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January 2011 Review Roundup

Kicking off the new year with a bang and nearly a dozen movies. Got the Alien Anthology box set on Blu-ray from Amazon.UK for $25 less than US Amazon wanted; it's region-free and exactly the same discs, just in more cumbersome fold-out packaging.

Jan. 1 - Cliffhanger (9/10); Vertical Limit (6/10)
Jan. 9 - The Tourist (4.5/10)
Jan. 16 - Dinner For Schmucks (4/10)
Jan. 18 - The Fighter (9/10); Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (7/10)
Jan. 22 - 127 Hours (6/10)
Jan. 24 - Aliens (Special Edition) (9.5/10)
Jan. 25 - Alien (Special Edition) (7/10)
Jan. 30 - Megamind (8/10)
Jan. 31- Unstoppable (6/10)

Month's Movies Watched: 11
Previously Unseen: 7
Theatrical: 1
Home: 10
Year-To-Date: 11
YTD First-Timers: 7
YTD Theatrical: 1
YTD Home: 10

"Unstoppable" Review

While his brother Ridley gets most of the critical respect, Tony Scott has had a long career in cranking out popcorn flicks like Top Gun, Enemy of the State and True Romance. Like Martin Scorsese had Robert DeNiro and Leonardo Di Caprio and Tim Burton has Johnny Depp as repeated collaborative partners, Scott has teamed up with Denzel Washington five times in the past 15 years. After a gap of nearly a decade from their first collaboration, Crimson Tide, four of Scott's past five films have starred Washington: Man On Fire, Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 remake and their latest train trip, Unstoppable.

Co-starring Chris Pine (bka Captain Kirk from the Star Trek reboot), it's a simple - real simple - story of a runaway train. After fat, stupid (and typecast) Ethan Suplee lets a train loaded with explosive chemicals get away from him, it becomes a chase against time before the train hits a tight elevated curve near fuel storage tanks in Pine's hometown where his kid and estranged wife are. (Why not put an orphanage next to the tanks for giggles?) Denzel is 18 days from a forced retirement by the greedy bastard railroad company. Ya think he might die in the process? (They even remark on this trope near the end.)

While the scenario is novel and the execution slick as Scott keeps things chugging along at a breakneck clip (har!), Unstoppable is a disposable bit of fluff, beneath the talents of all involved. Never minding the unrealistic portrayal of everything like television news choppers supposedly whipping along at treetop level and the way they constantly restate what we already know via impossibly immediate computer simulations, where Unstoppable sort of goes of the tracks (har! 2X) is that the soap opera beats feel rote and despite a few cool crashes, the action never really takes off and flies. (Because it's trains, not planes. Duh.)

What is up with Denzel anyway? Has he decided that he's going to follow De Niro's career model of doing respectable, acclaimed acting in the early part of his career and then waste it all on "getting paid" parts in the back half? He was badass in the whackass The Book of Eli, but where's another Oscar-worthy performance? It also doesn't help that Jay Pharoah, a new featured player on SNL this year did a sketch as Denzel that NAILED all of his tics and mannerisms. It's so spot on, I've embedded the spoof of Unstoppable's spoof below instead of the usual trailer to do double-duty.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Alien (Special Edition)" Blu-ray Review

For all it's "classic" status, I've never been overly enthused about Alien. Yes, it had that wild H.R. Giger bio-mechanical design; some all-time iconic moments like the chest-burster and knocking Ash's block off; and what 12-year-old didn't thril at the sight of Sigourney Weaver's coin slot at the end? (Though looking at it now, all I see is that she has no booty to speak of. It's a little unnerving.)

Perhaps it's because I'm more attuned to the heavy metal action of James Cameron's stellar Aliens (which I watched last night), but the deliberate pacing (my polite way of saying sloooooooow), while allowing plenty of time to soak up the details, allowed me to start getting distracted by the logical gaps as well as noticing how suspicious Ash looks all along at what's happening. (It's like when you watch The Usual Suspects the second time and realize that when they show Verbal looking around the room at the beginning, he's not killing time as much as gathering his story elements.) The damp bowels of the ship, cluttered with gear, lend a gritty authenticity as long as you don't start wondering why all that stuff is there for what is principally a big interstellar freighter with a crew of seven.

I can't remember who the big name science fiction author was with whom I read an interview in which he hated on Alien as little more than a "haunted house" picture and how stupidly the characters behaved when he wanted to yell out, "Just get in the space suits and blow the airlocks to suck it out." Given the size of the ship, that would probably have been impractical, but the way they wander off and get picked off makes them seem like teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake.

