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.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Unless you're an A-list celebrity or supermodel you've probably had a bad hair day--or several of them--or some wrinkles that just won't go away no matter how much Botox you use.  Wouldn't it be great then if you could have a remote-controlled robot body that never gets old and always looks perfect?  That's the basic premise behind "Surrogates."  Or to put it another way:  it's like "Avatar" only instead of controlling a ten-foot-tall blue alien you're controlling a robot that looks human.

Like another 2009 sci-fi movie "District 9," "Surrogates" starts off with news footage showing how in fourteen years technology goes from a monkey being able to control a robotic limb with its mind to 98% of the world having better-than-perfect reproductions of themselves.  It's hard to swallow this the way it's presented.  The first part of the technology, the monkey controlling a robotic limb, is actually very real and could lead to the next generation of prosthetic limbs that can actually replace the missing one.  But I think this technology is still in the experimental phase.  To go from that to what's presented in "Surrogates" in less than 15 years is unbelievable.  But if you can suspend disbelief there, the rest of the movie is a serviceable sci-fi thriller in the league of "I, Robot" or "Paycheck" though not in the same league as "Blade Runner" or "Minority Report" in its execution.

OK, so suspending disbelief let's say that 98% of people, even all those goat herders in Afghanistan or Mongolia, are using surrogate robotic bodies.  We still have some humans who reject the use of surrogates, seeing them as an abomination.  One of these "meatbags" stalks a wealthy seemingly young man.  He pulls out what looks sort of like a modified Dustbuster, and fires a burst of blue energy that fries not only the young man, but the actual young man controlling the surrogate.  Such a thing has never happened before.

What's worse is that the young man turns out to be the son of Lionel Carver, the creator of surrogate technology who was forced out of his own company when he started making inconvenient statements opposing their widespread use.  FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is brought in to investigate the crime.  As you'd expect, this investigation leads him to uncover a conspiracy involving a variety of different parties who are all trying to kill each other.

I couldn't help wondering if this movie might have done better at the box office if it had featured Will Smith like "I, Robot" or "I Am Legend."  But then Smith isn't really old enough to have enough contrast between him and his surrogate.  Since he's pushing 60, Bruce Willis is a better choice for this as you can clearly see the difference between his wrinkle-free surrogate with its creepy blond hair and the bald, wrinkled actor with his graying goatee.  The script wisely doesn't have him perform too many "Die Hard"-type stunts in non-surrogate mode, though unlike those other movies he doesn't get set up for many good quips here either.  The script also doesn't probably have enough twists or turns, clocking in at less than 90 minutes.  What disappoints me is that we see the big factory/headquarters of VSI, the surrogate manufacturer early in the movie when surrogate Tom Greer is investigating the murder but we never go back there.  Clearly a chance was squandered to have some fun in there, where maybe Tom could have battled an army of out-of-control surrogates or something.  Oh well.

Also, unlike the aforementioned "District 9" or "Blade Runner" this script doesn't have too much on its mind concerning the background issues.  The issues about the surrogates and the questions that arise aren't really dealt with all that much.  (A couple of questions I have:  Wouldn't this put industries like restaurants out of business if everyone's robots who don't need to eat?  Though maybe oil changes would do booming business.  Also, wouldn't the population start dying out?  Presumably surrogates don't have sperm or ovaries.  I suppose you could make babies in labs.  But what happens if you're in a bar and you meet a nice girl/guy surrogate and fall in love?  Is that even possible anymore?  Do you move your controller beds in together or just stay separate?  Of course one issue that is sort of raised is:  what happens if you see that hot girl surrogate in the bar and find out it's a fat guy controlling her?)  See, there's a lot to think about here but the movie doesn't really try to build any depth to its world, preferring to just use the surrogates as a prop for chases and fights.

Anyway, I thought it was a perfectly serviceable movie, just not especially memorable.  It might be more memorable if that robot technology ever does start really taking off.  A definite rental.

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  45/100 (1.5 stars)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Julie & Julia

In sort of homage to the movie focusing on two completely time periods, I'm going to write this review as two completely different reviews.

The first review is the one for you, anyone who reads this.  On average I've noticed most people who comment on my reviews are female (or at least claim to be) and I think they'd enjoy this movie far more than I did, so I'm gong to direct this portion of the review at them.  OK, here goes.

When her life seems stuck in a rut, Julie Powell (Amy Adams)--with some advice from her husband--decides to spice things up by creating a blog and vowing to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Childs' massive "Mastering the Art of Fine French Cooking."  As you'd expect, this involves a lot of time and expense, which isn't easy considering Julie is just a phone jockey at an insurance company dealing with 9/11 victim families.

At the same time the movie chronicles how a bored ex-government worker named Julia Childs (Meryl Streep) decides to spice up her life in Paris by learning French cuisine.  As an American she faces an uphill battle against French snobbery, but in the end she becomes a real chef and endeavors to create a cookbook of French recipes for Americans.  This is a massive undertaking requiring much time and effort.

So you see how the lives of the two women are parallel.  In time Julie gains a lot of respect for Julia Childs, becoming sort of obsessed with her.  (The feeling is not mutual.)  And Julia gains the respect of cooks and publishers.  Woo hoo.

