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June 2013 Review Roundup

A mid-month trip and other stuff lead to a light month of movie-watching.

June 4 - Resident Evil: Retribution (3/10); The Boondock Saints (4/10)
June 5 - The Heat (7.5/10)
June 10 - Overnight (6/10); Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (8/10)
June 17 - This Is The End (7/10)
June 18 - Man of Steel (7/10)

Most Enjoyed: The Heat
Least Enjoyed: Resident Evil: Retribution

Month's Movies Watched: 7
Previously Unseen: 7
Theatrical: 3
Home: 4
Year-To-Date: 37
YTD First-Timers: 33
YTD Theatrical: 10
YTD Home: 27

"Man of Steel" Review

After what seemed to be a decade of post-production, Zac Snyder's epic scale reboot of Superman, Man of Steel, flies into theaters weighed down by the gloominess of producer and Dark Knight mastermind Christopher Nolan.

The first shocks come early with the portrayal of Krypton. We've only seen it as an icy Styrofoam world in the original Superman, so to see animals (that seem left over from Avatar) and a culture that has babies like The Matrix is both jarring and surprisingly unoriginal. In this telling, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife have had the first natural birth in centuries (of course), but since the planet is dying, he's going to send this last son of Krypton to Earth, but this time also carrying the genetic code for all Kryptonians with him in a slightly different form.

Instead of recounting young Clark Kent's upbringing in Smallville, Kansas in the usual linear manner, David S. Goyer's script (with the story co-written by Nolan) uses a flashback structure showing a bearded Clark wandering around like Bruce Banner, trying to find his place in the world and experiencing the same things he did as a boy raised by the Worst Father Ever, Kevin Costner. Seriously, when you sum up the totality of his terrible advice - "Let kids die to hide your power. Let me die because." - it's a miracle Clark didn't become Superemo. While this structure spares us some of the boredom, it only really works because everyone knows Superman's origin story so well, these broad sketches suffice, but also prove unnecessary.

In mashing up the plots of the first two Christopher Reeve movies, General Zod (Michael Shannon) comes to Earth looking for Kal-El and decides that Earth would be a fine place to regenerate Krypton, even if it requires exterminating the indigenous population of the planet (that would be us humans) via terraforming with a giant "world engine" that looks like the Reaper ships from the Mass Effect games. Much destruction ensues.

The old Superman movies were hampered by the limited special effects technology of the late-Seventies. The slogan was, "You will believe a man can fly," but while the flying was sort of OK most of the time, the fights in Superman II were just painful to watch in their sluggish non-glory. That's fixed here as you definitely get the sensation of superpowered beings pounding the bejeebers out of each other. You want train engines being thrown like toys? You got it! The problem is that Snyder rapidly sails into the pure noise zone as Metropolis is pounded into dust. Forget the hundreds of billions in damage and the tens of thousands of people who are probably lost in the chaos, it's simply finely rendered particle system VFX static after a certain point. It loses its capacity for visceral impact early on and gets less exciting, not more.

As with Brandon Routh in Superman Returns, the question is whether Henry Cavill can adequately fill Reeve's cape and the answer is yes despite the problematic script. (Same as it was with Routh, whose career suffered through no fault of his own when his turn flopped; it's not like Clooney in Batman and Robin.) Saddled with lots of doubts due to his crappy upbringing, he manages to make Kal/Clark/Supes work. The rest of the cast - Shannon, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Amy Adams as Pulitzer Prize-winning (as she is forced to say) Lois Lane - are solid, though why did they have to make Diane Lane as Ma Kent look so weathered.

While I was watching Man of Steel, I was enjoying the huge scale but as the noise factor worked against it and things dragged on to the conclusion, I realized that I wasn't having much fun. There are perhaps two laughs in the whole movie and that's not enough for an over two-hour comic book flick. I'm not demanding an Avengers-style laugh riot, but as with Nolan's The Dark Knight Reloaded, this "dark and gritty" take on things is getting to be a drag.

Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee.

"This Is The End" Review

A bunch of Hollywood stars riding out the Apocalypse is the premise of the frequently funny, but slightly disappointing This Is The End the co-directorial debut of co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg whose previous works include Superbad (cool), Pineapple Express (OK) and The Green Hornet (uh-oh).

