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!

"Don Jon" Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure come far from being "the kid on 3rd Rock From The Sun" and he now adds "writer/director" to his CV with the impressive, but ultimately not-totally-satisfying Don Jon.

He also stars as the titular Jon, a stereotypical Jersey Shore-esque Italian-American Guido who likes to work out, hang with his bros, score with the hot ladies at the club and watch and jerk off to lots and lots and LOTS of online porn. You know, typical male guy stuff or something. His crank-yanking habit hits a snag when he starts dating Scarlett Johansson, who doesn't let him bed her immediately and who seems to be The One though she has some MAJOR problems with his looking at porn. (This isn't as crazy as it sounds. I once dated a girl who was appalled that 19-year-old me was a Playboy subscriber because she thought she should be enough for me.)At her urging (read: badgering), he starts to take a night class and cuts back on the porn (his real extramarital sex vs. porn wanking ratios are tracked via his confessions), but there's something wrong with how this is happening, so problems ensue.

There's a lot to like about Don Jon. JGL has a snappy eye and ear and the cinematography and editing are ace. However, there are some tonal issues which really threaten things late with the character played by Julianne Moore. She's set up sketchily and there is a detail about her that is too heavy (no, she's not fat) for the overall light tone of the rest of the film and frankly, what she teaches Jon seems rushed and too pat. I just didn't quite buy what she was supposed to represent; it's as if JGL wanted to end with a Deep Thought About Love when the previous 85% of the movie was of a different stripe.

That said, there are some astute observations, particularly about how rom-coms are the woman's version of pornography, presenting unrealistic images of what relationships are about. (I'm not going to spoil who the cast of Special Someone is but to say that the guy is sure getting around for wacky cameos.) ScarJo is also very good as a gum-cracking ball-breaker and it's interesting to see her play what is ultimately a beyatch. It's too bad that JGL totally passes on the appropriate comeback for their final scene; both my girlfriend and I agreed on what the line should've been.

Score: 7.5/10. Rent it.

"Runner Runner" Review

Runner Runner is one of those movies that isn't bad as much as inconsequentially not very good. Justin Timberlake stars as a Princeton business student who attempts to make his tuition bill - which apparently is $60,000 in one lump due - by playing online poker, only to lose despite the odds. He discovers he was cheated by the site and decides to go to Costa Rica to confront the elusive operator (Ben Affleck) whom he meets rather easily and is immediately ushered into the inner circle of money and more money. Unfortunately, there's an FBI agent (a snappy Anthony Mackie) leaning on him to help bust Affleck, problems with his gambling addict father, the hot woman (Gemma Arterton) he works with who may be Affleck's squeeze, too, and corrupt local officials demanding a bigger cut of the action.

And that's pretty much it and you can probably guess how the major story beats play out. It's a short 90-minutes long and that brevity comes at the expense of anything like deep characterizations, understandable motivations, or logical schemes and counter-schemes. Everything just sort of happens without much impact. Timberlake is OK but I was looking at Affleck with an eye as to how he's going to play Batman in the Man of Steel sequel. (He's definitely got the chin.) There's just not enough there there to get involved with or offended by.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Elysium" Review

Neill Blomkamp's 2009 feature debut, District 9, would've garnered my vote for Best Picture out the Academy Awards nominees that year. It was a sharp sci-fi tale whose political undertones were the antithesis of Avatar's heavy-handed clobbering of the audience with a placard; if you got the allegories or not, the story worked. However, as word started seeping out that his big-budget follow-up Elysium was a class-warfare story tapping into the envy madness of the Occupy Wall Street morons, I became concerned and when reviews confirmed it was pretty much as I feared - even some liberal critics were complaining about how heavy-handed it was - I decided to give it a miss in the theaters. Why should I shell out cash to be lectured by a multi-millionaire celebrity like star Matt Damon about how greedy I am when he himself is part of the rich elites who are supposedly the villains ruining everything?

While watching Elysium from my couch, I rapidly realized that its biggest problem wasn't the simple-minded "Poor people GOOD! Rich people BAD!" politics as much as it was a stupid story filled with unsympathetic and poorly-motivated characters. Matt Damon's dying poor man driven to desperate measures is an ex-con who brings a lot of his misfortune upon himself and if Blomkamp was trying to make him a complicated and conflicted reluctant hero, he fails, partially on the page and in Damon's meathead performance. (Note: While Damon is a douche offscreen, I generally like his work. Unlike some, I can cope with the toxic hypocritical politics of most celebutards and enjoy their work, but he's just weak here.)

Then there are the myriad dumb things we're supposed to just accept like Jodie Foster's evil defense director of Elysium ordering renegade shuttles bringing dirty poor people to the station shot down by her sleeper agent Kruger (an off-the-chain Sharlto Copely who appears to have decided to be in his own movie) with a shoulder mounted rocket launcher and we're supposed to believe the rockets were able to catch up to speedy ships with a couple hundred mile head start. (Aren't there defense guns on the station if this is a problem?) That badass exoskeleton bolted to Damon is put on over his clothing raising the question of how he ever showers or changes clothes. The top of Elysium's ring world is open to space, but the air doesn't leak out. Huh?

Where the world-building really fails is explaining how this system works. Yeah, yeah, the rich suck and built a space station (think: gated community) to get away from the po' folks (think: Detroit) and they hog magic medical beds in every house that can cure cancer or reconstruct broken bones and blasted faces in seconds, but if the filmmakers were trying to make a statement about the need for universal health care, they don't really explain why this magic devices aren't ubiquitous. We're just to accept that it's Mean Rich People being mean and rich, but at the movie's end we see shuttles filled with beds heading to Earth to cure the peasants. Why do these ships exist? Heck, why do people have med beds in their homes to eradicate their skin cancer cells; can't they have a community bed at the clubhouse like a tanning bed?

Even Foster's scheme begs the question: How is Elysium's government set up that a chunk of computer code can reboot the station, replace the President and allow someone to change the status of the billions of people on Earth to citizens. I get that there isn't time to explain everything, but Elysium explains absolutely nothing about how the world came to be that way. It's just, "Things sucked, so the evil rich people moved out, leaving us noble poor folks behind to suffer." Just as Avatar refused to explain what was so important about Unobtainium so as to not cloud the Manichean preaching, Elysium begs the question and hopes we'll just accept it and get on with the bone-crunching bone-head story.

Speaking of Foster, she's simply awful here; even more cartoonish than the rest of the cartoons. Sporting a severe coif and an accent even more indeterminate than Idris Elba's mess in Pacific Rim. I don't think I've ever seen a performance from her that could be described as bad, but I guess there's a first time for everything. Granted, lousy characters begin on the page, but she's nearly twirling her metaphoric mustache here. (If you want to see a better version of Jodie being sexy bad, check out Spike Lee's Inside Man.)

With all the dumb, noisy stuff going on, the excellent production design and visual effects work gets lost in the shuffle. District 9 had a very natural look in the way its prawns were integrated into the environments (though I've got to imagine the poor VFX artists trying to keep the aliens feet on the ground within the handheld camera work weren't too thrilled with the task) and that carries over here as well with few exceptions. Whether its the way the Mexico City and Vancouver locations are altered and extended to be the slums of LA and the space station or the robot cops oppressing the people, it looks and feels real which only makes the dunderheaded script feel worse.

As "income inequality" is being hyped up by a liberal media desperate to distract from their President's failed ObamaCare disaster, we'll probably see another attempt to have Elysium propped up as an Important Parable after it disappointed at the box office. While that's BS, the fundamental problem with Elysium isn't its trite politics but it's flaccid and thin story.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Snitch" Review

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays somewhat against type in Snitch, a drama that wants to crusade against mandatory minimum drug sentences, but can't quite make the supposedly fact-based story gel effectively despite a solid cast.

