Like my book reviews site, these are movie reviews I write for entertainment purposes only. These are just my reviews and my opinions. They are not endorsed by Blogger or any movie studios or anyone else. So there. I borrowed my scoring system from the Metacritic site, which does not imply an endorsement from them, although I think they do have a very nice website. I convert the 1-100 scores into 1-4 stars, essentially it works like this:

1 star = 25 points
2 stars = 50 points
3 stars = 75 points
4 stars = 100 points

And then if something falls about halfway between, then I'll give it an added half-star.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Really the only way to watch this and not laugh yourself silly is to just turn your brain off and go with the flow.  I'm not sure what sort of dreams Christopher Nolan has, but they must be pretty wild to come up with all these rules used in "Inception."  For instance, a guy gets shot and screams in pain.  Don't they say the way to know you aren't dreaming is to pinch yourself because you don't feel pain in dreams?  That seems true to me, but not apparently to Christopher Nolan, who wrote, produced, and directed "Inception."

From articles I read when this first came out, I guess it took Nolan a number of years to come up with the script.  But really after all those years of work this comes out like "The Matrix" only less imaginative and without all that "Chosen One" stuff.  (Kind of like how it took James Cameron 15 years to rip off the story of "Dances With Wolves.")

Anyway, the ridiculous story involves a man named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, who already did the whole reality/fantasy thing with "Shutter Island" earlier this year) who through vaguely explained processes can break into your dreams and steal your secrets.  His right hand man is Arthur (Joseph Gordon Leavitt) and when they try to get secrets from Saito (Ken Watanabe, who was Ra's Al Guhl in Nolan's "Batman Begins") things go sour because of Cobb's dead wife Mal. 

But then Saito says that he wants them to break into his rival's son's head and implant an idea to break up his company, which would be "Inception" instead of extraction.  (You know because that's a lot easier than the traditional method of just finding a way to blackmail the guy or something.)  That rival's son is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, who was the Scarecrow in both of Nolan's Batman movies) who has a strained relationship with his dying father.

Cobb then goes to see his father or father-in-law Michael Caine (who was in Nolan's last three pictures--seeing a pattern?) who gives him the name of a student who can help him design dream worlds.  That student is Ariadne (Ellen Page, who's already been one ancient Greek-named character) who also provides a good way for Nolan to educate us on the rules of entering and designing dreams.

From there they kidnap Fischer and then there are dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams to plant the idea, which involves a lot of car chases, gun battles, and a zero-G fight that would have been cooler if we hadn't all seen "The Matrix" 11 years ago.  That is where my biggest disappointment comes in; the dream sequences are so ordinary.  None of that stuff you see in the previews about cities folding over on themselves and such comes into play.  There's a normal city, a hotel, and then a hospital/fortress in the arctic.  It's pretty blah. 

I'm dogging on the movie, but I will say that it wasn't boring.  It's just dumb.  If you can turn your brain off and not question any of the stupid rules and mechanics of it then you'll probably enjoy it.

Of course the main conceit that it's hard to distinguish reality from dreams is hardly original.  I've thought of that since I was like 7.  (Though actually I used to think, "What if I'm actually on my deathbed as like an old dude and all of this is like a memory?"  Did I just blow your mind?)  I even wrote a story that involves a guy who can manipulate someone else's dreams.  That was 5 years ago.  Take that, Christopher Nolan!

Something else that stood out to me is at the end Nolan uses the exact same credit font and style as at least the Batman movies.  At some point did he consciously decide that he can only do credits with that font and that style?  And since I'm ragging on everything else, could Hans Zimmer dial down the Teutonic horns a little?  This isn't a Norse opera for crying out loud.

That is all.

My score:  50/100 (2 stars)
Metacritic score:  74/100 (3 stars)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Expendables

"The Expendables" obviously isn't a great movie in terms of great films like "Citizen Kane" or even "The Godfather."  It is at least a movie that knows it's not a great movie and to its credit it doesn't try to be anything it isn't.  Basically what you expect with Sly Stallone, Jason Statham, and Jet Li (among others) involved is a kick-ass action movie with lots of blood and stuff blowing up.  And that's what you get.

In typical retro action movie style, there's a thin story that provides the excuse to blow stuff up.  There's a phony island in the Gulf of Mexico or something called Vilena, where a rogue CIA agent named James Munroe (Eric Roberts) has created a puppet government so that he can produce/sell drugs without sharing any profits.

The Expendables of the title are a group of mercenaries led by Barney (Stallone) and his partner Christmas (Statham) who get the job to take out the evil general in charge of the island.  This is provides a cameo for both Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger which wasn't necessary, but is just a fun tip of the cap for great action heroes of yore.

Barney and Christmas recon the island, where they run into Sandra, who is the general's daughter but has gone to ground to avoid running into daddy.  Things go sour, with Barney and Christmas barely escaping.  But then Barney decides to go back mainly to get Sandra out of there.  Except he doesn't know that one member of his team has betrayed him.

The rest is a lot of blowing stuff up.  The effects aren't all that great, but you get plenty of explosions--buildings and humans.  The really big, loud gun one member of Barney's team uses is particularly nasty--and freaking cool.  It's the kind of gun I'd love to have in one of those first-person shooter games.
As I said, the story is paper thin, the characters are flat, and the dialog is corny, but that's what you expect.  We're not talking about cinema here.

The only real failure was that if you're going to create a super team of past action heroes, you need Van Damme, Segal, and of course the almighty Chuck Norris.  Jackie Chan would be cool too.  I mean come on, the first two are just doing straight-to-video movies and the only mentions Chuck Norris gets are in connection with those jokes floating around the Internet.  So really, it's not like it should have cost that much money.

Actually now that Schwarzenegger is no longer the governor (or soon not to be) maybe they can do a sequel where his team could have the guys I just mentioned and they initially go up against Stallone's team before joining forces to take out some bad guy.  Wow, someone get Stallone's agent on the phone!  This thing pretty much writes itself!

If you want a good retro action flick, this is one to watch.  I wouldn't buy it, but it's worth the rental.
That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  45/100 (2 stars)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

If a gay rights group were to have a poster family for a same-sex household, this would probably be the one they'd pick.  Matriarch Nicki (Annette Bening) and her "wife" Jules (Julianne Moore) are in their 40s and still seemingly in love.  They have a pretty and smart 18-year-old daugher Joni (Mia Waskikowska, that girl from the "Alice in Wonderland" movie) who is Ncki's biological daughter and a 15-year-old son Laser who is Jules's biological son.  Nicki is the one who's brought home the bacon as a doctor while Jules has raised the kids after dropping out of college, though now Jules is trying to start a landscaping business.

Everything seems fine until Laser rocks the boat by asking Joni to call the sperm bank where their mothers went to get pregnant.  They find out that their father is Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who runs an organic farm and small restaurant.  The kids covertly meet with Paul and while it's awkward they want to see him again.
Eventually Nicki and Jules find out and they want to meet Paul too.  Things get more complicated when Paul hires Jules to landscape his backyard.  Maybe you can guess in what way.  What happens with that and with Paul spending time with the kids just about destroys this unconventional family.

A couple things I found interesting is that after the kids meet Paul, they seem to get pushed more to the side as the movie focuses more on the Nicki/Jules/Paul triangle.  It seemed like some issues with the kids (especially their sexuality issues) sort of got left on the table.  Also for a movie about a lesbian couple the only sex depicted was hetero sex.  That should make the average moviegoer feel more comfortable.  I mean gay kisses are one thing, but gay sex is another, right?

The movie seemed to lag at times, but for the most part I thought it was good.  There's just the one plot twist with Jules/Paul, but that's pretty much it.  The rest is about as organic as the stuff Paul grows.  The movie makes the point that a family with two mothers is still the same as a traditional family in a lot of ways.  A point I made a year ago and that "My Two Dads" made back in the '80s.

I don't think this had a long theater run, but you might hear about it more during awards season.  I wouldn't be surprised if Annette Bening or Julianne Moore were nominated for Supporting Actress.  You know, big names in an issue movie is the kind of stuff Hollywood goes for.

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)
Metacritic score:  86/100 (3.5 stars)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winter's Bone

I think I remember hearing about this movie from Roger Ebert during one of those film festivals like Cannes or Toronto or whatever.  Anyway, when I saw this was out, I thought I'd check it out.  You might want to remember this too, because it could wind up being one of those films like "Crash" or "Hurt Locker" that's relatively overlooked when it comes out (probably because it hardly played in any theaters) but makes some noise in awards season.

The movie focuses on rural Missouri, which looks about like something from "The Road" or some other post-apocalyptic movie.  In this wasteland is the Dolly family, the matriarch of which is 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence).  She has to care for her younger brother Sonny and younger sister Ashlee because her mother is almost catatonic and her father is on the lam for cooking meth.

The problem for Ree is that before he disappeared, her father put the house up as collateral for the bond.  If he misses his court date, the family will be out on the street--or living in a cave.  To avoid this, Ree sets out to find her father.

But the Ozarks have their own set of laws, which are similar to those of the Mafia.  Some of her father's acquaintances (or accomplices) try to keep Ree from digging into things.  With her home at stake, though, Ree isn't going to be stopped easily.

If this is even a somewhat accurate depiction of mountain life, it's pretty terrifying.  As I said before, it's like a post-apocalyptic world up there, or a Third World, where most everyone is living in poverty.  To get by, Ree survives on donations from neighbors and squirrels and other game she can kill herself.

Relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence is someone you should keep an eye on not just during awards season, but in the future.  She gives a great performance here, keeping the character grounded in reality, without any melodrama or hysterics.  (The complete opposite of Angelina Jolie in "Changeling" for example, who spent that whole movie either screaming or sobbing.)  It's up to her to carry the film, and she does so.

