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Movie Ratings and Reviews

My Soul to Take

In his almost 40-year Hollywood career, Wes Craven has been responsible for some of horror?s best-known titles. Some of those have become genre classics (?A Nightmare on Elm Street,? ?Scream?), while others are remembered?or forgotten?for more notorious reasons (?Deadly Friend,? Shocker?). Unfortunately, ?My Soul to Take? falls into the latter category?and not by a little bit either; this may be the most poorly-written, convoluted, confusing, contradictory film I?ve seen this year; it?s without doubt the worst horror film I?ve seen in 2010.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=4282

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

?Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? doesn?t so much redefine the comic book genre, as it does expand and evolve it, creating, possibly, a new sub-genre: the neo-orthodox comic book movie. That?s high praise, but, aesthetically speaking, I can?t recall ever seeing a comic book come so close to being, quite literally, ?inked? onto a movie screen.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=4056

Get Low
Get Low(2010)
½

To read my review of "Get Low," please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=4015

The Last Exorcism

To read my review of "The Last Exorcism," please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=4010

The American
The American(2010)
½

No one will ever mistake George Clooney?s assassin from ?The American? with Jason Bourne. ?The American? certainly won?t be listed among 2010?s top 10 films, either?-despite my dubious prediction to the contrary based on its trailer?-but it might be remembered as one of 2010?s most visually striking.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=3988

Going the Distance
½

?Going the Distance? is like two separate movies. The film?s problem is not one of organization or of too many plot threads; neither are there issues with character consistency or cast chemistry. No, the single biggest problem with this date movie about the travails of maintaining a long-distance relationship is this: the first half is side-splittingly funny, whereas the second is the comedic equivalent of an ?ER? episode.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=4020

The Switch
The Switch(2010)
½

I had high hopes for ?The Switch? and was especially intrigued by the pairing of Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. The pair partially lived up to my expectations, but, with the exception of Jeff Goldblum, there?s little else to recommend this movie.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=4032

The Other Guys
½

?The Other Guys? is a mess. It?s intermittently amusing, but far more boring than entertaining. Ferrell and Wahlberg, playing police detectives Gamble and Hoitz, aren?t quite as mismatched as I thought they?d be, and neither, surprisingly, does Ferrell completely outshine Wahlberg. Still, although Wahlberg scores some laughs, for me, he?s too wooden for effective comedy.

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http://screenrambler.com/?p=4037

Salt
Salt(2010)
½

?Salt? isn?t a great film, but it?s better than the physics-defying, migraine-inducing, digitized trip that characterized much of summer 2010. What keeps ?Salt? from being great? A number of factors, actually, but the most glaring?-at least from my perspective?-is an over reliance on action. That?s ironic considering that the same weakness sabotaged many of 2010's blockbusters. ?Salt,? though, dials it back quite a bit in terms of noise, scope and CGI. That lack of CGI in favor of real-life set pieces is commendable (and more effective), but the action nonetheless feel protracted.

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http://screenrambler.com/?p=4046

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Piranha 3-D
Piranha 3-D(2010)
½

If you?re looking for moving drama or weighty insight into the human condition, you?ve come to the wrong place. If you?re looking for gratuitous nudity and carnage; for pre-historic, blood thirsty, CGI fish that look like demons with fins, get ready to jump into the deep end. ?Piranha 3D? is everything you?d expect from a puffed-up B-movie and less.

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http://screenrambler.com/?p=4062

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Predators
Predators(2010)

Producer Robert Rodriguez makes the most of "Predators" limited budget with a Spartan use of special effects and limited screen time for the film's alien creatures. While neither the script nor Nimrod Antal's direction are award worthy, both are surprisingly tight and efficient--but don't expect many surprises.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/?p=3575

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The Karate Kid
½

Some films should never be remade. ?Jaws? comes to mind, as does ?Star Wars,? ?The Godfather,? ?Die Hard? and many others. Until this updated version of 1984?s ?The Karate Kid,? I might have added that film to the list too. And yet, although director Harald Zwart remains extremely close to the original narrative, he still manages to create a film that, while undeniably familiar, is both unique and engaging.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/06/14/movie-review-the-karate-kid-2010/

Inception
Inception(2010)

Christopher Nolan?s follow-up to ?The Dark Knight? is a twisty Rubik?s Cube of a movie. The film never becomes so muddled or confusing as to completely lose its pull, but there was a protracted section in the middle where ?Inception? felt slightly weighed down with its own cleverness. During that part, the action felt jumbled and overly frenzied.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at: http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/07/23/3267/

Knight & Day
Knight & Day(2010)
½

To read my short review for this film, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/07/22/3259/

Get Him to the Greek

"Greek Him to the Greek" didn't deliver as many laughs as I expected, but it compensated with interesting characters, crisp writing, intriguing insight into the music industry and a lead performance by comedian Russell Brand that's laced with deceptive depth. And although it wasn't as funny as I'd hoped, it was still one of the better comedies I've seen so far in 2010.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/06/06/movie-review-get-him-to-the-greek/

Splice
Splice(2010)
½

"Splice" adds some interesting twists to the Frankenstein myth but ultimately failed to engage me emotionally. Instead, the film descends into a strange mash up of pop psychology, pseudo science and disturbing sexuality.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at: http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/06/05/splice-movie-review/

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Robin Hood
Robin Hood(2010)

With their updated take on the Robin Hood legend, director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe may have created this summer's "Sahara". While it may be early for such harsh assessments, the film's $237 million budget makes such failure a distinct possibility.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/05/16/movie-review-robin-hood-2010-in-name-only/

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MacGruber
MacGruber(2010)

"MacGruber" is a sobering reminder of one of my own basic tenets for reviewing film: an "upper decker" (joke) in the trailer does not a classic comedy make. Sometimes, as with the "MacGruber" trailer, I forget that sage guideline and find myself all a flutter over a poo reference before I've seen the film. Inevitably, I'm usually disappointed; poo jokes are rarely as funny in a 90-minute film as they may seem in a two-and-a-half minute trailer.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/05/22/movie-review-macgruber-2010-tastes-like-crow/

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Brooklyn's Finest
½

The Antoine Fuqua directed "Brooklyn's Finest" is a police drama that aspires to Shakespearean-like tragedy. Unfortunately, the film falls well short of those aspirations, but nonetheless proves a decent, if overly gloomy, bit of entertainment. The film is slightly disjointed as well, but so finely acted that the performances alone almost make up for the organizational and story deficiencies.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/05/17/movie-review-brooklyns-finest-2010/

Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2(2010)
½

While "Iron Man 2" isn't quite as entertaining as the 2008 original, it's certainly a worthwhile kickoff to the 2010 summer season. A number of critics have characterized this sequel as suffering from "sophomore superhero-movie syndrome": too busy, too many villains, too many plotlines. I don't agree.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/05/16/movie-review-iron-man-2-2010-summers-first-heat/

Thank you.

Avatar
Avatar(2009)
½

I'm tempted to shower "Avatar" with superlatives. I know it has plenty of detractors, many of whom might label me a mindless drone. I understand the backlash against "Avatar's" ridiculous hype, too--the charges that this film's an excessive, overrated money grab. In fact, the hype was a large reason why I waited--quite literally--until the last chance to catch this film in theaters (thinned-out crowds didn't hurt either). I can't disagree, either, that "Avatar's" story borders on overly generic or that it's preachy at times. Moreover, it's also undeniable that a handful of this film's characters are excessively one-dimensional.

The plain truth, though, is that, for me, "Avatar" was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/05/08/ramble-on-blu-avatar-2009/

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How to Train Your Dragon
½

With all the hype surrounding "How to Train Your Dragon", it might seem like this is one of the all-time great kid's titles. Don't believe the hype. In this era of IMAX 3D and all-digital animation, "How to Train Your Dragon" is an unexceptional little children's movie that, in adult terms, is good for a chuckle here and there, but not much more.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/05/17/movie-review-how-to-train-your-dragon/

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The Crazies
The Crazies(2010)
½

Based on its trailers--on its reviews too--"The Crazies" isn't the film I anticipated; I find myself mildly puzzled by its relative popularity. Besides the film's buzz, I've also been a Timothy Olyphant fan since HBO's "Deadwood." Certainly, Olyphant is his usual rock-steady self here--the rest of the cast is good too--but he's stuck in a lackluster zombie flick that's curiously short on zombies--and scares.

The Losers
The Losers(2010)

"The Losers" inevitably drew comparisons for me to the upcoming "The A-Team". Both are action films centering on elite military units wrongfully accused of a crime. Both military units work to clear their names against a wealthy, powerful enemy connected to the military-industrial complex.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/04/29/movie-review-the-losers-2010-the-plan-b-of-summer-action/

Clash of the Titans
½

"Clash of the Titans" is an ill-advised remake that's wrecked by its infatuation with digital eye-candy--an all-too-common shortcoming in this effects-laden era. Fans of the original film will likely find themselves frustrated with this film's close parallels to that 1981 fantasy. This is a hollowed-out version of that cheesy, slightly-above-average stop-motion extravaganza.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/04/29/movie-review-clash-of-the-titans-2010/

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The Stepfather
½

Dull; lackluster; watchable nonsense; pointless; cliche-ridden; dumbed-down; predictable--critics used all of these and more in describing 2009's remake of "The Stepfather." And while I can't vehemently argue against any of these, neither can I be quite so brutal.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/04/24/ramble-on-blu-the-stepfather-2009

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Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass(2010)

I find myself outside of popular opinion regarding "Kick Ass," something not terribly common with big studio films, but certainly not unprecedented. Regardless, I just plain didn't like "Kick Ass." The majority of this film's" negative reviews-what few there've been-have focused most heavily on the graphic violence and the fact that a large portion of it's perpetrated by an 11-year-old girl. And while that fact certainly didn't endear this film to me, it wasn't "Kick Ass's" most egregious shortcoming.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/04/19/film-review-kick-ass-2010-%E2%80%94-kicking-myself/

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Dolan's Cadillac

If you've read Stephen King's short story upon which this 2010 straight-to-video release is based, "Dolan's Cadillac" is probably best avoided. Your time might be better spent, in fact, rereading the King story or listening to the audio version-splendidly narrated by Rob Lowe. I suspect those who haven't read or listened to King's story will likely enjoy "Dolan's Cadillac" more, but only marginally so.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/04/12/ramble-on-blu-dolans-cadillac-2010-%E2%80%94-ride-to-nowhere/

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Hot Tub Time Machine
½

Frequently, when I laugh at a film's trailers and TV spots as much as I did at "Hot Tub Time Machine's," there's little reason left to see the film; in such cases, the promotional stuff serves as a crutch to sell tickets to an otherwise mediocre film. Even with that in mind, my expectations for "Hot Tub Time Machine" were, in hindsight, ridiculously high.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/04/12/film-review-hot-tub-time-machine-%E2%80%94-back-to-the-80s/

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Shutter Island
½

With "Shutter Island," legendary director Martin Scorsese has crafted an aesthetic film-noir marvel that pays homage to both Hitchcock and to old-school ghost stories. Problem is, as immersive as "Shutter Island" is, as well-acted, atmospheric, gothic and artistically magnificent, much of its splendor is wasted on a pulpy story and an ending that delivers the resonance of a collapsing house of cards.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my personal blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/03/08/movie-review-shutter-island-2010/

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The Lovely Bones
½

"The Lovely Bones" represents a significant departure for director Peter Jackson. Jackson of course, is best known for an extensive resume of fantasy and sci-fi films, including "The Lord of the Rings trilogy." As such, its easy to be skeptical about his ability to effectively craft a film about the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. Those doubts aren't unfounded.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/01/31/the-lovely-bones-2010-lovely-but-inconsistent/

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Moon
Moon(2009)
½

"Moon" is the feature debut of director Duncan Jones. Set in the near future, the film stars Sam Rockwell as astronaut Sam Bell, who is 2 weeks from completing a 3-year contract working on the moon for Lunar Industries Limited (LIL). LIL is a multinational corporation that mines the moon for helium 3 for use as a primary energy source on Earth. Most of LIL's mining operation is automated and Sam works alone; his only companion is GERTY (Kevin Spacey), a monotone-voiced, boxy robot that expresses his 'feelings' through a cartoonish smiley face on a tiny video screen.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/02/01/ramble-on-blu-moon-2009/

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The Book of Eli

On one level, I wasn't terribly disappointed by 'The Book of Eli,' as my expectations were fairly low going in. For one, 'Eli' received a mid-January release, a place where bad films frequently go to die. Moreover, the film's star, Denzel Washington, isn't one of my favorites. I could expound in detail why I'm not a fan and, doubtless, many would disagree, but suffice to say, for me, his films-generally speaking-epitomize Hollywood product. Washington's name on the marquee is a signpost for generic, bland popcorn fare ahead; his films seem designed to appeal to the largest audiences possible, putting maximum butts in the seats-plain and simple.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/01/18/the-book-of-eli-2010-review-apocalypse-without-redemption/

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Daybreakers
Daybreakers(2010)
½

I found myself leery headed into Daybreakers. The film's trailer-which I first saw in November-looked promising and suggested an intriguing premise. My uncertainty revolved around the fact that the film had been completed and shelved since September 2007 and the fact that it would be released in early January, a time frequently reserved for duds. Now that I've seen Daybreakers, I find myself neither terribly impressed nor gravely disappointed. The film is a competently-made early-winter amusement that would fit just as easily into the early summer heat as it does into the early-January freeze.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/01/15/daybreakers-2010-early-winter-renter/

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Observe and Report
½

I've been a Seth Rogen fan since 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," a film I still enjoy. Since then, I haven't seen a Rogen production I didn't like. Until now. Whereas Rogen previously excelled at playing the goofy, sometimes dim-witted, lovable outcast, in "Observe and Report" he's mostly just dim-witted and unlikable. Worse, Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen's character) is abrasive, insensitive and megalomaniacal, with few, if any, redeemable qualities.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/01/15/ramble-on-blu-observe-and-report-2009/

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Yes Man
Yes Man(2008)
½

When I first saw the trailer for Yes Man, I thought it looked like an uninspired retread of 1997?s Liar Liar and thus avoided it. Now that I?ve watched it, I wish I?d waited longer?or never seen it at all and simply rewatched Liar Liar. Yes Man has decent performances, including the always-charming Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer), the debonair Bradley Cooper (The Hangover), the venerable Terrance Stamp (Valkyrie) and Jim Carrey in his typical rubber-faced, calamity-prone mode. But my initial impression was correct. Yes Man is indeed a tired, uninspired retread of Liar Liar that?s not nearly as entertaining. Moreover, Jim Carrey isn?t nearly as amusing here as he was in that earlier film.

Carrey plays Carl Allen, a Los Angeles banker who has largely withdrawn from life since divorcing ex-wife Stephanie (Molly Sims) three years earlier. Carl?s best friends Pete (Cooper) and Rooney (Danny Masterson) have grown extremely weary of Carl?s apathy and are to the point of giving up. Then, at the urging of old acquaintance Nick (John Michael Higgins), Carl attends a seminar by self-help guru Terrance Bundley (Stamp). Bundley?s system for self-improvement is simplicity itself. He encourages his followers to eradicate the word ?no? from their lives and simply say ?yes? to every offer and proposition that comes along. A homeless man asks you for a ride from a self-help seminar? Yes! Members of a religious cult come knocking on your door, offering to introduce you to their savior? Yes! An infomercial asks if you?d like to learn to play guitar? Yes! A man applies for a loan at the bank where you work to start a fertilizer distribution business? Yes!

From a practical perspective, the premise seems unrealistic and indeed, at times, Yes Man plays as if it?s intended as parody or satire. More often though, the film takes its premise seriously and it mostly doesn?t work. It all seems badly contrived and, as Carl?s life falls to pieces because he can?t say no to anyone or anything, the film?s plausibility becomes progressively more strained. Near the story?s conclusion, when Carl?s romance with Allison (Deschanel) lies in near ruin because of his inability to distinguish between the appropriateness of ?yes? or ?no,? it all seems very affected. By this point, both Carl and Allison have become unrelatable. How could a grown man?s attendance to a self-help seminar render him suddenly unable to understand when saying ?no? is imperative? Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the fact that this film is loosely based on an autobiography of the same name by British humorist Danny Wallace. The book details one year in which Wallace decided that he would say ?yes??without exception?to every offer that came his way. How he didn?t end up homeless, destitute and imprisoned is beyond me.

In any case, though Yes Man is mildly entertaining, it felt much longer than its 84-minute runtime. And whereas Carrey has previously excelled playing the rubber-faced, lovable?if decidedly strange?goof ball, here he seems self-conscious and uncomfortable at times, as if he?s outgrown such antics or that he?s aware, at some level, of how contrived this film feels. Moreover, there?s also a degree of disconnect between Carrey?s antics and his character?s personality. And although Deschanel is as charming and likable as ever, she and Carrey don?t make a terribly believable or compelling couple. I certainly wouldn?t recommend paying the cash to rent Yes Man. This is a film best viewed as a Saturday afternoon cable-TV diversion. Better yet, skip this one altogether and watch (or rewatch) Liar Liar. That film, about a lawyer who?s unable to tell a lie for 24 hours, is the film Yes Man aspired to be.

Carriers
Carriers(2009)
½

When I first saw the trailer for Carriers a couple months ago, I was perplexed that the film had received a blink-and-you-miss-it limited theatrical run and little publicity. For one, the trailer was intriguing; the film looked gritty and suspenseful with a cast led by James T. Kirk himself, Chris Pine. Hence, it surprised me that Paramount Vantage didn't capitalize on Pine's current popularity and spend the money on a wider release and decent marketing. It seemed, at the time, that Carriers might be the sleeper hit that got away.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my website at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2009/12/21/ramble-on-blu-carriers-2009/

Thank you.

The Shining
The Shining(1980)

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror films. Author Stephen King, from whose novel this film was adapted, doesn?t agree. Over the years, he has adamantly and vocally stated his dislike of this interpretation. Owing, at least in part one suspects, to King?s displeasure, the film has only recently begun receiving proper recognition. Kubrick largely rewrote the novel, stripping away most of the emotional resonance and instead focusing on Jack?s (Jack Nicholson) isolation and guilt and his slow descent into madness and murder; Kubrick also changed the ending. Regardless, The Shining is a genre classic and one hell of a good, creepy time. Jack Nicholson?s performance is intense, compelling and unforgettable. Considering that the 1997 television remake of The Shining (produced by King himself) is, in my opinion, one of the all-time worst King adaptations, it seems that Kubrick did something right. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Indeed.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Although he covers new ground in Capitalism: A Love Story, director Michael Moore falls short of the resonance of his best work. There are, in fact, tell-tale signs here that Moore may be running out of fresh ideas. Anyone familiar with his previous films will detect a fair amount of reiteration; reiteration that, at times, makes this film feel slightly uninspired, if not bordering on retread. That?s not to say Capitalism isn?t thought-provoking, but Moore has presented much of this material before?with much greater impact.