On the new Alien Anthology Blu-ray, the visuals are just about as perfect as you could hope, accurately reflecting the cinematography and look of the film. I was startled at how piercingly blue Veronica Cartwright's eyes were in the scene after Dallas gets nabbed. The audio end is frustrating, with all sorts of muffled dialog and unbalanced levels, but they're more a product of the limitations of late-Seventies technology. I popped in Alien Resurrection and watched a little and the difference between the 1997 movie's surround mix and the one made in 1979 was apparent. Yay progress.

In the intro to the Special Edition cut, Ridley Scott talks about how after a quarter-century, he's seen things that he wishes he could've tweaked. The major noticeable addition is Ripley stumbling over Dallas in a cocoon and granting his death wish, but there are a few other scene extensions that add some flavor without padding thing too badly, unlike how some of the additions to Aliens do slow things detrimentally. There is an option to have new footage indicated by an icon that pops up.

While I'm not in love with Alien, I'm glad to have a very slick copy of the film in the collection. If you're a big fan, it's a must-get.

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

"127 Hours" Review

Titles inform. While 127 Hours refers to the amount of time Aron Ralston spent trapped by a boulder, a more informative title would've been the book's Between a Rock and a Hard Place or, better yet, Call Me Lefty: The Story of How I Cut My Own F*cking Arm Off. Top That, Bitches!

James Franco stars as Ralston and as he's really come on as an actor in recent years, it's hard to believe this is the same guy who was so stiff and terrible as Harry Osbourne in the Spiderman movies. He anchors this story of a man anchored by a rock and how he eventually choose to survive at all costs.

Director Danny Boyle is also improving - I've pretty much thought he was overrated and incapable of not letting his films go off the rails in the third act (e.g. 28 Days Later, Sunshine) - but his follow-up to the Oscar-winning (and pretty much forgotten) Slumdog Millionaire is solid, though occasionally hallucinogenic. He's now two for two in not botching the endings of his movies.

The big problem is that we know where this is going - Ralston cuts his own arm off with a dull knife - so the trick is in making the time spent before the punchline interesting. However, even at a brief 93 minutes, it feels padded and a little self-indulgent as Boyle indulges in crazy dream sequences involving Scooby Doo and a flood. Whether Ralston imagined these things and wrote about them is unknown (didn't read the book), but it feels like padding for a story which is little more than, "Man goes hiking. Gets stuck. Cuts arm off."

Score: 6/10. Rent the DVD.

One thing I learned from news stories I looked up after watching was that a few months earlier, Rolston survived being nearly buried in an avalanche while skiing; why couldn't this have been mentioned as a sign perhaps he needed to start staying home and playing videogames? Also, 10 years earlier, a fisherman cut his leg off below the knee when trapped. I wonder if he wishes he'd written a book?

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" Review

Watch this trailer:

While Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was released last year, it was shot over a year starting in 2008, the year she turned 75 and her career was in a lull. Winning The Celebrity Apprentice and Fashion Police were still over the horizon and this documentary shows the legendary comedienne (whom we learn believes herself an actress more than a comic) struggling to stay relevant as she hustles for work and tries to mount a one-woman play she's written.

As an unvarnished look at how even the rich and famous still have to slug it out, the documentary is quite effective, but as a retrospective of her life's previous 74 years, it's annoyingly thin at times. While there are plenty of vintage TV appearances shown and some testimonials, there isn't enough context for What It All Means and if someone thought that her inspiring Kathy Griffith is something to brag about, well... More This Is Your Life type content wouldn't have hurt.

Still, it's hard to deny the old broad isn't working for her living. We get to see the crappy conditions she occasionally has to work in and how she handles a heckler(!) who is offended by a Helen Keller joke. (Is it still too soon for those?) The disappearance of her long-time manager happens, but we don't get his side of the story.

Ribald and raunchy - do we really want to hear a grandmother discuss anal sex and how her daughter should've done Playboy and held out for more money and "show her [kitty]" - Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work works best at showing the soft person under the hard, mouthy exterior.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Fighter" Review

Christian Bale is probably going to win an Oscar for his role here. In looking at the trailer, I was surprised to see that while co-stars Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo are all past nominees, Bale has never been recognized. That's right: Marky Mark was nominated for an Oscar while the latest and greatest Batman (as well as Patrick Bateman!) has never gotten recognized. Well, The Fighter is going to fix that oversight right up.

The titular fighter is actually Wahlberg's Mickey Ward, a journeyman slugger from Lowell, MA whose older brother Dicky (Bale) was a boxer whose claim to fame was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a bout, but then went on to being a crack addict. Represented by his mother (Leo), Mikey is set up with lousy matches that have sapped his will to go on. Then he meets a brassy barmaid (Adams) who inspires him to try and move beyond his co-dependent family, a development they resent even though it works best for Mickey's interests.

