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August 2011 Review Roundup

Another decent month of viewing, up one from the previous month.

August 3 - Disturbia (5/10)
August 5 -Unthinkable (8.5/10)
August 6 - Bad Teacher (5/10); Super (3/10)
August 7 - Crazy, Stupid, Love (7/10)
August 7 - Rise of the Planet of the Apes (7/10)
August 8 - Blitz (4/10)
August 14 - Final Destination 5 (8.5/10)
August 15 - Green Lantern (0.5/10)
August 24 - Spread (3/10)
August 25 - Columbiana (4/10)
August 28 - Wet Hot American Summer (3/10)

Month's Movies Watched: 12
Previously Unseen: 12
Theatrical: 5
Home: 7
Year-To-Date: 84
YTD First-Timers: 72
YTD Theatrical: 31
YTD Home: 53

"Wet Hot American Summer" Review

From time to time there are movies that when you look back in retrospect are amazing for how many actors in them went on to Big Time Stardom or at least significant careers. American Graffiti had Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, Mackenzie Phillips, Paul LeMat, Charles Martin Smith, and Suzanne Somers. The Outsiders had Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, and Emilio Estevez. Big groups of talent, all in one place, in service well-regarded movies beyond their casts.

Which brings us to 2001's Wet Hot American Summer, a low-budget indie comedy with a cult following that was featured a couple of months back in Entertainment Weekly, marking its 10th anniversary. Check out this cast: Bradley Cooper (Limitless), Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks (both in Our Idiot Brother which opened this weekend), Janeane Garofalo (before she became the insane liberal hater she is today), David Hyde Pierce (Niles on Frasier), Christopher Meloni (Law & Order SVU), Amy Poehler and Molly Shannon (SNL), Judah Friedlander (30 Rock), and Michael Ian Black (all those VH1 retrospectives). They all seem to have loved making it and would be open to doing a sequel, but I have to ask one question: Why when the first movie is such a mess?

Set on the last day of summer camp in 1981, WHAS focuses mostly on various pairs of the camp counselors trying to hook up while egregiously ignoring their charges. (So many kids drown on Paul Rudd's non-watch that I'm surprised Camp Firewood didn't spawn more machete-wielding killers than Camp Crystal Lake.) While there are a few narrative threads, most of the film feels like they had index cards with ideas on them like, "Crazy 'Nam vet thinks a can of beans is talking to him; ends up humping a refrigerator," or, "Woman going through a divorce is comforted and finds love with 10-year-old boy." Part of this random non-continuity is deliberate, but some segments feel like they sprinkled PCP on their weed for breakfast and then made movie under the influence. There's a chase which culminates with a single bale of hay in the middle of the road acting as a roadblock which just made me scratch my head. Then there's the scene where the counselors run into town with a montage that starts off with them getting ice cream and beer and then rapidly descends into purse-snatching and shooting smack in a dope house before showing them returning to camp within an hour, none the worse for wear.

I like oddball humor, but too much of Wet Hot American Summer feels like the cast enjoying themselves - hey, it's like Cannonball Run II! - and we're on the outside looking in at all the familiar faces. I'd missed it when it first came out and I was still digging on Janeane (man, she went nuts; so sad) and had always been meaning to catch up on it. Having done so, I'm genuinely baffled at the cult fave regard it's held in. It's simply not that good other than as a good hub film for 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Score: 3/10. Watch it on a friend's cable so you can both go, "Hey, is that...?"

"Columbiana" Review

Hollywood loves sequels. However, for every Crazed Torture Porn Next Higher Number and Formula Katherine Heigl Rom-Com 2011 we get, there are plenty that we don't get. Where's Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League? More importantly, where is Matilda: The Professional in which a grown-up Natalie Portman reprises her debut role as a grown-up hit woman? Every so often, you'll hear teases of rumors that Natalie and writer-director Luc Besson would reteam, but nothing comes of it. Until now. Sort of.

In spots, Columbiana has imagery and themes which reminded me of Besson's Léon (bka The Professional) and his role as producer and co-writer are surely relevant, but it simply doesn't add up to tell a a consistent tale of hot babe murder and revenge.