Capitalism opens strongly enough. In the first few minutes, Moore interposes footage from an old documentary about the rise and decline of the Roman empire with scenes from the last decade or so of American history. Drawing parallels between America and the Roman empire is hardly new, but Moore argues his points with a fresh and convincing perspective.

From there, he moves on to the housing bust and to the underhanded Wall Street maneuvering that helped create it. The problem, Moore ultimately argues, is collusion between government and business. Players from both spheres have intermingled to the point that government has become little more than an extension of corporate America, functioning not for the good of the people, but to enhance the bottom line of big business.

To support his arguments, Moore offers compelling statistics regarding the Wall Street credentials of government?s most influential players. He mixes these with interviews of government and business players sympathetic to his cause and with interviews of average citizens affected by the bust. He also intersperses footage that directly illustrates the corrupting power of big business on government. The most effective of said footage may be old video of former Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan commanding then-President Ronald Reagan?while speaking on Wall Street?to ?hurry up.?

Moore also goes directly to Wall Street, soliciting random interviews (all of which are ignored) and attempting to make a citizen?s arrest of AIG?s top executives. His adventures there, as well as the dirty corporate secrets he exposes, are vintage Moore, by turns funny, inspiring and infuriating. Wall Street, he concludes, has been intentionally structured with concepts and business tactics so complicated and convoluted, that they undermine the system and circumvent existing government regulations?what few of those remain.

The most interesting, most striking new information offered here relates to the average pay of airline pilots; anyone not familiar with the issue (as I wasn?t) may be shocked to learn that average pay for beginning pilots is so low that many work second jobs to pay the bills. To support this contention, Moore offers pilot interviews and video from the congressional testimony of pilot Chesley Sullenberger. Sullenberger is the hero who crash landed USAirways flight 1549 into New York?s Hudson River, thereby saving the lives of all 150 passengers. Sullenberger testified before congress in an attempt to prompt legislative action on behalf of pilots.

Moore?s most important function as a filmmaker may be to stir debate; to motivate viewers into action and into investigating his claims for themselves. As with all of Moore's work, this film also reminds that, despite America?s flaws, we remain one of the most ideologically free and vocal countries on earth; there are many places where Moore would be imprisoned?even executed?for his work. Additionally, his ultimate conclusion that capitalism is evil rings a bit hollow coming from a filmmaker who?s grown wealthy from that wicked system. Moreover, in some ways Moore ignores the notion that it?s not capitalism, per say, that?s evil, as opposed to those who corrupt and abuse the system.

Capitalism: A Love Story offers two hours of fact, opinion and ideology that likely could have achieved greater impact with a bit of trimming. Moore himself seems to recognize that he?s begun repeating himself when, in the closing seconds, he says he doesn?t know how much longer he can ?keep doing this? if more people don?t take action, as opposed to merely watching his films. He sounds tired and a little discouraged. We understand though, that Moore?s discouragement is temporary. He?s unlikely to quit making films, unlikely to leave America, unlikely to quit advocating on behalf of society?s less fortunate. And though I?m glad for Moore?s voice, I can?t help hoping that, with future work, he can return to the innovations of earlier films as opposed to merely repeating himself and thus reducing his overall effect.

Zombieland
Zombieland(2009)

Directed by Ruben Fleischer and styled, in some ways, after Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland is a comedy/horror hybrid that epitomizes mindless entertainment. That's not to say it's not engaging in a B-movie way, but those expecting anything beyond a few good laughs and a campy adrenaline ride, may be disappointed. The plot is barebones, with the film's title serving as a fair summation of the story.

To read the rest of this review, please visit my blog at:

http://screenrambler.com/blog2/2010/02/02/ramble-on-blu-zombieland-2009/

Thank you.

Paranormal Activity
½

Paranormal Activity is like a good campfire ghost story projected onto a movie screen. Anyone who?s ever felt a chill listening to a real-life spooky story will find this film and its characters instantly relatable.

The story centers around a young woman named Katie (Katie Featherston) and her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat). Katie has been haunted since she was 8 years old by an unexplained supernatural presence that causes nightmares and eerie occurrences. Admittedly, those occurrences have, thus far, been mostly harmless, and the entity intermittently disappears from Katie?s life, but she?s nonetheless terrified of it.

As the film opens, the couple has moved into a new house and the eerie occurrences begin anew, prompting Micah to buy a video camera to help document and understand the ghostly presence; his amateur, documentary-style footage constitutes the entire film. This is his first exposure to Katie's otherworldly nuisance and he at first doesn?t take it seriously.

When a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) comes to evaluate, he immediately senses the presence and, after listening to Katie?s story, informs the couple that it's not a ghost. He believes, in fact, that this other-worldly hanger-on is a demon.

He can?t help them but provides the number of a demonologist and warns against antagonizing the presence, against playing games with it or attempting to communicate or otherwise engage it. Demons feed off negative energy and such actions will only invite and strengthen it. They should likewise avoid hostilities toward each other.

Micah remains unconvinced and delays Katie from calling the demonologist. In the ensuing weeks, he films religiously, working to understand and pacify the presence, and, ultimately, to drive it away. In the process, he goes against all the psychic?s warnings; at one point, he even brings in a Ouija board, attempting to directly communicate with the entity, a move which justifiably enrages and terrifies Katie.

Micah comes across as an average, middle-class male, caught up in a surreal state of affairs he can?t fully grasp. As his confrontation with the entity intensifies, his emotions evolve from amusement and curiosity to unease and fear and, finally, to sheer terror. Paranormal Activity evolves with him, building from a languid, deliberate start into an adrenaline-soaked, flinch-inducing, old-fashioned ghost story that?s suffocatingly tense and tightfisted with its gore. This is a truly disturbing experience, intensified by the fact that we care for and identify with these characters. Featherston and Sloat have terrific chemistry; they play like any average couple living in suburban America.

The most unnerving sequences here involve footage Micah captures at night, with the camera mounted on a tripod in front of the sleeping couple?s bed. At one point, Katie rises in the night and stands over Micah for hours, catatonic and impassive, observing him. She could easily be the friend or sister or other acquaintance everyone knows who occasionally sleepwalks; that familiarity makes her circumstance even more terrifying though, for we know something far more sinister?s at play; we hold our collective breath, anticipating, dreading.

Paranormal Activity is raw, exceptionally frightening and best viewed in a darkened theater full of people; I?ve rarely attended a film screening where the audience was so completely plugged in. First-time writer/director Oren Peli layers his film with slow, heart-thumping dread, using small, subtle scares and chill-inducing nuances to set up full-throttle terrors; and he's utterly successful. Anyone looking for a great Halloween movie won?t find much better?especially not in this season of Saw VI and its dreadful ilk. This is the perfect accompaniment to haunted houses and late-October chills. Be warned though: Paranormal Activity may make all those holiday traditions seem canned?even childish?in comparison.

It?s really that scary.

Pandorum
Pandorum(2009)

To call Pandorum dull isn?t quite adequate. A more sufficient description might be excruciating. I?ve rarely sat through a less entertaining film. In a way, that fact seems almost unjust, as Pandorum has a passable, if somewhat clichéd story, compelling visuals, and a capable cast led by the likable Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster. The pair play Lt. Payton and commander Bower, respectively, two astronauts who are part of a deep-space mission to send some 60,000 souls to propagate a far-off, earth-like planet called Tanis. The earth, it seems, has been ravaged by overpopulation and war. These 60,000 people represent ?humanity?s last hope.?

As the film opens the pair are reawakening from deep hyper-sleep and can?t remember much?a side effect of hyper-sleep. The ship is dark, seemingly abandoned and without power; the two must struggle through amnesia to recall the mission as well as their identities and pasts. Their identities come first; the remainder unfolds in a boring, strung-together narrative that's rife with rip-offs of several other sci-fi hits, including Aliens, Resident Evil, Battlestar Galactica and others. Bower and Payton aren?t alone on the ship after all. Not only are several people still alive, but the ship has somehow become infested by cannibalistic albino monsters with black eyes and razor teeth. Oddly enough, these monsters have a fashion sense that recalls the film The Road Warrior.

Turns out, those monsters are actually former ship passengers who?ve evolved from technology designed to help propogate Tanis?or some such nonsense. Ultimately, the film becomes a ?race against time? to repower the ship, keep it from exploding and reach Tanis before the monsters eat everybody. By the time the ending rolled around, with its yawn-inducing twists, I was too asleep to care. I was tempted to walk out of this film but the sheer badness kept me glued in place. See this film at your own peril; it's memorably bad stuff.

Inglourious Basterds
½

From the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, writer/director Quentin Tarantino establishes dialogue as the film?s driving force. Tarantino?s subtle use of seemingly meaningless chatter as a means of story and character development is, of course, legendary. For me, Basterds represents the director?s most effective use of dialogue since Pulp Fiction. And a significant portion of that talk is spoken in French and German, with a smattering of Italian thrown in for good measure. The performances are so strong, however, and the script so well written, that the chatter loses nothing in its subtitled interpretation.

Also in typical Tarantino fashion, the film is divided into five chapters, the first of which opens on a small Dairy Farm in Nazi-occupied France early in WWII. Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is a Dairy Farmer living a quite life with his three young daughters on his isolated Farm. However, because of persistent rumors that LaPadite is hiding a Jewish family named Dreyfus, German command dispatches Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz in the best performance I've seen since Javier Bardem played Anton Chigurh), a notorious SS and secret service officer.

Landa has been nicknamed The Jew Hunter for his ruthless, effective methods for finding Jews. LaPadite is indeed hiding the Dreyfuses?beneath the very floorboards where he and Landa chat. Landa?s interrogation unfolds in a measured, gripping exchange that lasts more than 20 minutes, as the pair smoke pipes and sip milk. As played by Waltz, Landa is part cunning bureaucrat, part savvy detective, part heartless killer, part charming socialite. This is an award-worthy turn that?s more critical to the overall narrative than Pitt?s role. Ultimately, Landa wheedles the truth out of LaPadite and his men rain machine gun fire into the floor, killing all the refugees save one. For reasons that are never addressed, Landa allows that lone survivor, named Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), to escape without ever seeing her face.

In the second chapter we meet the Inglourious Basterds, a ragtag, colorful group of Jewish-American commandos led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee hillsman who?s part moonshiner, part secret agent and negotiator, and 100% Nazi killer. The Basterds have been assigned to drop behind French lines and spread fear and disorder among the enemy by ruthlessly killing as many Germans as possible. To achieve that end, they scalp every German they kill, always leaving one Nazi alive to spread their legend. If ever there was an actor who chewed the scenery in a role, it's Brad Pitt in this part. Raine is hickish and unrefined, a cartoonish man who'd fit well with the hillbillies from 1972?s Deliverance. Listening to him speak Italian is probably the film?s funniest moment.

Starting with the third chapter, the film becomes a revenge story. The narrative turns back to Shosanna Dreyfus, who?s now hiding in Paris under an alias and owns a small cinema, which she claims is inherited from an aunt. Through a chance encounter with a German war hero (Daniel Brühl), who becomes infatuated with her, Shosanna?s cinema becomes the chosen venue for the German propaganda film, A Nation?s Pride, directed by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Most of the German high command will be attending and Shosanna sees a chance for vengeance. She and boyfriend Marcel (Jackie Ido) devise a plan to lock the attendees inside the screening auditorium and burn the theater down using a highly flammable type of movie film.

British Intelligence has learned of the premiere too and, unaware of Shosanna?s plot, they coordinate with the Basterds for their own attack. Furthermore, intelligence learns, Adolph Hitler will also be attending, making the attack vital. The film?s remainder takes a number of unexpected turns and the ending, though baring no resemblance to historical fact, is cleverly executed, bringing the story full circle and providing Pitt a final chance to shine.

Like all of Tarantino?s work, Inglourious Basterds is cobbled together from a variety of influences, the most obvious of which being the old spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. Though the film also pays homage to the 1967 American war classic The Dirty Dozen, this is a war film that doesn?t feel like a war film. Inglourious Basterds defies easy classification. It's subtle and violent, well-written, well-acted and highly absorbing, with a director who's clearly in charge of his vision. The film plays like a fever dream of WWII.

There?s not a weak performance among this cast either, but Christopher Waltz?s performance is, hands down, the finest. Waltz won?t be alone in collecting award nominations though. This is a mesmerizing film from start to finish. I can?t remember the last time two-and-a-half-hours-plus in a theater didn?t feel like two and a half hours. Even with stretches of protracted dialogue, the film breezes along without feeling rushed; by the time the end credits started, I was ready for more. And Inglourious Basterds is dense and adequately complicated enough to merit a second viewing; it?s filled with memorable scenes, brilliant dialogue, and subtle narrative devices that hit like a jackhammer. This is easily the best film I?ve seen all year. Highly recommended.

Surrogates
Surrogates(2009)

Based on a graphic novel of the same name and directed by Jonathan Mostow, Surrogates achieves mixed results from a terrific premise. Headlined by Bruce Willis, the film boasts solid performances with a story that offers mad scientists, military conspiracies and a global corporation bent on world domination using a product that renders people little more than sheep.

In the near future, after the creation of advanced, life-like automatons, human beings rarely venture outside their homes. Instead, using a neural interface that directly channels brain waves, the majority of the population live vicariously, hooked into custom-made, real-life robots that are tailor-made to resemble the user. Through these avatars?called surrogates?users remotely access and interact with the world, experiencing all its sensations, including sight, sound, hearing, touch, smell and more. Surrogates are the ultimate form of virtual reality and, best of all, have failsafes that protect the user against damage to the surrogate.

But surrogates may not be so safe as advertised. After some brief exposition, the film opens with the killing of a surrogate by an advanced weapon that shatters the eyes and fries the CPU. Soon after, it?s revealed that the weapon also killed the user, something not previously thought possible. FBI agent Greer (Willis) and his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell)?both hooked into surrogates themselves?are assigned to investigate. They?re stunned to learn the victim?s identity: Jarod Canter, son of Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the scientist credited with inventing surrogates.

The case leads Greer to the isolated, slum-like settlement of a group known as the Dreads, who?ve rejected the use of surrogates as an abomination. Their leader, a man simply called The Prophet (Ving Rhames), is somehow involved and has knowledge of the unusual weapon used. Greer needs to find that weapon quickly, as it poses a terrible threat. In the course of the investigation, Greer?s surrogate is destroyed, forcing him to unhook and directly interact with the world for the first time in years.

During his readjustment, Greer experiences profound claustrophobia and disorientation. Worse, his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) is so addicted to her surrogate that she refuses to unhook. Here the film draws an intriguing parallel to our own hyper-connected, ultra-wired world. The automatons of Surrogates could easily be equated with the internet, with cell phones, email, Ipods and other addictive technologies that depersonalize even as they make life easier.

There are some entertaining plot twists too, most involving the facts that surrogates don?t always resemble their users and that multiple users can access the same surrogate. Ultimately though, Surrogates is hampered by both a script that is, at times, hammy and by protracted action sequences, causing it to fall short of the emotional resonance it aims for.

The film?s pretty to look at though, with glossy special effects and appealing production values; the surrogates themselves are duly creepy too, with a synthetic look that?s far too perfect for human, constantly reminding that surrogates are little more than high-tech appliances. The film held my interest throughout but, perhaps most telling of all, it felt longer than its 89-minute runtime. Overall, Surrogates amounts to decent popcorn entertainment that arrived about a month too late. It?s an enjoyable, mostly disposable film that won?t linger long in memory.

Love Happens
Love Happens(2009)

It?s hard not to like Jennifer Aniston. Her presence, along with Aaron Eckhart?s?who is likeable in his own right?help lift Love Happens into the realm of interesting diversion. Granted, it?s not a diversion I?d recommend seeing in theaters, but the film has its charms. Eckhart stars as Burk Ryan, PhD, a widower three-years-past who writes a self help book as a means of coping with his wife?s death. The book unexpectedly becomes a bestseller and turns Burk into a celebrity self-help maven.

As the film opens, Burk has just arrived in Seattle to conduct a self-help course; after the first lecture, he bumps into Eloise near the elevators by happenstance and then runs into her again in the hotel lobby. Eloise is a single young florist with a penchant for making bad decisions in her love life. She is at first unimpressed with Burk, even feigning a handicap to elude him. Burk however, is smitten from the start, even after discovering Eloise?s ruse. After catching her rock-singer boyfriend cheating and, following another chance, decidedly hostile encounter with Burk, she begins warming to him.

I?ve read complaints that Aniston and Eckhart lack chemistry but, to my thinking, the problem isn?t a lack of chemistry but a lack of quality screen time between the pair. Audiences may be surprised that the true focus of Love Happens isn?t the relationship between Burk and Eloise. Instead, the film centers more on Burk?s personal struggle with grief, more on his self-delusion and dishonesty in dealing with that grief. There are also a few subplots involving the group of attendees to Burk?s self-help seminar and although those are interesting, this is really Eckhart?s film. He?s a fine actor (as demonstrated in The Dark Knight), but the film suffers for its one-sided focus. Though Love Happens presses all the right emotional buttons in all the right places, it?s difficult to create good romantic drama with just one character; for Love Happens, one is indeed the loneliest number.

The Shawshank Redemption
½

The Shawshank Redemption is not only the most popular Stephen King adaptation, but also one of the most beloved films of all time. Tim Robbins stars as Andy Dufresne, an innocent man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and handed a life sentence at the hardest prison in Maine. Shortly after arriving at Shawshank, Andy is befriended by Ellis ?Red? Redding (Morgan Freeman), a guru-like convict with wide-reaching influence who helps Andy adapt to prison life and procure various contraband in exchange for cigarettes. Following a tough adjustment period, Andy uses his background as a banker to manipulate and play the system--which he does successfully for over 20 years. Along the way he becomes a flunky to Shawshank?s corrupt warden, gains the respect of the prison?s most sadistic guard, outlasts a gang of prison rapists and becomes something of a legend to fellow inmates. Ultimately though, when proof of Andy?s innocence surfaces, the warden refuses to let go and turns on Andy with murderous malevolence, attempting to kill the man?s spirit. He doesn?t though and Andy?s methodical solution to the Warden?s evil--to Shawshank itself--is both clever and extremely satisfying.