The Rock is a small businessman, running a trucking and construction business when his teenaged son from a previous marriage is busted after receiving a box full of Ecstasy pills from his best friend. It turns out the Feds had caught the friend while shipping the pills and in order to reduce his sentence, he set up Sonny Boy. Unfortunately, Sonny can't try the same gambit because the only person he knew with drugs was the one who screwed him over. His son facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and getting beaten in jail frightens The Rock into taking desperate measures and he offers the prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) a deal: If he can go out and find drug dealers, she'll have his sentence reduced. (This is also a plot problem, if judges hands are tied, but prosecutors have so much leeway in charging, why send first-time offender dumb kids away for a dime when they clearly aren't kingpins?)

With no knowledge of the underworld, he combs through his employee's applications until he discovers one (Jon Bernthal, Shane from The Walking Dead) with two convictions for drug trafficking. Shane's trying to avoid getting his third strike and failing his wife and young son, but gets sucked into introducing Rock to a former drug dealing pal who tests him by having him run a small shipment from Missouri to El Paso, which then attracts the attention of a Major Drug Kingpin who has Big Plans for The Rock.

Snitch is a mixed bag because while the script is subtle in some spots, it's ham-handed and soapboxy in others, as when the son's lawyer walks up and immediately rattles off a bunch of factoids about mandatory minimum laws. Also, the leap from a small-time dealer to a kingpin is instantaneous and not credible. A better aspect is how they initially reveal Sarandon's prosecutor is running for higher office by having a campaign poster unobtrusively in the background of a scene. The climax feels tacked on to throw a bone to people who were wondering when The Rock was going to get into some action and reminded me of Jason Statham in The Bank Job at the end when he's suddenly beating the crap out of some guys. The ending is also unsatisfying because the good guys have to live in fear forever for what they did. Huh?

The Rock does OK with a primarily dramatic role, but his physicality wars against the story of a desperate father trying to help his son. When he's getting beaten up by some street toughs, my girlfriend exclaimed, "They're beating up The Rock?!" While not as jacked as he is in say the Fast & Furious movies, it's still hard to believe he doesn't just go in and tear bad guys in half.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Trance" Review

I've never been too impressed with Danny Boyle, primarily because he rarely makes movies that don't sh*t the bed in the third act. From 28 Days Later to (especially) Sunshine, Boyle just doesn't seem capable of not botching his stories when they should be paying off. Trance only breaks the usual "2/3rds decent until it falls apart" formula by disintegrating halfway through the proceedings.

James McAvoy stars as a high-end art auction house employee who was acting as an inside man for a heist of a Goya worth tens of millions of pounds (because it's England) by a gang led by Vincent Cassel. However, he has double-crossed his partners and stolen the painting for himself. The problem is that during the heist, Cassel cracked his skull with a shotgun butt and McAvoy can't remember where he hid the painting. In order to recover his memories and the painting he goes to hypnotherapist Rosario Dawson under the close watch of the gang. Stupidity ensues.

While the early portrayals of the hypnosis are interestingly surreal, about halfway through Dawson starts shagging the ringleaders which slows the momentum to a crawl and tips us off that there's going to be a bunch of what Boyle thinks are clever twists ahead, but we can figure them out easily. With the "truth" constantly being messed with, it's hard to stay engaged because it's no longer a story about identifiable characters but just a series of rugs being pulled out despite our having seen the threat and sidestepped them entirely.

Well-shot with enough metaphoric glass walls and reflective surfaces to make even me able to get the joke, Trance is a good-looking flick, but with little under its shiny, cold exterior. While Dawson gives up very brief full-frontal nudity (hardwood floors!) and is good in the role, it's underwritten along with everything else. Trance is a doze.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"The Prestige" Blu-Ray Review

Made in between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's 2007 film about dueling Victorian-era magicians, The Prestige, seems to be mostly forgotten despite it starring Batman, Wolverine, Black Widow, Alfred and Ziggy Stardust. Perhaps it was because the title didn't convey what it was about unlike The Illusionist, which came out a year earlier and is also similarly sorta forgotten despite being a good film itself.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are up-and-coming magicians and friends who are torn apart when a stage accident kills Jackman's wife setting off an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks that lead to more death and misery for the participants. Bale's act features an illusion called The Transported Man which obsesses Jackman as to how it's done and when Bale thwarts his version, he heads to Colorado Springs where Nikola Tesla (David Bowie with one of cinema's greatest entrances) is making scientific magic and makes the apparatus for Jackman with the cryptic admonition about whether he's considered the cost of the thing. Jackman thinks he's referring to the price tag; he isn't.

I'd forgotten how out-of-hand things got in their war in the years since first seeing it. It's also a profoundly different experience watching it a second time as you realize that from the very first frames the Nolans (Christopher and his co-writing brother Jonathan, whose Person of Interest is a really cool TV show) are foreshadowing everything. Just as The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects read differently upon their second viewing, so it is with The Prestige and that extends beyond the big reveal at the very end. It can get a little too cute with the flashback structure revolving around encoded diaries, but overall The Prestige earns its applause.

The Blu-ray's image is nice and sharp, but there are very few extras - just 20 minutes of light behind-the-scenes discussion of the themes. There's no commentary. For some reason you can't stop the disc from the menu screen. I had to punch into a scene to be able to stop. Weird.

Score: 8.5/10. Buy it.

"The World's End" Review

The team behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz - director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost - reunite for the conclusion of their "Cornetto Trilogy" with the oddball drinking dramedy-slash-alien invasion flick The World's End, whose title refers both to a pub and the plot.

In 1990, five school chums attempted "The Golden Mile" - drinking a pint at each of 12 pubs in their hometown - but didn't complete it for various reasons. Now in the neighborhood of 40, Pegg, who is an alcoholic who still dresses in the Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and black trenchcoat of his youth, cajoles the old gang to leave their comfy, boring lives to attempt the Mile again. While drinking and catching up on old times and grievances, they discover that alien robots(!) have replaced many of the townsfolk. Hijinks and much combat ensue.

There are a few contrary themes going on about being responsible vs. being a free spirit and some of the beefs the fellows have with each other aren't explored as deeply as they could've been, but then again they had that robot invasion thing to deal with. Pegg gets a good showcase as the talky Gary King (he co-wrote the script with Wright) and it's odd to see Frost as a more buttoned-down type after his usually being the slobby buddy as he was in Shaun and Paul.

What's cool as that they didn't bother to make the lingo and culture friendly to us Colonists; it's very British; and the soundtrack is packed with circa-1990 "Madchester" tracks. The use of The Housemartins' "Happy Hour Again" as the closer is inspired.

Score: 6/10. Rent it.

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" Review

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone came and went with little critical (a paltry 35% RT score) and commercial (only $22.5 million) notice despite having Steve Carell and Jim Carrey in the cast. While not a comedy classic, it's a decently entertaining little flick.

Carell is the titular Wonderstone who has been resident at Bally's in Las Vegas for a decade with his childhood bestie played by Steve Buscemi. Their act is cheesy and losing audience and Burt is an egomaniacal jerk who beds comely female fans (illustrated by Community's Gillian Jacobs) while sporting enough bronzer to coat those giant Oscars you see outside the Kodak Theater. Pressured by a hot street magician (Carrey taking the piss out of David Blaine and Kris Angel), the pair attempt their own Xtreme stunt with spectacular failure, splitting the pair and sending Burt hunting for redemption.

The reviews were pretty lethal, so I was surprised that it was actually LOL funny in spots and not totally drenched with pathos and formulaic tropes, especially when he connects with the magician who inspired him as a boy, played by Alan Arkin. While the terrain is familiar, the path taken is off the usual paved areas. I think some were offended by just how crass Burt is, but Carell manages to make him not totally reprehensible. (Maybe some people are wimps, like the one critic who whined about the massive illegality of their comeback trick.) Carrey's character is literally nuts and not really doing "magic" so what happens to him makes sense.

With good supporting performances from Arkin, Buscemi, Olivia Wilde (as their long-suffering assistant) and James Gandolfini (the casino owner), while The Incredible Burt Wonderstone may not be totally "incredible," it's above-average and worth a watch.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"2 Guns" Review

Based on a graphic novel that most people probably never heard of, 2 Guns stars Denzel Washington and Marky Mark as a pair of wisecracking robbers who knock over a bank and as they head into the desert to split the take, discover that each is actually a lawman seeking to take the other down - Denzel a DEA agent and Mark with Naval Intelligence. Mark wounds Denzel and leaves him in the desert, but as things proceed the nagging fact that there was $43 million in the vault when they expected only $3 million means that the owners of that money are going to be hunting for them, too. (One guess as to who the 3rd party is.)

