w@velength's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

500 Days of Summer
½

Too pretentious. Just by watching the trailers for upcoming movies on the DVD while I made popcorn in the background, I knew the following film was going to be hit-or-miss for me.

Sure enough, I find a brutal and honest portrayal of the lessons of love and heartbreak-- completely demolished by schizophrenic editing, smug "wink-wink" self-awareness, and a nonsensical narrative from a production team that doesn't trust its concept enough to let it play out naturally and chronologically. Instead, all of the good moments are lead into and interspersed with obnoxious art-house flourishes, like voice-overs, on-screen clocks and gayish musical cues. Some of the soundtrack choices are interesting, but who cares? I came to see a movie, not a music-video. It reminds me of that scene at the beginning of Airplane II where Ted Striker is breaking out of a mental hospital and one of the searchlights stops on Jack Jones singing lounge music in the courtyard. Does there really need to be musical commentary in the background? As much as I admire Regina Spektor's vocal creativity, most of the soundtrack sounded like a 9-11 dispatch of her being assaulted in her home.

Joseph Gorden-Levitt and Zoey Deschanel are clever and subtle, as usual, but their thespian spirits are wasted on characters with no real motivation or appeal, unless you consider every date-movie cliche of the last twenty years in one package to be a reasonable form of art. There is an intelligent message here, but it barely survives crammed between the drudgery of the time-jumping numbers-screen that throws us jarringly back and forth with little warning, and stock "buddy" characters that punctuate moments of perfect subtlety with, essentially, burp and fart jokes, ruining any sort of serious cinematic immersion. Are we really expected to know where we are in the story based on a non-linear and arbitrary selection of days, or even care?

Most of the scenes are too short to allow the dialogue to build in any meaningful way, or express the character's personalities, leaving both factors unremarkable. I didn't buy a 12 year old giving Tom complicated, experience-driven relationship advice. I also didn't buy the intrusive, "meanwhile, in the lair of the super-villain" voice-over narrations, squirting exposition in my ear at inappropriate times. And what's with these two? The narrator tells us that Tom's skewed view of love comes from "a fatal misunderstanding of the movie 'The Graduate' as a child". First, as a rule, never mention better movies than your movie in your movie. Secondly, what if I've never seen 'The Graduate'? I'm shit out of luck? Tom writes greeting cards for a living and can't figure out how to ask Summer on a date. Greeting cards exist for the soul purpose of getting people laid. See the dissonance here? For that matter, why does he even bother with Summer? She's a brat, and a nympho, and the moment Tom learns about her past "experience", he should have been prepared for disappointment.

This movie doesn't earn the right to tell its story out of order. To do so, the story needs to be something profound and original and benefiting. As it stands it's just a distraction from the lack of a concrete topic, and the shuffling of time is used here as a cheap mechanic for the film to set up a series of contrived "reveals" to flatter us with flashy cleverness. "Look over here!" "Now look over here!" The very first one of these oh YOU moments involves shocking us with the fact that the girl of Tom's dreams is named-- get this-- Summer. Get it? It's the name of the movie! Now the word "summer" means TWO things!

What a rug-puller!

So a few diamonds form as this brownie bakes in the oven. A scene involving Tom and Summer skipping through an IKEA store complaining that "all the sinks are broken" is particularly hilarious. When Tom finally makes headway with Summer, he struts out into the street in front of her building like Fred Astaire as various passerby break into spontaneous song and dance. Tom's meltdown in the boardroom is poignant and powerful. The film delicately handles the horrible "catch-22" of relationships: it's not easy being honest with someone you really care about, for fear of losing the tenuous bond you share. The final sequence between the two lovers, set in an important park with an important view, is profound and bitter in its pitiless clarification of broken love, even if it is the love between retards. Summer's explanation for her betrayal doesn't really clarify anything (maybe that we gave women the vote so that they could "date for dinner") but it does showcases the profound effect the two had on each other. Fate, as it adheres to cause and effect, has a brutal way of wearing down the romantic soul with cruel reality.

Every other moment in the movie does everything it can to sabotage our connection to the mise-en-scene. The lessons learned by the two leads and the way they learn them is the only strong point of the film. It's buried in a package that does an honest message no service. Instead, in its desperate plea to be relatable, it alienates us with its new-aged hipster bullshit, then forces us to re-break our own mended hearts and look inside for a fortune cookie. Thanks, dicks. All of this sentimental gunk is muddled in the drudgery of the film's stupid way of storytelling, so if you have any life experience of your own good luck getting anything out of 500 Days of Summer except maybe a spontaneous hangover.

You know that episode of Family Guy where Peter tapes over Citizen Kane with "It's his sled. From when he was a child. There, I just saved you three hours." That's what I would do to this film, if I cared enough to look back.

Drag Me to Hell
½

An hour and thirty-nine minutes I'll never get back.

The Dark Knight Rises

Batman gets the job done; News at 11.

Man of Steel
Man of Steel(2013)
½

Boring. I kept waiting for the actual movie to start. The whole thing feels like an enormous self-important flashback, vaguely conveying Superman's early career on Earth, which frankly isn't that interesting because we've seen it all before and better.

My biggest gripe is with the pacing of the story, which consists of endlessly trite world-building and cliche characterizations, fatally extending to Clark himself. It moves too quickly and jumps around too much until the rhythm of the story becomes monotonous. Anyone who follows my reviews knows one of my biggest pet-peeves is cutting away from a scene before it has a chance to ferment. Every scene in a movie should be a self-contained short-film in its own right, that ties into the "films" that come before and after. With Man of Steel I always felt like I was walking into the middle of a conversation. Showing the same familiar characters over and over with predictable plot development is not the same as telling a story. There is no downtime, no space to breathe and allow the audience to reflect on what has happened, or on the titular hero himself. Stuff just happens, and happens, and happens, relentlessly.

In a decade of unnecessary reboots, perhaps the film's most grievous infraction is failing to show Clark deciding to "become" Superman. I felt like I was watching a highlight reel on YouTube rather than a movie with a fleshed-out narrative arch. The excellent cast is mostly wasted, except, surprisingly, for the beautiful Antje Traue, who probably has the fewest lines but is captivating whenever she is on screen. Michael Shannon, her superior, is a seasoned stage actor, but all he does here is grimace and yell. I liked a few parts, such as hologram Jor-El helping Lois Lane (the lamest Lois Lane in Superman history) escape General Zod's spacecraft, and the stuff concerning Clark's physical acclimation to Earth's magnetic field was nifty. The movie has its moments, for sure, but not enough to recommend it. Very disappointing, especially coming from Zack Snyder, who made the legendary Watchmen.

Watch 2006's Superman Returns instead. It feels the way a Superman movie should feel and its action isn't tailored to the current generation of ADHD-addled teenagers. This isn't Man of Steel, it's Superguy Versus The Space Terrorists.

Stephen King's 'Thinner'

It is said, "He who seeks revenge should dig TWO graves!" One for the other guy and one for HIMSELF! A good horror movie for people who hate gypsies. And who doesn't hate gypsies?

The lead actor is hysterical and finds the perfect balance somewhere between camp and caricature with his delivery and facial expressions. There were long stretches where I thought I was watching another Scary Movie satire starring Ronald McFatass, but credit where it's due for putting on a show in heavy prosthetic makeup. He is a highly offensive character, both physically and ideologically, and we are asked to identify with him only insofar as we wouldn't wish such a curse on anyone. The desperation of his performance late in the story at least shows that the actor driving him knew what he was doing.

Like a typical King yarn the entire premise is a little goofy from the get-go and the increasingly ridiculous story beats reinforce that the cast and crew aren't taking it too seriously. The whole ordeal ends up feeling like a fevered nightmare brought about by an evening at a small-town carnival and too many corn dogs, and like the best nightmares, it is often the protagonist who makes the worst choices. I would even go so far as to call it kafka-esque, though that might be giving the production too much credit.

My only complaint-- besides that fact that it is an incredibly low-brow accomplishment-- is that after a series of surprising builds it comes undone and ends with a whimper; sure, it makes sense in the context of the story, but it was disappointing that the fatass "hero" ended up learning little from the ordeal and came out the other side an even bigger douchebag. Once the main threat is out of the way the film could have gone in several interesting directions but instead chose the most obvious.

Bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment to be sure, it doesn't even reach the level of what could be regarded as "pop-culture". But it knows what it is and for what it is it manages to be involving throughout. Based on a Stephen King novel, you can expect mostly tasteful gore; his stories are more concerned with distasteful people caught in the vice of supernatural forces, and the gooey stuff is supplementary.

At the end of a long day, sometimes you're in the mood for a good, fun, macabre horror story featuring vengeful mobsters and murderous gypsy trash.

The Island
The Island(2005)
½

This movie gave me a splitting headache. Starts out great but quickly degenerates into typical brainless action shit. I liked the heroes dropping dumbbells on pursuing cars but only in a superficial kind of way. I dunno, Scarlett Johansson is quite pretty. What else. There is a scene in an elevator where one of the mercenaries says, "Tough day," and that is pretty much the extent of the character growth you can expect here. Poor Djimon Hounsou is grossly underutilized, as usual.

Maybe if you're twelve and you've never seen a Science Fiction movie before you will enjoy this. It is a story worth telling, but Michael Bay is not the man to tell it. Generally well made and acted, like all of Bay's work, but just too boringly predictable and obnoxiously spastic, like all of Bay's work. Why was Lincoln Six Echo remembering stuff that his host had lived out? The coolest premise in the movie and they never bother to explain it. Lazy!

Next to The Rock this is the best narrative Bay has had the opportunity to work with and unfortunately he chose to play it safe. Superimposing a dozen CGI hover trains into every shot will not convince me that I am observing a futuristic society. Other movies have done it since and done it better; the Total Recall reboot for example. You'd be better off watching the superior Fifth Element or Equilibrium if you're desperate for this kind of thing, with Logan's Run being the biggest "inspiration". Or just go watch Moon for the hundredth time, one of the better sci-fi's of the last decade, and the film that this movie is really ripping off.

Yes, I am aware The Island was made before Moon. It's still ripping it off. That's how bad of a movie this is. It's the Fisher-Price version of a neo-humanist tale, padded with endless chase scenes and explosions. Your brain deserves better.

The World's End

Not a laugh to be found, but a decent Science Fiction movie. Weird stuff. Hope Wright finds a way out of his mid-life crisis sometime soon.

Snow Falling on Cedars

Expertly coalesces image and sound to create sensations and themes in a way only the visual medium can, and few films create an emotional atmosphere quite like this one.

Snow Falling on Cedars is part murder mystery, part inter-racial love story, and part confessional history lesson. The plot and cinematography are practically one and the same, plodding dreamily along like the relentless waves of snow that blanket the Puget Sound islands off the coast of Washington, enveloping us in a sense of isolation and nature's timeless disinterest in the schedules or quandaries of man. The overbearing weather does little to cover the raw racial tensions surrounding the trial, with the recent end of the second World War and Washington's own uncomfortable history of Japanese internment fresh on everyone's mind. Time has dulled the oppressive power of these remorseful events, but in the winter of 1950 they were as raw and familiar as an open wound.

The actual investigation and courtroom drama is a very small part of the movie, as it spends most of its time wandering off on compelling flashback tangents. These segments are conjured during the trial scenes to clarify the history between the characters and establish their motivations. But sometimes they just sneak in out of nowhere for the sake of enriching the narrative, and proceed carry the move for a while. As far as flashbacks go they are extremely atmospheric, brimming with secret regrets, unspoken hatreds, and unremitting lusts. They make you feel like you are right there, suffering these people's personal trials and experiencing their forbidden joys, almost as though we have opened a window into some secret truth, some soul-shattering epiphany, and then with a snap of the fingers we are back in the melancholy present.

Front and center is quiet, reserved Ishmael (Ethan Hawke), son of a disgraced local newspaperman, who calmly observes and documents the unfolding of the case even as his heart threatens to burst from his chest. For you see, the wife of the accused, lovely Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), was his secret childhood sweetheart, but he lost her. In flashbacks, we see them catching each other's eyes across a bustling strawberry patch, then chasing each other through a mist-soaked forest, then making love under the roots of a massive cedar. We see Hatsue suffering the wrath of her race-centric mother, and watch them all suffer the government's wrath following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ishmael's initial sympathy for the Japanese citizenry of his island home wanes as he watches his father (Sam Shepard) buckle under the pressure of phone threats and cancelled subscriptions over his neutral, Jap-friendly journalism. We see him turn his back in disbelief as his friends and neighbors are rounded up by soldiers to be shipped off to concentration camps, and watch him tag along on one of countless buses headed to said camps for the sake of a story.

These memories culminate in a powerful sequence where Ishmael storms a gore-ridden beach (presumably against the Japanese in the pacific islands), superimposed with another memory of his storming an empty, log-strewn stretch of coast with his lost love, the words of her somber goodbye letter echoing from her mouth and contorting in his mind, transforming into bitterness and hatred, hammered home by the real physical pain of a debilitating war wound.

Some consider this film quite pretentious, which isn't fair. Yes, it is filmed and told in a muted, long-winded, abstract way, and asks you to patiently go along with it. Big deal, welcome to the movies. An actual pretentious film would use these techniques to sell a hackneyed, heavy-handed message, which is absent here, instead we find a simple story told in a very fascinating way. It doesn't indulge, it flows. The best example are the restrained courtroom scenes, which are more interested in character than law. Observe the wonderful Max Von Sydow's long closing monologue, which is shot up close and never strays for dramatic affect. It isn't until after all the relevant evidence has been considered and the verdict has been delivered that we are shown faces of relief and shock in equal measure. The final crash of the judge's gavel is more condemnation of our collective guilt than of the crime of any one man.

Ultimately, this is not a film about racism. It's really about perspective, but it's more personal than that. It's about cause and effect, and how the two can become irrationally tangled inside one's mind when our emotions come crashing in. This creates twisted feelings of regret and fear that can manifest as racial mistrust, and in moments of weakness it is human nature to marginalize and resent someone who looks and acts differently than we do. But in the end, we all mean well. To show that, to really make you understand and bring you into the fold of why these characters, these townsfolk, do the things they do, you cannot simply show actors speaking and telling a story, or even recreate the scenes themselves, as this lends to sappiness and manipulation by the filmmakers. You need to selectively show us specific memories, images that stand out in their minds that will forever temper their existence, the meaningful moments and gestures, letting us linger on expressions of pain and love and their immediate emotional consequences, as these are the things that really spur us to change. The movie does so quite brilliantly, and we the viewer feel almost as though we are viewing the events through the soul's impartial eyes, if that makes any sense.

It was also nice to see a movie about Japanese-White relations, as opposed to every other racial epic that seems to focus on Latinos and Blacks, which has been done to death. The racial subplot of the film really highlights what it is that makes us perceive someone as "different". There isn't one black person in the film, uh oh! There are however lots of Dutch, Scandenavian, French, Italian and German whites. The Japanese-Americans in my opinion are also technically "white", but because they look markedly different than the type of whites we are comfortable with, and because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time at this particular moment in history, their lives are rife for accusation.

The conclusion to the murder trial is also quite ingenious, and I didn't see it coming for miles, which was refreshing and fit in nicely with the point the movie was trying to make. The answer was right in front of Ishmael all along, and we realize that this cinematic journey of remorse and reflection was part of Ishmael's coming to terms with letting go and doing what needed to be done, for himself and for his community, and we are invited to see ourselves in Ishmael, with his measures of compassion and prejudice. Sometimes we get so caught up in assigning blame that we forget the universe is full of random regrettable tragedy.

Beautiful work, and a big love letter to the people and history of the Pacific Northwest, an area of the country woefully underutilized in cinema except as a backdrop for cheap film-making. If you haven't seen it yet, I would suggest you ignore my review, turn the lights down, take a few shots and let it carry you away with an open mind, since it is definitely one of those movies that is more fun to experience than it is to try to explain.

Oblivion
Oblivion(2013)

Wow. I was not expecting to like this movie as much as I did considering all the awful reviews it got. Just goes to show that often times you have to judge things for yourself. Hey, that's a lesson I took away from the film! Go me!

First things first, Oblivion has without a doubt one of the best visual designs of any science-fiction movie ever made, rivaling if not surpassing the recent Prometheus for aesthetic appeal. Is that enough to recommend a movie? Not usually, but in a movie like this presentation is a huge part of whether or not you can suspend your disbelief. Even if you were planning to skip it because grandiose sci-fi isn't your cup of tea or you dislike Tom Cruise's antics you should still watch it because I guarantee you've never "seen" a movie quite like this one. Every special effect in the movie is beautifully crafted, including the gorgeous score and impeccable sound design (the drones in particular are a marvel of futuristic bells and whistles). There are no shortage of vast, sweeping vistas of post-apocalyptic destruction, ruined old-world interiors and futuristic sets, and it all looks absolutely stellar.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the majority of the story, which is rife with twists and turns until late in the movie. Once everything has become clear it has nowhere left to go but familiar Hollywood us-or-them science-fiction invasion territory, but it didn't bother me that much because the true villain of Oblivion is a fascinatingly heinous and manipulative monstrosity, a boldly original (at least for a mainstream movie) alien presence that I wanted to see humanity overcome with a nuke and a prayer. If you've ever read Peter Watt's wonderful first-contact novel Blindsight then you will be pleasantry surprised by the nature of the antagonist. It doesn't just want to kill us, it wants to rape us first. The warm familiarity of some chest-thumping heroism in the face of such odds helps align us squarely with the hero's journey while rewarding us for all of the mind-fuckery we have endured up to that point.

The film opens with a motherload of voiced-over world building, which might normally bug the crap out of me except that Oblivion is set in a darkly incomprehensible future universe that pretty much demands explanation. Basically, aliens ripped the Moon in half causing massive ecological disaster planetside, followed by a full-fledged invasion. So we nuked our own planet into oblivion, leaving it permanently scarred and toxic to humans and remaining aliens (now known as "Scavengers"), so everybody moved to live on a giant tetrahedron-shaped space station known as the "Tet", and from there, far off Titan. A small repair staff stays behind to oversee enormous hydrogen refinery equipment that harvests water for the space-bound masses, and maintain the all-purpose robotic drones that staff them. Or, that is what we are told.

Of course, it goes without saying that nothing is as it seems. The hero, Jack Harper (Cruise) is haunted by memories of his wife from before the war, which is troubling because he admits to us early on that he had his mind wiped-- company policy, you see. If you've seen the trailers or the movie posters you know that Morgan Freeman has an appearance in a dark underground lair, and maybe you think you know where the film is going with this, but you might be mistaken.

At the end of the day what we have here is a nice juicy chunk of hard science-fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick with a deliciously convoluted premise that, like a prism twisting in the light, gradually and painfully reveals new ideas and hidden truths. It feels like a good short-story brought to life with an enormous budget. The visuals are beautiful-- how many movies can you name where the characters skinny dip in a glass-bottom pool above a lightning storm? The story is interesting and constantly keeps you guessing, the soundtrack is stirring and the acting of the small cast is solid. Say what you will about Cruise, he's got the cocky, swashbuckling spaceman persona nailed. The guy is, like, 60 but he still looks and acts like a young man at the top of his game. He turns Harper into a likable hero with private secrets and personal convictions, a guy who makes impulsive decisions based on curiosity, which is essential for any science-fiction hero. It was fun watching him react to and grow as a human being in the face of shocking revelations.

If I had to criticize something it would be that the last act of the movie turns into a fairly generic action extravaganza with a happy ending that wraps everything up with a neat little bow, but at least by then it feels like the movie has earned it. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to see everything resolved the way it was. There is a charming message here about the ability of the human spirit, and in many other ways the film borrows heavily from the recent Moon. It isn't exactly an original idea but as with that film, Oblivion earns its sentimentality, and I can't help but admire a movie that suggest that irrepressible curiosity is what makes us consciously human.

Maybe it's the extremely low expectations I had going in, or maybe I'm becoming an easily-impressed simpleton, but I was in the right mood at the right time for this movie and it swept me away. One of the better science-fiction actioners to come out in quite a while.

Zero Dark Thirty

The real "War on Terror", stripped of hoo-rah heroics or faux-patriotic glamour: a group of determined, foul-mouthed nerds and obsessive power women hunting down cockroaches in the dark, with little recompense save a narrowing sense of safety and the grim satisfaction of vengeance.

A somber opening sequence invokes a subtle reminder of "that day in September", and is immediately followed by repulsive acts of violence, anchoring us in the costly ethical aftermath. The first half of the movie introduces a happy ring of friends in the intelligence community, namely the stick-like Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA-educated analyst, and her partner, Dan (Jason Clarke), a PhD-educated torture specialist. They are out for blood, but how far will they go to get it?

We also meet Maya's affable friend, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and various spooks who troll the halls of Langley berating each other for their lack of tangible results. When this crew gets together, their interactions are typically marked by excessive cursing and shallow personalities. I'm no prude, but Maya's response when asked if she has a boyfriend must be some sort of apex for modern feminism... Later, when an intelligence failure costs one of her superiors his career, without even looking him in the eye she mumbles "I.S.I. fucked you, I'm sorry" and it sounds like she says "I's fucked ya', I'm sorry." I get the impression these people really hate their jobs.

We check in with this merry bunch over the first decade of the 21st century, as they lose themselves in an invisible war against the fascistic militant group Al Qaeda and its army of shadows. This is depicted as murky , dangerous intelligence work; police action without a moral compass or a legitimate measurement of progress. They struggle to dismantle the terrorist networks and prevent further attacks, and are hindered by dead ends and explosions. The second half of the film propels us into the hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda, spearheaded by a determined Maya, who is by this point no longer the girl plucked up after high-school by the CIA at the beginning of the movie. She is wrought by guilt wrapped in a sense of duty and reinforced by experience. Where her colleagues have fallen out of exhaustion, become distracted, or killed, she is zealous to an almost hysterical degree. After uncovering new clues buried in old evidence, she goes on a rampage, whipping the institution into a frenzy that resonates all the way to the President and his aides. At the risk of her credibility, a major operation is launched and overseen by peerless Maya, and by this point in the film we understand the stakes involved.

Zero Dark Thirty works as a modern American spy thriller because it distorts the familiar caricatures of America's black operatives as optimistic, narrow-minded chest-thumpers into depressive, narrow-minded chest-thumpers. Throughout the movie their presence is integral or at least directly affected by recent, real-life events that can be traced to any newspaper lying around from the last few years. This is heavy stuff, and makes the human toll feel personal for the viewer as it does for Maya on her quest for justice. The atmosphere is visceral, gritty and sweaty; I appreciated the respect for the visual geography of Pakistan as more than just an action set piece. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal intelligently mine the raw nerves of recent history and combine it with accurate data to believably hound our heroes and construct compelling drama.

Is it one-hundred-percent comprehensive and accurate? Of course not. Is it more accurate than the "official" narrative we've been spoon-fed since 9/11? The Pentagon came down pretty hard on Bigelow, which leads me to believe that it is. What we have here is a film based on real events, and it is entertaining, which is what matters. The controversy surrounding Bigelow's latest hit is out of touch, as usual, and it's hard not to take offense by some of the reception. There are still people who doubt the United States government is capable of torture? What? The film's depiction of these acts rings true on a fundamental level: one asshole bullying another asshole into submission over a sliver of information. These scenes are hard to watch, but never seem distasteful or anything less than story-driven. The part where Maya throws a temper tantrum in front of her boss was much more torturous to sit through.