Opening in 1992, we meet young Cataleya, a 10-year-old girl whose father is involved with a Columbian crime kingpin. He's leaving the boss' service and it seems amicable, but the father knows the boss will send people to kill him and he's right. He gives a SD card to her and is then promptly murdered with her mother. A bad guy tries to get it from her, but she stabs him and takes off in a parkour-style chase (ripped off from Casino Royale and Besson's District B-13), making her way to the American Embassy and safety in the USA with her uncle.

We then jump ahead 15 years (which makes no sense because that would be 2007 and she's been on the warpath for four years, it's revealed) when she crashes her car into a cop car and stumbles out looking like Halle Berry's crackhead in Jungle Fever. They toss her in jail and she proceeds to sneak through the jail to kill an associate of the crime lord's who is conveniently being held overnight in another area. How does she know all this? How come everything works out flawlessly? Just 'cause.

Her calling card left at the scene of her hits has a diligent FBI agent on her tail (a very good Lennie James) and eventually the kingpin realizes who's after him, so he sends minions to kill those close to her and she's got an artist guy who she goes and shags before leaving and he knows nothing much about this hot girl - to be fair, if Zoe Saldana showed up at my place looking for nothing but sex, I'm not gonna complain about not knowing her real name - and then there's um something and it gets slow and.....whatever.

Luc Besson is an assembly line for these action movies and it's really wearing thin. This is the same writing team and director (the awesomely-named Olivier Megaton) behind the franchise-killing Transporter 3 and while the ads tout that they wrote the badass Taken, the problem Columbiana suffers from is Megaton's weak pacing during the non-action scenes. Characters are tissue-thin caricatures and while it's a slight change-up to make your lead oblivious to the collateral damage she causes, there's not enough depth to get worked up over it.

Zoe Saldana is a hottie, but she's too thin to be credible as an ass-kicker. There are a few stylish shots and a handful of semi-interesting ideas, but it's just all done too half-assed and disinterestedly to really recommend things. Megaton's simply not visually innovative enough to grant a pass to the storytelling weakness in his game (he's no McG) and with a lackluster cut-and-paste script, there's even less for him to work with.

I like revenge movies. I love hot kickass babes with guns. This movie was starting off with an 8 before the lights went down and it just shed score all the way down. Pity. (Zoe, call me!)

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable.

"Green Lantern" Review

Dear gawd this was awful. Simply miserable. Tedious, dull, stupid, boring - about halfway through I looked over at my girlfriend and she looked miserable and I half-expected her to look at me and beg to go and I realized I didn't have a strong argument against getting up and leaving. We stuck it out because we'd paid our money and to see if anything interesting eventually happened.

It didn't.

The script is dull; the plot vapid; the direction listless; the action scenes inert; Ryan Reynolds is not believable; Blake Lively is almost passable in the beginning before the script gives her nothing to do; the villains suck though Parallax thankfully doesn't have daddy issues. Usually even terrible movies have a couple of good bits, but Green Lantern only almost gives hints of a possibly having a fragment of a good idea in a couple of fleeting spots.

I was miserable the whole time I was in the theater and when we got back to my girlfriend's place, I told her father, "Green Lantern blew goats. I will not be buying the DVD or Blu-ray. I will not be downloading it, so you'll be waiting for it to show up on cable before you see it and I implore you to not bother." He'll probably look at it to see if it's as bad as advertised.

It is.

Score: 0.5/10 (that's a half-point). Skip it. I'm not kidding. RUN AWAY!!!

I'm not bothering posting the trailer. Bah.

UPDATE (12/18/11): I picked up a used copy of the Extended Cut on Blu-ray to see if the extras explained why this movie was so terrible. About 30-40 minutes into the PIP mode, it seems like they're pretty satisfied with how it turned out. Self-knowledge was in short supply, it appears.

"Final Destination 5" Review

After too many Freddie/Jason/Michael-type horror slasher flicks, the original Final Destination was a nice surprise because instead of a masked, invincible killing machine whacking kids, it was Death itself claiming the survivors of the movie-starting disasters. In case you've never seen one of these, the formula is the same: A gruesome accident that kills a bunch of people spectacularly is revealed to be a premonition by one character who then tries to warn everyone away. While he's able to save a handful despite their thinking he's crazy, the accident occurs and people die and they're still alive, thanks to him. At least until the survivors start dying off, one by one in the order they would've originally, in bizarre Rube Goldberg-worthy accidents.