The Informant!
½

The Informant stars Matt Damon in the real-life story of Mark Whitacre, a high-level executive at ADM who, at his wife?s insistence, turned whistleblower in the early 90s. Damon?s quirky, nuanced performance paints Whitacre as a random-minded, bipolar scatterbrain. The highly-likeable Scott Bakula (Star Trek: Enterprise) plays FBI agent Brian Shepard. Shepard and his partner, agent Robert Herndon, (Joel McHale), become Whitacre?s unwitting handlers when Whitacre approaches them following the conclusion of an unrelated, baseless FBI probe of corporate spying against ADM. Although The Informant?s story is compelling, the film?s not nearly so entertaining as one might expect. The humor here seems obvious, but the laughs are far too sporadic. This owes, in part, to director Steven Soderbergh's (Ocean's 11-13) pedantic pace. He keeps things slow, causing the audience to anticipate a narrative acceleration instead of the next laugh or plot development. And Damon?s performance, though award-worthy, never reaches the comedic heights hinted at in the trailer. The funniest moments come during voice-overs by Damon that reflect Whitacre?s wandering thought patterns, with his mind spiraling from one wacky aside to the next. Those asides include contemplation of a fishing trip with his FBI handlers, the evolutionary disadvantages of polar bears having black noses, and others. Overall, I can neither overwhelmingly recommend for or against The Informant. But though the film boasts noteworthy performances and a number of scattered laughs, a high percentage of the audience?if not the majority?will likely find major disparities between the film as advertised and the film as presented.

State of Play

Directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), and set in Washington DC, State of Play aspires to be this generation?s version?albeit a fictional version?of All the President?s Men. The film stars Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey, a hard-edged, seasoned reporter employed by The Washington Globe newspaper and Ben Affleck as Stephen Collins, an influential congressman. The two are old friends, having first met as college roommates. Rachel McAdams is Della Frye, a newly-hired blogger at The Globe trying to break her first hard news story.

The film opens with the murder of a homeless teen by a dark, ominous man using a silenced handgun. A random bystander delivering pizzas on a bike happens upon the scene and is also shot. The teen dies; the man on the bike survives and is hospitalized. McAffrey arrives on scene the next morning as police investigate, assigned to cover the story, but there aren?t many clues. The setting then shifts to a young woman standing on a subway platform waiting for the train. That woman, we later learn, is Sonia Baker, a chief aid to Collins. The camera work suggests something bad?s about to befall her, but before it does, the scene again shifts, this time to Collins as he arrives on Capitol Hill. He?s about to conduct a hearing with private security contractor PointCorp as part of an inquiry into the Defense Department?s dealings with the company.

Just before entering the hearings, Collins learns that Baker was killed that morning after falling into the path of an oncoming subway train. He?s so grief stricken that he breaks down during the hearing. Further complicating matters, Baker wasn?t only the chief researcher on Collins? PointCorp investigation but also his mistress. Her death is officially ruled a suicide, but Collins knows better and turns to McAffry for help proving it. McAffrey, after being paired with Frye, is assigned by his editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), to cover this story too. The pair form a fast alliance and, with Collin?s assistance, slowly begin uncovering evidence to suggest that Baker?s death and the murder at the film?s beginning are connected.

As the clues pile up, the case begins unraveling more quickly and, consequently, points to a conspiracy involving PointCorp and its attempt to marginalize anyone standing between it and fat government contracts worth billions. The investigation eventually brings McAffrey face to face with the shadowy killer from the opening scene, placing him directly into the line of fire and opening his eyes to the lengths PointCorp will to go to preserve its place as the government?s number one domestic military contractor.

State of Play is glossy and slick, with an ample budget and an A-list cast that earns every penny of its salary. There?s nary a weak performance here and the actors create a strong dynamic amongst themselves that elevates the overall effect. Even among this strong cast however, Helen Mirren is a standout in her supporting role as the Globe?s editor and chief. Robin Wright Penn is also very good in her small part as Congressman Collin?s stand-by-your-man wife, who isn?t quite as forbearing as she at first appears. Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman are both good enough in their small roles to merit a mention and Russell Crowe?s performance reminds why he?s one of Hollywood?s most in-demand leading men.

Despite the strong performances however, State of Play borders on overly mechanical, with its perfunctory plot twists and an overall quality that, at times, feels generic, almost like a paint-by-numbers style. That likely owes to the fact that, like much A-list fare, it strives to appeal to as vast and diverse an audience as possible. The film is engaging but the final plot twist, for me, felt unnecessary, like an afterthought tacked on simply to wow the audience one last time. The twists that come before are believable enough, but State of Play could have been stronger, in my opinion, with a more streamlined narrative, focusing less on gimmick and more on advancing the story in its logical direction. That final plot twist makes much of what comes before seem wasted and, despite a minor plot point involving the Watergate Hotel, echoes of All the President?s Men are mostly forgotten. In addition, the opportunity to explore the evolution of traditional print media into the internet age is mostly ignored. Overall, though State of Play is well-acted and nicely paced, it seems to lack faith in both its story and its audience. Moderately recommended.

Duplicity
Duplicity(2009)

Directed by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and starring Julia Roberts (Charlie Wilson?s War) and Clive Owen (Children of Men), Duplicity is a twisty, convoluted spy caper that mixes genres with only moderate success. The story revolves around two corporate spies, Ray Koval and Claire Stenwick. When the pair first meet in the film?s opening sequence, which occurs five years prior to the central story, they are both government agents, with Koval working for MI6 and Stenwick working for the CIA. They meet at a cocktail party at the US consulate in Dubai. Koval doesn?t know Stenwick?s a CIA agent though?a CIA agent who is, in fact, assigned to steal the briefcase full of Egyptian Air Defense codes he has stored back in his hotel room. Following a sexual romp, she drugs him and steals the codes, completing her assignment and disappearing.

Five years later, seemingly by coincidence, they both work for Equikrom, a mega-diversified, mega-powerful multinational conglomerate; she?s an assistant director of counterintelligence, a corporate spy who?s worked her way into the inner security circles of Burkett & Randle, Equikrom?s main competitor; he?s a handler, a go between who manages field agents and channels information between spy and company. Stenwick, as it turns out, is his latest assignment. On her first drop, she delivers a secret speech that?s soon to be presented by Burkett & Randle CEO Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson).

Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti), CEO of Equikrom, receives that speech with deep apprehension; although lacking in specifics, the speech hints at some revolutionary product soon to be released by Burkett & Randle. Garsik decides it imperative to know what that product is and assigns his security team to finding answers. Further upping the stakes: Burkett & Randle and Equikrom aren?t merely corporate rivals; their respective CEOs despise each other, intensifying commercial competition to a personal level.

Shortly after Tully delivers his speech, the film again backtracks, this time shifting to two years before the central story to Rome, where we learn that the relationship between Koval and Stenwick isn?t quite what it appears to be. Ultimately, although the pair doesn?t completely trust each other, neither is actually working for the good of Equikrom, but rather for personal profit. As the film unfolds, winding its way through a series of twists and double crosses, it becomes less and less clear who?s playing who. Not until the end, can the audience clearly differentiate the con-artists from the marks.

On one level, Duplicity is too clever for its own good; it?s complicated and, at times, confusing, employing flashbacks that detract from the overall impact. On the other hand, one can easily imagine the high-stakes corporate world functioning in the ways depicted; that fact makes Duplicity sporadically intriguing. The performances further elevate the film past its more muddled elements. Giamatti and Wilkinson are both compelling and believable as the CEOs of their respective companies; there?s an early scene where the two characters confront each other on an airport tarmac that?s quite amusing. The supporting players are equally good.

Duplicity?s main appeal, however, lies in the relationship between Roberts and Owen. While their chemistry isn?t spectacular, it?s fun to watch the pair struggle for the upper hand and work to one-up each other. Are they true partners, really in love and working toward a common goal or are they simply gaming each other? And who will ultimately win the battle of CEOs? Which corporation will come out on top?

Duplicity is a good film that could?ve been better had it employed less subterfuge. It?s well written if somewhat muddled; it?s also well acted and decently paced. It?s certainly worth the rental price, but be warned: Duplicity may necessitate multiple viewings.

The Last House on the Left

Viewed as a horror film, The Last House on the Left mostly succeeds as a decent piece of entertainment; it?s well-acted, competently made and, ultimately, provides a disquieting, yet satisfying viewing experience. It?s not for the squeamish though, and certainly not for young children?or even older children for that matter.

Tony Goldwynn and Monica Potter star as Dr. John and Emma Collingwood, respectively. Sara Paxton plays the couples? daughter, Mari. The three go on vacation to their lake house and, shortly after arriving, Mari borrows the car to visit Paige (Martha MacIsaac), a local girl with whom she?s friends.

Paige works the counter at a local convenience store and, as she and Mari catch up, a teenager named Justin (Spenser Treat Clark) walks up to check out. When Monica refuses to sell him cigarettes because of age, Justin offers to sell the pair marijuana in exchange for cigarettes. They must come back to his motel room though to make the buy. After a brief contemplation, the girls agree and head out in Mari?s family SUV.

The three end up on Justin?s motel-room bed, smoking weed and hanging out. But then Justin?s ?family??whom Justin has discussed in only vague terms?unexpectedly arrives back to the room and The Last House on the Left kicks into gear. Justin?s family is compromised of a group of three hardened criminals. Krug (Garret Dillahunt), Justin?s father, is a felon who?s recently been broken out of federal custody by his girlfriend, Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and his brother, Francis (Aaron Paul). When Mari and Paige try to leave, Krug, Sadie and Francis refuse, making it clear they view the girls as potential witnesses--witnesses that must be eliminated. The criminals steal Mari?s SUV and what ensues is brutal and, at times, difficult to watch. Mari and Paige fight and unsuccessfully try to escape, but wreak major havoc, evoking a merciless response from Krug, Francis and Sadie.

Paige is murdered out right, Mari beaten and raped by Krug. Afterward, she escapes and jumps into a nearby lake, attempting to swim to safety but Krug, standing on the shoreline, shoots her between the shoulder blades and leaves her for dead. She?s not dead though and will eventually struggle back to her parents? lake house; Krug and his group, on foot after wrecking the SUV, find their way to the lake house first.

John and Emma take them in, unaware of what?s transpired, believing their daughter safe and spending the night with Paige. They sense something strange about Krug and his gang, but because of a bad thunderstorm, let them spend the night in the adjoining guest house. Shortly after, as the storm rages outside, Mari shows up on the lake house porch, battered, broken, naked below the waist and near death. Thanks to Justin, who?s neither like his father or part of the gang, John and Emma finally understand the kind of dangerous monsters staying in their guest house. They immediately realize too, that drastic measures will be required to save both their daughter and themselves and to survive the night.

Though the characters in The Last House on the Left are underdeveloped, the Collingwoods are relatable and average, making them easily identifiable. Conversely, Krug and his gang are evil to the point of caricature, a fact which both enhances and detracts from the film?s overall impact. There?s also an intriguing back story here that?s disappointingly underdeveloped, involving Ben, Mari?s brother, who has died a year before the events of the film. Although this back story isn?t completely ignored and is, in fact, integral to the story, I wanted to know more than was revealed.

The film starts off with Krug?s escape, providing a jolting, gruesome bang that clues the audience about what lies ahead. From that point, director Dennis Iliadis keeps things moving and the film seldom lets up. Ultimately, if you?re looking for decent popcorn entertainment that will keep you engaged, The Last House on the Left might be worth a look. But be warned: this film is violent, sadistic, bloody and disturbing; certainly not for the faint of heart.

Quarantine
Quarantine(2008)

Quarantine is a well-done, original entry into the zombie-film genre. It starts out a bit slowly, but picks up when the zombies enter the picture. Jennifer Carpenter of Showtime?s Dexter stars as late-night TV host Angela Vidal. Angela and her cameraman, Scott Percival (Steve Harris of TV?s The Practice), are filming an expose about the night shift of an LA fire station when a call comes through for a medical emergency at a nearby apartment complex.

Angela and Scott ride along, filming and narrating, and enter the apartment complex with firefighters Fletcher (Jonathon Schaech) and Jake (Jay Hernandez) and police officers Danny (Columbus Short) and James (Andrew Fiscella), already on scene. They are met by building manager Yuri (Rade Serbedzija), who takes them up to the apartment of Ms. Espinoza (Jeannie Epper), where there?ve been complaints of loud, unnerving shrieks and screams. When Espinoza doesn?t answer, Yuri lets them all in. The wavering, shifting light of Scott?s camera reveals glimpses of a corpse-pale, disheveled figure hiding in the shadows with head lowered, seemingly disoriented, panicked, delirious.

As the officers approach and try to subdue and reassure her, Ms. Espinoza suddenly screams like a savage and attacks, biting James in the onrush. The firefighters and other officer subdue her and haul James away, leaving Ms. Espinosa confined inside the apartment with Fletcher staying behind to keep her restrained. James is rushed downstairs to the building?s lobby but when Jake and Danny try to exit the building, they find the main entrance locked; for reasons that will shortly become more apparent, no one can get out. Fortunately, a veterinarian (Greg Germann) lives in the building and he provides improvisational treatment to the wounded officer while chaos reigns all around.

As sirens scream from all directions outside, some disembodied voice over a bullhorn instructs everyone inside to remain calm and wait patiently while steps are taken to get everyone safely out. James can?t wait though, and Jake and Danny immediately begin looking for another way out. As they do so, we hear a loud scream from above and Fletcher suddenly comes plummeting into the lobby floor from several floors above, bones crunching, blood splattering in a pool below his head. He?s alive but in even more desperate need of medical attention than James. Regardless, the lockdown remains in place and this time, as Angela and the others try to get out, they are threatened at gunpoint. No one will be let out under any circumstances.

The story rapidly unfolds from here, with the situation becoming more and more desperate as the people inside the building realize they?re not only imprisoned and forcibly quarantined, but also shut-in with something from out of a nightmare.

The entire film is shot from Scott?s perspective, using herky-jerky handycam footage, creating a frenetic, claustrophobic and confused feel. There is no mood or background music here, nor is any needed; Quarantine feels gritty and realistic, as if we?re watching real-time footage of a horrific event instead of a movie. Though there are a few inconsistencies, Quarantine is, overall, fairly scary and suspension of disbelief is easy.

The performances are solid too. I?ve read a few complaints about Carpenter--that she?s over the top. And while there?s some validity to that, with a film like this, overacting is far preferable to under acting. For the most part, I found her believable, even compelling at times, albeit occasionally grating. Director John Erick Dowdle keeps the action moving at an almost nauseating pace and, to his credit, does a respectable job of making us care about these characters before bringing them to horrific endings. And although the first few minutes are a bit slow, Dowdle creates a believable, real-world environment that unravels with surreal, nightmarish intensity inside that quarantined apartment complex.

I?ve also read that REC, the Spanish film upon which Quarantine is based, is far superior. That may be so, but I?m not a fan of subtitles anyway; I imagine keeping track of onscreen text in a film with such frenetic, jerky camerawork would be doubly distracting. Besides, Quarantine is supposedly an-almost shot-by-shot recreation of REC. With that being the case, I can?t imagine REC being *that* much better. Then again, it?s not like I?ve never been wrong.

In any case, Quarantine is creative and original, employing a nice twist on the zombie movie, with relatively little violence or blood for a horror film. While Quarantine is by no means a great film nor truly ground breaking, if you?re in the mood for a few scares, it?s not a bad choice.

Surveillance
Surveillance(2009)
½

Surveillance gets high marks for style and for strong performances, but low marks for pacing, story and characterization. Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond star as FBI agents Sam Hallaway and Elizabeth Anderson, respectively. Hallaway and Anderson are dispatched to a small police station in the Santa Fe desert to assistant in the investigation of a spree of unsolved killings and a related missing-persons case.

The story revolves around gruesome murders that occur along a lonely stretch of desert highway. Officer Jim Conrad (French Stewart), drug addict Johnny (Mack Miller) and an innocent family are slaughtered by masked killers. Three surviving witnesses to those events are being held at the police station: Officer Jack Bennett (Kent Harper), the partner of the slain officer, Bobbi Prescott (Pell James), Johnny?s girlfriend and eight-year old Stephanie, the only survivor among the murdered family. The story takes place at the police station, where the FBI agents, police captain Billings (Michael Ironside) and officers Degrasso and Wright (Gill Gayle and Charlie Newmark) interview the survivors.

The interviews unfold in flashback, with each of the three witnesses questioned separately and providing differing viewpoints on the murders. Through flashback, it?s revealed that officers Conrad and Bennett are corrupt cops who shoot out the tires of random motorists and then conduct a nasty scheme to bilk the victims out of cash, involving a good-cop, bad-cop routine. When the officers shoot out the tire of a passing station wagon however, events quickly spiral out of control. Prescott and her boyfriend, high and traveling along the same stretch of highway, stop to help and Conrad and Bennett decide to include the pair in their scheme. But the spree killers remain at large and when they happen upon the scene, the situation turns into a bloodbath.

Surveillance is watchable enough, but meandering; the scenes leading up to the murders are plodding and unnecessarily drawn out. Director Jennifer Chambers Lynch seems to be trying to build tension and suspense but is only partially successful, treating otherwise trivial material as if it?s of profound significance. Furthermore, even taking into account the required suspension of disbelief, the actions of officers Conrad and Bennett stretch the boundaries of believability. Even in this desert setting, it?s difficult to accept that two corrupt cops would be so bold as to shoot at the tires of passing cars in broad daylight, making little or no attempt to conceal themselves--and with a pair of spree killers on the loose no less.

Lynch is the daughter of famed director David Lynch, who is a producer on the film. The influence of the elder Lynch?s slick, clever style is obvious in the film?s look and visual nuances. But the weak story combined with the sluggish pacing and a plot twist the average viewer will spot from 10 miles away, only serve to make all the visual artistry seem somewhat pretentious; this film is nowhere near as clever as it believes itself to be and neither is it anywhere near as entertaining or important. The whole thing plays like the attempts of a lesser film maker to emulate David Lynch. While I can?t forcefully recommend against seeing Surveillance, I most certainly can?t recommend it. The film does have its charms, but while I suspect most viewers will, to various degrees, be mildly entertained, there are many better films on which to spend the precious viewing time.

District 9
District 9(2009)

District 9: Overrated From Outer Space

District 9 is an intriguing work of science fiction that, while cleverly imagined and well acted, has become more of a critical darling than it deserves. To be sure, first-time director Neill Blomkamp (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has crafted a decent entry into the genre. Based on its reviews however, District?s 9?s overall entertainment value falls short of expectations.

When a gigantic alien spaceship runs out of gas and becomes stranded over Johannesburg, South Africa (coincidentally enough), the government places the insect-like aliens--labeled prawns--into a large government camp in Johannesburg dubbed District 9. When that camp disintegrates into a slum, military contractor Multinational United (MNU) is hired to maintain order and to eventually relocate the aliens to a new camp called District 10, located outside of Johannesburg.

Sharlto Copley plays Wikus Van De Merwe, the MNU agent overseeing the relocation to District 10. The first 20-30 minutes of District 9 are presented in the style of a documentary, with Wikus hamming it up for the documentarian?s cameras, happily describing the relocation and gleefully leading the imaginary film makers into District 9 to film the first waves of forced evictions. Wikus comes across as a generic bureaucrat, the proverbial company man who?s unintentionally funny and rather clueless; he's also a bit of a bigot. Because of the documentary-style opening, District 9 plays almost like two separate films and feels slightly uneven as a result. The documentary footage is not particularly compelling and the movie drags a little until shifting into a more traditional narrative.