This isn't a nonstop thrill ride or anything like that, but a taut and engaging drama.  I recommend getting in on the ground floor with this one, before everyone else starts talking about it.
That is all.

My score:  88/100 (3.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  90/100 (3.5 stars)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jonah Hex

I have to be honest and admit I put this at the top of my queue precisely because I read the terrible reviews.  I've watched a number of terrible superhero movies and this rates in that awful category with such films as "Ghost Rider" and "The Spirit."  Though I wouldn't say this was quite as bad, it's a far cry from "The Dark Knight" or "Iron Man."

What's especially telling is that when you factor out credits, the movie is only 70 minutes long.  Consider ones like "The Dark Knight" or "Superman Returns" were 150 minutes or more, and you get the sense that there were some real problems with this movie.  I mean, other than kids movies, who makes an action movie that short?  I would be really curious to see just how much was left on the cutting room floor.  If this was what they left in, then what they cut out must have been really awful.

Anyway, this follows the pretty standard formula.  Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is put of the Confederate Army but turns in his unit led by the sadistic General Turnbull (John Malkovich) to the Union Army when he can no longer handle the savagery.  Turnbull escapes and with the help of an evil Irishman, captures Hex and his family and burns Hex's wife and kid alive.  He also brands Hex's face with his initials but lets Hex live.  Later Hex decides that he'll get rid of the mark by putting a very hot axe blade to his face, thus burning his face even worse. 

There's something about him nearly dying but being revived by Native Americans, which is rendered in cartoon for some reason.  This then gives Hex the ability to touch dead people and temporarily bring them back to life.  He goes out then to the Old West and works as a bounty hunter.

It's 1876 when Hex finds out that Turnbull is alive and so goes in search of him.  Taking a page from the equally bad "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" Turnbull is making some kind of battleship that shoots explosives ignited by weird glowing orbs that was all designed by Eli Whitney as a "nation killer" except the Army decided it didn't need a Death Star but let the plans fall into Turnbull's hands.

Helping Hex along the way are a black weapons merchant who designs a sort of rocket launcher with a crossbow that shoots dynamite.  There's also the prostitute Lila (Megan Fox, who again teases males everywhere by remaining fully clothed) who periodically gives Hex a freebie and serves as his Mary Jane Watson in the plot.  (If you watched the "Spider-Man" movies you know what I mean.)
I'm sure you have no idea how it works out.

Anyway, as I said the movie was so short that it's pretty much over before it begins.  Probably just as well since what there is of it is pretty paint-by-numbers with pathetic dialog, notably in the scene where a chubby Aidan Quinn as President US Grant tells his troops they need to find Hex.

I found the black weapons guy to be kind of insulting.  It's like the filmmakers were trying to say, "Well, Hex was a part of the Confederacy but he's not racist!  Look, he has a black friend!"  That may be something taken from the comics, but still.  What's also weird is that the Native Americans never seem to get any airtime when they bring Hex back to life.  That seems like something that was probably left on the cutting room floor.  There are also some weird cutaway scenes with Hex fighting Turnbull in a plain of red clay.  Not sure what the point of that was.

This might not have been as bad as I expected, but it was pretty bad nonetheless.

That is all.

My score:  35/100 (1.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  33/100 (1.5 stars)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I could sum it up by saying I felt the same way as when I watched "Star Trek" last year:  on its own the movie is OK, but in comparison with its predecessor it's not that good.  I only watched the original Elm Street once and that was on basic cable, though I have to admit of all the late 70s-80s super killers Freddy Krueger scared the crap out of me.  I think it was just that creepy burned face.  One thing that bothered me then with the remake is that the face looks wrong.  It doesn't look as scary or even very real.  It looks like some CGI'd it, like "The Mummy" or something.

The plot follows along the same lines as the original.  Some high school kids are terrorized by the evil spirit of Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley), who wears an ugly striped sweater and wields a hand of razors that he uses to slash his victims to pieces.  He appears in the kids' dreams where their parents can't protect them.  Not that any of their parents seem to be interested in protecting them, or are even around 90% of the time.

After a few deaths, two kids are left standing.  Nancy (Rooney Mara, aka soon to be known as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and her friend Quentin (who's obviously a fan of Team Edward from his pastiness).  They try to figure out who Freddy is and how they can destroy him, all without falling asleep.

I was looking forward to this even though I wasn't a big fan of the original.  Having seen "Little Children" and "Watchmen" I thought Haley would be well-suited to playing the psychotic pedophile.  And generally he's creepy and scary, but is he Freddy Krueger?  Not really.  He doesn't have the same panache as the Robert Englund version.  Maybe some would say the original was kind of cheesy, but that's what made it enjoyable and helped it spawn eight sequels or so.

That's kind of the way it is with the movie in general.  It would be an OK horror movie if taken on its own, but since it's called "Nightmare on Elm Street" there's a lot to live up to.  The movie just doesn't.

BTW, I watched this after midnight, alone, in the dark and slept like a baby afterwards.  So in my estimation, not that scary.

That is all.

My score:  50/100 (2 stars)
Metacritic score: 35/100 (1.5 stars)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Robin Hood (2010)

They really should have called this "Robin Hood Begins."  Essentially this is the same as a recent spate of "reimagined" origin stories like "Batman Begins" or "Casino Royale" or "Star Trek."  Really only the first one of those worked for me; the other two strayed too far from the source material for me.

In this, Robin Longstrides (Russell Crowe) is a warrior with King Richard the "Lion Hearted" returning home from the Crusades.  He has his buddy Will Scarlet with him and soon meets and befriends Little John as well.  King Richard, Robin, and the others are ransacking French lands for the money and supplies needed to get back to England.  But then during a battle Richard is killed.

Afterwards, Sir Robert Loxley, is taking the crown back to England when he's ambushed by the French and killed.  Robin Longstrides and company drive off the attackers.  Robert asks Robin to take his sword back to his father in Nottingham.  So Robin takes Robert's clothes and steals his identity to get on board the ship to England.  He gives the crown to the king's mother, who in turn crowns her son John.  (It's been a few years before history class, but I thought you had more of a process than that.)

Then Robin and his band head up to Nottingham.  There he meets Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett), Robert Loxley's wife.  Robert's father is old, blind, and dying, so he asks Robin to pose as his son so that the king won't be able to take over the land.  As you'd expect, Robin and Marian start to fall in love.

Meanwhile, John's most trusted adviser is plotting to stir up rebellion in order to deliver England to the French.  The only way to stop him is for Robin, King John, and everyone else to band together.  Since they aren't speaking French in England now, you can probably guess what happens.

This movie was not as boring as I feared, but it wasn't all that great either.  The biggest mistake was director Ridley Scott casting his old buddy Russell Crowe in the lead.  At 46, Crowe is too old to play a dashing outlaw, especially one at the start of his career.  He's also too dour to be the charismatic ringleader of the Merry Men.  From a practical standpoint it also doesn't make sense to cast someone that old because it sort of lessens the sequel potential.

On the plus side, at least the traditional elements were there:  Robin, Little John, Marian, Friar Tuck, the Sheriff, King John, and so forth.  Sherwood Forest doesn't really come into it until the end, though.  At least though it wasn't like "Casino Royale" where they took out Q, most of the neat gadgets, and so forth that Bond pictures.  So it's got that going for it.

The fight scenes are pretty reminiscent of Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Gladiator" which are both superior to this, though "Robin Hood" is more enjoyable on a popcorn level than "Kingdom of Heaven."  There seem to be a couple points in the story where things are a bit rushed, especially at the end.

But overall, it's better than the Kevin Costner version.  Which isn't saying much.  I'd still rather watch "Robin Hood:  Men in Tights."

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  53/100 (2 stars)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Harry Brown

If you've watched movies like "Death Wish" or "Gran Torino" then you pretty much already know how "Harry Brown" is going to play out.  The only difference is that this vigilante movie is set in London instead of a US city like New York or Detroit or Chicago.  But crime, gangs, and drugs are pretty much universal in any big city.

Harry Brown (Michael Caine) was a decorated Marine during fighting with Northern Ireland years ago.  That was until he married his wife Cath, when he swore never to fight again.  He settled down and they had a daughter who died at age 13--a fact you don't know unless you watch the deleted scenes.

In present day Harry is old and his wife is dying from cancer--another fact you don't really know unless you watch the deleted scenes; all you know in the regular movie is that she's dying.  At the same time, his only friend Leonard is being harrassed by street punks led by the sadistic Noel.

Not long after Harry's wife dies, Leonard gets fed up and decides to confront Noel and the other punks.  As you'd expect, this doesn't go well.  Leonard is killed and Harry decides that he's going to take revenge on those responsible.

The rest of it pretty much goes according to formula.  At least the film stays somewhat grounded in the real world in that Harry never becomes Jason Bourne, performing any gravity-defying stunts.  At the same time, it never really strays too far from the safe and predictable.  As I sort of indicated, some of the deeper stuff about the characters got cut from the theatrical version.

The actors probably deserved a script that took a few more chances, but it's not a terrible film either.  If you liked "Gran Torino" then it's much the same, except no message about tolerance or anything.

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  55/100 (2 stars)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ghost Writer

This may come as a shock, but most books written by celebrities aren't really written by the celebrities themselves.  They use what's known as a "ghost writer."  The ghost writer does interviews with the subject celebrity, writes the manuscript, and then usually receives no credit for it--hence why they are called "ghosts."

