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!

"American Ultra" Review

Watch this:

It's The Long Kiss Goodnight (suburban mom Geena Davis discovers she's an elite assassin) as written by Seth Rogen, right? Correct! And you've pretty much seen the whole movie, minus the cussing and torrents of mostly-digital blood.

Jesse Eisenberg is a stoner with anxiety issues (which are easy to guess what their causes are) who loves his girlfriend, but doesn't know he's an asset from a CIA program whose members are being liquidated because that's what Evil Government does. The head of his program (Connie Britton) activates his programming (not that he's aware of it) so that when Topher Grace's crew of literal psychos comes to town, he's prepared to defend himself, not that he knows how he's doing it.

While there's potential in the well-worn trope of the killer-who-doesn't-know-he-is-a-killer, the script (by Max Landis, son of legendary director John Landis) is a bit of mess and director Nima Nourizadeh (whose sole previous work was the amusing "found footage" wild party flick Project X) can't balance the tone between the stylish and somewhat unsettling ultraviolence and the broad stoner comedy. There is literally little more than what's in that trailer.

A mid-movie reveal (see below for spoiler) doesn't make sense and the idea that they'd need to make a major operation to kill Eisenberg when a sniper capping him and a van swiftly swooping in to pick up his body would've actually been effective. Seriously, the trailer is pretty much the movie.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

>>>>>>> SPOILER TALK BELOW!! <<<<<<<<

Mid-movie it is revealed that Stewart was Eisenberg's handler. While this allows her to do some kickass fighting, it totally moots her reactions to what happens in the first half of the movie when she genuinely seems shocked at what's happening. If anything, they should've rolled the Britton character into hers and had her trying to hide her CIA origins from him. Of course, if Grace had just done what I suggested, there'd be no movie. Eisenberg would've been whacked and done.

"Inside Out" Blu-ray Review

Pixar has been rather mediocre lately. Their last unqualified great movie was The Incredibles way back in 2004 and since then they've had several decent, if inconsistent, efforts like Up and Wall-E, and some really lame stuff like Monsters University. So thoroughly has their previous reputation of being consistently excellent been shaken that there was a lot of overpraise for Inside Out, which is good, but not that good.

The problems begin with the premise itself which seems wholly borrowed from the 1991-94 sitcom Herman's Head which had actors portraying facets of the title character's personality. This time we're inside the head of 11-year-old girl Riley, whose family family has relocated from Minnesota, where she played hockey and had friends, to a creaky house in San Francisco. Leading her personality crew is Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) who is all bright and sunny compared to blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), red Anger (Lewis Black) and green Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

Memories are represented by bowling ball-sized spheres with really important moments becoming Core memories, so of which lead to fanciful "islands" to form, in Riley's case Goofball, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty and Family. When an accident leads to Joy and Sadness and a bundle of core memories being sucked out of Headquarters into the vast tracts of Long-Term Storage, Riley's personality is reduced to Fear, Anger and Disgust attempting to run the show with predictably poor results.

While Joy and Sadness attempt to get back to HQ, they traverse whimsical manifestations of psychological concepts like dreams, memory dump, imagination and (in its most "kids ain't gonna get this sequence") abstract thought. Meanwhile the others manage to make hash of Riley's life in really short order, so drastically I'm surprised the parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) didn't suspect their kid being on drugs.

While there are some big laughs and clever visuals, there is this creeping sadness and a weird conclusion that sadness is most important for happiness which is a head-scratcher. Too many bits fall on the obvious side of the stupid-clever like (e.g. the Train of Thought is a train, get it?) and are pitched to kiddies. Director Peter Docter's previous film, Up, had similar tonal issues as it veered wildly from terribly depressing (the brilliant opening sequence) to really frightening (capturing Kevin) to broadly silly (dogs in biplanes?) and he really should've picked a side and stuck with it.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"Penguins of Madagascar" Review

I've never bothered with any of the Madagascar movies, but my girlfriend has seen them and no, she's not a 12-year-old, thank you very much. When recounting them to me, she'd always rave about the subplots involving "psychotic penguins" which made the main characters pale in comparison. Eventually the penguins from the Madagascar movies got their own TV series, Penguins of Madagascar (which is generally a hoot) and money being money, the inevitable Penguins of Madagascar movie had to be made which has led to this film, A Time For Killing, A Time For Dying, whoops, I mean Penguins of Madagascar. (What, no "The Motion Picture"?)

Penguins of Madagascar opens with with three penguins - Skipper, Rico and Kowalski - chasing down an egg which hatches to become Private. We leap ahead a decade to them in the middle of a convoluted scheme to break into Fort Knox, where they bypass the mountains of gold bars to get to their true target: A vending machine in the break room stocked solely with the discontinued movie version of Cheetos, Cheese Dibbles.

Alas, the snack machine was a honey pot for they are immediately captured and flown by helicopter to Venice (Italy, not California; because that could totally happen) where they encounter the evil scientist Dr. Octavius Brine who reveals himself to be actually an octopus named Dave who resents the penguins inherent cute and cuddliness and intends to use an evil machine to decutify all the penguins in the world. (If you're wondering where an octopus gets a submarine and scientific knowledge, you're in the wrong place.)

Eventually the penguins escape and chases ensue with them reluctantly joining forces with an outfit called North Wind which includes a wolf, a polar bear, a seal and a snow owl who have a secret base and jet plane and WHO IS PAYING FOR ALL THIS STUFF?!?!? Ahem...hijinks ensue, blah-blah-woof-woof.

There are some huge LOL moments in Penguins of Madagascar as well as plenty of throwaway site gags and jokes for the parents watching with their spawnlings. (e.g. When Skipper learns that the passenger plane they've literally crashed into is heading for Paris, he blurts, "France? Not with their tax laws!" and opens the emergency door to bail out of the jet.) But there's simply not enough laughs for a 90-minute movie to make it a mandatory watch.

I've always marveled at how TV sitcoms can cram in gags at an average of 3 or 4 laughs per minute while movies seem to settle for a joke every 3 to 4 minutes. Four episodes of the Penguins of Madagascar series will have more laughs than the comparable feature film's running time.

While the score is middling, there are enough laughs to make it worth watching; just not enough of them. BTW, I've deliberately left off the voice cast members because it's a hoot to see who voiced the characters. My girlfriend identified a couple that I hadn't.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable. (It's on Netflix.)

"The Wolverine (Unleashed Extended Edition)" Blu-ray Review

It's been two years since The Wolverine hit theaters (original review here), but despite having this Blu-ray set since late 2013, I finally got around to watching the "Unleashed Extended Edition" cut now. To be blunt, it doesn't really add much to the proceedings and the addition 12 minutes or so of additional footage slow down the already deliberate pace. How many more times do we need to be reminded that Logan (HUGE JACKEDMAN!) is feeling pain and limping due to his hampered healing factor?

Rila Fukushima, who plays the ninja cutie Yukio, went on to play Katana in the third season of Arrow, but she looks better here because bangs frame her odd face more flatteringly. She's not ugly, mind you; just...odd-looking. Still cute, just weird. (She's been called "Japanese Christina Ricci" which isn't right, but not totally wrong.) I probably had more of a problem with her character being mostly a simpy housewife which clashed with her otherwise-shown baddassery.

The transfer quality is good, but the flesh tones skew a bit too much to the orangish-ruddy side. (I haven't checked out the commentary/extras yet. I'll update this section if I do.)