Through a chance encounter with one of the aliens--given the human name Christopher by the South Africans--and partially due to his own incompetence, Wikus is inadvertently exposed to an alien chemical that begins restructuring his DNA into alien DNA. This makes him infinitely valuable to MNU, as until now only aliens have been able to operate their advanced weaponry. With his transformation however, Wikus can suddenly operate alien weaponry and he?s eventually whisked away by MNU to a secure location.

While in MNU?s custody, Wikus begins to realize the nefarious lengths to which the government and MNU will go to unlock alien technology. They plan to literally dissect Wikus into pieces, using the bits to create some technology for unlocking alien weaponry. While on the operating table, Wikus uses his new alien strength to escape and makes his way back to district 9, where he seeks out Christopher. Christopher agrees to help only after realizing that Wikus has been exposed to the alien chemical, which was actually a type of fuel painstakingly concocted by Christopher over a 20-year period. Christopher had intended to use the fuel as a means of repowering the alien mothership and transporting his fellow aliens home. But the remaining fuel is with MNU and Christopher will only help Wikus reverse his transformation if he agrees to help retrieve it.

Complicating matters is a human gang of illegal arms dealers operating within the slum, whose leader (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) wants to eat Wikus? alien parts to gain the ability to use alien weaponry. In addition, Les Feldman (John Sumner), Wikus? father in-law, is working with MNU against Wikus. For his part, Wikus only wants to reverse his transformation into an alien, reunite with wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood), and resume a normal life. He gradually begins to realize however, that, for better or worse, his life will never be the same; his evolution from bumbling, sycophantic bureaucrat into victimized, conflicted man of conscious is one of the film?s highlights. Wikus and Christopher break into MNU and, following much carnage, retrieve the fuel; hardly anything goes as planned from there however.

District 9 is moderately original and well-written, with solid direction and good performances. The film?s use of allegory is both a strength and a weakness though. The symbolism here is blunt and stark, bordering, in some ways, on overkill. Allusions to apartheid, to racism and to the injustices of classism and segregation are prominent throughout--so much so that, at times, one questions the film makers? confidence in the material or their faith in the audience?s ability to grasp deeper meaning. These film makers seem to have little use for subtlety. I was also bothered by the clicky, snappy, indecipherable alien language, which is interpreted onscreen with subtitles; the human beings of the film, however, understand the alien language without using futuristic, sci-fi translators or other devices. The reason for that comprehension is never addressed.

District 9, while certainly not the best film of the year--as many of the reviews suggest--may qualify as the best science fiction film of 2009. The reason for this film?s hype might lay in its originality; there?s so little of that from modern Hollywood. In any case, though uneven in places, District 9 has decent eye-candy (especially for its meager budget) and is involving and well-made, if only moderately thought provoking. If nothing else, District 9 is certainly an example of relevant, well-done science fiction.

500 Days of Summer
½

There are reasons to like 500 Days of Summer, I suppose. The writing is solid and the performances are okay and I laughed out loud more than once (there?s a brief written preamble that?s one of the movie?s funniest moments). And yet, I just didn?t like this movie very much. Worse, my reasons for not liking it may reveal something paradoxical about my own tastes in romantic comedies. Maybe.

500 Days of Summer certainly stands out from the genre as a whole in that the boy doesn?t get the girl in the end. But that was part of my dislike. Yeah, I know; one of the biggest knocks against this genre is its predictability and over reliance on formula (this summer?s The Proposal comes to mind as a prime example). But while I would give 500 Days of Summer high marks for avoiding genre clichés and conventions, I would give it extremely low marks for the likeability of its characters.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a young man trained in architecture who instead works as a writer for a greeting-card company. Joseph is a hopeless romantic at heart, an idealist whose skewed outlook on love has been shaped, in large part, by a ?misinterpretation? of the movie The Graduate and various other elements of pop culture. Joseph believes that finding the right person in life is a matter of fate or destiny; specifically, he believes the right girl will simply step into his life one day and he?ll instantly recognize her and know.

One day Tom meets Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), his boss? new personal assistant, and everything?s exactly as he always envisioned; Summer? the one; Tom just knows. And although Summer tells Tom from the start that she?s not looking for a boyfriend, the pair fall into a strange, confusing relationship that includes everything except an official acknowledgement that they?re a couple. Summer tells Tom that she wants to take things slowly and doesn?t want the unnecessary pressure and expectations of a relationship; she really just wants to be friends. Although Tom?s deeply attracted to Summer, he tries to do what she asks. But this is where things get confusing and extremely frustrating for Tom (and, to some less degree, for the audience).

At almost every turn, Summer seemingly contradicts herself. For example, at one point, while hanging out at Summer?s place, the pair discuss their expectations and just being friends and Tom goes to the bathroom. When he comes back, Summer?s laying in bed naked waiting--one would assume--for the nasty to commence; which it does. Hence begins a long, difficult relationship that will end with Summer getting married to a man Tom didn?t even know she was seeing.

Summer?s contradictions make her?at least for me?deeply unlikable. She doesn?t want to be in a relationship but has no problem leading Tom on, enjoying all the benefits of a romantic relationship one minute, being warm and affectionate, spontaneous and intimate?acting like a girlfriend?and then shutting down, becoming cold, aloof, distant and outwardly perplexed by Tom?s desire for more, for better. The pair have obvious chemistry and yet, Summer seems only to appreciate Tom as some sort of entertaining diversion, a diversion that she easily discards when she grows bored or disinterested. Tom?s in love and Summer seems not only to realize it, but to take full advantage of it. Worse, it?s never really explained why Summer treats Tom like a doorstep. Is he a rebound relationship? Does he remind her of an old boyfriend who broke her heart? Did someone pay her to shit on his heart? We never know and, at some point, Summer starts to come across as a sort of romantic automaton, a love terminator who can emulate emotion but doesn?t really feel pity or remorse or pain (at least, not emotional pain).

Tom?s not much more likeable though. He?s whiny, naïve and irritatingly gullible; he borders on spineless too. Instead of picking himself up and working to move on, he wallows in the pain, constantly lamenting over lost love. Such pathos may be the sign of a true lover, but it doesn?t make?at least not in Tom?s case?for a very compelling character.

My other big problem with this movie is in its narrative style. The story is told in non-chronological, non-linear fashion, with each segment introduced onscreen as representing ?day 1-500?of Tom and Summer's romance. Whereas the use of non-linear storytelling works in some cases (Pulp Fiction being the gold standard) here it?s just distracting and even comes across as pretentious. Sometimes art for art?s sake is not enough.

But maybe my expectations for romantic comedies are unrealistic. On the one hand I want a film that?s fresh and original, that?s funny, witty and well written but not overly predictable or formulaic. But I want the boy to get the girl. Sickening, I know. But I want the happy couple--after surviving and enduring the many hilarious pitfalls along the twisting road to true love--to ride into the sunset as the end credits roll. I don?t want to spend a 2-hour emotional investment on a failed relationship. I want true love to win the day. I just threw up a little in my mouth, but there you go.

In any case, 500 Days of Summer provides none of that. To be sure, there are some funny moments here (the dance sequence following Tom and Summer's first sexual encounter is hysterical) but they weren't enough for me. There are also some interesting insights regarding dating and the expectations people bring into relationships; in the end however, 500 Days of Summer was deeply disappointing.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
½

If you enjoy documentaries and, especially, if you're interested in history, The Fog of War is a must see. It's difficult for me to gauge with any certainty, but this film may be a bit slow for the casual viewer. In any case, I certainly fit the description above and found it fascinating.

The Fog of War is part biography, part history lesson, part psychological study, part war treatise. Directed by Errol Morris, the film is basically an extended interview with Robert S. McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense for 7 years during the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations. Morris structures that interview using 'eleven lessons learned from the life of Robert S. McNamara.' Those lessons appear in written text on screen, 1-11, and McNamara then discusses and analyzes each in depth. Interspersed between shots of McNamar's interview, are tons of charts and graphs, historical footage, and recordings from meetings of various heads of state--some of it previously unreleased or rare.

What emerges is a compelling, scary, realistic depiction of war-- its complexities, its consequences, its ugliness. War is about killing people, plain and simple. And as with any human endeavor, mistakes are inevitable. In war though, mistakes usually mean the deaths of innocent people--sometimes 1000s of them and more.

McNamara himself is a complicated, and at times, mysterious, at times sympathetic figure; he is always introspective and mostly straightforward; his words and analysis of history and his role in it echo with especial poignancy considering his recent death and considering how much events from his time mirror our own times. Frequently, this 85-year-old man could easily be speaking of the war in Iraq instead of the Vietnam war.

Especially fascinating is McNamara's description of his role as a top aid to General Curtis LeMay during WWII. McNamara describes one bombing run where he and LeMay decided that a minimum of 100,000 Japanese civilians would die; he then speculates that, had America lost WWII, both he and LeMay would have been tried and executed for war crimes.

There's no discernible political point of view here (though, undoubtedly, many viewers will project various political statements); this is just an old man ruminating and reflecting on life and history, on his mistakes, his successes, his regrets. One wishes more men like this served in government now--not the Robert McNamara that served during the Vietnam War mind you, but the introspective, brutally honest, seasoned elder statesman in this film. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in history, war or politics.

Awake
Awake(2007)

Awake falls under the 'so bad it's almost good' category (please see my blog entry for my personal definition of that categorization). It's absolutely laughable. The plot, basically, is: Hayden Christensen has some rare condition that requires a heart transplant. His fiance'(Jessica Alba)cooks up some elaborate scheme requiring the surgeons to secretly inject the transplanted heart with a drug that will make Christensen die, seemingly of a random, run-of-the-mill complication.

During this film's transplant scenes, there are never more than 4 or 5 doctors and nurses in the OR. I don't mean 4 nurses and 4 doctors, I mean 4 or 5 total! Total! During a heart transplant! Are you freaking kidding? I discussed this factual liberty with a friend in medicine and she informed me that, in the real world, there would be no less than 15-20 people present in an OR at all times during such a complicated, intricate, time-consuming procedure.

This means that, to successfully stage such an elaborate fraud, you'd need--in the least I'm guessing--half the OR team conspiring with you. Realistically, you'd likely need more on board for a legitimate shot at success. And we're not talking about every-day Joe Schmoes easily tempted by financial gain--even by billions (though, realistically, who wouldn't be?).

No, we're talking heart surgeons, cardiologists and various other specialists who make LOTS of money--not billions mind you, but enough so that they'd know better than to try killing someone with a cockamamie scheme like the one proposed in this film--even for billions. One would think there are much, much easier ways to go about faking an accidental death for an insurance payout--even in a sci-fi/fantasy film.

I've got no problem with suspending belief, but Awake stretches the limits too far--at least for me. To each his/her own though; perhaps there's something about sci-fi/fantasy films with plot points involving the medical field that send my 'disbelief meter' into the red. Whatever. If you can overlook the credibility factor, Awake is vaguely entertaining I suppose, but there are much better movies to spend 1:20 on. I certainly wish I'd been watching one of those.

Apt Pupil (Un Élève Doué)

Apt Pupil takes an outstanding premise?young boy blackmails the old Nazi war criminal hiding next door?and turns it into 3/4s of a terrific movie. The late Brad Renfro gives an outstanding turn as Todd Bowen, the precocious 16-year-old who forces the Nazi (played by the great Ian McKellen) to provide him with first-hand accounts of holocaust atrocities. An interesting study on the corrupting influence of evil, the real power of this film lies in watching the relationship between Bowen and the Nazi evolve. Bowen is firmly in control at first but that slowly changes as the film progresses, partly due to Bowen?s naiveté and partly due to the old Nazi?s craftiness. The film clunks to a less-than-satisfying conclusion, but everything that comes before definitely makes it worth a look.

Dolores Claiborne
½

Kathy Bates gives a career-defining performance as the title character in this big-screen adaptation of Stephen King?s novel. To paraphrase King himself regarding the plot: Dolores Claiborne is about a woman who gets away with one murder (her husband?s) only to fall under suspicion for another murder many years later she didn?t commit (her employer?s). While that?s an accurate synopsis, this film is about so much more.

Dolores Claiborne is an involving character study, an examination of family ties and of the ways childhood experiences mold us and sometimes haunt long after we think they?re buried. Most of all, this film reminds that some relationships, no matter how strained or dysfunctional, are so integral to identity, that they can never be completely left behind.

The film opens on an affluent-looking home along the shores of a coastal town in Maine. We hear a loud, dramatic commotion as the camera moves into the house and then see Dolores Claiborne standing over a fallen woman at the foot of a large staircase, rolling pin upraised as if to kill. The woman on the floor chides Dolores to ?do it,? but the mailman arrives first, interrupting.

The scene then shifts to a newspaper bureau in New York City where reporter Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh) receives the fax of a local newspaper story regarding Dolores Claiborne?s arrest for the attempted murder of her employer, Vera Donovan. There?s an anonymous handwritten note too, asking if the suspect is Selena?s mother. It is of course and Selena heads home for the first time in many years.

Upon Dolores and Selena?s reunion, we quickly see that the relationship is deeply tense, with most of the hostility coming from Selena. Selena drives the pair home from the police station and as they enter Dolores? shack, their conversation awakens an old memory for Dolores. Here the film shifts into flashback mode--the first of many--and we meet a younger, happier Dolores and an adolescent Selena (Ellen Muth). We also meet Joe St. George (David Strathairn), Selena?s father and Dolores? long-deceased husband. The three at first seem like a typical, lower-middle-class American family. But even in this early flashback, we sense more to the family dynamic than meets the eye; there is something dark, even sinister lurking beneath the apparent normalcy. Much darker.

From that first flashback, the film alternates between present day and flashbacks to Selena?s childhood and to Dolores and Joe?s marriage. Each flashback scrapes away a little more of the seeming normalcy, revealing secrets so terrible that adult Selena has repressed the worst memories from that time. In their place Selena has substituted rage, bitterness and blame towards her mother. There?s no proof (Dolores was never charged in Joe?s death), but Selena knows Dolores murdered Joe and deeply resents it. And indeed, Dolores did in fact murder Joe but had good reason. Very good reason. It is those reasons that Selena has repressed, those reasons she must remember and come to terms with to make peace with Dolores and, most importantly, with herself.

Dolores Claiborne unfolds like a finely structured novel, with the present-day scenes presented in subdued, monochrome tints and the flashbacks presented in rich, colorful pastels. For me, this color scheme was a clever symbol, representing the ideal, perfect family on the one hand and the souring of those delusions, the loss of innocence on the other.

Although the film boasts strong performances all around, the rapport between Bates and Leigh is the centerpiece. Their relationship is intense and complicated without devolving into melodrama. There is never any doubt of the love between these women nor of the deep pain. Almost as compelling is the relationship between Dolores and Joe. Stripped of his facades, Joe is an abusive, cowardly monster. I imagine any woman who?s ever suffered through an abusive relationship might feel like cheering during the film?s final confrontation between Joe and Dolores, when Joe gets his comeuppance. Strathairn?s portrayal is not only good but, in a way, almost admirable; it couldn?t have been easy to portray such a fiend.

The relationship between Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) and Dolores is also quite compelling. Vera is a rich old widow who?s employed Dolores as her housekeeper and personal assistant for many, many years. Though the pairs? relationship is antagonistic on the surface, Vera chooses Dolores as her caregiver in the final days of life; we eventually learn that the film's opening scene was in fact Vera's attempt at euthanasia and at provoking Dolores to help. We also learn in one of the flashbacks that it is Vera who first plants the idea of murder into Dolores? mind as a solution for Joe.

Christopher Plummer plays local detective John Mackey, a man who, like Selena, knows Dolores murdered Joe but is haunted by the fact he couldn?t prove it. He sees Dolores? current impending murder charge as a chance for redemption, a chance to finally nail her and bring his career to a successful close.

Bates holds everything together. She breathes such life into Dolores, that she could easily be someone the audience knows. The pacing may be a bit slow for some, but I greatly appreciated director Taylor Hackford's measured approach. If you enjoy Stephen King adaptations or good, character-centered drama in general, Dolores Claiborne is a solid choice. Highly recommended.

Carrie
Carrie(1976)
½

What I like so much about the original Carrie (the 2002 version is a pale comparison--though it has some interesting elements) is the plausible reality it creates. I forgot that these people weren?t real high school students and educators as opposed to actors performing for a camera. Sissy Spacek is perfect as the title character, a socially awkward teen with telekinesis--the power to move objects with one?s mind. Living under the shadow of a twisted, dysfunctionally religious mother (Piper Laurie in an iconic performance), Carrie is rejected and tormented by classmates at school who don?t realize what they?re dealing with.

This film perfectly captures the pecking orders and social cliques that so dominate high school life to this day. It also encapsulates the extreme cruelty students are capable of inflicting on those who don?t fit in. In the case of Carrie White, that cruelty proves a fatal mistake. After a terrible locker-room prank involving her first menstrual period, Carrie is invited to the prom by the boyfriend of Sue Snell (Amy Irving), one of the girls responsible for the locker-room incident. Sue?s gesture represents a genuine act of contrition; she feels guilty for participating in Carrie?s humiliation and convinces her boyfriend (William Katt) to ask the girl to the prom as a way of helping her feel accepted and normal.

Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), the girl chiefly responsible for the locker-room incident, deeply despises Carrie though and, with her boyfriend?s (John Travolta) help, devices the ultimate plan to publicly humiliate Carrie in the worst conceivable way. That plan involves a rigged prom king and queen election and a bucket of pig?s blood. What happens the night of Carrie?s prom has become the stuff of American popular culture legend. When the pig?s blood is dropped on Carrie?s head, Carrie releases the full fury of her telekinetic powers on all present. It?s an ugly, unforgettable scene that leaves almost no survivors.

Carrie is a true American horror classic with sharp direction, believable performances and probably the most unforgettable prom scene in the history of cinema. There?s not much here to reflect on, nothing that will leave you feeling like a smarter or more evolved human being, but there?s plenty that will scare the shit out of you.

Brokeback Mountain
½

Okay, I admit I had to be dragged to see this movie back in 2005. In hindsight, especially after rewatching bits and pieces of it during numerous cable replays, Brokeback Mountain was definitely worth the trip. On the surface, a movie that falls into the ?gay cowboy romance? genre doesn?t sound terribly compelling. In fact, it seems a ready-made satire. In any case, one would suspect this film?s appeal to be fairly limited--male, gay, 30-ish. Surprisingly though, the themes in Brokeback Mountain are fairly universal. If one looks past the surface, the film is not as much about gay romance as it is about the consequences that arise from the choices we make in life.