When former British PM Adam Lang's ghost writer turns up dead on a beach from an apparent suicide, a British screenwriter (Ewan MacGregor, credited as "The Ghost" and come to think of it, I don't remember if he had a real name in the film.  It's kind of like the assassin character in "Layer Cake" that way.) gets a call from his agent promising him $250,000 if he goes to Lang's New England compound to finish the book.  Naturally he does this, though first he's mugged after being given another manuscript by a lawyer.  (BTW, The Ghost's publisher is played by a very fat, very bald Jim Belushi.  What the hell happened to him?  He looked like he was trying out for a remake of "Kojack."  Seriously.)

Things don't go much better once he gets to the compound.  Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is under siege as a war crimes court is indicting him for turning over supposed terrorists to the CIA for torture.  His head secretary Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) keeps the place under very strict security, to the point where The Ghost isn't even supposed to use the Flash drive with the original manuscript on it.  Lang's relationship with his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) is strained and you instantly suspect that A) Lang is fooling around with the secretary and B) Ruth is up to something.  One of these is definitely true.

Once Lang goes off to Washington, The Ghost begins looking into what happened to his predecessor.  Is it surprising anyone to say that it wasn't an accident?  I mean, would there be a movie if it was an accident?  OK, maybe, but not an interesting one.

That's about as far as I should go with the plot summary or else I might ruin the mystery.  And really this is more of a mystery than a "thriller."  There is a sort of chase that involves The Ghost dodging some goons on a ferry, but it's not like "The Bourne Identity" or anything.  What disappointed me is that Lang isn't involved enough in the plot.  He's there initially and then leaves for over half the movie, returning at the end.  I thought there'd be more of a relationship and bonding between him and The Ghost.  (Because, really, Pierce Brosnan is just awesome.  Really, what hasn't he been great in, except maybe "Mars Attacks" and "Mama Mia"?  Also, Ewan MacGregor is pretty awesome too.  He was clearly the best thing going in the crappy "Star Wars" prequels and other movies like "Trainspotters" and "The Men Who Stare At Goats" are good too.  So really, having those two guys playing off each other would have been great!  Sadly, not enough was made of that opportunity.)  Also, it was too obvious that Ruth was involved somehow, though I won't say how.

There's also the sort of creepy irony in that Lang has to stay in the United States out of fear of being extradited to the war crimes court by another country.  The movie was co-written and directed by Roman Polanski, who inversely can't set foot in the United States because of a murder conviction, from which he fled many years ago.  (This was recently in the news again when he was arrested in Switzerland, though ultimately not extradited to the US.)  So by involving that with Lang, it almost seems like Polanski involving himself in the movie.  How you feel about that might depend on how you feel about his legal situation.  (I really have no opinion because most of that happened when I was a little kid.)

Anyway, it's still an interesting movie, though it drags a little.  It's the kind of movie where even after everything seems wrapped up, you know there's got to be one more twist to it.  It's also the kind of movie where you might want to watch it twice to see what clues you missed on the first time.  I didn't, but I also didn't have time to watch a 2-hour-plus movie twice.

That is all.

My score:  65/100 (2.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  77/100 (3 stars)

The Joneses

The old expression is that you shouldn't try to "Keep up with the Joneses."  In the movie "The Joneses," however, a "stealth marketing" firm hopes that you will.  In lieu of traditional advertising or even "viral marketing" like using YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, they go a step farther by planting a group of actors in an affluent neighborhood and setting them up with all sorts of trendy goods to plug.

The "family" is aptly named the Joneses.  The movie begins when they arrive in a gated community in their new Audi and wearing fancy new clothes and so forth.  Patriarch Steve (David Duchovny) is new to the game.  His "wife" Kate (Demi Moore, looking hotter than she ever has before) is the old pro and Steve's boss.  Their two teenaged "children" Nick and Jen are also old hands at this.  (What I wondered is why they have two teenagers and not younger children.  Shouldn't they have like 3-4 kids to hit on every age group?  That probably would have been too messy in terms of the story.)

Basically how it works is that for a year the Jones clan pretend to be a family and show off all their high end goods to convince the people around them to buy that stuff.  Nick and Jen infiltrate the local high school while Kate targets the hairdressers and Steve hits the links at the country club.  By virtue that they all are very attractive and friendly and have really neat stuff, slowly everyone buys what they have and sales for those companies go up.  They even have a "grandma" who stops by on occasion to break down numbers with them.

But soon things begin to unravel for the Joneses.  Steve has trouble adapting to the concept of being a family while not being a family--he sleeps in a separate bedroom from Kate.  She struggles with her feelings for Steve and that he starts to outperform her in the sales department.  Nick has issues with a girl named Naomi whom he befriends--and her brother.  And Jen has a problem in being attracted to older men, which includes Steve early on.  There's also the problem of their neighbors Larry and Summer, who do try to keep up with the Joneses, much to their detriment.

I really liked this movie.  It never seemed to drag throughout its 90 minute running time.  The idea of rampant consumerism and our need to compete with each other is a good one, especially at this time of year with back to school sales followed by the XMas shopping season, which seems to go on forever anymore.  But more than that, there's also a lesson on the meaning of family.  While the Jones "family" starts off as a group of actors, by the end they start bonding like a real family.

So overall it's a fun movie and the kind that makes you think a little too.  (And did I mention that Demi Moore looks really hot?  And her "daughter" ain't hard on the eyes either.  Yowza!)

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)
Metacritic score:  55/100 (2 stars)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I remember a couple years ago when the movie "21" came out I thought it was OK, but it was too fictionalized.  The History Channel documentary about the real group of MIT students who learned how to fleece Vegas by counting cards was a lot more interesting because it was real instead of Hollywood-ized with cheesy plot twists and romances and stuff.  The same could be said of "Creation" where a biography of Charles Darwin would be a lot more satisfying because it wouldn't be as Hollywood-ized.

"Creation" doesn't focus on Darwin's entire life.  Mostly it focuses on when he's writing his blockbuster book "The Origin of Species."  For someone who changed the way many people see the world, Darwin was not a social crusader.  He was a shy, nerdy guy who lived in the English countryside with his many children and his wife Emma.  While Darwin is a scientist and has lost his faith in God, his wife is very religious.

As he begins his book, Darwin is beset with physical and mental problems.  His body is failing him with tremors and fevers.  At the same time he's haunted--literally--by the death of his daughter Annie, who shared Darwin's love of science.

Of course it's a foregone conclusion that Darwin writes his book and it's published.  How he manages to do this requires some pre-Freudian psychiatric help.

Anyway, as I said in the beginning, a documentary on Darwin would probably be more interesting and insightful.  Whether you believe in Creationism or evolution, there's not really anything here that will challenge your beliefs either way.  The story focuses mostly on Darwin getting his groove back, which is a shame because there's so much more depth and importance to his story and his work.

Paul Bettany does a good job though of presenting Darwin as a man who changed the world but didn't really want to.  His real life wife (as of the writing of this) Jennifer Connelly isn't given much to do as his wife except occasionally to question him.

Overall I'd say this is one you can miss.

That is all.

My score:  50/100 (2 stars)
Metacritic score:  51/100 (2 stars)

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I had some reservations about this movie after reading Ebert's review of it when it first came out.  Overall, though, it wasn't bad.  It is violent and sometimes gory--like when someone's leg gets cut off with some kind of spear thing--so you really don't want your young kids seeing it.  Mostly it works best if you consider it a parody of overly violent comic books/graphic novels that have cropped up in the last 30 years or so.

When it starts out Dave is pretty much like Peter Parker in the first Spider-Man movie, only with average intelligence.  After getting mugged (again) he decides to buy a wetsuit and somehow gets some batons and decides to go out and fight crime.  Though you'd think that a comic book fan would realize you can't just go put on a costume and fight crime, not unless you're an alien (Superman) or in some freak accident (90% of Marvel heroes).  Or maybe if you get doped up on steroids (Captain America) or undergo years of ninja training (Batman) or find a suit of magic armor (like this).

But he doesn't, so naturally he gets his butt kicked.  Still, after he manages to drive off some gang members and it's caught on video, he becomes an Internet sensation.  This annoys a real superhero calling himself Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) who's been a lot smarter about it by keeping on the down low while training his young daughter Mindy how to be a deadly ninja assassin called Hit Girl.  Big Daddy's been trying to knock off a gangster who put him in jail years ago and operates a lumber business.

Things get more dangerous for Dave when the gangster wrongly thinks that Kick-Ass is responsible for a raid on his operation that was in fact carried out by Big Daddy.  The gangster's son (the McLovin kid from Superbad) sets a trap by becoming a "hero" called Red Mist.

It all becomes your typical over-the-top comic book-type story from there.  Again, if you don't take this very seriously then it's fine.  For instance, the Hit Girl character pretty well illustrates the creepiness of kid sidekicks.  I mean, do you really want a bunch of prepubescent ninja assassins running around?  That scares the hell out of me.

Otherwise the only real complaint would be that Nicolas Cage sucks up another superhero movie after the terrible "Ghost Rider."  The cheesy child molester mustache is bad enough, but then in Big Daddy mode he does his Adam West impersonation as well.  It would have made more sense to impersonate more modern Batmen like Michael Keaton or Christian Bale--not George Clooney.

Basically if you're a comics fan or superhero movie fan then this is pretty entertaining.  In some ways not as good as the Woody Harrellson vehicle "Defendor" I previously reviewed, though the effects are probably a little better.

That is all.