One note about this cut - it's only available as part of the 3D package or digital purchase, not standalone. I really hate how studios have all the extras reserved for the 3D editions which sucks for people like me who want the goodies, but don't have/want 3D home theaters. Come to think of it, it's mostly Fox perpetrating this balderdashery as Prometheus and Life of Pi did this; some extras on the regular versions with the total only in the 3D set. This REALLY sucked with Prometheus as pretty much all the good stuff was on that extra disc. Life of Pi only had a couple extra things IIRC. Luckily, I have a friend to whom I can sell off the 3D disc to so he gets his "THREE DEEEEEEE!" on for cheap and it lowers my cost.

All that said, there's not really much additional in this extended cut making it a compelling purchase. Logan drops a few more F-bombs that the silly PG-13 strictures would prevent and there's more blood (up from the near zero that PG-13 allows) spraying as he slashes baddies with his shiny claws. But storywise there isn't much, though towards the end there's a major action beat involving a snow plow that must've been time-consuming to shoot only to scrap for the theatrical release.

Overall, the extended cut of The Wolverine doesn't do much to improve and it slightly harms the pacing. For completionists only.

Score: 7/10. The regular edition will suffice unless you want 3D.

The extended "The Rogue Cut" of X-Men: Days of Future Past is coming next week; we'll see how that turns out.

"Man On Wire" Review

With the upcoming fictionalized IMAX 3D telling of the tale of French daredevil Phillipe Petit's stunning 1974 trot between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, The Walk, directed by Robert Zemekis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I finally decided to catch up with the 2008 Best Documentary Oscar-winner (and a whole bunch more awards), Man On Wire. (The title comes from the police report detailing his crime.)

Combining interviews with Petit and his accomplices with a ton of recreation footage with Paul McGill, a dead ringer for a young Petit, acting out the preparation, Man On Wire traces his quest from seeing a news story announcing the building of the WTC through stunts walking on Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbor Bridge up to the security-dodging evening of the Towers walk itself.

While the subject is inherently thrilling, there is too much padding in the middle of preparations and a couple of major details aren't even explained like how was Petit & Co. paying for all their travel back and forth from France to America and the equipment itself. While they spend significant time discussing how they accidentally fed out too much cable and had to labor to pull it up, they never bother explaining how the stabilizing guy lines were rigged.

The trailer for The Walk hints at mechanical trouble, but nothing is mentioned in Man On Wire about it; the walk went uneventfully with Petit lying down on the wire and making multiple transits between the Towers. While The Walk is sure to be a visual treat - it's one of the few movies that pretty much demands seeing in 3D - it's still worth seeing the flawed, but fascinating original documentary. 

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (It's on Netflix.)

"John Wick" Review

One genre of movies I enjoy is the Unstoppable Killing Machine on Revenge Quest. Movies like Man On Fire and Taken featuring men (always men; someone fix this and get Angelina Jolie to star in it) who have been wronged by Bad Guys who didn't know who they were messing with and die horribly as a result.

Keanu Reeves is the titular John Wick (terrible title BTW), a guy with a nice house and pretty wife who suddenly dies from some unspecified medical calamity. After the obligatory rain-drenched funeral, a delivery arrives: a pet carrier with a puppy inside and a note from his wife. I'm not clear as to how this was pre-arranged, but it's just a McGuffin.

One day while gassing up his vintage Mustang, a Russian guy (played by Theon Greyjoy aka Alfie Allen) approaches him asking how much for the car and not taking kindly to Wick's rebuff of his offer. How unkindly is immediately made clear as Theon and his pals break into Wick's place, beat him up, kill the poor puppy and take his ride. When Theon shows up at John Leguizamo's auto shop asking for new VIN number and papers for his stolen Mustang, he gets punched in the face. The reason why is spelled out in this phone conversation between Leguizamo and Theon's Russian Mob Daddy:
MOB DADDY: Did you lay hands on my son?

LEGUIZAMO: Yes, I did.

MOB DADDY: Why would you do such a thing?

LEGUIZAMO: Because he stole John Wick's car and killed his dog.

MOB DADDY: Oh. [hangs up]

That's right, folks, John Wick is a Jules' wallet in Pulp Fiction and SPOILER ALERT by the end of the movie there will be a LOT of job openings for minions in the Russian Mob.

There's a bunch of tangential aspects I'm not recapping because they're just trimmings, not the central murder steak which makes John Wick a good entry in the UKMoRQ pantheon. The reputation Wick has is frequently referenced on the sly, not by constant proclamations of his badassdom. The missus wasn't crazy about Reeves' performance, finding him too young (he's 50 now, but looks 40) and bland, but I found his usual limited range suited for the slow burn required here. The supporting players are also good in their cutout characters. Movies like this aren't about deep characterizations, mmmkay?

The lions share of credit for the brutal efficiency of John Wick are directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (only the former is credited due to DGA's usual shenanigans about directing teams), veteran stunt coordinators whom Reeves met making The Matrix and stage the mayhem with a clarity of geography and lack of shaky cam and edit fu that makes too many modern action flicks spastic, incomprehensible messes. I suspect they were sick of how their craft has been masked by sloppy shooting and cutting and wanted to demonstrate how you should be showcasing a proper fight. It may not be quite as kinetic as classic Robert Rodriguez (e.g. the bar gunfight in Desperado), but even R.Rod isn't R.Rod these days.

Slick and stylish, John Wick delivers the body count goods for those looking for an action fix.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.

"Ted 2" Review

Did you like Ted? Then you'll like Ted 2. Review over.

While not quite as hilarious as the original foul-mouthed teddy bear movie, it's still solidly packed with raunchy goodness as Ted tries to gain legal recognition as a person so he and his trashy wife can adopt a baby. Many high-jinks (get it?) ensue.

While some critics have slagged it wrongly as a rehash (mostly because they'd rather be watching Lars Von Trier brutalize women), there's still a lot of wild original moments like the Busby Berkeley-style opening credit sequence to the bizarre menagerie that appears during a campfire song to some too-good-to-spoil cameos which are clearly throwaway gags, but who cares?

The Good Sport medal goes to Amanda Seyfried (replacing Mila Kunis as the love interest) who endures a mean running gag involving her eyes. Also pay attention to who Patrick Warburton's character is dating - I didn't recognize them and thus a meta gag didn't connect for me until the credits. My bad.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.

There was another red-band trailer out before this one that was even funnier, but I can't locate it now. (No, I wasn't high. Then or now.)

"Furious 7" Review

I love movies that are easy to review like this: You go to see Fast & Furious movies to see Fast & Furious movies and with that in mind, suffice to say that Furious 7 is a Fast & Furious movie. It's not as good as the sublime (and ridiculous) Furious 6, but it's on par with the series-redefining Fast Five. It's full of talk about family and crazy, utterly unrealistic action, and mighty meathead mano-a-manoing - the brawl between Jason Statham (the villain!) and The Rock is cray cray - but that's what you see Fast & Furious movies for, amirite?

I'd like to know what the original plot was intended to be before Paul Walker's tragic demise during shooting caused a months-long shutdown and reworking to compensate, but it doesn't feel like the cut-and-paste job it had to be. The last scene giving him a sendoff is appropriately melancholy, but tasteful.

Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee.

"The Machine" Review

With Neill Blomkamp's Chappie bombing critically and at the box office, it seems like the old trope of sentient robots is in a slump. (Not really. Just bad movies.) While poking around Netflix I noticed The Machine (super awesome creative title, no?) starring Caity Lotz, who is Sara/Black Canary on Arrow. Listed as being about how the British Ministry of Defence (note Brit spelling) steals the first self-aware cyborg and trains it to be a killer, it sure sounds like Chappie, but with a cute girl. Because reasons.