Originally a four-minute short called Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse, This Is The End stars Rogen and Jay Baruchel (She's Out of My League, Undeclared) as old Canadian friends getting together after a year apart. Rogen is in L.A. making movies and Jay stays in Canada because he doesn't like the Hollywood scene and Seth's new friends including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and James Franco. After smoking pot and playing videogames, Rogen drags a reluctant Baruchel to Franco's house-warming party where a ton more stars make cameos as outlandish caricatures of themselves, especially Michael Cera as a coked-out lunatic.

As promised by the trailer, the Apocalypse occurs and the surviving party members hunker down in Franco's place. What does it all mean? How long will the food last, especially with Danny McBride with them? Is this really the end and, if so, how do these selfish Hollywood celebs redeem themselves and get to Heaven? Of course, hijinks ensue.

While my girlfriend and friend absolutely loved it, I was left a little chilly by This Is The End. It's not that it's not funny - it's very funny when it clicks - it's just that in trying to root the story in a human exploration of friendship, it kept the pace a bit slower than it should've. A perfect comparison is last year's Ted (the obscene teddy bear movie) which managed to be warm AND throw a zillion jokes at you non-stop.

Comedy is naturally subjective, so even though I laughed more at The Heat than This Is The End, don't take this as a lukewarm endorsement. It's just that I could've stood for some more random funny.

Score: 7/10. Rent it and hope there's an hour of alternate takes.

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" Review

The latest HBO Documentary Series kicks off with Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, an interesting film documenting the persecution of the Russian feminist punk rock/performance art collective Pussy Riot, who pop up in public places protesting the government of former KGB strongman Vladimir Putin and the heap of trouble they found themselves in when they decided to stage one of their happenings in a Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012.

Told even-handedly by a pair of filmmakers who clearly were already documenting the group (UPDATE: Apparently not; this EW interview indicates they got on the case after their arrest, so the other footage was done by others) when they stumbled into the crosshairs of the Russian "justice" system, it follows the three girls who were arrested for their shenanigans as they face up to five years in a penal colony for what is basically a disturbing the peace and trespassing rap worthy of a wrist slap and fine, not a trip to the gulag. Interviews with the girls' parents, offended Orthodox members who view the incident as reminiscent of the Bolsheviks persecution of them, as well as prosecuting and defense lawyers round out the copious footage of the trial and subsequent appeals which led to one member being released while the other two serve two years in prison.

What's fascinating is how the legal system, whether at the direction of Putin or not, never seems to consider the ramifications of what over-prosecution may cause to stir up further protests. This isn't to say that what they did was totally harmless and being obnoxious brats in sacred places doesn't deserve some sanction, but what the Russian system did was take an unknown group and turn them into international symbols as prisoners of conscience. (If you think that making martyrs isn't bad for business, you should talk to Pontius Pilate.)

It's also interesting to compare the opprobrium cast against Putin for his treatment of these dissenters with the ongoing situation of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Egyptian filmmaker whose crappy video was chosen as the official scapegoat by the Obama administration for the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. In a tight race for reelection after a failed first term, Obama sent the police to grab this poor chump on a probation violation and send him to prison for a year.

The difference between the cases is that while the artistic world has collectively rallied to the banner of Pussy Riot and against the thuggish reign of Putin, none of those voices are being raised against Obama as it's been learned how he's used the vast, powerful machinery of government to spy on, threaten, bully, persecute and punish those who dare speak against him. Somehow I don't think we'll be seeing an HBO documentary anytime soon about those who challenge the system here. It appears bravery is situational.

Back to Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer - I wish they'd delved into how the music was recorded and played back at their performances and what the story was about the English-fluent husband of Nadia, the strikingly beautiful member - seriously, check her out...

...who never showed up in court looking bad after months in jail as if she had a stylist the others passed on. I knew that one member of the band had been let out and I joked to my girlfriend, "Wanna bet that they let the hot one out?" (Spoiler alert: They don't. Whoa. And wait until you see the "exhibition" she took part in before. Yikes!)

Score: 8/10. Watch it.

