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"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Blu-ray Review


Back when Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or as I called it, Rise o' da World o' da Monkees) came out in 2011, I thought it was a better-than-expected reboot of the franchise powered by the performance captured performances of Andy Serkis and company driving Weta's realistic CGI monkeys which managed to gloss over the somewhat trite story and poor human casting. (Whomever thought James Franco would make a plausible scientist needs to go sit on the Group W bench with the person who though Liv Tyler would be a plausible doctor in The Incredible Hulk.)

Flaws aside, it made money so Hollywood did what Hollywood does when it sees the opportunity to milk a cash cow, it unsurprisingly made a sequel, San Francisco Monkey Planet, er, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the real surprise is how the story makes as big a leap forward as the visual effects do. In a year where Transformers: Marky Mark Goes To China Edition managed to dumb-down the already brain dead fighting robot series, it was refreshing to see what could easily have been a one-sided "Apes GOOD! Humans BAD!" movie attempt complexity and subtlety while still delivering the money shot of a monkey on horseback dual-wielding machine guns.

It's 10 years after the events of Rise and as the pre-title montage explains, the human race has pretty much been killed off by the "simian flu" - aka the chemical that gave Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his pals advanced intelligence. The apes are living in the forests north of San Francisco and have built a community where they're teaching language and minding their own business. Of course, a damn dirty human (Kirk Acevedo) manages to screw things up when he encounters a couple of young chimps and shoots and wounds one of them.

Seems the humans, led by Jason Clark (the interrogator from Zero Dark Thirty, soon to be the next John Connor in Terminator Genisys), were in the neighborhood looking to start up a hydroelectric dam to get power flowing back the the human survivors encamped in the city. They've been using generators to keep the lights on, but fuel is running out and within a couple of weeks, they'll literally be back in the dark ages. Caesar orders the humans out of his woods, never to return, and then scram. Concerned that they may not take the hint, he saddles up the horses and leads a large group down into the city to make it clear to Clark that he means business and to stay away or it could lead to war.

The community's leader (Gary Oldman) is worried about the electricity running out and is prepared to arm up and go kill the apes, but allows Clark a few days to go back up and see if he can reason with Caesar to allow them to get the dam running, which he reluctantly agrees to. The humans and apes appear able to coexist, but naturally stupid human manages to botch things up badly and it all goes to hell.

What is unexpected, though, is that while there is some provocative action on the human side, there is some heavy palace intrigue happening in Apeville as Caesar's trusted lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell, who is the new Doctor Doom in the Fantastic Four reboot), who was abused by medical testing in the lab, feels Caesar is too sympathetic to the humans because he was raised by one and wants to take a more aggressive tack with dealing with the human threat. (Read: Kill 'em all.) More monkeyshines ensue.

What Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does that's so unexpected is to provide shaded motivations for both sides of the man-ape divide. While there are a few obvious tropey moments of human dumbassery (mostly Acevedo's one-note jerk), it doesn't go for the lazy, cheap Dances With Wolves stance that white people, er, humans ruin everything in nature. Here, the apes can be just as intolerant a-holes as the humans typically are. Both sides just want to survive and Dawn is sympathetic to the humans' needs in a way Avatar couldn't be bothered to. Just as Magneto wasn't totally unjustified in his perspective, Koba's malice is understandable even as his methods cross the line.

While Dawn's human cast and story is superior to Rise's thin tale and caricatures, the real stars again are Serkis and Weta's stunningly realized apes. It's hard to believe the same ones and zeroes that made the hard, flat polygonal images of Tron were used to make a living, breathing army of monkeys who are rained on, muddy, bloody, scarred and weathered. Every so often a shot will look a little shiny, but 99% of the time you won't believe you're looking at a totally fake animal. The expressiveness of the performance capture is translated seamlessly; you feel what they feel.

Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) takes over the director's chair and delivers the goods with clearly shot action sequences and good character beats. The production design is also a standout as the overgrown post-human world is richly rendered. Of course, Weta delivers the goods on the VFX side.

Technically, the Blu-ray looks wonderful with a rich, colorful, clear image and good sound reproduction. On the extras side, I haven't listened to the commentary track from Reeves, but the featurettes are pretty good with a good look at the technical details and challenges of obtaining performance capture in the woods of Vancouver in the rain with 3D cameras to turning a parking lot into the apes home and downtown New Orleans into San Francisco. (It could've been nerdier, but I'm always wanting more techy stuff.)

One quibble: Shouldn't the first movie have been Dawn with the second being Rise? Just makes more sense that way, amirite?

Score: 9/10. Buy it.














