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!

"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.

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