Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"Scream 4" Review

The biggest point of interest for me about Scream 4 (or Scre4m in l337 m0v13 sp33k) was that it was shot in the Detroit area. It wasn't even a movie I was planning on seeing theatrically but got stuck paying full price for when the showing of Fast Five we'd planned on catching with a free ticket was sold out. Drat. While it's not worth full price, it's not bad so I didn't feel too chapped.

Pretty much the whole gang that wasn't killed in previous chapters is here as Neve Campbell's Sydney is coming home to promote her book about surviving the other three movies. Courtney Cox and David Arquette are married (fun fact: their marriage was falling apart during the shoot) and he's the Sheriff of Whereverville these movies happen in. Of course, people start dying and the question is who is wearing the Ghostface mask this time.

The thing about the Scream series from the very beginning was that it was tweaking the conventions of the genre. It's hard to remember what a shock it was for Drew Barrymore's character to get whacked in the opening scene when she was prominently featured on the poster. As a decade has passed, the requirement for how Scream changed the format to be addressed is cleverly handled by series creator Kevin Williamson very meta script. From the very beginning Scre4m knows what it is and makes a running commentary about what it's doing and why. (Check out the trailer for a taste.)

You'll probably figure out the final twists since we're all so cynical and on guard for them in the first place, but director Wes Craven runs things fast enough that we don't have enough time to ponder what's coming. While not even evolutionary, Scream 4 manages to not be a Ghostface-come-lately cash-in. We didn't need this movie; but it's not something that should be killed and buried behind the garage. It's worth a rental, just as I'd planned all along.

Score: 7/10. Rent the DVD.

Weird detail: Marley Shelton, who plays a deputy and was the woman who Josh Hartnett killed in the beginning of Sin City, looks a LOT like Heather Graham; so much so that when a clip of Stab, the movie within the movie in Scream 2 (IIRC), is shown with Heather, we thought it was Marley again.

"Middle Men" Review

The origins of the online porn industry are flashily portrayed in Middle Men, a brisk and frequently amusing flick that bogs down somewhat in the middle before ultimately telling the viewer at the end that they've been wasting their time if they've been thinking they were learning something.

After a pair of drugged-out morons in L.A. develop a method to collect credit card payments for porn, they rapidly start rolling in dough (and drugs) and their lack of business acumen causes the business and their lives to be in danger. In steps clean-cut nice guy fixer Luke Wilson, a Houston family man who is so straight he wears a suit and tie almost all the time. He straightens up the business and comes up with a means to hide the nature of the charges on credit card statements so that wives don't know what smut their hubbies are blowing the grocery money on.

Of course, the good times can last forever, especially when you're dealing with a pair of idiots, a crooked lawyer, and Russian mobsters and the stakes rapidly rise to life-threatening levels. Also, his Luke's Boy Scout nature is tempted by an affair with the only porn star who doesn't do nudity - come on, Hollywood, it's like the starlets who don't take off their bra while having sex; cast actresses who are willing to give up the goods! - and when the Idiot Twins start their own side bunch of sites, the Feds close in.

While Middle Men starts off with a lot of energy it sags in the middle before pulling it together in the end. The performances are good and it's pretty entertaining except none of it is real. While it's advertised as "inspired by true events" a card in the end credits reveals that while it's kinda sorta based on real events, all the characters, names, places and events have been fictionalized or composited from different people; in other words, it's a total work of fiction based on real events, like Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. Way to waste the viewer's time, folks.

Entertaining, but not enlightening, Middle Men is an also-ran for anyone who was genuinely curious as to how the modern Internet was won.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Hanna" Review

Rather than waste time recapping the plot of Hanna, watch the trailer for me, please:

If it looks like an artsy take on the Hit Girl character from last year's Kick-Ass, you'd be wrong for the most part because Saoirse Ronan's (The Lovely Bones, Atonement) Hanna is a polite girl whose father, Eric Bana, has raised in total isolation in the Arctic Circle with a single purpose: to kill Cate Blanchett, the CIA spook who killed her mother. I don't think she swears once.

When she sets off on her mission and escape, Hanna finds herself in a world she's only read about. She can speak fluent Arabic, but has never seen a TV. When she hooks up with a Australian family of pseudo-Bohos, her inexperience with basic social situations leads to some hilarious awkward moments. ("As opposed to what?!?" is the funniest line of the movie.)

With a taut score by the Chemical Brothers (who beat down the overrated Daft Punk and their TRON Legacy bloops and beeps), good performances all around including the poorly-dressed, creepy German bar owner/assassin Blanchett sets after Hanna, and a very European vibe and look that avoids the usual locations for spy movies, Hanna is a more cerebral take on the adolescent murder girl genre. Yeah, you'll be able to predict the last line of dialogue, but it's OK.

Score: 8/10. Catch a matinee.