While it starts off like a breezy lark, 2 Guns can't decide on a tone - gritty crime or comic romp - and quickly just got noisy and dull. The hoot is that Marky Mark is supposed to be Naval Intelligence but doesn't show much of the latter. The "twist" as to who the third party involved was predictable and once you realize everyone is double-crossing everyone it's easy to spot the backstabs coming a mile away.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"The To Do List" Review

It's been a while since there's been a good teen sex comedy and frankly I'm drawing a blank on any told from the female's perspective. (i.e. It's a girl trying to get laid. Superbad, Sex Drive, Road Trip, etc. were all about boys seeking poonanny.) Seeking to fill this gap (double entendre totally intended) comes (heh) The To Do List, the feature debut by writer-director Maggie Carey who is former SNL star Bill Hader's wife.

Snarkalicious nerd hottie Aubra Plaza stars as her Idaho high school's valedictorian in 1993. She's heading to college in the fall, but is concerned that her utter lack of sexual experience will be a problem for her in the big city. Her sister (Rachel Bilson) is an oversexed idiot, so she decides to make a to do list of sexual activities to check off before leaving. The montage of her assembling this list and trying to look up in the encyclopedia various terms (and noting to ask the librarian about some of them) under her framed Hillary Clinton photo is a hoot, though just how this smart girl could be so sheltered as to have no idea why a pearl necklace isn't elegant strains credibility even in pre-Internet Idaho.Working as a lifeguard at a public pool, she's got her eyes on a hunky co-worker to punch her V-card, but there are others interested she's overlooking.

The shaggy story ambles from one episode to another delivering laughs with decent regularity. Pitching in with extended cameos are Donald Glover (Community), McLovin (Superbad) and Andy Samberg as an Eddie Vedderish grunge singer. Hader gets plenty of screen time because he slept with the director. (You go, boyeee!)

But the star is Plaza and I like her a lot. She manages to walk the line between fizzy sassy sarcasm and off-putting bitchiness. Perhaps I'm missing the old, pre-insanity Janeane Garofalo, but Plaza equally grounded Safety Not Guaranteed last year. The shortcomings of The To Do List aren't her fault and her charm helps smooth some of the creepier bits over.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Detropia" Review

As a life-long Detroit area resident, I'm always interested to note how the loudest cheerleaders for the benighted hellhole are those who wouldn't actually be caught dead living withing the city's borders. For these scolds who perch in their safe suburban homes, documentaries like Detropia allow them to scratch their itch to preen their civic-mindedness.

A loose amalgam of overly arty lo-fi footage and interviews with people scraping by in the ruins, there are very few insights to be garnered other than outgoing Mayor Dave Bing's observation that as soon as anyone gets the scratch up to get out of town, they do. Looking at the ruins and watching a UAW Local President musing about past glories while seeking scapegoats for the ruination of the auto industry is old hat to a local, but there's little here for outsiders to learn from.

Shortly after watching this, Anthony Bourdain aired an episode of his Parts Unknown series which was far more enlightening. Hunt that one down instead.

Score: 5/10. Skip it.

"Monsters University" Review

Man, Pixar has fallen off. There's no denying it - they've managed to throw away their reputation for consistent excellence and are now just churning out lazy sequels and now a prequel to the terrific Monsters Inc., the "When Mike Met Sully Meets Revenge of the Nerds" mashup, Monsters University.

Did you ever wonder about how besties Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) first met and how they hated each other at first because Sully was a lazy jock and Mike was an over-achieving social pariah and they had to form their own misfit fraternity (a la The House Bunny) in order to win a competition against all the other frat houses and stop me if you've seen this story several times before? No? Me neither, but Pixar felt it was necessary and it's definitely not because of any toys or Disney Infinity videogame tie-ins or anything like that because that would be cynical or something.

Pixar has announced Finding Dory. Oh joy. Can't wait. (Note: Sarcasm.) Monsters University looks great, but that's just technology advancing. Storywise, Pixar's lost the plot.

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable.

"Phantasm" DVD Review

I'm really beginning to wonder about the collective madness behind declaring certain things "classics." One such "classic" is the 1979 horror flick Phantasm which I watched for the first time and had two questions about:
  1. How did this thing get made?
  2. Why hasn't MST3K/Rifftrax torn it to pieces yet?
All I knew about it from back in the day was that there was a silver sphere flying around with blades and a drill on it. There's also one shot of a person on a bed in a graveyard being attacked by bodies popping out of the ground that was in the trailer. (See below.) Otherwise, nada. Unbelievably, there's almost nothing more to it.

It opens hilariously with a couple screwing in a graveyard. She's a blonde with some rather egregious blue-and-purple eye shadow going on; he looks like a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd. After he gets off, she stabs him to death. Bummer, dude. Then we get interminably long shots of a kid having trouble riding his dirt bike through the cemetery and another guy wandering the halls of a mausoleum. I'm not even going to go into what their relationship is, but there are also little Jawa-looking things running around; a bar that's the size of a garage that our "hero" walks into, immediately picks up the killer blonde from the opening scene and goes off with her to shag (I know the Seventies were pretty free-lovely, but come on now); another planet (not kidding); a fortune teller's assistant played by an actress so terrible that I stopped to check whether she "acted" again (she hadn't); and a whole lot of other stuff that made me wonder, "Why is this even here?" There's a scene which consists of a guy pulling up in a Good Humor truck, pulling an acoustic guitar case out, going up onto the porch where the hero is sitting jamming on a Stratocaster, and doing a brief song together. Da fuh?

Phantasm was written, directed, edited, shot, co-produced, and generally all his faulted by Don Coscarelli (proving that Robert Rodriguez is star systems away in one-man band chops) who would go on to make three sequels and the much better (but still wildly overrated by fans) flicks Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies At The End. (Apparently he was only 24 when he made it, but Orson Wells made Citizen Kane when he was 25, so there goes that excuse.) I love this detail from Wikipedia:"The first test screening was a disaster due to the length; Coscarelli says that he erred in adding too much character development, which needed to be edited out." MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!

I haven't watched the DVD extras yet, so I can't comment on those at the moment. The technical presentation of the disk is adequate, but it hardly matters how it looks when it's a stupid story.

Score: 1/10. Skip it.

Seriously. The only memorable parts are at the end of the trailer, minus the gore of the sphere doing its work.

"Muscle Shoals" Review

There's been a spate of documentaries in recent years covering the stories of the musicians involved in some of music's seminal hits. From Standing in the Shadows of Motown (about the "Funk Brothers", the house band at Hitsville, USA) to 20 Feet From Stardom (backup singers) and others, the stories of the unsung folks behind the music are being told and one of the more remarkable exposes is Muscle Shoals, about the titular town in northern Alabama (just south of the Tennessee border) behind some of rock and souls greatest hits and the amazingly sad story of the man who made it happen.

Just as Motown had Berry Gordy and Sun Records had Sam Phillips, the sound of Muscle Shoals' FAME Studios was Rick Hall, a man who has lived a life of constant tragic incidents which sound like a mash-up of every country and blues song cliche possible; I think the only things missing are prison and the dog dying. But despite being born into grinding poverty and having such misfortunes, he still founded the studio and assembled the house band - The Swampers (as name-checked in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama") - which backed seminal hits from Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and many more. Unless you're so white that you think Justin Bieber is funky, you've heard a LOT of the songs that came out of this humble building that looks like a carpeting warehouse more than a house of hits.

What's more fascinating is that in this tiny town (population NOW is only about 13,000) they were able to put together not one, but two groups of musicians (after Capitol Records stole the first house band) to lay down the hot soul grooves while dealing with their collective cases of crippling melanin-deficiency. (Translation: They were all white guys, not that anyone could hear the difference which is more than a little bit racist, donchathink?)

