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, 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)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Inglorious Basterds

I'm not a Quentin Tarantino fan and I've never really understood the attraction. "Pulp Fiction" was OK but to me seemed way overrated. "Inglorious Basterds" didn't do anything to convert me. It did help me in possibly understanding the disconnect I experience versus other people, notably film critics. Most of his movies like this one are an homage to campy '70s drive-in fare; since I don't remember the '70s there's really no way I can share in his nostalgia. So it always ends up like a joke that everyone gets except for me.

"Inglorious Basterds" is a campy homage of war movies, notably the 1978 Italian original. Though in this case the plot sounds completely different. In 1941 in occupied France Colonel Landa (Golden Globe and probable Oscar winner Christopher Waltz) known as the Jew Hunter kills a family of Jews hiding at a dairy farm. But an 18-year-old girl named Shoshanna escapes.

Three years later, just before the D-Day invasion, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) assembles a squad of Jewish soldiers who drop into Europe and launch a guerrilla war against the Nazis. They employ brutal tactics, most notably scalping the victims or leaving any survivors with a swastika carved onto their foreheads. Because of this brutality they're known as the "Basterds."

Meanwhile, Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine are planning to screen a new film called "Nation's Pride" in Paris. At the behest of the war hero/star of the film, the screening is moved to a little cinema run by a young woman. If you can't guess who this woman is then you must be blind, deaf, and dumb. When the Basterds get word that the German high command is going to be there, you can figure they have to be there too.

What's odd to me is that the Basterds are the least interesting part of the movie. Thankfully there's only a couple of scenes where we have to see their gory tactics. (There's nothing pretty about watching people getting scalped.) The Basterds remain one-note characters throughout, most without even a token personality like in most war movies. The only ones you're likely to remember are Aldo because he's Brad Pitt and "The Jewish Bear" (Eli Roth, who's no stranger to gory movies as creator of the "Hostel" films) because he smashes a dude's head in with a baseball bat.

The story about Shoshanna and the cinema was far more interesting. I'd dare to say that "Inglorious Basterds" would have been better without the Basterds hamming it up. A simple cat-and-mouse between Shoshanna and Landa would have been far more interesting because these were the film's most developed characters. It wouldn't surprise me if Waltz does win the Oscar for Landa, not after Heath Ledger won for the Joker last year, setting the precedent.

What I really don't like about this movie is the alternate history component. I'm reminded of Michael Chabon's excellent Pulitzer-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" about two Jewish comic book authors in the early days of World War II. As reports come in about Nazi atrocities, the comic book authors (and many in the industry) wrote fantasy pieces where their hero kills legions of Nazis and captures Hitler to end the war. The problem is that the authors feel only a momentary burst of satisfaction, because when all's said and done it's just a fantasy. I could imagine that Jews watching this might cheer for a moment before realizing that same spiritual emptiness because this fantasy changes nothing that happened.

As I said at the beginning, I have no nostalgia for old '70s films (except maybe "Star Wars") so this film isn't very effective to me. I squirmed in my seat numerous times not just from the scalpings but also through some of the lengthy dialog scenes, especially the interminable scene in the basement of a tavern. Others, especially film critics, disagree.

That is all.

My score: 50/100 (2 stars)

Metacritic score: 69/100 (2.5 stars)

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Since the drive-in days of the ‘50s and ‘60s, zombie movies have become a genre unto themselves, launching the careers of filmmakers like George Romero.  In the 40-50 years of zombie movies, there have been a variety of takes from the serious like “Night of the Living Dead” or “28 Days Later” to the not so serious like “Shaun of the Dead.”  “Zombieland” is definitely in this latter category.  You could consider it an Americanized “Shaun” relying more on gags than the dry wit of its British counterpart.

As you’d guess from the title or the previews, the movie is about a world that has been overrun by zombies.  How this happened isn’t made entirely clear.  There’s vague mentions of something like mad cow disease that turned people into flesh-eating ghouls.  Most normal people have been wiped out, but not a young man known only as Columbus (Michael Cera clone Jesse Eisenberg) who lived mainly because he’s a paranoid shut-in.  In order survive, Columbus lives by a series of rules that are often repeated throughout the movie.  Rule #1 is Cardio as in staying in shape to flee from zombies.  There are rules about being careful when using the bathroom (where zombies like to trap their prey) and wearing your seatbelt.  Most importantly is not forming attachments to anyone.

This rule is seriously challenged first when Columbus is picked up by Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) a professional zombie killer who is searching for a Twinkie.  This search leads them to a supermarket where they meet the con girl sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who are on their way to Pacific Playland outside LA where supposedly there are no zombies and where the girls went before the zombie apocalypse.  The girls appropriate Tallahassee’s truck and weapons before the boys catch up to them and they decide to all go together.

The movie is pretty much exactly what you’d expect.  There’s a lot of running and killing zombies.  Tallahassee doesn’t just shoot them; he uses everything from a banjo to hedge clippers in his quest for Zombie Kill of the Week.  Between zombie battles is a lot of fun humor, especially a scene involving Bill Murray.  This humor is far more obvious than “Shaun of the Dead,” which makes it much easier for American audiences.

Overall this is a fun, albeit short movie coming in at just about 85 minutes.  According to IMDB there’s already a sequel in production that I hope can match the fun of this one.

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)
Metacritic score:  73/100 (3 stars)

Monday, February 1, 2010


A frequent theme of the original "Twilight Zone" series was the danger of isolation.  The very first episode deals with an astronaut who returns to a small town only to find everyone is missing.  As it turns out the astronaut is still asleep and undergoing a test to see how long it takes someone to crack.  The point of the episodes was that the human psyche is fragile and extended periods of loneliness would cause it to break.

This same device is used in "Moon."  The story involves a lone man named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who is working on Earth's moon, overseeing the mining of a material that is converted into energy to power the Earth.  Big combine-like machines called harvesters till the soil while Sam monitors them from his base and occasionally fixes them with the help of the computer system known as Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey) that also tends to Sam's needs.

Sam's contract calls for him to be there for three years, after which he will return home to his wife Tess and toddler Eve.  But with two weeks left to go, Sam starts showing signs of cracking.  He has headaches, he sees things that might not be there, and he has trouble focusing.  This leads him to crash his rover into one of the harvesters.  When he comes to back in the infirmary, Gerty tells him that he'll be OK.  But Sam suspects something is up.  Is he right?  Or has he finally cracked?

I thought the movie would be more psychological like "2001:  A Space Odyssey" or "Solaris."  It's a little more straight-ahead than those and certainly not nearly as dense as 2001.  Instead of a psychological thriller it's more of a mystery as Sam tries to figure out what's going on with the base and the company.  I don't want to spoil anything, but I will tell you that Gerty is sort of a red herring.

If you're more into the thrill-ride type of sci-fi movies like "Star Trek" or "Avatar" then this probably is too slow for you.  If you're a fan of the old "Twilight Zone" or "Solaris" or "2001" then this is more up your alley.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  On a side note, Sam Rockwell seems like one of the most underrated actors around.  There's nothing I've seen him in that I haven't enjoyed.  Maybe now that he's co-starring in "Iron Man 2" he'll get his due.

That is all.

My score:  75/100 (3 stars)

Metacritic score:  67/100 (2.5 stars)