"Re-Animator" Review


It's October which means Halloween which means the missus wants to watch scary movies because Halloween. While scrolling through Netflix, we decided to revisit this cheesy "classic" from 1985, Re-Animator, whose trailer pretty much spells out the entire plot and shows half of the money shots:



Missing here are the other memorable parts: Barbara Crampton's boobs, which actually only present their joy globeness twice, but hey when you're 18 years old when the movie came out, boobs.

It's schlocky and cheesy and more Evil Dead II than SCARY scary, but it's some fun in the good parts (makeup effects, boobs; they spend the money properly) which almost makes up for the long patches of dull bad acting.

Fun Fact: Creepy Jeffrey Combs would go on to play nine(!) different characters on various Star Trek series (most notably the Andorian Commander Shran on Enterprise).

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.


"With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story" Review


If there's one man who is synonymous with "comic books" to both readers and civilians alike, it's Stan Lee, the subject of With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story. With a gusto that shows no sign of flagging at age 91(!!), he has been a tireless figurehead for comics as creator of a pantheon of heros for Marvel including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Fantastic Four and more.

This documentary provides a tidy overview of the man and he's career, though it makes the usual documentary stumbles like forgetting to tell us when he was born (1922) despite explaining his real name was Stanley Martin Lieber and he converted his first name into its popularly-known form because he thought he'd only be writing funny books for a while before becoming a Serious Writer.

In addition to the copious amounts of archival footage, photos and testimonials, a good bit of time is spent on his personal life with his sassy English wife of 68 years (that's years married, not old!) and their only surviving daughter. She's a pip.

While hardcore comic nerds may know all this stuff already or quibble about Jack Kirby deserving more attention - I think he's properly represented in this context - With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story is a breezy profile of one of the most prolific and influential voices in 20th Century American (and global) culture. Nuff said!

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Viewed on Netflix)



"Bad Grandpa" Uncut Edition Review


I've never been interested in Johnny Knoxville and his series of Jackass show and movies, but Bad Grandpa (technically Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) looked like a cross between Borat and Candid Camera; a scripted story linking a series of public pranks played off as a documentary of sorts. I was right and the results are actually sort of sweet, if watching an old man get his junk stuck in a gas station vending machine while attempting to have sex with it or an 8-year-old boy participating in a Honey Boo-Boo caliber beauty contest in drag is your idea of sweet. (I may be weird here.)

Knoxville, buried under Oscar-nominated makeup is Irving Zisman, a Nebraska widower whose daughter is going to jail leaving her son Billy (Jackson Nicoll) alone. The boy's lowlife father in North Carolina agrees to take the kid (for the welfare money he'd get), so it's road trip time as the dirty old man and freakishly precocious kid  find an escalating series of highjinks along the way.

Using a series of hidden camera bits and some stuff that's probably more scripted than they'd care to admit, the movie meanders from bit to bit with generally humorous to downright hilarious and occasionally terrifying effect. (Set pieces in a black strip club on ladies night and in a bar full of bikers veer close to "someone's gonna get killed here before anyone can explain it's a movie" terrain.)

Even though much of it is supposed to be "shocking" low-brow gross-out humor, the presence of Nicoll acts as a brake on what were probably even worse impulses the crew may've had, which may make it a tad safe (as far as a movie with prosthetic testicles danging down a foot can be safe) but still satisfies. The ace in the hole is Nicoll who has some man-on-the-street interactions where even if he was being fed lines via earwig, he still sells the bits hard. (I wondered if he was someone like Andy Milkonis who looked 14, but was 29; no the kid's actually that young.)

Someone "bad" has become a all-purpose prefix that indicates misbehaving main characters beginning with Bad Santa leading to Bad Teacher and some Bad Judge TV that's on know from what I've heard, so I suppose Bad Grandpa falls in line. But overall, it's not bad at all.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.



"Frances Ha" Review



About 7 minutes into co-writer/director Noah Baumbach's (The Squid and the Whale; co-writer of a couple Wes Anderson flicks) Frances Ha, I turned to my girlfriend and said, "This is like the pilot for the new HBO series, Girl," referencing the ridiculous Lena Dunham's oddly watchable series Girls, which is about a quartet of self-absorbed millennial ninnies living in Brooklyn. Unlike that show's multiple story lines, Frances Ha (the name is explained in the final shot of the movie) follows co-writer Greta Gerwig's titular character, a 27-year-old apprentice dancer, as she meanders through life after her bestie decides to move in with her boyfriend, leaving Frances struggling to make ends meet.

With addresses flashed onscreen as title cards, she bounces from place to place, having arch discount Woody Allen-esque conversations about nothing, managing to offend many people and basically being an unrealistic twit lacking self-knowledge until the end when she suddenly seems to grow up a bit, though after 80 minutes of self-defeating randomness - she takes a weekend trip to Paris on a credit card she got in the mail and does nothing much but accumulate debt - for her to suddenly clue up felt like a reel of transition got cut.