If there is a deficiency to Muscle Shoals it's that the filmmakers occasionally wander into too-artsy camerawork and metaphysical ramblings about the water and spirits, etc. There's no rational scientific or spiritual explanation for why this town turned out special and it's not as if anyone wonders why West Grand Boulevard in Detroit (where Motown's Hitsville USA was located), so I would've preferred more inside scoop on how the hits were made than navel-gazing. Still, it's a fascinating story; just a little unfocused in its telling.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.

"Embrace of the Vampire (2013)" Review

1995's cheese horror "classic" (quotes indicate mild sarcasm) Embrace of the Vampire is remembered for precisely two things: Alyssa Milano's glorious boobs. I never understood why she and her mother were suing sites that posted fake nude photos of her when the real goodies were captured for spank bank posterity by this movie about a college girl and...uh....a vampire and ummmmm, mostly boobs. I honestly don't remember what the movie was about other than the scene were Charlotte Lewis (playing some photographer who doesn't know how to hold her camera) attempts to seduce Alyssa. It is among the three best minutes ever filmed for any movie. Yes, I'm 12-years-old.

So why are they remaking Embrace of the Vampire? Beats me, but here we are with a dreadfully dull thing that manages to make college "lesbianism" (quotes indicate this is a horny boy's idea of what college girls do) boring and doesn't really have much to do with embracing or vampires.

Sharon Hinnendael (me neither) is an orphan who has come from an all-girl Catholic school to some college located in the mountains of Vancouver. (To be fair, the scenery is gorgeous.) She's there on a fencing scholarship and she'd be doing better if she wasn't constantly having nightmares and hallucinations of blood and demons and Nickleback (OK, the last one I added) and getting hazed by the mean girls on the team. She rapidly unravels, though not before she's the recipient of some supposed hot Sapphic attention from the bimbo next door and frankly I'm bored writing about this; that's how anemic this movie is.

It's over 2/3rds of the way through before the titular vampire is introduced/revealed and by then who cares? There's a prologue set in the 1700's which is meant to set up the connection between our poor girl and the vampire stalking her, but it doesn't make sense and we're left with just tedium to separate the gratuitous boobs scenes. I don't even care to spend much time beating this up, so let's just save all our time and call it a night.

Score: 2/10. Skip it. (Go look at the Charlotte Lewis/Alyssa Milano scene online instead.)

"Carrie (2013)" Review

I've never seen the original Carrie. (I'll wait while you pick your jaws off the floor. Back? OK then...) I was too young when it came out and frankly so many of the bullet points of the plot are floating in the collective cultural consciousness, it feels as if I've seen it.

Like this: Carrie is a homely girl with a crazy religious fanatic mother who is picked on in school. When she gets her period in the gym showers, she doesn't know what it is and her mean girl classmates throw tampons at her and laugh. Eventually she gets asked to the prom, but her mother (rightfully) thinks that they'll just laugh at her. Pig's blood. Psychic powers. Lots of fire and death. Kills mom. Dies. Hand comes out of grave at end.

Did I miss anything important?

Though the original Brian De Palma take on Stephen King's novel is a horror classic (or so they say), since Hollywood isn't really big on new ideas, it's time for the obligatory remake, this time with Kimberly Pierce, the director of Boys Don't Cry (which won Hillary Swank her first Oscar), calling the shots and Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore filling the roles played by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in the 1976 original.

Though there are new faces, there doesn't seem to be much new to the story. Oh, it's been updated with Carrie's shower torment videoed on a cell phone and posted to YouTube, but the modern aspects of bullying aren't really explored. Moretz is really good as usual making the thin, rote script come to life, but she's hampered by the unavoidable reality that she's not particularly plain or unattractive, what with her cherub libs and wavy hair. This isn't to say she's too glammed-up; just that she's not as drab as Spacek. Moore, on the other hand, is a shrill, one-note cartoon; the default setting for portrayals of religious people in Hollyweird movies.

My girlfriend used to watch the original version annually didn't think that much of it either and mentioned a couple of plot points that we're left out or changed for the worse, specifically that the OG Carrie was scared of her powers while Carrie 2.0(13) seem to revel in them. (I'd noticed this was similar to Chronicle's tale of why giving bullied kids superpowers generally goes badly for everyone.)

Even more damning is that over dinner, I was able to thrash out a better story that kept 90% of the plot points of the movie as presented, except recontextualize critical bits to make a much more rational, logical, "plausible" and satisfying story. As has happened so many times this year, timidity and laziness in the script development phase leads to a thin gruel result on the screen.

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable.

"We're The Millers" Review

I love movies like We're The Millers because the trailer saves me the time of having to synopsize things, so watch this:

That's pretty much it. (Note: Aniston is one of those movie "strippers" who would wear less to a beach. Actresses who don't want to do nudity shouldn't play roles which require it for basic realism.) Do you think that this band of thrown-together misfits will ultimately become an actual family? (Duh.)

While it eventually succumbs to the formula of such movies, We're The Millers delivers some great big laughs, mostly in weird throwaway remarks like why Ed Helms drug overlord bought a whale. Not up to the laugh standards of recent R-rated comedies like Ted and The Heat but worth catching.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Heat" Review

Watched the video with the girlfriend. Original review here.

"Gravity" 3D Review

The buzz around director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) Gravity has been deafening for a few years as various actresses (Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman) have been bandied about before Sandra Bullock was signed to play a rookie astronaut who is stranded with another astronaut (George Clooney; Robert Downey Jr. had been talked up) after a catastrophic disaster destroys their space shuttle.

After debuts at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals the reviews have have been laudatory, but this led me to wonder if we were getting another Pacific Rim in which a somewhat overrated Mexican director with an overpraised career delivers a nerd-bait movie to rapturous applause unwarranted by the end product with even the most enthusiastic fans admitting the characters are thin. Fortunately, Gravity is much better than Pacific Rim, though  there are a few issues.

A cut-to-the-bone 90 minutes long (but feeling about half that), Gravity asks audiences to accept a few fudges in its premise in exchange for the thrill ride. Our space shuttle program has been over for years; the International Space Station and a Chinese station (that I didn't even know existed and thought was made up) are nowhere near the orbit of the Hubble telescope; and why a medical doctor is responsible for a device being adapted for astronomy are all complaint-bait for HARDCORE science nerds, but are necessary conceits to support the roller coaster ride Cuarón puts you on. If you find yourself realizing you haven't been breathing for a while, join the club.

Since the premise is clear in the trailer below - bad thing makes for bad day, fight to survive ensues, someone lives or doesn't - all that's left are the details and if you've been following any of the press about Bullock's performance alone you can sorta guess that ol' Georgie doesn't make it to the last reel and since it's highly unlikely a studio is going to spend tens of millions on a space disaster flick in which America's Sweetheart dies a slow and agonizing or fast and fiery death, that question become one of manner of her survival, not whether she'll survive. (Hey, you knew Titanic was going to sink going in, right?) There are also a few obvious "symbolism" moments that call too much attention to themselves.

A little attempt to give her a back story which casts some question over her will to survive is done, but it's not as if it's a serious question. That said, Bullock does an excellent job drawing us past the artifice of the script's missteps. Of all the candidates for the role, I think she was the best choice. As awesome an actress as Jolie is (she's sorta cute, too), I can't see her being that put out by her spaceship being destroyed. I mean we're talking about a woman who can curve bullets fercryingoutloud! "Spaceship gone? Pshaw! I'll fly home myself!"

Which leads to the true centerpiece of the experience: the stunning, 3D, let's-just-give-them-the-Oscar-now visual effects. I want the Blu-ray with extensive making-of featurettes NOW because if you look at this gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and realize that pretty much the only thing used was the actors' faces, it's mind-boggling. Or it should be, because it wasn't for me at the show I caught. (More in a moment on that.) All the usual tells of wire work etc are missing and with Bullock in a tight tank top and underwear like this...'s hard to suss how they got her floating, but it works.