The first film was clever. The sequel had a great opening crash chain reaction, but the subsequent kills were too obvious in setting up the mouse traps. The third entry was even worse as we could see the dominoes being obviously set up in preparation for the hapless victim's demise. It was getting so weak that I totally skipped the fourth film, The Final Destination, which hinted it would the last one of the series. HA! Fat chance! There's money to be made and thus we have Final Destination 5, or as I shall call it, Final Destination OOOOHHHH!!!!!!, because that what you're going to be saying. A lot!

It opens with a corporate retreat with a group know what? Who cares? Here's what matters:

• The opening disaster is the best since the highway crash in FD2. You will exclaim, "OOOOHHH!!!!", and laugh three or four times in this part alone.

• The survivors are barely two dimensional nobodies played by cheap talent you probably won't recognize beyond the boss. Who were they? A guy whose cute girlfriend (she looks like a cross between Sarah Polley and Anna Faris) has dumped him; another guy and his not-that-cute girlfriend; an annoying dork; the a-hole boss; a hot chick; and a token black guy who looks like Mos Def. Names? Didn't notice. Care whether they survive or not? Not really. The reason?

• In Final Destination flicks, it's ALL about the killings and FD5 really brought its a game. I'm deliberating NOT including the trailer below because it gives away too many setups and payoffs. It'll be more fun to just go and see it.

What makes it work this time is that while we see the elements of the dominoes/killing mousetrap machine individually, but aren't sure how it all goes together until it is set in motion. There are some red herrings and a couple of the coup de graces are foreseeable, but for the most part they're wonderfully grisly in a Grand Guignol manner and usually have a bonus OOOOOOHHH! for good measure.

I wasn't that enthused to see Final Destination 5, but I'm glad I did. If they can keep this level of mayhem going, bring more on.

Score: 8.5/10. Catch a matinee.

We didn't see it in 3D, but could tell that several of the shots were totally cheesetastic stick stuff in the audience's faces stuff to the point I almost wish I had gone with 3D. It's not mandatory, though.

I hate when people hint at twists because you're always trying to see them coming, but I'm just going to say that there's a reason why everyone seems to have crappy old cell phones. Heh.

"Blitz" Review

You expect certain things from a Jason Statham film: gruff, bald bloke beats the crap out of everyone; perhaps drives a car fast, too. With only a couple and rather notable exceptions - scenes that feel like someone felt obliged to have him clobber someone as fan service - the extremely British crime drama Blitz doesn't meet the minimum expectations. (BTW, I've tagged it foreign because it's really English. Perhaps not Attack the Block English, but definitely not geared for Yankee consumption; even more so than most Guy Ritchie movies.)

Statham stars as a cop who is a little too rough with the customers - though judging from the current riots in England, perhaps he's what the bobbies could use about now - in the rough Southeast section of London. When a psychopath calling himself "Blitz" starts murdering cops, he teams up with a new commanding officer, who isn't respected by the beat cops because he's gay, to track down the killer.

Blitz is a very oddly-paced movie, taking numerous side streets with subplots involving a lady cop who's fresh out of rehab, a young street thug she's trying to get out of crime, a squirrely informant who figures out who the killer is, a tabloid reporter who doesn't readily share what the killer is telling him with the po-po, and the original watch commander on leave because his wife as died. Instead of it all adding up to a rich tapestry, it feels like random plot arcs from a TV series spliced together badly.

The villain, Aiden Gillen, reminds me of a cross between Tom Waits and Michael Wincott channeling young John Hurt mimicing Gary Oldman's Sid Vicious. (I see he was Petyr Baelish, the Caesar-cut adviser on Game of Thrones whom Stupid Ned Stark didn't heed when he said not to trust him. Didn't recognize him here.) His reasoning for killing coppers is a little murky and the implication that Statham set him off somehow is sketchy. Statham is OK, but wasted in a narrow role.

If there's something to recommend Blitz it's the surprisingly arty cinematography and shot composition. It looks like a Wes Anderson film at times and the omission of all the usual London landmarks - Big Ben, the Millennium Bridge and Wheel, Parliament, that giant glass football building - makes the grit more visceral. Too bad the story wanders all over the place in between spots of the ultra-violence.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" Review

One of the lingering questions of the entire Planet of the Apes series has been how the monkeys managed to take over the asylum. How did they get so smart and mankind so dumb? Taking a plausible stab, albeit in an implausible manner, at explaining how it came to pass is Rise of the Planet of the Apes or as I call it, Rise o' da World o' da Monkees.

