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October 2011 Review Roundup

Another slow month as TV ate up too much time.

Oct. 2 - Wayne's World (8/10)
Oct. 4 - Footloose (2011) (4/10)
Oct. 12 - We Are The Night (6/10)
Oct. 15 - The Empire Strikes Back (10/10)
Oct. 16 - Real Steel (8/10)
Oct. 31 - The Crow (8/10)

Month's Movies Watched: 6
Previously Unseen: 3
Theatrical: 2
Home: 4
Year-To-Date: 92
YTD First-Timers: 76
YTD Theatrical: 33
YTD Home: 59

"The Crow" Blu-ray

The Crow has always carried with it a macabre mystique due to the tragic accidental shooting death of star Brandon (son of Bruce) Lee during production. (It's really easy to spot when they use a body double: If you aren't seeing his face, it's the double.) But there is more to its lasting appeal than Lee's death that's made it a lasting cultural touchstone which lead to even South Park making this crack a dozen years after its 1994 release:

Killer, huh? (In case you haven't seen the full episode, Satan shows up dressed as The Crow.)

Anyways, it's been ages since I've watched the whole movie straight through and I'd forgotten how briskly paced, almost impressionistic the first half was in spelling out the scenario of Eric Draven and this fiance, Shelly, being murdered on Devil's Night, the day before their Halloween wedding and how Eric crawls from the grave a year later and with the invulnerability that a crow grants him hunts down and kills his and Shelly's killers. There is very little extraneous stuff in the first half, though it slows a bit as the original gang of knuckleheads is dispatched and the focus switches to their master, Michael Wincott, and his half-sister (Bai Ling in her American film debut) and their interest in this interloper with mystical powers.

Director Alex Proyas followed The Crow up with the similarly dark and moody Dark City in 1998, but the new millennium saw him making lackluster films such as Big Willie vs. the Evil Robots, er, I meant I, Robot and the Nic Cage Doomsday bum-out Knowing. The rain-soaked, monochromatic nighttime setting is pretty well rendered in this Blu-ray transfer. There was a little noise in the reds of the first optical shot showing the crime scene in the miniature's window, but it was isolated to there and it generally looks good and clear with all the black and black imagery. The audio was less impressive, but more a limitation of the source track than a problem with the disc.

On the extras front, I didn't listen to the Proyas commentary yet or watch the 33-minute interview with a seriously twitchy creator James O'Barr, but the archival interview behind-the scenes was interesting and sad as you realize how articulate and intellectual Lee was. The Extended Scenes are better described as Rough Cut First Edit Scenes as they feature much more violence, especially the addition of a poor woman at the arcade T-Bird and boys are introduced blowing up who is terrorized and left trapped in the exploding building.

The Crow isn't a flawless or unqualified "great" movie, but as a mood piece and Goth-comic touchstone it's got its merits. This new Blu-ray is available for around $10-$12 if you know where to shop, so there's no reason for fans to skip adding it to their collections.

Score: 8/10. Buy it.

"Real Steel" Review

Imagine what a movie about a down-on-his-luck robot boxing fighter stuck with an 11-year-old son he barely knows from an ex-girlfriend who has passed away who finds a gutsy old sparring bot that the kid spruces up and they take to a title fight against the World Robot Boxing champ would be like? Got it in your head? Congratulations, you've just plotted out Real Steel! However, the movie manages to pull of a super neat trick: Despite not really having a single surprise in its entire story, it manages to be a rock 'em, sock 'em good time without insulting your intelligence.

It really could've been a corny, treacly mess, but the kid, Dakota Goyo, is cute and precocious without you wishing a robot would fall on him. He's bright and behaves exactly as a kid who has a robot that can mimic him dancing would act. Jackman is excellent as the shifty hustler who learns to have some integrity. (Awwwww...) And the robot fights benefit from having seamless digital effects and a clear sense of pacing and geography, not relying on shaky cam and edit fu to provide energy. I've managaged to miss all of director Shawn Levy's previous movies (both Night at the Museum flicks; the Steve Martin Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes) other than last year's nice Steve Carrell/Tina Fey comedy Date Night, but this is a slick bit of kit.

"Predictable" is usually a pejorative and it would apply to Real Steel if it wasn't just so well done. I saw a review that dubbed it ROCK-E and that's right on the money; the crowd at my showing was cheering and clapping. (The time I saw Rocky IV at the old Americana theater with an opening weekend crowd going nuts was a singular experience.) Even my girlfriend, whom I pretty much dragged along and went in expecting to hate it, grudgingly admitted to liking it. When family-friendly is considered another pair of dirty words, it's cool to see something for kids of all ages that doesn't make the older half feel dirty for being there.

A couple of quibbles: The kid doesn't seem to be too affected by the death of his Mom - if Disney flicks have no problem with whacking Mom, why so shy here, especially when it could've led to the improbably cute roboboxer mechanic Evangeline Lilly balking at being a surrogate mother. I suppose they didn't want to go too heavy on the maudlin. Also, for a movie set in 2027, the product placement is pretty 2011 - Sprint will still have the same slogan, Bing will have stadium naming rights, and Microsoft will only be up to the "Xbox 720" with the same logo design as the Xbox 360. Other than a few futuristic-looking cars and the cell phones and computers having transparent glass screens (have you ever tried to use a computer where the windows have transparency turned on so you can see through them? Then you know clear screens wouldn't work) there is little to indicate this is the future.