Director David O'Russell has gone 11 years since his last good movie (Three Kings) with only 2004's unbelievably craptastic I Heart Huckabee's in between. Fortunately, he's back on his game here with a film that makes a good back half for a double-feature with Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. (Fun Irony: Aronofsky is an executive producer here.) What is really commendable is that he manages to now succumb to the typical Hollywood temptation to overtly sneer at the lower-class blue-collar people of the town. Coastal elites hate the poor, but O'Russell manages to capture the local color without coloring them as white trash caricatures.

Bale lost over 60 pounds to play the hollowed-out (physically and spiritually) Dicky and while has the splashier role, it never devolves into ticks and nonsense. He's a screwup and eventually realizes it, but we see the charm that many addicts have that sustains their existences. Wahlberg underplays his part again and frankly I'm really bored with his schtick. When he first started in bigger movies like The Big Hit and Boogie Nights, the sight of him not being Marky Mark was enough to impress, but after over a decade of this act, it's no longer an interesting trick. Oh, he's fine in the performance and provides a quiet contrast to Bale's bigness; it's just we've seen it over and over before.

Adams is also a revelation as she kicks her sweet princess acting past to the curb as the tramp-stamped sorta floozy who tossed her athletic past away, but won't let Mickey give up. The scene where she tussles with Mickey's sisters delivers the one punch that made us go, "Ohhhh!" Leo is also fine. I've seen some criticism for the boxing scenes being lackluster, but I think it doesn't matter because O'Russell wisely doesn't attempt to ape the operatic style of Raging Bull or the visceral popcorn thrills of the Rocky flicks.

Score: 9/10. Catch a matinee.

"Dinner For Schmucks" Review

In Dinner For Schmucks (a remake of a French film with a French title). go-getting but under-appreciated investment analyst Paul Rudd wants a promotion at his firm. He gets an opportunity when invited to a dinner the boss holds where everyone brings as their guest the craziest people they can find to be made fun of with the "winner" getting a trophy and their sponsor receiving career advancement.

While Rudd is repulsed by the idea, he needs a promotion to make more money to entice his girlfriend, an art agent, to marry him; she's rebuffed previous proposals. When he accidentally hits Steve Carrell while texting and driving, he's apologetic until he learns that Carrell makes taxidermy dioramas with mice in elaborate costumes and sets. Could this sad, goofy man be his ticket to moving upstairs or lead him down the road of moral compromise and disaster?

Directed by Jay Roach - who started off well with the Austin Power series before sliding with Meet The Parents/Fockers movies - forgets Shakespeare's admonition that brevity is the soul of wit and as the film drags out to nearly two hours in length (any comedy running longer than 100 minutes is pushing its luck; hear me Judd Apatow?) it's a slow-moving muddle as it clearly doesn't have the guts to commit to being as nasty as it wants to be.

Carrell does things that make a shambles of Rudd's life, but is he really an idiot or a clumsy but decent fellow? A subplot about Rudd's girlfriend and the sex-crazed egomaniacal artist she works with doesn't work because if he thinks so easily that she's cheating with him, why is he gung-ho to marry her? The backstory about Carrell and his boss, the usually funnier Zach Galifianakis is a tonal mess, too.

The ending dinner scene is where they clearly saved all their energies for and it has the biggest laughs, albeit in a mean-spirited manner. The best is a blind swordsman who mentions, "I also paint." "Really? Are you any good?" "I have no idea." Of course a lot of wild slapstick ensues and everyone learns a valuable lesson about being themselves and blah-blah-woof-woof. It's a long walk to a not particularly interesting destination.

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Tourist" Review

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp together in Venice for a caper movie? Sounds awesome! What could go wrong? Well, plenty judging from the flat result that is The Tourist which manages to make two beautiful people in a beautiful city little more than an ad for why you should visit the City of Canals.

The plot, as it is, is slight despite attempts to make it convoluted: AJ is a beautiful woman (No! YES!!!) in Paris (Non! OUI!!!) being followed by agents of Scotland Yard in a surveillance van that can zoom in on her butt while the coppers speculate whether she's wearing underwear. They're following her in hopes she'll lead them to a fugitive, Alexander Pearce, who stole over £2 billion from a gangster and owes nearly £800 million in taxes to the UK. (Socialist Utopias don't pay for themselves.) She receives a note by messenger from the guy directing her to take a train to Venice and find someone on board with a similar height and build and make the cops believe it's Greene. She meets Depp, an American widower, and inserts herself into his life. Hijinks ensue.