James Franco is a medical researcher trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's with a personal stake: his father, John Lithgow, is slipping away from the ravages of the disease. Thinking he's made a breakthrough, he is presenting his results to the Evil Big Pharma Company's board when the chimp he'd treated bursts in, gone crazy, and is shot dead by security. Game over. No more research - buy they give up easy - and the rest of the test animals are to be put down. (As in killed, not called names.) They discover the reason for her freak-out, she'd carried an undetected pregnancy - real sharp observers at this lab, eh? - and the baby was what she was trying to protect. Whoops.

Franco takes it home, names him Caesar, and discovers that he's inherited his mother's enhanced intelligence. He also treats his dad with the drug, apparently curing him. Things are fine for 8 years by with time Caesar has grow, both in size and smarts. However, when Lithgow starts to regress, Caesar's ill-conceived plan to protect him from a crappy neighbor results in him being shipped off to a primate preserve run by Col. Stryker from X-Men 2 and Draco Malfoy. Yes, it's a crappy place with plenty of abuse, but it's also where Caesar decides to make his own fortunes. Monkeyshines ensue.

The power of RotPotA comes from motion capture performer Andy Serkis (aka Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson's films) and the FX wizards at Weta who take the series past the limitations of the stiff rubber prosthetics of the first five films (and the ill-considered Tim Burton "re-imagining") into fully computer-generated chimps, gorillas, and orangutangs. With Serkis' on-set performance being capturing by motion and facial-tracking cameras, he has been transformed into Caesar, a completely realized character, not merely a special effect. There is talk that this may finally cause the Academy Awards to come to grips with the reality that these performance capture-driven CGI entities need to be considered as ACTING and not merely animation. Some idiot at Entertainment Weekly had a rant about why Avatar's actors didn't deserve consideration and it's still BS. Remember that Serkis got snubbed for his work as Gollum a decade ago. Perhaps the Actor's Branch needs to be forced to watch this:

There are a few instances where the monkeys look rubbery and the swirling camera movements make you aware of their physical impossibility, but for the most part you believe these are real, thinking creatures. So well executed are the apes, the people come off uniformly flat and underwritten. Franco is miscast, he's never plausible as a scientist; Frieda Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) is lovely, but just there to be a female character in an otherwise sausage fest movie; Brian Cox and Tom Felton are cliches; only Lithgow is slightly better off, but that's because he's playing a disease and not a person.

There are also several glaring logic and execution gaps starting with the passage of 8 years feeling like 8 weeks because there's no outward sign of the passage of time - no one grows older or changes hairstyle or changes jobs or anything. The company gives up instantly on developing the drug, but when Franco comes up with an improved version (and inadvertently setting off the extinction of the human race in a ham-handed scene), they immediately rush it into production without proper testing. When Sock from Reaper starts sneezing blood, he doesn't really make much of an effort to let anyone know that he's Patient Zero for the annihilation of the human race. Dumbass.

But when we're in the presence of the soon-to-rise apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is sublime. Everything cool about this movie stems from the artistry of Serkis and his fellow performers with Weta pushing mountains of realistic pixels to skin the acting in realistic fur. Everything lame involves the real living people. Kudos to director Rupert Wyatt for making what's almost a silent movie - I'd like to see the screenplay to see how it was originally written and structured.

Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee.

"Super" Review

Hoo boy, this was a letdown. Hyped up in the nerd film blog world as being an even more subversive take on the do-it-yourself superhero genre (think Kick-Ass), Slither director James Gunn's Super was supposed to be an even darker indie take with The Office's Rainn Wilson as the Crimson Bolt and Ellen Page (taking a break from her past roles playing really smart 14-year-old boys) as his "kid sidekick, Bolty." Unfortunately, it looks and feels like a micro-budget indie production that would've starred people last seen as extras in Clerks if not for the presence of Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Linda Cardellini, William Katt (get it?) and Michael Rooker.

Wilson is a schlubby diner cook married to Tyler. When she leaves him for Bacon - and who doesn't like bacon, mmmmm, wait, what? - he snaps and inspired by the adventures of the Holy Avenger (Fillion, who starred in Slither) on the All Jesus Network fashions himself into the Crimson Bolt with the hilarious catchphrase, "SHUT UP, CRIME!" With comic book store clerk Page as his sidekick, they proceed to literally crack heads (with a pipe wrench) on their way to assaulting Bacon's mansion.