Basically it's a nice, gentle movie with no real shocks or twists--except maybe burning something.  I have never watched the real Julia Childs so I have no idea how well Meryl Streep impersonates her.  (I've heard negative comments on this but obviously the Golden Globe people thought differently, but then again they thought "Avatar" was the best drama, so I'm not sure I'd trust their judgment.)  I've never read the blog or book by Julie Powell either, so I have no idea how much of this is accurate.  (I thought I read in a review that she did not really come up with the blog in the manner portrayed by the movie, but I can't be sure.)

If you're looking for some harmless fun and great culinary ideas, then this is a good movie to watch.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  66/100 (2.5 stars)


OK, now let me say for those few men who might ever see this:  there is absolutely nothing in this for you.  Nothing.  The closest we get to action is that Julie has to kill some poor lobster to the strains of "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads, though I think actually her husband does the deed.

There's no nudity, which come to think of it is just as well.  Do you want to see Julia Child naked?  No, no, a thousand times no!

From a purely artistic standpoint, this movie is as limp as a stick of butter left out in the sun.  Julia Childs is shown as plucky with a great can-do attitude.  Julie is slightly whinier but just as plucky.  Their respective husbands are supportive and that's it, though once Julie's husband grows a backbone and walks out on her.  Of course he comes back!  There are no surprises in this movie, except that the two women don't meet.  Since they probably took so many other liberties with reality, what harm could one more have done?  Really, they could have hugged and swapped recipes and it could have faded to black and most everyone would go home happy.

I was actually depressed by the time this movie ended.  What really bums me out is to think that Julie Powell got a book deal and a movie deal and yet her only discernible talent seems to be being able to follow directions from a cookbook.  It's the same feeling I get whenever I see Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, complete no-talent whores who have never done a damned thing in their lives to deserve anything they have.  (OK, Julie Powell might not be a whore.  At the least she probably doesn't have a sex tape on the Internet--yet.)  She certainly didn't do anything that most anyone else could have done, so long as they could read directions in a cookbook.  You could say she stood on Julia Childs' ample shoulders.

And yeah, I'm jealous.  I'll admit it.  It's the same envy whenever someone like Madonna comes out with a crappy children's book or someone like Monica Lewinsky gets a huge advance for a book.  What the hell do they know about writing?  Not a bloody thing!  I work and strain, trying to produce a real story and wade through all sorts of muck trying to get the thing published while these no talent ass-clowns just saunter right up to a six-figure advance on a whim or because they were classless enough to get involved with some huge scandal.  This is the world we live in.  And it's not fair!  It's not fair at all!

F**k you Julie Powell, wherever you are.

That is all.

(PS:  What I learned from this movie is that all you need is some good schtick to realize dreams of fame and fortune.  You think Emotionally Unstable Film Critic has possibilities?  They could get Lewis Black to play me in the movie version since Sam Kinnison and Chris Farley are long dead.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

500 Days of Summer

I might start ranting incoherently here, so be warned.

Anyway, it's rare when a movie moves me.  This one did.  It's the kind of experience where as you're watching it you kind of start nodding your head and saying to yourself, "Yeah, brother, I have been there."  Because let's face it, most adults have had someone who hurt them emotionally at one time or another.

The narrator says at the beginning that "This is not a love story" and that's true.  Most love stories just focus on the falling in love part.  Cinderella meets Prince Charming they overcome an obstacle, have a few laughs, and ride off into the sunset.  Other movies focus on the end of the relationship with the cheating, anger, recrimination, and ultimate separation.  This movie focuses on the whole process from beginning to end, squeezing it into 500 days.  (And that's not giving anything away because the movie follows a non-linear structure where we jump from beginning to end to middle and so forth.)

Basically to put it linearly, at Day 1 we have Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) working at the New Hampshire Card Company, which as you might expect is located in Los Angeles, CA.  During a meeting, Tom's boss is interrupted by his new assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and just about instantly Tom is smitten.

The problem is that she doesn't seem all that interested in him.  So for the first 25 or so days Tom goes through trying to get her attention to cursing her as a tease.  Then comes a karaoke party after work where they both have a little too much to drink and sing some bad songs and finally things start taking off.

Except there's a problem.  Of course there is!  While Tom thinks he loves Summer, she's not wanting to make things too involved.  Even after they sleep together, even after over 200 days together, she insists they're "just friends."  Yeah, brother, I've been there.  Sorry gals, but if a man's been inside you then either you're his girlfriend or his whore--which do you want to be?  There is no such thing as casual sex or a f**k buddy, OK?  Not in the real world.  Not even in the movies!  (See, I warned you.)

Well of course this leads to things unraveling.  While she seems to get off relatively easy, Tom has a much more difficult time letting go.  Really he spends about 200 days ultimately wallowing in misery and clinging to slim hopes of a reconciliation.

At least in my mind, this movie perfectly captures the whole relationship game.  That's why it moved me, as I said in the beginning.  I could so empathize with what Tom went through that I couldn't help but go back through my own memories.  Thanks for opening old wounds!  Yeah, brother, I've been there.  Maybe not quite to this extent, but close enough.  God willing I won't be there again, but the problem with the game of love is that you frequently go tilting at windmills.  Or maybe it's more like the old lady at the slot machine who keeps pulling the lever 24 hours a day thinking THIS time will be the lucky one.  And maybe it will be--ah, there's the rub.  Those of us still in the game always cling to that hope, however slim it might be.