In a dark and rainy future (because of course), we open with a scene where a horribly wounded soldier whose brain injuries (a third of his head is missing) have been treated with cybernetic implants. What appears to be a medical miracle quickly goes very wrong and much blood is spilled.

The scientist behind the science (Toby Stephens) recovers and is next seen running Turing tests on AI candidates including a supposedly promising one created by Ava (Lotz). He hires her and they work on the program and he scans her face and brain which comes in handy when she's murdered by Chinese agents. (I guess England didn't get the memo that it's not allowed to portray China in a bad light because money.) They create a robot duplicate of Ava (right down to the boobs, which someone remarks on) and plop in the doctor's quantum computer brain with Ava's AI.

Despite the scans, the Machine (as they address it) isn't Ava, but the usual sci-fi trope of a childlike naif of an innocent soul in an uber-strong murder machine body. Of course the military wants to make a weapon out of her. Of course the Machine develops feelings for the doctor. Of course something is going on with the other wounded soldiers with implants who despite supposedly having mysteriously lost their ability for speech are clandestinely communicating with each other in a garbled electronic tone. Of course.

It's all quite familiar and thus dull. I have to believe that the review quotes praising this movie are from tubby nerdgins who are just happy to see glimpses of shadowy female pseudo-nudity because for all the pretensions of depth pondering on the premise of a thinking, feeling machine, it's been done a zillion times before in films like Ghost in the Machine and, of course, Blade Runner. The subplot about the doctor's sick daughter doesn't make sense either; how does AI cure her and is he hoping to transfer her broken consciousness into a robot chasis?

Clearly a low budget movie, the makers definitely get the money on the screen where it counts with some impressive visual effects, especially when Machine glows from within (glimpsed in the trailer which makes it look more an action movie than it really is). Lotz, who was a mixed bag on Arrow, is good here, adequately portraying the narrowly constructed role of child-intellect-in-dancer-body. If you're a fan of her Arrow, you may find The Machine mildly diverting, but overall there's not much ghost (soul) in this machine.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Mockingjay - Part 1" Review

Before we started watching (full title) The Hunger Games Colon Mockingjay Dash Part 1, my girlfriend asked, "What is this now?" to which I replied, "It's the first half of the third part." "When does the second half come out?" she asked. "This Christmas. They should really do these two-parters six months apart." Even better would be to stop milking the cash cow with needless splits when one three-hour movie could do the work more efficiently than two two-hour films.

I thought The Hunger Games books read like a single epic 1155-page novel in nine acts, escalating from a tale of one girl's survival to war story detailing the overthrow of a tyrannical government. There was a broad arc to the proceedings though the final two chapters are absolute crap that read like amateur fanfic tacked on at the last second because the author was writer's blocked and they had to make a predetermined release data. (They'd better be fixing this for the movie.) But in splitting the last third into to two the flow is broken.

So what do we have? It opens shortly after the ending of Catching Fire with a nightmare-stricken Katniss Everdeen (J.Law) recovering in District 13, the previously thought destroyed area whose rebellion prompted the Hunger Games to remind the serfs that the Capitol was running the show. (Unfortunately, most of the back story about how and why D13 was spared has been cut as if they were pressed for time.) We're introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of D13, who is reluctant to accept Plutarch Heavensbee's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last performance as he ODed while shooting) advice that Katniss be used as a propaganda symbol in videos. (It's a bit of a pip to see three Best Actor/Actress winners in the frame when they first meet.)

Hopelessly stiff and unconvincing before the camera inside a studio, it's decided to send Katniss into the field to appear before the people in order of capturing honest emotional moments. They get their wish when a visit to a makeshift hospital after a bombing run prompts a 2nd Capitol attack killing the wounded and Katniss' impassioned message to President Snow (Donald Sutherland, evil as always) that "If we burn, you burn with us." As the video spreads, the rebellion starts in earnest.

Throughout, though, interviews with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) with Caesar Flickerman (a subdued Stanley Tucci) are beaming out indicated he's either gone native in the Capitol or being forced to chide Katniss. This leads to a rescue mission to get him and the other survivors of the Quarter Quell and the cliffhanger conclusion.

Unlike the other movies so far, there's not much action in Mockingjay - Part 1 with the trailer moment shooting down of the planes happening in the first half of the movie and a geographically improbable rebel attack (seriously, why are walkways there?) later. Most of the movie is Katniss crying and having nightmares and there are redundant scenes of returning to the smoldering ruins of District 12 which was annihilated for real after the end of the Quarter Quell. They really could've trimmed it down to 90 minutes of a three-hour movie, but again, money.

The performances are uniformly good, especially Elizabeth Banks' miserable Effie Trinket, trapped underground in D13 with no makeup and pretty things, and Natalie Dormer as the video director capturing Katniss in the field sporting a mock-copied hairstyle with one side shaved. The half-assed handling of the books' clumsy love triangle pads things out as Gale (Liam "brother of Thor" Hemsworth) darkly glowers around, but whatever. There are little moments between Katniss and the others which show the benefit of casting AAA-grade actors in what could've been tossed off as trifling pulp.

If it bothered you that Catching Fire, the middle chapter of The Hunger Games trilogy, was like The Empire Strikes Back in that it sorta didn't have an ending, then you're really going to dislike how Mockingjay - Part 1 ends on a beat more suited for a serialized television series like Arrow where a shocking revelation in the last moment teases the viewer to tune in next week. Separated by a year, this just doesn't make for satisfying movie watching though, but because it allows studios to double their money, we're not going to see this trend end anytime soon.

Score: 6/10. Rent the Blu-ray a week before The Hunger Games Colon Mockingjay Dash Part 2 comes out.