I saw the very first show of the day in the room I saw it and for some reason the picture was dim and fuzzy. Because it opens with a 13-minute-long single shot, it wasn't as if I could run out and complain, so I was stuck with grays instead of bright whites and flattened 3D effects, especially when it was very dark on the shadow side of the planet. I complained to the manager afterwards and he went and checked the projector and returned admitting that it wasn't bright enough and giving me a pass to come back anytime. Gee, thanks. You had shows late last night and today and no one bothered to notice if the projector was cranked up sufficiently.

Because I didn't truly SEE the movie dampened my mood about the whole thing and perhaps this score is too low. It's 10 hours later as I write this and I still want to punch the projectionist who only had one job to do. I wrote a complaint letter to the theater chain management explaining that I drove twice as far to their theater because I prefer it and generally have a good experience, but such sloppiness isn't very reassuring for future excursions, especially after seeing Metallica: Through The Never a couple weeks ago.

While my experience was weighed down by poor management, Gravity manages to soar beyond its occasional cliches and deliver an experience worth the trip.

Score: 8/10. See a matinee in 3D in a properly set-up theater.

"Europa Report" Review

Watch this spoilerific trailer:

OK, let's run it down: A "found footage" science-fiction movie about a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Something happens. Any guesses? Someone dies on the way perhaps? They discover life maybe? I was mulling about how to handle the ultimate denouement when I noticed the box art helpfully says, "Fear. Sacrifice. Contact." Well, that sums everything up, now doesn't it? Pffft.

Europa Report has garnered a mystifying amount of praise for it's allegedly realistic portrayal of space travel done on a shoe-string budget, but that's like giving first prize to someone for just showing up. What kills the movie is the baffling choices they made in the structure in using a documentary flashback style which has to hide the "stunning conclusion" and thus requires some ridiculous things to happen in order to make the trick work. In trying to hide the rabbit we know is inevitably going to be produced from the hat, they spend a lot of time looking at the assistant.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Parker" Review

While Donald Westlake's Parker character (appearing in 24 novels) has been portrayed in films like Point Blank and Payback (where Mel Gibson was "Porter"), the Jason Statham-starring Parker is the first time the man has been named, not that it makes a difference in this bland, generic caper-revenge flick.

Statham is a part of a crew who pull of a million-dollar heist of the Ohio State Fair, but as they make their getaway one of the crew played by Michael Chiklis announces that he needs the whole take as seed money for a Really Big Score he's got planned. Parker doesn't want anything but his share as per the arrangement (Statham always sticks the the deal donchaknow?), so the rest of the gang shoot him and leave him for dead on the side of the road. He's found by a family of farmers and and taken to the hospital where he survives (duh) and sets out on the revenge path.

He beats the info out of others that they're in Palm Beach, FL and posing as a Texas oil man, gets a tour of the neighborhood from real estate agent Jennifer Lopez, who is struggling with bills and on the verge of her car being repossessed.

OK, now it's 3-1/2 months later and I'm trying to clear the backlog of un- and half-finished reviews and I frankly can't remember where I was going with this review which pretty much says it all, doesn't it? Staham gets one really brutal fight; J.Lo is OK in a role that's beneath her; and I recall there was something inexplicable involving her mother which didn't make much, aw, who cares?

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Metallica: Through The Never" IMAX 3D Experience Review

I was a latecomer to Metallica, starting to listen to them after hearing everyone raving about Master of Puppets (I was ahead of herds who hopped on with "One" and "Enter Sandman"), but their post-Black Album material hasn't interested me which means I've been ambivalent about them for over 20 years. I saw them on their ...And Justice For All and Black Album tours and they were great shows, but I haven't even watched my DVD of Some Kind of Monster and I've had it a few years.

So when I heard they were releasing Metallica: Through The Never, a 3D IMAX Experience concert film, my pulse remained unchanged. I read a review that was laudatory and while it moved the interest needle a hair, I wasn't sure I'd go to the screening until an hour before its start time because it was a bit of a drive and I was still meh at the prospect.

Hoo boy, I'm glad I went.

After Avatar, Hollywood when on a rampage seeking to make (and mostly convert) movies to 3D in order to cash in on the higher ticket prices and many of these movies have been shoddy, half-assed in their composition and conversion, and as a result the share of tickets sold in 3D are declining. They did it to themselves, but if there is something that could make a good testimonial to how useful 3D can be, it's Metallica: Through The Never.

Director Nimrod Antel (Predators) gets the cameras right into the band's faces and cleverly shot five shows allowing for intercutting between nights in order to get the best shots. (I figured this out quickly when a Steadicam operator with his massive Cameron-Pace 3D camera rig - which is TWO cameras with a prism - would be visible shooting close-ups in long shots only to disappear from his position when cutting to another angle with that spot in view.) The depth and clarity is stunning and frankly better than a front-row seat would provide. The audio is immaculate and the band is on fire throughout. Unless you have a really awesome home theater, anyone not seeing this in a proper theater isn't getting the full effect.

Using a dopey "story" frame involving a roadie named Trip (Dane DeHaan from Chronicle and the new Harry Osbourne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) on a mission to retrieve a bag from an out-of-gas truck in a deserted nameless city (it's Vancouver) overrun by bizarre denizens and monsters, what the film is mostly (thankfully) is a condensed version of a headbanging show by the band as they perform 16 songs, all but three from their good era (i.e. Kill 'Em All through Black Album), as if even they realize they've sucked for a long time.

DeHaan is good in a thankless, meaningless role - he's going to be a big star and looking like a young, darker Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't hurt - able to convey Trip's trip (heh) without dialog. All the dumb narration in this trailer below is NOT in the movie; he has literally one word of dialog.

Frankly, I don't know what Metallica bothered with the "story" part because they're the stars of their show and the abrupt ending - it's only 93 minutes long with credits - startled the audience who clearly wanted more, having already had "Wherever I May Roam" truncated down to just its intro. Weak.

If you're a lapsed Metallica fan like me, revisit your bygone youth at the theater. While the IMAX ticket prices are premium, it's definitely cheaper than what you'd pay to see the band live and you wouldn't have as good a view.

Metallica: Through The Never opens Sept. 27 in IMAX theaters and regular theaters Oct. 3.

Score: 9/10. Catch a matinee in 3D. If you're a fan, spring for the full price IMAX ticket.

"The Bling Ring" Review

There was a great comment on the late, great Velvet Rope when Sofia Coppola won Best Original Screenplay for Lost In Translation at the Oscars: "That crashing sound you heard was a thousand laptops being hurled across living rooms in LA." Zing! I liked LiT, but have somehow managed to miss everything else she's made while my girlfriend is a fan. (I want to see Marie Antoinette.)

Recounting the real-life exploits of a pack of spoiled, entitled, amoral, LA rich kids who decided to break in and loot the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, The Bling Ring seems to want to make a statement about lost youth but much like Spring Breakers it is all surface with little substance. Are we supposed to support the kids antics because they're robbing the 1% of their 1% in a case of high-rent class warfare or ponder what would make kids who want for nothing go and take stuff, not that they exhibit any personal depths; or is that another joke?

Being a silver spoon princess herself would seem to put Coppola at a disadvantage as far as being objective about telling the story about her latter-day society doppelgangers, but in actuality I think there's a generation gap causing the disconnect, namely Coppola is old enough to be her subject's mother and she can't really express what may've been driving these pampered dolts.

Taissa Farmiga, the much-younger sister of Vera Farmiga (by 21 years), is technically the lead character but all the attention gravitates to Emma Watson has she continues to put her Hogwarts years in the rear view as she did previously in The Perks of Being A Wallflower. While her SoCal accent seemed a little ropey, she manages to pull off the deeply shallow aspect of her twerpy character. I suspect I probably would've gotten more insight from the magazine article which was the primary source for the story and provides the narrative conceit.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

The teaser trailer is brilliant with the sharp cutdown of Sleigh Bells' "Crown On The Ground" and its "Whoa! Hermione has all growed up!" shot of Watson gyrating in seductive slow-motion as captured in the poster frame.