I expect most of the character development will send closet misogynists running. Women command the screen; they are sexy and intimidating and in charge of their surroundings. The scene where Maya jokingly berates a group of SEALs for being blunt instruments will no doubt close off the minds of white-knight yahoos who take it upon themselves to deify the military and all things manly. In fact, this movie's deadpan delivery made me respect the armed forces all the more, or at least perceive them in a more human and vulnerable context. The storming of Osama's compound, which is actually occupied by several families, finds suspense in our anticipation of closure. Will they find Osama? Is he really in there? Was it worth it? These are the final questions the movie poses, and although we think we have the answers, we want to see the characters discover them for themselves. When that dramatic scene finally arrives, it is less a stylized, fast-paced action extravaganza than a a low-light docudrama about armed men methodically opening locked doors. Like the discipline of the SEALs, the movie feels sleek, fearless and without agenda, zeroing in on the final kill. And then he's dead, and all that's left is to clean up the giant mess.

I liked this movie. It's serious, smart, and intense. It is also dark and edgy. Boal's dialogue is short and to-the-point, huge packets of information received in slow succession, dripping with gloomy wisdom. There are some clever jabs at President Obama and the Republican Party. Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best movies of 2012 and love it or hate it, will find a distinct spot in the historical gamut of our generation's war filmography, alongside modern classics like Jarhead, Stop Loss and In The Valley of Elah, and movies of previous generations about Vietnam and World War II.

Life of Pi
Life of Pi(2012)
½

A good looking and well made fantasy-fiction, tempered by oppressive storytelling, ridiculous special effects and a bittersweet ending that turns the story on its head.

Life of Pi is about a Canadian Hindi family, in particular a son called Pi (Suraj Sharma), so christened after his barrel-chested uncle's favorite Parisian swimming pool. Pi is so harshly chided for this curse that he devises a clever public stunt to forever change his classmate's perception of him. Later, he is introduced to several major religions through his family's travels, decides he likes them all, and takes on attributes from each of them.

As a teenager, he falls in love with a girl from a dance class that he aides in, and it's not surprising that she reciprocates. Open-minded, with a stubborn sense of compassion that brings him to harsh odds with his loving but godless father, Pi is a likable scamp. He narrates his tale in the present-day to a disillusioned novelist (Rafe Spall), who is searching for inspiration after literally throwing away the manuscript for his last book.

The three actors who play Pi do an excellent job, and the early portions recounting his childhood are fascinating, tightly spaced and probably my favorite part of the movie. Ang Lee is a skilled director and does a proper job setting a tone of whimsy undercut by brutal reality, crystallized when Pi is punished by his father for attempting to feed a beautiful Bengal tiger. "There is no emotion in that animals eyes, you are just seeing your own emotions reflected back at you!"

The selling point of the movie is an unexpected journey that almost costs Pi his life. After his family falls on hard times and dad makes the decision to move the zoo to Winnipeg, a violent storm sinks the cargo ship they are guests aboard and Pi is left afloat on stormy seas in a modest lifeboat with some drugged and terrified animals, and... well, that's when things start to get a little bombastic. I liked that Life of Pi didn't turn into the cliche "lost at sea" movie, since it is told in past tense and we know that Pi survives. Instead we are taken along on Pi's physical and spiritual journey, we watch him call on personal experience and watch as he is broken and reshaped by the elements. But how much of it is actually true?

The movie makes use of some heavy duty special effects. Some of them work, drawing you into the inherent vicariousness of Pi's story. These are often stunning environmental shots, vistas that blend heaven and earth to make Pi seem to float in space. There is a jaw-dropping hallucination, brought on by starvation, that I had a feeling I wasn't stoned enough for. The movie deserves credit for its imagery. But it all gets distracting and even silly after a while. Each and every animal Pi encounters is a special effect, and I had a hard time feeling concerned for Pi's safety as he struggles with being trapped in a lifeboat with a rabid hyena or said Bengal tiger or a swarm of razor-sharp flying fish because I knew it wasn't really happening. Call me jaded, but some of it just looked sloppy and fake. I thought CGI was supposed to help tell a story, not tell the damn story.

This robbed much of the movie of gravitas for me. I hated the scene right after the shipwreck when Pi started taking on passengers. For a long time the movie becomes a loud series of jump-scares, with something flying straight at the screen followed by a predictable eardrum-obliterating sound, like an animal roar or human scream. Combined with the mandatory 3D it started to give me a headache. I became constantly distracted by audience members shouting obscenities and bouncing out of their chairs in fright every two minutes. It made it hard to concentrate on taking the story seriously. Why do people act like this? Don't they realize it is just a projection and not actually happening?

Regardless, Life of Pi is full of great moments and strong writing, and isn't a bad movie by any means. There is some deeply moody and disturbing stuff here, and I'm a little shocked at the film's PG rating-- Seeing it so late into its release I can only imagine what a crowded theater full of children would have been like. At least they will get a strong young role-model out of it, not to mention a disturbingly raw message about the power of shock and grief over personal perspective.

So I guess what it comes down to is, do I think this movie should have been adapted? I haven't read the book, but a movie should stand on its own, and it sort of does, though it stumbles a bit. I imagine it would be better viewed on a smaller HD screen without the 3D layer, where it doesn't feel like a force-fed special-effects extravaganza on the level of Avatar. I did like the shot of the hippo fighting a school of sharks as the ship sank in the background. That was some cool shit. I'd like to know more about what happened to that hippo.

Django Unchained
½

Edgy, offensive material, bordering on exploitative, childish indulgence. That said, if you are a Taratino loyalist you will get your money's worth.

The characters are well written and fun to watch whether good or evil, and boy is that line blurred on occasion. It is mostly well paced, fearless and absurdly original, with a huge supporting cast and great lead performances from Waltz, Foxx, and DiCaprio. Bouts of gratuitous violence and dark humor are approached almost casually, and token Tarantino flourishes like 70's quick zooms and rap music are almost to be expected. And while nudity of the female variety is almost nowhere to be found, I counted two or three dicks. Enjoy!

The story is a familiar parody of romance revenge westerns, set in the racist south two years prior to the War of the States. I thought this narrative was the weakest of his films by far, but Tarantino has a way of distracting from the shallowness of his themes by drawing our attention to curious gestures, seemingly pointless side characters, and eyebrow-piquing dialogue. Some of these go somewhere, some of them don't. He doesn't shy away from or sugarcoat the uncomfortable, barbaric facets of slavery that were common at the time, and I respect him for that, even if the context is rather odd. The result is a climactic and surprisingly thought-provoking adventure yarn that is optimistic and defeatist at the same time, a hero's tale that finds pleasure in teasing the viewer with its unpredictable tonality moment to moment almost as much as it torments its players.

Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, frees a captured slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him identify some slavers he is chasing. Django turns out to be such a valuable asset that King suggests they partner up for the winter, after which they will share the accumulated earnings and King will help him rescue his captured girlfriend Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a powerful plantation owner called Calvin Candie (Leo). Waltz plays the bounty hunter King as an educated psychopath with a heart of gold, and he was honestly my favorite part of the movie. He is a northern intellectual who despises slavery but the film never milks his character for sympathy. Django also comes to reflect pertinent wants and needs as his personality grows beyond the chains of oppression. He is a man who is naturally angry over the bondage of his brothers and sisters and who happens to have a gifted gun-hand. The scene where the two men sit around the campfire after a successful score and King tells him the kraut fairytale of the princess Broomhilda and how as a German he feels obligated to help his new friend rescue his damsel was a really nice touch.

What it comes down to is whether or not you feel like forking over ten dollars to see Tarantino doing his "autistic kid knocking over dominoes" thing again, challenging you to suspend your disbelief as he throws everything and the kitchen sink at the screen. There is a series of wild shootouts in the last part of the movie where dozens of characters are mowed down in the span of seconds. Django turns into Neo and flies out of a room backwards, body-slamming a guy and shooting two guards at the same time. Five armed men appear in a doorway and are turned to swiss cheese before they can finish exclaiming "son of a bitch". The walls are literally painted red. This was one of the goriest, most violent scenes I have probably ever seen, challenged only by the depravity of the scene that follows it. Viewer beware.

Overall this is a strange, entertaining film full of clever writing, memorable standoffs, awesome casting, and no shortage of guilty laughs. However, it dragged on a bit and I found some of the content unsettling and out of place. Quentin walks a touchy line, a special genre invented just for him that I like to refer to as "intellectual hick" that creates fanboys who might not be sure exactly what they are watching, but will blindly defend it all the same. Still, there is no shame in enjoying this movie, which raises the stakes of tonal perversion to staggering heights.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
½

The best in a halfway decent series, a fully featured sword-and-sandals adventure with the good sense to feature ample amounts of blood, brooding, and battle.

Knowing next to nothing about Tolkien going in besides the fact that he apparently had too much time on his hands, Fellowship blew me away with its scope and uncompromising brutality and still ranks as one of the best times I've had at the movies so far. The film concerns a fantastical alternate universe called Middle-Earth populated by many strange creatures, some good, some evil, some human. One unlikely member of a midget-like race called Hobbits, named Frodo, over the course of a single eventful evening is tasked with traversing the known world and destroying an evil ring. As he makes his way toward the subtly named Mount Doom to toss it into the cleansing flames of a fiery pit, his band of travelers grows, as does the peril stacked against him. His enemies want the ring back, and the power it brings, and even his own friends are one after the other tempted by its dark whispers. Adventure ensues.

This is not the fairy tale bedtime story you were regaled to sleep with as a child, and I commend Jackson for using his budget to full effect; the costume design, the special effects, the language and the sweeping New Zealand landscapes are utilized to full effect. The violence is also shocking and welcome; baddies are decapitated, set on fire, shot through the face with arrows, cut down with throwing axes, impaled, and dropped from high places-- all par for the course these days, but keep in mind when the film was released this was pretty unheard of for this kind of story. It gives the whole thing an uncompromisingly dark, Dungeons and Dragons feel, and it works. There are many memorable set-pieces and characters, and in my opinion, the best ending in the trilogy featuring a messy chaotic battle and the heroes disbanded and stumbling apprehensively into a foreboding sunset.

It all feels fresh and invigorating, so its a shame Jackson got carried away by the smell of his own farts with the sequels, which fail to progress the story in any meaningful way. They are still fun, but they struggle to emulate the enjoyment of the original, where the shallow themes and one-note characterizations felt warm and reassuring, as they existed to compliment what is essentially a whimsical homage to the road-trip movie. Instead of mining these treasures in a compelling way for the latter films, Jackson and crew simply lathered on the spectacle and the sappiness, until it became predictable and exhausting. I can only see so many close-up shots of a person's face in place of genuine emotion, so many action hero cliches in place of actual character development, so many ham-fisted twists in place of meaningful writing, before my investment begins to waver. After a while, the whole ordeal becomes more concerned with the special effects and the illusion of grandeur than rounding out the journey in a compelling way. After the gratingly leisure-like pacing and climactic disappointment of Two Towers there is never any doubt about who is going to win in Return of the King, and every scene is diluted into serving only the purpose of berating us into submission as our heads roll in anticipation for the next inevitable battle scene. Snore.

Fellowship is a modern classic, a 100% film that is sadly lessened by the existence of sub-par sequels. Had it stood on its own, we would have been left to wonder about what could have been, which it turns out, is better than what we actually got. Of the three, it features the strongest writing, and there is no coincidence that it also features Golem the least. This is a blessing, because he is just as bad if not worse than Jar Jar Binks.

The Road
The Road(2009)
½

A grim and tragic tale about a father trying to protect and raise his son after the world has ended.

The two roam a dark, muted, inhospitable landscape rotted by death and decay. Dad's somber narration informs us that "each day is grayer than the last", and indeed the constant overcast and random earthquakes lend to an understanding that things aren't going to be getting better any time soon. The depictions of the destruction-- a hollowed out, hellish shell of human settlement and forgotten back roads-- is more depressing than compelling. Flashbacks to the vague cataclysmic event that sparked a "firestorm across the planet" and "chanting in the hills" show the father's initial isolation with his pregnant wife, a Christian, who, we realize with a painful dawning logic, has lost her faith and by extension her will to live.

Since the complete ecological and cultural breakdown of the planet, most of the remaining humans have resorted to barbarism and cannibalism it seems, leading to some of the most disturbing sequences in the movie. Nothing creates more tension than the prospect of being lassoed by a redneck with a taste for human meat, except perhaps the prospect of being kept alive for further torturing and harvesting. Contrarily, a scene involving the father's treatment of a thieving hobo is equally unnerving, and the film even finds a way to make a random encounter with a wise old drifter into something of an ordeal. "Okay, let's have him eat a can of pears like he hasn't touched a scrap of food for months, and then immediately have him throw them up in a really gross way. The audience will love that."

The interaction between the father and son throughout the movie is itself a troubling account of parenting put through a blender. Watching the way he talks to the boy and the way the boy responds makes it very clear what he has and hasn't told this kid about the world; what would be the use of distracting him with fairy tales and pointless etiquette? The child is essentially a scared, ignorant animal that the father has entrusted himself to protect. His persistence is admirable, if a little scary, and they suffer on. Dad is not a hero, he is a man on a mission. But everything they encounter along the way makes us wonder: What is the point?

The movie works because of the potency of its two layers; what you "see", and what it is "about". This is one of the scariest and believable depictions of the fall of humanity ever put on film, in no small part due to gloomy plotting that lingers on depraved human behavior. The soundtrack and some of the imagery press a constant sense of danger. Then there is the narrative prism we gain from the different characters in the movie, the subtext about human nature, how family is where you find it, and how the need to survive sometimes clouds us from the good things right in front of us. The end result is a real downer of a movie, but not a pointless one, and the ending (which is shockingly... optimistic) sheds new meaning on the journey and leaves you thinking about... well, about the road.

This is not an experience I can imagine taking a date to see, or that I would ever watch a third time if given the choice. I docked points because it strays away from that "entertainment" line into "dark-art" territory a little too often. I took it in with a friend whose opinion I respect and for the most part he was bored out of his mind by the slow pace and ambiguous, post-apocalyptic framing. It shares some of the same footing as the superior Blindness and the more recent, less impressive The Divide, which is also packed with nastiness. Like those films The Road is best observed on one's own with supreme patience and a glass of wine in hand.

The Descendants

I was very pleased with this quirky family drama about a lawyer and his kin struggling to deal with the imminent death of a loved one.

Some might approach warily a film about grief as a driving force, but it is actually a very balanced adult comedy with plenty of light-hearted demeanor. Watching the characters cope and grow together was a pleasure. Clooney is easily likable as an anxious patriarch. I was expecting him to chew the scenery but he was very minimal and also occasionally quite hilarious. He is not an idiot. The relationship with his daughters is well done, and Shailene Woodley deserves a special nod for holding her own next to an accomplished star. She is very charming; There is a moment early on where she weeps while submerged in a swimming pool that instantly made me like her. "Did you have to tell me in the fucking pool?"

All of the supporting performances feel spot on and in touch with the black humor heart of the film, helped by a script that rings true to human impulse thanks to the direction and insight of dark comedy veteran Alexander Payne and company. Setting the story in Hawaii with a resort lifestyle culture was a bold move. Money is not an issue for these people, but lawyer Matt establishes early on in a voice over that he at least earned his fortune. A subplot involves a land auction and the inevitable relinquishment of huge swaths of native soil for commercial development. The Descendants is compassionate to the heritage of Hawaii, and the legacy of the King's estate frames the events of the film appropriately.

Alex Payne is responsible for a few other outstanding dramadies, namely 2004's well-received Sideways and the underrated About Schmidt in 2002, both inspired movies about men stumbling through mid-life crises with the help of friends and family. This is the best iteration yet of that formula; There are revelations of adultery, satisfying confrontations and plenty of awkward moments. It's all quite funny, sad, and moving in equal measure.

Some folks will inevitably find this film pretentious because of its subject matter, but that is a disservice to the strong writing and performances on display. It's so nice to be able to take in a simple movie set in the current era in gorgeous tropical climes with normal people who deal with a common issue in a realistic way. There are also some very well staged shots: one scene ends with Matt going to bed, and the following scene appears as though it is a dream he is having, but after a few seconds we realize it's actually the next day! Very subtle and very cool. The Descendants is high-brow comedy, a glass of sugary-sweet lemonade for the mind.

Seven (Se7en)
½

Expertly crafted but the subject matter is just too unremittingly macabre. The cynicism of this film wore me down to the point of spiritual exhaustion. The plot is an endless downward spiral of misery and despair with no light at the end of the tunnel. It takes every possible opportunity for optimism or comic relief, and brutally sodomizes it. I came out of my viewing experience disgusted with humanity, and not in an ironic or transcendent way.

The story follows two weary beat detectives hunting a brilliant and sadistic serial killer through the gritty, rain-soaked back alleys of an ambiguous goth-noir metropolis. "John Doe", so named because of the complete absence of evidence pertaining to his identity, is a case study in pure evil. He not only has a knack for avoiding the authorities, but of picking and torturing his victims in a complicated and meticulous fashion related to their partaking of the seven deadly sins. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are in top form, no complaints there, and watching them react to and pick apart the sinister puzzles John Doe leaves behind makes up the meat of the movie. The best part of Seven is the way it shapes your perception of the killer as a character long before you even meet him. The use of environmental details in the crime scenes and all the detective chatter is top notch. There are several post-murder investigative sequences that will give any sane person chills. The part where they stumble on the killer's apartment and find decades of rambling philosophical journal entries is particularly unsettling. There is an intense chase scene that goes nowhere and ends up serving as foreshadowing for the bizarre, twisted climax that many have lauded as setting a new standard for the genre, but for me it felt like one final sick slap in the face. If only Mills had risen to the occasion and exercised some self control, the film could have ended on a high note. But nooooo.

Sound like your cup of tea? Go nuts. They say that everyone has their own personal boundary when it comes to what they will allow themselves to perceive as art, and this movie certainly showed me where mine is. If you haven't accidentally been suckered into watching it already, avoid Seven unless you are a masochist. Or a film student. In which case you will inevitably be forced to endure this monstrosity in order to appreciate Fincher's "craft". Either way, enjoy feeling sad and angry for the rest of the evening.

Riddle: If a box opens in the desert, and we can't see what's inside, do we really care?

Prometheus
Prometheus(2012)

A very scary movie about gods stealing fire from gods stealing fire from gods with diminishing returns for everyone unlucky enough to be involved. Prometheus is a swank little sci-fi horror odyssey set in Ridley Scott's Alien universe, a prequel in fact, and in this humble reviewer's opinion the truest in spirit to the original 1979 film.

But who cares about genre labels, so long as it is involving? And this one is certainly a looker, with its flawless spacey visuals and vomit-inducing alien nightmares. The dialogue is as sleek and as brief as the lives of the characters, so some braininess gets left behind on the editing room floor, which is too bad, but not a deal-breaker, because what's left is still an intelligent and utterly petrifying movie full of great moments and thrilling twists.

Prometheus is about a crew of astronauts who go on a mission to a distant star in the hope of finding God, or more precisely, the alien creatures they believe seeded human life on earth. The film opens with a Christ-like proto-human figure dissolving into the primordial oceans as his cells begin to merge with the local fauna. A good time later, Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) discover paintings in an ancient cave on an island off the coast of Scotland that depict giant figures pointing to a distant galaxy. In fact, these paintings appear at dozens of sites belonging to ancient civilizations across the globe, suggesting that they were all visited by the same little green men.

A trillion-dollar expedition is launched in the form of a gorgeous high-tech spacecraft housing a crew of corporate scientists and specialists. These include David (Michael Fassbender), a soulless android son of the late Peter Weyland, Meredith Vickers (the very attractive Charlize Theron) as an equally cold and robotic corporate representative, and my favorite character in the movie, Captain Yanek (Idris Elba), a wisecracking accordion-playing badass who regards danger with cool disinterest but is no fool when it comes to assessing the gravity of their situation. Soon after landing on the enigmatic moon, the team discovers an ancient alien structure with some kind of sacred chamber inside. It is filled with vats of foreboding black goo. There is something very strange about this substance. It seems to react to the presence of the crew, as though it were aware, even sentient. This endears it to David, who is himself the creation of a superior species, so he decides to take a sample back to the ship on the hush-hush. Then the movie starts to get really cool. And really, really scary.

Dogmatic Shaw and atheist Charlie form the spiritual duality of the story, but there are many other characters and many other big ideas buried inside Prometheus, often protruding into the story at odd angles. Besides the aforementioned religious subtext there are themes regarding immortality, biological ethics, nepotism, feminism, and the morality of robotics. Unfortunately these themes rarely go beyond the motivations of the supporting cast and the familiar sci-fi tropes they serve, but they do their job rounding out the futuristic setting. There is also some very clever foreshadowing and subtle references to the original movie. I liked most of the characters equally and the strong acting on the part of the talented cast. Noomi Rapace deserves kudos for her performance as a conflicted scientist. This is the first movie I've seen her in and she does an admirable job using her facial expressions and body language to exude a balance of sweetness and strength. I wanted to sweep her up in my arms and protect her. There is some neat technology and some really great gross-out moments that got to me in the same way that, well, the original Alien did. It's worth noting that this movie contains the best special effects I have ever seen in a film; besides obvious things like holograms, which don't exist in such a fashion, I was unable to tell the difference between computer imagery and practical trickery. The movie just looks flawless.

Prometheus received a lot of critical flak for its poor depiction of critical thinking and the scientific method. I feel this is unfair, since scientists are also human beings, and the scientists in this movie are operating in a blind abyss of possibilities, a unique situation for which they have no context. We may know what is in store for them, having survived three decades of Alien films, but the characters have no reason to suspect any danger. The rush of discovery causes them to become eager and mistakes are made. Ultimately they are punished for their pride. Good people making bad decisions makes the horror that much more palpable. Prometheus is accused of other plot holes, but I think some audiences are missing the point by watching through a magnifying glass. The movie is supposed to be kind of mysterious. It tells a familiar space exploration story in a refreshingly intriguing, terrifying way that challenges the imagination. The alien menace is brilliantly conceived, a grotesque biological entity that mercilessly reacts and adapts to its surroundings with cruel disdain for its victims.

If you are a fan of science fiction and being scared out of your mind you should check out this movie. Just don't expect a talk-fest, this one's all about feeling; the feeling of being in awe of the unknown, the feeling of confusion when the answers were not what you expected, and the feeling of utter terror when it blows up in your face. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but I thought the movie could have done without the last few minutes. The "surprise" was an indulgent and unnecessary cash-in, not just because it broke synchronicity with the rest of the series, but because the story was fine the way it was without plugging it directly into the Alien franchise. Still, an instant recommendation from a quirky sci-fi enthusiast.

Sylvia
Sylvia(2003)

This is a remarkable little movie that uses its cinematography to great effect, combining sharp contrasts of light and shadow to underline the isolation of its characters, and some of the most vibrant colors I have ever seen to offset the tragedy of their actions. Those looking for a deep biopic of the late great poet Sylvia Plath will be disappointed, but as a moody piece of melodrama it is generally well-made. The performances are also quite solid; Daniel Craig co-stars as Plath's destructively distant husband and soul mate Edward Hughes, but Gwyneth Paltrow really carries the film as the brilliant but hopelessly depressed poet.

The story follows Sylvia and Ted through the aftermath of their spontaneous relationship, the stifling jealousy and obsessive paranoia resulting from literary recognition, Ted's adultery and Sylvia's eventual progression from angsty nihilism to full-blown suicidal shut-in. We also witness the curious and unexpected effects their decisions have on their family and friends. This is a wise film. It's implied but never implicitly stated that artists might make poor lovers because they sap each other's inspiration, or perhaps one might sap the inspiration from the other, intangibly destroying them from the inside out. I was relieved that the film refrained from overly demonizing Hughes's cruelty but instead portrayed him as a man overreacting to a situation he is unable to cope with.