My score:  65/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  66/100 (2.5 stars)

Saturday, July 17, 2010


The basic conceit behind "Chloe" isn't all that original.  Catherine (Julianne Moore) thinks that her husband David (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her.  She has reason to think this after David blows off a flight from New York back to Toronto for his surprise birthday party and the next morning Catherine sees a message on his phone from an attractive young student signed "XXOO" which of course means hugs and kisses.  Instead of just confronting him about the phone message, Catherine decides to set a trap for David and catch him in the act.  She meets a prostitute named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) in the bathroom of a hotel and sees her later on the street.  Eventually she hires Chloe to seduce David and thus get the goods on him.  This concept is so shopworn that it was used last year in the Mike Judge comedy "Extract."

If that's where the movie had stayed it probably would have been pretty dull.  Instead, Catherine gets a lot more than she bargained for in Chloe.  As Chloe tells her about the various things she's doing with David, Catherine finds herself getting turned on and maybe wanting Chloe to do a few of these things to her as well.  And Chloe is more than willing to do this.  So the story becomes about this bizarre relationship between Catherine, Chloe, and Chloe's family.

There's of course a surprise twist at the end that changes everything.  I won't ruin that.  I thought overall this was a very taut thriller and I couldn't exactly see what was coming before it happened, which is always a good thing for a suspense movie.  And to put on my sexist male hat for a moment, it has one of the hottest girl-on-girl scenes in a non-porn movie since "Mulholland Drive."  (Yeah, really, crucify me for enjoying that.)

Overall, a riveting story with great actors and some steamy love scenes.  If you're an adult, what's not to like?  (And the band Chloe mentions, Raised by Swans, is good too.  I actually bought an album off Amazon and liked it.  So there you go.)

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)
Metacritic score:  48/100 (2 stars)


When you think of Ben Stiller, you think of slapstick comedies like "Meet the Parents," "Tropic Thunder," and "Zoolander."  This probably explains why there are so many negative reviews on Blockbuster's website complaining that his latest film "Greenberg" is too slow and boring.  So it's important to say that while this is a comedy and it stars Ben Stiller, it isn't a Ben Stiller comedy.

Rather, "Greenberg" is far more for grown ups than "Grown Ups."  The movie centers around Roger Greenberg (Stiller) who's recently been released from a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown brought on by anxiety.  His brother is taking his family on vacation in Vietnam for six weeks and asks Roger to look after the house.  He's not alone in this as there's also his brother's assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) who is also an aspiring singer.

It doesn't take long for Roger and Florence to hook up, but Roger quickly sabotages the relationship as he's pretty much sabotaged every relationship in his life.  And that's really the whole point of the movie.  Here we have a 41-year-old guy who's alienated most everyone in his life due to his own neuroses and probably a fear of intimacy.  Can he finally get his [stuff] together to make things work with Florence?  We shall see.

Or at least some people will see.  Those who are expecting cheap and easy laughs like "Meet the Parents" probably shouldn't see this.  If you're an adult who likes quirky comedies like "Punch Drunk Love," where Adam Sandler similarly toned down the hamboneness, then you'll probably enjoy this.

That is all.

My score:  85/100 (3.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  76/100 (3 stars)

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Messenger (2009)

There's a show on TLC or Discovery Channel or one of those called "Dirty Jobs" where the host spends a day doing various jobs most of us would balk at like cleaning up after pigs, going into sewers, and so forth.  One job you'll never see him do is also one of the dirtiest jobs imaginable:  informing a soldier's family about his/her death.

This is the dirty job assigned to Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) when he returns from Iraq after being wounded in a fire fight.  Though Will really doesn't want to do the job, he doesn't have much choice about it.  So off he goes with Lt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to deliver the bad news to a soldier's family.  Stone gives him the rules, such as they park a block or so away so the family can't see them pulling up, they don't wait around for next of kin to appear, and they never EVER touch the next of kin.

The first time he delivers the bad news himself, Will is nearly attacked by a grieving father (Steve Buscemi) but keeps his cool.  The next time around he and Stone visit the house of a woman named Olivia, who seems to take the news far better, which is actually creepier when you think about it.  When someone gets this kind of news you expect them to be angry or start screaming, not to thank you and keep folding the laundry.

Will finds himself drawn back to Olivia and starts helping her fix up the old car and taking care of things around the house.  If this were a Nicholas Sparks-type romance they'd fall madly in love, making out on some secluded beach and going back to her place to do more than that.  Instead, "The Messenger" remains grounded more in the real world, where both Will and Olivia have trouble coming to grips with the traumas in their lives.  This doesn't make for happy viewing, but it does make for more thought-provoking viewing.  (Though I thought the scene between them in the kitchen goes on for an uncomfortably long time.)

Besides this there's also a burgeoning friendship between Will and Stone.  It's not because they have much in common other than their job so much as they both don't really have anyone else.  Their friendship culminates in a drunken escapade that they're very lucky doesn't land them in the stockade.

When I watched "Brothers" I commented that someday someone would make a really good movie about soldiers coming home from Afghanistan.  With "The Messenger" I think we're far closer to that.  It's a little slow and it's definitely not happy, but at the end of the day it reminds you that the horrors of war aren't limited merely to the battlefield.

That is all.

My score:  87/100 (3.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  78/100 (3 stars)

Thursday, June 24, 2010


You probably haven't heard of this movie.  I don't think it had a major theatrical release.  I just heard about it as a preview for another movie and decided to put it on my queue to watch.  You can get it through Blockbuster or maybe Netflix.

Anyway, in the last decade superhero movies were an in thing and a sub-genre of these is the sort of Don Quixote-type story where an amateur nut decides to go out and try being a superhero.  A recent American one in this vein is "Kick-Ass."  A slightly older Japanese variation is called "Zebraman."  The latter starts off interesting and then gets kind of crazy.  The former from the reviews sounds gory and morally questionable.

"Defendor" strikes a balance between these.  There's not really any gore and we're not talking about a 12-year-old getting beat up, so that's good.  At the same time, the story remains in the ballpark of sanity, which is also a benefit.

As you might have guessed, this is the story of a construction worker named Arthur (Woody Harrellson) who was abandoned as a child and is a little slow.  His mom died from using drugs, so he decides to dress up in a helmet, black sweater, and painted-on mask with a duct tape 'D' on his chest as the hero Defendor to find Captain Industry, who he thinks is responsible.  For weapons he uses his grandfather's trench club from World War I, marbles, and jars of live wasps.

On his first night he interrupts a dirty undercover cop as he's trying to get a little freebie from a junkie/hooker named Kat (Kat Denning).  Kat comes to live with Arthur and gives him information about a Serbian drug dealer that Arthur things is Captain Industry.

Arthur's bumbling attempts to get the goods on the drug dealer lead him to get beat up, shot by a paintball gun, and ultimately arrested.  The judge orders him analyzed by a doctor (Sandra Oh) who feels for Arthur.  While he's in jail and being analyzed, Arthur also becomes a real hero to the people of the city.

But can a fake hero really take out real criminals?  Tune in same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

I thought this was a pretty fun movie.  Of course I was predisposed to like this movie since I wrote a story along similar lines a few years ago.  Still, Arthur is a sympathetic character and you can't help rooting for him even if he is probably insane.  I mean he's sort of like if Forrest Gump decided to put on some tights and fight crime.  And as I said, there's not really any gore or graphic violence.

Overall, if you like superhero movies, this isn't a bad one.

(And if you like superhero stories, this isn't bad either.)

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Crazy Heart

Ah, the glorious life of a professional musician. A little over a week ago I was at a show for a folk singer at a cafe, the kind of place so small they had to move tables aside so people could see the stage. There were maybe a dozen people or so, some of whom probably hadn't even shown up for the concert but just wandered in for a drink. I can't imagine the performers got paid much more than gas money for the gig.

"Crazy Heart" is the story of another such performer: Bad Blake, a country & western singer from the Hank Williams school, long before the more commercial, glitzy acts like Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood and so forth. Bad's best days are long behind him. He's 57, broke, an alcoholic with four ex-wives and at least one ex-son.

When we meet Bad he's driving his old Suburban into a bowling alley in Pueblo, New Mexico, where he plays for a dozen or so patrons, mostly older folks. After the set he goes back to the motel wit one of those older folks for a little nightcap.

That pretty much summarizes Bad's life for the last couple of decades. He continues to Santa Fe, where a local reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) wants to interview him. Jean has at least one ex-husband and a young son named Buddy. Though she should no better, she can't resist Bad and soon they're doing more than just interviews.

Bad still has some friends in the music business, especially his protege Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, because who else would you cast to play a country singer but an Irishman?) who wants Bad to write some songs for him--if Bad can sober up long enough to write anything down.

I spent most of the movie waiting for bad things to happen to Bad. There's a car accident and he loses Jean's son in a mall. Other than that, nothing too bad happens to Bad. The movie makes sobering up and turning your life around seems like you could do it in about a week if you feel like it.

I couldn't help thinking of a line from Bret Easton Ellis' new novel Imperial Bedrooms:

He had to be punished for all of his sins. That's what the movie demanded. (Later, as a screenwriter, I learned it's what all movies demanded.)

I think in this case that's certainly what I was demanding. Instead, Bad seems almost rewarded for his lifetime of sins. All we needed was for the son to show up and give him a hug in a tearful reunion. (Is it a spoiler if I tell you what doesn't happen?)

Overall the first 90 minutes or so are good. It's the last 20 or so where it falls down in trying to make redemption seem so easy. I think someone once said nothing worth having is ever won cheaply. That should be especially true for your soul.

That is all.