"Now You See Me" Review

Now You See Me's trailer (see below) sort of promises Ocean's 11 with magicians and the movie starts with a rapid-fire series of scenes introducing us to Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and James Franco's Jim Belushi of a brother Dave as they do their respective acts, some bordering on criminal. They are summoned to an apartment with a mysterious puzzle inside and then the story jumps ahead a year where they're The Four Horsemen and are doing a Vegas show where their big finish is to appear to teleport an audience member to a French bank upon which the contents of a vault are showered upon the crowd.

This naturally attracts the attention of the FBI led by Mark Ruffalo, a pretty Interpol agent (Mélanie Laurent) and a James Randi-style debunker (Morgan Freeman) who is wondering what this gang is up to. They have a Very Wealthy Benefactor (Michael Caine) who appears to be bankrolling their activities, but there appears to be a twist in their relationship which then sets up a weird class warfare/Robin Hood caper which sails past the bounds of reasonable disbelief suspension.

While Now You See Me starts off slick and flashy - I was wondering how many SteadiCam operators director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, the pretty good Ed Norton one; the first two good Transporter movies) burned through with all his sweeping shots - it starts to bog down halfway through as we cope with unnecessary romance and the increasingly ridiculous and convoluted plot which ends up in downtown WTFville. The overstocked cast deserves better, like a coherent, non-gimmicky script; that'd be a nice trick.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Ted" Unrated Blu-ray Review

Usually "unrated" versions of comedies add in more raunchy bits, but in the case of Ted (original review here) which was plenty raunchy to start with, the additional 7 minutes actually water down the overall flow of the movie, adding mostly superfluous material or alternate scenes. (e.g. the reason for the hooker poop changes) It's still funny, but more time away from Ted isn't an improvement.

The making-of extras are brief, but satisfying as they show how they shot the movie with Seth MacFarlane performing in a special motion capture rig while off to the side of the live actors. The hotel brawl gets its own feature and there are a bunch of really unfunny, best-deleted scenes with the exception of the last two involving Joel McHale - the first which hints at a radically different take on the character while the other makes him even worse than in the final film, but it's funny.

Score: 8.5/10. Buy it.

"Casting By" Review

Taking a break from anti-science, fear-mongering propaganda films like Gasland 2, the Monday night HBO Documentary series has something fact-based, thus interesting, this week: Casting By, a fascinating documentary about the under-appreciated but oh-so-important heroes of filmmaking, the casting directors who match actors with parts and and who gave tomorrow's superstars their big breaks yesterday, but who knew?

Focusing on Marion Dougherty (who kept pushing Jon Voight even after he stunk up an early TV gig) and featuring interviews with Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Paul Rudd, John Travolta, Ned Beatty and many more, we learn how casting evolved into a specialized profession for talent spotters, but still doesn't have parity with other creative departments; it's the only category in opening credits without an Oscar category and a drive to get Dougherty and Honorary Oscar spearheaded by Eastwood failed.

It's available to watch on HBO GO. Definitely cherkitert.

Score: 9/10. Watch it. 

"Cop Out" Maximum Comedy Mode Review

Let's get this clear up front: Cop Out was a terrible movie; the worst thing Kevin Smith had done until Red State. In fact, here is the entirety of my review from almost three years ago to the day:
This movie sucked. The end.

Score: 1/10. Skip it.

OK, why did it suck? Because it's unfunny, has a sloppy story, it's unfunny, Tracy Morgan is unfunny, it's tedious, boring, and unfunny. Oh yeah, it's not funny, either. Kevin Smith - directing from someone else's script for the first time, though you can tell he stuffed some of his childish humor in - must've thought he was making a homage to Eighties cop-buddy flicks like Beverly Hills Cop, but as Cop Out painfully proves, Morgan ain't no Eddie Murphy and having Harold Faltermeyer do the score doesn't put it in the same league. I laughed a few times at total throwaway gags, but so what? I'm a fan of Kevin Smith, but if I meet him, I'm going to punch him in the junk and demand my two hours back for wasting my time.
Jeez, dude, tell us what you really think.

So, why did I actually BUY a copy of the "Rock Out With Your Glock Out" (nice Iggy reference there, Kev) edition Blu-ray? A: Because I'm an extras fiend and I occasionally pick up a movie I hated just to see if in the extras they cop to knowing they made a bad flick. They never do, like with Green Lantern, but it's fascinating to see the self-delusion that went into failure. Also, it was $2 used at Family Video.

Amazingly, but not really surprisingly since Smith is still a witty raconteur despite having totally lost the plot as a filmmaker, watching Cop Out in this renamed "Maximum Comedy Mode" (rather than Maximum Movie Mode as used on other Warner Bros. titles like Watchmen, Sucker Punch and Terminator Salvation) is a much more enjoyable experience because Smith is funny in his usual way while discussing how the movie took shape in editing and reshoots to get to its final (awful) form.

There's a neat way they manage the deleted scenes and additional footage of alternate takes and improvs: When a deleted scene is happening, the letterboxing bars turn red and improvs have blue bars. Smith pops up in a PIP box occasionally to mock how the main version of him is yammering on. There is also a silly PIP "feature" called "Wisdom of the Sh*t Bandit" in which Stifler pops up to give some weird Jack Handy-esque bon mot.

While there are a couple of hints of the drama that working with Bruce Willis entailed, it's not surprising that Smith doesn't lay into his star in the middle of this splashy MCM production. (For that, you'll need to slog through his endless fixation on his wife's butthole in the occasionally enlightening Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good) The MCM experience run over three hours with all the extra stuff and Focal Point side trips, so if you've got a PS3 or BD player that can playback at 1.5X speed with subtitles on, it only takes around two hours.

What makes the Maximum Comedy Mode experience of Cop Out work is that you don't have to watch much of the lousy movie itself during it. Smith keeps things moving along in his trademark style and if you're a filmmaking nerd like me, you'll learn a few things. You just won't learn how all the good intentions resulted in such a miserably lousy movie.

Score: 8/10 (MCM mode ONLY! The movie itself still blows) Rent it.

July 2013 Review Roundup

A busier month, but not a better month in overall quality. Odd that the movie I enjoyed watching the most was one of the worst-reviewed of the year.

July 2: Pacific Rim (5/10); World War Z (6/10); White House Down (6/10)
July 3 - Chronicle (7/10)
July 13 - Spring Breakers (5/10); Movie 43 (6/10)
July 20 - The Runaways (5/10)
July 22 - Olympus Has Fallen (4/10)
July 25 - Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways (5/10)
July 28 - The Wolverine (7/10)

Most Enjoyed: Movie 43
Least Enjoyed: Olympus Has Fallen

Month's Movies Watched: 10
Previously Unseen: 9
Theatrical:  4
Home: 6
Year-To-Date: 47
YTD First-Timers: 42
YTD Theatrical: 14
YTD Home: 33

"The Wolverine" Review

Everyone hates X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I don't - I mean it's got problems with too many characters and a totally poochscrew of Deadpool at the end which made everyone mad - but compared to real garbage like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Elektra, it's an OK flick. That said, everyone is comparing The Wolverine to Origins when they should be judging it on an independent basis and on that basis, it's a good movie, though it stumbles toward the end due to our old friend, poor writing-by-committee.

This is a direct continuation of X-Men: The Last Stand - another movie everyone claims to hate beyond its flaws - with Logan (the even more ripped HUGE JACKEDMAN) living in a cave in Alaska or Canuckia, drinking whiskey and having nightmares in which Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), his lady love whom he had to kill at the end of the last movie, appears to him, basically encouraging him to die and join her in eternity. He's Emo Grizzly Adams.

While getting into a scrap with some illegal hunters in town, he's assisted (like he needs help!) by Yukio (newcomer Rila Fukushima), a kickass anime-looking chick with a wicked sword who has been sent by her boss, a billionaire Japanese tycoon whose life Logan saved while in a prison camp outside of Nagasaki when an atomic bomb was dropped on it. He's old and dying, but wants to thank Wolverine by taking away his immortality. (Yeah, kind of a weird thanks, no?) After the old man dies, Yakuza thugs attack the funeral and attempt to kidnap his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). While rescuing her, Logan is shot and for some reason isn't healing like normal. Something has happened and he's vulnerable.