These people are not insane, they are just really sad. They love each other, but they love the fevered muse of poetry more. It is a crutch they have adapted to face the cruel realities of the world. Sylvia is a devoted, well-meaning woman but her intensely defeatist personality-- born from the death of her father and a failed childhood suicide-- is too much for her husband to bare. It was so sad to see him close himself off in the last part of the movie, denying Sylvia her last chance for emotional support. Both are too busy crafting words to care about pretty concepts like feminism or parenthood. Sylvia contemplates cheating on Hughes as one might consider ordering fast-food, and dismisses the idea just as fleetingly. As romantic poets go the two fall madly in love and take a shot at domesticity out of a sense of ingrained obligation to that love, but as artists they have no choice but to take shelter in their own words when all of it starts to unravel.

Some scenes could have been a little bit longer (I hate it when a movie builds up a series of moments only to fade away seconds later) but there is a lot of ground to cover. The parts involving the generation of poetry are very well done, and the movie never over embellishes them to the point of pretentiousness. Some of the dialogue is just beautiful. I loved Sylvia's many transcendent epiphanies throughout the movie. At one point she confides in dismay to a friend a fact of life that many a drunken Russian novelist discovered long ago: if you dwell too long on your own fear you will make your fear come true. Paltrow is a great actress and some of her expressions, particularly when Edward does something to hurt her, just about broke my heart. The scene at the very end when she knocks on her landlord's door is fascinating.

Many viewers seem to misinterpret this as a "downer" movie because of the depressive states of the characters. But Sylvia's eventual suicide is not the point of the movie. It is established as an inevitability early in the film, and from history. Since we already know the outcome the film doesn't waste our time with false optimism, instead opting for a dread mood that finds inspiration in the character's struggles. Loss and despair spur the artists to action, as most of the best work on the planet is born from pain and fire. I applaud Sylvia for not glossing that over. The scenes of intimacy between the two are exhilarating, not just because Paltrow and Craig are easy on the eyes, but because it is passion born of longing, it is sustenance for the soul.

This one might be a little racy for the classrooms, and as mentioned before the pacing is a little shaky mostly due to the pacing of the scenes themselves. It is however a gorgeously filmed movie and anyone with a mature appreciation for how art imitates life, and vise-versa, should check it out. I knew next to nothing about the two leads going in but emerged with a greater appreciation for their lives and craft.

Monsters
Monsters(2010)

Travels to the Edge meets War of the Worlds. An involving, uplifting and occasionally gripping adventure story set in a near future alternate universe, where an alien infection has touched down on earth and created a continent-wide "quarantine zone" separating the United States from Mexico. Aggressive and mysterious lifeforms begin appearing soon after, and the armed forces of both countries find themselves engaged in a desperate and possibly mislead campaign to contain the creatures. But they cannot patrol the entire zone, and civilian life near the quarantine eaks out a strained modern existence amid constant chaos.

But this is only partly a war movie, and the alien-invasion biopic aspect really serves to frame the thoughtful relationship drama. A company photographer, Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is diverted from his assignment south of the border to escort the daughter of his boss, Sam (Whitney Able) back stateside before a concerted military push breaks out in the area. This doesn't go well, and they quickly find themselves broke and bargaining for transportation using their only remaining personal belongings. Having missed the last ferry out, an "on the road" type movie commences as the two strangers make their way north through the "Infected Zone" by any means necessary, facing all of the expected dangers that entails.

Monsters is best approached with an open mind. This is a very attractively photographed movie, a travelogue to a post-invasion countryside fused with a story about bonding through survival. There are some great suspenseful scenes sprinkled throughout, and also some sequences of compelling wonder. Say what you will about the silliness of the premise, there is a pleasing layer of intellectualism in the dialogue and the unfolding of events. This is aided by the innate immersion of gorgeous on-site locations and a competent attention to detail. The acting by the two leads is very believable (they are married in real life) and I found them easily likable. They both have this cool calmness about everything that comes from growing up in suburbia, a demeanor that gradually changes and grows into a sort of alert exhaustion as the two are forced to deal with some desperate situations. Their little conversations feel real and spontaneous, and I appreciated watching them gain a better understanding of themselves and their world throughout the movie. This culminates in an emotionally charged ending that is both frightening and heartbreaking, a climactic bombardment of character arc and CGI puppetry.

Writer and Director Gareth Edwards put together this pet project and its special effects from a modest budget, and as a piece of moody aesthetic art it is quite an evocative piece of in-the-moment atmospherics. I did feel some elements were excessive, for instance one could make a drinking game from the amount of times that damn "DANGER: INFECTED ZONE" billboard pops up in the movie. Even the actors looked annoyed with it. Some of the stock footage playing in the background on televisions also became a little redundant. Of course, this might have been intentional, a reflection of the Sam and Andrew's frustration at the lack of information and control over their surroundings. Aside from the towering alien menaces the film briefly alludes to, the creatures on the ground are only briefly witnessed, and like the very best boogeymen there is more to them than meets the eye. You can interpret their existence in the movie in a few different ways, and the story is clever in its deceptiveness as to the origins of these "monsters". Several subtle "clues" and a dramatic encounter toward the end of the movie will certainly change the audience's perception of them as villains.

Monsters doesn't have all the answers to the questions it raises, but gives you enough information to manifest your own conclusions. What really matters is our investment in the two heroes. Don't go in expecting District 9. This is a slow boiler, and a clever thinker. The undeserved R rating robbed it of a wider audience; Monsters could easily fit into a PG-13 context. I can see how some of the thematic allusions to immigration reform and U.S. imperialism might turn people away. But as a low-budget sci-fi it ranks near the top with above-average special effects, a character drama wrapped inside a survival story, and eye-popping cinematography that roots the events firmly in the here-and-now.

And hey, if wishy-washing pseudo-intellectual pulp isn't your thing, at least Whitney Able is pleasing on the eyes. She has the uncanny ability, lacking in many members of her species, to draw almost all attention directly to her face, and what a face. For a relatively untrained actress to express so much emotion with simple gestures is astounding. The soundtrack is also moody and non-intrusive, helping muster feelings of hope among ruin, and bubbling uncertainly beneath the surface during later scenes of apocalyptic destruction.

Glory
Glory(1989)
½

One of the best movies ever made about the bloodiest, costliest war in our nation's history, and a great depiction of the American Dream in action.

Matthew Broderick as Robert Shaw leads the first black battalion of soldiers in the Civil War against the evil secessionist Confederacy. Bitter race relations ensue. Broderick does his best as a very young actor in a mature role and carries it forward as a terrified but driven soldier. I always thought he was kind of miscast, but he has this moment right after the rebs turn tail and run from a skirmish in the woods, where the look of relief that washes across his face makes me respect him all over again.

Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and the rest of the supporting cast are also top notch. Trip and Shaw have this amazingly deep little conversation about war while sitting on a log that just comes out of nowhere, and goes something like "It sure does stink, but we're all stuck in it together." Cary Elwes also does a great job with the "Horatio" type role. He's kind of a creeper so I like it when he plays good guys. Props to the rousing score as well, which saturates the movie to the degree that it almost feels like a historical music video.

There are a few well-written subplots involving the discipline of certain soldiers, the difficultly of requisitioning supplies, and general racism in the Union army. And how about those battle scenes! Well choreographed and flat out scary. They are shot in a way that jumps between the exchange of intense barrages, and short life-and-death sequences where single characters fight for their lives, like when Forbes is blasting that rebel guy away with his revolver and he just keeps coming.

I watched this movie when I was a kid and it was the first time I saw a head explode onscreen. That image will forever stick with me. The suicidal charge on Fort Wagner at the end is rousing and memorable. I have heard accusations that the film is itself racist for its depictions of the black soldiers. These accusers must be very, very old to know exactly how each and every black person did or did not act in the 19th century.

An educational historical drama full of emotional crescendos, tasteful performances and exciting violence, what's not to love.

Things Behind the Sun
½

I caught this little gem on late-night cable during a bout of insomnia and do not regret it. It's about a rising rock singer, Sharry (Kim Dickens) who is suffering extreme anguish because of a gang rape she endured as a young girl. She hid the memory away but it surfaces later in her life as the inspiration for her moody music. She reacts by diving into alcoholism, drug use and casual sex. Her protective manager (Don Cheadle, in a brilliant performance) sees the potential in her, but he also sees the hurt that will forever temper the brilliant woman she might have been.

Enter Gabriel (Owen Richardson), a reporter wishing to interview the troubled Sharry. What neither of them knows is that his brothers were responsible for raping Sharry, and countless other girls, so many years ago in his childhood home. He loves Sharry, and tries to make amends with the news that his oldest brother, the "ringleader", is now in prison. Unsurprisingly, this goes very poorly, and Gabriel quickly finds himself in over his head. This is in part because both Sharry and Gabriel have information about the other that neither is aware of, like the missing pieces of a puzzle that was better off unfinished. These epiphanies are clarified in a series of heart-wrenching confessions book-ended by disturbing flashbacks that are admittedly hard to watch but admirably realistic without seeming exploitative. As the truth slowly, painfully comes to light the characters are left with the gravity of their choices, and the reality that there is really nothing they can do but try to move on and make the right decisions.

I liked that the movie handled the subject matter in a paced, sensitive manner without co-opting the tragedy with easy solutions or predictable reactions. I felt sorry for the characters, not because I pitied them, but because they did a good job conveying formerly spirited people whose lives had been ruined by something vile and hidden. Kim's performance augments this sense of hopelessness with full immersion into the part of Sharry. There are some raw emotions and loaded conversations to be found here. If you rape someone, you vicariously rape everyone around them. As the friend of a victim of such violence I brought a lot of personal feelings to the movie, and the progression of the plot and the perceptions of the characters brought many of those feelings back.

On the acting, it's a proper balance between naturalism and stagecraft. Sharry and Gabriel both mix it up between a strange kind of confused disengagement with the situation followed by an urge to please everyone. There are some really great scenes, like when Gabriel confesses his involvement to Chuck. It's always just a movie but Cheadle's reaction caught me completely off guard and I could feel how physically afraid Gabriel must have been in that moment. I also liked the part where Sharry finally goes back to the house of her nightmares to get some closure, and finds something unexpected there. Behind The Sun also deserves high notes for its excellent soundtrack, which features contributions by Sonic Youth and Kristen Vigard tailored specifically for the film, and like the rest of this movie they find just the right tone and grab it.

The Raid: Redemption
½

An often boring, nauseating and mean-spirited action movie about an Indonesian SWAT team trapped inside an apartment building full of assholes.

What starts out as a brisk riff on survival horror films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Dawn of the Dead quickly degenerates into a game of cliche hopscotch: Nobody trusts the rookie, shootout, rookie has a pregnant girlfriend, fight scene, backup isn't coming, fight scene, everybody's dead but us, fight scene, one of the good guys is actually a bad guy, fight scene... The action is perfectly choreographed throughout, but sad to say after about the half-way point I found it all quite dull and mind-numbing and became bored at the lack of critical elements; story, pacing, character... you know, compelling drama that extends beyond "will he or won't he die?"

The film opens with a team of professional cops expertly storming an apartment building occupied and run by a low-level mobster and his army of criminal tenants. Around the same time things go to absolute shit we learn that this was not an officially sanctioned raid and the Sergeant leading the charge is there to cover for his shady dealings. The police quickly find themselves outgunned and outsmarted by wave after wave of bloodthirsty thugs who are eager to defend their turf and earn some free rent.

These early scenes are incredibly well realized. The police who aren't murdered outright begin a frantic room-to-room retreat. One of them uses a fire axe to cut through the floor so they can make their escape. After descending he finds himself put upon by even more patrons and with no time to rearm the axe becomes a makeshift weapon. A propane tank combined with an empty refrigerator serves as a convenient last-minute IED. Completely drained of ammunition, some of the survivors beg a wary tenant for shelter, hiding in the crawlspace while a mad man stabs away at the walls with a machete. This course of events leads to the best scene in the movie, in which the hero makes his way down a hallway armed with nothing but a police baton and a bowie-knife, as thugs poor in on him from every direction. It's all very brutal and exciting, you want to see the men survive and it's hard to know who will die.

From this point on the film goes on autopilot, and while I won't spoil how it all turns out you can probably imagine. This is also around the time the action becomes extremely monotonous, devolving into a series of one-on-one boss battles. Some of these martial-arts fist-fights go on for AGES. I got so tired of waiting for the good guy to kill the bad guy, as though the outcome of the movie were in any doubt. If you've seen any modern martial-arts movie, you've seen this movie before. Just don't get your hopes up for a climactic battle. Spoiler Alert: The villain simply gives up and goes quietly. Lame. On top of this, the movie is incredibly dark for no reason: the film opens with several anonymous men bound and gagged on the floor being shot in the back of the head one at a time by the villain. When he runs out of bullets, he switches to a hammer. Classy. Later on, another villain lures a police officer into a private room at gunpoint so he can beat him to death.

And so on. This isn't an action movie, it's a series of drunken fist-fights with a generic cops-and-robbers wrapper. Throw in some torture porn which desperate niche-directors fishing for the pretend gravitas of R ratings seem so fond of and you've got a pretentious snooze-fest destined to be feverishly defended by men who weren't hugged enough as children and women with daddy issues. I could almost hear all those anime nerds from high-school who liked to imagine themselves as "cultured" ejaculating in pleasure through the screen.

This is also the first movie I have ever seen with camerawork that made me physically ill. And I'm not even talking about the brutality or the action. There are several moments of what could tentatively be considered "plot exposition" where characters pause to discuss the game-plan or the fishiness of the situation or whatever, and the damn camera never stops moving. Why is this? Why does the framing of a man's face have to bob up and down so ridiculously? I sat through Blair Witch Project and the Bourne films without missing a beat; while taking in The Raid I almost fell out of my damn chair.

The Raid: Redemption has nothing on more tasteful and involving action dramas of recent years, like The Bourne Ultimatum and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, whose moments of action and brutality feature a sense of grandeur, humor and creativity, as well a real stakes, like the protection of a woman or the threat of nuclear decimation, without ever losing track of the "fun" factor. What is at stake here? The character's lives? The honor of the law? There is an recurring theme throughout about how not all cops are crooked, which is admirable, but it's still hard to care about the well being of people who knowingly put themselves in harm's way then whine when it all blows up in their faces. Generic acting and thin narrative does nothing to help their case.

Hanna
Hanna(2011)

One of my favorite films from 2011, a simplistic but stylistic fusion of spy-thriller and coming-of-age drama, with some involving action sequences and quirky fairy-tale references.

Hanna (Siaorse Ronan) is a lithe and ferocious young teenager that, for reasons she does not quite understand, has been raised in complete isolation in the icy wilderness of northern Finland. Her father (Eric Bana) has trained her to survive in the wild, to kill with brutal ferocity, to learn and adapt. He reads to her from a massive encyclopedia every night. She knows many languages. Eventually the urge to travel out into the world becomes too much. Dad hopes he has given her all the tools she needs to get by and accomplish her mission. She may be clever and perceptive but she is mostly unaware of the dangers that await her in the "outside" world.

You see, they are being hunted. A big bad wolf named Marissa (Cate Blanchet) wants them dead. She failed to bury them years ago and their resurgence threatens her career. More intelligent than the agency she works for, brutal and manipulative, she lives for the hunt; in place of a family, she spends her free time organizing shoes and brushing her teeth like all Europeans think we do. She embodies her work rather than leaving it at the office. I was reminded of Lady Macbeth, stopping up the flows and functions of her form to become a better killer. Erik knows what this woman wants and what she might really be after. So he has been training Hanna since birth to hunt and lethally ground this woman.

But things never go quite the way they are supposed to. Soon the movie turns into a series of slow-boiling chase and escape sequences, and they are all a lot of fun. This is in huge part to the work Ronan shows through her character. Although starting out as a programmed automaton of her father's design who murders with detached curiosity, she quickly comes to dislike the act. After learning a little about the joys and perils of friends and family, a fiercely passionate and moralistic creature emerges. She responds to threats with confusion and fear, but she can also be cold and primitive on the turn of a dime. Watching her react to and adapt to the strangeness of the world outside the forest is what makes this movie constantly enjoyable. The action scenes are kind of ridiculous but also kind of fun, they have their own strange beat and logic thanks to the camerawork and the Chemical Brothers' loopy soundtrack.

There are also some great scenes in a sub-plot involving Erik, as he struggles to reach his daughter before the bad guys do. As far as fathers with martial-arts skills he would give Liam Neeson in Taken a run for his money. There is a third loosely defined science-fiction subplot that I won't spoil, but it felt unnecessary and was my least favorite part of the film.

Director Joe Wright and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler do a proper job setting up gorgeous tapestries of sounds and visuals that underline the character's journeys and keep the film moving from one exciting reveal to the next. Because the story is so streamlined the pacing never feels slow, and there is a smart use of editing to generate fear, apprehension, and wonder; we are in Hanna's world. Escapist entertainment doesn't have to be completely brainless! I also liked the small allusions to the Brothers Grimm and Aesop's Fables. Hanna's trek out into a dangerous bustling city after being raised in the woods is rife with fairy tale allegory, and her fish-out-of-water naivety at the workings of the civilized world lead to some of the best moments in the film.

This helps gives the whole affair the sensation of a modern-day parable. For instance she is pursued by three little pigs, a trio of aryan hit-men who answer to the wolf-like Marissa. All paths eventually lead to a strange loner living alone in an isolated theme park cobbled together from dozens of familiar childhood tropes. As a set piece it functions not only as a staging ground for the final battle, but as validation for the beleaguered Hanna, who has aged rapidly and is desperate for the respite of the familiar after a transcendent experience road-tripping across the countryside with a small family.

There is a minimal amount of dialogue in "Hanna", just enough to establish intent and paint the characters as living beings with flaws and motives. There is fairly thoughtful film here, with equal shades of violence and dark. As the credits rolled I felt a pang of concern and regret for the lonely Hanna and her uncertain future. The story makes no emotional compromises, resulting in a sense of immense melancholy for what we are left with. It may not be pleasant, but it sure is effective.

Chronicle
Chronicle(2012)
½

An oddly dark after-school special that quickly develops into a quirky teenage fantasy, before spiraling into uncompromising tragedy.

The first 20 minutes introduce us to three teens from a modern day Seattle high-school. Sullen and introverted Andrew (Dane DeHaan) purchases a camera to document the constant bullying he is subjected to, from his classmates and from his abusive drunken father. He is invited to escape to a rave in the mountains by his thoughtful but awkward cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and this predictably goes poorly for Andrew. After being chastised and assaulted by some ravers for the presence of his camera, he bails, and is approached by the best character in the film, a charismatic young student-politician named Steve (Michael B. Jordan). Steve informs him that he and Matt have found something out in the woods, and that Andrew should bring his camera immediately.

The whole of the film is pieced together from "found footage", which we are informed at the beginning is now the property of the Seattle PD. Not just Andrew's but also that of his two friends and a young woman who blogs. Later, the film creatively jumps between other mediums like iPhones, news and security footage, and even a "hover" camera, made possible through the brooding use of telekinesis. The special effects deserve a nod for seamlessly blending into the footage and supporting some of the best scenes in the film. Overall I found this to be an unnecessary design choice, pandering to the success of movies like Cloverfield. It is still commendable for cleanly following the action, and the seeming "realness" of it all definitely goes a long way towards spawning feelings of genuine apprehension and fear in the viewer. In fact, this might be a little too much for younger audiences, even those of high-school age. Although there is no school security footage to be found, I probably won't be the only one who was reminded of Columbine more than once during the film. I don't necessarily have a problem with that, and it doesn't detract from the movie's dark demeanor, but viewer beware.

The acting is good enough to sell the relatively simplistic antihero/superhero tale, and the personalities of the main players bounce off each other nicely, giving the story an angsty sort of momentum. The supernatural macguffin of Chronicle reminded me of these books I used to read as a kid, called Animorphs, but I liked this movie better than those awful books. The subplot involving the sick mother seemed a little desperate, and even though it was exhilarating to watch Andrew go dark-side, I thought his character was a little annoying. Many of the characters behave predictably, but at least you can say they are consistent.

This one gets high marks for being fun, and also for staying true to its message about the power of the will. It also leaves a lot of questions blissfully unanswered, but not in a frustrating way that necessitates a sequel. There aren't a lot of good movies about teenagers with psychic powers, and certainly few as darkly enjoyable as this one.

Back to the Future Part III

One of the best adventure films of the 90's! A science-fiction adventure that isn't afraid to have a little fun with the concept of time-travel, but still finds compelling ways to bend the idea of destiny and free will to round out the main character's dilemmas.

Marty and Doc Brown's misadventures in the past are a hoot, because it's fun to think about changing the past to change the present, and all of the branching problems this causes. The "wild west" of Hill Valley circa 1885 is a thoughtful series of nostalgic set pieces; the bar, the main street, Doc's lab, the train robbery at the end. The Hilly Valley festival scene is fantastically staged. Watching Marty try to fit into the old west is awesome, and I loved the climactic standoff sequence where he struggles tooth and nail to back down from a fight with "Bulldog" Biff Tannen that could kill him. The movie is full of clever historical references and nods to the earlier films, the kinds of details that some thought went into. The writing and timing of the jokes is just golden. All of the acting is appropriately campy, and all of the players are well versed in using their physicality to establish time, place and intent.

The scenery feels rich and lived-in, with a thick layer of romanticized spagetti western that comes off as a little fake without being a buzz-kill. Some shots feel a little too tight, with all the characters crammed together as though they were canned from a sit-com. The pacing can drag due to some scenes going on too long, like the romance between Brown and Clara, even though it's a sweet little love story and becomes integral to the plight of the characters. Lloyd deserves his due in the series, and it was fun to watch him shift from a humorless mad scientist to a love-sick puppy, and the effect it has on his friendship with Marty, who is struggling with his own philosophical perils.

The two leads do a great job reflecting individuals who have been to the past and to the future multiple times and have had impressions left on them because of these experiences. This gives part III the same level of depth as time-travel epics like Twelve Monkeys and the more recent Primer, if not the same level of seriousness. The opening and closing scenes are direct fan service, meant to frame the events of the movie inside the trilogy and provide closure, but will make almost no sense to someone who hasn't seen the previous entries. I understand the need for these scenes but was disappointed with their quality of execution compared to the rest of the movie.

Still, Part III is proof that second sequels can be exciting and well-written. It remains faithful to the science and humor of the originals while still feeling like a new and separate adventure. Though it lacks the gravity of the previous films, it is still a well conceived sci-fi western and one of the best adventures of the 90's, behind the superior Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which came out the same year. The fact that it isn't as good as the first two isn't an insult to the third, it's a compliment to the trilogy.

Battle For Terra
½

An imaginative and emotionally gripping spin on the alien-invasion sub-genre, with an uncompromising story that makes you care about the well-being of both the invader and the invaded.

Terra is a beautiful planet home to a race of peaceful aliens who celebrate love and worship the sun. They are cute and adorable creatures, but also brave and curious, and have built a civilized society that lives high in the clouds in towering hollowed-out stalks. This place resembles some kind of alien steampunk metropolis; Colorful airships and personal gliders float and zip between buildings, while the Terrans hover about naturally like strips of silk in the wind. Their technology is advanced only so much as is needed to comfortably and artistically express their love of life. Elders provide governance and close watch over the city, and like all elders, they use their esteem to hide harmful truths from the population.

A massive, twisting orb of wheels and gears emerges from deep space and proceeds to block out the sun. The Terrians immediately assume it must be "a new God"; In fact it is a giant spaceship, more of a crumbling habitat, housing the remaining members of the human race who number no more than a few thousand. They have destroyed their home planets through war and indulgence and seek a new home on Terra. Their alien fighters storm the planet, using tractor beams to suck up the confused Terrians for experimentation.