Both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall are absolutely riveting in their roles. In fact, this was the movie that put Heath Ledger on my personal radar. I knew who he was before this film of course, but Brokeback Mountain revealed him as a serious, massively-talented artist as opposed to just another Hollywood ?it? boy with a pretty face and 15 minutes of fleeting fame.

Ledger and Gyllenhall play Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, respectively. Del Mar is a soft-spoken, macho type whose rough exterior hides a timid, vulnerable man who doesn?t know or understand himself very well. Twist, on the other hand, is pretty in touch with his inner workings (including his sexuality) and is eager to help Del Mar get in touch with his. The pair meet while spending a summer herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. After some finagling, Twist succeeds in seducing (for lack of a better term) Del Mar and the pair fall into a summer love affair.

That affair will follow the men throughout their lives and have serious consequences for their relationships and families. Over a period of several decades, they annually reunite for a fishing expedition and sexual escapades. In the end, the consequences of this affair aren?t much different than the typical consequences of any hetero affair: heartbreak and regret, families torn apart, lives shattered.

This film is really about responsibility and self control. It?s a heart-rending reminder about the people in life who fail to find true love or chemistry and instead settle based on convenience, desperation, indecisiveness, laziness or a lack of introspection or self-respect. Brokeback Mountain is not so much a chick-flick or a gay love story as it is a meditation on life; it's a tear jerker whose ending leaves a hollow feeling; it's a reminder that anyone, man or woman, married or single, gay or straight, can live long enough to regret ?the one that got away.?

Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End

A terrible, terrible mess of a movie.

The most interesting part of this film is Keith Richards' cameo as Jack Sparrow's (Johnnie Depp) father; everything else is a waist--a waist of time, of talent (the performances aren't bad) and of dazzling special effects. The lion's share of the blame for this disappointing film belongs to director Gore Verbinski. The writers share almost as much blame though; the story is muddled and uninvolving--the proverbial video game transferred to a theater-sized screen.

Sliders - Seasons 1 & 2

If you?re a fan of sci-fi (recently bastardized as ?SyFy? by NBC-Universal?s mediocre cable channel) and you haven?t seen seasons 1&2 of Sliders, you?re missing a gem. I wouldn?t label this show a true, endearing classic, but some of the episodes from its first 2 seasons are, in the least, semi-classics. Admittedly, there are a couple of dogs but there are also a couple of storylines that, in my opinion, rank among the best science fiction TV of the 1990s.

Jerry O?Connell (Vern from Stand by Me) plays Quinn Mallory, a young, brilliant physicist who?s developed a machine for inter-dimensional travel. Not to be confused with time or space travel, this mode of transport involves jumping from one plane of existence to another.

The show relies on a real scientific theory called string theory, which postulates--in part--the existence of parallel universes, existing in the same time and space as our own universe. These parallel universes may be radically different from ours or nearly identical with only miniscule variations. For example, there may be a universe with an Earth where Hitler won WWII or where he was assassinated or was never born. Or there may be a universe with an Earth where a man living as a homeless vagabond in our world is a Rock Star or a world leader and so forth.

With this unlimited premise, Sliders deftly tackles the single most important, most fundamental question to good science fiction and fantasy: what if? And although in later seasons, Sliders? quality would steadily decline, seasons 1&2 combine that great premise with solid storytelling, direction, acting and action.

The show?s appeal starts with the cast. In addition to O?Connell, the ensemble includes John Rhys-Davies (who would later star in The Lord of The Rings trilogy) as Prof. Maximilian Arturo, Sabrina Lloyd (who would later star in Sports Night) as Wade Welles and Cleavant Derricks as Rembrandt ?The Crying Man? Brown. Arturo is one of Quinn?s college profs and is a mentor of sorts; the pair have a mostly friendly, almost father-son relationship that occasionally turns adversarial, even resentful. Wade is Quinn?s would-be love interest, providing a touch of sexual tension. The two never fall into a full-fledged romance though and, from a narrative point of view, that?s probably best. Rembrandt ?The Crying Man? Brown is a never-was soul musician and is, without doubt, the show?s comic relief. Derricks plays the character with surprising charm and wit and although the entire ensemble is quite strong, from a comic standpoint, he?s probably the most underrated member.

Quinn?s sliding machine allows for inter-dimensional transport via a wormhole (never mind the technical mumbo jumbo behind that). He invites Wade and Arturo along for a one-off slide and Rembrandt gets inadvertently sucked in. After that first ?slide?, the gizmo that opens the wormhole gets damaged and the sliders can no longer choose their destination and consequently can?t get home. Thus begins the adventure as the 4 slide from one dimension to another, hoping to someday randomly slide back into their own universe.

There are some issues here--sometimes major ones--with dubious science, but for a show with such a speculative, fantastical premise, that?s understandable. Who cares anyway. With a series this well done, suspension of disbelief fairly easy. The episodes of these first 2 seasons range in quality from very good to mediocre to pretty rotten. There are, however, far more quality episodes than stinkers (the truly horrific episodes would come in later seasons). The storylines range from wholly original, to well-done homage (there?s a nice tribute to the classic short story The Lottery for example) to poorly-done rip-off (I?m thinking of the storyline from season 2 where LA is a maximum security prison a la Escape From New York/LA).

The worlds the sliders encounter in these first 2 seasons include: an Earth where America is a Soviet colony, a world where most of the men have been killed off in a massive plague, a world that?s about to be destroyed by an asteroid, a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, a world where alcoholic prohibition was never repealed and others.

Sliders is a fascinating piece of speculative television that, despite its age, has retained much of its appeal (the episodes that were bad from the start have gotten no better with time). It works mostly due to solid writing and a talented ensemble cast that unselfishly shares the screen; there are no prima donnas or divas among this cast. Sliders seasons 1&2 is an example of how entertaining well-done sci-fi television can be. In some ways, I'm amazed this show ever made it to the broadcast TV dial (it was on Fox). Definitely worth a look.

Bug
Bug(2006)

Bug is a rambling, disturbing study of one man and woman's descent into madness. On it's surface Bug seems to be a straight horror movie, incorporating some type of supernatural element--this was especially the impression left by the trailers. But it's not. This is about a former veteran with some type Schizophrenia (Michael Shannon) who drags a lonely, vulnerable, strung-out woman (Ashley Judd) into his madness. Adapted from a play, the film has one setting and mostly involves the interplay between Judd and Shannon; and while the pair has a kind of fascinating, twisted on-screen chemistry, Bug was about as fun as a proctological exam. The dialogue becomes weirder and weirder as the film progresses, as does Shannon's behavior. Judd's character generates little sympathy, as it's difficult to believe anyone could be so easily dragged down to this level of insanity. There's simply not much here to recommend; the writing and directing are competent and the performances are decent, but there was nothing here--neither in the way of story or character--that I cared about or related much to. A disturbing and uninvolving train wreck of a movie.

Changeling
Changeling(2008)
½

Changeling is an atmospheric, well-acted film based on a real-life event that seems almost too absurd to be true. But a google search of the film reveals that it is fairly faithful to actual events. Set in 1929, it stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins. Collins is a liberated woman of sorts for her day and age; she has a fairly high-ranking job working for a phone company and is a single mother of a 9-year-old son--Walter.

One day she comes home from work to find Walter missing and calls police, only to be told she must wait 24 hours to file a report. Collins files her report when the 24-hour time frame ends and five months later, the police call her with news they've found her son. Apparently, he's turned up in some podunk town in Illinois and is being returned by train.

But upon meeting the boy at the train station, Collins realizes something's wrong and immediately tells Captain JJ Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the officer in charge of the case, that he's not her son. Jones reassures her that both she and the boy have been traumatized and that, in five months of captivity and hardship, the boy has changed radically. Though Collins never really buys it, Jones convinces her to take the boy home and try him out. She spends a few days with him before deciding beyond a doubt that he's not Walter. Besides the obvious differences in appearance, there are other differences as well--Walter was never circumcised for instance, and yet the impostor is.

But when she returns to Jones with her renewed doubts, he gives her more of the same. He promises to send a department doctor to her house to evaluate the boy. The police doctor though, is a police crony who reaffirms the police contention that the boy is Collins' son. Collins then takes the boy to several professionals for formal, definitive confirmation that he's an impostor and then goes back to Jones.

This time when she confronts him, Jones has her committed to a mental ward until she agrees that the boy is her son and signs an affidavit affirming it. In the meantime Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a prominent LA Presbyterian minster uses his weekly radio show to publicize Collins' ordeal and rally support for and win her release--which he eventually does. A young boy has also come forward with evidence of a serial killer in the nearby town of Wineville, saying that he is a nephew of the killer and was forced to abduct several young boys and then molest, torture and kill them. He leads police to the murder sight, an isolated rural farm, and although Walter's remains aren't among those recovered, it's discovered that he was among the boys kidnapped.

The police are forced to release Collins and admit their 'mistake'. The boy presented as Collins' son is actually named Arthur Hutchins and says he agreed to be Walter to get a chance at meeting his favorite actor, Tom Nix. The police, he claims, pressured him into posing as Walter Collins.

Collins sues the LA police department, leading to monetary awards that are never paid and, most importantly, to changes in the law regarding involuntary confinement to a mental ward by police. The Wineville serial killer, Gordon Northcott, is soon apprehended, tried and convicted for multiple killings and sentenced to death. He claims he didn't kill Walter and then claims he did, and then, on the eve of execution claims he didn't.

Five years after Northcott's execution--which is depicted in brutal fashion on screen--one of his victims is discovered alive and to have been hiding for five years. He tells police that Walter was one of two other boys who escaped with him. In fact, if not for Walter, he tells police, he never would've escaped because Walter came back when he became tangled in the chicken wire of the pen where they were imprisoned. The film ends with Collins outside police headquarters having just listened to the recovered boy's story, her hope renewed that Walter might still be alive somewhere, hiding out in fear just like the other boy.

The films closes by telling us that she never stopped looking for Walter until the day she died.

Jolie's performance here is very good; she is easily believable not only as a desperate, determined mother but also as a woman of the time period. The movie, which is directed by Clint Eastwood, makes great use of CGI in seamlessly creating the world of 1929 Los Angeles. The film's setting is immersive and detailed and completely believable. Donovan's performance as a corrupt police captain whose only concern is the public image of a corrupt police department, is also very good. And John Malkovich is as good as ever.

The film is an interesting reflection on how far we've come as a society in terms of equality. It's chilling to think a time existed in America when a completely sane woman could be so easily locked away in a mental ward for no crime other than speaking truth. Moreover, it's hard to believe police in any era would perpetuate such a terrible fraud; the film is also a nice reminder that police corruption--especially in LA--is hardly new to current times. Of course, today such an issue of maternity would likely be settled with a simple DNA test.

The film is a bit slow but well-done and authentic enough to be worth the time. It is especially good as a time capsule, a slice of history that authentically reflects both its era and the Wineville murders (the town eventually changed its name).

Mirrors
Mirrors(2008)

Mirrors was slightly entertaining but could?ve been much better; it had a decent cast, a creepy premise and good pacing. The script though, was at best mediocre and the story bordered on incoherent.

Kiefer Sutherland plays suspended, alcoholic policeman Ben Carson. Carson has been removed from the force pending investigation of his shooting of an undercover officer. He takes a job as a night watchman at the Mayflower, a fire-gutted department store that?s been unoccupied for 10 years. Before it?s time as a department store, the Mayflower building had originally served as a psychiatric hospital specializing in schizophrenia. Despite the fire that decimated the building 10 years before, the numerous mirrors in the Mayflower have remained in pristine condition. In addition, Carson learns that his predecessor had been obsessed with keeping those mirrors spotless and died under extremely odd circumstances (the film in fact begins with the previous night watchman?s supernatural murder).

Soon Carson begins seeing strange visions in the Mayflower?s mirrors, at first dismissing them as a side effect of the medication he takes for alcoholism. He soon realizes though, that the visions in the mirror are much more than mere hallucinations and describes them to his sister Angela (Amy Smart), with whom he?s living while he works to get back on his feet. Angela doesn?t believe him of course and pays the price. The apparitions begin appearing in mirrors in her apartment and as she prepares to get in the bath one evening, she doesn?t notice that her reflection in the mirror doesn?t move as she turns to get in the tub. As she lies in the bath, the mirror reflection begins yanking its jaw and, in a particularly grisly moment, Angela?s jawbone is simultaneously ripped from her face in the real world, killing her.

What follows is a convoluted mess in which we learn that the mirror apparitions are schizophrenic demons of some kind; it?s never really made clear what they are though and by the film?s climax, I didn?t much care. Carson?s estranged wife and two children are threatened by the mirror monsters as well and the last several minutes of the movie become a ?race against time? as Carson forces a former patient from the mental hospital to return and confront the mirror monsters. The finale is almost laughable; it?s loud, obnoxious, convoluted, cheesy and confusing; worse, Kiefer Sutherland?s character makes the proverbial ultimate sacrifice and ?falls through the looking glass,? becoming part of the mirror world--a world that, until that point, we didn?t even realize existed. Though there are some creepy moments and some decent performances, Mirrors is actually pretty bad, not at all worth the wasted time.

Meet the Spartans

This film is so unspeakably, horrendously bad, it barely merits a full paragraph. As a comedy: fail. As an unintentional comedy: completely worthless. There are absolutely no redeeming qualities here and nothing to recommend. The movie consists of a series of unfunny, uninspired skits and gags that riff on a number of popular movies and TV shows, set against a backdrop spoof of 300. A complete waste of time.

The Simpsons Movie
½

Even if you?re no fan of the show, The Simpsons Movie is worth a look. If you?re one of those disgruntled former fans who constantly bemoans the show?s lack of quality since sometime in the 90s, this film may revive that old enthusiasm. This is the best-written comedy I saw in 2007. Of course, I AM an avid fan of the show (Homer Simpson is a hero of mine), so I may be a bit biased; I don?t particularly buy into the notion of the show?s drop in quality. Any show with such longevity will experience peaks and valleys, but for me, The Simpsons is still one of the most consistently sharp, intelligent comedies on TV. It?s simply not as en vogue as during its heyday.

Anyhooo, The Simpsons Movie is creative and funny and, best of all, it amps Homer?s brilliance/stupidity to previously unseen heights. Homer (Dan Castellaneta) falls in love with a pig who?s about to be slaughtered after being used in a Krusty Burger commercial. He takes the animal in (alternately named Spider Pig and Harry Porker) and improperly disposes of the its feces in Springfield lake, contaminating it beyond restoration. The evil head of the EPA, Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks), through underhanded tactics, tricks president Arnold Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer) into declaring Springfield a disaster area and having a giant transparent dome lowered over the entire city.

When Springfield learns they?ve been cut off from the world because of Homer?s negligence and stupidity (his name is printed on the side of the recovered feces silo), they form a lynch mob and go off to hang him. Homer and family (Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright) escape the dome through a fluke sink hole found beneath baby Maggie?s sandbox and go on the run as wanted fugitives to Alaska. Meanwhile, the sinkhole is permanently closed by the Simpsons? escape, leaving the rest of Springfield trapped.

Not long after the family?s arrival in Alaska, Marge and Homer argue about going back to save Springfield, with Marge being in favor and Homer wanting to stay. At a hopeless impasse, Marge finally packs the kids and leaves Homer in Alaska. Homer comes home to an empty house, realizes the depth of his loss and sets off across the Alaskan wilderness to reunite with his family.

Meanwhile, Cargill has decided to destroy Springfield and kill off the population. When Marge and the kids are apprehended by the EPA, they?re returned to Springfield and, seemingly, will die with everyone else. Enter Homer who, on his trek across Alaska, has experienced a spiritual epiphany thanks to the ministrations a kindly old Eskimo witch doctor he affectionately names ?boob lady.? He has truly realized the error of his ways and it falls to him to save both Springfield and his family, which of course, in his bumbling, inept fashion, he does.

The Simpsons Movie is not only extremely funny, but it also contains a worthwhile theme regarding the importance of community over the importance of any single individual. And of course, like some of the series? best episodes, at its heart the film advocates family and spirituality, even as it satirizes them. This is a very entertaining, biting satire of a film which offers a new take on the traditional Simpsons intro and is even audacious enough to insult the audience in the first few minutes?to hilarious effect. There is brief nudity (in the name of American squeamishness) and an appearance by all of the series? regulars. If you?re a comedy fan, especially a fan of satire or a fan of the series, The Simpsons Movie is a must see.

Religulous
Religulous(2008)
½

I thoroughly enjoyed Religulous and, coming from a religious upbringing myself, found myself feeling somewhat guilty for liking it as much as I did. I?ve never considered myself much of a Bill Maher fan. In a way, I?ve always considered him on par with intellectual elitists who try to define which books, plays, movies or other artistic creations are worthwhile and which are trash. These are the people (frequently college professors or other educators) who think that true art contains some great fundamental insight about the human condition or existence or about god or whatever. Frequently, these great works of ?art? require word-by-word and line-by-line dissection to fully comprehend.

Don?t misunderstand me?there?s inarguably a place for these types of artistic works and some works of art are obviously superior to others. After all, Shakespeare?s work has endured for over 500 years; will the works of say, Sue Grafton or Uwe Boll still be consumed 500 years from now? One has to wonder. In any case, these intellectual types frequently consider anyone who doesn?t share their high opinion of art to be, in some way, intellectually or morally flawed, lacking in life experience or naïve; great art is, after all, self evident and anyone who can?t recognize or appreciate it is unworthy or lowbrow.

Bill Maher?s attitude toward religion reminds me of this elitist philosophy. He?s so convinced of the idiocy of organized religion that anyone who practices one of the world?s major faiths must be idiotic themselves.

But despite that elitist type attitude, I am loath to admit one simple fact: I mostly agree with his arguments; hence, my enjoyment of this film. Religulous is a brutal, uncompromising look at organized religion, employing a Punked-style of filmmaking. The majority of those interviewed didn?t really understand the nature of the film or Maher?s beliefs regarding religion. Those interviews are, by turns, funny, thought-provoking, insightful, mean-spirited and embarrassing.

Regardless, Maher gets it right. He shines a merciless light on the hypocrisy and lunacy that compromise the beliefs of most of the world?s major faiths. More importantly, he helps illuminate the line between what constitutes faith and what constitutes hard science?a line most of the deeply religious don?t seem to comprehend. Faith should never be accepted as science and visa versa (are you with me Intelligent Designers?). Confusing the two is dangerous, counterproductive and disingenuous; both help to answer similar questions in different ways. Maher?s dissection of world religion serves to remind of that simple truth.

His analysis includes interviews with a reformed homosexual who?s now a happily married minister, an actor who plays Jesus at a theme-park show, a group of truckers at a truck-stop church in North Carolina, a US senator, a senior Vatican scholar and many others. The faiths of those interviewed include Jewish, Christian, Muslims, Mormons and others. Maher even gets an interview with a couple of gay Muslims.