Before I get off too far on another rant, not everything in this movie worked for me.  The overly precocious little sister Tom gets relationship advice from just grated on my nerves.  That is one area where Tom and I clearly diverged, because my sisters are completely useless for relationship advice.  (That's the subject of another rant.)  It's not enough to ruin the movie for me, or even take off a half star.

Even if you have found your True Love or close enough to it, you can probably still relate to this story at one point in time.  Most everyone has a Summer in their life.  An evil, soul-snatching, heart-crushing...OK, I'll stop now.

BTW, during the movie it says that Summer quoted a song from Belle & Sebastian's "Boy With the Arab Strap" in her yearbook.  Ironically I'd bought a couple of B&S albums this month.  So I took that as a sign to go buy that ablum.  Anything that prompts me to spend money definitely moved me.

That is all.

My score:  90/100 (4 stars)

Metacritic score: 76/100 (3 stars)

Bad Movie Reviews

Since I unplugged the cable about six months ago, I've been watching a local digital channel called "THIS" that seems to broadcast a lot of old (and mostly unmemorable) MGM/UA and affiliated movies.  They save the best (by which I mean the worst) for Saturday nights.  As a fan of the old "Mystery Science Theater 3000" show I've always enjoyed watching really terrible movies.  So here are a few of the best of the worst:

ROTOR:  This was apparently trying to cash in on the cyborg movie trend in the late '80s with "Terminator," "Robocop," and so forth.  In it a cop/scientist/rancher (seriously) in Texas creates a cyborg called ROTOR (don't ask me what it means) to fight crime in a future time.  The problem is the thing is rushed online and not all the bugs are worked out.  After pulling over a speeder, ROTOR shoots the man and then begins pursuit of the female passenger.

WTF Moment:  The hero calls a skunk-haired Amazon to help battle ROTOR and proceeds to take her to a hotel, where she promptly whips off her blouse to reveal a black tank top ala Rambo and they just as promptly leave the hotel, never to return.

Robot Jox:  This was also trying to cash in on the robot fad.  In this Cold War parable (or perhaps parody) the two remaining big nations fight not in long, costly wars but gladiator competitions featuring giant robots.  On the American side is Achilles (aka Jim) and on the Russian side is Alexander.  They do battle in their big robots for the fate of Alaska.  (Really this is overdue for a Hollywood makeover with CGI and 3D.  James Cameron could make a billion with it!)

WTF Moment:  The biggest WTF is that the movie was penned by Joe Haldemann, winner of the prestigious Nebula and Hugo awards for classic sci-fi novels like "The Forever War."  Maybe he should stick tobooks.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs:  This secret agent spoof makes "Austin Powers" seem like "Citizen Kane."  It stars Vincent Price as the titular character (who if he has a gold foot I don't remember seeing it) who as you'd guess is making bombs shaped like women to kill NATO generals in the '60s.  The only man who can stop him is pop singer Fabian as the womanizing secret agent.  Which he might do if he stops kissing random women long enough.

WTF Moment:  There are many to choose from here.  The pair of bumbling doormen who accidentally become secret agents are a WTF unto themselves.  The biggest WTF might be when they confuse Fabian for a Chinese agent.

Some Girls Do:  Another secret agent spoof from around the same time, only this one plays it much straighter.  A British secret agent who looks disturbingly like Bond-era Sean Connery uncovers a madman's plot to use female robots to assassinate world leaders.

WTF Moment:  I suppose it would be at the end where the trusty sidekick goes running off with a double-agent.  Who needs patriotism when you can screw a hot turncoat?

Killer Klowns From Outer Space:  It is exactly what the title promises.  Clowns from outer space land on Earth to begin ensnaring the people of a small town in cotton candy cocoons.  And you thought clowns were scary when you were kid!

WTF Moment:  The actor who played the crusty old dean in "Animal House" plays a crusty old cop in this movie.  I bet every day he came to the set thinking, WTF?  How did I end up here?

Morons From Outer Space:  Again, exactly what the title promises.  It could also have been called "Rednecks From Outer Space" but that probably wasn't politically correct enough.  Basically white trash aliens crash on Earth and become superstars.  (Really, a remake with the Blue Collar Comedy Tour might be in order.)

WTF Moment:  I'll admit I fell asleep halfway through this.  When I woke up the last fifteen minutes or so were a total WTF for me.

Blacula:  For reasons that are best not contemplated, an African prince and his wife show up at Dracula's house in the 18th Century or so.  The prince becomes a vampire while his wife dies.  He's locked in a coffin until freed in 1970s Los Angeles where he proceeds to dine on the local African-American population all while stalking a young woman who looks suspiciously like his former bride.

WTF Moment:  Why are two homosexual men from California buying Dracula's house and moving everything in it to Los Angeles?  Does that even remotely make sense?

That is all.

Career Opportunities

When John Hughes passed away last year, most everyone mentioned his popular '80s movies like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club."  Probably no one mentioned "Career Opportunities," which Hughes wrote and produced in 1991.  But the good thing when you have a Netflix-type program is that it's easy to click on someone's name and find out all the stuff they did and watch it just for the Hell of it.  As it turns out, there's probably a good reason no one brought up this movie, because it's not very memorable.