"Death Race 2" Review

OK, this movie sucked, so let's make quick work of it. Here's the trailer for this direct-to-video steamer:

Did you see the part about how the first half of the movie is spent with gladiator battles? How about how the charisma-free leading man who the producers thought would be an acceptable substitute for Jason Statham? Is it clear that it's a prequel even though the higher number would indicate sequel? OK, that it does, but who cares?

Low-rent and unnecessary - and not even willing to have decent gratuitous nudity to go with all the CGI bloodshed - and not much fun, Death Race 2 is one death race too many.

Score: 2/10. Skip it.

"The Next Three Days" Review

The trailer tells the tale:

All that's missing is the details as to how Russell Crowe breaks Elizabeth Banks out of prison. Wrongly convicted - or was she? - of murdering her boss, Crowe reaches out to Liam Neeson (who escaped many prisons and wrote a book and is in exactly one scene) for advice and then plans how to get her out when her final appeal fails. When she is suddenly slated to be moved to another prison, he has only three days to execute his plan.

Written and directed by the most dishonest screenwriter in Hollyweird, Paul "Crash, In the Valley of Elah, Million Dollar Baby" Haggis (which is a gross Scottish dish), it manages to not be as revolting as those stories, but at the cost of being dull and ultimately forgettable. (I'm writing this review on June 24th and can barely remember what it was like.) Crowe is miscast as a desperate husband while Banks is good in a thinly written role. A hot single mom (Olivia Wilde) Crowe meets on his son's playground doesn't even act as a temptation, so why is she here at all? Seriously. I get being all loyal to your wife and baby mama, but she's going away for 20 years or more and OLIVIA WILDE IS RIGHT THERE AND AVAILABLE!! Dude!!!

Finally, without spoiling whether he breaks her out successfully - oh, come on; what do you think happens? - I have to say that getting into Canuckia is a hella lot harder than they show it here. Bah.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Takers" Review

Familiarity makes Takers an exercise in mehness. A slick gang of bank robbers gets a tip on a Big Score from a former crew member who got caught on a job and served five years in prison and is back out. Based on the armored truck robbery scheme from The Italian Job, they put together an audacious plan which works after a fashion until the inevitable double-crosses and bad breaks start to cause serious problems and blood loss.

The action scenes are OK and the story structure is a little different - the big heist is in the middle of the movie, hinting that there's more easy-to-guess plot to come - but it tries a little too hard to be stylish with dramatic lighting and color timing. Co-produced by co-star Tip "T.I." Harris, it's an old heist movie story dressed up in slick threads and a mostly minority cast - Matt Dillon, Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen are the only gringos in the top-billed stars - but all the polish can't make it shine.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Ghost in the Shell 2.0" Blu-ray Review

There are certain anime movies and shows that every self-respecting beginning otaku (Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests, particularly anime, manga, or video games) is expected to have seen: Akira, Cowboy Bebop, and 1995's Ghost in the Shell which was updated in 2008 by director Mamoru Oshii to Ghost in the Shell 2.0 - not to be confused with his 2004 sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Confused? Let me explain.

Oshii has gone back an redone several sequences with CGI animation meaning shots of helicopters and the city and computer screens and the Major's iconic strip-naked-turn-invisible-jump-off-building-kill-people scene are buffed in in 21st Century drag. The problem is that when we revert to the 1995 hand-drawn animation, it's jarring. Purists may hate it, but I liked it.

It's been ages since I've seen GitS and it was probably on VHS so I thought this new Blu-ray looked and sounded terrific. However, in looking up some info on it, I discovered there is some controversy involving the new footage, the color timing changes to make it look like the sequel (this I tend to agree with now that I've seen the comparison), and the voice cast. This guy's video review goes into quite a lot of depth with his criticism (do yourself a favor and skip to the 4:00 mark to get to the pertinent info; the intro is simply stupid and screams, "I'm a nerdgin!") and illustrates his beefs with the update.

It should be noted that the original cut is included on this disc, though it's apparently an uprezzed version of the DVD master and opinions are generally negative toward it. The above-linked video talks about how a proper BD of original version is available via import, but a glance at Amazon's Japan site shows it's about $125 for the three disc set! Pass!!

At the core of Ghost in the Shell is a story about the tenuous grip on humanity a person who is basically a cybernetic vessel encasing her spirit (or "ghost" as they call it) may have and how other A.I. constructs may feel about their existence. It frequently gets dully philosophical, but it's not as talky as the sequel was. For all of Innocence's striking beauty, it was mostly characters quoting philosophers at each other like college students one-upping each other.

Ghost in the Shell was never a flawless movie - though unlike Akira, it doesn't utterly fall apart in the end - and the updated visual bits don't change the ultimate story, but it should be seen by all seeking to have a well-rounded appreciation for disparate forms of entertainment. If you've never seen (or don't remember) GitS, then this 2.0 version is fine if you can rent it or get on sale someplace for $10 or less.

