Lawless is a prohibition-era story that doesn’t take place in the speakeasies of Chicago and New York, but goes right to the source, where local folk pay off the lawmen and churn out moonshine for consumption in the big cities. Franklin County, Virginia, was known as “the wettest county in the south” in 1931, before the feds came in and ruined business, and the Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBoeuf, Jason Clark) are doing a good business. But the city comes creeping in via a glamourous ex-dancer(Jessica Chastain) and a sadistic lawman (played menacingly by Guy Pearce). When the brothers refuse to play ball, they start a blood war among the law, the gangsters and the locals. Everything feels authentic, from the parallel story about the origin of Nascar, to the atmospheric, tobacco-stained lensing.
A remake of the 1976 film, Sparkle may have been doomed from the start: the late singer Aaliyah was set to star in the project; now, of course, the film will forever be known as Whitney Houston’s last work. It chronicles three sisters from Detroit who make it big in the music business against the wishes of their domineering mother, played by Houston. They almost score a record contract, before “Sister’s” (Carmen Ejogo) drug abuse gets in the way, and it’s up to the youngest sister, Sparkle (American Idol winner Jordin Sparks), to pick up the torch and move on. Sparks, in her first role, is simply OK. British actress Ejogo fares best in this feature that feels more like a movie of the week. And it’s a little eerie to hear Whitney Houston say: “is my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” There’s a tribute to Houston on the film’s special features, along with director commentary and a making-of extra.
It’s been a decade since Men In Black II: filmmakers must have been waiting for Josh Brolin to come along and play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones, because that is the gimmick behind Men In Black III, in which Agent J (played charmingly, as always, by Will Smith) has to go back to 1969 to save his friend and partner Agent K (Jones) from being killed. The highlight then and now is the chat between funnyman Smith and straight-men Jones and Brolin, mixed with some impressive visual effects. It’s a re-tread of what we’ve seen before, though there’s an unexpected tragic twist mixed in with all that alien mayhem on. The gag reel is fun, plus there’s a music video and a making-of extra on the standard disc.
ParaNorman is a grown-up kids movie about a middle-school kid who doesn’t fit in: he’s bullied at school, his parents don’t understand him and his best conversations are with the dead. So when a 300-year-old curse threatens his small-minded town, it’s up to Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In) to step in and save the day. Great voicework by Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, John Goodman, Casey Affleck and Leslie Mann, and jokes poking fun at horror classics like Halloween and Friday the 13th. A stop-motion marvel by the studio who brought you the equally creepy Coraline: watch the blu-ray’s special features to appreciate the painstaking stop-motion process (all those snap-on doll faces!), plus enjoy seven making-of featurettes, commentary from directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, and more.