Oscars 2015 Livesnark

It's that time again for the collected tweets I fired off @DirkBelig during the Academy Awards.
  • Lupita N'yongo's dress makes her look like the Mr. T of pearls. No necklace? Missed opportunity. /s
  • Patricia Arquette sounds as stoned as Ethan Hawke did. She's gonna be great getting her Oscar. Get her a comb.
  • So-so opening on . Weak jokes. OK song. J.K. Simmons wins the first foregone conclusion award.
  • Boy, NPH is really foundering. The jokes and bits are really labored, requiring explanations and tap dancing.  
  • I liked this Maroon 5 song better when it was called "Puberty Love" in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. 22 mins in only 1 award.  
  • OK, the "armored ride when the revolution starts" joke was the first LOL of . More of this, please.
  •  is officially a boring trainwreck. Terrible pacing. Even "Everything Is Awesome" can't save this, that was this year's "Happy."
  • Can you imagine if they didn't waste so much time on painful schtick so the winners could finish their speeches?  
  • Did Goop steam-clean her vajoo before putting on her  throwback Nolan Miller dress? Couldn't they get a bigger mic for McGraw?
  • Jesus? #Oscars2015
  • And the 1% of the 1% attending go crazy for Patricia Arquette's braying for wage equality, something that's a liberal LIE!
  • Remember, the  LOSERS are getting $167K in swag, which is 4X the ave family income. H'wood underpays actresses, so heal thyself.
  • OK, just jumped the effing shark! Interstellar wins Best VFX over any of the competitors, esp. Dawn of Planet of Apes. BULLSH*T!
  • Seriously, Interstellar was a TERRIBLE movie, but the VFX were barely competent. Transfomers wasn't nommed for this crap?  
  • I liked Big Hero 6, but The Lego Movie should've been in the mix.  
  • The Prez of the Academy is telling the Hollyweird stars to stop being nasty to non-liberals, right? Free speech without fear, right?  
  • 2nd time using "Lift Us Up Where We Belong" as a walk-on cue. What's that about? Couldn't license more tunes?  
  • Cheevo shouldn't have won last year for Gravity because it was 90% VFX. They need to split Cinematography in two.  
  • Another year comes & goes w/o  using Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" for the In Memorium reel. Instead J.Hud reminds us we diet fail
  • Samsung ad reminds me I need to get back to watching Key & Peele. I'd totally watch Found!  
  • Naomi Watts wanted to wear a tube top or gray apron - decided to wear both. Bernadette Cumberbund is serving drinks at Guv Ball.
  • The two best things about Whiplash have won, so it can go away now.  
  • The way they're announcing  presenters as "Oscar nominee" because of PAST nominations is confusing. Terrance Howard WTF?
  • And now the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" LIE of Ferguson is given the full production number treatment. This spits on King's dream.
  • Wouldn't it be great if after that tear-inducing performance that "Everything Is Awesome" won? There's be a riot in the  theater.
  • Tonight we learned that John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn have been working under fake names.  Now they tell racialist lies. Fun.
  • Hey, John Legend, ever think that the reason so many black men are in prisons is that they've committed crimes? How about you board them?
  • There's no way this show is going to wrap up at 11:30 with all the lame schtick and social justice BS punctuating the boredom of  
  • Wowsers! Lady Gaga just salvaged  with that KILLER Sound of Music medley. Julie Andrews is the cherry on the moment.  
  • I'd like to believe Birdman's Best Original Screenplay win bodes well for it's overall  chances. Boyhood MUST NOT win. Period.
  • Imitation Game writer shows how to make an   speech about something personal not self-indulgent rage-mongering. Good job, sir. 
  • WTF is up with the massive turquoise necklaces like that mess yoking Cate Blanchett's tasteful black  dress?
  • Eddie Redmayne wins for the imitation game; all he did was imitate a living person. Michael Keaton should've won  for creating a role.
  • As we pass the 3-1/2 hours mark for  we return to the locked case for a weak payoff of the gag.
  • Whew! Birdman wins Best Picture. Too bad Keaton got robbed, but so glad Boyhood (aka 12 Years A Movie) didn't win a damn thing.
  • Overall  a terrible show. NPH was a disappointment. Too much libtard BS. Gaga ruled. Time to watch Walking Dead. Buh-bye

"Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Blu-ray Review

My original theatrical review is here and on second viewing, it still stands. It's just not as much fun and labors when it should flow.

As a Blu-ray, the transfer is good, considering the stylized look. On the audio front, the surround mix is hella booming and active; it will scare the pets if you turn it up to your usual volume setting.

The extras continue Robert Rodriguez's really disappointing sparsity of recent releases. No 10-Minute Film School, no Cooking School, not even a commentary track. Compared to the jam-packed Blu-ray for the original Sin City, it's a massive letdown with only one nifty feature present again: The "All-Green Version" in which the movie is run at high speed with none of the virtual sets in place, revealing it was pretty much shot with actors in an empty green warehouse. Otherwise, it's just a handful of brief EPK interviews with a few of the actors and a trailer for the original film. Weak.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.

"Boyhood" Review

Let's get something out of the way immediately: Richard Linklater's Boyhood (or 12 Year A Movie as I'm gonna call it) is an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Shot in drips and drabs over 12 years from May 2002 through August 2013 with the core cast of Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater (his daughter) and Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the titular boy, returning every year or two to shoot for a few days, it's release prompted jaw-dropped astonishment over how it was made. Linklater made eight other films during this stretch including School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and Bernie and Hawke and Arquette had kept busy with their careers, so the fact no one seemed to know this project was ongoing takes the concept of flying under the radar to new lows.

That said, though, Boyhood is simply not a very good movie and I find the universal acclaim and potential it could win a Best Picture Oscar in a couple of day baffling, but then I realize that everyone is grading on a curve that resembles a small sphere because of the way the movie was made. Simply put, it's the trick that's impressing everyone. However, if you take away the making-of story - imagining it was shot in 45 consecutive days with three separate actors playing the kids and hair and makeup aging the parents - and just look at the story told and it's clear that Boyhood has very little under its shallow surface and people are mistaking the trick for substance.

It reminds me of the drooling acclaim for The Kids Are All Right - the 2010 film involving an older lesbian couple - which was praised for it's "bold and progressive portrayal of a modern family" but if you stripped out the gimmick and imagined the leads as a straight man-woman couple, it became clear that they were boring people with a boring story to tell. If your movie's story can't stand without a gimmick, it's not a good movie. Period.

Problem number one with Boyhood is that the way it was made required an ad hoc approach to the script - it didn't really have one as Linklater would make up the next sequence based on where Coltrane was at - and the limitation of his lead. For most of the movie, it could've been called Mommy Has Terrible Man-Picking Skills because the "plot" frequently involves her meeting some guy who seems nice, but in the next sequence after they've married is revealed to be a drunk a-hole, physically and mentally abusing, leading to the family moving and being alone until she rinses and repeats the cycle. Hawke's absent father figure drops in sporadically to show what arrested development looks like until he's tamed and driving a minivan with a new wife and baby.

Throughout a long 2-3/4 hours (which goes down easier if you break it over two nights viewing and frequent pauses to do something constructive with one's time) Mason simply is a prop being dragged from one lousy situation to another with no agency until he's a teenager and able to hang with classmates, smoking weed, getting drunk, and generally being a blank slate of unmotivated slackerdom until he's magically an artistic photographer, he goes to college and takes drugs with the cute friend of his new roommate's girlfriend. Deep. Not.

Here's where I think the people suckered by Boyhood are fooling themselves about beyond what the production backstory provides: Because we see Coltrane age from 7 to 19-years-old, they've convinced themselves that they're watching a documentary as if the cheesy and trite Lifetime abused divorcee stories aren't happening. But it's not a documentary, it's a fictional movie where the actions of its characters are dictated by Linklater. It's not "a meditation on aging and childhood" as I've seen some contend because despite its length there's remarkably little story or character development other than Arquette's mother who actually evolves as a person despite making terrible choices for reasons we can't fathom.

There's a scene near the end where someone she encouraged to go to school encounters her and thanks her for the advice because his life improved, but there is no equivalent from her own children. There's a line from Hawke about she did a good job raising Mason, but we've never seen any evidence for anything she (or he) contributed to their development because we dip in on these people with years of assumed events happening off-screen. It's like we get to watch them do the most boring things because the cameras weren't around for the interesting stuff. One scene has Hawke giving Mason Jr. a mix CD set of solo Beatles tunes; a scripted movie would either have the son react with appreciation because he loves the Beatles or resentment that the old man is shoving his old people music on him. But Mason just sort of takes it with the same disconnected manner he has for almost all situations whether it's a stepfather smashing a glass next to him or a boss yelling at him slacking or a teacher yelling at him for slacking or his parents chiding him for slacking. (I'm sensing a theme here.)

While Hawke and Arquette have snagged Supporting Oscar nods (she's favored to win; he doesn't have a prayer against J.K. Simmons and really doesn't belong here) there's been little acclaim for Coltrane's performance because he's inconsistent at times and frankly adrift without anything to play. There are so many scenes which could've given him something to do - push back at Mom's latest abuser; express some actual angst about his life; anything - but Linklater just has him stand there. I have no idea if the kid can act because most of the movie is him standing there while the grownups emote their drama around him.

