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.

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)