Put simply, Super isn't. It's pacing is leaden, the look is cheap, the stars were obviously paying back favors and appearing because they could be in and out in a day or two, and the tone never quite works as we're supposed to laugh at the brutal overkill - does cutting in line merit having your head smashed in? I mean, talking in a movie, sure... - and/or be freaked out by this increasingly out of control dork.

Ellen Page is the best thing in the movie as the manic sidekick. To see Juno basically raping Dwight Schrute and cackling as she crushes bad guys with a car while in her underwear is a hoot, but it's almost as if she decided to make her own fun. All the other performances are adequate, but they're lost in Gunn's barrel of mediocre meandering. Too bad.

Score: 3/10. Skip it and watch Kick-Ass again.

It's weird seeing Page play a girl, huh?

"Bad Teacher" Review

Cool. The trailer saves me the trouble of synopsizing the plot. Watch it:

That's pretty much it. Gold-digger Cameron Diaz is a cruddy teacher looking for a man to take care of her and is only working to by the boob job she thinks is the key to achieving this goal. Hijinks ensue.

While it's clear the producers are trying to catch some of the aura of 2003's black comedy (as in dark humor, not Tyler Perry) Bad Santa in the title here, the key difference is that Billy Bob Thornton's thieving Santa was a moral degenerate and generally reprehensible lowlife and Diaz is just a goofy dame who is so close to being acceptable that she can clean her act up in an instant. Nothing wrong with that, but instead of calling it Bad Teacher, something like Classless Teacher would've sufficed.

Diaz is cute and funny as are Timberlake and Segel, but the consistent standout isn't Lucy Punch as many reviews have singled out, though she's fine, but Phyllis Smith (from The Office), as the timid portly teacher who befriends Diaz despite her shallowness. She puts a spin on her performance that makes it magnetic to watch, more so that the more familiar take Punch applies to her rabid Miss Squirrel.

The problem with Bad Teacher is that it's just not bad enough. But, it's OK.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Disturbia" Blu-ray Review

Since Hollyweird has run out of original ideas and remade classic novels in updated forms (e.g. The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You; Emma became Clueless); remade horror films that aren't that old (e.g. Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, A Nightmare on Elm Street); along with endless sequels, reboots, cartoons, whatever, it was only a matter of time before classic movies from a half-century ago got the update treatment. Thus Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Rear Window (starring Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Raymond Burr - Ironside!) becomes 2007's Disturbia (starring the kid from Transformers, the Asian guy from 21, and a cute girl who looks like a less-inflated Blake Lively w/0 the face mole).

Shia LeBeouf stars as a boy who, after his father is killed in a tragic auto accident, becomes a sullen, detached zombie who punches out his Spanish teacher. Confined to house arrest for three months on a tether which will summon the cops if he strays more than 100 feet from the base station. After his mom (Carrie-Anne Moss - Trinity's a mom?!?) yanks his Xbox Live and iTunes accounts, he entertains himself by spying on his neighbors, all of whom have nice big windows without curtains and one of which belongs to new neighbors, including hottie Sarah Roemer, who looks like this...

...and after catching Sam Witwicky and his pal, Aaron Yoo, watching her swim, actually joins in on their stakeout of a creepy neighbor (David Morse) who they suspect of being a serial killer. As usual, hijinks ensue.

The fundamental problem that Disturbia has is that it has a generally unappealing protagonist, a bunch of gaping plot holes and illogical missteps which cause the killer to be both supremely uncatchable and totally incompetent at basic murder-hiding, and it just marks time until the "thrilling conclusion." (Director D.J. Caruso and LaBeef reteamed on the substantially better Eagle Eye, though ironically that fell apart at the end after a strong start, the opposite of Disturbia.) There are sporadic moments between the kids that ring true, but they're sparse. Roemer is cute, but who isn't in Hollywood these days?

I hadn't seen this and my girlfriend said it wasn't anything much and she was correct. The Blu-ray's picture quality is sharp and colorful without many problems spotted - it is a good-looking, well-photographed and lit film - and the surround sound is OK, showing off most during the conclusion. The 15-minute making-of featurette is the usual mutual appreciation festival in which everyone loves everyone else's brilliance and blah-blah-woof-woof.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

I couldn't find an embeddable trailer, so you'll have to go here to see it.
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