A fundamental rule of screenwriting is that no scene should be retained that doesn't advance the story or characters, but Linklater spends so much time on scenes that do neither. If you trimmed the inconsequential material down I suspect the movie would've run 80-90 minutes and that's much too short for a Really Important Cinematic Statement. Bullsh*t! He was hamstrung by the production gimmick in that he was always stuck with whatever he did in prior years. Movies frequently go back and reshoot bits for clarity and amplification of details, but you can't do it when your lead doesn't look anything like he did five years ago. (The change in voice and physique is so dramatic in a couple of spots that it's as if the role had been recast.)

So we get multiple musical performances by Hawke. We get repeated digressions to rub Hawke and Linklater's unbridled hatred for George W. Bush as Hawke's first scenes include telling the kids (who are a decade away from voting) to vote for "anyone but Bush," a later scene having the kids putting out Obama signs (and stealing a McCain sign), and a veteran talking about serving in Iraq, summing up that the locals thought we were there for the oil. What does any of this have to do with the story of Mason? A: Nothing, but that's what Linklater felt was the Most Important Thing to shoot that year and now it plays like a diary of a Democrats political obsession jammed into a supposed tale of a boy's maturation. (It's like how Judd Apatow has made a habit of larding on unneeded reels of movie showcasing his wife and kids. Leslie Mann is wonderful, but it's not relevant to the plot, Judd.)

While it's appropriate to admire the tenacity needed to make Boyhood - kudos to IFC for basically handed Linklater $200K per year in the hopes of getting something a decade later (the cast couldn't even been signed to contracts because it would've been illegal) - the inconvenient truth is that the sum is barely the sum of a few of its parts. It's too long and too meaningless and ultimately unworthy of the praise it's garnered. People need to get a grip.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

ICYMI, my girlfriend Hermione's review is here.

"The Theory of Everything" Review

I hated The Theory of Everything. Period. It perfectly encapsulates the raging mediocrity which garners awards love because of everything it is other than actually being good. Ooooh, it's historical, it has a crippled lead character, and it's English, oh gawd, it's English and we all know British movies are inherently superior to the crap redneck Muricans like. That's why we tell everyone we watch Downton Abbey when we're really watching The Walking Dead.

There is so little of substance to The Theory of Everything that I really fear for the mental well-being of those who say they enjoyed it. How little? Here is the entire plot: Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge who meets Judy (Felicity Jones), who falls so deeply in love for some reason that even his diagnosis with ALS with a two-year life expectancy (Hawking is still alive, 52 years later) doesn't scare her off. They marry and have children even has he degenerates into a gnarled mess. She meets a nice church choir director (Charlie Cox, the new Daredevil in the upcoming Netflix series) who volunteers to be an aide to the family. Hawking pretty much gives Judy permission to shag this bloke, but she doesn't until later when Hawking dumps her to roll off with his nurse. What a guy.

There's a little talk of science and whether his theories eliminate the possibility of a Creator, but rather than discuss the lack of science in a movie about a scientist, they should've discussed the lack of substance on the script's pages. We never know what Jane sees in Hawking and when you're dealing with such a seriously crippled person - a megawatt mind trapped in a dead bulb body - this lack of initial connection makes all that follows it unengaging. When she turns up pregnant with her 3rd child, it briefly hints that the choir guy is the baby daddy, but that's slapped down; apparently she was true to her husband until he dumped her, which makes her sticking around even more sad.

Redmayne is heavily favored to win Best Actor and frankly I'm not cool with that. I've long been annoyed by Oscar's habit lately of awarding portrayals of real people because it frequently comes down to hair, makeup and mimicry more than creating a character from the ether. All but one of this year's nominees are for real people and that's just pathetic. While Redmayne does a fine job contorting himself into a twisted slurring knot with the aid of makeup, doing most of the acting with his eyes, his pre-illness character was little more than a goofy grin and lopsided eyeglasses. Sorry, Eddie, but Daniel Day-Lewis did it better in My Left Foot. Jones is up for Best Actress and I have no idea why because all she does is be stoic.

The Theory of Everything also continues the maddening practice of not telling the audience what effing year it is as if we're supposed to know how time has progressed by how large the children are or something. (American Sniper did this as well, telling what tour it was, but not what year.) It starts in 1963 and that's the last we're told. A Brief History of Time came out in 1988 and he dumped Jane in 1995 after 30 years of putting up with his illness, but you'll never know from the movie or the happyish ending they give his life story.

At the end of two pointless hours, The Theory of Everything is really The Movie About Nothing.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Selma" Review

Race relations are a mess in America these days because despite totally ignoring Martin Luther King's dream, the nation foolishly elected - TWICE - someone solely due to the color of their thin skin and not the content of his character or any accomplishments who then hid his myriad failures behind a shield of accusing his critics of racism. He installed an Attorney General with a shady past who immediately snarled that Americans were "cowards on the subject of race" while applying a racialist and hyper-political regime at the DOJ, openly refusing to investigate black-on-white civil rights cases.

Add on the disgraceful exploitation by race hustlers and Leftist politicians of the events in Ferguson, MO and NYC which led to riots in the streets and chants for the deaths of cops which ultimately led to two NYPD officers assassinated while sitting in their car and it wouldn't be hard to wonder what happened to Dr. King's dream.

Into this poisoned atmosphere comes Selma, the dramatization of King's protest which led to the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which received only two Oscar nominations (Best Picture and Best Song, which perpetuates the damnable lie about Ferguson which is "Hands up, don't shoot.") prompting yet another round of race-warrior exploitation as Al Sharpton demanded an audience with the Academy under threat of his leading a riot at the ceremony. In this environment where everyone seems to have an axe to grind what's been sadly overlooked is that Selma is actually a quite good movie that most people won't see because they resent being bullied by the Leftist race-warriors who will never in a million years get within sight of King's ideals. (I'm sure Dr. King is looking down at this nation and thinking, "I died for this? That President? That wicked preacher? All that violence and division?")

Rather than do the full-life biopic thing, Selma just concentrates on the few months in 1965 leading to the march on Selma, Alabama which led to the Voting Rights Act. King (a should've-been-nominated David Oyelowo) and his sidekicks are looking for specific town where the conditions would be right for the local racist idiots to take the bait and Selma's sheriff is just the guy for the job. Beatings and deaths ensue, but justice is attained.

What I found most interesting about Selma's portrayal of the events is something I haven't seen mentioned in all the hoohaw over the Oscars: That King was using the media to provoke outrage to the conditions blacks were enduring in the South. In one scene he asks the local organizers if the sheriff was like one in Albany (Georgia, I presume) who gently carried away protesters on stretchers for months or like Bull Connor, the Birmingham lawman who turned dogs and fire hoses on the protesters and made the media, the point being that King sought to get his followers abused on camera. When they make their first march on the courthouse, he and the leaders stand behind those getting their heads cracked, flinching, but never interceding.

It's also refreshing to see the others involved in the movement and their opinions about strategy given time. Rather than make King out to be Infallible Black Jesus to whom all looked for guidance, there are frequent doubts as to whether his strategy and tactics are appropriate, even from King himself as people start dying. His philandering is addressed in a scene where it's made to look as if LBJ ordered J. Edgar Hoover to send Coretta wiretaps of King's antics, which has been challenged for authenticity in the specifics, while the general fact of King's womanizing has been downplayed to protect the myth.