The human council wants to find a peaceful resolution, but the head of the human military, General Hammer (if my last name were Hammer I would join the army too) wants faster results. "If I'm wrong, I'm wrong," he tells his peers, "but if I'm right, history will remember me as a hero." Actually, Hammer doesn't know the first thing about true heroism, but one of his subordinates, a pilot named Stanton, might have the right stuff.

After Stanton is shot down and rescued by an adventurous young Terrian named Mala, he begins the transformation from autonomous space marine to thoughtful alien preservationist and peacekeeper. The friendship between these two strangers, and the tragedy that follows as they attempt to return Stanton to his ship, are some of the best scenes in the movie and introduce multiple layers of political and social commentary that children and adults should find fun to mine and ponder over. These scenes also introduce my favorite character, a well-meaning little companion droid named Giddy (voiced by David Cross) who is constantly saving the day. The earnestness of this robot is all-encompassing, moreso than the other characters, and we realize with dismay that our creations, in their simplicity, may end up having more soul and humanity than ourselves. The film's designers were smart to give Giddy a platonic, expressionless chassis free of the usual cutesy-isms you find in movies like Wall-E or the self-deprecating dialogue of C-3PO and instead letting his actions speak for themselves. He has all the tools to tip the odds in the protagonist's favor, but always needs a little convincing. Don't we all?

Sadly, the later scenes devolve into a predictable battle montage, but it's only sad because we have become so invested in the survival of the characters and their convincing worlds that we would rather see everything work out peacefully. My favorite aspect of the film is the dualism between the Human and Terrian peoples. The human fleet is fractured ideologically over their necessity to colonize a previously occupied planet, while the Terrians, who have come to terms with nature and their warlike past, must struggle with the necessity for aggressive self-defence. This is more substance than is typically given to alien-invasion films, and there is subsequently much to think about here.

The inevitable air battle that ensues is fast and pertinent, and features cool ships duking it out, although it bugged me that the sound designers lacked the time and imagination to make the human ships sound like anything more than modern day jet-fighters. Fortunately this fight, a generic staple of space operas, is fought over a giant, spider-like terraforming device that threatens to flood the planet with toxic oxygen, and punctuated by a shocking and unexpected sacrifice that brings the story back to relevancy and fits perfectly into the thoughtful mythos that the film has established up to this point.

It isn't "green" pandering or even a war movie in the conventional sense. Much of the draw comes from the hope that everything will work out tidily. Some top-notch alien visuals are augmented by the strong and almost surreal urgency and tone of the story, but also weight heavy upon it. This is slightly unusual for an animated film. Children might find this one a little challenging and scary. For a film aimed at younger audiences, the stakes are pretty high. The sense of danger in most animated films comes from the fear that things might not work out for the characters. Death may be an imminent threat, but rarely does someone actually die. Terra juggles around the threat of mass genocide. The beauty of science-fiction is that it can imagine completely fictional far away places and drop familiar themes into them, so they can fester and flourish in a petri-dish of familiarity. While being transported, we have no choice but to view the dilemmas of the characters as an opportunity to look inward at ourselves as a civilization. This leaves the window for absurd revelations wide open, but the payoff, when it hits, is grand.

Here, the microcosm is a distant planet being fought over by the natives and marauding humans. Both have good reasons for being there. Most war movies are decidedly one-sided, but the issues here cannot be solved by a quick and easy shootout. This is compounded by the wonderful scenes between Mala and Stanton where he first regards her with xenophobic disgust and suspicion ("Get away from me... Monster!") but quickly changes his demeanor to a more cooperative tone when she demonstrates her benevolence. Kindness bridges the stars. The actions of these two characters over the course of the movie represent the driving force of the narrative and the harsh epiphanies both races must endure.

I liked the depiction of the future remnants of humanity as fractured between the urge to handle the question of their survival as an opportunity to destroy or an opportunity to create. I liked that the Terrians were peaceful and loving but also naive and it was both exciting and sad to watch them mature into the realization that even the peaceful must occasionally use brutality to survive. Sadly, Battle for Terra isn't nearly as good as it could have been: the animation is inconsistent, sometimes confusing, and the dialogue falls flat in parts. But most of the movie is solid for casual viewing and what's there does its job well enough.

The Soloist
The Soloist(2009)

A powerful and emotional film about the constant frustrations of life and art.

The story concerns a clever but desperate Los Angeles times columnist, Steve Lopez, fishing for a fresh story-- "and it has to be humorous. That's the point." Drawn to the melancholy sound of violin music drifting into his office from a busy underpass, he discovers a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers, playing with only two strings next to a junk-filled shopping cart. Nate is a prodigy with classical instruments, kind, compassionate, but disastrously anti-social and unpredictable due to an untreated schizophrenic mental state. Steve is hesitant and impatient with the man's lack of focus, but takes a chance on the guy; Nate may be crazy, but he makes beautiful music that speaks to Steve's heart. Leaving him to rot might be robbing the world of someone truly special. And Steve really needs that story...

Wary viewers needn't be alarmed by the familiar premise, which has been plucked to various degrees of success over the years. What The Soloist really has going for it is that it manages to avoid most of the awkwardness inherent to the genre and manages to be a genuinely engaging film. This is mostly due to the tightly-wound performances of the two leads, Downey and Foxx, who resonate with fear and uncertainty as two strangers trying to make the best of their lives. I've never been a fan of Robert's but he seemed very authentic and compassionate here. Jamie brings a lot to the table. This is not his first role as a musically talented man with crippling drawbacks. The two have studied their craft and rather than setting up a series of contrived hoops for them to jump through, the screenplay makes the story feel like an organic extension of their choices and experiences, rather than an artificial situation with an agenda.

The movie is very inspirational in its use of sound and visuals to convey the power of music over the body and mind. Steve and Nate are both artists in their own way; the former has his words, and the latter has his innate knowledge of instruments. The two of them don't so much connect, as identify the richness of spirit in the other man, with dangerous and intoxicating results. The soundtrack is entirely composed of orchestral compositions, and there are several extended sequences where a live orchestra transforms the drama into a sound and light show as the two men become hypnotized by the bittersweet splendor of strings. Human instinct identifies some hidden truth in the mournful drone of the Cello, just as it perceives danger and hunger.

I applaud the film for being about individuals whose careers and lives revolve around their art, and the contrasting capacity for hope and despair that it has over their moods and personal relationships. At first Lopez exploits Ayers to meet a deadline, but as a commercial writer he has trained himself to romanticize the world to be more readable, leaving him vulnerable to a misguided sense of duty to an irreparably broken man. This is a frightening and unquantifiable experience for Lopez, and Downey shows it. Ayers, insanely paranoid, is exhausted and trapped in his private routine of running and hiding behind elaborate costumes and rambling words. But despite his handicap he is kind at heart and attempts to reciprocate Steve's compassion whenever he can, eventually going so far as to perceive the man as some kind of god. Lopez makes the fatal mistake of running with his trust, leading to one of the most intense and heartbreaking scenes in the movie.

Here is a film that isn't hung up on happy endings. It is less about finding an original message and more about bringing new feelings to an old message. It is more interested in the tiny details that effect and alter the course of human behavior, and decisions based on fear and regret. That is where the mettle is formed, where the magic happens. Flashbacks involving Nathaniel Ayers are something to behold; disjointed and hallucinogenic, filled with terrifying voices and an unnerving lack of context, we wonder if this might be what it's like to be a schizophrenic. The Soloist is one of the better portrayals of mental illness I have ever seen, or at least a better portrayal of how we always seem to mismanage it. Much reverence is expressed for the sick and homeless, and there are some title cards at the end that feel shoehorned in, but the overall tone is more of reprieve from hopelessness and anger through art and camaraderie in a world that is too busy texting for petty things like auditory poetry.

During the bombing of London one of Winston Churchill's advisers suggested cutting funding to the arts to help the war effort. Churchill is said to have responded: "Then, what the hell are we fighting for?" His gambit paid off, but small gems like The Soloist are still free to slip under the critical radar, never to be heard from again.

Easy A
Easy A(2010)
½

I thought this one was lame and far-fetched. I disliked the way it pandered to the most annoying facets of my generation to make a quick buck at the box-office.

The movie is about a clever but slightly obnoxious young lady named Olive "Penderghast" who gets fed up with the sexual politics of her high school and, inspired by the great American novel The Scarlet Letter (the first book to ever gain widespread popularity through word of mouth) begins perpetrating a false reputation as the School Slut, sort of like as a middle finger to the system.

Predictably, this turns out to be a very bad idea. Her actions send ripples through the school's social infrastructure and draw the attention of the authorities. It also gives rise to some unforeseen possibilities, like a gay friend who asks her to feign sexual interest in order to play down his homosexuality in the eyes of his classmates. "Just until I get to college, when it won't matter any more."

The twist with the gay dude (Dan Byrd) is very clever and I wish the whole movie had been about that. Unfortunately, most of the screen time is spent portraying grown children acting like brats to their elders and to each other. Olive eventually learns the error of her ways-- that is a given. It's too bad she spends so much time SPEAKING DIRECTLY INTO THE CAMERA in the form of expository video blogs, probably the lamest excuse for storytelling in a movie.

We also have to endure Amanda Bynes as a teenaged religious zealot. I am baffled as to why writers keep putting these gross stereotypes into their after-school specials. They don't exist. Not in real life. Biblical extremists are an actual, potential threat to human freedom, but only so far as there are a lot of them and they have access to children. Anyone who has reached the age of rationality, and many who haven't, can ponder some basic philosophical dilemmas and conclude that those people don't know any more about death than Ivan Ilyich did as he went blubbering into eternity.

Girls like Marianne just don't cut it in the "suspension of disbelief" department. When I was in high school, the religious types may have been elitist but they were no less welcoming than any other clique, probably moreso, and they had moderate tact in "keeping it to themselves". They also weren't nearly as attractive as Amanda Bynes, who is a caricature of born-again middle-aged fantasies and dogmatic roboticism for the sake of plot convenience. Perhaps if Olive were to have gone up against an entire bible study group... but oh no, that would step on too many toes.

One of my biggest qualms with Easy A is the casting. Instead of hiring the right actors for the right roles, they took the easy route of hiring actors they knew their target audience would immediately associate with other, popular, films. Emma Stone is mostly likable, but she often over-reacts and upstages her costars. Some of her exaggerated facial expressions made me want to turn the movie off. Here is an actress who appeals to high-minded fem types because she can lead a movie about sex while still remaining classy, so it's too bad she's type-cast herself into a corner.

Thomas Haden Church as a square-jawed, straight-shooting teacher is convincing but also an intentionally glaring contrast to his character from Sideways. The same type of pseudo-intellectual who trumpets this movie ad nauseum will also probably have watched Sideways some time very recently and be all, "Man, I really liked him in that movie where he liked sex!" It was really inappropriate how he went from being no-nonsense to a grope-happy sex beast the moment Olive left the room. Even with a grown woman in her place it still seemed like he was thinking about Olive. Enter Lisa Kudrow, an obvious casting choice to conjure fond nostalgia of a little show called Friends. She was the funniest part of the movie for me, even if it was because she was playing Pheobe. But a credit to Lisa, not the film.

Other offenders include Stanley Tucci as Olive's father. "Oh! He was in Devil Wear's Prada! Remember how he played that mean gay fashion guy? I immediately like this movie!" This is an ancient and always insulting trend in film making, to raise the perception of quality in your movie by including big names your target audience will immediately associate with other, popular, titles. It's condescending, and it's ANNOYING. And what is with Olive's parents, any way? They're a little too "cool" to be believable, the way they passively dole out discipline yet somehow manage to raise their children respectably while drinking and acting sarcastic in front of them. What was up with their one African kid? Why did dad feel the need to keep pointing out he was adopted? Somehow I reason that if you were adopted the last thing you would want to do is have your parents poke fun at your lack of relation.

The creators seem to know what will make their target audience spend money for some honest laughs, even if it is humor borrowing endlessly from our stupid obsession with John Hughes. At one point Olive actually goes on a tirade about how love isn't enough like the endings to 80's romantic comedies, and the film literally shows a montage of iconic scenes from said movies! For a moment I thought I was watching another Family Guy flashblack.

This one gets a 50/50 because it's well shot, professionally paced, etc. and there are honestly much worse films out there you could be watching. For what it's worth I guess the movie is pretty interesting... the first time around. I've seen it twice since then and it gets less involving with each viewing. For this critic, that is the kiss of death. Some films get better with subsequent viewings, even bad ones. Never worse. The best B-movies can suffer almost unlimited views, and based on what passes for "popular" these days I'm starting to think there are no such things as A-list movies any more, just high-minded cult crap.

If you are looking for some sort of inspired modern parable of the Scarlet Letter story, look elsewhere, the film has almost nothing to do with that controversial book, only references it in a pretentious fashion to key into that integral target audience that will shell out quick cash to feel smart.

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut
½

Possibly the WORST director's cut of a film ever released. The added footage not only contributes nothing to the movie, it actually detracts from it.

As if that weren't bad enough, director Richard Kelly makes the cryptic decision of removing or rearranging some of the best moments in the film, robbing them of gravity and context. He turns previously sympathetic characters into morons. He should have stood by his work and moved on. Instead he bought into the cult-hype of his film and mutilated it into further obscurity.

Let's get something straight. I love Donnie Darko. It is one of my very favorite movies. It is an insightful teen comedy with some very compelling metaphysical elements. There is a sense of growing dread and unease that permeates the entire thing that I have not experienced before or since. It's very entertaining, but kind of hard to define. It's thoughtful, dreamy, deliciously off-beat, and taps into something deeper. It's different.

But the new material is bizarre and unnecessary. There's some jokes about child molestation, which seem excessive considering one of the main subplots concerns the exploitation of youth. Donnie's dad gives him some really crumby advice on how to deal with mean people. The scene where Mrs. Pomeroy gets fired by the principal has been almost completely removed. The time-travel/wormhole shots are overlaid with a really stupid computer interface that is distracting and makes it hard to see what is going on. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

The movie wasn't perfect by any means. Parts of it still don't make any sense to me. But that was a good thing. It was fine the way it was. Donnie Darko is still a great flick, but if you are introducing a curious friend for the first time, do not make the same mistake I did by showing them the inferior Director's Cut edition. It's awful. Watch the original, theatrical cut. The core film works because it walks a very fine line between intrigue and absurdity. This version crosses the line into ridiculous territory, and keeps on walking.

Avoid.

Green Zone
Green Zone(2010)

This is good film for folks who found The Hurt Locker to be a little too emo. Green Zone is still about one soldier's struggle, but Captain Roy Miller is more of a straight-shooter than a bomb expert with bad acne. He calls bullshit on his superiors for putting he and his men in harm's way over faulty intelligence, and when they ignore him, he takes matters into his own hands, like a proper action hero. No WMDs = no reason to go to war, and there is a pleasant unassuming honesty to the way the movie pounds us over the head with this notion.

Green Zone uses a matter-of-fact premise and involving, close-up storytelling to great effect. Since this is an action movie overlaid against the initial invasion of Iraq, concerning the disheartening search for biological weapons, the film carries an ere of gravity that elevates it above other Iraq War films. Every character in the film represents a different take on the conflict, and while we rarely travel beyond the lives of these few people, the script is not indifferent to the institutions they represent.

Take Greg Kinear's character, Poundstone, a slimy neo-con asshole who throws around party lines like "Democracy is messy!", "The boys in DC aren't going to like this!" and "You picked the wrong side!" He's a self-entitled political prettyboy in a suit and tie who wields his power with little regard for the hundreds of thousands of lives he's helping to destroy.

Opposing him is the Green Zone's man in the Intelligence Community, Martin (Brendon Gleeson), perhaps the only man in the CIA who doesn't feel obligated to bend over and take it from his own government. He warns Poundstone that sweeping the Iraqi military aside is a very bad idea because of the civil war they are keeping at bay. Their conflict nicely highlights the failure of unity, and general blame-game, that surfaced as everything began to fall apart after "Mission Accomplished". Watch these men's faces while they observe the torture of an Iraqi prisoner.

And of course you have the media, scathingly represented by Amy Ryan, who's face is constipated by an unspoken guilt. Her presence seems superfluous at first, until we learn how she served as a willing conduit for the once-overing of America.

It was fun to see Miller confront these characters off-and-on in an increasingly righteous manner as he worked his way to the truth. Their stuffiness over the gravity of the situation is almost palpable, and he loses it with pointed frustration on several occasions. "This is the reason we went to war! The reasons we go to war always matter. They are the only thing that matters! What happens the next time we need someone to trust us?!"

There is a nice ensemble cast of Muslim characters too, particularly General Al Rawi, who holds the key but is head of the Iraqi army and might as well be on the moon. Miller's quest to confront this man is the main thrust of the film. He is assisted by my favorite character, an angry civilian who calls himself "Freddy" and whose presence is integral to the credibility of Helgeland's screenplay; he represents the voice of the people Miller and his army are apparently there to help. "I come to talk to you and you shove my face in the dirt. What are you doing here? Digging holes? Do you actually think you can do stuff in my city with people standing around watching and no one will know? I am trying to help you. All of those things you want for my country? I want them more."

And of course there is the dickish side of the military industrial complex, represented by a crooked Special Forces sergeant who answers directly to Poundstone. This man poses the greatest hurdle to Miller's journey, not the Iraqis, and seeks to bungle his mission at ever turn. Their chase scene toward the end of the film, in which both men pursue the same target through the back alleys of a city while urban warfare erupts around them, brings the forward thrust of the film to a poignant head.

Green Zone was persecuted for having too much action and too much shaky-cam. There are neither here. The violence is quick and pertinent, and for a film essentially about the military these scenes follow protocol to the letter. Perhaps a big-screen viewing was too much for some people. I had the same problem with Avatar; for all its billions of dollars spent on computer effects, it was just one big grainy blur until I watched it a second time on television.

So I was surprised to find the camera-work in Green Zone quite steady and watchable, but then, I viewed it on my computer, not blown up and pixelated on a 40-foot screen. The cinematography is inspired and sensitive to the history and cultural fervor of the Mesopotamian river-valley. The all-business American characters stroll casually among the ruins of bombed-out buildings and sculptures thousands of years old; Just another day on the battlefield. There is a great sequence early in the film where Miller and his squad show up to a suspected WMD site to find an avalanche of looters pouring down a crowded street. The 101st are pinned down by a sniper and can't proceed. He takes command of the situation, puts the men in their places and solves the problem flawlessly and admirably. It's a great introduction to his character and a great action scene, because it highlights what a strong leader can accomplish even in the midst of a throwaway occupation.

I do have some big aesthetic problems with the film. It drags at times, and its sense of outraged protest toward the war can be a little one-note. The military jargon, as accurate as it sounds, is way too overbearing at times, and I worry about viewers who won't be able to keep up almost as much as I worry about the sausage-fest Green Zone is marketed to. The aforementioned chase scene near the end of the film drags on way too long and isn't as suspenseful as it thinks it is. However, the intrigue and inherent anger of Green Zone more than make up for its occasional shallowness of character. Never before has the quote "old men start wars and young men fight them" been so true.

This movie is clumsy enough to deserve the critical beat-down it received, but sharp enough that everyone should see it anyway, if only to reaffirm and quantify what they already knew. They'll also get some action and suspense to boot. Don't slam it for having an agenda; every movie should have an agenda, especially one about the whitewashed genocide of an entire culture. Green Zone is angry that we live in an age where moral accountability can be bought and sold as expendable based on one's "perspective", when in fact it is the personal responsibility of every human being. I'm giving Green Zone an 80% with this fact in mind.

A Perfect Getaway

This is a suave little mind-job of a movie, a tongue-in-cheek throwback to slasher thrillers from the 50s and 60s that conforms to its own rules while simultaneously mocking them.

You've got the standard array of characters and suspects, but something is clearly off here, and we don't know quite what. Writer/Director David Twohy does a great job of playing with our expectations while maintaining a coherent narrative, in essence creating a movie that operates on multiple levels and greatly rewards repeated viewings. It presents its mystery in a straightforward, formulaic fashion, inviting the audience to lower its guard while piquing their eyebrows at the inherent strangeness of the dialogue.

About two thirds of the way through the movie there is a fearsome twist that causes the gravity of the situation to shift completely. It's a delightfully surprising, completely absurd reveal, but completely justified. Every single line and action in the movie up until this point can be interpreted in two different ways. But because of the way the movie plays with our perception of the characters, it's almost unforeseeable. I respect the thought that went into the script and the ability of the actors to walk this fragile line. There is a clever subtext here about duality; the duality of want and need, inexperience versus experience, the effects of the choices we make and the people we choose to be. The dialogue is a game of chess where one player keeps switching sides. After the twist, the action culminates in an exciting three-way chase that nicely underlines the personality and motivations of every character involved. Unfortunately, this is also the weakest part of the movie because Twohy gets carried away with silly indulgences like frames-within-frames, jump-cuts and cheesy musical flourishes.

Twohy has a spotty track record when it comes to critical response, but there is a legitimate creative momentum behind all of his movies that makes them very watchable. While the market is awash in pre-packaged, cookie-cutter chunks of toilet-taffy, here is something unexpected and original. Here, a simple but exciting premise is used to pick apart the cliches of our favorite genres, laying them out, asking us what it is about those elements that attracts us to such narrative sleaze, without sullying our enjoyment. I never perceived this as heavy-handed because it strongly augments the pacing of the film. The action plays out on the gorgeous, rain-drenched scenery of the furthest Hawaiian islands. There is a moody sense of isolation permeating every scene. Focusing on only a small handful of characters also adds to the eerie sense of loneliness, and leaves the viewer as suspicious of the characters as the characters are of each other.

A Perfect Getaway is melodramatic schlock, but that's sort of the point. It does what it sets out to do very well, and as a genre-mocking self-satire it certainly performs a lot better than, say, Adaptation or Tropic Thunder, two movies that fail to realize that it isn't funny to mock characters we have no respect for in the first place. Getaway actually earns the right to pull the rug out from under you.

Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo(2003)
½

Easily the most overrated of Pixar's bottomless repertoire, one of those films you can see a few clips from and justifiably say you've seen all of it.

It's about a young fish who gets caught in a net and ends up in a dentist's aquarium far from home. His father crosses the ocean on a rescue mission and meets lots of adorable creature along the way. Unsurprisingly, they all live happily ever after. But I digress. My biggest problem with Finding Nemo, besides the hype, is how focus-grouped the whole affair feels. Like it was manufactured in a government lab to be served to dumb children on a silver platter. Fish are cute, let's make a movie about fish. Sharks are big and scary so they'll have deep booming voices and be bad guys. Turtles are slow and silly so we'll make them all stoners. Nobody likes seagulls, how about some cheap comic relief? The dentist governing over the captured Nemo is the villain. You know he's the villain because he has an Australian accent and because he's a dentist. Kids hate the dentist. Therefore kids will love Finding Nemo.

Of course, it wouldn't be an animated family film if it wasn't full of B-list actors screaming frantically into the microphone. Ellen DeGeneres is the worst offender. Her Dory swims frantically about handing out life-lessons, making up for the rest of the cast's lack of energy with her ADHD-addled diatribes. The other characters are a little more palatable, but as I already mentioned, they feel more like generic, obvious caricatures superimposed upon sea-life than imaginative, original creations. That might fit snugly into society's PC standard of comfortable children's mythology, but it's so very, very boring.