Score: 7/10. Buy it if you're a fan and can get it cheap.

"Arthur (2011)" Review

When they announced the totally unnecessary remake of the classic 1981 comedy Arthur with Russell Brand taking over Dudley Moore's role, Helen Mirren as a gender-swapped Hobson (that won Sir John Gielgud an Oscar), and Greta Gerwig (me neither) blonding up the Liza Minnelli role, I had the same question as everyone else which is the same question that is asked when a beloved family member dies, a natural disaster occurs, or Michael Anthony is booted for Eddie's kid Wolfgang: WHY, GOD? WHY?!?

The need to remake everything regardless of whether it's needed re-doing or not has been a close second to sequels as a sign of Hollywood's fearful timidness and general disinterest in originality. You can imagine the pitch meeting for this thing: "Hey, let's remake Arthur with that annoying skinny English twit from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek. We'll get that GILF Helen Mirren to be the butler and it will be automatic win and profit! If only it were so simple.

If you've seen the original, you've pretty much seen this one. Arthur's a drunk man-child whose mother orders him to marry the daughter (Jennifer Garner) of a rough and tough, but very wealthy, contractor (Nick Nolte speaking in a worse voice than Batman) in order to provide stability and trust in the family business. He's dated her before, but dumped her because he didn't fancy her, something no other man had done to her before. When he tells Mother that he's not going to do it, she tells him he'll be cut off from his billion dollar trust fund if he doesn't close the deal. He meets a kooky, free-spirited, self-appointed tour guide (Gerwig) at Grand Central Station and is smitten by her. Will true love will out over money or will a tragic murder-suicide cap off this flick?

I'm not much of a fan of Brand's and it has nothing to do with his exclusive access to Katy Perry's glorious joy globes. He's struck me as an annoying one-trick pony and he doesn't disabuse me of that idea still, but he's not as terrible as I'd feared. As Arthur makes his inevitable arc into semi-maturity, Brand does OK. Mirren is as tart as could've been expected, but woefully underused. It feels as if they cast her and figured their work was done and didn't bother to write much for her. What a wasted opportunity.

This Gerwig person is one of those critic's darling babes that all the critics fawn over because she was in a movie you've probably never heard (think: Greta Scacchi), in this case Greenberg, the Ben Stiller blockbuster that grossed $4,234,170 domestically. She's sorta cute in an indie movie way, but feels underwritten. The weird standout is Garner who plays Susan, the arranged bride, as a craven shark with barely any veneer of romance; it's all about Arthur's Benjamins, baybee!

Are there laughs? Sure, but not as many as there should've been and in a far lower ratio than a typical well-done sitcom. (Really, why is it that TV shows can deliver more laughs in an average 22-minute episode for free than a 100-minute charges $10 for?) My girlfriend likes Brand (figures) and found the line he delivers during an AA meeting to be the funniest thing she's heard all year. There are some moments of sweet whimsy, like their first date. However, for most of the time during Arthur 2011: The Unnecessary Remake, I was wondering when a proper DVD release of the original would happen - it's never been released in widescreen format. This movie isn't evil, just irrelevant.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Country Strong" Review

It's easy to make fun of the title of Country Strong - which itself sounds like the Hulk titled it - with things like Country Wrong or Country Weak or Country Cheese and the idea of Hollywood blue blood and English resident (married to the singer of Radiohead Lite) Gwyneth Paltrow launching a side career as a country singer has gathered hoots, but the main problem the movie has is a scattered, trope-laden script that stumbles along aimlessly before doing something at the end which turned a mediocre movie into something epically terrible.

Since I'm going to have to spoil the living daylights about the plot, for those unwilling to heed my good advice and skip this movie, this is the end of the road for you. Gwynnie can sing; Garrett Hedlund is actually quite good acting and singing, a shock considering he was last seen utterly stinking up the Grid in TRON Legacy; Leighton Meester almost shakes her Gossip Girl image, but is much better singing; but, overall the movie is a mess before it veers into disaster.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

OK, here's where the SPOILERS begin, so you've been warned. To understand what's wrong with Country Strong, you have to look at the trailer to see how it was sold:

OK, got that? It looks like a redemption story with All About Eve elements. Gwyneth overcomes scheming rookie Blair with the help of young country hunk Beau. Did you catch the part where Beau is the actual protagonist and Gwyneth KILLS HERSELF about a minute after telling Blair, "That's how it's done."? They show someone slumping to the floor - that would be Tim McGraw, real-life country star who isn't a musician here and is married in real life to Faith Hill whom Gwyneth is clearly patterned after - at the news of her death, but it comes from nowhere in the movie. Movies don't need to have happy endings, but this is so cheap and meaningless it just shows how slipshod the storytelling is.