While there have been the usual criticisms of historical accuracy - most critically the idea that LBJ was dragging his feet when transcripts of phone calls showed he was very supportive of King's goals - the overall tone of Selma rings fairly true. (UPDATE: Here's a good breakdown separating fact from fiction.) The uproar over the "snubs" is more a matter of racial entitlement (X amount of nominees MUST be of color) and grievance-mongering than acceptance that not everyone gets nominated (HALF of the Best Pictures didn't have their directors nommed starting with Clint Eastwood) and the director, Ava DuVernay, simply didn't finish the film in time for screenings. No one is outraged over Angelina Jolie's genetically-engineered-for-Oscars Unbroken being passed over for all but a few technical categories.

Finally, what's with all the English actors? The top roles - Oyelowo, Carmen Ojogo (Coretta), Tim Roth (Gov. George Wallace), and Tom Wilkinson (LBJ) - are all Brits making this the most non-Southerners-playing-Southerners thing since True Blood.

If you've been avoiding Selma because you're tired of the race warrior agitation that we've been pounded with for over a year, you're denying yourself an above-average biopic which manages to avoid the cheap shots and leftist tilt (other than the terrible song) that has encrusted its awards prospects. Check it out.

Score: 8/10. Rent it.

"Whiplash" Review

Powered by a should-be-Oscar-winning performance by J.K. Simmons and some sharp editing, Whiplash manages to convince some viewers that there is a deep, meaningful movie about jazz drumming inside when it's actually little more than a wind-up monkey toy.

Miles Teller is a freshman at an elite New York music conservatory when he is plucked from his class to be part of Simmons' elite Studio Band. There he is subjected to the capricious tyranny of Simmons has he berates, humiliate and physically abuses the musicians. This is the first red flag Whiplash puts up: Why are these young people enduring this abuse? Does graduating from this band lead to fame and fortune? Has Simmons groomed a Buddy Rich, a Charlie Parker, a Wynton Marsalis or Miles Davis? We never know, but apparently it's So Very Important that they be in this band that they'll practice until their hands bleed, auditioning to perform a song for five-hours until their sweaty, trembling wrecks.

Outside of the rehearsal room, Teller is a blank. While Simmons asks how he came to want to be a drummer considering his parents weren't musical, he doesn't really have an answer. We see that his relatives aren't impressed as they fawn over their jock and NHS kids, but when he dumps his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist, soon to be TV's Supergirl, in a nothing role) because he feels she'll be a distraction to his musical pursuits, he doesn't come off as dedicated, but a dick.

The red flags eventually burst into flames in two passages which simply wouldn't happen in reality. The first is an insane series of events involving Teller trying to get to a competition that culminates in his bloody, battered butt being kicked out of the band. The other is the finale which simply couldn't happen because it involves totally career-ending unprofessional behavior from Simmons and the ridiculous premise that all will be resolved with a big wanky drum solo. (I wish I was kidding about this.)

There's a lot of pretension about how Whiplash examines whether genius needs nurturing by any means necessary and whether Simmons' dictatorial musical director is merely misguided in his best intentions, but in the words of Morrissey, he just hasn't earned it yet, baby. A pair of scenes are meant to humanize Simmons, but they're revealed to be wildly false. And that ending....whoo, yeah, no. It would've been more realistic if someone had shot the other than what happens.

So why the acclaim? Because Simmons absolutely KILLS IT as the tyrannical overlord. Simmons has been a long-respected character actor in various roles like his hilarious J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, but he just delivers the goods with such darkly humorous ferocity that we don't notice just how ludicrous the scenarios are. Teller is buttermilk, but fakes the drumming well enough, but this is Simmons show. The editing by Tom Cross is kinetic, but coherent. Great editing makes directors look good; half of Scorsese's accolades should be shared with Thelma Schoonmaker, for instance.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle supposedly based Whiplash on his experiences as a jazz drummer with a mean teacher, but like so many movies about music, he doesn't convey what drives musicians. For some weird reason, movies about musicians made by musicians never seem to capture the vibe of being a musician. Prey For Rock & Roll, the Gina Gershon-starring movie about an all-female band, was written by Cheri Lovedog (guessing not the name on her birth certificate) and it comes off as a Lifetime movie while Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do somehow NAILS the band dynamic despite, as far as I know, Hanks having no musical background.

Whiplash isn't a terrible movie like many of this year's wildly overrated Best Picture nominees are, but it's not that exceptional beyond the aforementioned performance and editing. Just like drumming in general, there's a not of banging going on here, but very rarely does it sing.

Score: 7/10. Rent the DVD.

"The Imitation Game" Review

The Imitation Game is this year's The King's Speech for the Oscars: A well-made, well-acted, veddy British historical drama which manages to make interesting people and events utterly forgettable.

Bernadette Cumberbund plays Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician hired by British Intelligence to crack the code of the Enigma machine, a Nazi device which the Brits managed to get a unit of, but can't use because the initial settings are changed daily. It doesn't matter if they somehow guess the proper code out of 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 possible settings combinations because the next day, the code would change.

Since it would be impossible for humans to run through all the combos, Turing proposes building a machine - which would become considered one of the first electronic computers - that would automate the process, but even that's not enough until a lucky epiphany gives them the key to cracking the code. Ironically, they can't use this knowledge to its fullest extent that they could because if the Germans noticed the Allies were suddenly aware of their doings, they'd change the method and the good guys would be set back to square one.

Bracketing the war effort scenes are sequences set after the war and from Turing's childhood concerning his homosexuality which was super not allowed back then with supposedly tragic consequences. (More below on that.) These scenes are tangential to the story and seemed tacked on to provide a soapbox for gay rights preaching when the way it effects the main war-time story is just as effective. (i.e. Turing discovers a Soviet spy, but doesn't turn him because the spy threatens to out him back.) The chaste "romance" between Turning and a brilliant female on the team, played by Keira Knightley, who doesn't get respect because woman is OK but typical sexism-of-the-era stuff which also fuels Marvel's Agent Carter.

Bandersnatch Cumquat is quite good as Turing, though the character is written as the usual Brilliant A-Hole With Zero People Skills Whom Others Grudgingly Accept Because Genius trope. At least we don't think of Sherlock or Khan 2.0 while watching him. Knightley is also OK, though I'm not sure if she's Oscar-grade. However, Charles Dance, as the boss of this operation, seems to have thought he was still playing Tywin Lannister.

As is the usual with Hollywood's depictions of real events, there's plenty of dispute as to the accuracy of the film but while the substitution of Knightley for the mortal-looking Joan Clarke isn't so bad, the claimed reason and timing for Turning's death really casts suspicion on the agenda of the filmmakers; you shouldn't imply as fact what's clearly not. Also, they never explain in the least how the massive code-breaking machine works - it's just this huge clacking contraption that makes magic.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"Boyhood" Review by Guest Reviewer Hermione

Guest review by my life partner who goes by the pseudonym of "Hermione" on Culture Vultures.

Filmmaker Richard Linklater was one of the first batch of independent filmmakers to break out of the scene in the early Nineties with his Generation X movie Slacker, a plot-less film that followed individuals around for one day in Austin, Texas. This movie put him on the ones-to-watch map and from there he went on to make the '70s high-school dramedy Dazed & Confused - which featured a young Matthew McConaughey in his first movie role - and his trifecta series Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight.

Although he has received accolades, nominal film nominations, and minor awards throughout his film career, it is his 2014 magnum opus Boyhood that has attracted the most attention and garnered him major nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay and has appeared on more critics' annual "best-of" lists in 2014 than any other film released that year. But some critics disagree, including me.