The story features some familiar themes of the aforementioned Hughes classics.  Like Ferris Bueller, Jim Dodge (Franky Wright) is a big talker to the point of excess so that he's known as the Town Liar.  While he likes to spin tales about working for the FBI or some big company, really he can't hold down a job to save his life, much to the consternation of his family, who wants the 21-year-old to move out of the house.

To help make that happen, Jim's dad gets him a job at the local Target department store as the night cleanup boy.  (Watch for an uncredited cameo by John Candy as the Target manager.)  The first convenient plot device is that his supervisor locks him in the store and then takes off to rendezvous with someone else.  This leaves Jim alone in the store--or so he thinks.

While roller skating around the store just for fun, he comes upon Josie (a young Jennifer Connelly) whose father is the richest man in town.  Turns out she was going to shoplift some stuff to get arrested and embarrass her father, but didn't have the guts so she hid in a dressing room.  (There's your second convenient plot device.)  They share some "Breakfast Club"-style angst about their parents and plans for the future.

This is all fine, but then the movie wipes out with the addition of two criminals (Dermot Mulroney and his brother) who somehow break into the Target.  When I read the description I thought this being from John Hughes who wrote "Home Alone" we'd have the same kind of Rube Goldberg-type slapstick traps.  Certainly in a Target store there were plenty of possibilities for that kind of mayhem.  At the least there could have been some great cat-and-mouse between Jim/Josie and the thieves.  None of this comes to pass.

The ending is handled so sloppily that it left me with several questions.  First off, the thieves do such a terrible job looking after their prisoners, so why doesn't Jim or Josie use the phone to call for help?  (Maybe they don't want it to become a hostage situation or fear retribution, but it never even comes up.)  Or since the robbers aren't paying attention, couldn't they set some "Home Alone"-style traps or at least find a couple of butcher knives?  And how does Jim know about a shotgun kept in the store since it's his first night in the store and his supervisor wasn't exactly the communicative type?

None of it really made sense.  Without the thieves this could have been a perfectly adequate teen comedy, but the sloppy final act just brings the whole thing down and really none of the issues raised in the first 3/4 of the movie are dealt with--notably the problem Jim and Josie have with their respective parents.

Probably the only reason to watch this is if you're either such a huge Hughes fan that you have to watch everything he's done or you're a huge fan of Jennifer Connelly's cleavage.  Seriously the shots of her cleavage are as numerous as those of Megan Fox in "Transformers:  Revenge of the Fallen."  And then there's her riding on the mechanical horse going up-and-down, up-and-down...OK, I'm losing focus here.  What was I talking about?  Oh yeah, basically there's not much reason for most people to watch this unless you fall into the categories above.

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars--the extra half-star for those cleavage shots!)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jennifer's Body

The worst thing a horror movie can be is boring.  If you can even call "Jennifer's Body" a horror movie it's boring with a capital B.  When there's as much bloodshed in the end credits as in the rest of the movie, you know you're in trouble. Though sadly even this bloodshed is portrayed in still images that don't show much so you're not getting much bang for the buck.

Like a combination of "Carrie" and "Scream" the movie is about a high school girl named Jennifer (obviously) who eats boys.  This happens because an indie-rock band tries to sacrifice her to Satan to help their career.  (Who knew the world of indie rock was so cutthroat?) This gives Jennifer awesome super powers, so long as she eats boys.  Like her period, this needs to happen about once a month.

Her best friend Needy (who like in all high school-related movies is completely unattractive because she wears glasses) was at the bar when Jennifer ran into the band and suspects something is up.  She especially gets suspicious when boys start dying.  Blah, blah, blah whatever.

As I said, this movie was boring.  I don't know why it got an R rating.  There's a little gore and some bad language (and a girl-on-girl kiss) but not anything too much.  Sadly anyone hoping to see Jennifer's body in "Jennifer's Body" will come away disappointed.  The nudity is pretty PG-13 for whatever reason.

I suppose this isn't all that surprising because writer/producer Diablo Cody (of "Juno" fame) and director Karyn Kusama don't exactly have the reputation of George Romero or Wes Craven.  They should probably just leave the horror movie business to professionals.

That is all.

My score:  25/100 (1 star)

Metacritic score:  47/100 (2 stars)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Hangover

I haven't been a fan of the so-called "frat pack" movies like "Old School," "Anchorman," and "Wedding Crashers."  I just didn't really find Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn very funny.  So I didn't have much hope for a movie directed by the guy who did "Old School" and the lame "School for Scoundrels."  So I was pretty surprised that I enjoyed the movie.

As implied by the title, "The Hangover" is about four friends who go to Las Vegas on the eve of a wedding.  Doug is the groom-to-be who's being given one final taste of single life.  The problem is after a night of partying, Doug has vanished.  Adding to the problem is that his groomsmen:  sauve already-married Phil (Bradley Cooper); whipped soon-to-be-engaged dentist Stu (Ed Helms); and chubby, hairy future brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis) don't have any memory of what happened after a toast on the roof of Caesar's.

Most of the movie then is devoted to Doug's friends trying to figure out important questions like:  whose baby is in the closet, how did Stu lose a tooth, and how did a tiger get in the bathroom?  And in figuring this out they hope to figure out what happened to their friend so they can get him to the wedding on time without getting caught.