I stay over with my friend's family a couple times a year and one of her aunts has a kid who is just learning to walk. Finding Nemo is her go-to staple whenever direct parenting becomes too passe. He kneels with his face literally inches away from the screen, as though it were his own private aquarium. I've had to sit in on partial showings more times than I can count, but have never actually sat through the entirety from start to finish. It's a movie I always seem to walk in on other people watching, so I have 99% of the bits and pieces shuffling around in my head. The result isn't pretty. Naturally, the moment I suggest something with a little more substance, like Toy Story 3, everyone in the room immediately loses interest. Which is revealing.

As always, Pixar's animation is impeccable. Everything looks flawless. But there is something lacking here. It feels empty. The character's eyes don't quite emote. Maybe I just had trouble connecting or caring about aquatic fauna. The CGI ocean is beautiful to behold, but so what? That's a compliment to nature, not Pixar. They didn't "invent" the ocean, any more than Steve Jobs invented death. Hydrogen has been around since the beginning of the universe, Pixar just romanticized it. The water here looks filtered and synthetic. Like a screensaver. The real ocean, while beautiful in its majesty, is mostly dark, murky, and dangerous. Despite a momentary foray into the abyss, everything on screen is never more than cute and cuddly and pandering to a juvenile audience that doesn't want to think.

Pixar fanboys, feel free to flame me. I don't hate this movie. I just find it incredibly overrated considering how mediocre it is. There are just so many better picks out there, often from the same studio. Watch Up or Wall-E or the aforementioned Toy Story 3 if you want something with amazing depth that is also entertaining and original with some darkness to boot. Finding Nemo is just the description of a movie, not an actual title.

Author's note: Half way through writing this review I looked over to find that my pet fish had died. Perhaps this is my punishment for being in the minority of Finding Nemo repulsive.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
½

The positive reception for this film is part of the reason studios decided to start regularly chugging out this forgettable brand of dreck. Yeah, I'm a little resentful.

I'll admit I didn't go into this one with an open mind. Movies with foreboding premises ask to be approached begrudgingly. That, and a few years ago I sat in on a showing of I Love You, Man and the only other people in attendance were some "pianos" in the back row. "Pianos" is a code-phrase my girl and I coined for people who talk during movies. This allows us to mock them openly without repercussion because all they hear is some loud conversation about pianos and don't realize they are being made fun of. (The goal is to be equally rude until they shut up or a third party shuts all of us up.)

This time around, every time Jason Siegel was on screen, one of them would mutter "Jesus Christ, he better not show his penis!" Every time. I couldn't appreciate the reference, but a few years later a friend talked me into watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall and sure enough Siegel spends the first five minutes or so rocking out "with his cock out". So right off the bat we get a big ironic gay joke thrown in our face. But that doesn't really bother me as much as those punks in the back row. I don't like the way these raunchy sex-comedies associate themselves with people who mirror the lifestyle of Jason Siegel's character.

I also don't get why critics are so forgiving of movies about relationships. This one is particularly deceptive. Why should I care about two people's heartbreak when I don't have a clear picture of what their actual commitment was like, or even like them all that much to begin with? The sad-sack hero is dumped by his girlfriend (the lovely Kristen Bell) and on the advice of a friend flies away to an island to recuperate. This happens to be the same island the same ex-girlfriend is spending her honeymoon. She married a playboy rock-star, uh-oh! Hilarity ensues as they find themselves in increasingly awkward, strange, and sexy situations that test their pride, patience, and commitments. Because the one thing you want when you're laughing is to get a raging boner.

There are brief flashbacks that clarify the character's feelings and decisions in key scenes, but it feels predictable and the emotions cheaply bought. Nothing in the film really stands out, it's very generic. I guess because I'm a guy and I've been through a few obligatory bitter breakups I'm supposed to identify with the main character's dilemma. I do acknowledge that much of comedy comes from beholding the tragedy of others. But that requires strong characters. I need to respect their personality and actions, because laughs can only take you so far. Nobody in this film has much depth, therefore the situation and by extension the movie lacks depth. If that's your thing, enjoy. Just remember, it goes to show you what the people who green-light and market these things think of you, the consumer.

The film gets a 70% because it made me laugh throughout. The writing is fairly clever. There are many funny scenes and observational jokes. Therefore as a comedy it sort of works. It's still a shallow trip to the movies with childish plot devices and lazily written characters. And it's pretty sexist.

Angels & Demons

I don't like it when studios manufacture controversy to sell tickets. All of the fake outrage over The Da Vinci code successfully steered me away from anything concerning Dan Brown for the foreseeable future. Purposefully fueling the flames of religious indignation is irresponsible on the part of Columbia Pictures. That said, I figured enough time had passed to give the second entry in the series a chance-- If not for the interesting premise of basing a thriller around the dark history of the Catholic Church and the Illuminati, then for the awesomeness of seeing Tom Hanks walk around and point intensely at statues. I wasn't disappointed.

While most of the dialogue is pure speculative slog, there's enough historical context to serve as padding to make the proceedings seem entirely plausible, even hypnotic-- exactly what an archeological thriller should do. Hanks in particular has to deliver some absolutely ridiculous lines, but his character work is so apparent and so involved that he is never anything less than utterly convincing, per usual. Howard also pumps up the Gothic soundtrack and fast-paced editing at integral times to gloss over the ridiculousness of the situation, and the impressive production values certainly don't hurt.

Langdon is a great character by himself, a brilliant man constantly struggling to explain high-minded concepts that he takes for granted to stupid people, without losing his patience or composure, until the situation calls for it. Coming into this film having skipped the first is probably a good idea because all of the apprehension he is greeted with and all the minor references to the first movie give him a sense of status and history that make the character seem more urgent and alive-- very important when adapting from a novel to the screen. Hanks plays Langdon appropriately, a mild-mannered professor who would rather run from trouble than stay and fight, instead relying on his brain and science to escape from certain death. Indiana Jones without the whip.

I loved the film's attention to detail. This is a thriller revolving around the traditions of the Catholic Church, and thus much of the action takes place in and around the Vatican during the delicate and secretive process of electing a new Pope (after the last one died under suspicious circumstances.) Everyone on site is either a suspect or in some kind of danger; this includes holy figures, the Vatican's private police force, and the Swiss Guard (who view the protection of Vatican assets as more of a calling than a standard security detail). Since there is a deadline of only a few hours to save the kidnapped Cardinals and find the bomb, each of the multiple threads is punctuated with a sense of urgency and growing paranoia as we jump back and forth between the large cast of characters. The screenplay tackles everyone's suspicion in an intelligent manner, utilizing two-sided dialogue as well as creative cinematography to keep our interest piqued and our eyebrows furrowed as the list begins to narrow-- the staples of a smart mystery. There are plenty of subtle clues and curious behavior to easily warrant a second viewing of the film. Even the most obvious "bad guy" is not what he seems, and it is a credit to the screenplay, the filming, the editing, and especially the acting, that every single character undergoes some kind of reversal over the course of the film.

Lastly, Angel & Demons is infused with an intelligent and well-balanced message about the place of science and religion in the modern world. Which is, ironically and sadly, probably why it received less attention than its predecessor. The core conflict in the film arises from the irate fundamentalism of both sides' disdain for each other, which, although oversimplified in a typical Ron Howard fashion, has its heart and mind in the right place. Yes, faith is making a virtue out of refusing to think, and yes, truth is a relative concept. That doesn't mean we aren't allowed to believe in whatever we want whenever we want, so long as we express that resolve within the channels of an intelligent and reasonably healthy passion.

However, CERN isn't making anti-matter at the Large Hadron Collider, nor could they manufacture the stuff in the first place. To supply this as a MacGuffin for the downfall of the Catholic Church is actually the most offensive part of the movie. Langdon's sidekick is beautiful and their chemistry is interesting, but ultimately pointless. There are several outright "yeah, sure" moments throughout that serve no purpose than to remind us that Angels & Demons is being marketed to a fairly low denominator. Also: This is a very gruesome movie. If you don't like watching people being burned alive, or murdered in a series of grisly fashions, you're in for a bumpy ride. But unlike a film such as, say, Kick-Ass, the screenplay is very much aware of the place of violence on celluloid, and uses it wisely.

Langdon chooses his words carefully when dealing with the fundamentalist fervor on prominent display in Rome, but you can tell by the look on his face in several scenes that he isn't having it. Why should he? He is a scholar; he knows the bloody truth of history, and thus has more insight into human nature than any social scientist or religious philosopher could ever hope to learn by watching people in an elevator or forcing them down a narrow ideological path.

Moneyball
Moneyball(2011)
½

Finely written and acted, but the plodding pace and casual tone made me want to go to sleep after a while. Like when I'm at the dentist.

The film concerns a down-and-out recruiter for the Oakland A's, a team that is broke and in last place circa 2001. Billy Beane is fed up with losing, both off and on the field. We discover through devastating flashbacks that he struck out a few too many times himself in the past. Cornered by the reality of no budget and no business prospects, he makes a kamikaze bid on a Yale number-cruncher named Peter Brand with some radical theories about the value of players. Together they manufacture a dirt-cheap team based on statistical projections of the player's accomplishments and abilities, rather than high price tags and heresay, which is the norm.

At first Beane's bid doesn't work, then it does, then it doesn't. The end. For long stretches, the story arch is the same situation repeated over and over with some slight variations. Beane talks to his advisers, tries something new, fails, cut to shot of Pitt sitting in the locker room with his head in his hands... Beane talks to his General Manager, tells him to try something new, fails, cut to shot of Pitt throwing a cooler in frustration... Beane acts like a dick to his ex-wife's new husband, takes his daughter to look at guitars, succeeds, cut to shot of Pitt staring thoughtfully into space. Many of the situations and dialogue are delivered very dryly, and I often wondered if I was missing the humor in a humorless situation. The result of this tedium is the sensation that the characters never quite made it off the drawing board, existing instead as novelty-sized sticky notes on Aaron Sorkin's wall-mounted flow chart.

Fortunately, this template fits the historical and underdog context of the movie quite well, and there are enough creative cinematic flourishes and intelligent conversations to make us care about the business practices of folk who spend most of the film slapping each other on the ass and spitting. Many scenes are interlaced with real footage and audio to create a sense of "being there". Since it's called Moneyball, not "Baseball", scenes involving the latter are mercifully short. Therefore what we do see on the field has more dramatic gravity.

It turns out that sports, shockingly, is more of a business than selfless corporate entertainment, and the movie does everything it can to drive this point home, featuring scene after scene of Beane buying and selling players while his second in command ticks off numbers. When Beane tells his crew that "scouting is a process", he isn't kidding-- the man gets so much crap thrown his way for investing in players nobody wants, you can't blame him for being angry. We get to meet these players, however briefly. Their modesty as athletes and human beings who have been repeatedly told they have no value within the career they love is conveyed potently, and leads to some of my favorite scenes.

Almost everything about this movie is crisply and intelligently handled. The editing is top-notch, the humor appropriately takes a backseat to the dramatic thrust of the protagonist, and the writing is refreshingly non-assuming and respects viewer's intelligence for the most part. Camerawork falls somewhere between Erin Brokovitch and Sesame Street in terms of functionality; one moment we're staring at charts of numbers, the next zoomed in on an industrial park in the background of Beane's grizzled face. Brad Pitt has great charisma and subtlety on screen that come from decades of experience, though Jonah Hill just kind of sits there looking fat the whole movie. This is entirely Pitt's vehicle, and his character is a tough nut to crack. Ultimately, however, Beane's journey is long and bitter, with no real payoff, if only for the fact that Beane is such a neurotic and compulsive worrier. Despite Peter Brand's optimistic goading, the man just can't take a compliment. This raises interesting cinematic problems, such as: Should we feel satisfied with the story even if the main character doesn't?

It's just such a shame the whole thing drags on so long. Strong writing and acting can only support atrocious pacing for so long; a film has to take off, to make us feel like we've gone somewhere special. Beane and Brand struggle and succeed, but Beane's constant negativity and head-holding/cooler-throwing/space-staring constantly undermine the positive tone. Moneyball is filled with clever and thoughtful storytelling and some excellent self-contained scenes, but lacks that special ingredient to make us care about the topic.

If you're absolutely uninterested in the sport, like me, in no way shape or form will Moneyball change your mind. It is still a wonderfully expressed and tediously detailed historical drama about one of America's pastimes, and ingenuity in the face of adversity. Actual baseball enthusiasts should be more than satisfied. People, like me, who came to see Brad Pitt in action, will have their cake and eat it too.

Drive
Drive(2011)

This film isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is, or wants you to believe. While expertly shot and visually striking, with admirably restrained and subtle performances by the talented cast, Drive is full of confusing themes and jarringly inconsistent tones. What is really disturbing is that this seems to be an intentional tactic, meant to summon in the audience, through aesthetic trickery, some deeper meaning or ethos from what is essentially a very simple story of childish self-indulgence and revenge. Worse, it almost feels like this narrative ambiguity is the point of the movie and not our investment in the characters or story itself. Such stylistic liberty is impulsive and nihilistic when the filmmakers have failed to clearly establish the motivations of the characters or the theme of the movie.

The story is about a talented but happily anonymous stunt driver who takes getaway jobs on the side, falls for his neighbor, and gets drawn into a mob war by her ex-con husband. This is a fairly standard action premise, but you've never seen a movie quite like Drive. This is almost entirely because of Ryan Gosling. He is the heart of the film and most certainly carries it. From one moment to the next he is stoic and impulsive, brilliant and vapid, wound up and completely calm-- all while remaining entirely still. 99% of his character comes from the eyes. He spends much of the first half of the movie passively observing others, using his own silence as a weapon, allowing them to fill him with their secrets and make assumptions about his intentions.

Like the other characters in the movie, we are meant to perceive this as thoughtfulness, even shallowness, on his behalf. This allows us to project our assumptions about protagonists onto his cryptic behavior. But when he finally takes initiative, he is thorough and efficient, terrifying in his resolve. Here is a man who gives all of himself to every action he takes, and we begin to realize with dawning horror that we are in the presence of a brooding psychopath, an empty emotional shell, a wound up child waiting for an excuse to snap.

At least, that is what I took away from the movie; I could be wrong, because to be honest I found the film very difficult to follow. Much of the fun comes from trying to figure out what is going through Gosling's head at any given moment. Drive is not the first film to feature an anti-hero, certainly not the last, and it gets carried away with itself. Sadly, the latter half of Drive is spotted with staggering acts of profound violence and graphic gore, which took me completely out of the movie. A showdown in a motel room after a botched job is gruesome and breathtaking, but instead of building on this momentum to take the characters in bold new directions, Drive arbitrarily decides to become a one-note, nonstop bloodbath. While the progression of the story continues to make a literal kind of "sense", it becomes thematically confusing and overshadowed by these brutal killings. Although I repeatedly gave the movie the benefit of the doubt, I constantly felt like I was missing some hidden message or bigger picture.

At first, our anonymous "hero" reacts in kind to the situations and emotions surrounding him, so as his world becomes increasingly violent, so do his reprisals. The idea is to blur the simplistic concepts of right and wrong that we, the viewers, take for granted by having the protagonist commit brutal atrocities for the sake of a perceived "greater good". Remember: he has no moral compass, just the cinematic cliches that we imbue him with. This was crystallized for me in three particular scenes; one in which he watches a movie (presumably Finding Nemo) with his neighbor's son, and genuinely asks, "Is the shark the bad guy? Are all sharks bad guys?" In another scene, a former prison inmate asks him to partake in a heist and he calmly, terrifyingly, tells the man to go fuck himself before he kicks his teeth in-- the most initiative he has taken in the film up to that point, but not so much out of a sense of duty as sheer juvenile jealousy. The third scene, which I won't spoil, involves an intimate kiss in an elevator followed by a spontaneous and primal act of violence.

These plot points were thought-provoking, and indicative of a stronger movie. Unfortunately, that movie never really arrives. Okay, I get it, he's a psychopath who thinks he's a hero. That's great, but where do we go from there? Drive doesn't know. After the fantastic chaos of the motel room, the film spirals into scene after scene of excruciatingly shocking murders. They permeate the tone, drowning out all other emotions, and we don't know these characters well enough to really care how it all turns out. The fear we feel is the instinctive dread of violence, not legitimate sympathy. Part of this is because there is so little dialogue to be found. I'm sorry, but I need my characters to really speak to each other. Speech conveys intent, leads to responses, a conversation, information, emotional catharsis-- the infatuation between "Driver" and his neighbor feels forced and synthetic, all they do is exchange a few "knowing" glances, but because there is romantic music in the background we are supposed to buy it. All the other dialogue mostly belongs to the antagonist gangster characters, whose exchanges feel pulled out of another movie.

I guess my biggest issue is how unreal the whole affair feels. The strong art-house presentation of Drive suggests deeper complexities than the simple premise gives us. I couldn't tell if I was watching a drama, action movie or music video, which made it very difficult to suspend my disbelief. I didn't identify with the main character and his childish, psychotic sense of chivalry. Most scenes fail to build any meaningful involvement before shifting into bizarre and uncomfortable musical montages. That may cut it for some people, but not me. At least the overrated Taxi Driver, which this movie pays heavy homage to, had the decency to wind up its lead character to the breaking point before unleashing the bloodshed at the very end. Instead, we get Ryan Gosling dressing up in prosthetic makeup and chasing Ron Perlman down a beach for ten minutes.

What? If you haven't seen the film yet, I'll give you some advice: You should definitely watch Drive, and if you like it, by all means, pick up a copy at your local bargain bin, where, mark my words, it will inevitably end up like every other movie of this type once the hype wears off.

Moon
Moon(2009)
½

Take the set from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the plodding self-importance of Event Horizon, the brooding paranoia of Solaris and the psychological disorientation of Dark City, then combine it with a thoughtful, streamlined, easy-going and wholly original science-fiction yarn about the fickle nature of human memory in a world of unchecked moral accountability... and you get Moon, a pleasantly traditional and highly satisfying Sci-Fi character drama.

Sam Bell is a lonely astronaut living at Sarang station on the far side of the moon, overseeing the harvest of "H3", an energy source refined from billions of years of sunlight sponged up by the pock-marked rock. With two weeks left on a three year contract, his sanity waning, he begins to experience increasingly strange happenings. None of these occurrences are ever fully explained, or even mentioned, instead relying on the audience's imagination and the reactions by the small cast to fill in the blanks. That cast consists of a highly talented and always in-character Sam Rockwell, a floating computer voiced by Kevin Spacey, and... well, no need to spoil the best parts of the movie.

Moon exists in a universe all its own. The isolation of the setting, and the loneliness and increasing instability of the main character, are flanked by a disturbing sequence of reveals and plot twists, which appear casually hallucinogenic at first but soon become very, very real. The story unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace and is augmented by Clint Mansell's gorgeously moody soundtrack. The moon itself is eerie, silent and dead looking, as it should be, with splinters of creeping sunlight casting long indifferent shadows on the cold machinery that roams the perimeter of Sam's tiny base, endlessly harvesting. The exterior shots are a combination of highly-detailed models and CGI, they look fantastic, and the fact that an object so close to our planet could be so barren and lifeless is disturbing. But that's space for you.

Folks who appreciate the precision cinematography necessary to portray the same character multiple times in the same shot, similar to techniques used in Adaptation and City of Lost Children, will get a kick out of much of the character interaction in Moon. The film sets itself up as a standard sci-fi mystery, with Sam and his talking computer and his cold dead-tech interior design facing off against a series of dubious epiphanies. Moon doesn't give you everything right away. As with some of the best Sci-Fi, a lot of the fun comes from the confusion of the story, formulating conclusions, making predictions, then feeling pleasantly rewarded when you end up being right, and even more so when the film surprises you. It's a tragic and beautiful equilibrium that only the visual medium can conjure.

This is like a good, long episode of the Twilight Zone, with the black-and-white cheesiness removed and replaced with some fairly powerful emotions. These never seem cheap or forcefully wrung from the viewer; they grow organically out of the situation as we acquire new details alongside the characters, who exist in a vacuum of possibilities, literally and figuratively. Once the main twist of the film has been established, smartly toward the beginning, it is up to the sharp premise and smart acting to figure out where we go from here, and while the story remains slow and the tone subdued, to call Sam's journey boring, simplistic or uninteresting wouldn't be fair. His story is compelling, and it's fun as well as disturbing to imagine what we might do in Sam's shoes.

Moon raises some interesting questions about what makes us part of a human race. Is it our drive to invent, to create? What happens when one person's urge to create overwhelms the will of another? Or several people? Or an entire corporation? At what point do our energy needs, our technological prowess, and our sense of morality as a populous intersect? How do we balance all three? One more than another? If we choose to subdue ethical responsibility at its root in order to triumph technology, who's to say nature won't find another way to creep in and rot away the surety of our foundations? Or perhaps we will find our plans turned upside-down by our own creations. Gerty, the seemingly passive AI, comes off as a little too helpful at times. Is his empathic nature part of his programming, or something more? Who is really in control here? Sam Bell, our protagonist, is the end result of such humanistic dilemmas, and watching him take matters into his own hands once all the pieces start to come together is very exciting indeed.

But I digress. Science Fiction is at its best when the factors of Humanity and Technology overlap in interesting and unpredictable ways. Moon is that kind of Sci-Fi, the kind that not only raises old questions in a refreshing way, but makes you wonder where the questions start and where they end.

It is both empowering and disheartening that the genre only seems to find new footing when we as a species create new problems for ourselves.

In the Loop
In the Loop(2009)

A guy I know described this as "West Wing meets The Office" and that turned out to be fairly accurate. Not a kind word to be found in the entirety of the script, but it's clever enough and funny enough that if you have a good sense of humor it shouldn't offend you, and should in fact tickle you.

Basically a bunch of diplomats from English and American offices get together to conspire to lead both countries into a phony war, but factions within both offices are violently opposed and create their own splinter conspiracy. A hilarious verbal (and utterly vulgar) game of chess begins as management tries to one-up each other and underlings attempt to pick sides while weighing their personal ethics against their endangered careers. Interns buzz and orbit around the chaos like flys on shit, double-crossing their friends and forming unlikely alliances. The result is a joke-a-minute riot, full of the kinds of witty observations and clever, biting insults we have come to expect from such cynical farces.

I was very cautious at first because, to me, English humor is some of the most juvenile on the planet. I watch BBC for the semi-authentic journalism and X-Files reruns but when it comes to pitching the funny it feels like they are just catching up to where we were in the 80's. Or perhaps it's aimed at children, and in that regard is quite brilliant. I don't know. But the film does a good job of avoiding being too "limey" or "preachy" or even particularly pretentious; the filmmakers are also sick of listening to the tired debates and instead choose to go for low-brow hilarity, cashing in on our fatigue of propaganda and politics, and they make it work in spades.

Both sides of the Atlantic are given a moderate amount of screen time to cement their ridiculousness, and the cheekiness of the exchanges is accessible enough that one will be excused for lathering in the bitterness along with the characters. There is no clear debate about who is right or who is wrong-- war is about who is left, after all-- because the intention is to poke fun at the idiocy of the situation and the people involved. At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters (who are introduced almost all at once!) but they are all very specific and memorable in their own way and it's very fun getting caught up in their private struggles.

Even when the humor verges on disgusting it is delivered so authentically dead-pan as to be absolutely gut-wrenching. There are some wonderfully satirical moments here, and battles of wit that quickly compound into fiery exchanges of insults. I loved the American general and his former lover (a diplomat) ducking into a nursery at a party so he can enumerate on a child's calculator what the final casualty report might be. Peter Capaldi tells an American senator that she sounds "like a Nazi Julie Andrews" and tells another that "you are the most boring fucking psychopath I have ever met". Need I say more?

This review just scrapes the surface of the story; the cast does a stellar job and if you have the stomach and the perception for details that dark comedy requires then this is one of the funniest films you will ever see, and an intelligent and thorough political mockery to boot.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
½

If Bay doesn't want people reading politics into his movies then he should stop putting stupid politics into his movies.