My score: 75/100 (3 stars)

Metacritic score: 83/100 (3.5 stars)

Monday, May 31, 2010

Iron Man 2

I waited three weeks to finally see this because the prevailing opinion I got from professional reviewers and amateur ones was that this was OK, but not as good as the first one. On the whole I'd agree with that assessment. "Iron Man 2" doesn't embarrass itself like, say, "Batman and Robin" but it isn't in the same league as "The Dark Knight" or even "Spider-Man 2." Basically it's just a mediocre sequel that's enjoyable but doesn't add a whole lot.

When last we saw billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. who has bucked traditional wisdom and thanks to CGI become an action star in his mid-40s) he was revealing to the world that he is Iron Man, pretty much so the director could cue the "I Am Iron Man" song. Anyway, now that he's made this admission, he finds out why the other superheroes keep their identities secret. First off, the government (led by a chubby Gary Shandling) wants the Iron Man technology. Second, a bitter ex-physicist in Russia named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) starts work on his own arc reactor so he can take revenge on Stark, whose father stole the arc reactor technology from Vanko's father--supposedly.

On top of all of this, Tony is dying because the mini-arc reactor keeping shrapnel from piercing his heart is poisoning his blood. He decides to foist the daily running of his company to his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and takes to drinking and acting erratically to while out the end of his days.

This includes taking over for the driver of his Indy car in a race in Monaco. There as you've probably seen from the commercials, he runs into Vanko, who uses some kind of crazy electrical whips to blow up Tony's car. After Tony stops him and they have their little "Dark Knight"-style jail confrontation, Vanko is sprung by a competitor from Tony's so that he can use his skills for evil.

After that, it's on.

The movie's about two hours long and it feels like it at parts. Besides Vanko there are some other new characters. Some like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) might show up in future Marvel superheroes movies like the "Avengers" movie in the works for 2012 or so. As a result, some characters like Pepper Potts seem to get less time than in the first one.

Anyway, I already said at the beginning of my review this was OK but not great. On the whole it's enjoyable enough, with the same blend of humor and action as in the first one. Still, it doesn't really add much depth to the characters to make it a really good sequel. You'll get your money's worth, but it's not anything you'll really remember much after you leave the theater.

That is all.

My score: 62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score: 57/100 (2 stars)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

I watched this in my hotel room in Toronto while on vacation, so obviously I didn't see it with all the 3D bells and whistles. Which if you think about it is how most people will see it when it comes out soon on DVD, unless you have one of those new 3D TVs.

Anyway, after watching this I realized why this movie seemed so familiar--because it was pretty similar to Disney's Narnia franchise. Really you could have called this "Alice, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." It follows roughly the same plot, only Alice goes down a rabbit hole instead of through a wardrobe. She ends up in a magic world where animals talk that's ruled by a wicked queen--the Red Queen. And of course before you can say "Keanu Reeves" Alice becomes The One who has to save Wonderland from the Red Queen and her main monster the Jabberwocky. Replace Wonderland with Narnia, the Red Queen with the White Witch, and Alice with the four kids and you have "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Though there isn't so much obvious Christian symbolism in "Alice" which is good or bad depending on your point of view.

If you saw Disney's animated "Alice in Wonderland" back in the day, this is supposed to be a kind of sequel. Basically it takes place 13 years after Alice originally went to Wonderland, which she thought was just a dream. This comes when her boring boyfriend proposes to her in front of a snobby audience. Alice with her father's whimsical spirit decides instead to light out after the white rabbit and ends up going down the hole.

Because I didn't have the 3D and because the plot seemed so familiar, I didn't really love this movie. It wasn't terrible and at least not as trippy as the original Disney version, but it wasn't great either. I read the Alice books way back in grade school, but I don't remember them well enough to compare them to this movie. There are probably some similarities. One probable change is that since they spent millions to get Johnny Depp for the Mad Hatter, they had to give him a more significant and sympathetic role. What was really missing was some kind of love interest for Alice, though maybe in the sequels she could hook up with the Mad Hatter.

Anyway, as I said this isn't a bad movie. (The worst part is Avril Lavigne caterwauling the theme song at the end.) It should be an enjoyable family rental even without the 3D. Or you could watch it in a hotel room like I did.

That is all.

My score: 62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score: 53 (2 stars)

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Merry Gentleman

You might never have heard of this movie because I don't think it was every in wide release.  It does help answer the question, "Whatever happened to Michael Keaton?"  Since the Batman movies in the early 90s he's been in a few movies like "Jack Frost," "White Noise," and whatever the Lindsey Lohan Love Bug movie was called but nothing really major.  Someone could have started a death hoax on Twitter and it wouldn't have really surprised me because I hadn't really seen him in anything in so long.

In this case Keaton directs and stars in "The Merry Gentleman" as a hitman who like most hitmen in movies is starting to regret his choice of careers.  After completing an assignment to kill some old guy--who or why is never really said--he stands on the ledge of the building and contemplates jumping.  That is until Kate (Kelly MacDonald of "No Country for Old Men" and "Choke") sees him and screams, startling him so that he tumbles back safely.

Kate has recently come to Chicago from New York or some place like that after her husband gave her a black eye, which was probably the latest in a series of black eyes.  She's starting her life over again and has guys practically throwing themselves at her.  There's a guy at the office XMas party and one of the cops who investigates the murder of the guy Frank killed.  A dinner between the cop and Kate goes horribly wrong because she doesn't realize that he's making a move on her.

On the way home from this disastrous meeting, Kate decides to buy an XMas tree.  Unfortunately the tree is bigger than her, so that she has a terrible time getting up the stairs, until Frank shows up to help her with it.  In turn, Kate takes Frank the hospital when he passes out from pneumonia probably caused from too many cold Chicago nights on rooftops waiting to shoot people.

Naturally they begin to spend more time with each other, but things are bound to get complicated.

Don't get the wrong idea that this is a romantic comedy or even romantic in any way.  If there was any kissing it was pretty brief and there's no sex at all.  When Frank and Kate are hanging out they hardly say anything to each other because they're both keeping so much from each other.

That's the overriding problem with the movie.  It becomes frustrating because there's so much left unsaid and so much more that you'd like to know about Frank and Kate.  The way it ends was particularly unsatisfying.  Not that I necessarily want them to end kissing against the setting sun, but something a little more concrete would have been nice.

Overall this isn't a bad movie, but there's too much missing for it to be a great movie either.

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  55/100 (2 stars)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Education

The old expression is that if something is too good to be true, it probably is.  This holds especially true in love.  When 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is offered a ride home in the rain by the much-older David (Peter Sarsgaard) she is instantly smitten.  David has a sports car, he likes music, books, films, art, and all the other things that a wanna-be worldly girl like Jenny wants in a man.

It doesn’t take long for David to not only seduce Jenny but her parents as well.  Her father (Alfred Molina) is almost as impressed with David’s knowledge as Jenny.  He’s especially impressed that David seems to be rich and connected to famous people like CS Lewis.  So with little prompting he allows Jenny to spend weekends with David unchaperoned, including a trip to Paris.

Even after Jenny learns some dark secrets about David, she decides to stay with him because he’s the cure to her life of constant studying Latin and Victorian literature to try and get into Oxford.  Her teachers try to dissuade her when she starts getting in too deep, but Jenny shucks this off as jealousy.

This is all a good setup for a mature and thoughtful romance.  It’s too bad the final act takes a predictable turn.  It would have been nice if the movie had tried to think outside the box a little bit more in resolving the relationship between Jenny and David.  Instead it falls back on a cliché like so many movies do.

The title "An Education" has a double meaning.  First there's the issue of education in Jenny's father's relentless quest to get her into Oxford.  What Jenny starts to wonder after spending time with David is what's the point of this education if she's going to end up lonely and bored like her teachers?  (This taking place in 1961 there weren't many other opportunities for young women like her.)  The title also refers to the education Jenny receives about life from her relationship with David.  That is perhaps far more important.

Carey Mulligan does a great job of portraying the vulnerable and naïve young girl who like so many before her thinks she knows far more than she does.  Peter Sarsgaard (born in Illinois) does a good job at portraying an older British guy without coming across like a creep.

Overall this was another movie like “500 Days of Summer” also from last year that’s a romantic movie but isn’t your traditional romance.  If you want that you could go watch “The Last Song” or some other Nicholas Sparks tripe.

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)
Metacritic score 85/100 (3.5 stars)

Sunday, March 28, 2010


In years to come there will probably be a better movie about soldiers returning home after the war in Afghanistan.  Until then there's "Brothers" a melodramatic look at what happens when a soldier returns from the dead.

That soldier is Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire).  He has a wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two young daughters.  He also as the title suggests has a brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was just released from prison for holding up a bank or something.  While Tommy is trying to get back on his feet, Sam is sent for another tour in Afghanistan.

Not long after getting there, his helicopter is shot down.  He's presumed dead.  It's not giving away anything to say that he doesn't die.  Instead, he's captured by the Taliban or some facsimile thereof.  Meanwhile, Tommy gets a job as a contractor and decides to help Grace by remodeling her kitchen.  He becomes closer to Grace and her children in the process though they don't go so far as sleeping with each other.

Meanwhile, Sam and a fellow soldier Joe Willis are being tortured.  Willis cracks first, making one of those silly videos where he condemns America.  When Sam breaks he does something far more horrific.

Again, probably not spoiling anything to say Sam is rescued and returned to America.  I mean, that was the whole point of the movie.  The problem then is Sam has trouble fitting back into normal life with his family and society in general.  He also has to reconcile the things that he did in Afghanistan.  Making it more awkward is that Grace and especially her kids have come to rely on Tommy.

Eventually it all boils down to an All-Star freak out by Sam that you could see coming from two miles away.  Again, this isn't a great movie.  It spends too long getting the pieces into place and not enough with them afterward.  The whole thing is a little predictable and melodramatic.  As I said at the beginning, someone will probably make a better movie on this subject in years to come.