Let me preface this review to say I've enjoyed his other work especially his Before series, I feel that this movie was more about the production than the plot. While I give kudos and agree that the actual making of the movie has never been done before, it is this story has been told over and over. Boyhood was shot over a 12 year period from 2002 to 2013 featuring the same cast. It follows the life of character Mason Evans Jr. from his youth until the age of eighteen and chronicles his fictional family's turmoils along the way. Unfortunately, this movie about his lifetime is more akin to a Lifetime movie.

Ellar Coltrane plays the lead role and is surrounded by a cast that includes Linklater's go-to actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette - both whom have acted in his other features - and his own daughter Lorelei Linklater. Although the coming of age movie is based on his character's childhood transition into adulthood, he acts like an observer to his own life rather than an active participant. He let's his life happen to him rather than actively live it.

On the other hand, the other actors give their characters a life of there own even though the story has been told many times over: single mom tries to provide for her family, goes back to school, marries and divorces two drunks, and is the nag while once-a-week "real" dad is the cool one.

Patricia Arquette's role as the mom stands out here and she received an Academy Award nomination for the role and a Golden Globe win for Best Actress. While her character never really grows throughout the twelve years and keeps repeating the same mistakes, at least she is making decisions be them good or bad and it is her physical transformation over the course of the film that captures the scope of the time.

Ethan Hawke plays Ethan Hawke, he is also nominated for his role as Mason Sr. but doesn't bring much to the film other than you understand why the fictional couple never married. He realizes he's not getting any younger and trades in his hot rod for a mini-van and attempts to live his life the way he should have in the first place and by then you just want to smack the snide grin off his face.

Versions of this story can be seen just about any night on any movie on the Lifetime channel. After two hours and forty minutes it seemed like Linklater was unsure on how to conclude the film. It ends abruptly on a psychedelic mushroom induced comment about seizing the moment or letting the moment seize you and living in the moment. All I could think of was how I wasted 165 of my moments watching this movie.

Score: 2/10. Skip it.

"Rushmore" Review

One problem with reviewing those films *everyone* considers to be a "classic" is that if you don't see what everyone else is praising you have to decide whether you're going to be that guy who "doesn't get it" (presumably because stupid) or you're the brave iconoclast whom many will probably disregard in the future because, "He's that stupid guy who doesn't get great movies." So with that clarified, I don't get what the big deal is about Wes Anderson's 1998 film Rushmore.

Jason Schwartzman made his acting debut - not just big-screen, but any screen as you can hear about in this interview or the Wikipedia entry on casting - as Max Fischer, a 15-year-old simultaneous over and underachiever at the private Rushmore Academy. He's the president or founder or captain of a slew of extracurricular activities and clubs while getting such poor marks he's on the verge of being tossed out of school. Why the poor grades? Because all the other stuff he's doing.

He's also smitten with a new teacher, a young widow played by Olivia Williams. She gets increasingly creeped out by Max's affections and shoos him along. When Max tries to impress her with the help of an alumni millionaire (Bill Murray) he gets booted from Rushmore and leaves Murray a clear shot at wooing the widow himself. When word gets back to Max, a nasty little Spy vs. Spy war of vandalism ensues.

While I don't have an axe to grind against Anderson's films, I've never quite seen what the film nerds worship so fervently about him. I liked The Royal Tennenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox, I wanted to punch Moonrise Kingdom to death with its excessively cutesy smug whimsy. While Rushmore has a pile of bits that are individually good, the whole is much less than the sum of the bits. I'm writing this less than 24 hours after watching it and had to look up a synopsis to remind myself of several plot details.

It doesn't help that Williams, while adequately attractive, doesn't really offer much to support the thesis that kids and millionaires will do anything to be with her. This movie supposedly helped Bill Murray cross over into "serious acting" (read: Wes Anderson movies and Lost In Translation because he made a TON of crap, too, like TWO Garfield joints), but I didn't find much particularly interesting and too many Murrayisms. Schwartzman, though, is top notch and even if Anderson and Murray provided him with extensive coaching, he's quite up to the task of hauling Anderson's whimsical construct on his back.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"American Sniper" Review

American Sniper has become a Rorschach movie where a lot of people are projecting their ideologies onto it. Liberals are hating it because they hate the military and America. Conservatives are over-praising it like they do anything that's not overtly anti-American/anti-military liberal hate like they did with Act of Valor, a good, but flawed movie. After taking in over $105 million in a record-smashing opening 4-day weekend, liberals have effectively lost their minds even more and declared open jihad on the film, the audience who saw it and even the plastic baby used when the human babies didn't show or were sick on the day. That's how angry, petty and miserable Leftists are.

I figured the reality of American Sniper's quality would lie somewhere between liberal critics bashing and conservative pundits overpraise and the fact it was nominated for Best Picture meant little because the Oscars are such a mess most years that the Golden Globes were invented to build a credibility floor underneath them. What I found was my suspicions were correct.

For those totally unaware, American Sniper is an adaptation of the autobiography of Chris Kyle, America's most lethal sniper with over 160 credited kills in the Iraq War. It opens with Kyle on the verge of his first kill, a gut-wrenching decision involving a young child and a grenade that may be headed for a squad of Marines he's providing overwatch on. The insane rules of engagement our soldiers faced over there adds another layer of tension as his backup reminds him if he's wrong about his decision, he'll be sent to Leavenworth for murder. Nice work if you can get it.

The movie then jumps back for nearly a half-hour crash course on his life, beginning with his childhood protecting his little brother from bullies to his days as a rodeo rider through his decision to join the Navy SEALs after the twin African embassy bombings in the late Nineties. Along the way he meets, courts and marries Taya (Sienna Miller) with their honeymoon cut short as his squad is activated to go to Iraq after 9/11. Caught up for 25 minutes, we return to where we started and he makes the call.

What follows is a familiar structure of war movies lately. We see the soldier gradually worn down by the horrors of war and what waging it requires of those pulling the triggers alternating with Stateside sequences where they can't connect with their concerned loving families. While American Sniper doesn't make Kyle a thrill jockey unable to function at home like Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker, there's no mistaking the toll PTSD is taking while his need to protect his men draws him back to Iraq.

While the first half moves swiftly and tautly, the second half dragged somewhat for me as the here-there-rinse-repeat pattern became evident. (FWIW, my girlfriend didn't think it lagged at all.) An overarching plot thread involving an insurgent sniper nicknamed "Mustafa" seems cribbed from dueling sniper movies like Enemy at the Gates. A soldier chattering about buying an engagement ring could be call-signed "Goose" (from Top Gun) or "Dead Meat" (Hot Shots). The climatic battle seems choppy and disjointed compared to the spare urban warfare sequences before it like when Kyle's unit encounters The Butcher (who lives up to his nickname) and Mustafa and the final scene before Kyle's death is as cliche as they come.

The bedrock that American Sniper is built upon is Bradley Cooper's transformative performance, packing on 45 pounds of muscle and a reportedly spot-on Texas accent. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who was the sensitive reporter on Alias and the bullying a-hole from Wedding Crashers. I've always thought that he's been sort of marginalized because he's just so damned handsome (People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive 2011), but as he racks up his third straight Oscar nomination (following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) there's no doubt he's more than just blue eyes and a pretty face. (Dammit!) Though the script gives him little more to do than "be a resolute protector" and "be haunted by the killing" he makes the whole movie seem more significant. Miller is good in the thankless role of the Wife Tending The Home Fires. Eastwood's spare direction doesn't attempt to glamorize or demonize war, in fact forgoing a musical score when most directors would crank the Hans Zimmer Bombast Knob to 11.