I think what made this movie for me is that it's set up like a mystery.  If it had been straight-ahead one thing after another it might have still had funny moments but it would have been more generic.  Instead, it becomes fun to try and outguess the guys as they piece together the clues.  Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong but the guessing keeps you involved with the story.

Of course as you'd expect there's some crudity involved.  There's plenty of bad language, though most of the sexual situations are saved until the end.  So obviously if you're not into lower-brow humor this won't be your cup of tea.  Still, I thought it was a lot better than the movies I listed at the beginning.

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)

Metacritic score:  73/100 (3 stars)

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Hurt Locker

I have to say this might be the first great fictional movie about the Iraq war.  (Or Second Gulf War or whatever future generations will call it.)  To this point I think most movies dealing with the war have focused more on soldiers coming home from it like the recent "Brothers."  Unlike other war movies like "Platoon" that focused naturally on a platoon or "Saving Private Ryan" that focused on a squad of eight, "The Hurt Locker" narrows its focus down to just three men.

These three are Sergeant Will James, Sergeant JT Sanborn, and Specialist Owen Eldridge.  They're a bomb disposal unit stationed mostly in Baghdad in 2004, or shortly after the "shock and awe" campaign wound down.  James is not initially part of the unit, but is brought in when the former by-the-book team leader (a cameo by Guy Pearce) is killed by an insurgent bomb.

During his first mission with the team, it becomes clear that James is reckless when he sets off a smoke bomb for no reason, refuses to communicate with the rest of the team, and puts a gun to an Iraqi taxi driver's head.  In another time and place this might have earned him some trouble, maybe even a court-martial but there's no denying that James is really good at his job.  He's something of a virtuoso when it comes to bomb disposal.

And this presents a problem because James seeks out risk, often putting Sanborn and Owen in harm's way.  At one point Sanborn seriously toys with the idea of triggering a bomb and calling it an accident.  An ambush out in the desert involving some British soldiers (or perhaps mercenaries) brings the team together for some male bonding that's capped off by good old harmless wrestling.  That's short-lived as James continues to take needless risk to endanger his unit.

I was riveted by this movie.  It doesn't have the mythic pretensions of "Platoon" or the grandiosity of a "Saving Private Ryan" and the only known actors just make cameos.  The gritty style and lack of known stars makes it seem more realistic.  And the focus on three individuals means there's not much confusion about who's who or characters who contribute only one or two scenes.  We don't necessarily get to know these characters in-depth but by the end we know enough about them and the struggles they face.  And it does this without really preaching about the rightness or wrongness of the war so whether you agree with it or not there's nothing politically to set you off.

What's interesting to me is you can draw a parallel between this and another recent critically-acclaimed movie "Up in the Air."  They both focus on characters who perform a job most people would find very undesirable.  And both characters also have trouble connecting with people and giving up their unconventional way of life.  Except I think you'd have to agree that Will James is far crazier since he constantly risks his life--and those of others--to do his job.

That is all.

My score:  100/100 (4 stars)

Metacritic score:  94/100 (4 stars)

Friday, January 15, 2010


As far as caper movies go this one hums along fairly smoothly until the end when it tries to be too clever for its own good.  In trying to pull off one last double-cross (or is it triple or maybe even quadruple-cross) it attempts a surprise ending like an M. Night Shyamalan film that seems nearly as implausible.

The story begins in 2003 in Dubai, where MI-6 agent Ray (Clive Own) meets CIA agent Claire (Julia Roberts).  They wind up in bed together, where Claire proceeds to drug Ray and steal some valuable intelligence from him.  Fast forward five years to where Ray and Claire are brought together again.  Only this time they're working for rival corporations--or so it seems.  In reality they're working for the same company only Claire is a mole in the corporation run by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkerson) while really working for a company run by Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) to get the inside dirt on a major product announcement.

This isn't the first time Ray and Claire have met before, as the film demonstrates in several flashbacks.  They're looking to pull one over on their employers and make a fat wad of cash so they can retire somewhere--together.  It seems they fell in love after the Dubai tryst because as fellow spies they're the only ones who can understand each other.

Anyway, I'm not going to spoil any of the big twists and turns for you.  I will say that the biggest twist at the end is so disappointing because it either requires the villain to be clairvoyant or our heroes to be complete idiots.  This would only work if it had been demonstrated early on that the villain was a genius or the heroes were idiots.  Really as I said writer/director Tony Gilroy gets too clever for his good by piling on one twist too many.

Other than that, I was shocked to find out Julia Roberts was nominated for a Golden Globe for this movie.  She acts like such a frigid bitch throughout the movie that I have no idea why Clive Owen (or anyone else) would want to sleep with her.  I'd be afraid she'd eat me afterward.  Owen has much more warmth and charisma and yet he doesn't get a nomination.  Maybe the people in charge couldn't think of another actress.

At any rate, it's not a terrible movie but I found it disappointing.  You'd be better off turning it off at the 105-minute mark or so.

That is all.

My score:  60/100 (2.5 stars)
Metacritic score:  69/100 (2.5 stars)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

District 9

I think it's safe to say "District 9" is everything "Avatar" isn't.  Its still not Fellini or Bergman but a definite upgrade in terms of story.  Really, if "Avatar" had been this good I'd have paid extra to see it in the 3D/IMAX.