Though it might be unintentional, the movie does highlight an important issue, which is that we in this country do a lousy job with our returning soldiers.  We bring them home and just throw them to the wolves without much in the way of psychological care.  This leads to problems down the road in the way of suicides and murders.  You'd think after Vietnam we would have learned a lesson, but this isn't really the case.  Soldiers, especially those who have done and seen terrible things like Sam in the movie, should be given help to readjust to normal life.

That is all.

(BTW, this movie is based on a Danish movie from 2004, which I'm willing to bet is better in terms of less melodrama.)

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  58/100 (2 stars)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

It's refreshing to watch a movie intended for kids and adults that doesn't need to rely on a gimmick like 3D.  Instead, this is an old school movie that relies on puppets to tell its story, which is loosely based on a story by Roald Dahl, the guy behind "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach," and others.

As you'd guess from the title, the story involves Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep).  After getting stuck in a cage, Mrs. Fox confesses that she's pregnant and makes Mr. Fox promise that if they get out alive that he'll stop stealing chickens and do something respectable.

When they do survive, Mr. Fox goes straight for 2 years (12 fox-years) by becoming a reporter with the local newspaper.  He and Mrs. Fox move into a burrow with their son Ash.  All seems right with the world.

Except that Mr. Fox has an itch to get back to his old ways.  He starts by buying a tree to live in, which gives him a great view of the farms of Mr. Boggis, Mr. Bean, and Mr. Bunce.  There's a rhyme about them saying that one is fat one is short and one is lean but they're all equally mean.  With the help of Kylie the possum, Mr. Fox steals chickens, geese, and alcoholic cider from the farmers.  He hides all of this from his wife so that she thinks he's still on the straight and narrow.

But Mr. Fox's actions have unexpected consequences when it creates total war between the human farmers and the animals living around them.  It will take far more than one fox's cunning to save the day.

The movie is about as good as anything Pixar has put out.  It's a fun little romp that both kids and adults can enjoy.  And as I said at the beginning it doesn't require state-of-the-art computer animation or 3D glasses.  Nor does it need the gross-out humor movies like the "Shrek" franchise employ.

The puppetry looks a little odd and it really isn't all that great when lots of motion is needed.  Still, as someone who used to enjoy the Muppets it didn't really bother me.  And I never knew foxes were so good at digging.  I learned something.

Probably when you're thinking of someone to create a movie like this, the creator of "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "The Life Aquatic" isn't going to be your first choice.  And yet Wes Anderson manages to pull it off as well as Tim Burton and company did for "Nightmare Before Christmas."

This is a good rental for the whole family.

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)

Metacritic score:  83/100 (3.5 stars)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats

Not so long ago in this galaxy, the US Army ran a short-lived program to use alternative methods to train psychic soldiers known as "Jedi warriors" after the Star Wars films.  The program was headed by a man named Bill (Jeff Bridges, the 2009 role that didn't win him an Oscar) who traveled around California picking up various New Age techniques.  The goal was that these Jedi warriors could be used to peaceably solve situations.  Bill brought into the fold young soldiers like Len (George Clooney) and trained them to use their minds to find people in distant lands, become invisible, and walk through walls.  (These were only moderately successful.)  It was when the program brought in Larry (Kevin Spacey) that things took a turn for the worst.  Larry wanted to turn the Jedi to the dark side by using their powers offensively.  As the title suggests, they could stop the beating heart of a goat simply by staring at it.

This is what a young reporter named Bob (Ewan McGregor) uncovers in 2003 in Iraq.  Back in his native Ann Arbor, Michigan, Bob encountered a former member of the program, who seems like a crackpot.  It isn't until after Bob finds out his wife is cheating on him and he signs up to report on the war in Iraq that Bob runs into Len and decides to go with him into Iraq for a secret mission.

The mission leads them to several dangerous situations, including criminals, terrorists, and bumbling American security contractors.  Ultimately Bob grows as a person while uncovering his true purpose in life.

How much of the Jedi program is bunk is left up to you to decide.  Certainly in the Iraq scenes most of their "powers" seem like pure crap.  In earlier scenes taking place in the early 80s, Len seemingly has the ability to find a missing person in Italy from a couch in America and to stop a goat's heart.  But did he really?  Who knows.

Naturally this movie isn't as well made as the Oscar-winning Iraq War drama "The Hurt Locker."  It takes a more darkly humorous slant of things, especially when Len and Bob are picked up by the security contractors.  Seeing them in action it's no surprise that so many Iraqis turned against American forces there.  The movie wasn't quite as funny as I thought it would be from the previews, but it wasn't terrible either.

What I think it could have used was to be a little bit longer than its 90 minute running time.  That way it could have explored the subjects and characters a bit more fully.  As it is, most of the movie is spent just getting all of the characters together in the same room.  By the time that's done, there was very little time for them to do much.

This is the second movie I've seen on remote viewing.  The first was a thriller from a few years ago called "Suspect Zero" starring Ben Kingsley and Aaron Eckhart.  That focused simply on the remote viewing program, where a "psychic" would see and draw a distant scene.  If you think this is pure imagination you're wrong.  I remember seeing a special on TV about this on Nat Geo or History or TLC or one of those channels about this.  It was pretty interesting when the reporter actually tested one of the "psychics" and he passed the test.

In a deleted scene for this movie, Bill teaches his men the martial art aikido.  This actually happened.  Years ago on a dare I bought a book called "In Search of the Warrior Spirit" that described a similar army program to train soldiers in aikido and other martial arts in the late 80s.  The program was abandoned, but as you can see, there is definitely some truth to this stuff.

Overall, this isn't bad for a rental, especially if you're interested in the paranormal.

BTW, do you suppose they cast Ewan McGregor purely for the ironic value of having the guy who played Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels in a movie about "Jedi Warriors?"

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  54/100 (2 stars)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lesbian Vampire Killers

(The title for the American release was actually watered down to the more generic "Vampire Killers.")

This movie is like "Snakes On a Plane" or "Hot Tub Time Machine" in that the title succinctly summarizes what you'll get.  Though to make it clear, it's about killing lesbian vampires, not people who are lesbians and kill vampires.  But "Killers of Lesbian Vampires" while more accurate lacks the same panache.

At any rate there was no way I could resist watching a movie called "Lesbian Vampire Killers" any more than I could resist watching "Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter" a few years ago.  The latter is an extremely cheesy movie made on a shoestring budget where the title also tells you exactly what you're getting: the Son of God fighting vampires who were stalking lesbians.  (For some reason makers of cheesy vampire movies are drawn to lesbians.)

What surprised me is that this movie is actually from the UK and also that it's not as cheesy and cheap as JCVH either.  Granted it's not "Avatar" in terms of effects either, but it doesn't look completely homemade.  The closest comparison you could make would be "Shaun of the Dead" only with lesbian vampires instead of zombies.  In both cases we have an average British guy paired with his chubby friend.

The average guy is named Jimmy and his chubby friend is named Fletch.  Jimmy has just been dumped (yet again) by his girlfriend while Fletch has just been fired from his clowning gig for punching a kid--yet again.  With the two of them at loose ends they decide to go on holiday.  But Jimmy's money is tied up in his ex-girlfriend's car and Fletch has no money, so they throw a dart in a pub and decide to go to the town of Chagwich to hike.  Chagwich is of course terribly creepy, but it's made better by the presence of four young women who are there to study the town's folklore.

That folklore would consist of a queen of vampires who has placed a curse on the town so whenever a girl turns 18 she becomes a lesbian vampire.  Only the descendant of a baron who defeated the queen previously can end the curse.  Guess who that is?

Jimmy, Fletch, and the girls head through the forest to an even creepier cottage and from there the vampire killing begins.  Like in "Shaun of the Dead" the guys are not exactly experts when it comes to lesbian vampire killing.  They're helped though by a vicar in the town who is trying to end the curse before his daughter's 18th birthday.

The movie was pretty fun in terms of B-movie horror films.  Obviously it wouldn't win any awards for cinematic achievement, but what else do you expect from a movie called "Lesbian Vampire Killers?"  Best of all is that the film doesn't take itself too seriously with characters (especially Fletch) pointing out the ridiculousness of it all.

Basically I'd say if you liked "Shaun of the Dead" then you'd probably like this one too.  Though from a misogynistic point of view I would have liked some more boobs and more than lesbian kissing, if you catch my drift.

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Box

This movie is based on a short story by Richard Matheson.  Matheson is perhaps best known as one of the main writers for the original "Twilight Zone" series.  I might be wrong, but I think Matheson along with Charles Beaumont and creator Rod Serling wrote the bulk of the original 162 episodes.  At any rate, Matheson's story for "The Box" would probably have worked better as a 30-minute TZ episode than a nearly two hour film.

The movie focuses on the Lewis family in Virginia in 1976. (Why 1976?  I have no idea.)  Patriarch Arthur (James Marsden) is a scientist at NASA who built a camera for the Viking rover and dreams of being an astronaut.  Wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) is an English teacher at a private school, whose right foot was maimed in a terrible accident.  Their son Walter is a student at the private school.

Then one day a man with a burned face shows up calling himself Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) and leaves a mysterious box on the Lewis' doorstep.  The wooden box has a button on the top of it that is protected by a glass dome, which is locked.  Steward returns later to give the key to Norma and to present her with the worst game of "Let's Make A Deal" ever.  If she pushes the button she will receive a million bucks in cash.  But the catch is that someone she doesn't know will die.  Or she can refuse and take a mere $100 for her participation in the experiment.