Battle: Los Angeles

Mind-blowing: A movie who's quality is negatively proportional to the number of studio plant-jobs who tried to shove it down our throats.

I was half-excited to see this. How do you screw up marines fighting aliens in war-torn Los Angeles with a big budget? Right? Well, Liebesman sure found a way. It's hard to pin down one single reason for his complete lack of directorial finesse, so I'll just list them all.

There is no sense of pace or tension throughout the entire thing, mostly because the scenes themselves are edited and structured so poorly. Little of the dialogue is understandable, what is understandable isn't particularly interesting or just plain cliche. None of the characters stand out or are particularly memorable. The camera bounces around liberally, like they were going for some kind of "being there" steady-cam documentary effect, made entirely moot by every shot being a tenth of a second long. Establishment of place, character, intent or danger: Destroyed. The setup is there, if you care to look for it. Apparently, LA is the last bastion of hope for the human race, whose soldiers feel obligated to make it the turning point in the fight for blah blah blah. Too bad the plan screwed the pooch with every alien-invasion war-movie cliche in the book, and Battle: LA can't even get those right. There is little regard for audience perception, patience and imagination.

On top of everything, the acting is atrocious throughout. I suppose that's a given when most characters have maybe a few seconds of screen-time that isn't yelling, running, or having the camera shoved in their faces while they "react". Speaking of characters, there are none; the whole movie is just a big blur of white, brown, and yellow covered in kevlar. Eckhart and Rodriguez, who no doubt consisted of nine-tenths of the acting budget, are given absolutely no play. The "back-story" of our hero is revealed by a five minute flashback at the beginning of the movie that basically consists of "earlier that day someone brought up my service record over coffee in the break room."

The most fundamental error in Battle: Los Angeles is the ambiguity of the special effects. The explosions look canned and dance around our heroes with no sense of source or purpose, as does the alien hardware. Your space-invaders can have all the detail in the world but it won't stand for goobers if they are completely unimaginative. Bi-pedal robots? Really? That's the best you could do? The invaders behave exactly like the human soldiers. They never do anything as basic as, say, stack up and slowly inch downward back and forth. Their technology looks like a hobo welded a lawnmower engine into a shopping cart like I saw on the side of the road one time. I did appreciate the way the drone ships traveled, and the way the enemy's rifles were surgically attached to their forearms, leading to the only good line in the movie. Everything else just sort of flails about unimaginatively. The LAST thing you want to do is kill your viewer's sense of immersion by marginalizing the invaders to the level of the human fighters, but that's exactly what happens here.

Worse, it almost feels like the writers lazily attempted to shoe-horn in some kind of saccharine real-world political allegory. It's mentioned that the aliens are using a form of Hydrogen technology to fuel their war machine, and as a result the ocean levels have already begun to drop (lawl), so in conclusion clean-air technology is evil. The movie spends very little time showing us the aliens, and cuts away from the special effects shots far too soon to create a legitimate sense of context or awe in the viewer. Good thing, because we would probably start rooting for the bad guys.

Finally, the movie is overlong. Which is odd, considering every shot seems more concerned with getting to the next shot instead of conveying information. Liebesmen should fire his editor, his writer, himself and start over; the concept of Battle: LA is fundamentally exciting contemporary War of the Worlds brand fluff, and all the pieces of that great movie were present-- just completely bungled.

The resulting action scenes look like those silly FMV video game trailers that EA and Bungie occasionally push, but at least in video games you know what's going on from one moment to the next. This is just a lot of yelling and a lot of random shooting. I liked the concept of the soldiers having to protect a bus full of civilians from a squad of aliens armed with some kind of wheelbarrow rocket-launcher gun-emplacement more than the actual execution of the scene. That sort of sums up the whole movie: lots of concept, none of the execution. The battle at the end would have been cool if it made any sense. Spoilers. So, you're big plan is to stroll right through the enemy beachhead and bomb their HQ at point blank range using ordinance from a military base that was shown completely annihilated just thirty seconds earlier? I tried to enjoy this scene but the underlying and ever present flaws of the production made it impossible. And sorry Generic News Announcer Dude, but Paris is not a coastal city.

Liebesmen is rumored to have been attempting to make the next Saving Private Ryan. It's also rumored that he failed. This a stupid, stupid movie, absent any originality or creativity in all aspects. The crew apparently filmed this clunker in the ruins of Baton Rouge following the last hurricane, which is super classy. I hope some of the ill-earned box office went toward the reconstruction of that poor city.

Ten minutes in my friend leaned over and asked "Is this thing pissing you off too?" Yes, because I probably could have done a better job in my sleep. It's a bad sign when your audience is having epiphanies about the production values instead of the characters. The movie wants so bad to be the next Independence Day, but it's not, it just sucks, period. "At least it's better than Skyline" is not a legitimate defense of the movie, or any movie, because Skyline is Skyline and Battle: LA is a piece of shit.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
½

I had the fortune to watch this film in ten parts on YouTube a few months back. It's honest portrayal of the brutality, politics, and general grayness of guerilla warfare-- in this case the birth of the IRA movement following a clumsy and bitter rebellion in the 20s-- left me weeping salty man tears. I hated the outcome almost as much as did the film's main Democratic character, Damien (a heartbreaking performance by Cillian Murphy). But upon a second viewing, in which I was much more at peace with the story, I viewed the whole thing a little more objectively and ending up taking the side of Damien's politically polarized Republican brother, Teddy. This is much to the film's merit that one can completely switch perspectives upon multiple viewings, having had time to digest the information provided.

Essentially, a group of young Irish men get fed up with the English Black & Tan mercenaries strong-arming their countryside into oppression, after a squad of said murderers ties their friend to a post and beats him to death for participating in a game of la cross. They organize under the guidance and training of some ex-military commonwealth soldiers and soon recruit into their midst my favorite character of all, a grumpy old trainman named Dan with more experience than all of them put together and who has very likely seen it all. Using seemingly harmless women and children as message couriers, they begin a series of sloppy guerilla strikes against the English occupiers, as well as their Irish conscripts. The English strike back using the usual array of seedy tactics, and this goes back and forth for a while until things start to get really ugly and everyone in the countryside finds themselves sinking into an increasingly sticky quagmire that tests their relationships, political convictions, and personal sanity.

I give massive props to this film for it's unyielding depiction of violence and rebellion as an unstylized, messy affair. There are no quick-cut, slow-motion shots of men spinning about in a hail of gunfire. Men stumble, they miss, they hesitate, and most of the time when they are shot their bodies fall the fuck down in instant shock. The English commanders are only interested in following orders, being too shell-shocked from the recently-ended Great War to give the Irish the benefit of the doubt, but the film refuses to let us romanticize the Irish freedom-fighters as heroic or even particularly successful; their actions, while historically noble, indirectly cost the lives of many well-meaning people. So this is also a film about the roots of terrorism, and rampant idealism. After one particularly brutal ambush, a group of new recruits breaks down to the verge of sobbing over the lives they have just taken, until their commanding officers shout them back into discipline. Soon after, they come upon their women being brutalized by another squad of mercenaries, and against every fiber of their beings, they refuse to help. Why? Who knows. This is war.

What we have here is a morally murky film, and that's great, because it makes the character's convictions all the more relevant and invites you to really examine the politics driving each and every one of them, which the film allows you to do because when they aren't out risking their lives by night they are in the courtroom vigorously arguing their point of view with words instead of bullets. These are the best scenes in the movie because they are portrayed in such a way that it seems the actors are not even reciting lines from a script but are actually there, in the moment, arguing the views of their characters, complete with stutters, interruptions and second-thoughts. Not only is this some of the best acting in any movie ever, but it also serves to highlight the complete joke politics has become in our country: there is no falling back on convenient screen-wipes or teleprompters or a limosine with tinted windows waiting to whisk you back to your secure hotel room. Sure, I accept that we have attained through bloodshed and hardship a certain level of peace and security in the United States, allowing us the leeway to calmly discuss in public forums where we are taking our country without threat of reprisal or violence (right). But the spark is gone. In its place is secrecy and lies and double-dealing under the table, because as people we no longer have our fingers in the goings-on of our government, and any type of revolutionary spirit is completely useless so long as the mass media choose to ignore it in favor of the status-quo. In a way we are more cut off from each other than ever before. These folks, on the other hand, were gambling with the complete obliteration of their people. Unlike the English Empire, they had no mainland to fall back to, no Indian-infested backwoods to disappear. There is no going back on an island. Ireland is their mainland. "What are we supposed to do?" The lovely Sinead intones, "Buy one-way tickets to London?" One can almost excuse the more devoted types for reverting to terrorism later on.

Eventually a truce is declared and a treaty is signed, but as is often the case, none of the folks who did the fighting are present for these "talks" that will decide the fate of their nation. They learn about their leader's decisions as most of the population did back then, in the form of a highly melodramatic black-and-white silent film, complete with condescending piano accompaniment and subtitles. Ireland will be split into two sections, a Northern English Commonwealth and South "free-state" with varying levels of English presence and control. It's sort of peace, but not really, and this is when the movie gets really interesting because it completely fragments and polarizes the characters right down the middle. Is it enough of a peace to accept, and possibly even fight for? Or are they still just an inch away from true freedom? Damien, a hardcore Democrat, believes it is an affront to their nation to remain subservient to the English, and he echoes the revolutionary zeal of Dan in also perceiving it as a victory for the Republicans that will inevitably lead to economic subservience and corruption, just as it has in the past. But more interestingly, and tragically, he is driven by the knowledge of the murders he has committed in the name of the cause. "I was a doctor. I studied anatomy for five years," he reminisces. "I shot that boy right in the head."

This puts him squarely at odds with his brother and several of his former compatriots, who gladly don the uniform of the new Free-State because they view it as acceptable peace and an opportunity to grow in power as Irish loyalists while keeping English soldiers and mercenaries out of their villages. If someone is going to march around the countryside with rifles, in their minds it should reasonably be their own people. This also puts them in good favor with the Catholic church, who, in one of the best lines in the movie, "as usual side with the rich and the powerful." Ultimately, a man with a rifle walking down your main street is still a man with a rifle, no matter the uniform. So inevitably, the two brothers find themselves shooting at each other, with tragic results. Their personal conflict comes to a painful climax and forms the emotional core of the film, and their beliefs underline the conflicting ideas that caused this thing to simmer late into the 20th century and even today.

I loved this movie. I had a hard time understanding 75% of the dialogue thanks to spot-on speech work, but the important parts come across clearly enough. The pacing is a little sloppy, disorganized and slow at points, but then again, so is rebellion. Like the bitter rivalry between the Irish and the English, it ends on a very sad and open note with no real resolution. But if you are a realist when it comes to war films, like me, you will greatly appreciate the consistency here in never providing any easy answers. Politics brother, politics.

The Departed
The Departed(2006)

Wow, what a mess.

This is a competently made South-Boston crime thriller, an all-around fascinating character study, and a film where the lines between good-cop bad-guy are increasingly murky. All of the cinematic elements are fused well enough that it doesn't feel like a scam. The editing is clever and quirky and keeps you on your toes. Most of all, it's a comedy! Almost every single scene has something funny in it, and what's especially genius is that, somehow, even the most exhilarating moments have a humorous subtext or line of dialogue that gives the proceedings an off-color, visceral feel. The violence is sudden and brutal, and the suspense in parts almost unbearable, but the acting and direction are such that you can't help but watch. The sheer maturity of the whole affair is balanced nicely by a movie that clearly doesn't take itself too seriously, with sporadic bursts of humor and clever, almost satirical dialogue in abundance.

The Departed is about an undercover criminal and undercover cop (both straight out of the academy, so to speak) who have infiltrated each others organizations. The momentum of the plot comes from their increasingly risky (and ultimately tragic) attempts to expose the other to their superiors without blowing their own cover. The plot is refreshingly adult and, I felt, respected my intelligence for the most part. Backing up Scorsese's experienced direction is a cast of stand-up fellows, Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio (mostly DiCaprio) leading the way as the two spies, with other hitters like Nicholson, Baldwin, Wahlberg, etc. sprinkled throughout, and a great supporting cast that really sells it. Every aspect of this movie, from the acting to the settings to the editing feels professionally helmed. The characters behave in bold, unexpected ways that give you new insight into how far they are willing to go, bringing them closer to the edge and instigating exciting new plot devices that lead you to question their motivations, as well as their safety. Expect some generally top-notch, self-contained scenes that move really fast but consistently provide the necessary information. Smart direction, Scorsese.

I especially loved the moment where Sullivan (Damon) impersonates a lawyer on the fly in order to get vital information out of a witness. He sits down across from the fatigued man, asks kindly for help, and is refused, so Sullivan tries different ways to earn the man's trust. But he still won't budge. So without breaking pace he casually tells the guy, flat out, that he's going to tell him what he wants to know or he'll kill him. The thug sees it in his eyes, hears the tone of his voice, knows he isn't bluffing. He starts talking. This is the kind of exchange that, in a lesser film, would have lasted longer and been handled clumsier. Here it flies by and still manages to nail a bulls-eye. Even the character's exchanges don't have time to fuck around. Despite this, the film never feels like it is in a hurry, as there is always plenty of narrative ground to be covered. For instance, there's a scene where the head mobster (uber-creepy Nicholson) drops his gun by accident (as in, not scripted), but everyone is so in character that they used the footage anyway. I love it.

Lastly, this is probably one of the best depictions of the stress of undercover work that I have ever seen. These people go through utter hell, and since in Boston being a criminal or being a cop can mean the difference between carrying on the family tradition or living in shame, it's not just about the paycheck. Sullivan is a cool cucumber, but when he's off the job, he can't get it up with his girl. On the other hand, Costigan (DiCaprio) suffers the entire film maintaining the mob's trust, and his growing numbness is what eventually carries him into a sexual relationship with his therapist. ("I've got to say, you're vulnerability is really freaking me out right now. Is it real?") Imagine trying to break in and out of character for a woman, when that character is ingrained into your actions by post-traumatic stress.

The Departed is based on a Hong-Kong thriller called Infernal Affairs, which I haven't seen, but this is crime drama territory which automatically means we did it better. So, there you go. The only problems I have-- and there are a few-- is the chaotic AV editing which borders on slapstick, and the ending. Screenwriters Mak and Monahan got a little carried away with the black humor and decided, I guess, to wrap the whole thing up as some big dark joke. I wasn't laughing. It's a cop-out, so to speak, and just a really cheap, throwaway substitute for writing in a proper ending on par with the rest of the film. I watched the movie on three separate occasions with three separate people and they all came to the same conclusion on their own. Yes, there is a silver-lining, but it's mostly a garnish.

Despite this, and because I really can't think of a better way to have ended it, The Departed gets an above-average score from me. (Also, for Alec Baldwin as a fat police chief yelling "I LOVE THE PATRIOT ACT!") Just make sure you shut the movie off right after the arrest scene on the roof.

Cast Away
Cast Away(2000)
½

When I first saw this movie I was too young to really appreciate it. It was slow, the story outside of the desert island felt forced and the ending just kind of came out of nowhere. My best friend spent a good chunk of the film yelling obscenities at the screen, and my mom told me flat out she didn't care for it. I am generally shocked by the 90% Tomatometer rating and positive responses I get from people when I mention the movie, because I certainly heard nothing good about it back when it first came out. Then again, generational flip-flopping seems to be a common occurrence among media enthusiasts.

Watching with some life-experience, I've come to realize that Cast Away was simply ahead of its time, or at least my time. The mass-market studio presentation cripples what should otherwise have been a solemn exercise in arthouse existentialism. As a result, the whole thing feels forced, unsure of its own premise and inherent originality. Tom Hanks is excellent as an isolated plane-crash survivor, conveying his trademark subtle humor and emotional depth amidst growing desperation. The hard lesson he and his wife learn on and off the island (which feel like two different universes thanks to the exceptionally slow pacing) is admirably bitter and honest. The "crossroads" non-ending holds considerable weight and profundity in the context of the proceedings, now that I am old enough to appreciate it. And there are just a lot of pleasant details that give the whole thing a lot of heart.

Sadly, the first half hour of Cast Away is a giant fucking ad for FedEx. Sometimes I miss being a child and having such low standards for everything. If I witnessed that level of product-placement on screen nowadays, I would eagerly walk out of the theater and demand my money back. Why would Fed Ex even advertise in a movie? Everyone already knows who they are. How paranoid and delusional must Zemeckis have been about the success of his film to back that horse? Contact would have been such a shitty movie if the alien blueprints had been sponsored by Kinkos. So where does a company like FedEx get off shoving their logo in our faces every ten seconds between Tom Hanks building a fire and Tom Hanks taking a dump in the surf? I like to think that the reason their employees always seem like they are in such a hurry is because they are ashamed of their role in this movie.

Capitalist manifestations aside, Cast Away is a decent film with decent performances, from a time before Gus Van Sant cornered the market on meandering meditation films. It is full of great, memorable slices of Americana that we will never forget, like the horrifying plane-crash sequence, Tom Hanks performing self-dentistry with an ice skate, and a love story involving a beach ball. Its depiction of the relativity of time one experiences in the wild, and the forced savagery of a modern human being pushed to the edge for the sake of survival, is exciting to behold.

Surrogates
Surrogates(2009)

I tell you, nobody does Sad Action Hero better than Bruce Willis. Talk about a guy who can take crap dialogue and turn it into sincere gold. Here he stars in a science fiction film less concerned with witty dialogue and more concerned with creating a believable future where robots have taken over the world-- but not in the way you might think.

A famous engineer turned mad scientist, Canter (played by James Cromwell, on loan from the set of I, Robot) perfects robotics to the point that they look and act exactly like us-- better than us, even-- with the intent of giving disabled persons the ability to experience the world remotely, using their "surrogates" as personal avatars. Then a corporation comes along and decides to mass-market them, the same way Ford brought the luxury of the automobile to the masses. The next thing you know, humanity is living out their lives through the use of Surrogates. Why? It's safer, more convenient, and renders war casualty-free. Most importantly, you can custom manufacture your Surrogate to be anyone or anything you want-- including the opposite sex. The benefits of such a technology are obvious, and at no point does the film go out of its way to demonize the idea in any sort of heavy handed manner. Instead, over the course of events, we witness the cost to our bodies, minds, and most importantly, our personal relationships, when we let ourselves become shut-ins through the use of what amounts to Life-Size Social Networking.

Surrogates is not a preachy movie. There isn't much here in the way of regressive technological fearmongering that hasn't been explored by films like Blade Runner or by trans-existential authors like Philip Dick. Mostly, it's a film that makes its point through sheer spectacle. If you like movies that take place in the future, but not so much that they aren't still identifiable at a personal level, then you will love Surrogates. You could say it's the Blade Runner for the man on the go; the relatively light PG-13 rating makes it accessible to a wide audience and it certainly progresses in a generic, even procedural fashion. But it's full of enough charming and sometimes breathtaking details to make it an above-average night at the movies, especially if you are a sci-fi buff looking for a thrill ride that will leave you with some neat things to think about.

The Surrogates are played by the human actors they are based on, and through the magic of physical acting move in a slightly imperfect, autonomous fashion, like an alien trying to learn to act human. Their make-up jobs are a little too perfect, giving their skin an unreal, artificial sheen. Even the older models are intriguing to behold, especially the spooky looking dispatcher-robots, who look like Terminators and sit and watch thousands of computer screens, waiting to prevent the almost non-existent crime. The Surrogates don't look much different, once your peel the skin away. However, this is not a movie about rogue computer intelligences. There is only one genuine "leap of faith" plot device in the movie, that being how a human being interfaces virtually with their Surrogates, but some things are best left to the imagination. All of the problems in the movie are man-made; this is a film about people relying too heavily on technology, and what happens when they manifest and project their own inadequacies and imperfections upon their own mechanical creations, which, by design, have no imperfections beyond the tools we give them. Covering up human weakness with gloss and finesse, or in this case, live-like robots, does not fix the human condition; it simply further perverts our attempts at legitimate, human expression. This truth forms the core concept of Surrogates. Even the Frankenstein-esque "technology run amok" subplot that underlies the momentum of the entire movie is the direct result of humans pushing the technological envelope too far.

The story surrounds a pair of FBI agents investigating a truly original crime: someone has found a way to murder people through their surrogates! This is a terrifying concept because it defeats the entire purpose of surrogacy. Even more suspicious: The victim is the son of the man who invented surrogacy. They question the company that produces surrogates, and eventually make their way to Cantor, who has taken on a sort of Oppenheimer level of dementia; he loathes his own creation and the effect it has had on humanity to the point of becoming a shut-in himself. Also of importance is a the leader of a large movement of humans who resist surrogacy, choosing instead to live in run-down, cordoned-off communes sprinkled throughout the city. The Prophet (played by Ving Rhames) preaches the purity and irreplaceable beauty of raw human experience, free of hardware augmentation. It seems like an obvious ethical stance to take, but in a future where robots walk about outdoors while their drivers sit lazily and comfortably in their own homes, it's fairly non-conformist. Keep in mind how "tools" like cell-phones and Facebook command so much of our attention and time. At want point does our need for instant communication become self-defensive and intersect with our fear of social awkwardness to the point of paying back negative dividends? Struggle is a part of life. Even The Prophet, who loathes technological transparency and triumphs the sanctity of humanity is willing to take a human life if he sees it as necessary to his cause, which is not what it seems on the outside.

The heart of the movie is the enstranged relationship between Tom Greer (Willis) and his wife, Maggie (the painfully beautiful Rosamund Pike). They lost their son in a car accident, and now Maggie uses her surrogate as a crutch, locking herself away in a dark room, popping pills to stay awake and keep the anxiety at bay. Greer reaches out to her every chance her gets, leading to an increasingly tragic series of exchanges. You really want to see them make it work, and his love for her ties into a profound decision he makes at the climax of the movie. Also important is the head dispatcher at the city's centralized law-enforcement command center, a fat little man who refuses to don his own surrogate: "They can try all they want, but there isn't a piece of hardware in existence that can handle this brain." The wisdom of his words is deceivingly egotistic; until they create a robot that can do everything a human being can, including think for you, why even bother?

The story plods along and takes some interesting turns along the way. It's fairly standard sci-fi fare, but it's all done with enough style and conviction to keep your mind working in favor of the writers. There are a few well done action sequences as well, involving surrogates chasing meat-bags, or meat-bags chasing surrogates, or some other variation of the two. They are all instigated and driven by the story, and most of them involve cars and some form of dismemberment, which is a plus. There is a particularly engaging chase scene early in the movie where Greer's surrogate endures increasing amounts of damage until he's nothing but a lumbering armless hulk squirting green blood with a grimace. Afterward, Greer is more or less forced to pursue the investigation without a surrogate, venturing out into the world in his own, flesh and blood body, leading to some of my favorite scenes in the movie.

There is, of course, plenty to dislike here. The score is constantly present to the point of being overbearing. The characterizations are pretty shallow, and the whole thing is over too quickly (barely 80 minutes!), almost like there's a huge chunk of footage missing. And Ebert is right, it really could have done without the last few shots. If it had just closed with Greer kicking in the door to behold his wife standing in front of the bright window, well... you'll see what I mean.

Regardless, Surrogates is a surprisingly intelligent science-fiction/thriller. It also brings up some interesting issues regarding humanism, freedom of privacy, law-enforcement infringement, compulsive military funding, even sentient cyber-life, and presents a thoughtful warning against the dangers of technological complacency. Or rather, complacent technology. The characters, as their surrogates, sit stiffly in their chairs, talking at each other like Barbie dolls performing in a doll house. Surrogacy has essentially turned the planet into a giant chat-room, complete with deceiving avatars and fetishes of every sort. There is a post-humanist concept that proposes our current course of human development will eventually see us all living inside of hard-drives, acting out our lives mentally, even physically, inside artificially created universes. It sounds far-fetched, but if you find the idea even remotely intriguing, then you might appreciate this little gem.