Like "Avatar," "District 9" is the story of humans and aliens coming into contact with each other.  While "Avatar" takes place on a distant world in the 22nd Century where humans are the aliens, "District 9" takes place on Earth in the present.

And while the Na'Vi are sleek and pretty, the aliens of "District 9," known as Prawns are something else entirely.  As the name suggests they look like something you'd find at your local fish market or Long John Silver's or to describe them another way if you combined a shrimp and a grasshopper and made it about as tall as a human that's what you'd get.  The Prawns are not philosophical, religious, or in touch with nature.  They're essentially scavengers who subsist mostly on cat food.

In about 1982, the Prawn mother ship came to Earth, hovering to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa of all places.  When no one came out of the ship, a human team went in and found the Prawns pretty much living in their own filth.  Though they were aboard a spaceship, it seemed the Prawns had no idea how to run it or fix it.

Fast forward to the present, where a ghetto known as District 9 has been set up outside Johannesburg.  District 9 has become overcrowded and nearby residents are sick of the aliens (the irony here being that victims of apartheid are as intolerant of the Prawns as whites were of them) and so a new District 10 is being set up farther away.  Rounding up the aliens is the job of the generically named Multi National United conglomerate.

Wikus van der Merwe is the man in charge of the operation, in part thanks to being the son-in-law of a company honcho.  Wikus and some other company weasels, along with an armed escort, descend upon District 9 to serve eviction notices to the Prawns so everything is nice and legal.  Except when Wikus barges into the shanty of a Prawn whose human name is Christopher Johnson he comes upon a strange tube that sprays him with some weird alien goo.

In no time Wikus starts coughing up a black substance and is taken to a hospital, where he finds that his left arm has become a Prawn arm!  This draws interest from MNU (including Wikus's father-in-law) because the alien weapons found on the ship only work with alien DNA, but Wikus can use them with his alien arm.  The company then naturally wants to experiment on him--and they're not going to take no for an answer.

When Wikus manages to escape, he goes on the run to the only place no one will look for him:  District 9.  He has to find some way to avoid being taken by MNU while searching for a way to change himself back that just might lie with Christopher Johnson and his son.

While "District 9" isn't exactly subtle with its message, it's not quite as shrill as "Avatar" either.  As I pointed out earlier it's ironic people who have suffered from intolerance show the same intolerance to the Prawns.  Then you have Wikus himself, who starts out as a doofus, a mid-level bureaucrat condescending to the aliens and later has his eyes opened not only by becoming half-Prawn but by seeing what his company has been up to.  For the most part I thought Wikus stayed true to himself throughout most of the movie, never turning into Braveheart.  He does at least get his chance to act heroic.  Unknown actor Sharlto Copley does a good job of making Wikus seem more or less like a normal guy who's caught up in extraordinary events.

It's equally impressive that the movie is helmed by first-time director Neil Blomkamp.  Instead of trying to dazzle us with effects, Blomkamp uses a documentary style through much of the film and maintains more of a gritty look that you probably wouldn't want to see in 3D.  You also wouldn't want to see some of the stuff that earns the movie its R-rating--at least if you're not squeamish--like pulling out fingernails, teeth, and bits of skin as well as people exploding and a lot of F-bombs.

From a pure geek standpoint I have to add I thought the Prawn weapons were cooler than anything in "Avatar."  You can see why the humans would want to get those to work since they kick ass, especially the mechanical suit thing.  Though I wonder why humans can't just reverse-engineer at least some of the technology in the weapons.  That they don't work with human DNA wouldn't seem to stop you from tearing one apart.

Overall because the Prawns aren't the noble savages of the Na'Vi and not all the characters seem out of central casting, "District 9" to me is a better quality product than "Avatar."  If you haven't already, definitely check it out.

That is all.

My score:  100/100 (4 stars)

Metacritic score:  81/100 (3 stars)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Take one part "Office Space," one part "King of the Hill," and throw in a little stoner comedy for flavor and you get a bland comedy from Mike Judge (creator of the two items above) called "Extract."

Unlike "Office Space" that focused on an office with its meaningless TPS reports and jammed printers, "Extract" focuses on a factory.  As the title suggests the company makes flavor extracts that are used in cooking.  Reynold's Extract was founded by Joel (Jason Bateman) who has since become bored with dealing with his unruly employees.  His partner Brian (JK Simmons) doesn't even bother to remember their names, referring to most of them as Dinkus.  Lucky for both of them, General Mills is ready to swoop in with an offer to buy the company.

But then an accident (in a very sensitive location) to an employee named Step threatens everything.  A con woman named Cindy (Mila Kunis) convinces Step to hire a sleazy ambulance chaser (Gene Simmons) to sue for big money, which in turn threatens the General Mills deal.

At the same time, Joel is facing a marital crisis.  After taking some drugs supplied by his friend Dean (a long-haired Ben Affleck) Joel decides the best way to deal with the situation is to hire a gigolo to tempt his wife and thereby gauge her affection for him.

The way this all plays out isn't as funny as it could be.  It's not as funny as the best parts of "Office Space" or even the best episodes of "King of the Hill."  For my part I think I could just relate to TPS reports and jammed printers better.  Also, there's not really much funny about paying someone to cheat on your wife.

While it's not a terrible movie, it's not a great one either.  Most everyone involved has done better work than they've done here.  I wouldn't even recommend it as a rental; wait for it to come out on cable.