"Overnight" DVD Review

As I referenced in my review for The Boondock Saints, a greater part of my interest in that mess was because I wanted to see this documentary, uh, documenting the rapid self-destruction of Troy Duffy, the egomaniac writer-director who managed to snag multiple breaks and then screw them all up, ending with nothing much and unlike most rags-to-riches-to-rags stories, you're pretty much rooting for his failure the whole way.

Co-directors Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana (for real?) were pals of Duffy's and his band, The Brood, which also included his brother Terry. I'm sure the intentions when they started documenting (there's that word again!) what happened after Miramax paid $300,000 for the script and bought him the L.A. bar he was slinging brews in was to have a record of the next Tarantino's emergence upon the cinematic landscape. It starts well enough with Marky Mark, Jake Busey, Patrick Swayze, Jeff Goldblum and others coming to the bar to meet with this supposedly hot newcomer. Not only will he be allowed to direct despite no previous experience, not even film school, but his band gets offered a deal on Maverick Records, unheard. Good times, indeed!

Then Duffy works his anti-Dale Carnegie tragic and within months, Miramax has put the project into turnaround and the band's deal offer disappears. Eventually, alternate financing is secured and the movie is made and Jason Flom's Lava/Atlantic imprint signs the band and puts them in the studio with former Doobie Brother Jeff "Skunk" Baxter producing. Back on track, right? Not really, for the recording process is hampered by Duffy's ego (seems to be a theme) and when the film is screened at Cannes, no one makes an offer to pick it up for distribution. Is Harvey Weinstein having the film blackballed or does it suck that bad? Regardless, when it finally gets put out, it shows in only five theaters for a week and grosses about $10,000, making it's name on home video when easily impressed viewers glom onto it. As for the band's album, after six months it sold 670 copies. The band got dropped like a bad habit.

While Overnight is a schadenfreudetastic look at a guy who bought into his own hype, it's somewhat hampered by a one-sided perspective because it was shot to tell Duffy's tale and there is very little heard from the other side of his tantrums on the Hollywood side. We see him screaming into phones, but the targets of his wrath aren't interviewed as to what they were thinking. There is also absolutely no footage of the band performing, recording, jamming or anything; something I'm guessing was due to an inability to secure the music rights. This means we have no idea what the labels thought they were getting in signing the band. For what it's worth, the bandmates don't look too happy with their lots either, but they're not interviewed either. More perspectives are needed.

Another major question unanswered is what the unholy heck did Hollywood think they were buying with this guy. The Boondock Saints is a mediocre mess, a fifth-rate pastiche of Tarantino imitators, not even QT himself. A zillion bands pay their dues and never get a deal, but these jokers are handed a contract because one member is making a movie?!? WTF?

In an interview with the directors included as an extra, they say that a case of collective madness which led movie and music industries to fall over themselves for this twit would never happen again, but it would've helped if they had been able to explore why it happened in the first place.

Shot on Super 8 and 16 mm as well as home video, the image quality and sound is rather rough, but watchable. It's presented in non-anamorphic full frame, so if you haven't made the move into HDTV, you'll be fine.

Score: 6/10. Rent it. (Only because I doubt it will ever surface on cable.)

I couldn't find an embeddable trailer for the film, even on Tony Montana's YouTube page, but he did post Ebert & Roeper's review of the film which is where I heard of it.

"The Heat" Review

When Bridesmaids shocked Hollywood in 2011 with a global take of $288 million and a pair of Oscar-nominations for the script co-penned by SNL veteran Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Potty-mouthed, low-brow, R-rated comedies had always been thought of a boys-only club so for women to succeed in the genre raised the question of whether it was a one-off fluke or a untapped market. The first real test of this will be The Heat which reunites Bridesmaids director (and Freaks & Geeks creator) Paul Feig and McCarthy, adding Sandra Bullock to the mix to gender-swap the well-worn buddy cop comedy formula. Can comic gold (and box office loot) be found by having girls get wild again? In this case, it just might.