Let's start from the beginning: It opens with Beau and his band playing for a smattering of oldsters at a honky tonk. He then goes to work and his clothes indicate he's some sort of orderly. He's told to stay away from Gwyneth, so of course we cut directly to him and her collaborating on a song, passing an acoustic back and forth during an obvious roll in the sack. What's their relationship? We don't know. Tim comes in and asks what's going on and announces that she's checking out. Beau protests that it's a month too early and he's her sponsor. OK, she's in rehab and he's her sponsor and apparently f*ck buddy. Moving on...

While Tim and Faith (heh) are driving out, we hear on the radio a news report that she was coming out of rehab after an incident in Dallas several months before in which she was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct while 5-1/2 months pregnant during a show. Hmmm, sounds bad. What happened to the baby? Tim addresses the media that she's ready to get back on the road. So he's her manager? OK.

Next thing, they're in bed together, but it's obviously chilly between them. Oh, he's her husband and manager. Happens all the time. She wants to talk about Dallas but he doesn't. I'm guessing she lost the baby - when someone gives her a "gift" of a box with a bloody doll inside with a note reading "BABY KILLER!" that seals it - but Tim says something about "putting him down" like they have a kid. What the heck is going on here?

We then see Tim checking out potential opener Beau and Blair at some Nashville bar. Blair is a former beauty queen prone to stage fright and she freezes until Beau bails her out. Tim offers them the opening slots on Faith's comeback tour. Huh? Some guy who appears to be banging your wife and a scared girl are the best you can get? After the doll incident, Faith freaks out on stage and starts crying, ending the show and she disappears on a second gig leaving the giant arena gig in Dallas on the line. Fortunately, Faith makes out with the promoter of the gig and it's back on? WTFF?!?

All along, there seem to be TWO triangles going on: Tim-Faith-Beau and Faith-Beau-Blair. There's an attraction between the kids and after a night of drinking - wait, wasn't he Faith's rehab sponsor?!? - they almost seal the deal, but Faith is floating around the perimeter and I found myself shopping for video games online during this long stretch of nothing.

Blah-blah-woof-woof and the Big Show goes down. Beau rocks the house, Blair doesn't freeze up in a packed arena only a few gigs after tanking at the honky tonk, Faith comes out and puts on a triumphant performance, and after the show, she goes to her dressing room and locks the door. Beau notices she's not at the party and goes to her isolated dressing room, kicks in the door and finds her unconscious from an overdose of pills. Wait, WHAT?!?!??!

At this moment Country Strong jumps the shark, nukes the fridge, and makes me wonder what the whole movie was about and how everyone involved in the movie thought this was a good idea? Why did we spend two hours watching this woman try to redeem her life only to take it? A: Because she's not the main character, Beau is. It's not about Faith getting her life together, but Beau getting his career in gear, just like the trailer DIDN'T show. The whole marketing campaign is a bait and switch.

Now it may not have mattered if the movie managed to coherently tell its story, but it doesn't. We don't learn that Faith fell 10 feet off the stage in Dallas causing her to lose the baby until 80 minutes into the film. Why not mention that up front? How hard would it have been to have the radio report wrap all those details up in two sentences? "Not Faith Hill was released from rehab today, only months after an incident in Dallas in which an intoxicated, 5-1/2 month pregnant Not Faith Hill fell from the stage, causing a miscarriage." There, we're all up to speed and not scratching our heads.

There is also a subplot about an orphaned quail she finds on the facility's grounds that she's trying got nurture. Get it? The bird is her lost baby and need to be a mother. Except she takes the box it's in to the bar, gets drunk, and forgets it; something that we never see, is covered in dialogue and never factors into the story again. Again, huh? Did anyone look at a cut of the film before it was duped and sent to theaters? I'll bet I could recut the movie without any of that and it wouldn't be missed.

Because we are never clear about who is doing what and why, nothing ever gels. Hedlund is quite believable as Beau, with a strong baritone voice and charismatic manner and Gwyneth does what she can with the script and sings well, but it doesn't matter and the way she checks out is stupid. She could've slapped down Blair while walking offstage, gone to her dressing room, and had Tim come in to cheer her and say she's back and have her say, "No. I'm done. I'm retired and running off with Beau," or something to get her back in control of her life. Why suicide? Because it would've gotten Paltrow an Oscar nomination? That worked. Not.

Writer-director Shana Feste has no sense of how musicians actually think and act - lots of singing doesn't make it a musical - and the general confusion of the plot started at the script stage and didn't get better. As I detailed up top, we are thrown into a confusing set of relationships and have to unravel the facts as best we can. (This isn't Memento, dammit!)

Only waste your time on Country Strong if you want to see how NOT to tell a story.
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