Norma initially is reluctant, but when she learns that the school is cutting Walter's free tuition and that Arthur was passed over for the astronaut program, she changes her mind.  I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that she pushes the button.  If she didn't what would be the point of the movie?

This of course results in complications and an even crueler "experiment" to bring things full circle.  I don't want to say much more than that so as not to spoil the plot.

Writer/director Richard Kelly earned fame for "Donnie Darko" a movie that generally people either love or loathe.  I am in the former category.  I thought "Donnie" was a great, dark coming of age tale mixed with creepiness, suspense, and just general weirdness.  What actually ruined "Donnie" for me was reading the FAQ on IMDB that explains the movie; it was much more fun to BS about what everything meant.

With "The Box" Kelly employs the same tactics.  There's a lot of weird stuff that happens and not a lot of it seems to make sense.  People's noses start bleeding, there's a creepy kid in Norma's class who later shows up at a wedding reception, and zombie-like people shambling around following Norma and Arthur at times.  Unlike "Donnie" this seemed to make more sense after it was over.  If you want a hint, think of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or "Legion."  (Which one of those is more correct would probably depend on your religious beliefs.)

I didn't really like the movie as I was watching it.  It was slow and dull and after nearly two hours I was more than ready for it to just get to the punchline.  What made it better for me was thinking about it after it was over.  At first the experiment didn't seem to make sense because on one hand it seems to show that people are greedy and on the other that they're noble and capable of sacrifice.  It would seem to be a wash then.  Thinking about it some more, I decided what it really shows is that humans are capable of redemption, so that while Norma pushes the button and causes someone to die, she is also capable of atoning for this.  If I watched this a second time I'd probably like it better--so long as I don't read any IMDB FAQs.

It certainly is better than Kelly's previous film "Southland Tales" but that's like saying Ben Affleck's latest performance is better than "Gigli"--there was nowhere to go but up!  As I said at the beginning, this probably would have worked better as a 30-minute or even 60-minute "Twilight Zone" episode, but not 115 minutes.  There is actually a "Twilight Zone" about a box three bumbling criminals finds that takes pictures of the future.  As with many TZ episodes this leads to catastrophic consequences.  I can't remember if that was a Matheson episode or not.  Watching that again would be more enjoyable than sitting through "The Box" again.

That is all.

My score:  50/100 (2 stars)

Metacritic score:  47/100 (2 stars)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Capitalism: A Love Story

The simple way to describe this movie:  This is vintage Michael Moore from "Roger & Me" and his hilarious, though short-lived television series "TV Nation."

That was great for me, because Moore in recent years had fallen out of favor with me.  I just didn't like "Bowling for Columbine."  The message of the film seemed muddled to me and I didn't approve of ambushing frail celebrities Dick Clark and Charlton Heston--one is dead and the other had a debilitating stroke since that movie, which brings to mind the old adage:  pick on someone your own size--or age group.

Anyway, the economic "crisis" of 2008 provided great fodder for Moore to get back to his roots of expounding on the evils of corporate America.  In typical Moore fashion it involves a scattershot approach and a couple sequences of him being run out of buildings by security guards.  At least no elderly celebrities were ambushed.

Since this is a "documentary" (though with Moore that's used very loosely) there's no point trying to describe the "plot."  As I said, Moore uses his scattershot approach to explore different aspects of the hold capitalism has on our lives and our government.  He features families being evicted, priests speaking out against capitalism, a sit down strike in Chicago, and a look at the political maneuvering that resulted in the big "bailout" of Wall Street--among other things.

Moore made a couple of great points here.
  1. I'm glad someone finally said this:  the reason America experienced such great prosperity after WWII is that all of our rivals in the industrial world had been leveled.  It's easy to win the race when everyone else is lying on the ground.  It wasn't American pluck, grit, hard work, determination, brains, or anything else we like to attribute it to.  Mostly it was geography that we were isolated from most of the front line fighting (except for Pearl Harbor and parts of Alaska) and were sitting on a jackpot of natural resources--many of which we have since squandered, like oil.
  2. During WWII, FDR was working on a "Second Bill of Rights" that included the right for every American to have a job that paid enough to live on, affordable housing, universal health care (sound familiar?), and a paid vacation.  All of these things came to pass:  in the nations we defeated.  Why?  Because FDR's advisers were the ones who helped write the constitutions of Germany, Japan, and Italy, also known as those evil "socialists" who overtook our automotive industry.
  3. Wall Street is the biggest, most lucrative casino in the world.  Nothing is more evidence of this than "derivatives" the financial instruments that allow companies to "bet" on just about any outcome.  Don't ask me to explain how it works--or anyone else either.
  4. Our government is owned by Wall Street fat cats.  This was evidenced by the fact the "bailout" was passed a second time after going down in defeat when millions of Americans demanded it to fail.  As well, officers of Goldman Sachs were and are holding key positions of power within the Federal regulatory system.  Hank Paulsen, the head of the Treasury who wanted the bailout was also a former Goldman Sachs employee.  Gee, why would he be so eager to bail them out?  As well, Countrywide, one of the biggest contributors to the housing bubble that burst made special loans to a large number of government employees.  The FBI was onto a lot of this well before it happened, but many of its white collar crime officers were conveniently transferred to other units in the wake of 9/11 and Iraq.
  5. YOU can make a difference.  The Chicago sit down strike was a great example of that.  So too was a family who with the help of their community broke back into their own home to squat in it.  Typically we think we're alone and powerless against the big, faceless corporate machine, but this isn't always so.
There were a couple of points Moore left out.
  1. Is the irony that Moore is a millionaire who's reaped the benefits of the capitalist system in selling books, theater tickets, and DVDs to the people.  Not to mention that his movie is bankrolled by big corporations like Paramount, who themselves are owned by bigger corporations.
  2. Another interesting irony would have been to point out a lot of these bankers participating in the bailout were a part of either the "Greatest Generation" that fought WWII or the Boomer generation who protested corporate greed in the '60s.  This was a squandered opportunity to me and is kind of surprising considering how much stuff Moore threw on the screen.
  3. It's disingenuous to make it seem as if Wall Street is completely culpable for what happened.  Someone had to take out those bad mortgages and refinancing loans.  That person is YOU.  (OK, maybe not you exactly but the 99% of people who aren't Wall Street fat cats.)  It's like how I don't like Wal-Mart and what they do to small towns or how they treat employees (evidenced in the movie by their former policy of taking out "Dead Peasant" insurance on their "associates") but I still go there to save $1 on hamburger or $0.10 on a can of peas.  Come on, you do it too.  A point in the movie is about how little pilots are paid.  Well guess what, WE hold some responsibility there.  It's not just evil CEOs responsible.  It's because YOU the consumer don't want to pay an extra $50 or $100 for an airline that would treat its pilots better when you can pay super low rates for Southwest or some other airline that packs people on like cattle and pays pilots "less than a manager at a Taco Bell" as the movie says.  But I suppose that would clash with Moore's populist message that the fat cats are the ones to blame.
  4. I was disappointed Moore couldn't work in the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken from "TV Nation."  Seems like a perfect venue for that.
Still, even if you don't agree with it and it makes you angry at the fat cats or Moore, the point is that you'll get a lot more out of it than watching "New Moon" or "She's Out of My League." 

That is all.

My score:  85/100 (3.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  61/100 (2.5 stars)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gentlemen Broncos

After the mediocre "Nacho Libre" husband-wife team Joshua and Jerusha Hess attempt to reclaim the glory of their sleeper hit "Napoleon Dynamite."  Instead of another quirky fairy tale like "Napoleon" what they create instead is more of a parody than anything.  Like bad sequels everywhere, "Gentlemen Broncos" takes a strength from the original and then overuses it to the point of tedium.

Like "Napoleon Dynamite" this movie focuses on a delusional loner, only in this case his name is Ben.  While Napoleon drew winged creatures and such, Ben just writes really terrible sci-fi stories.  His latest is something called "Yeast Lords:  The Bronco Years" that maybe was supposed to be a take on series like "Dune" or something.

Anyway, Ben goes off to the Cletus Festival for writers.  Along the way, he meets an older girl named Tabatha who "borrows" some money to buy tampons and winds up buying a bunch of snacks for her friend Lonnie instead.  At the festival, Ben's favorite writer Dr. Chevalier announces a contest where the winner will have his/her story published.  Ben decides to enter "Yeast Lords" but his entry never comes back.

That's because Chevalier steals the story for some reason.  At the same time, Ben sells the movie rights for the story to Lonnie and Tabatha, who make a terrible film reminiscent of the "Sweded" versions of famous movies in "Be Kind, Rewind."

Inexplicably Chevalier's book is wildly successful, leaving Ben with the terrible decision about whether or not to confront his hero about the theft.

The movie features a lot of zany characters like Ben's "guardian angel" who has a pet snake and likes to shoot poop-tipped blow darts at things and Ben's mother who is his equal in delusions of grandeur concerning her line of nightgowns and popcorn creations.  These all fell flat with me, feeling like pale imitations of those in "Napoleon Dynamite."  As well, the relationship between Ben and Tabatha never seems to be defined.  At times she seems to like him and at other times she uses him.  Though I'm not sure where their relationship could go since at least to me she looks 10 years or so older than him.

As well, as a sci-fi fan the idea that Chevalier would want to steal Ben's terrible story and that it would be successful seems mildly insulting.  It's almost as if the Hesses are saying sci-fi fans are so dumb they'll buy anything no matter how stupid it is.  This might have some truth to it, but not to the extent presented here.  Really from the clips of the book presented (where inexplicably Sam Rockwell plays Bronco) it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to read the book, let alone steal it from someone else.