Partially based on an acclaimed run by Chris Clairmont and Frank Miller (I haven't read it), there were high hopes, especially when Darren Aronofsky - who directed Jackman to what should've been an Oscar nom in The Fountain - was supposed to direct, but after the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear plant disaster he bowed out and James Mangold (Walk the Line and Girl, Interupted; both of which earned acting Oscars for Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie, respectively) stepped in and does a good job with things. The action scenes are respectable, but it's even better in the quieter moments that allow Jackman to get into the conflicted state he's in. The best parts of the first two X-Men movies were the moments in which you really got the feeling that while superpowers are nice, not being alone because of those powers because the world is terrified of you would be better.

Where The Wolverine gets its paw stuck in a trap is the convoluted plot involving the old man, control of his company, that he skipped his son in favor of his grandfather and what side the Yakuza and a ninja army are on. By the time we get to the third act and the obligatory, studio-pleasing battle royale between Logan and a giant metal mecha-samurai (thus enraging nerd purists about the Silver Samurai), it's all cards produced from sleeves and who cares? It doesn't help that Mariko is too bland to be a compelling love interest, too. She's attractive, but dull. Give me the weird ninja chick any day.

Still, it's good to see Wolverine slashing (bloodlessly) up the silver screen again and make sure to sit through the first part of the end credits (you don't need to wait until the end like others have done) for a very cool scene which directly sets up next year's uber-team-up, X-Men: Days of Futures Past.

Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee.

"Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways" DVD Review

As further prep for my interview with Cherie Currie I watched Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways, a film by one of the band's bassists, Vicki Blue (ne Victory Tischler-Blue), released in 2004. Unlike the Hollywood take on the band which focused primary on Joan Jett and Currie, Edgeplay has Currie, guitarist Lita Ford, original bassist Jackie Fox, drummer Sandy West, and Svengali Kim Fowley - but no Joan Jett, a MAJOR problem - telling their story in their own words, albeit with a slant that my later interview explored. (Hit the link above and check out the second part of the transcript for Currie's problems with it.)

The lack of participation from Jett really cripples the movie because without the rights to use the music she wrote, that means there's almost no footage of the band performing other than covers of "Wild Thing" and Lou Reed's "Rock & Roll." The rest of the score is monotonous background tunelesses of Suzi Quatro and Lita Ford tracks that are sonic wallpaper, not a proper score. Blue's use of self-indulgent editing techniques like making the image B&W and grainy also gets tiresome quickly.

While there are some interesting details to be learned, this is mostly a fan-only flick for those deeply into the band than most. Combined with The Runaways, you get a partial picture of what it was like for the band, but it skews too heavily into the soap opera and drama than the music of this seminal act.

Score: 5/10. Rent it if you're a fan.

YouTube playlist with the whole movie. Yay for copyright infringement.

"Olympus Has Fallen" Review

The first of the two "White House invasion" flicks to come out this year suffers from being not as much fun as White House Down, the second of this pair to come out, but the one I saw first.

Gerard Butler serves as a Secret Service Agent to President Aaron Eckhart. (A white male President?! Wat?) After a bizarre auto accident claims the life of the First Lady, he's tossed of the President's detail for the sin of saving the President and not his wife. (Huh?) Some time later, while a Korean delegation is visiting the White House, an AC-130 gunship appears and opens fire on the White House while a simultaneous ground assault occurs. As he's evacuated to the Secret Underground Bunker, the President nobly commands the security to bring his guests along (yay!) only to discover too late that they're part of the attack force (whoops!).

With the White House, the President and many top Cabinet officials held captive - at least Morgan Freeman is able to step in as Acting President (whew, we're saved!) - it's a good thing there's a disgraced Secret Service agent willing to single-handedly take on over three dozen heavily armed attackers while others second-guess whether he can be trusted given his supposedly shameful past record. (No, I'm not kidding. These are the same clown characters who never trusted Jack Bauer on 24 either.)

Compared to White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen is darker, grittier, more bleakly violent and frankly less fun than the Tatum-Foxx flick. There are too many plot holes like what if the President had adhered to protocol and left the delegation to fend for themselves? Oh, and there's a traitor in the midst with an personal axe to grind again? Peachy. Both of these White House invasion movies were dopey and someone offensive, but at least White House Down had a brighter, more entertaining wrapping.

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Runaways" Blu-ray Review

Rewatched in prep for an interview with Cherie Currie later this week. My theatrical review was here and the Blu-ray was covered here.

UPDATE: The interview, which ran 85 minutes with music(!), can be heard at the Culture Vultures Radio website: Cherie: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway.

"Movie 43" Review

Frequently when watching a lousy movie, one tends to rhetorically ask, "How did this movie get made?" The underlying premise is that surely someone had to have realized the the script was junk or that the dailies showed it wasn't getting better on film, etc. However, the question REALLY applies with the mind-boggling in its very existence Movie 43, in which Oscar winners and nominees - we're talking serious AAA talents - gleefully appear in the lowest of lowbrow raunchy comedy. While rocking a tragic 4% at Rotten Tomatoes, the truth is that Movie 43 is pretty funny, but a huge chunk of the laughs come from exclaiming, "OMG! Is that [insert Big Star name here]?!?!? I can't believe it!" repeatedly.

Using a framing device of teenagers trying to find the legendary "Movie 43" online (more later about this), they search from short vignette to another (think Kentucky Fried Movie or Amazon Women on the Moon) opening with the jaw-dropping spectacle of Oscar winner Kate Winslet on a blind date with a super-eligible bachelor played by Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman who has a massive scrotum dangling from under his chin and no one else seems to notice. No, I'm not kidding.

Subsequent scenes feature real-life couples Liev Schreiber and Oscar nominee Naomi Watts as parents home-schooling their son, but making sure he gets the full high school experience by hazing him mercilessly and Ana Faris and Chris Pratt dealing with her scatological sexual request. Oscar winner Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant engage in a massively out-of-hand first date edition of Truth or Dare; Emma Stone and Keiran Culkan are romantic young lovers sexually insulting each other at a supermarket checkout line with the whole store listening in on the PA; Josh Duhamel and Elizabeth Banks have a cartoon cat coming between them; speed-dating for Robin (Justin Long) is complicated by Batman (Jason Sudakis) showing up and being a total dick while Supergirl (Kristen Bell) is at the table; Chloe Grace Moretz is a girl having her first period in a house full of stupid guys in terror; and Oscar nominee Terrance Howard is a basketball coach in 1959 trying to deliver a pep talk to his doubting all-black team before the championship game, his basic point being, "You're black. They're white. This isn't hockey!"

While many of the sketches drag on too long (see Shakespeare's admonition about brevity, please) there are a lot of hearty laughs in Movie 43 if you're not too snooty about things and are smarter than a 2-1/2 Men mouth-breather. Just be warned that this isn't going to be Noel Coward; more like Moe Howard. I'm a huge fan of Kentucky Fried Movie (which is out on Blu-ray now; w00t!) and Movie 43 is nowhere near that classic's brilliance, but still laughs enough.

About the framing segments: When it came out in theaters for about a day, I remember the reviews mentioning these shorts were movie ideas being pitched by a desperate writer. If you look at the IMDB listing, it shows Dennis Quaid and Greg Kinnear were in it as opposed to the unknowns (plus Fisher Stevens) in the home version. It's a totally different story and I have no idea why they redid it all in what has to have been a more elaborate fashion just for the home game.

UPDATE: Apparently there were different versions for the UK and US markets, but I can't find out why, mostly because the writers of the stories hate the movie so much they don't want to be arsed. Real pro work, guys

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Spring Breakers" Review

The pregame hype on writer-director Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers revolved around three of its stars being Disney kiddy stars (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) or from tween fave Pretty Little Liars (Ashley Benson) and whether they were going to dirty up their squeaky clean images with some nudity in the course of its tale of young stupid girls on a rampage. Even Gomez seemed to hint that she'd disrobed, so when the film premiered the first (and only) question the pervs on the Internet wanted to know was "who gave up the goods?" It turned out nobody by Korine's wife, Rachel, but with the prurient interest out of the way, we can get onto whether Spring Breakers is a quality film? A: Ummm, not really, but it is an interesting mood experiment in editing and tone.

