contends, but the film lays much of it at the feet of powerful teachers’ unions and a bureaucratic culture that stymies any effort toward progressive reform. It’s a lot more complicated that that, of course, and the film is mostly even-handed with its finger-pointing.

This might all sound rather wonkish and dry, but Guggenheim populates the film with real people and their specific stories, and also employs inventive animation sequences to bring the statistics to life.

I really can’t say enough nice things about this film. It’s been an incredible couple of years for documentary films, and I’m consistently amazed at how filmmakers are using the form to explore complex issues with such efficiency and artfulness.

The Extras: Deleted scenes, director’s commentary track and five mini-features expanding on various aspects of the film.

The Bottom Line: A fascinating, moving and provocative documentary that’s equal parts penetrating critique and passionate call-to-action.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Every copy of the retail DVD and Blu-ray package comes with a $25 online credit voucher, which viewers can donate to an educational charity of their choice.

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