Part of the problem people are having with The Tourist is that it's not Lara Croft and Jack Sparrow's Venetian Action Adventure. She doesn't get naked or shoot guns and he looks puffy and dour with a scraggly beard and hair that makes him look like an unemployed poet (is there any other kind?) than the math teacher he is. While they aren't doing much exciting, the quiet moments aren't very interesting either. It's nice to see a couple of good actors expressing themselves with looks and glances, but it's all soft details in the absence of a compelling narrative.

The biggest problem is that I had a sneaking suspicion as to how it was going to end up about 10 minutes in and was correct. There's a revelation about two-thirds of the way in that was a surprise, but the ultimate punchline was anti-climatic and a single point of failure which could've derailed the entire movie if one choice had gone differently. (I'll reveal it at the bottom of this review for those who've already seen this or just want to be spoiled.)

While the scenery is gorgeous and the still-too-thin Jolie looks elegant, The Tourist is sadly a trip not particularly worth going along for the ride with.

Score: 4.5/10. Rent the Blu-ray or catch at a dollar show.

*** SPOILER ALERT!!!! ***

The big twist is that Frank ends up being Pearce. Since there are only so many ways this story can play out with these stars - Frank is either a lucky stranger or the guy she loves all along - I was looking for this ending from the beginning. However, the single point of failure is this: What if she chose another guy on the train? It's not as if there aren't many 5'10" guys of average build, so it's quite possible for Pearce's scheme to reunite with his lover to go down in flames. It's a not-small detail because all the people chasing him would only have him because he was picked at random. I'm not even sure how the movie could've played if she'd chosen another; it requires an exact sequence of events to occur.

"Cliffhanger" DVD & "Vertical Limit" Blu-ray Reviews

We decided to kick off the New Year with a mountain-climbing double-feature (ooh-ooh-ohh) of Sly Stallone's 1993 Rocky Mountains-based Cliffhanger and Chris O'Donnell's 2000 Himalayan adventure Vertical Limit. I thought it'd be interesting to compare and contrast the two because I knew the former was better than the latter and shared similarities.

Both open with thrilling and elaborate climbing accident scenes that scar our hero's psyches, making them swear off climbing until adversity strikes and the reluctant men have to get back on the rocks. Cliffhanger's McGuffin is bad guy John Lithgow's gang trying to recover three cases with $100 million that fell from the sky when their crazy mid-air great plane robbery goes awry. Vertical Limit has O'Donnell racing against time to save his sister who was trapped on K2 while accompanying billionaire weasel Bill Paxton on his Richard Bransonesque ego trip. Lots of snowy hijinks ensue.

Cliffhanger is clearly the better of the two movies because director Renny Harlin never lets the chase let up once the plot ball starts rolling. While there are respites after the major set pieces, there's no rest and while some of the feats of weather-resistance are credulity-straining, it works on its own terms. It's Harlin's best film, the only one I revisit consistently.

Martin Campbell, who directed GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro before his trip to the mountains doesn't fare as well because his script makes frequent stops for lengthy "character development" breaks which slow the tempo. One wonders why they're lollygagging around when there's a rapidly closing window to rescue the trapped climbers before they succumb to pulmonary edema from the high altitude. Also, when the final rescue is made in a nick of time, they cut back to the base camp where she's recovering - oh, did I spoil the ending because you were in doubt whether she'd be saved? - leaving out the part where this on the edge of death woman was carried back down the mountain for at least 24 hours.

The largest difference is in the leading men - or perhaps I should say the difference between the man and boy. Stallone was 46 and in prison-ripped physical shape here, yet he takes a beating and delivers a good dramatic performance. It's very much in line with Bruce Willis' more Everyman approach in Die Hard, if John McClain had worn out a couple of BowFlexes, that is. On the other hand, O'Donnell is a bland vanilla area on the screen and fresh off assisting in the murder of the Batman franchise with Batman and His Lame Vanilla Buddy vs. Ahnuld, why someone thought he'd be a compelling action hero questions the intelligence of studio suits everywhere. Only Keanu Reeves would be more inert; at least O'Donnell can modulate his voice. I always remembered that I didn't care for Vertical Limit, referring to it as "Vertical Suckage," and the tag team of dodgy and predictable pacing and a vacant lead must've been it.

As for the discs themselves, Cliffhanger on DVD is a so-so effort from the early days of the format with a lot of edge-enhancement artifacts and a so-so flatness to the contrast. I've read the Blu-ray isn't a shining example of the format's potential, but it's much better. When I see a good sale, I'll be upgrading. Vertical Limit is a pretty good transfer which makes the cinematography of New Zealand's Mt. Cook (doubling for K2) even more spectacular while showing the callow affectless mien of O'Donnell accurately. Both have a OK batch of extras, but it's the features that count and Sly trumps Robin easily.

Cliffhanger Score: 9/10. Buy it on Blu-ray.

Vertical Limit Score: 6/10. Catch on cable.
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