In the end, the filmmakers try to to recreate the magic of "Napoleon Dynamite" to the point of using the same format for the credits.  Unfortunately the movie takes its quirkiness to such extremes that it becomes a campy parody.

That is all.

My score:  40/100 (1.5 star)

Metacritic score:  28/100 (1 star)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Whip It!

The easy way to describe this movie is that it's "The Mighty Ducks" with an X-Games attitude and a healthy dose of Girl Power!  Instead of hockey--or baseball, basketball, football, or some other mainstream sport--it focuses on roller derby in Texas.  Of course roller derby was popular in the '70s but a small league still exists in the '00s in Austin.  There are five teams of women who bump and push in order to allow the "jammer" to pass the pack and score points.  (That's really all I need to say about the rules since the roller derby isn't important to the story.)

Basically this could have been any sport, as it follows the pretty standard formula of a teenage girl defying her parents to do what she wants to do.  Bliss (Ellen Page, with the same snarky attitude and vintage rock T-shirts so that she's basically Juno on skates) is 17 and living in a small Texas town, where her mom enrolls her and her younger sister in beauty pageants while her father sits at home watching football.  Bliss hates the pageants while her sister loves them.

Then while shopping in Austin she sees a flier for roller derby and decides to go with her best friend Pash to watch the game.  She decides she loves roller derby and decides to try out.  Except that she hasn't skated since she wore pink Barbie skates.  You have to suspend disbelief in that she goes from barely being able to skate to being the fastest on the track.

She gets drafted onto the "Hurl Scouts" who are of course the last place team of not-so-lovable losers like the Mighty Ducks, Bad News Bears, and so forth.  You should already know what's going to happen there.  It should also come as no surprise that she meets a handsome boy (pop singer Landon Pigg) and falls in love.

Basically there aren't any real shocks in this movie, just a couple of mild surprises.  As I said, it could have been about any sport instead of roller derby.  And really it probably has been about any sport in movies from the "Bad News Bears" to "Bend It Like Beckham."  There's really not much more to say than that.  It's an OK movie for a rental, but it's not memorable.

(On a sexist note, for guys there are a lot of women but no nudity or anything.  Not that you're into that sort of thing...)

BTW, this like "Gran Torino" was one of the first major movies to be filmed on location in Michigan, which is one of the reasons I rented it.  Woo hoo!

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  67/100 (2.5 stars)

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Serious Man

There's no way that "A Serious Man" could deal with anyone other than Jews. Only people who have endured thousands of years of persecution since the days of the pharaohs could possibly be believable in a movie about someone who seems tormented by an vengeful God for no apparent reason.

In a prologue, a man is out at night in probably a European village in the 19th Century or so. When his wagon breaks down, an old man shows up to help him. As repayment, the man takes the old gent back to his house to warm up. The only problem is that his wife recognizes the old man as someone who died three years earlier. She believes the old guy to be an evil spirit and goes so far as to stab him in the heart. He stumbles off bleeding into the night. Was he really an evil spirit? Who knows.

Compare this many years later to Larry Gopnik, a physics professor in Minnesota. Larry seems to have a pretty good life in the suburbs with his wife and two kids. Larry's son is having his bar mitzvah soon and Larry is up for tenure at his school. The only problem seems to be his brother (Richard Kind, who's made a career of playing annoying characters) Arthur who sleeps on the couch while working on some crazy theory to unravel the secrets of the universe.

Then abruptly everything goes ff the rails for Larry. His wife announces that she's been seeing a friend named Sy Abelman and wants a divorce. (Worse yet she wants a consensual religious divorce so she and Sy won't be excommunicated.) His son is smoking pot and owes a bully money. His daughter is stealing money to save up for a nose job. A Korean student who's failing Larry's class tries to bribe him for a passing grade. And someone's been writing letters to the tenure committee trying to trash Larry's reputation. (And his TV antenna isn't working right and his neighbor wants to build a boat house practically on his property...we could go all day.)

As things go from bad to worse, Larry futilely tries to understand why all of this is happening and what he can do to make it stop. He seeks the advice of rabbis and his lawyer but can't seem to find any answers. The movie ends very abruptly with no real answers being given. Who of us mortals can possibly understand God's mind? Nobody. Much like the man at the start of the movie, Larry's done nothing wrong and yet for some reason outside forces seem to choose him to avenge themselves on.

The movie is funny, but not the laugh-out-loud rubber chicken funny. As Ebert said, it's "wince-wince funny." You have to keep asking yourself, as Larry certainly does, "How can this possibly get worse?" Through it all, Larry isn't exceptionally whiny or annoying, more like confused--and rightfully so. What did he do to deserve such a fate?

In the end, the answer that there is no answer probably won't be very satisfying. Still, if nothing else, it'll be a cathartic experience.

That is all.

My score: 65/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score: 79/100 (3 stars)

PS: Don't confuse this with "A Single Man" also from 2009 that deals with a homosexual man in the '50s or so.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Seventh Seal

This goes in my "Classic Films You Should Watch." Even though it's in black-and-white and even though the dialog is in Swedish with English subtitles and even though there are no killer robots, spaceships, superheroes, zombies, or vampire romances.

This is the kind of movie I new I should probably watch like how I think I should probably read "War & Peace" or "Ulysses" at some point but the reason I don't is I figure it'll be boring and confusing. In this case, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the movie wasn't boring at all--despite that it's what I said in the first paragraph.

"The Seventh Seal" of the title comes from a Bible verse about the end of the world. Before the Seventh Seal is opened and the world destroyed the angels gather themselves for a half hour, giving the world a sort of respite. It's the same respite a Swedish knight finds when he returns home from the Crusades in the 14th Century. Not long after he and his squire arrive on the beach, the Grim Reaper shows up to collect the knight's soul. But the clever knight challenges Death to a game of chess, giving him a reprieve.

During a break in the game, the knight and his squire travel towards the knight's castle. They stop at a town that's been ravaged by the Black Death (bubonic plague) to the point that the scholar who convinced the knight to go on the Crusades has turned to stealing from the dead. A trio of actors show up at the town as well to perform, though they're upstaged by Flagellants, religious zealots who whip themselves as penance for the plague. When one of the actors runs off with the wife of the local blacksmith, his fellow actor is nearly killed by the blacksmith. The knight, blacksmith, and actors then all head to the knight's castle along with an unseen party: Death.

The movie searches for the meaning of life and death through the differing views of its characters. The knight is seeking some meaning to life and glimpse into what awaits him in the afterlife. His cynical squire figures that there is no heavenly reward waiting any of us. The actor takes a more upbeat view, thinking he sees angels and devils everywhere. As for the blacksmith, he's pretty oblivious to everything except his slutty wife.

As well the movie illustrates the insanity that breaks out in times of crisis. Besides the zealous Flagellants and thieving professor there's also a young girl being burned at the stake for suspicion of witchcraft. With death, insanity, and Death lurking everywhere, it's no wonder the knight has a hard time finding any reassurance about the presence of God.

This is an interesting and insightful look at the world and yet as I said at the beginning it's not boring either. I especially liked the squire character, whose cynicism and pragmatism is a great balance to his master. The actor, or fool might be the better term, is also an interesting character because he contrasts with the squire.

Overall, this is a great movie and if you're willing to actually watch a movie that will challenge you and make you think, rent this some time.

That is all.

My score: 100/100 (4 stars)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Typically Steven Spielberg likes to mix serious issue-driven movies in between action blockbusters. So between "War of the Worlds" and the much-maligned fourth "Indiana Jones" movie we have "Munich" which is about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Long before 9/11, when most Americans really started paying attention to terrorism, a group of Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli men hostage at the Olympic Village during the 1972 games in Munich, Germany. Ultimately the 11 Israelis are killed while three of the Palestinians are released to flee safely to Libya.

In the wake of the attack, the Israeli government decides to hunt down and kill 11 Palestinian terrorist operatives. Put in charge of the team is young Avner (Eric Bana) who has never led a team in the field before and whose wife is 7 months pregnant. He's sent to Europe with the rest of a team that will attempt to hunt down and kill the 11 Palestinians being targeted.

They start in Rome by killing a poet who also has ties (supposedly) with the Palestinian group responsible for Munich. The Israeli team tracks down and kills six more with the help of a French information trader named Louie and his father. But Avner and his team are soon in over their heads and become targets themselves. In addition, the Palestinians respond to the killings with more acts of violence in what is an endless destructive cycle.

The movie makes the case that ultimately Avner's mission is pointless. The terrorists he kills are soon replaced, often by people who are even worse. At the same time, the Palestinians kill more Israelis, who then kill more Palestinians. In effect responding to terror with terror or violence with violence is self-defeating. All that really happens is that some of Avner's team is killed and he is nearly driven mad from the paranoia of not knowing who's gunning for him.

For a "thriller" this wasn't very thrilling. It was mostly boring. At times it was even laughable how bad Avner and his team are, especially their bomb maker. (There's an explanation for this that probably should have been obvious.) The irony is that they have Daniel Craig, aka James Bond, on their team and yet they are as far removed from Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer as you can be. Anyway, at over 2 1/2 hours the movie tends to drag. The characters and their moral quandaries didn't really interest me a whole lot.

What really failed for me were bits of the Munich incident shown as Avner's dreams or flashbacks. This makes little sense as Avner was nowhere near Munich, so he couldn't possibly have seen what's going on. Especially the last bit where he's having sex with his wife and seeing the execution of the hostages was downright creepy.

Anyway, this is too long and dull to recommend, which is a shame because the overall point of it is a good one.

That is all.

My score: 50/100 (2 stars)

Metacritic score: 74/100 (3 stars)