Perhaps the most important issue the film addresses is the difference between atheists and agnostics. Maher himself, the film makes clear, is agnostic. He finds himself almost as perplexed by atheists as he is by the deeply religious. Are atheists really all that different from their hyper-spiritual counterparts? Both groups, after all, claim to know all the answers about the nature of god and existence, life and death. Atheists and the devoutly religious, Maher argues, are really just two sides of the same coin. Again, I can?t help agreeing.

But Religulous? single flaw lies in the fact that Maher, in his eagerness to expose the idiocy of religion, forgets why so many people embrace it. For all of religion?s illogicality, one simple fact remains: science can?t yet answer all of the life?s great mysteries either. And it may never be able to. So while I can?t help agreeing with Maher?s assertions and arguments, neither could I help sympathizing with many of these people as Maher interviewed and ambushed them, thinking that he could?ve been a little less cruel, a little less dismissive.

Then again, during a couple of his exchanges with Muslims in the film, the comedian seemingly risks his life in the service of exposing idiocy and hypocrisy. Despite Maher?s arrogance, it?s hard not to admire and respect that.

Bottom line: if you don?t mind having your religious beliefs thoroughly examined, questioned and mocked, you?ll probably enjoy this film. If you?re an atheist or an agnostic, you?ll almost undoubtedly enjoy it. Regardless, if you can sit through it with an open mind, Religulous is definitely challenging and thought provoking. For the open minded, highly recommended.

The Departed
The Departed(2006)
½

The Departed is much more mainstream than some of [Director] Martin Scrocese?s other work?especially his early work?but it?s no less entertaining. This is an engaging, riveting and involving crime thriller fueled by outstanding performances by the lead actors and slick, fast-paced direction, with a touch of comic relief sprinkled throughout.

Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a fatherless kid who happens to live in the same neighborhood as notorious organized crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costello takes Sullivan under his wing at an early age and becomes a father figure of sorts. He helps Colin keep food on his family?s table and helps keep him mostly out of trouble; when the time comes, he forces Colin to join the Massachusetts State police and serve as a mole. Colin excels at the police academy and quickly rises through the ranks to join the Special Investigation Unit, a division assigned to organized crime.

Meanwhile, at around the same time, William Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is about to finish his time at the police academy. Just before he graduates, he?s approached by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) for a deep undercover assignment to infiltrate the Boston Mob. Costigan is chosen because his father?s ties to the mob make him a more believable criminal. He?s imprisoned on a phony assault charge and, upon release, uses both his father?s name and his own phony criminal record to infiltrate Costello?s organization. Costigan rises as quickly as Sullivan, becoming one of Costello?s most trusted lieutenants.

Soon both the mob and the police realize they?ve been infiltrated; both informants are tasked with helping to find the traitor in his respective organization. What ensues is a race by each informant to discover the other?s identity. Complicating the issue is a love triangle that inadvertently develops between Costigan, Sullivan and a police psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga). Further complicating things is the fact that only Queenan and Dignam know of Costigan?s true assignment; he?s so deeply undercover that there are no official records of his involvement in the case.

The Departed is crime drama elevated to Shakespearean-like tragedy. Everyone in the cast is very strong and certainly no one is eclipsed; for my money though, DiCaprio gives the most impressive performance. Until this role, I couldn?t help still viewing him, to some degree, as Hollywood?s ?Teen Beat? cover boy. Say what you will about not believing him as a thug, the man can act. Plain and simple. Alec Baldwin provides the comic relief here and Matt Damon is terrific as Sullivan, a mob mole who?s far from in control of his own life. Sullivan is a mildly sympathetic figure in some ways, but in the end, he proves little better than the thugs he works for and I wasn?t sorry to see him get his comeuppance. Mark Wahlberg is also good as Dignam, a police sergeant with an attitude and a decided dislike of both green cops and Costigan in general. And Jack Nicholson is, well, Jack Nicholson. He's demented and edgy and menacing as mob boss Frank Costello.

There are some issues here with the plot and the love triangle seems a bit contrived, but I hardly noticed any of that. The Departed is fun, involving, true edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Highly recommended.

Waitress
Waitress(2007)
½

Waitress is a sweet, clever romantic comedy that I enjoyed far more than I expected to. This summer's The Proposal could take a lesson from this film. Whereas The Proposal got the chemistry right, it was badly lacking in terms of writing and it's over-reliance on formula. That film played it safe, hoping to appeal to as broad and diverse an audience as possible, rising barely above being pure Hollywood product based solely on the chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds and the overall quality of the cast.

But Waitress gets it all--mostly--right. Kerri Russell is magnetic as Jenna, a small-town girl trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage to an insecure hick named Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Jenna works a dead-end job as a waitress at the local diner and aspires to someday open her own diner where she can pursue her dream of baking and selling pies from her own from-scratch recipes. Jenna's life is severely complicated when she gets pregnant with Earl's child.

Jenna becomes a pre-natal patient of Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), the town's new physician. Jim has moved to town so his wife can complete a residency at the local hospital. There is immediate attraction between Jim and Jenna; the two soon fall into a passionate, extra martial affair, further complicating Jenna's life.

Jenna is a quirky, creative character who takes inspiration for her pie recipes based on the events of her life. The 'Bad Baby' pie, for instance, is a reflection of her surprise, unwanted pregnancy. The film intersperses voice overs from Jenna, explaining her thoughts and hopes and the intricacies of her pie recipes, which are often quite funny and touching.

She comes to love her baby of course, even naming it Lulu while still in the womb. That love creates a new source of tension and conflict for Jenna; she decides that she must escape Earl before he has a chance to spread his dysfunction and abuse to the baby. Is Jim the means of that escape?

In the end, things don't turn out quite the way the audience might hope for Jenna and in that way, the film is a more realistic reflection of life. That's not to say however, that there's no happy ending here; that ending, in fact, is where the film strays slightly into the area of perfunctory, Hollywood-style happy ending--but only slightly.

Andy Griffith gives a rare performance here and is quite lively and entertaining as Joe, the owner of the diner where Jenna works. Joe has a deep affection for Jenna and assumes a father (or grandfatherly) role in her life. Joe proves to be, in fact, the source of Jenna's happy--albeit bittersweet--slightly formulaic ending.

The chemistry between Waitress' leads is not quite as sharp as the chemistry in The Proposal, but in every other way, this film handily outshines The Proposal. The death of Waitress' director Adrienne Shelly (who also has a small role) a few months before the premiere makes the whimsical, sentimental tone all the more poignant. If you're looking for a great date movie, Waitress is a pretty solid choice. It's well-written, well-directed and acted, and it's entertaining, funny and romantic without being overly sappy, sentimental or unrealistic. It's a chick-flick that even a guy can enjoy.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

As Harry Potter movies go, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is fairly deserving of its 94% rating at RT. For me, these movies have been pretty forgettable (I'm not a fan of the books). I HAVE been entertained by some of these films (I liked The Chamber of Secrets quite a bit), but ask me what happened in The Order of the Phoenix and the best I can do is conjure some memory of a story involving a house elf or some such. And the same goes for every film in this series.

I don't think that will be the case with The Half-Blood Prince. On it's surface, 'Prince' is quite similar it's predecessors: there are quiddich matches, spells and potions, magic classes and giant spiders. But there are less of these. And they feel more integral to the story than in any of the other movies.

But what truly sets this entry apart, I think, are the characters and the actors playing them. The movie does a terrific job of capturing teenage love and the angst that accompanies it. With this film, I felt like I came to know these characters like never before--and, consequently, I cared about them like never before. Ask me about 'Prince' 2 years down the road and I will probably remember details from this films better than from any of the 5 that came before it.

Much of this owes to the performances. These young actors have grown and evolved and the audience, I think, has grown with them. Their maturation as actors makes a huge difference in the quality of this film. And though the entire cast is quite good, I would probably give Emma Watson--who plays mudblood Hermione Granger--props for the finest performance in the regular cast. Jim Broadbent, playing Prof. Horace Slughorn, is probably the best of the new additions. But everyone is, again, quite good.

In addition, the tone of this film is quite a bit darker than any of the previous entries and the death of one of the major characters adds a depth and somberness unmatched in this series. There were a couple of sequences here when I was reminded of The Lord of The Rings series.

For my money, director David Yates has done a better job here than in 'Phoenix'. This film is tighter and, as noted above, relies less on potions or spells or details of school life than any of the films so far. Yates instead focuses much more intently on the characters and their chemistry. In that way, 'Prince' is much sparser than any of the previous films.

If director Yates can come anywhere near this level of quality with Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, I'm looking forward to those final 2 films, something that's never been true regarding this series.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
½

I certainly understand the value of loud, glossy, popcorn summer entertainment. And Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (TRF) provides loads of it. Unfortunately, not only was I relieved to see the end credits roll, but I felt as if I?d spent 2 1/2 hours in a shiny, exploding void. Granted, it was an entertaining void at times, an expansive, dazzling, visually-compelling canvas of CGI, but still a void for all that.

Some critics have said that the robots were more interesting than the people--more human even--and I couldn?t help agreeing at times; but at other times the screen was so loud and frantic, I couldn?t find much of anyone to like. I just didn?t care about these characters. For example, by the time Sam and Mikaela (Shia LeBouf and Megan Fox) finally decide they?re a couple and Sam finally confesses his love for her, I was just glad the movie was close to ending.

The worst part of it all is that, somewhere in this jumble of a film, was a decent story struggling to get out. But in the end, TRF abandons story for eye candy and noise. The story that?s here feels fragmented, incomplete. And each time I started to get caught up, something else would explode. Worse, in the end, the movie plays like a dumbed-down copy of the original Transformers.

There is plenty to like here I suppose. There?s no denying that I laughed in all the right places; but that was another part of the problem. The movie threw in cheap, visceral gags and inconsistent characterization to generate easy laughs. Most of the laughs had little or nothing to do with progressing the story--a miniature robot humping Megan Fox?s leg like a poodle in heat for example. Kids will love this movie--especially little boys--but adults may be left feeling a bit shortchanged.

Perhaps I'm expecting too much from a movie of this kind and I know it's been much more popular with audiences than with critics. But I just can't help feeling that TRF could've and should've been better.

Valkyrie
Valkyrie(2008)

Even though we know what?s going to happen, Valkyrie is a taut, suspenseful piece of filmmaking. In that way, it reminded me of Titanic; director Bryan Singer does a terrific job of maintaining high tension in a story with an inevitable conclusion. This is not a fantasy, not alternate history or a Hollywood-style happy ending. We know that Hitler will survive the story?s assassination attempt and that our heroes are doomed. And unlike Titanic, there are no wholly fictitious storylines here, no Jack and Rose type drama set against a background of historical fact. And that makes this achievement all the more impressive. Singer molds a historical tragedy into one hell of an entertaining film.

It all starts with Tom Cruise. Cruise gives an A-list performance as German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a patriot and career military man who?s grown disillusioned with Hitler, with his policies, with his management of WWII and with the direction he?s taking Germany. von Stauffenberg has been quite vocal about that disillusionment and his outspokenness has earned him an assignment in North Africa. In the film?s opening sequence, he is wounded by an allied air strike on a North African battlefield, losing an eye, a hand and two fingers. It is von Stauffenberg?s outspokenness that draws the attention of Germany?s underground resistance. They approach him after his recovery and return to service and he readily joins them, helping to conceive and construct a plan to assassinate the Fuhrer and take over Germany?s government. Due in large part to his wounds, von Stauffenberg is awarded a promotion, gaining high-level access to Hitler as a result. Because of that access, he quickly becomes the backbone of the assassination plan. That plan centers on an explosive placed in a briefcase and left beneath a table in a meeting between Hitler and his staff at his Polish military headquarters.

The bomb detonates as planned but that?s the only aspect that goes as designed. The meeting is moved at the last minute from a concrete, windowless, above-ground bunker (a location that would?ve guaranteed death for every person in the room) to a regular conference room. von Stauffenberg learns of this change on his way to the meeting, after activating the bomb?s time-delayed trigger?which gives him 10-15 minutes. After planting the bomb, von Stauffenberg is called out of the meeting by a fellow conspirator for a phone call. The bomb explodes as he?s escaping and he assumes Hitler killed. However, one of Hitler?s colonels has moved the bomb behind a heavy table leg for easier access to a map and this slight relocation spares the fuhrer's life.

Besides Cruise, the rest of the cast is very good, including Tom Wilkinson, Terrence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and Eddie Izzard. But it is Cruise who really shines. Say what you will about the man?s public behavior, about his devotion to Scientology or whatever, but this film reminds of why he rose to the top of Hollywood?s machine in the first place. He is absolutely terrific.

Valkyrie does a great job of recreating WWII Germany as well; it?s atmospheric, authentic and meticulous. And it?s a great meditation on what might have been if certain pieces of the plan had fallen correctly into place--these conspirators came heart-breakingly close to overthrowing Hitler. Singer uses their near-triumph to great effect too, building suspense where there really is none and bringing to light little-studied historical details. Valkyrie is also important in that it reminds that not all WWII Germans were Nazis and that many actively hoped and/or worked for Hitler?s downfall. Many were killed or executed for their efforts to free Germany from Nazi power. These facts are frequently forgotten or glossed over in discussions of Nazi Germany.

If you enjoy authentic, atmospheric WWII recreations or if you just enjoy a well-told, well-acted story, this movie is for you. Even if you?re not a Tom Cruse fan, Valkyrie is well worth the time.

W.
W.(2008)

I am no fan of George W. Bush, not his policies, his condescending attitude, not his C- sense of history or his C+ sense of humor.

That said, I was greatly disappointed by W. The problem lies mostly with a lack of depth. W. plays like a haphazard production thrown together so it could be rushed out in time to influence last year's election. The movie makes a caricature not only of George W. Bush but also of just about everybody else--of history itself in fact.

Granted, making a caricature of GWB is easily done. But in a serious biopic--as this film purports to be--I expect a little more depth (yes, I would expect even a figure like GWB to have a bit more complexity). In fact, with GWB perhaps the hardest task would be NOT portraying him as a caricature. In that regard W. fails miserably. The film offers no new insight on anything--not history, no GWB. Everything here plays as if borrowed from other places--from other anti-GWB articles, books and sources. The whole production feels like a retread.

Josh Brolin--who I've become a fan of in the last couple of years--gives a good performance as George W. Bush, but again, it feels more akin to something I might see from Will Ferrell than from Robert De Niro. The film is mildly entertaining but it is, by no means, objective or balanced. In that way, it mostly preaches to the choir and though, personally, I'm glad to sing along, I have to believe that in the years to come someone will do a biopic that relies less on stereotype and hearsay and more on balanced historical accuracy.

Up
Up(2009)
½

I didn?t care much for 'Up'. It wasn't 'Hulk' bad or 'The Hunted' bad, but it certainly wasn't up to the standards of what I consider Pixar's best films including, The Incredibles, Toy Story 1&2, and finding Nemo.

'Up' does have an intriguing premise. A 78-year-old widower named Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) who?s about to be forced into a retirement home escapes by attaching thousands of helium-filled party balloons to his chimney and floating off to South America. Carl?s destination is Paradise Falls, a picturesque natural wonder that his deceased wife always dreamed of visiting. Along the way, he discovers a young boy-scout stowaway who shares in the adventure.

Carl is a young boy in the opening minutes of the film, seated in a crowded theatre, dressed as his boyhood idol (Christopher Plummer) and dreaming of adventure. In those first few minutes, we see how, as a child, he meets Ellie (Elie Docter), his wife to be; then an extended musical montage unfolds. During this montage, the couple?s courtship and life together plays out; at the end of the segment, Carl is a sad old widower, longing for the good old days and looking to Ellie?s ghost for guidance. After a tussle with a member of a construction crew working around his house, Carl is deemed a public nuisance and ordered to the retirement home. When they come to pick him up, Carl unleashes his balloons and escapes. Adventure ensues.

Why did I dislike movie? My biggest peeve is in regards to consistency.

I understand this film is complete fantasy. No matter how many helium-filled party balloons you tie from a chimney, you'll never get enough lift to raise a house off its foundations and into the wild blue yonder--probably not a mobile home either. Even several large hot-air helium balloons probably wouldn't be enough. Okay, no problem suspending disbelief for that.

But 'Up' establishes a certain set of rules in its first several minutes. The world established here seems to be mostly like our own. People get married, share a lifetime of memories, grow old, get forcibly placed into retirement homes and die. They may keep pets, but in the first 1/4 or so of the film, there's no indication that those pets--or any other animals--can talk. In other words, this isn't a Pocahontas, Lady and the Tramp, All Dogs Go to Heaven or any of the other countless movies where animals talk to each other and--frequently--to people as well.

But then, about a quarter of the way through, talking dogs appear. Granted, these dogs talk with the help of special, computerized collars that somehow translate their instincts and thoughts into speech (it's never explained how these collars work or who invented them or why). But it all seemed very out of place, almost as if the film makers said to each other:

"We've hit a bit of wall with the story."

"Oh yeah? Well bring in the talking dogs!"

Moreover, these talking dogs can also pilot vintage WWII airplanes, even attacking Carl's floating home with dart-firing guns. But the talking dogs aren't my only complaint. Carl's character is written inconsistently as well. On the one hand, he needs a walker/cane to get around, but later in the movie he tows his floating house on foot over rocky, mountainous terrain using his hands and a suspended garden hose. Near the end, we see him climbing the side of an in-flight Hindenburg-like airship, out-running attack dogs, using his cane in a sword fight and generally doing things he shouldn't be physically capable of.

The villain in ?Up? felt all wrong too. I won?t spoil by giving away his identity, but he was just another piece that seemed not to fit. He was older than Moses for one--impossibly old no less--and yet he was just as spry as Carl.

Maybe I'm over analyzing here. This movie IS a cartoon. It was refreshing to see a film with an elderly hero; Hollywood frequently has little use for older characters--especially in films marketed to this age group. But as the film transforms Carl into a mongrel-evading, sword-fighting hero, the writers seem to forget that he?s a 78-year-old widower who walks with a cane. In other words, in the end, the film endows Carl with unrealistic abilities to work around the pesky realities of old age--realities that the film itself makes note of in the beginning.

Admittedly, the film did have its charms. Even though the talking dogs were inconsistent, they were, at times, amusing. And ?Up? has a whimsical, sentimental tone--at least in the beginning--that makes you really care about Carl and his journey. But as the film progresses Carl becomes less and less a believable human being and more an action hero. This film should have been better. Kids will love it regardless, but ?Up? isn?t terribly adult friendly like The Incredibles or many, many other, better animated films over the years. I certainly wouldn?t recommend it.

The Wackness
The Wackness(2008)

Ben Kingsley is self-medicating psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Squires in this quirky, drug-fueled exploration of friendship set in 1994. When Dr. Squires crosses paths with drug-dealing high school student Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an unlikely friendship develops and soon Luke is trading pot for therapy.