The trailer sets the bar pretty low as it appears Bullock is revisiting her Miss Congeniality character as an FBI Agent who isn't respected by the boys despite her investigative chops. She doesn't have a man, practically steals her neighbor's cat for companionship, and hungers for a supervisory position promotion. Sent to Boston to work a big narcotics trafficking, she meets not-cute with local Detective McCarthy, one of those noisy loose cannon types whom we just have to accept managed to stay employed and promoted to Detective despite their obnoxious personality. (This is apparently not a documentary.) Will these two cops with their clashing styles and personalities be able to get along and crack the case while cracking heads and also cracking up audiences?


Pretty much every beat of The Heat follows the Odd Couple Buddy Cop Flick playbook that animates these things dating back to 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon, so it comes down to execution to make it sink or swim and for the most part it swims, uh, swimmingly. That the script is by Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold provides a little insulation from criticism that what Bullock and McCarthy do is degrading to professional women, but let's be honest, when's the last time you ever heard anyone worrying about whether male cops are harmed by being fooled by a banana in the tailpipe.

As with Bridesmaids, the secret weapon is McCarthy who is utterly without vanity as she spews a torrent of F-bombs, though they manage to make her unmistakably, ummmmm...let's say zaftig figure not the cheap and easy (and offensive) gag it could've been by giving her a running gag involving spurned lovers. She's a force of nature and Bullock gamely plays the straight man (you know what I mean), but gets a few licks in. Everyone's got a mushy center and learns something in the end. You know the drill. It's just that we've seen Bullock play the "attractive woman who doesn't know she's attractive" part so many times I coined the term "Sandra Bullock Syndrome" to describe any female character played by an actress that would rate an 8 or higher on the looks scale.

With so much that is familiar in the formula, it almost seems charitable to recommend it because all they've really done to freshen it up is put women in the leads. If this was made in 1996 with Tom Hanks and Chris Farley as a retread of Turner & Hooch with Farley as the slobbering dog, would it have be notable? More damningly, would it have been as funny with someone like Kristen Wiig instead of McCarthy? Does aggressive comedy require someone of a certain size whether it be a John Belushi and Chris Farley or a McCarthy and Rebel Wilson? (Ugh, political correctness isn't very amusing to ponder.)

So The Heat is just the same old formula with a flavor we haven't seen before? Is that enough? Sure, why not because despite the familiarity of format, it delivers the funny in sufficient quantities to merit watching. (There's a quote you won't be seeing on the DVD box!) I laughed a lot and I think you will too. The studio must be expecting great things because The Heat 2 is supposedly already in the works which means the downside of successful buddy cop comedies - the unneeded sequels (does anyone remember Another 48 Hours or the sequels to Beverly Hills Cop?) - will be coming too. Why should the ladies be exempt from that?

One warning: The violence isn't too bad, but it's a little more graphic than you'd expect from a comedy starring women. If you watch The Walking Dead, it's not anything that bad, but just a warning; a heads up about the head shots.

Score: 7.5/10. Catch a matinee.

NOTE: This opens June 28, 2013. The trailer says April. Also, several of the gags are different in the movie

"The Boondocks Saints" Blu-ray Review

1999's The Boondocks Saints has carried the sobriquet of "cult classic" with legions of fans holding conventions and screenings for the past decade. My interest was more limited, mostly because I've had a DVD of the reputedly-good documentary Overnight, about how the writer-director Troy Duffy got his break to make the movie and pissed it away in a haze of ego not matched by talent, and I figured it'd make more sense after having seen the movie proper. Secondarily, co-star Norman Reedus is now the hot cool dude after three seasons playing Daryl on The Walking Dead. Now, after watching The Boondocks Saints, I'm super in the mood to have a nice bowl of schadenfreude flakes watching Overnight because this movie is a mess and those rabid fans need their heads examined.

I'm not sure what Harvey Weinstein was thinking when he paid $300,000 for the script to this thing from a Boston bartender and then allowed him to direct despite having never made anything or even attended film school, but considering he had Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith in the Miramax stable, that this illiterate mess caught his eye is a head-scratcher. The story is simplistic, the dialog inane, the whole thing sloppy, though with a few charms that help it avoid being a total washout.