However, all told, unless you're a cynical indie hipster hater opposed to having fun at the movies, Real Steel is the real entertainment deal. Also, if you're in Detroit, it's fun to play "spot the locations."

Score: 8/10. Catch a matinee.

"We Are the Night" Review

It's safe to say that vampires in pop culture these days are ubiquitous to the point of obnoxiousness. Whether in goth fashions at the mall to movies and TV shows populated with them, it's hard to swing a dead rat without hitting some sort of undead thing. While the various stories put their own twists on the genre - e.g. Twilight's abominations don't blow up in the Sun while The Vampire Diaries uses magic rings to grant daywalking privileges - it's hard to find new story blood in the old blood-sucking stones. In search of a different spin, we head to Berlin for We Are the Night, a slick German (I watched an amusingly dubbed version) production with a few twists before collapsing into convention.

Lena (you haven't heard of any of the actresses, so I won't bother) is a scruffy street urchin pulling petty crimes. One night, at a rave, she encounters Louise, who as we've seen in the prologue possesses some superpowers; she and her two younger companions have killed all the passengers and crew of an aircraft and flee the scene by merely hopping out the door in mid-air. She bites Lena, sending her on the path to vampiredom. On Lena's trail is a young cop who had encountered her before and is investigating the vampire gangs' crime scene. He realizes that she's mixed up in the hijinks and her forbidden attraction to him leads to the predictable complications for the vamps (see what I did there?) and him.

Where We Are the Night is best is in its edgy German energy and gritty, stylish visuals. (The way Lena's transformation is shown in one seamless CGI-enhanced shot is nifty. You can glimpse it at :51 of the trailer below.) While not as over-the-top as Run Lola Run, its use of European beauty sensibilities actresses immediately sets gringo viewers off-kilter. The rules of the world are mix of the traditional (e.g. fire BAD!) and novel (i.e. there are only female vamps and they have the ability to walk on walls and ceilings) and while that's cool, the story beats eventually slip into the trope rut leading to unsurprising developments. There is also some confusing inconsistency as to when they can eat people as one victim is offed, but their companion is somehow off-limits.

Perhaps all these vampire tales are doomed to run into the same sorts of plot ruts because there are only so many ways they can play out. But if you're bored of angst-filled glittery mopey vampire bohunks and willing to try some grrrl-powered Teutonic trollops, give We Are the Night a tumble.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Footloose (2011)" Review

Have you seen Footloose, the 1984 kids-gotta-dance movie starring Kevin Bacon? Sure you have. After some hayseed Southern town suffers a tragic auto accident that kills several high-schoolers, the town - at the urging of Rev. John Lithgow - bans dancing. In comes Bacon from out of town where he can't believe the yokels are so backwards, but he makes friends with Chris "Sean's brother, sorta like Jim Belushi" Penn and attracts the eye of Rev. Lithgow's wild rebellious daughter, Lori Singer. After several iconic Eighties pop tunes and montages, Bacon restores dancing to Yokelslavia and everyone buys the soundtrack cassette. The end.

Well, replace Lithgow with Dennis Quaid; Singer with some girl who looks a little like Jennifer Aniston and has really blue eyes; Penn with a hillbilly John Cusack; the friend played by Secretariat Jessica Parker with a black girl; and Bacon with a discount store Skeet Ulrich (himself a discount Johnny Depp); and toss in some modern country and Dirrrty South hip-hop and you've got the new - strike that - you've got the utterly recycled and unnecessary Footloose (2011 Edition). I'm not sure what co-writer and director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow; Black Snake Moan) was trying to accomplish other than make a "green" movie because just about everything is recycled from the original.

Not only is the plot almost beat-for-beat ripped off (relive the Bible quotations scene again!), but they use Kenny Loggins' title tune (twice) and Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It For The Boy" during the training-the-hayseed-to-dance scene. Just as there's a fine line between clever and stupid, the line between homage and laziness isn't blurred into irrelevance. (See below.) Really early on, I was bored and with a few exceptions, I never thought I was getting much out of this other than delaying getting home to do my laundry.

There is just no need for this movie to be remade now or ever. I saw it a quarter-century ago and haven't given it another thought since. It's not poorly made - the cast is OK and the stereotyping is kept under control - but other than showing the near-Utopian racial harmony (break dancing and boot scooting co-exist, though how in a town where dancing has been banned do they get the mad skillz to compete in a Step Up movie is a mystery), there's just nothing new here. It's just all so....unneeded.

I heard a young boy, perhaps 12, in the theater hall afterwards exclaiming that "it was awesome," so perhaps I'm just being an old fuddy duddy, but it's more likely that having been there and seen it the first time around, I don't need this lazy nostalgia trip.

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable if you've never seen the original before.

The feedback loop of the original and its place in the cultural timeline can be summed up by this video. The first half is the scene in the original where a frustrated Bacon blows off steam in an abandoned factory. (I'd forgotten the car; Skeet Jr. drives the same VW in the remake. More laziness.) What made me smirk during the movie tonight was the second half, from Hot Rod where Andy Samberg "punch-dances out his anger." The new Footloose unironically apes the first one's scene (this time with a greasy White Stripes tune), but after it's already become a punchline.

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