Dr. Squires' life is even more screwed up than Luke's it seems. He consumes more illicit drugs--both prescription and street--than Luke and his wife (Famke Janssen), has fallen out of love with him. His stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), is kind enough, but regards him as more of a screwed-up, drug-taking peer than a parental figure and he doesn't seem to have many friends his own age.

The friendship between Luke and Squires quickly progresses as Luke attends therapy. The two are soul mates--of a sort. Luke has a pretty dysfunctional family himself; his relationship with his father is chilly at best, and their family is about to be evicted from their home. In addition to their mutual family issues, Luke and Squires are also both depressed.

The two become inseparable, constantly hanging out, going to bars, jaunting about New York and even being arrested together. At one point, to help Luke earn money for college, Squires even helps him deal drugs. Luke meets Squires' family and eventually becomes romantically involved with Stephanie (who bails them out of jail), complicating his relationship with Squires. Squires' wife files for divorce and Stephanie leaves Luke broken-hearted. And though their friendship is strained over Luke?s relationship with Stephanie, Squires and Luke quickly reconcile through their shared pain. In one of the movie?s final scenes, the pair get drunk and stoned together and then sit on the beach, looking at the ocean and contemplating the meaning of it all. Squires decides that life isn?t worth living and in a very funny moment, walks into the ocean to commit suicide. Luke goes in after him and the results are quite amusing.

The Wackness is an entertaining little movie without much real point. As a coming-of-age comedy/drama it falls somewhat flat. The interest here lies in the friendship between Dr. Squires and Luke. This unusual friendship between a drug-dealing high school student and a 60s-something psychiatrist is the movie?s heart; it?s a meditation on what draws people together and what constitutes friendship and chemistry. The relationship between Stephanie and Luke, while interesting, seemed sometimes realistic, sometimes contrived, while the interplay between Stephanie and Squires was also very entertaining, but sparse. And although Ben Kingsley is very good, I frequently had to remind myself this character was a psychiatrist?no fault of Kingsley?s performance I think, but more a matter of the writing. It was at times hard to believe that Squires was a licensed psychiatrist. Overall, The Wackness is an amusing little film that?s fairly forgettable. It won?t blow you away but neither will it bore you to tears.

The Proposal
The Proposal(2009)

Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds play Margaret Tate and Andrew Paxton respectively, in this amusing but predictable romantic comedy. He's her personal assistant at a New York publishing house; she's a high-roller, ice-queen executive who strikes fear into her employees; she?s so uptight, so aloof and snooty, that he characterizes her as "allergic to human emotion." When she learns her Canadian visa has expired, she blackmails him into marrying her so she can stay in the country and keep her job.

In order to appease immigration and make everything appear legitimate, she flies with him to Alaska to spend the weekend with his family at his Grandma's (Betty White) 90th birthday celebration. There are several decent laughs here, many arising from the great chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds. The other performances are all good too?especially Betty White's; even at 87, she's sharp and witty and gets a fair amount of the spotlight.

There?s also a subplot involving Andrew?s strained relationship with his father, Joe (Craig T. Nelson), which adds a believable touch of family angst without dragging on the film?s comedic tone too greatly. Mary Steenburgen is Grace, Andrew?s fun-loving, patient mother, who plays peacemaker between father and son.

Although this film is funny in places, it's also eye-rollingly predictable and disappointingly formulaic. And despite compelling chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds, the evolution of their relationship isn't terribly believable. It's a romantic comedy of course, and we see immediately how things will progress: boy hates girl and does her bidding because he's blackmailed, intimidated and sees an opportunity for career advancement; boy falls for girl when he realizes that, beneath the ice-queen exterior, beats a heart of pure gold. It's all the stuff in between that makes the story entertaining?the journey, in other words?and the passage between love and hate here seems contrived at times.

If you didn?t see this at the theater, it's not a bad choice for a quiet night at home. Bullock and Reynolds alone are enough to justify the rental price. They?re so much fun to watch in fact, that this film only hints at their onscreen potential and almost demands they be cast opposite each other again?but with stronger material to draw on next time. In any case, with some sharper writing, The Proposal could have been a stronger film. Even at that, it's still not a bad way to pass a few hours. Mildly recommended.

Drag Me to Hell
½

In an era when many horror films play like scripted versions of 'Faces of Death,' (think Saw and Final Destination), Drag Me to Hell is a fresh, entertaining entry into the genre that succeeds in rising above torture-porn dreck.

To be sure, in many ways, Drag Me to Hell is B-movie material, but director Sam Raimi (The Spiderman franchise) crafts an effective horror film by mixing a simple premise with gross-out humor, effective storytelling and a timely plot that taps public mistrust of the mortgage industry.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer locked in a competition for a management position with a back-stabbing, double-talking, stereotypical douche of a coworker (Reggie Lee). In an effort to look tough and decisive to her boss (David Paymer) Christine refuses a third loan extension to a disgusting old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver). The creepy, one-eyed woman causes a scene in the loan office and places a curse on Christine. That curse involves a demon that will stalk Christine for 3 days and then, quite literally, drag her back to hell with it.

The gypsy woman is gross and repugnant to the point of caricature and Raimi isn?t shy about using that revulsion to push the audience?s buttons. There are several cringe-inducing moments involving the pretty young loan officer and the revolting old gypsy, and plenty of low-grade, jump-from-your-seat scares.

There?s also a very funny sequence involving a murdered kitten?always assuming one has a sense of humor about such things. And there?s an effectively-done séance that plays like an homage to old-style ghost stories. As Christine's remaining three days pass, she spirals further and further into a fog of paronoia, self-delusion, madness and hallucination, causing her life to unwind in both horrific and amusing ways.

Justin Long (Mac from the Macintosh computer commercials) gives a surprising turn as Christine's skeptical boyfriend, who realizes too late that all this business about demons and curses is far too real. Also very good (my favorite performance) is Dileep Rao as a psychic Christine consults for guidance in ending the curse.

Drag Me To Hell is no Oscar winner, but it's funnier and more creative than the average horror film, and its ending doesn?t pander to the audience as many wide-releases do; it involves a nice twist that you might see coming if you watch closely. This movie is just fun and, for fans of Raimi?s Spiderman series, it?s also a nice diversion while waiting for the director?s next superhero pic.

1408
1408(2007)

1408 stars John Cusack (one of my favorites) as a writer Mike Enslin, who stays the night in a haunted motel room in New York City. Enslin has made a career of spending time in creepy places to debunk them, but he gets more than he bargained for in room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel. Samuel L. Jackson?s character states early on that the entity residing in 1408 isn?t a ghost, but make no mistake, in the purest sense, 1408 is indeed a ghost story. There?s not much gore or violence, but there?s creepiness galore. This film does an outstanding job of translating the emotional heart of Stephen King?s story into film, making it integral to the eeriness, something many King-adapted movies fail to do. You?re also unlikely to hear a creepier use of a song by ultra-lite 70s pop group The Carpenters.

Stand by Me
Stand by Me(1986)
½

For me, Stand by Me is the quintessential coming-of-age film. It?s sentimental, poignant and unforgettable. The performances of its four young stars (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell) are nothing short of astonishing. The film is told mostly in flashback with Richard Dreyfuss narrating as the older version of Gordie Lachance, Wil Wheaton?s character. Kiefer Sutherland plays the villain and John Cusack has an affecting cameo as Gordie?s deceased older brother (a flashback within a flashback). Rob Reiner directs, creating the first non-horror film based on a Stephen King story, awakening Hollywood and, to a lesser degree, audiences to King?s potential beyond the horror genre. The story here is about as far from stereotypical King as one could envision; there?s not a ghost or ghoulie, not a demented psychopath nor a blood-soaked rampage to be found. This is a great film, made all the more touching by River Phoenix?s untimely death.

Unforgiven
Unforgiven(1992)
½

Unforgiven is not only the best western I?ve seen (I don?t see many), but it?s also one of my favorite films. Clint Eastwood, who directs and stars, is perfect as William Munny, an aging outlaw who comes out of retirement for one last payday. Morgan Freeman (always a solid presence) is Ned, Will?s partner from the old days before Will retired, got married, settled down to a farm and made a couple babies. Jaimz Woolvett is the The Schofield Kid, a self-proclaimed outlaw who claims to have killed 7 men. The kid is a man-child who talks a good game but is nowhere near the outlaw--or the killer--he pretends. Schofield tracks the retired Munny to his farm and proposes one last payday.

The movie opens in Big Whiskey Montana, a frontier town where law and order is maintained by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a ruthless, iron-fisted sheriff. In the service of justice, Little Bill is as likely to use whipping or beating as he is a monetary fine. A cowboy from a ranch outside of town slashes the face of a prostitute when she laughs because of his?uhm?less-than-well-endowed manhood. One cowboy holds her down while the other (he of the tiny pecker) cuts her. Little Bill consults with Skinny, the owner of the brothel, and in the end decides to fine the cowboys instead of whipping them. The other prostitutes in the brothel are outraged and place a $1000 bounty on the cowboys? heads.

By the time Schofield relays this event to Munney, the story has become so distorted that the poor victim has had just about every protruding appendage cut off, in addition to being slashed about the face. This exaggerated version, along with the reward, leads Munney into accepting. He calls on Ned, his partner from the old days, and they catch up with Schofield, forming a reluctant partnership to go kill the cowboys and split the money three ways.

As the trio journeys to Big Whiskey, we learn that in the old days, before he met his deceased wife, Will was a much different sort of man. He was a true, cold-blooded killer in every sense of the word, an outlaw who's 'killed just about everything that walks or crawls at one point or another', including women and children. His partners in those old days either hated him, were terrified of him or both. Almost all of them are dead now and Will still has nightmares about the things he did in those days. His marriage and kids, he claims, saved him from that life and hes 'not like that no more.'

Richard Harris has a nice little part here as English Bob, an egotistical, semi-famous aging outlaw who rides into Big Whiskey to collect the bounty. He comes with his own biographer (Saul Rubinek) in tow, ignoring the big ?NO FIREARMS ALLOWED BY LOCAL ORDINANACE? sign just outside town limits. Little Bill, it seems, knows Bob from way back and comes to greet and disarm Bob and his biographer?WW Beauchamp?with a heavily-armed posse. Bob lies about carrying firearms and Little Bill gives him a thorough and very public beating in addition to a night in jail. The scene between Bob, Little Bill and Beauchamp in the town jail is classic and beautifully sets the stage for the film?s finale'.

Munny and his crew succeed where English Bob failed and kill both cowboys. Ned, however,discovers he doesn?t have the stomach for killing anymore and sets off for home after the first cowboy. Munny promises to meet up with him later later and still split the money three ways after the second cowboy is dead.

After he and the kid kill the second cowboy, they wait on the outskirts of town for one of the prostitutes to deliver the reward. As they wait, some of the film?s most memorable, most quotable dialogue is exchanged. When the prostitute arrives, after a brief exchange with her, Munny and the kid learn that Ned has been captured, tortured and beaten to death by Little Bill to learn Munny?s identity?which he does. Munny takes a whiskey bottle from the kid and starts drinking?something he hasn?t done since the old days, when he was a nasty, murdering SOB.

He tells the kid to go ahead. The kid realizes he?s just not a cold-blooded killer like Munney and confesses that he's lied about killing. He understands that Munny?s going back into town to kill Little Bill. Munny does just that, setting up the finale?. He's drunk as he enters the bar where Little Bill and his posse are gathered, transformed into the William Munny of old. The finale? is tightly written and memorable. The dialogue and acting are pitch perfect and the gunplay is well done. In the end, there are no real winners. The main characters here?outlaw and lawmen alike?are all, in some way, fundamentally flawed and the audience is left wondering if comeuppance was fairly done.

This film is a great character study about the nature of violence and does a great job of skewing the lines between right and wrong. The message seems to be: we are all fundamentally flawed; the very nature of our humanity makes us guilty and deserving of suffering, of death itself. It?s a theme of original sin. In the end, we all have it coming.

Even if you?re not a fan of westerns, I highly recommend this film.

No Country for Old Men
½

No Country for Old Men is a complex, unsettling little movie with a star-making performance by Javier Bardem. It?s not complex in terms of plot though. The film?s brilliance lies in its moral ambiguity, in its meditation on life and the role of chance in determining fate. And there are a number of other, more subtle themes running through the story as well.

It opens with a haunting voiceover by Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a Texas lawman who?s grown cynical and wary about the state of the world and the ways people have changed since he first put on the badge. His voiceover beautifully sets the tone for the story to come.

We then meet Anton Chigurh, a hitman who?s being processed at some middle-of-nowhere west-Texas police station/jail. The deputy who arrested Chigurh is talking on the phone to his boss, giving arrest details and describing some breathing-tank apparatus Chigurh carries that must be for ?emphysema or something.? Chigurh carries no ID and is somewhat of a ghost it seems. As the deputy talks, Chigurh sits in the background, hands cuffed behind him. The deputy is unaware as Chigurh expertly works his cuffed hands to the front of his body and coolly sneaks up from behind.

As the deputy hangs up, Chigurh lowers the handcuff chain over his throat. A violent, disturbing struggle ensues, with Chigurh murdering the deputy, stealing his car and using it to stop a random motorist on the highway. Chigurh orders the motorist to step out of his car. He?s carrying the apparatus the deputy had mistakenly believed a breathing device and tells the motorist to please stand still. The motorist, confused and assuming Chigurh an agent of the law, sheepishly obeys. Chigurh holds the tip of the apparatus to his head and another violent, albeit more merciful, cold-blooded murder ensues.

The movie then shifts to Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran who, while hunting close to home, stumbles on a failed drug deal. There?s been an intense gun battle and the scene is littered with bodies, as well as several pounds of heroin. Moss also discovers $2 million in drug money. Unexpectedly, one of the drug dealers is still alive. He?s been shot and is clearly dying; he?s begging for a drink of ?aqua.? Moss tells him he has none and seemingly leaves the man to die, taking the money with him.

He heads back to his trailer and hides the money but keeps thinking of the dying man. Apparently, unable to deny his nagging conscious, he fills a gallon jug of water and even as he tells his wife (Kelly Macdonald) that he?s about to ?go do something stupid,? he returns to deliver the water. The drug dealer?s dead though, shot yet again, and here I was reminded of the old proverb that ?no good deed goes unpunished.? Indeed, this good deed proves quite costly; the people who?ve finished off that last drug dealer--Chigurh among them--discover Moss, cutting him off from his truck and leading to an intense chase that ends Moss' escape. Chigurh takes information from Moss? truck to track him. Moss, meanwhile, knowing that the dealers will be coming, returns home and puts his wife on a bus to her mother?s. He assures her everything will be okay and that she?s officially retired from her job at Wal-mart.

An intense cat and mouse game between Moss and Chigurh ensues, involving several other players, including a former associate of Chigurh?s and a Mexican hit squad hired by the same shady business man who hired Chigurh. Moss is clearly in over his head and realizes this only little by little, fully understanding the lengths of Chigurh?s depravity too late. He manages to wound Chigurh in the course of the chase but it?s far from enough to stop him.

Chigurh is a full-fledged lunatic, but a controlled one. He?s a machine of a man, a former Vietnam vet himself who has no qualms about killing his former partner (Woody Harrelson) and, ultimately, the man who hired him. Chigurh kills without thought or remorse and Bardem plays him with beautiful nuance; he?s cold, calculating and menacing. At the same time, he displays a subtle, dark sense of humor that lends him an even greater air of menace and a touch of unpredictability. He?s a man of his word as well; he lives by a code and if he promises to kill you or someone you love, say your prayers--unless of course, you can correctly guess heads or tails on a coin toss.

I can?t praise Bardem's performance enough--especially after seeing him in Vicky Christina Barcelona. This is a powerful, unsettling transformation. He goes from psychotic sociopathic killer to Don Juan-type lover with seeming ease. No Country for Old Men is worth seeing for his performance alone. But Bardem is by no means the only noteworthy performer here--only the best. The entire cast is top notch. Tommy Lee Jones is like a wise old grandfather, looking at the world through weary, haunted eyes, wondering if he?s become the proverbial old timer who?s lost touch with the job. And Josh Brolin is terrific as the savvy Moss, an everyman who refuses to give up even after realizing he?s in too deep. Kelly Macdonald is very good as Moss? wife, Carla Jean; she gets one of the film?s most interesting scenes near the end, as she too is forced to face Chigurh?s wrath.

Don?t expect any happy endings here. If you go for the typical wide-release Hollywood fair where boy gets girl, where bad guy gets his comeuppance and everyone lives happily ever after, this isn?t a good choice. No Country for Old Men is as disturbing as it is riveting; it?s contemplative and grim and an air of melancholy hangs over the entire production. And yet, the notion that chance determines the courses of our lives as surely as any of the choices we make rings of truth. It?s got a sense of humor too, does this movie, but its very much gallows humor and we understand pretty quickly that Moss and his wife are headed for bad endings; yet we?re powerless to look away.

It?s not a feel-good experience, but if you?re looking for a movie that will challenge you, that will resonate long after the end credits, that will stand up to multiple viewings, No Country for Old Men isn?t a bad choice.

Hulk
Hulk(2003)

Hulk was one of those rare movies so bad I nearly walked out. Eric Bana?s performance here as Dr. Bruce Banner is lame and lifeless; he recites his lines in a breathy, monotone whisper and the only thing less interesting than his voice are his facial expressions. Considering some of Bana?s better performances, I?m guessing this was more an issue with the direction than with the actor. None of the other performances were much better--not Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, Banner?s love interest, not Sam Elliot as Connelly?s father, not Nick Nolte, who plays Banner?s daddy, not Josh Lucas, who plays a former soldier that wants to use the hulk for profit and warfare. The scenes featuring the hulk were like watching a character from a video game--an extremely vapid, pointless one. The character, as rendered here, is a joyless CGI automaton that could easily have been under the control of some special effects artist with a joystick. And the story?

For reasons that remain incomprehensible, the writers significantly rework the hulk mythos, turning both Banner and the hulk into little more than whiny, angry children with daddy issues. In a word, it?s all daddy?s fault. David Banner?s scientific experiments before Bruce is born lead to the genetic mutations that eventually transform his son into the hulk. The film?s climax involves a large scale, monumental battle between father and son (I'm yawning just thinking of it). The script is extremely cheesy in places too and the story moves at a prodding, brooding pace--both of which simply magnify the movie?s other weaknesses.

Maybe I?m alone in my extreme distaste for this movie (its RT score seems to suggest that possibility), but considering that this franchise was rebooted last year with a new creative team and an entirely new cast, it seems unlikely. And indeed, The Incredible Hulk is a far more entertaining film; it has no pretensions about being anything other than popcorn entertainment. That film is big, loud, fast paced and well acted and directed. With Hulk, on the other hand, director Ang Lee seems determined to create the first superhero art house flick. It doesn?t work. If you haven?t already seen Hulk, skip it and see The Incredible Hulk instead.