Here are some fun facts relating to the movie.

Mike Judge (King of the Hill), Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), and Mila Kunis (That 70s Show/Family Guy) have all starred in comedies on the Fox network.

Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck also appear together in the 2009 thriller "State of Play" while Bateman and JK Simmons were both in the 2009 comedy/drama "Up in the Air."

Though he isn't credited, Mike Judge plays one of the workers named Jim (which is easy to tell because you can hear shades of Hank Hill in his voice)

Really, with the right clothes and hair Beth Grant looks just like an older Sarah Palin

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5/4 stars)

Metacritic score:  62/100 (2.5/4 stars)

Monday, January 11, 2010


Over the years, long after its hey-day in the 40s, filmmakers have tried to keep the film noir genre alive.  But with "Brick," writer/director Rian Johnson takes a new twist on this genre by setting his noir story, written in the style of Dashiell Hammett, in that most dangerous world of high school.

This version of a California high school is a far cry from "High School Musical," "Hannah Montana," and most shows on the CW.  Instead of focusing on cliques of jocks, preps, and nerds, it focuses on rival factions of drug dealers.  One faction is run by a 26-year-old with a crippled foot called The Pin.  The other is run by a hotheaded motorhead named Tug.  While the two gangs are allies, the alliance is like a powder keg that needs only a spark to explode.

That spark is provided by Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose former girlfriend Emily has gone missing.  She makes a panicked call to him from a pay phone, which sets Brendan on the hunt to find her.  After he finds that she's dead (not a spoiler as it's the first scene of the movie) he's determined to find out who killed her and why.

Brendan has to practically turn the school upside down, nearly getting himself killed in the process.  The only one he can trust is his loyal friend and sidekick The Brain.  Then there's the lovely cheerleader Laura, but whose side is she on?

This is the kind of movie you need to watch at least twice because there are so many intricate twists and turns that you're bound to miss something the first time.  With a mystery that's always a good thing.  I haven't watched a lot of film noir, so I don't know how true or untrue it is in tone.

Because it takes place in high school, there are some odd, almost funny moments, like how The Pin operates out of his mom's basement.  Either she's pretty clueless, in denial, or in on it.  For that matter none of these kids seem to have very attentive parents or teachers.  For high schoolers they don't seem very concerned with going to classes or doing homework.  And really it's a pretty dangerous school with fights in the parking lot and armed hitmen running around.

I enjoyed this movie the first time and even more the second time.  And there's no singing--except a few seconds at a party--so that's a bonus too.

BTW, did anyone who watched "Third Rock From the Sun" ever think the kid from that show would go on to have a successful film career?  It's kind of bizarre.

That is all.

My score:  90/100 (3.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  72/100 (3 stars)

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I watched this in regular 2D, which might have been a mistake.  Without the 3D/IMAX gimmicks you're really left with a very vanilla sci-fi/fantasy movie.  That was in part why I wanted to watch the regular version because if it really was a good movie then I'd want to deal with the added expense and bother of 3D/IMAX.

Anyway, the movie is like nothing you've ever seen before--provided you haven't watched Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, Fern Gully, Return of the Jedi, or a host of other movies.  It starts out in the 22nd Century where The Company (which Cameron used in Aliens) is mining something called Unobtainium (a mineral that's hard to obtain--get it?) on the moon of a gas giant called Pandora.  Because the air is toxic and pretty much every animal and vegetable is reactive and deadly, the humans use versions of the native Na'Vi they make by combining human DNA with Na'Vi DNA--sort of like Jurassic Park.  Each one is specially made so that only one human can control it by computer--sort of like The Matrix.

Former Marine Jake Sully's brother was supposed to go to Pandora to drive one of the avatars, but he died.  Conveniently he was an identical twin to Jake, which allows Jake to drive the avatar.  (This convenient plot device has been used in movies such as last year's Eagle Eye.)  So Jake (Sam Worthington) spends six years in stasis (like in Aliens and a host of other sci-fi films) to travel to Pandora to pilot the avatar.  The scientist in charge (Sigourney Weaver, star of Aliens) is unhappy because Jake has no experience with Na'Vi culture.  But the corporate weasel (Giovanni Ribisi playing essentially the Paul Reiser character in Aliens) in charge says it's too expensive to waste the avatar, so they're stuck.

As a human Jake is a paraplegic, which could be cured if he had any money, but with his avatar he can walk again--and run.  He does a lot of running after his first trip into the wilds of Pandora.  He gets separated and winds up nearly being killed until he's saved by the Na'vi princess Neytiri.

The following are spoilers only if you haven't seen Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, etc.

Otherwise you know what's going to happen.  Jake is taken by Neytiri to her tribe and eventually becomes one of them and they fall in love but the humans attack to clear the Na'Vi out of the way.

Pretty much every twist and turn in this movie is so telegraphed that you'd have to be blind not to see it coming.  Like when the big red bird-thing enters the scene, it's obvious what's going to happen with it by the end of the movie.  The Na'Vi religion that everything is connected is pretty much the same as The Force in the Star Wars movies, only more tangible in this case.  The technology used by the human military isn't all that different from Aliens or Terminator, both Cameron films.