While it's tempting to lash back at the haters of the Left by praising American Sniper as a instant classic, honesty precludes me from hopping on that bandwagon. While well-made, exceptionally-acted and a story deserving telling, I just couldn't escape the feeling that Standard Hollywood Structure was being applied to the true story. I haven't read the book or followed the biased media ankle-biting over it and the movie, so I don't know how accurate the story is, but movies must stand on their own merits and if this was exactly how it went down, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall should've found a way to make it seem less familiar and more evocative.

Score: 7/10. Rent the Blu-ray.

"Divergent" Review

I made one of my usual futile attempts to read (I'm REALLY slow at slogging through fiction for some reason) this discount Hunger Games knock-off back in mid-2013 ahead of the film's release, but got bored of the simpy protagonist's hot cheeks (if you've read this thing, you know what I mean) and set it aside about 2/3rds read. Then the movie came and went and I figured I'd catch it on video, but after watching the Honest Movie Trailer and Cinema Sins beatings (posted below), I was even less enthused. However, it was the only thing my girlfriend wasn't adamantly opposed to this evening, so it was time for Discount Hunger Games, er, Divergent.

In a world (heh) called Chicago after an unexplained war which has left the city a ruined dystopia where society has been carved into five distinct factions/cliques: the Farmers (aka Amity), the snooty Brainiacs (Erudite), the Honest (Candor), the Amish Martyrs (Abnegation), and the Cool Kids Who Have All The Fun (Dauntless). Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley, whose big neck makes her head look too small) takes the test to determine which club she should join and is informed by the worried test giver/tattoo artist Maggie Q that she appears suited for three cliques and that makes her....wait for it...weird. Just kidding. She's DIVERGENT!!!! and she'd better keep it to herself or bad things will happen. (If you're thinking she'll start lipping off and attracting attention to her defiance, give yourself a nonfat soy mocha latte!)

She chooses the Kool Kidz (Dauntless) and heads off to their Honeycomb Hideout to discover it's not all parkour and cool leather clothes, but brutal (and occasionally deadly) training to avoid being cut and ending up on the streets. Of course there's a cute trainer who digs Tris' fat neck and blah-blah-woof-woof fight the power, yawn. People die, society is cast into turmoil and we're not supposed to wonder why the El train runs into the Cursed Earth where the sequels lie. Just shut up and marvel at the love, kids!

Since Divergent is a direct ripoff to The Hunger Games series, it's not unfair to judge it against that juggernaut. Hmmmm, it fails across the board starting with the premise that the solution to war is to cram people into rigid behavioral castes and then stomp out any free thinkers. The Districts of The Hunger Games were geographic. (Both of the spoof videos also riff on the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter and the One with the Sorting Hat.) From then it follows a rote, checklist path of bringing the book to life for the illiterate or those lacking imagination.

Director Neil Burger helmed my favorite movie of 2011, Limitless, and previously did The Illusionist which was pretty good, but without an imaginative script, there's little for him to do here. The best aspect of Divergent is the seamless VFX to create the post-Apocalyptic Chicago, which presumably wasn't rebuilt after the Decepticons attacked in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

The performances are functional, but unremarkable. When the usually meat-headed Jai Courtney doesn't suck, that sets the level. Kate Winslet is playing the Donald Sutherland part, but doesn't really spark to the trashy slumming she's doing; she doesn't twirl her mustache enough. And as for Woodley, she ain't no J.Law in any dimension. I hear she's popular with the tween girls for her TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but I don't see anything that leads me to believe she'll transcend her roots as Claire Danes did going from a dewy ingenue in My So-Called Life to the unraveling CIA agent in Homeland.

Score: 3/10. Skip it and watch Catching Fire again.

"In A World..." Review

Lake Bell was a virtual unknown to me beyond her bodypainted nude New York magazine cover and some scene from the HBO series How To Make It In America where she appeared topless, so I was intrigued by In A World... which was written and directed by her to star in. Savvy actors have a long history of generating their own projects to showcase their talents - Stallone with Rocky; Damon and Affleck with Good Will Hunting; Nia Vardolos with My Big Fat Greek Wedding; lying child molester Lena Dunham with Tiny Furniture and Girls - but Bell's sweet satirical comedy is an eye-opener.

Winner of the Best Screenplay prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Bell plays a vocal coach and voice artist who's trying to break into the Big Boys Club of movie trailer work. She's been living with her father, a legend in the voiceover biz, who doesn't think much of his daughter's ambitions and tosses her out so he can move in his much younger girlfriend. Bell crashes on the couch of her sister, a concierge of a fancy hotel. inadvertently triggering problems in her marriage.

Taken individually, the pieces of In A World... are familiar and perhaps a bit trite, but Bell has wrapped them in some genuinely sharp and unexpected observations which really elevate the material. It would've been easy to just make it the story of a plucky girl fighting the patriarchy, but there are other angles examined, especially at the end. I don't mean to make it seem overly deep, but where it could've taken shortcuts, it actually attacks things head on.

I started watching Childrens Hospital after this and I see that half of that show's cast (which Bell was a lead player) shows up here and they're all good. Bell also takes a very self-deprecating position on her looks (she dresses like a slob and has one guy comment on how "rough" her face is when she's kind of a cross between Mariel Hemingway and Alexandra Daddario) and plays her role as a bit of a goofy mess. Geena Davis and Cameron Diaz have cool cameos as well as Eva Longoria, who's featured in a trailer.

Based on In A World..., I think the world could use some more Lake Bell-made movies in it.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Amazon Prime shows it in the proper aspect ratio; Netflix has it cropped down.)

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" Review

Tom Clancy's storied protagonist Jack Ryan has had quite the checkered cinematic career as Alec Baldwin, who fronted The Hunt For Red October, was replaced with Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger before getting replaced by Ben Affleck for the political correctness-damaged Sum of All Fears which replaced the novel's Islamist bad guys for generic Euro-trash villains because political correctness. After a dozen years on the bench, Hollywood attempted to reboot the franchise with Chris Pine (Star Trek's Captain Kirk) in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and judging from the results, it may take another dozen years for anyone to care if they try again.

The reboot retcons Ryan's origin story by beginning with him as a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford when 9/11 happens. Like many patriots, he enlists in the War on Terror and gets seriously injured in Afghanistan when his chopper is shot down. While undergoing arduous rehab Stateside, he meets a pretty doctor (a worryingly thin Kiera Knightley) and is tapped by a CIA agent (Kevin Costner) to go back and finish his doctorate and work on Wall Street to sniff out the funding for terrorists.

While there he discerns irregularities in accounts between his firm and their Russian counterparts, so he's dispatched to Moscow to meet with in-no-way-totes-the-bad-guy Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) and hijinks ensue as Ryan tries to unravel a plot to crash the world's economy by shorting the dollar after a terror attack.

While there are a few moments of tricksy spycraft shenanigans, overall Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit plays as a 2nd-string generic spy thriller with little of the intricate intrigue that marks Clancy's novels. It's not egregiously bad, just dull and not engaging. Pine is a charming fellow, but he's doing too much Kirk schtick here and it doesn't fit.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

One note about where to watch it on streaming: For some reason Netflix has a cropped 1.78:1 version like you'd see on HBO instead of the OAR of 2.40:1. Fortunately, if you have Amazon Prime, they have the correct version.

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