Tron Legacy
Tron Legacy(2010)
½

Here is a movie true to its roots. While TRON is ultimately Disney's scrounging the bottom of their barrel of old weird experimental licenses (Atlantis The Lost Empire and The Black Hole also come to mind) for spare box-office revenue, it stands distinct in that it is a genuinely original and fairly intriguing universe, supported by visually engaging concepts.

However, to suggest that it is rife for new cannon and narrative exploration is dangerous. Asking your audience to over-think an essentially simple adventure story set in cyberspace with vague Luddite undertones is risking absurdity; the true sci-fi at the heart of TRON is the visual irony of programs given dimension and personality-- as humanoid artificial life, a computer nerd's experiment gone astray. (Then again I saw the original when I was, like, 6, can barely remember it and probably misunderstood it completely.)

Fortunately, Tron: Legacy has very few cards up its sleeve. The "Prodigal Son drops in as Dues Ex Machina" tale is a generic but endearing tone, and rather than trying to mutate the formula, the bevy of writers rely on its simple existence at the core of the tale to give the film all necessary depth. Indeed, Sam's auto-erotic foray into the world of family-friendly cyberpunk is certainly exciting, if predictable, and the people he meets (including a properly aged Jeff Bridges!) are memorable enough.

But the real star of Tron: Legacy is, appropriately, the presentation. While most modern films with fantastical settings that rely on waxy CGI leave much to be desired, TRON embraces the richness of its own confines, upgrading the black-and-neon visual splendor of the original (80s) film into a gorgeous present tense. Interiors look like the bedroom at the end of 2001 and the big rocky island Lex Luthor grows in Superman Returns smashed into each other. It's easy on the eyes but just as fun to ignore the characters and dwell on the bizarreness of the set design. The exterior consists of sprawling cities of glowing plexiglass and utilitarian architecture, surrounded by endless straight highways stretching through endless plains of dark, vaguely outlined geography. All of it floats in an impenetrable black void, and all of it is based around a stylistic impression of information moving through the circuit boards of a computer system. It's strange and fascinating and it works.

Also of honorable mention is the soundtrack by Daft Punk, which perfectly punctuates the action and weirdness of the TRON universe and pretty much makes the movie. I loved it and the film would have been a slow sucky mess without the epic urgency of constant finely crafted new-age techno. It's thoughtful, quirky, heart-pounding, and fits like a glove.

This is one of the few teen-action flicks that gets a legitimate pass, because the story has a simple harmless momentum that is amplified three-fold by the visual stakes. There is a great disc-battle when Sam first enters cyberspace, and the WWII bomber-vs-glider battle at the end is spectacular. A CGI Bruce Boxleitner as Tron himself makes a cameo, and a hippy Bridges mumbles about Zen and tosses around atheistic scientific worldviews like he takes them for granted ("Nobody created the Iso's, the conditions were right and they just appeared") which is sure to miff off religious lobbyists, and that makes me happy. The costumes range from latent sexual to outright disturbing.

Tron: Legacy flawlessly combines real sets with computer environments. I say flawlessly because the movie for the most part takes place in a computer and we expect computer effects, so one with an open mind is able to suspend their disbelief indefinitely. Less-convincing is the CGI makeup on Jeff Bridges as Young Flynn at the beginning of the film. They should have just hidden his face with angles and voice-over and used old footage of Bridges, but oh well.

TRON will make you want to be a kid again, and like your younger self it probably could have been so much more. I wish they had gone all out and given the universe some real depth. I lost hope once the film rushed through the fascinating "club" sequence, with little to no regard for the other denizens of the city. But it's still a very fun, if streamlined movie for anyone who has an imagination and likes fascinating eye-candy. It knows its own boundaries and respectfully declines to break them.

Before Sunset

The heartbreak movie that 500 Days of Summer wants to be. No flashy graphics or "clever" editing, just two unique people with a strong personal bond crossing paths unintentionally, but not quite accidentally. (It's a chick flick for special chicks.) Delpy contributed the soundtrack and co-wrote the screenplay with Hawke and Linklater. Gen-X "romantics" who admired the quality first entry (released in 1994, approximately 10 years previous to the events in Sunset) and have since turned into the "hopeless" or "disappointed" variety will appreciate the darker, more serious tone of their reunion.

Aesthetically the film is much better made than the first; the shots are tighter, the takes are longer, the dialogue layered and more mature, the two leads older and wiser. The story itself is more a tragedy of love, but also a celebration of imperfection. The conversation between Celine and Jesse flows logically and is again quite thoughtful. This is an honest, bitter, and intellectually exciting continuation of an earlier fling, one gone too far then left to simmer for a decade.

Complimentary props for the naturalistic production values and attention to detail; nothing "showy" in the traditional Hollywood sense, just lots and lots of brooding, meaningful talk. Before Sunset is methodical and lumbering like the first, asking you to sit and listen patiently and get swept up in the characters. If you liked Sunrise this is a great continuation of the story (and a possibly open-ended one at that...) but don't expect any happy endings or neat little bows.

If you consider yourself even remotely sophisticated when it comes to film you'll probably be able to appreciate something in this package. Be warned: may compel you to drop everything and fly to Paris.

The Town
The Town(2010)

Exactly the same story as Heat (1993), if that movie had focused more on Val Kilmer's character and less on De Niro's self-destructive spiral. But there's more heart and narrative here than Mann could ever hope to gloss over with realistic gun-sounds. While violent, emotional crime dramas with a cultural twist aren't exactly anything new, this is a solid entry in the genre.

Jeremy Renner is the wild-card to Affleck's straight-shooter persona, and Jon Hamm almost steals the show in his supporting role as the obsessively-driven FBI agent. The rest of the cast, consisting of thugs, hookers and romantic interests does an equally impressive job and always gives 100% during their limited screen time. I really appreciated the grayness written into each character's personality, how each player has multiple dimensions that reveal themselves depending on the gravity of the situation. It can certainly be said that everyone goes through some sort of transformation by the end of the movie, be it a change of heart, social standing or going from being alive to being dead.

Doug is a nice guy, but he's also a bastard when it comes to his neglected ex-girlfriend; despite his compassionate nature, there are certain hierarchies to life that one must abide by to maintain composure. Similarly, agent Frawley may be a force for righteousness, but his tactics often seem desperate and manipulative. We've been idolizing tyrants of anti-establishment and criminalizing well-meaning folks since Sophocles's Medea, the original crime drama, in order to teach each other about matters of perspective, so nothing new there. The Town intelligently raises the issue that there is more to life than a person's actions, there is the place that they are coming from. It's a good script, maybe not "high-brow" but this is a film about hardened criminals (in Boston, "the bank robbery capital of the world) and love and honor transcends lifestyle. So at the very least The Town succeeds in capturing a gritty sense of "being there."

Doug and his gang of repeat-offenders impulsively take a single hostage during one of their heists, then release her. Nervous about "the heat", they send one of their own to keep tabs (just as one would double-check the grammar of a company e-mail before clicking "send".) They inadvertently fall for each other. But of course Doug has his terrible secret, leading to increasing guilt, anxiety, and a series of close-calls compounded by his growing closeness to Claire. If this sounds contrived to you, don't worry, it's just one part of Doug's journey to self-salvation. The real star of the show is the sense of claustrophobia that comes from not having a way out, whether it be a need for reprieve from an unsatisfying relationship, or fleeing across a bridge before the cops close it down. Doug seeks an exit, and Claire is his door. After meeting his family and learning about his personal life, it's not hard to see why he wants out. Loyalty at the cost of a fringe existence? No thanks. Doug takes steps to forge a new path, how and why he's not sure, and his obligations to his friends and the looming threat of Lady Justice weigh heavy on his shoulders.

The few well-executed car chases and firefights that arise from the increasingly ballsy heist-sequences feel spontaneous and brutal, each bullet resonating with the gravity of a life-sentence. The writing is smart and often very clever, without feeling heavy-handed or assuming. The dialogue is very believable for each character, considering growing up in such a place would probably turn you into a thick-skinned gunman or embittered smart-ass. The photography is more or less spotless, The Town being another recent example of how movies should be filmed; with a camera, some actors and some movement. Good score, though a little cheesy to the point that this sometimes feels like a rousing companion piece for Will's best friend from Good Will Hunting. Affleck needs to lay off the sentimentality.

The ending is a decent payoff for all of the character growth and momentum preceding it, though the film has a tendency to take its time and dwell on plot points that aren't as interesting as Affleck thinks they are, like the stuff with the ice-rink, or whatever was going on with that one cop. To contrast this, the movie appropriately skims over details that other crime films lavish, like the planning stage of a heist. This works to make the proceedings feel more like a glimpse into various people's lifestyles as they relate to the Boston Bank Robbery scene and each other, rather than watching actors playing a game of Risk for the first time.

In some ways this is a better movie than Heat, because the overall message is more positive, more palatable; there can be a light at the end of the tunnel. While the ending is brutal and bittersweet because of the path of bodies and broken hearts Doug leaves behind in his desperate attempt to escape to what can hardly be called a clean getaway, he is smarter because of it, and everyone loves watching the hero take out the trash. The Town is vibrantly stylistic and exciting, but also dark and scary, and its focus on character and environmental detail and a pace that is both brooding and fast raises it well above the standard action fair to one of the better films of 2010.

Unstoppable
Unstoppable(2010)
½

Nothing to see here. Tony Scott takes a fine premise, the archetypal runaway train, and buries it in brainless action-movie muck. Trains are majestic, patriotic, fearsome workhorses-- the best way to travel, frankly, and as anyone who has done so knows, spotting them can be therapeutic to a troubled mind. But this film has no respect for them outside of the dialogue of the engineers attempting to stop the train, which is highly technical to the point that you can tell the screenwriters went and hung out at a rail yard for a day, got bored and just looked it all up on Wiki so they could market the thing to bored shop-class teachers.

Pretty much all of the entertainment value comes from the banter between Chris Pine and Denzel Washington. They do the best they can with the limited character background and development they are afforded, and watching their friendship and personal dilemmas arc in the midst of what amounts to a workplace accident with velocity is more exciting than the actual train-- which is UNSTOPPABLE! And why they didn't just lower the fucking Marine onto the engine to shut the thing down 30 seconds into the movie was a mystery to me. The story frankly isn't that interesting, one of those "dude you had to be there!" affairs, and the attempt by Scott and crew to "gussy it up" with an overlong buildup, sassy black women yelling into phones and OMG TRIPPIN CAMERA ZOOMZ does nothing but demean what could have been a good, brooding disaster film, like those greats from the 70's where endangered schoolchildren dropped like flies and God was right where he belonged: Non-Existent and Indifferent.

Scott just can't let it be. Everything is a dramatic zoom in, jump-cut, cleverly edited spin-job. "Nobody cares about trains, they won't get it." Maybe if you put some god damn establishing shots in your film that didn't look like the cutting-room floor of a music video. In a Scott film, there are only two things an UNSTOPPABLE train can do: hit stuff, or be about to hit stuff. Everything is imminent doom and gloom. One of the engineers gives Chris Pine a dirty look, so you know he'll be dead later in the film. There is no subtlety, no moments of first-hand peril, where the characters look down and behold the one thing that makes trains so scary: Speed. More precisely, speed relative to the Earth. If you've ever stood between train cars and looked down, you know what I'm talking about. One wrong step and it's a one-way ticket to Slab City. UNSTOPPABLE is more concerned with the Mass of the train, and it's Toxic Contents, which are irrelevant because as far as I know there isn't a giant smoking crater where Stanton, PA used to be.

But who cares about what kind of danger the main characters are in? We need more shots of concerned, open-mouthed women! Look how shocked they are! Now let's cut to the fat corporate CEO on the golf-course. (He's the Bad Guy, because an UNSTOPPABLE train isn't enough.) As a white, 50-hour-a-week blue-collar worker this film really speaks to me! I'd better go crash a town hall meeting with my ill-informed loudmouthed bullshit. Still lost? How about some more Newsroom Footage! Ah, the old standby of the insecure film maker. It's like ending your movie with a god damn courtroom scene. After the situation has been explained, and explained again, let's cut to Fox 12 News Reporter Sherri giving us the rundown: The train is UNSTOPPABLE, it has not yet been STOPPED, and the authorities are currently trying to STOP it, thanks Sherri, you may now resume your open-mouthed concern.

What we have here is a decent movie, ruined by over-production. I half expected Denzel Washington to climb out of my television Ring-style and wrap my DVD in a bow. And yes, there is a train full of schoolchildren barreling down the tracks in the opposite direction. The very moment it barely misses the UNSTOPPABLE train by switching onto some conveniently-placed side-tracks is the very moment this movie made a choice about the kind of movie it was going to be. At least there wasn't any inappropriate 9/11 garbage, like collapsing buildings or "terrorism". Rosario Dawson says "missile" at one point, and I guess there is an overabundance of firefighters throughout, which is odd because I thought firemen fought fires, not stopped UNSTOPPABLE trains. All they can really do here is watch the train rush through their town and marvel at how UNSTOPPABLE it is.

Nope, instead this film cashes in on the Failing Economy to be "relatable". Now when you watch this film with your kid in twenty years you can look back and say "See son, at least Tony Scott knew that consolidation of wealth is a bad idea!" and your kid can look up at you with open-mouthed concern. Thanks for that, Tony. Thanks for that.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam is a genius. I'm not surprised his work is so controversial since he essentially makes Tim Burton look like a dried-up hack. Artsy zealot types don't like having their childhood idols exposed as nothing more than empty husks by someone else's consistently superior work. And a foreigner no less! ::drops monocle::

Roger Ebert once mused that Gilliam as a director is given too large a budget and tries to do too many things at once with it. As a result, his films are often hard to follow. Bullocks! Gilliam isn't obligated to shortchange his visions just to appeal to shorter attention spans. He uses balance! Gill remembers what it was like when movies were allowed to be two movies at once: a Dr. Seuss Mind-**** Fantasy and a Serious Human Drama. Sure, it requires teaching the audience a lot of rules. But when you sprinkle them throughout the entire movie, when those rules are infused into the narrative, it can make a movie wonderful. The problem with a lot of films today is that they establish a cliche premise then try to do something timely (not unique) with it, which automatically imbues all these remakes and comic-book yarns with a sense of staleness. They forget what makes a film original and engaging.

Gilliam establishes a simple premise early on then builds on it exponentially through the steady braiding of Story and Visuals, both of which are validated by a cast of zany and frankly wonderful actors, to drive the point home. Once those elements are established, he proceeds to gradually inch the rug out from under your feet with a steady flow of twists and turns over the remainder of the film.

The result is an intelligent, humanistic movie supported by incredible visuals and great physical action. (Real action, the kind between people having a conversation, not people jumping between buildings or away from explosions.) The only side effect of this storytelling formula is a consistently perceived "void" or flatness to all of Gilliam's films. That's because we're used to the recently-Hollywoodized camera trick where a camera hides from the action, as though we are looking in on events and people who do not realize they are being watched. But the world shown is almost always depicted as our world, our time. Who cares how immersed we are if it's just another version of our world with our rules?

Gilliam paints an entire Universe so rich with its own rules that we can almost accept the fantastical elements at face value. That's real immersion. Terry remembers how real immersion involves aiming a camera at a pair of actors and actually allowing the actors to work for their money. This endears us to them because the longer a shot lasts the closer we feel to the person in the shot, no matter what they're doing. Period. No stylistic quick cuts, no cheesy dramatic musical swells. True, you've got the usual cinematographer's toolkit of close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots, but it complements the BALANCE! Any flatness you are feeling is your genuine curiosity trying to kick in for the first time since you were a child, before we all got boring.

The story? This really old guy and his crew of desperate actors lurk the back-streets of an unnamed seedy city in a caravan magic show built into a big transforming wagon. Their act seems outdated and inappropriate in the present day, which makes it all the more alluring to curious passerby. (Street theater is one of the last pure forms of entertainment, after all.)

They try and fail to make money, but their hearts are in the right place... except when they aren't, and it's these showings of weakness and failures of character that give them real humanity and further the plot. The tiny mobile theater with its magic mirrors and trap doors and pulleys is the real heart of the movie, and the characters dance knowingly in and around its magical secret, which is a portal to another dimension.

Rather than affecting itself upon the volunteers who enter into its realm, their own desires and imaginations twist and morph this alternate reality to their own unconscious specifications. However, there are some very curious consistencies between minds that hint at a much larger plan. The nature of that plan, of this Universe and the reasons behind its existence provide the narrative drive of the film, but it is the raw and witty interaction between the supporting characters that give it its charm. These intense characterizations even outshine the visuals within the Imaginarium, which, although looking like a bad Milkshape 3D trip, work within the context Gilliam so imaginatively crafts.

Finally, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a great example of how to implement religious connotations into a story without being preachy. For some reason, people hate it when filmmakers take a stance, but even the shrinking population of SANE moviegoers shouldn't find anything offensive about the unsubtle imagery featured in the book Dr. Parnasses shows to Valentina about half way through the movie. Not that I support instilling religious behaviors into children. It never works. Never.

So yeah, you should watch it. Heath Ledger's always full of fun nuances to catch, he does a little Joker which is kind of retarded but you let it go because his character's kind of evil, and you've got cameos by Jude Law, Colin Farrel and Johnny Depp if you're one of those guys who likes to "cash in" on a first date. Oh, and the girl is super hot. The plot gets complicated fairly quickly, and some important words and images fly by pretty fast, so pay close attention or you might get frustrated. And remember not to mistake the thoughtfully slow-paced story for a lack of quality; you're just not used to having your emotions respected. I don't blame you. I see movies these days too.

Paranormal Activity

Disregarding all of the ridiculous hype for this film (the same way one disregarded all the hype for Blair Witch back in the day) what you end up with is a competently made haunted-house thriller done on a handi-cam. Naturalistic acting works to augment the creepy happenings, gradually and cleverly building a sensation in the viewer of palpable, inescapable dread and anticipation. All in the middle of a sunny, apple-pie San Diego suburb.

So this young couple pisses a ghost off in their new house. That's all you need to know going in. There is much more happening behind the scenes, and like all good horror, plot development is spurred on by implication, not exposition. As with most horror films, there is a little too much explaining at points. But watching the two likable main characters spiral into despair in the face of the unknown is so potent and disturbing that you almost want to watch them when the camera is off just to get to know them better.

I like being scared. But I got so into this film that there were moments toward the end I found difficult to watch because I wasn't sure I wanted to see. Basically, not a lot happens in the first 45 minutes of the movie (if you appreciate Kevin Costner films you'll be at home here,) and this is all intentional. It is much easier to keep throwing "jump scares" at the audience, but it is much more intriguing to draw out the waiting. Information is fed to the viewer in tiny bits, so that you grow impatient and crave action. Then, later on, when things are getting way out of hand, you beg for the action to stop. This is smart film-making. You don't want Katie and Micuh to die, right? The mark of a quality horror experience is the subtle manipulation of audience expectations.

Unfortunately, the ending is black. Like, Blair Witch Black. Stephen King's The Mist black. Why do so many symphonies of terror and gore insist on letting us down on a sour note? Aren't the trials and tribulations of the terrified young couple over the course of the film enough? I don't know what is so off-limits about ending these kinds of films on a pleasant note. It's not a compromise or anything; I just like being able to sleep at night, and not walking around for a week in a bad mood.

But even if you don't buy all the hyper-realism or pseudo-demonology crap, there are several moments in this film that anyone with a pulse should find particularly unsettling. One of them is early on and involves a thump and what sounds like a scream, the second involves a dark attic and the third, which I won't spoil, is further proof that holding onto your sheets as a child while you cowered in your bed was, in fact, a good idea. While watching I was reminded of those creepy teen-reading books about Poltergeists I used to hover over in the back of the library, one story in particular about a poor kid who is thrown shivering to the floor after having his covers ripped away by an invisible presence. Paranormal Activity creates that "traditional" ghost story vibe in a contemporary setting, and it works.

The other scares are legitimate, but kind of cheesy standard fare; they function, but the real fear is in the waiting, in the disturbing lack of action. One of the best moments in the movie involves Katie freaking out over a spider (more on that later), and we are reminded of simpler times, of simpler fears, and it's almost like the director is rubbing it in our face. These two aren't the selfless supportive lovers from Open Water (a very similar film;) Katie and Micah become less and less supportive of each other as the film winds on. This phenomenon is predicted and hinted at earlier in the film, but it's a fairly depressing process to observe nonetheless.

Sure, it has some problems. There is the usual slew of horror-movie contrivances and behavior that have always been a stretch and always will be. You know; little things. I thought the Katie character was a little too attractive to be with a douche like Micuh, even once she turns into a bitch halfway through the movie. I had a hard time concentrating whenever she was on screen because all I could think about was what it would be like to have sex with her. Considering 90% of the film takes place in bed, in loose-fitting bed clothes and what-all, it became problematic. I mean, look at that body. But, babe, that's not how you pronounce the name "Micah", or spell it for that matter.

Speaking of Micuh, he was a little too gung-ho for me. I realize that these kinds of movies require ill-decision making on the part of the SUBTLE NUCLEAR MALE STEREOTYPE for there to be conflict, but every other person in the film tells him explicitly NOT TO PISS THE GHOST OFF and he does so regardless.

Lastly, why do some people insist on ferrying insects outside instead of squashing them on the spot? In grade school I was threatened to within an inch of life by the class bully because I killed a bug. Really? Are you sure you want to be known as the armchair-buddhist who cries over dead spiders while children are born and die in the span of a year knowing nothing but starvation? While ghosts run rampant in your home and your woman suffers? Micuh is a moron.

Anyway. Watch this one with your girl, unless she's trying to quit smoking. Otherwise a buddy with a good sense of humor will do. However, for the "best" viewing experience, watch it alone in the dark in the middle of the night.

Inception
Inception(2010)
½

Despite the capitalistic caped-crusade by Dark Knight fanboys to hype this movie violently down the throats of a bored and intellectually-parched viewing public, Inception is actually an exceedingly well-made and polished movie throughout. Perfectly paced and written, thought-provoking and exciting in equal measure, the cast and crew do a great job bringing some well-needed seriousness back to the Science-Fiction genre. And despite the consensus, I found the movie to be powerfully emotional, mostly due to an intellectual sensibility inherent to the subject of dreams. Here is a film that welcomes multiple interpretations with open arms, but never shoves them in the viewer's face as essential to the plot. This makes it accessible and enjoyable by a wide range of ages and intellects, and raises it above a confusing movie like Primer, a film which no doubt helped inspire Nolan's script.

Amazingly, there is enough narrative content here to warrant nearly three hours of focused momentum. The brilliant, brooding and overbearing score by Hans Zimmer also helps. The compounding story elements are self-sustaining and congruent, never feeling extraneous or drab, all of the cinematic elements supported and complemented by compelling and deliciously complex sub-plots and characters, sometimes operating separately, but often gratifyingly affecting each other directly. I was extremely hesitant about the aspect of the film concerning Cobb and Mal's relationship, but it is much more than a simple love story, and more integral to the film than simply as a blunt instrument to attract the Teen Girl demographic. It is both central and disposable, depending on your perception of the movie, and ended up being one of my favorite parts. The interactions between all the characters are fun to watch. (Arthur and Eames's homosexual rivalry, not so much.)