The bottom line is there's some nice world-building in terms of the landscapes and creatures of Pandora--that I'm sure looks amazing in 3D/IMAX--but there's not much beyond that.  The characters are pretty much all stock, as are the situations.  I think I've already pointed that out thoroughly.  For an "original" story there's nothing much original about it.

I'd say to gawk at this in 3D/IMAX while you can.  Don't wait to rent it on DVD, because in 2D it's pretty flat.

That is all.

My score:  62/100 (2.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  84/100 (3 stars)

Sherlock Holmes

I've never read any Sherlock Holmes books or watched any previous movies, so the most I had ever really encountered the detective was on Star Trek:  The Next Generation when the android Data played Holmes on the holodeck.  So I really have no idea how faithful this latest version is to the books or previous movies, though I suspect not very.

This version of "Sherlock Holmes" starts off in Victorian London with Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) using some fisticuffs and kung fu to stop a Satanic ritual involving the sacrifice of a young woman.  The man making the sacrifice is Lord Blackwood, which creates quite the scandal.  Before Blackwood is hanged, he summons Holmes to his cell to claim that he'll return from the grave to not only murder again but to change the world.

After Blackwood is hanged, Holmes is at a loose end.  Making things worse is that his loyal sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is getting married.  But he finally gets some action when an old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) asks him to find a missing person.  That missing person turns out to be in Lord Blackwood's coffin.  From there more people are killed, there are double-crosses, chases, and a climactic battle on London Bridge.

Really they could have called this CSI:  Victorian London because it's about the same thing.  Or "Monk," "Psych," "The Mentalist," "Murder She Wrote" or just about any other mystery series on television only with better actors and special effects.  That's not really a dig, just a fact.  The movie certainly doesn't try to reinvent the genre, but it does try to have as much fun with it as possible.  This Sherlock Holmes is always cracking wise, even in a crisis.  The more serious Watson and devious Irene Adler make for good foils for comic bantering.  This makes the movie fun to watch from start to finish.  Sure some of the plot twists were obvious and the situations not very realistic, but it's an exciting ride.  And you have to admire whoever came up with all that stuff about Satanic rituals and what kind of residue certain chemicals make on a rat's tail and so forth.  How do you find out that kind of stuff?

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)

Metacritic score:  57/100 (2 stars)

Up In the Air

I'm going out on a limb and saying this will win for Best Picture of 2009.  Not necessarily that it IS the best picture of 2009, but because it's peaking at the right time (the end of the year) and it is a great picture.

The focus of the movie is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) a consultant who specializes in firing people.  His company in Omaha sends him and other consultants around the country to lay people off.  Because he's been doing this for a long time, Ryan has gotten air travel down to a science.  While the rest of us struggle with luggage, security, kids, and so forth, Ryan cruises in and out with ease.

A large irony is that while Ryan fires people for a living, he values loyalty clubs from American Airlines, Hilton Hotels, Hertz Rental Cards, and so forth.  He has flown so much that he's nearing 10 million miles, which only six other people have done with American Airlines.

On the side, he gives "motivational" lectures about how to live without being burdened by all those annoying family members and so forth.  He also has a tryst with another frequent traveler named Alex (Vera Farmiga) in Dallas and works out meeting up with her somewhere else along the road.

All of Ryan's plans are threatened when a young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) joins the company.  She presses the head of the company (Jason Bateman) to switch over to Web technology, firing people via Web cams.  Naturally Ryan isn't happy about this, and even less happy when he's sent back on the road with Natalie to show her the ropes.

Nothing romantic happens between them, because Natalie is about half Ryan's age and has a boyfriend of her own.  Instead, they have more of a philosophical dispute.  Ryan introduces her to his wonderfully free lifestyle, which she has trouble accepting.

Then another meeting with Alex and a trip back home to Wisconsin to his sister's wedding leave Ryan questioning his wonderfully free lifestyle.  This is where the film slows down and threatens to break into sentimentality.  The great thing is that while it seems ready to end with the stereotypical kiss and fade to black, the movie resists this urge.

That's because this is a romantic comedy for grownups.  Not necessarily grownups in age as in maturity.  It's for people who realize that Happily Ever After isn't real and that if Cinderella rides off with Prince Charming before long she'll realize he's cheating on her with one of the ugly stepsisters and so takes the castle and half the treasury in the divorce.  For the most part it also resists the slapstick gags and adorable kids that dumb down so many other romantic comedies.

This is also what I liked about Jason Reitman's first movie, "Thank You For Smoking."  Where most movies would have had the main character (a sleazy smoking company lobbyist) learn a valuable lesson and change his ways for the better, Reitman resisted the Hollywood ending to have the character remain true to himself.  It doesn't work quite as seamlessly here, but still the way it plays out is far more true than most Hollywood movies.

For the first 3/4 of the movie Clooney plays Ryan as Danny Ocean, full of confidence and superiority.  It's only in that slower final quarter that the cracks in the facade begin to show and Clooney manages to pull this off.  Farmiga also carries off the Alex character who's sexy but not sentimental.  The rest of the cast does its job as well, including cameos by Reitman regulars JK Simmons and Sam Elliott.

You'll probably hear more about this as awards season heats up.  Make sure you go see this, but understand while there is romance and comedy this isn't your typical date movie.  And for that you should be grateful.

That is all.

My score:  90/100 (3.5 stars)

Metacritic score:  83/100 (3 stars)