It starts a little on-the-nose with Gomez's Faith, a girl attending a Christian university it appears. (Get it? Faith? Moving on...) She's friends with Korine, Benson and Hudgens and they yearn to get away for spring break in Ft. Lauderdale, but they lack the cash until all the girls who aren't faith rob a diner with a squirt gun and a hammer. They torch the getaway ride and head for the sun, sand, booze, blow and mayhem of spring break.

Once there, of course, things take a turn for the worse as they are busted by the cops and tossed in jail. They can't pay the bail and are scared to call home, so it appears they'll languish if not for the assistance of hustler-dealer-rapper Alien (a totally-committed and nearly unrecognizable James Franco) who bails them out and wants to show them a good time. You don't need Google Maps to tell that this voyage is about to make some dark turns and by the end of the journey, you'll probably not have any idea where you are, where you were and who the people you were with were, but you'll be plenty certain you took a trip.

What's interesting about Spring Breakers is the way there are constant flash-forwards, flashbacks, and repetition of scenes and dialog with different contexts providing different results. We hear them calling home and lying to their grandmothers about what they're doing while slow-motion booty-shaking videos or see them passed out someplace. There are constant sound effects of guns being cocked (this gets grating pretty quickly) and we're constantly aware that bad things are upcoming, not that the present is all that much fun, no matter what they claim.

While the movie opens with a pounding Skrillex track over neon-garish footage of topless bimbos shaking their boobs and having beer poured over their chests by simian frat boys. It's absolutely repulsive and I'm pretty sure that's what Korine was going for. If anyone looks at these bacchanals and thinks this looks like a good time, they're as stupid as the quartet of girls.

The greater problem the movie has is that we don't really know who these girls are. They are simply behavior without motivation for the most part and when the final scenes unspool, it's even more detached from the unreality established beforehand. It's hard to root for people who are cyphers. What motivates their violent urges? Korine could've been more explicit.

There is also a weird ironic vibe going on with a big subplot involving Alien's problems with his former drug-dealing partner who now resents Alien working "his" streets and justifying calling for his murder to his posse while holding a baby, claiming that Alien is taking food out of her mouth - "My baby is hungry." - while sitting in a massive mansion with a Lamborghini parked out front.

While the performances are OK from the girls, with Hudgens and Benson putting a few dents in their images, the hands-down standout turn is Franco's Alien. While Franco has done some respectable work, he too often seems to be floating along on charm and a smirk, but here he is 110% in the game with a Dirrrty South drawl, a mouthful of gold grill, braided hair and a whole lotta guns, money, drugs and swagger.

If you're looking for a meaningful expose of wasted youth culture, you won't find it here; it's too scattered and fragmented in structure. Want to see boobs? You're already on the Internet; go find 'em - Vanessa Hudgens has nude photos out there revealing hella more than you'll see in Spring Breakers. But if you're in the mood for an experimental editing extravaganza and an off-the-chain performance from James Franco - plus anonymous bimbo boobs - then give it a peek.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Chronicle" Blu-ray Review

Superhero origin stories generally follow a typical format: Normal Joe is exposed to some body-altering radiation/substance/whatever which imbues with them with great powers which they then use for good. While this also tends to be the origin of supervillains, what makes director Josh Trank's debut Chronicle an effective take on the genre is that it shows what happens when three teenagers are changed by exposure to a mysterious crystal and what they do with their powers.

Not based on a comic book, Chronicle takes its time setting up its characters: Andrew is an introvert whose mother is dying of cancer, his dad is a abusive drunk, and he's bullied at school; Matt, his cousin, is a philosophy-loving fellow student at his school; and Steve is the cool, popular guy at school who doesn't abuse Andrew. One night, they discover a tunnel in the ground which leads to the crystal and their transformation. What follows is a fairly realistic depiction of how kids would react if they suddenly got powers. They goof off, pull pranks, and when they learn they can fly they plan to see the world.

Of course life doesn't work out thanks to Andrew whose fury at his life manifests itself in increasingly dangerous and deadly ways. While Spider-Man told us that, "With great power comes great responsibility," Chronicle's lesson can be summed up as, "Don't give an angry kid the means to exact revenge on his tormenters because it's not going to turn out well for anyone." While the trailer telegraphs where the story will go, what makes it more than just a supervillain origin story is Dane DeHaan's performance as Andrew and Max Landis' script. Andrew isn't a bad kid using his power for evil; he's just snapping and can telekinetically throw a bus at you.

What hampers this small character study is the use of a "found footage" structure in which we're supposed to believe Andrew is videotaping everything he does and that it looks like Arri Alexa footage. While movies like Paranormal Activity use the conceit of security cameras to explain the footage, too many movies are using it when they could've been more effectively executed in a traditional manner. End of Watch was a recent example where it starts off found footage and then breaks to standard shooting for large swaths. Just tell your story normally rather than explain that Andrew can psychically control the camera like a Steadicam. (This really blows up in Trank's face when we're supposed to believe that when Andrew is hospitalized in a coma and the camera is set up on a tripod at the foot of the bed. Who did this?)

Scant extras, but it looks and sounds OK considering how it's supposed to be a camcorder.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"White House Down" Review

After the impromptu double-feature of Pacific Rim and World War Z, the missus and I were heading for the exit when we passed by the room and realized White House Down was about to begin. So, a quick left turn and away we went for the hat trick.

The second of 2013's "bad guys have invaded the White House" flicks (the other being Olympus Has Fallen, which I haven't seen yet), this one stars Channing Tatum has a slab of ham who wants to be a Secret Service agent and Jamie Foxx as Obama. (Not really, but what else are we supposed to think?) This time it's the Evil Military-Industrial Complex - or more accurately, the sleazy politicians in their thrall - are the villains. But of course.

While WHD's politics are specious, the movie itself is a decent Die Hard ripoff and dumb fun, especially in the part with a White House tour guy held hostage with Tatum's daughter. It didn't need the political garbage, but director Roland Emmerich also made The Day After Tomorrow with an Evil Darth Cheney caricature and killer weather. He's a liberal hack, but he makes the noisy things go boom and it's not as heavy-handed as if could've been.

Score: 6/10. Rent it.

Or just watch this extended trailer which pretty much spells it all out.

"World War Z" Review

After the crushing disappointment that was Pacific Rim, it was up to Brad Pitt's World War Z to try and salvage the evening at the multiplex. For the most part it succeeds because it's pretty smart until it gets dumb in the third act.

I haven't read the source book which I understand is constructed as an oral history documenting a global zombie plague. Since that doesn't make for many cinematic thrills, they've turned it into a pandemic tale/chase flick in which Pitt, a retired UN guy, is forced to trot the globe searching for the source of the zombie epidemic. He goes to Korea, then to Israel, finally ending up in Wales having close calls and adventure every step of the way.

When World War Z is being smart, it's very smart - showing us how fast bitten victims turn into monsters themselves and taping thick magazines over his forearms and calves to ward off bites. But as things progress, dumb things happen that get people killed until it seems that stupidity is the zombies best ally. When they finally get to Wales, it really starts having a case of the "Yeah, right"s until at one point Pitt is literally being the dumb girl in a horror movie setting down his weapon for no reason other than the story demands he be disarmed.

The last act was famously rewritten and I sorta hope the Blu-ray includes the massive amount of stuff they shot before realizing they were barking up the wrong tree. A common problem with movies this summer has been poor scripting and when you end up scrapping a third act, it makes one wonder if the suits at the studios really know what they're reading before sending massive productions out to shoot.

Pitt is good as always and the action is frenzied buy coherent, though generally ridiculous. It's just too bad that the zombies caught the screenplay before it was done.

Score: 6/10. Catch a matinee of you're a fan of FAST zombies; otherwise rent it.

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