On the surface is a silly story about dreams and redemption, and beneath it, some gobbledygook about death and rebirth, the infinite and intertwined nature of time and the soul, blah blah blah, other meaningful nonsense that speaks to the limited frontiers of human imagination. But it's damn interesting nonsense, and loads of fun to boot; as mentioned earlier the structure of the film plays with our perception of time, chronological order and the true nature of reality, looping back on itself in a way that is just interesting enough without seeming pretentious or pulling our concern away from the perilous mission of the characters. It's certainly more accessible than, say, Memento, a movie that isn't exactly "easy watching", and Nolan's latest work fortunately lacks any scenes of Carrie-Anne Moss going on about venereal diseases.

Inception is overly-complicated, sometimes spending too much time explaining, but there's a reason for everything beyond the simple cementing of plot holes, all the details creeping in throughout the movie in subtle and integral ways. The editing and writing have a very intuitive sense of what makes a movie interesting, what will keep us watching for the full three-hour length. This is a very thin line and the film straddles it for very long portions, and right when an idea or situation starts to become stale a new development surfaces that pulls us right back into the movie.

But who cares about Nolan's talent? Everyone just wants to see Joseph-Gorden Levitt kicking some guy's ass in a rotating hallway. The rest of the action is mostly standard fare, but is given gravity by the plot and our investment in the characters, and the constantly evolving mythos of the film. I love the chase sequence through the back-alleys of Mombasa, which perfectly encapsulates the "fight or flight" nightmare, one of those dreams where you're one step ahead of the bad guys but you just can't quite seem to get away. Yet this scene takes place in the "waking" world; Nolan uses such sequences throughout the movie as double-sided templates, showcasing the way life imitates dreams. Or is it the way dreams imitate life? In a world where people can enter other people's minds, whose to say that our own waking reality hasn't been compromised?

Many symbolic and spiritual parallels can be garnered from Cobb's plight. For instance the focus on scenic repetition in the film, sometimes in your face, sometimes less noticeable, has profound connotations regarding Cobb's mission, as do many other suspicious clues, crystallized early on by a great scene in an elevator where Cobb stores all of his regretful memories that he "still has to fix", sort of like the last couple pages of The Dark Tower. There is something suspicious about the other character's roles and how they all seem to reflect facets of Cobb's personality, like angels of the mind sent to watch over his plight, particularly Caine and Watanabe. Expect clever, innovative writing and dynamic dialogue.

The cinematography is ace, but there is some simple killer imagery here, too. Arthur stacking the sleeping bodies of his friends in zero gravity really took this movie to another level of awesome. I love when Mal calls to her children and Cobb frantically looks away, as though seeing their faces might tear apart the universe; at that point in the movie, we can't completely rule it out. The "kick" aspect of the movie is truly ingenious, with all of the falling sequences being particularly impressive. The follow-shot of Ariadne falling out of the tower at the end blew my mind.

I guess one of my biggest and only problems with Inception is that it raises too many questions, or gives the allusion of raising questions, and inspires too many far-out, half-baked notions that it really doesn't deserve, or are just distracting. Is life just another form of sleep? Is Cobb dead? Are the events portrayed his soul attempting to gain reconciliation with the help of other lost spirits? Is it worth caring? It's unclear what Nolan was trying to do here. Fortunately, like the blowhard auto-fans who voice them, these questions can easily be brushed aside or considered at leisure without sacrificing your enjoyment.

Also, it felt like all Ellen Page did in this movie was ask questions and walk into rooms, followed by people walking out of rooms while she was still talking. She did her best, but dear Mr. Nolan, please pick a more seasoned Audience Surrogate next time.

The Informant!

I admit that I was very apprehensive about watching this film for two primary reasons:

1. The cover art is retarded, and
2. Movies about corporate corruptions are redundant and their intended audience will probably never watch them anyway.

The first 15 or so minutes of The Informant are grueling exactly because it fulfills those two preconceptions; the moral macguffin presented (in this case a syrup-eating virus) is introduced almost immediately, and Mark Whitaker's personality and objectives aren't clearly defined. He's a family-man, a straight flyer, but you can tell by his awkward disposition that he's really just phoning it all in. And then something wonderful happens! The film reveals itself to be a character study of this self-serving compulsive liar. It works wonderfully on this level, and appropriately sidelines the lysine-development company ADM as a frame for the kind of mentally-ill persona that thrives in big-business.

Basically this dick-hole instigates a Federal inquiry upon his company on suspicion of price-fixing because he sees an opportunity to make a butt-load of money, and eventually, take over the place. He does this by fabricating reality to his benefit, practically as he goes, and acting upon his perception of reality so fiercely that the impressionable people around him can't help but go along for the ride-- even the FBI. When the authorities begin to call him out on his bullshit he twists the story and transforms himself into the victim, often using the exact same anecdotes repeatedly. (Not just the same story retold, I mean WORD FOR WORD.) His quick tongue and improvisational skills wear his victims down, at least at first, and he is so successful in part because he makes folks believe that they are getting something out of him as well.

The growing success of Mark's manipulation, pity-pandering and cashing in of people's trust begins to build his confidence up to disturbingly arrogant proportions-- a recipe for an even more reprehensible monster, considering his behavior was instigated by a vast emptiness of character in the first place. What happens when a monster gains fulfillment? It gets complacent, and its victims start to catch on, as is the case here.

Eventually Mark goes on to fool the entire country, for a while, and screenwriter Burns deserves kudos for pointing out how people will believe almost anything a man says if he has a devoted woman on his arm. Turns out married couples are simultaneously some of the most boring AND manipulative people on the planet.

The comedy in this movie (and it is hilarious) is more complex than what you might expect from jokes in the usual sense. Aesthetically the film looks like a mockery of cheap 70s disco movies (like That 70s Show) which is strange because it takes place in the 90s. The real meat comes from watching Matt Damon single-handedly undermine the efforts of the criminal justice system, as well as a giant company that essentially controls the country's food supply. The entire story is told from his perspective, but sometimes it trails off to show the repercussions, and this makes it all the more amusing. If you appreciate satire and subtlety of wit, you will appreciate the Misadventures of Mark Whitaker, a force upon the plain.

Scott Bakula was kind of flat, and that annoying chick from Three and a Half Men plays Whitaker's wife. Naturally, the best part of the film is when Matt Damon gets found out, and boy does he get found out-- or does he? I wonder where the virus that is eating ADM's product came from. Spoiler alert: Mark is a Chemist.

Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass(2010)
½

What a strange, stupid little movie. On the one hand, Kick-Ass is a refreshing, invigorating wannabe-superhero story about a charming but mislead young lad who puts on a costume and fights crime for no other reason than to boost his own self-esteem, but quickly finds himself carried away by the rush of vigilantism.

On the other hand, Kick-Ass is also about a father/daughter hit-squad extracting bloody revenge on a vague organization of mobsters for indirectly taking the life of a loved one. Both of these stories are decently told, but they feel like two completely different films, and everything starts to go helplessly awry at about the 41 minute mark as the two threads inevitably and nonsensically overlap, dragging both tales, and subsequently the movie as a whole, down into the gutter.

I want to get some preliminary points across before I start trashing this movie. For starters, it's hilarious. The banter between Dave and his friends is, for the most part, clever and well realized. Nicholas Cage is still the master of delivering casual dialogue in a dry and sardonic way that just causes me to lose it every other time he speaks. ("Oh child, you always know how to knock me for a loop!") The Mob Boss character, while terrifying, also breaks into comedy gold at the most unexpected times, and other screenwriters would do good to learn from Frank D'Amico as an example of how to give a villain depth and psychosis through strategically placed humor.

But there is a very fine line between dark humor and black humor, and Kick-Ass frolics haphazardly over said line on more than one occasion, to the point that it will leave a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who doesn't get a sexual thrill out of hardcore bloodshed (as I hope most of you don't). At first, the violence here is well-placed and logical; After donning his superhero personality "Kick-Ass", Dave gets into some pretty awesome and realistic tussles that often leave him within an inch of life, a detail that I really admired. The best scene in the film has him attempting to rescue a lost cat from the top of a billboard, only to fall into the middle of a beat-down in progress. Without hesitating, he jumps in to protect the victim. "What's wrong with you?" one of the thugs asks. "It's just some guy you don't even know!" Kick-Ass, squatting protectively over the wounded man, responds: "Three assholes... Beating up on one guy... While everyone watches... and you're asking what's wrong with me? Fuck it, I'd rather die!"

After the brilliance and surprisingly bold ethical stance of this scene, the movie just stops making sense. Dave tries to win the affection of this really vapid girl, Katie, from his school. Teenagers never seem to realize that being dumb is the same as treating someone like crap, because when you act stupid it drags down the people who care about you. In this case, Katie assumes Dave is a homosexual based 100% on a rumor, and never even gives him the chance to argue otherwise. What a great companion. This proves to be an interesting dilemma for Dave, as it keeps him from being more than simply a friend to Katie but provides a convenient alibi for his superhero doings... I think? The film never really explains this, instead using the plot-device as justification for a scene where Katie asks Dave to rub tan lotion all over her half-naked body. Cause you know, that's what all girls do with their gay friends, right? It becomes pretty obvious fairly quickly that this whole sequence of events is just another gay-joke dressed up as integral storyline. Shallow, even for the childishly right-wing Mark Millar.

That's just the beginning of Kick-Ass's muddled moral inconsistencies; Dave goes to confront some extortionists (or something, since all the bad guys in the world of Kick-Ass are apparently mobsters and gang-bangers) who scorned his wannabe-girlfriend. When he asks to see "Rasul, which one of you is Rasul?" some girl stands up and says "I'm Rasul, can't you tell by my big titties?" and proceeds to rub her cleavage together, which is distracting and stupid. What was the point of this? I guess the filmmakers were terrified of going five minutes without shoehorning in something "edgy", considering in the next 30 seconds a character called Hit-Girl shows up and murders everyone in the room FOR NO REASON while kiddie-porn music blares over the soundtrack.

This is how Dave meets Damon and Mindy, two ruthless vigilantes out to take down the mob. This is a very clumsily handled way of weaving their stories together, unless you consider a mobster muttering "They took out Rasul!" to be a legitimate explanation for how Kick-Ass becomes the target of organized crime (it's not.) Hit-Girl by herself is a cool concept, but there is no reason for her to be underage. This is another shameless cash-in on modern comic-book movie "edginess" (as well as a complete misinterpretation of what made Leon The Professional a decent movie). It's also a cash-in on a lesson that Batman already learned a few movies back: sometimes, to defeat violent human beings, we have to become violent ourselves, an idea that I disagree with for the most part and a test that Kick-Ass, sadly, fails. From the first moment he encounters Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, the rest of the film should have been about Dave trying to avoid their presence as vigorously as possible and sticking to his own guns instead of real ones. Instead, he embraces their violent lifestyle for no other reason than he is in the wrong place at the wrong time, completely contradicting much of what Dave stood for up to that point in the film.

I can accept Big Daddy training his daughter to be a killing machine, but why did he teach her to curse? In the first five minutes of meeting her character, this 10-year-old is going on about fucks and cocks and cunts. Yeah, no sexualizing happening here! And why train her to begin with? Why wouldn't Damon just seek revenge on his own? Big-Daddy's cop friend is right: he owes her a real childhood. Sure, D'Amico put him in prison, but it was Damon's wife who CHOSE to kill herself in a depressive fit by popping some vicodin. Except for a few over-the-top circumstances, the mobsters in Kick-Ass never hurt anyone but their own people. Why aren't the dynamic duo trying to take down something more menacing, like the Pharmaceutical industry? Again, moral inconsistency.

Unsurprisingly, Kick-Ass and his vigilante acquaintances team up, at which point the film goes on autopilot, leading to an increasingly dire and predictable series of betrayals and shootouts. I liked watching Big Daddy take out the warehouse full of goons, but why did this have to be out of chronological order with the rest of the film? Distracting. These scenes start to fall into the identical formula where a bunch of bad-guys get murdered in increasingly gruesome and far-fetched ways, and the hero runs out of ammo and is about to die when the music crescendos and they are saved at the last second by the other person, who was off camera just long enough for us to forget about them! WHAT ARE THE ODDS? Wash, rinse, repeat. Excitement for 'tards.

Speaking of mental deficiency, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is horribly miscast as D'Amico's power-hungry son. He has some kind of speech-impediment that makes it really hard to focus on what he is saying, and why he hasn't invested some of his Superbad fame in a voice therapist is beyond me. Every time he was on screen I wanted to do a little Ass-Kicking of my own. I also felt a little cheated by the fact that there is no explanation for his call-sign being "Red Mist"; I kept expecting him to do something cool, like TURN SOMEONE INTO A RED MIST, which never happens until the end of the film, and then not by his hand. What was up with him sliding the Mist-Mobile around corners? It only looks cool if you're chasing/running away from someone, not cruising around picking up chicks. For that matter, did we really need that slow-motion shot of Red Mist and Kick-Ass jumping away from an explosion? Hey Vaughn, you spilled some Dukes of Hazzard in my Comic-Book Movie. Dave showing up and saving the day with a chain-gun-mounted jet pack was the final nail in the coffin for me. Really? This is catharsis? Strafing an office Matrix-style and barely killing the bad guys? Check please.

I also could have done without the subtle musical cue when Dave touches Katie's breasts for the first time. 'Cause you know, I almost forgot I was watching a porno. The composers must really like John Murphy, because they rip his tracks off at two integral parts of the film. If you can make it through these scenes without thinking of the superior Sunshine or 28 Days Later, well, then you've probably never seen those films.

I guess I'm being too hard on Kick-Ass. This is a well put-together movie with some occasionally fantastic storytelling. There are few instances of sly social commentary, like the scene where the media stops the live feed of a gruesome torture due to its violent content, so everyone just goes and looks it up on the internet. Big-Daddy plans his hits against the mob by first illustrating them as stylized comic-book characters, and there is a breathtaking sequence where we learn Damon and Mindy's back-story by flipping through his personalized graphic novel, complete with schizophrenic voice-over. The camera flies into and pans around beautifully cell-shaded scenes of carnage and despair. I've honestly never seen anything like it, and hope to see similar storytelling in the future. And as much as I hated the tacked-on romantic subplot, it actually wraps up fairly professionally and honestly. Minor details, like the way Dave and Katie start having consistent and frantic sex once Dave "comes out" of the superhero closet, are realistic and well conceived. There is an especially hot scene where he bangs her on a trash can behind a coffee shop, which is sexy and hilarious. Lastly, the Mob Boss, D'Amico, is a great villain, very creepy, and I felt physically threatened every time he was on screen, despite him ultimately being just another shallow movie Mob Boss.

I just wasn't satisfied with the film as a whole. You start out with a decently paced and written teen-angst revenge flick, then suddenly it's like a bunch of teenagers got drunk and tried to make Crank 3. Style over Substance all the way. What was the point of seeing a man popped-open in an industrial-strength microwave, or another in a trash-compactor? Some of the violence here is graphic to the point of excess, and if Mark Millar and crew were attempting to make a statement about the glorification of violence in our culture, they failed, because it doesn't make sense to condemn brutality while simultaneously forcing your audience to lather in stylized depictions of it.

Kick-Ass is a rare film that is, sadly, not as good as the sum of its parts.

The Book of Eli
½

This is an above-average apocalyptic sci-fi thriller set in the Wild West of the future that nails the look and feel of what such a world might be like. The bleakness of the crater-scarred, wreckage-strewn landscape and the blandness of the sets and outfits is made approachable by a highly stylish presentation; the movie is full of intriguing camera techniques and a throbbing, hauntingly moody new-age soundtrack that appropriately gives the proceedings a mysterious, yet epic feel.

Besides an interesting forest area in the very beginning of the film, the wasteland that the hero of the title traverses is desolate and foreboding, but uncompromisingly so, and CGI is intelligently used to fill in every nook and cranny, like horizon lines and weather. The Hughes Brothers tell a competent back-story through visuals and costume design, so that we can focus on the matters at hand rather than the less important issue of, I don't know, where these people came from. Moot. Now I've no doubt someone had a copy of "Wasteland 101" on hand the entire production (probably opened to the "Waterworld" chapter) but the crew did a great job of covering up the staleness of this oft-used universe with a clear artistic focus. In other words, I've never seen such a well crafted junkyard in a movie.

The Book of Eli is about a mysterious traveler making his way west across said junkyard to an undisclosed location on the coast, and the people he meets along the way. The nature of his journey, the special nature of the "item" in his possession, and what characters will help or hinder his progress unfolds in a cliche but well-realized, exciting fashion. Many will mistakenly knee-jerk criticize the film's religious undertones, but after some thought will hopefully appreciate the actual message about the deification of knowledge as power over others, the importance of learning from history's mistakes, and mostly, the struggle inherent in maintaining your conviction and "following the path" while still treating others right in a society that has long ago fallen into wrong, and genuine moral acts are harder to find than ever before.

There is a "twist" at the end that I figured out two minutes into the film (as I thought I was supposed to) but for which most reviewers seemed to be unable to suspend their disbelief, no matter-- fanatical conviction makes the impossible plausible. There are also some great action sequences here, involving chainsaws and gatling-guns and pistols at dawn, but mostly involving steady-cams and at least the illusion of a single take shot. Which is great, and more film-makers should pursue this approach rather than the usual tard-tastic Michael Bay quick cut technique that ruined Alien vs Predator from being a decent movie. If a guy is going to get his head cut off, I want to see his head get cut off and I want to see who did it. Don't worry MPAA, we can handle it, we're big boys.

Also, the acting-- Oh, that acting! Denzel is the man. He brings so much class to this role, and within the first 10 minutes has painted a convincing picture of a man with the training of an assassin and the patience and concentration of a mild-mannered monk. I could have watched him interacting with the Engineer character (Tom Waits) all day, it was so intriguing. Gary Oldman brought his pole-vault stick to the set to take it way over-the-top, as usual, but he's a great villain and fantastic supporting actor and I actually found his scenes more watchable than Denzel's as the movie wound on. He's cruel and evil, yes, but he's also the other side of Eli's coin, and that means when their paths cross the results will be explosive. There's an almost childlike intensity in his eyes as he contemplates matters concerning Eli's mission, culminating in a series of obsessed, fanatical facial expressions at the end of the film that, thanks to the magic of acting, turned the opening of a book into one of the most nail-biting sequences I've ever seen.

Mila Kunis is also present, and I was surprised to see her pull the role off without being showy or plastic. Indeed, her Solara character was actually quite thoughtful; I love the scene where she breaks down crying in the middle of the desert for no apparent reason and Eli just stands there and observes. I liked a lot of little details in this film. Everyone is wearing eye-protection, not to look cool, but because the war that caused the collapse of civilization presumably burned a hole in the Ozone. Some characters have different kinds of glasses than others, which is a subtle remark about their personality and social class, real or perceived. However, the broad use of eye-wear is also saying, I think, that humanity has lost hope and is too ashamed to look itself in the eye. At several charming little moments in the story, the eye-wear is removed, and you should pay close attention to these moments because they are important. I liked that Redridge (Ray Stevenson), Carnegie's top henchman, whistles the theme to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly offhandedly throughout the film. I liked that Fresh Water was the main form of strength and currency in the wasteland, and great fanfare is made over the discovery of KFC moist-towelettes and a bottle of shampoo-- what luxury! I liked that the heroes take refuge in an old nuclear cooling tower. I liked the creepy George and Martha cannibal couple, and the unspoken, meaningful communication between Eli and Redridge when he tries to leave the town. I also like the fact that The Book of Eli is a Western set in the future; you've got this big frontier where everyone is cut off from each other, and most people are too afraid to leave the comfort of their fellow man to venture over the horizon and see what new adventure, or horror, awaits. This leaves a vast vacuum of opportunity for power for all the right or wrong people to fill. This every-man-for-himself spaghettism permeates all of the film's standoffs and set-pieces, but never enough to completely upstage the grim spectacle of Eli's journey. And what a journey!

The ending to The Book of Eli will apparently make a lot of people upset, and I like that too. Judging by this movie's critical and financial failure it seems most folks were too put off by some of the leaps of faith (pun intended) required to appreciate the film and were thus unable to accept the simple, elegant messages about the power of the written word in a world that has gone astray, and how a lack of proper values (i.e. abuse of materialism over selflessness) will inevitably lead to destruction, be it the destruction of global infrastructure or destruction of one man's power over a single town. At the end of the day, The Book of Eli is a decent little science-fiction film with some great action sequences and a simple yet admirable lesson at its core, if you care to listen. But mostly there's ACTION!

Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2(2010)
½

This film was a lot better than I expected it to be. It's certainly more enjoyable than the first in parts, but definitely not in others. That's a tough call. Thankfully, the pro-womanizing, pro-America mental-illness imagery infecting Iron Man 1 is mostly absent; Tony still acts like a dick to everyone he meets but this time they are all aware of it and usually don't give him the time of day, throwing him into a deep, self-loathing depression that makes up some of the best scenes in the movie.

Oh, and he's dying too.

Mostly what this film is about is Iron Man and his friends stumbling around doing cool shit for two and half hours. To the credit of the film, the run-time flies by. Even when the screen is devoid of action sequences (which it is for long swaths) the meaty chunks are still interesting enough. Sam Rockwell shows up as rival war-profiteer Hammer to completely upstage Robert Downey Jr. Then you have the real, physical villain and director Jon Favreau's Tea Party Fear Monger pitch Whiplash, played by thick-skulled-thick-skinned Mickey Rourke. With his character he successfully fulfills his duty of functioning as nothing more than a sweaty obstacle while completely failing to build upon the back-story hinted at in the FIRST SCENE OF THE MOVIE.

There are two big scenes in the film where stuff gets blowed up real good, both of which are made completely irrelevant by Scarlett Johansson lynching guys in her diving suit. But of those two, the best easily involves a showdown on a race-track. Whiplash conceals his exo-suit with a technician's jumpsuit. He casually walks onto the track and calmly faces down Tony, who is driving a formula-one racer. Rather than politely removing the jumpsuit to be washed later by the wardrobe crew, he just lets it burn away when he activates his suit of armor. A staggering disrespect for the seamstress's time and effort on the part of Rourke, but pleasing eye-candy for us.

This one-on-foot one-on-wheels showdown completely blows the Dark Knight and Joker out of the water. Whiplash beats the living shit out of Tony, whose associates then drive a car into The Wrestler repeatedly while Tony hangs from a chain-link fence like a bitch.

Then the movie turns into Transformers for a while, but up until then I was completely drawn into the action. The upgrades to Tony's offensive (and defensive) systems aren't what you'd expect, and watching him utilize them in the film with very little warning was neat, but if you blink you'll miss them. I liked that the final battle is essentially against the U.S. Military. I also appreciated the humor, which always came from a different direction while managing not to be too shocking or redundant. At one point Tony has suffered the Hero's Fall so hard that he gets into a tussle with a paperweight and loses. Then he practically trips over the answer to his ailments, in the form of a secret message left by Roger Sterling from Mad Men. Best thing Downey Jr.'s done for a film since donating his role to a black man before Tropic Thunder began filming.

Though, when I think about it, he kind of does that here, too. Don Cheadle (the Lady's Man from SNL) is thankfully on hand at several points to help change Tony's diaper. Sam Jackson also shows up to yell a bit and give Downey Jr. more obstacles to overcome with his blank-faced sort of acting style.

I'm still only giving this a 70% because the whole thing is pretty ridiculous when you stand back and think about it. I don't even know any women who have seen the first one; this film is largely inoffensive (and kind of empty as a result) so it might be a good way to ease them into the franchise without alienating anyone. Tony's desperate, drunken struggle to find a legacy is more interesting than his desperate, drunken struggle to overcome Stockholm Syndrome, like in the first movie. So that's a plus. But try and get some women into the theater next time so you don't all look like lonely virgin fanboys.