Set in Boston, it stars Reedus and Sean Patrick Flannery as Irish brothers who work in a meat packing plant. One night, the owner of their favored watering hole tells them that the Russian Mob is buying up properties and isn't renewing the lease. When a pair of Mob goons show up, the crowd at the bar roughs them up badly. When the Russians appear at the brothers cruddy apartment for revenge, they find themselves on the wrong end of that fight and are let go by the cops by reason of self-defense. With a sense of self-righteous justice, they embark on killing off other Russian mobsters, eventually branching out to hitting members of the Italian Mob with their numbers runner pal Rocco, played by David Della Rocco which confused me when they give him a title card introduction.

Duffy uses what he thinks is a clever structure by showing the brothers planning their hit then the cops with FBI Agent Willem Dafoe (more on him in a moment) investigating and theorizing about the crime scene before jumping back and showing us what happened. Duffy does this over and over, but it only works in an interesting fashion once when Dafoe appears in the scene, acting out what happened along with the actual participants. But even that sequence ends with a ludicrous gun fight which makes a late-film twist thoroughly ridiculous. (Also, why would the brothers be carrying ammonia to spray on their spilled blood to make evidence gathering useless?)

What saves The Boondocks Saints from total failure is Dafoe's absolutely off-the-chain performance as the gay, smacktalking, FBI Agent who begins to appreciate what the brothers are doing. I'm surprised I've never heard of this performance before as he cross-dresses and generally freaks out in every scene he's in. He's a hoot.

Reedus and Flannery are bland cyphers whom Duffy figured tattoos, some brief prayers (not the least bit ripped-off from Pulp Fiction *cough*), and thick Gaelic accents would suffice as "characters." In one scene they show off fluency in several languages, but no explanation for this skill is given. It's just some "cool" (again *cough*) business stuck in as trimming on an empty package.

Speaking of empty packages, I purchased The Boondocks Saints Truth & Justice Edition Blu-ray and upon watching it discovered I got the original pressing without the "The Boondock Saints - The Film and the Phenomenon" retrospective feature listed on the packaging. Checking reviews, I see that the old disc had the script and this one does, too. I did a search and found other people reporting getting the wrong disc, too. I'll have to chase Fox down for a replacement. Bother.

Score: 4/10. Skip it unless it's on cable when you're flipping by and Dafoe is getting his crazy on.

"Resident Evil: Retribution" Review

After the craptastic Resident Evil: Afterlife stunk to high heaven, I can't believe there was any demand for more of this series, but apparently there is and thus Hollywood begat Resident Evil: Retribution, the penultimate chapter (meaning there's another on the way; oh joy) of the saga of Alice (Milla Jovovich) vs. the Umbrella Corporation. Please, make it stop!

The hook this time is that a whole bunch of characters who died in previous films return, but the manner they come back - as clones and simulations or something - renders all the noisy action meaningless. I had to look up a synopsis this afternoon to refresh me what I watch last night (from this writing) and now I can't recall what was what. Something about Alice having to escape from an elaborate undersea complex that Umbrella converted from post-Cold War Soviet submarine pens where they have massive virtual environments like The Truman Show recreating Moscow, Tokyo, Times Square and a generic suburban neighborhood. The mechanics of the simulation never make any sense even by the loose standards of realism of this series and it's just noise, action, boom-boom, blah-blah-woof-woof.

In my RE:A review, I slagged hacky writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, saying, "It's a testament to his hackitude that Anderson makes wet and dirty Milla and Ali kicking ass both not hot and not entertaining." In this regard he outdoes himself by making Milla, the back-from-the-dead-Michelle Rodriguez (who also pulled a Lazarus in Furious 6), series newcomer Bingbing Li as game character Ada Wong, and Sienna Guillory (back for the 3rd time as Jill Valentine) not hot as they shoot guns and cat fight. Some of the action choreography is flashy, but it has no heft or consequence. It's just action that causes no reaction.

Milla Jovovich has a bad habit of marrying her directors, but at least Luc Besson has Le Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element on his CV. Anderson has a mostly mediocre to average genre stuff; when the first (and ONLY the first) Resident Evil and the flawed Event Horizon are your acmes, well, you hit the jackpot, Tiger. Too bad she's wasting her career making crappy movies with her hubs.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

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