Halloween
Halloween(2007)

Halloween (1978) vs. Halloween (2007)

Director Rob Zombie turns Michael Myers into a perverted, awkward, trailer-trash adolescent in his 2007 remake of John Carpenter's 1976 classic slasher. Zombie's version of Carpenter's masked psychopath is bullied at school, abused by his worthless step father and neglected by his stripper mother. Finally, young Michael snaps one Halloween night, kills the school-yard bully and then lays waste to his family?killing just about everybody but the dog and his baby sister (and his mother, who's apparently off twirling around a pole).

In the original, there's no such backstory of course. Michael's just a 5-year-old who snaps one Halloween night and kills his sister, returning 15 years later to finish what he started. And while the original did use a brief scene with Michael after he's committed to an asylum, Zombie's version adds several such scenes. There are even additional murders during Myers' lock up?including his blood-splattered escape. In Carpenter's original, Myers just steals a car from a nurse and is off to kill.

Zombie's backstory is mostly pointless though. It diminishes most of the character's mystery, which was a big part of his menace, a big part of what so terrified audiences in the original. Granted, the idea of providing Myers with more complexity and motivation is intriguing, but Zombie's execution falls well short of his ambition. It's difficult to accept that this little boy grows into a hulking, grungy, greasy-haired, muted monster.

Then there's the film's other main flaw: it's not scary. Even after Zombie finishes with Myers' backstory and his film becomes more of a straight remake, there's no artistry to it, no magic. In both films, Myers returns home to Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night to stalk and kill large numbers of dumb, unsuspecting teens. Carpenter's original, which shows little blood or carnage, is unsettling; that film is all about tension and suspense, about ratcheting up expectation and driving the viewer's heartrate into the redline with something as simple as a hand reaching for the main character from offscreen.

Carpenter toys with his audience; that hand may or may not belong to the killer (it usually doesn't, but Carpenter never lets the audience get comfortable). In Carpenter's world, we might see the killer lurking outside the house, murdering the family dog, looking for a way in. A few shots later, inside the same house, there's a clatter from inside a closet; it's the killer. Our hearts race as an oblivious teenager opens the closet door, shuffles through some clutter. An unnerving background theme plays; we peer at the screen through our hands...and the family cat jumps out.

In Zombie's world, there is no cat; there is no closet. The killer simply enters the house and stands in the shadows, unnoticed, watching the half-dressed teen (or, more likely, watching two naked teens do the nasty). He eventually tires of watching and stabs the dumb teenager in the eye; then he stabs the other eye and, finally, he stabs the teenager's throat, lifting her off the floor with the knife still embedded. The blood gushes and spurts; the teenager gurgles and chokes and flops like a hooked fish. And though we may be grossed out, we're definitely not scared. In Carpenter's world, we rarely even see the knife go in.

Admittedly, there are some bright spots in Zombie's version. Malcolm McDowell is good as Dr. Loomis, Michael's crusading, beleaguered therapist; he's every bit as appealing as Donald Pleasance in the original role. And a couple of the scenes with Michael in the asylum, while unnecessary, are interesting. Fans of Zombie's other work may enjoy his version, but to experience this story and character in a way that scares the ever-loving bejesus out of you, see the original. You won't understand Michael's inner-child nearly so well, but you will experience a movie that may well haunt your dreams.

Layer Cake
Layer Cake(2005)

Layer Cake is an entertaining, above-average gangster flick driven by Daniel Craig's performance and a solid script. The film is based on the debut novel of British writer JJ Connolly. Like the book, the film is intricately plotted with lots of twists and double-crosses. The ending is both surprising and oddly satisfying.

Craig plays anonymous drug dealer XXXXX, whose real name is never revealed. XXXXX has been in the drug game for a while, saving the profits with the goal of retiring to a life of ease and luxury. The day before he's due to start retirement though, he's summoned by crime boss Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) to complete two separate, very important jobs: track down the missing daughter of one of Jimmy's old friends and serve as a middle man for a huge shipment of ecstacy as a favor to one of Jimmy's business associates.

Both assignments, however, are double crosses. Jimmy has been XXXXX's boss for a while and learns of XXXXX's impending retirement; he doesn't like the idea one bit. He sees XXXXX as an upstart, a young punk who's not paid near enough dues to consider getting out of the game. And if XXXXX won't continue adding to Jimmy's own revenue stream, Jimmy decides to take him down. Both assignments are traps designed to either a) get XXXXX killed or b) send him to prison.

The interest here lies in watching XXXXX as he maneuvers and slowly uncovers the multiple schemes and obstacles that lie in his path, improvising his way, avoiding death and incarceration at every turn. XXXXX is a kind of cross between a criminal versions of Macgyver (he hates guns) and Michael Corleone. Craig plays him as an every-day joe caught up in circumstances beyond his control--an everyday joe who just happens to be a criminal; Craig's performance is sympathetic enough to make us like the character but sleazy enough so we don't really mind if he doesn't make it to retirement.

There are several memorable quotes sprinkled throughout the script and, combined with the intricate, well-conceived plot twists, the solid performances, and the well-paced direction by Matthew Vaughn, Layer Cake almost--but not quite--attains the status of genre classic. In any case, it's a memorable, involving ride, well worth the viewing time.

True Romance
True Romance(1993)
½

True Romance is one of the most underrated action movies of the 1990s. Written--in large part--by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, their collaboration is so entertaining and dynamic that one wonders why they've never worked together again.

Christian Slater plays Clarence Worley, an unambitious, unremarkable young man who works in a comic book store and spends each birthday watching a martial-arts film festival featuring Sonny Chiba at the local Cineplex. Oddly, this year while catching the festival, Clarence meets a young woman named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who seems enamored with him. The two hit it off famously and go out for pie afterward to discuss movies and life. One things leads to another and the pair end up at Clarence's place--naked and satisfied; extremely satisfied. So satisfied in fact, that, in a flash of conscious afterward, Alabama confesses she wasn't at the theatre by accident but that she's a call girl paid by Clarence's boss at the comics store as a birthday gift.

Clarence reacts with relief, telling her he knew something was amiss and that he'd been relieved to see she had the right junk without any clothes. Alabama can't believe he's so calm and kool and confesses that her night with Clarence was one of her best ever. She's been a call girl for three days (not a whore mind you, but a call girl; there's a difference) and if he tells her to screw off she will; otherwise, she thinks they could have something special. Clarence agrees. And the next day the pair is married.

Over the next few days Alabama mentions her pimp several times and the thought of the man haunts Clarence in a major way. So much so that, after consulting his inner Elvis (played with guru-like aplomb by Val Kilmer), Clarence confronts the pimp, a shady, twisted man named Drexl (Gary Oldman). The confrontation between Drexl and Clarence is the second best scene of the film. Clarence goes under the pretext of retrieving Alabama's clothes, but leaves in a blaze of gunfire, killing Drexl and his muscle man, in one of the more satisfying moments you'll see in an action film. He takes the wrong suitcase however and instead ends up with a case loaded with cocaine--probably more than a million dollars worth. The newlyweds decide to run off to Los Angeles and attempt to sell the coke through an old actor friend of Clarence's (Michael Rapaport).

First they visit Clarence's dad, Clifford (Dennis Hopper), a retired alcoholic policeman who Clarence hasn't seen in years. He runs a couple checks for his son through old contacts and learns that Drexl's murder is assumed gang-related and doesn't raise any suspicion toward Clarence and Alabama. Clarence thanks him and pair is off to LA.

But though the police aren't after Clarence and Alabama, Blue Lou Boyle (who never appears) and his associates are. Blue Lou is the crime boss that owns the cocaine. Apparently, in the chaos of the scene at Drexl's, Clarence inadvertently left his driver's license in Drexl's hand (who'd confiscated it to learn Alabama's location). Blue Lou's henchman, a man named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken), begins his search at Clifford's trailer. The scene where Coccotti and interrogates Clifford (the only scene in which Walken appears) is, hands down, the film's best. It is, in fact, one of the more memorable scenes in this genre. Even in this adversarial turn, the actors have seamless chemistry; their back-and-forth duel of words is a riveting mano a mano of machismo, masterful acting and terrific writing and dialogue. The scene builds with slow, menacing tension to a satisfying (if predictable) climax. This is good stuff--two master, veteran actors playing off each other to impressive effect.

Coccotti learns Clarence and Alabama's destination and Blue Lou sends more henchmen to retrieve the cocaine--and kill the newlyweds. The remainder of the film involves a cat-and-mouse chase between the newlyweds and the gangsters, a double-cross that brings the police into the mix, and a nasty, violent interrogation between Virgil (James Gandolfini)--another of Blue Lou's henchmen--and Alabama. The film's climax is Mexican-standoff-style shootout between the gangsters, the police and the hired muscle of the Hollywood producer Clarence tries selling the dope to. Ultimately, our newlyweds escape the crossfire and ride into the sunset to live mostly happily ever after.

Scott's flashy, kinetic style matches perfectly with Taratino's writing. The performances are amazing as well, with Gary Oldman's being the best (with this film, that's no small praise). Brad Pitt has a small, early role and steals his scenes as the stoner roommate of Clarence's actor friend. True Romance is sharp, hip, well written, dynamic and, ultimately, extremely satisfying. For any fan of the action genre, it's a must see.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin is the gold standard of comedies for me--has been ever since I first saw it. Ask me which is my favorite part, which scene or line is the funniest and I'll say it's the 'you know how I know your gay?' montage between Rudd and Rogen, or the whole 'we went to see a donkey show in Mexico' bit or the 'breasts feel like a bag of sand' line or the whole waxing scene or the line 'I don't use protection because I don't believe in guns' or the lady's boob hanging out at speed dating or the hysterical show tune finale' or...

You get the picture. I love pretty much all of this movie. Every bawdy, lewd, masturbating, waxing, sappy second. The chemistry among the cast is probably the best I've seen. I know that's a bold statement, but I really think (as I did when I first walked out of the theater), this is the funniest comedy I've seen (I won't dare say 'ever made' because god knows I've not seen every comedy ever made).

If you're easily offended, this movie isn't for you. It IS lewd and bawdy and raunchy and very, very offensive. But in a very realistic way, it's also very sweet. And terribly romantic. It has some real insights into friendship and dating and sex. In the end, the boy actually gets the girl, gets married and gets laid to boot--several times, no less.

I wish I had friends like Andy's. I wish every comedy had such a great ensemble and was even half so funny. I'm completely serious when I say that I now measure every comedy I see against this movie. See it. Quote it. Love it.

See it again.

The Dark Knight

I know it won't win me any friends among the fanboys, but I actually prefer Batman Begins to The Dark Knight. Yes, yes, Heath Ledger's performance is amazing--better than anything in BB--and all the characters in TDK have much more depth and everyone's performance is better all around and so forth. And I'm not saying that TDK isn't a good movie; it is. Very good actually.

But between these two movies, the one I would prefer to watch multiple times (if I had the time and were so inclined)is BB. I can't completely explain why that is. I think it has a little to do with the tone of the two films. TDK is so dark that it's almost despairing, leaving little room for hope. It's over-arcing message about human nature is pretty negative and depressing. BB, on the other hand, is almost manic in comparison. The story is simpler;good actually triumphs; and all the good guys live without anyone being severely and/or emotionally maimed beyond repair.

Yeah, yeah, call me simplistic or shallow or whatever, but sometimes too much darkness, too much reality--especially in a fantasy film--can be just that: too much. I know that the world can be a dark, mean place and that human nature is complicated and nasty at times, but sometimes I just want the good guys to win and everyone to live happily ever after. Until the sequel, that is. Sometimes, in other words, I want my fantasy to just be a fantasy. And that's why I prefer Batman Begins to The Dark Knight.

Terminator Salvation

-"With storytelling as robotic as the film's iconic villains, Terminator Salvation offers plenty of great effects but lacks the heart of the original films."

I can't sum up my reaction to this movie much better than RT's critical consensus. I'm normally a fan of Christian Bale (his personal behavior notwithstanding), and I think he?s the best actor ever to play Batman, period; but I'm certainly no fan of his performance here. His line delivery ranges from robotic to ridiculously, embarrassingly melodramatic. Much of the problem is with the writing and directing of course. This character, as written, doesn?t seem like the same John Connor we?ve come to know from the previous movies. There?s just nothing there, no depth or insights into this version. This JC just goes through the motions, riding out the hand of fate, based on the vision of the future laid out in the previous films. When things deviate from the blueprint, this JC doesn?t deal well with it. I remember reading that Christian Bale refused to take this part unless a suitable script and story were written. And now I?m wondering: this is what he found ?suitable??

I can?t help thinking that someone talked him into this?probably his agent. What was his his relationship with the director like? Did he and Bale have a tense, even hostile relationship (this seems possible given the publicity surrounding Bale?s onset tirade)? How did that relationship affect Bale?s performance? Was the director changing lines on set? What was going on behind the scenes? What was Bales motivation?or his lack thereof? Whatever the answers, this is not the performance one would expect from Bale in any movie?let alone a big, epic summer movie like this. I can?t remember Bale ever being so bad, so irritating.

Sam Worthington is getting lots of praise for stealing all his scenes with Bale?for stealing the whole movie, in fact. My response: he can have this piece of crap. No need to steal. His performance is vastly overrated. Does he have an onscreen presence? Sure. Is he talented? Definitely. But he?s a prisoner of the same lifeless, uninteresting script and uninspired direction as Bale and everyone else in this movie. I certainly don?t think Bale has anything to worry about and I personally don?t agree that Worthington has any greater onscreen charisma. He?s new, he?s talented and his character was the most interesting part of this sorry excuse for a movie. Those are the big reasons, I think, for the perception that he runs away with the movie.

Terminator 3, while certainly not as good as the first two films, at least had a mild feel of continuity, as if it belonged in the same universe. Beyond the title and the skeletal robots, this film doesn?t really feel part of the Terminator franchise. And there is a recurring problem with tone. Frequently, the movie plays like unintentional parody. The scene in which a T-800 Terminator with a CGI of Arnold Schwarzenegger?s face elicited several big, widespread laughs from the audience where I saw the movie. And I was laughing with them. I?m pretty sure this wasn?t the reaction the director was aiming for.

The effects in this movie are spectacular. But who cares if you don?t have believable characters the audience cares about? Dazzling effects have become commonplace?especially with blockbuster fare like this--so much so that they seem to have become a crutch for many filmmakers.

I want characters I care about; I want a movie that can generate interesting conversation afterward with other people who?ve seen it. Terminator Salvation offers none of that. The story of Worthington?s character generates the most interest and has the potential to be very compelling, but again, the writing lacks depth. If you liked the first two Terminator movies rent them and save yourself the time and expense of this terrible film.

The Hangover
The Hangover(2009)

A few of the critics have called this movie dumbed down and juvenile, dirtbaggy, and so forth. And they're completely right. Shakespeare this isn't. If you're looking for something intellectual or challenging, this is not your movie. But if you're looking for a movie that will make you laugh until tears squirt, until your balls ache (or, for all you ladies--or gentlemen with moobs--until your boobs hurt) this is the one. Whoever casted this baby deserves an award. The chemistry between the three leads is terrific. You can tell they're all having a great time even as the characters are suffering one mishap after another.

The writers do a great job of building suspense. Why--after a night of partying they can't remember--do these characters find the valet returning a police cruiser to them at the motel lobby? Why is there a tiger in their motel bathroom, a baby in the closet, and a mess that will cost thousands? Why is one of the characters missing a tooth and another naked? And where is the groom-to-be? The very reason for this night of hard partying has gone missing and no one knows (including the audience)if he's alive or dead. Each answer only leads to another mystery, building suspense in a way not usually achieved by most comedies. The whole production had an epic quality that reminded me a little of 'The Pineapple Express.'

There is lots of instantly quotable dialogue in this and colorful supporting characters along the way (including a naked Asian man, a taser-happy cop and Mike Tyson, in a very funny, very memorable appearance). And the jacking-off reference will leave you wondering if you're a sicko for laughing even as you're red-faced and teary-eyed (you'll know what I mean when you see it). Anyone who enjoyed the 40-year-old virgin, Pineapple Express, Clerks II and so forth, should love this. Otherwise, you may be offended. I've read that there may be a sequel. If so, I'll be the first in line--bet on it. It may 'dumb me down' and make me stupider, but I'll enjoy every crass, bawdy minute. Even as my brain cells and moral compass decay, I'll savor every IQ-numbing second. If you're not easily offended and don't care that you won't have to analyze the plot point-by-point or line-by-line, see this film.

Be sure and stay for the credits too. They're as funny as anything in the rest of the movie and even more offensive--there's one image in particular that made me wonder how this film avoided an NC-17 rating. Hysterical.

Star Trek
Star Trek(2009)
½

I watched this movie on the mini-sized IMAX at my local AMC. While I enjoyed it, I think it's been a bit overrated by both fans and critics. The visuals and special effects were breathtaking. The sets were painstakingly detailed and the enterprise bridge had an aesthetic that was both similar to previous bridge sets and wholly original. This bridge design is the first, I think, to perfectly capture the future Roddenbury envisioned. I loved the design of the uniforms too; they managed to be both retro and futuristic at the same time. Considering the campiness of the original series and that it was created and produced in the 1960s, extremely impressive.

The pacing and the action were very good and the cast had good chemistry. My favorite performance was probably Karl Urban?s Dr. McCoy, followed closely by Christopher Pine and Zachary Quinto. Pine?s performance, unlike Urban?s and Quinto?s, was nothing like Shatner?s portrayal. Some of his body language, especially in certain long shots, reminded me of Shatner, but beyond that, his take on the character was unique and well done. Bruce Greenwood earns an honorable mention as Christopher Pike.

My biggest complaint was with some of the writing. It seemed like some of the action was there just to take up space and that the time travel element was thrown in haphazardly at best, without much thought or detail. The whole business about red matter was absurd, as was Sulu?s sword fight in the middle of a ray-gun battle. And some of the physics seemed a bit suspect as well. Leonard Nimoy didn?t have enough to do. The scene between him and Kirk fell flat; it was terse, awkward and not nearly as involving, as emotional as it could have been. Again, this had more to do with the writing than with the acting.

Overall, a decent start. Not quite as good as some of the better movies in the series (II-IV, VI & First Contact), but close. There is potential here, I think, for these writers and actors to create something magical with future squeals, something that can come close to matching the story arc and the emotional impact of parts II-IV & VI. The Next Generation movies had the same potential going in?-even greater potential, I think, because those writers had 7 seasons worth of mythology to draw from?-and completely squandered almost all of it (even First Contact, as good as it was, could have been better had it been the beginning of a story arc that stretched into the next 2 or 3 films). But this new version of ?Trek?--with some savvy writing and a little borrowing from the previous films--could become one hell of an involving franchise.