Shot in Manhattan-wannabe black & white, it's not that Frances Ha is a terrible film as much as a loose sequence of vignettes about a not-particularly-compelling protagonist as she copes with impulse control lack. It's unavoidable to compare to Girls because as lame as the the girls are, Dunham somehow manages to make some cutting observations about her characters - especially hers, who is the most reprehensible of them all - though I'm not sure if that's intentional or if she somehow thinks she's writing them as "deep" and it comes off as "look how vacuous they are." I never really cared about Frances' fate because she didn't seem to have the self-knowledge to worry either. Maybe that was the point, but why should anyone spend time with aimless people for entertainment. This smacks of NYC self-importance. No one cares west of the Hudson, folks.

Miscellaneous observations: The iconic pose on the poster above? Never happens in the movie. The uncharacteristically awful cover on the Criterion release (linked below) is a frame grab from the film, but is pretty bad. Baumbach apparently left his wife, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, for Gerwig. Not trading up, buddy. Her plane Jane bestie is played by Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter, who was the doomed hooker Katja in Low Winter Sun and looked nothing like her here.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.



"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" Review



I'm not a fan of the Sam Raimi-Croaky Maguire (sp?) Spider-Man films for various reasons and Sony's desperate reboot (only 10 years after they booted the franchise in order to keep the rights from reverting to Marvel) was another unnecessary origin story rehash. While Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone were good upgrades over Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (though her boobs will be missed; Google Melancholia to make up for it), the story was meh (oh look, another accidental villain) and cold-feet studio editing lopped away hunks of plot, leaving The Amazing Spider-Man disjointed and halting, if pleasant enough in a too-familiar way.

Since sequels are the way of life these days it was inevitable that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was going to happen, but unfortunately for the franchise, they sort of swung straight to what made Spider-Man 3 such a fiasco, with too many stories, too many villains and not enough of what would make it matter.

The problems start immediately with a pre-credits sequence revisiting the shadowy circumstance of Peter Parker's parents perishing. They've been hinting that Peter Parker's powers prevail due to his father (Campbell Scott) tinkering with his DNA, but again they don't really make it clear. Then we're with Spider-Man chasing Paul Giamatti's Russian gangster character as Peter almost misses his high school graduation where Gwen Stacy gives a foreshadowing-heavy valedictory speech. He's haunted by visions of her father (Denis Leary), to whom he promised to stay away from at the end of the last movie. Then we have Jamie Foxx as a nerdy engineer who idolizes Spider-Man, but after an accident turns him into Electro (oh look, another accidental villain), he wants to kill Spider-Man.

But wait, there's more, Harry Osbourne (Dane DeHaan), a childhood friend of Peter's returns for the death of his father, taking control of Oscorp. Ill with the same weird genetic disease that claimed his father's life, Harry believes that Spider-Man's blood can cure him, but of course it doesn't and thus he becomes Green Goblin. By accident. Because of course. (It is a Spider-Man movie after all and hardly anyone is a bad guy by choice in these things.)

If they'd just chosen  two or three items off the menu, perhaps The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would've been a better movie. How to keep one's loved ones safe when you're a superhero is an interesting premise. How obsessive fandom can curdle into hatred has been done before (basically this is the arc Jim Carrey's Riddler followed in Batman Forever), but could still have potential. Same with Green Goblin, though that would require making it more plausible that Harry and Peter didn't separate when they were in 3rd grade. The mythology about his parents never makes sense and the hidden lab in the subway is absolutely ludicrous. (How is it still receiving power and working after a decade other than reasons?)

The way they handle Giamatti's "transformation" into the Rhino is ultra-stupid as well and exists only because Sony was eager to set up a Sinister Six all-villains movie. Why? Because Sony only has the rights to Spider-Man making him a lonely Marvel hero in a universe by himself compared to Fox's X-Men and Fantastic Four holdings and Marvel Studio's gigantic roster of cash cow franchises. When the only reason The Amazing Spider-Man existed was to keep the rights, it's unsurprising that Sony didn't proceed with story and characters as their priority and this muddle is the result.

It's too bad because the leads are good as far as they're allowed to work within the stuffed story. Stone will be missed whenever they get back into making a third installment (allegedly in 2018 due to the disappointing BO on this one), but they always planned to stick to the comic's canon. The visual effects are much more CGI-heavy whereas they attempted to use stuntmen for the web-swinging before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it looks weightless. While the VFX for Electro are pretty spiffy - he looks like a glowing, charged glass-and-plasma creature, sort of like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, the effects of the final battle scene are cartoony-videogamey in appearance.

I wasn't that crazy about the first film and the mehness continues. Maybe one day a proper Spider-Man movie can/will be made, but I suspect it will require prying the rights out of Sony's hands first and that's highly unlikely to happen.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.



"Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Review



In the 300+ DVD reviews I did for IGN/The Digital Bits, I think I gave out fewer than five 10/10 scores. I'm drawing a blank on what they were, but the two I remember were Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which had haters throwing that at me YEARS later - "You gave Sky Captain a 10, so your opinion on [whatever] is meaningless.") and the 2005 collaboration between renegade filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and comic book legend Frank Miller bringing to life the latter's graphic novels, Sin City. An exhilarating take on modern retro noir, it combined live actors with impossible-to-photograph-that-way CGI environments in high contrast black & white which echoed the bold art of Miller's books and the pitch black denizen of Basin City. It looked like nothing seen before and the arch hard-boiled dialog and stories walked the fine line between pastiche and parody. Mickey Rourke's comeback began here as brought Marv to vivid gritty life as his real-life effed-up mug was buried under makeup, but allowed the tender heart of the brute to shine through.

The road to this sequel has been a long one hampered by factors ranging from Miller foolishly believing he could do this movie thing without R.Rod (with the woeful The Spirit being the result) and R.Rod's own loss of focus culminating in the dreadful Machete Kills. Cast members had retired (Devon Aoki) and died (Michael Clark Duncan and Brittany Murphy) and while Angelina Jolie was rumored to be in talks to play the titular (in both senses) dame, that role ultimately went to Eva Green. Finally, 9 long years later we are getting back to the white blood and blacked hearts in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.

A combined prequel/sequel to Sin City it draws both from Miller's existing graphic novels and fresh material penned for the movie, SC:ADTKF hews to the same interlocking episodic structure of the first one, though to less effective result due to the patchwork nature of the material. Whereas the first movie had a time jump between the halves of That Yellow Bastard segment with Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba which book-ended the movie, the three stories generally occupied the same space and time. This time there's a dissonance caused by stuff happening with Mickey Rourke's Marv (who died in the first movie, SPOILER ALERT for 9-year-old movie) and Dwight (this time played by Josh Brolin, pre-transformation into Clive Owen) and the conclusion of Nancy Callahan's (Alba) quest for revenge and the main story block, A Dame To Kill For. (For those trying to keep the timeline straight, The Hard Goodbye, Marv's story, is the last of all stories in both movies though it being the middle of the first. Confused?)

The movie opens with a clunky prologue reintroducing Marv and his warrior's code of justice and it immediately tips that there's rust in the gears of R.Rod/Miller's storytelling. Then Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes center stage as a card sharp with supernatural luck as he cleans out Powers Booth's corrupt Senator Roark (whose son was that yellow bastard) and then seems surprised that it backfires. Nancy's revenge ends the movie and somewhere in there is something involving Ray Liotta that I barely remember and it's all well and good, but everything else pales before the movie's longest and richest segment, the titular story.

This dame to kill for (and get killed for) is played by MVP Eva Green (see above, yeah) and she delivers more nudity than everyone else in BOTH Sin City films combined and has the black widow act down; you believe she's able to lead men to obsessive self-ruin. Between Penny Dreadful and this, Green is having a stellar year both acting and laying on the sexy. (Angelina Jolie was rumored to be wanted for this role and she would've killed it, but Green doesn't make me wish they'd made it 5 years ago with Jolie.)

I loveLOVELURVED the first Sin City, but while sitting in the screening the other night, it just felt lumpy and long; I was surprised it's only 1h 40m because it felt like 2 hours easily. The overheated noir dialog just dragged on and on and it lacked the original's energy; it's not the exhilarating rush the first was. Marv is just a charismatic gorilla this time - cool as usual, but lacking depth. Alba is OK when it counts, which was a pleasant surprise because as beautiful as she is, she's got the thespianic chops of a puppy. I didn't care for Josh Brolin as Dwight; he seemed like a different guy than Clive Owen, not just a different face.

Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee; skip the 3D.



"Who The F*ck Is Arthur Fogel?" Review


Who The F*ck Is Arthur Fogel? He's the CEO of LiveNation Global Touring division and responsible for 7 of the top 10 all-time highest-grossing tours ever including those of U2, Madonna and a reunited The Police. Tracing his history from his early days as a drummer in his native Canuckia, he and his partners broke out of the Great White North with their 1989 Steel Wheels tour of The Rolling Stones, an act that was considered pretty washed up at the time. It became the highest-grossing tour of its time.

Using the design and construction of the massive claw stage for U2's 360 Tour as a through line, the way Fogel revolutionized music touring is the subject of fawning testimonials from Bono and Sting and other one-named stars, but we never really learn what he did that was so different. Yeah, he's making his acts tons of money, but at what cost to attendees of the shows for whom ticket prices have skyrocketed into orbit. (I took my girlfriend on our first date to see U2 on ZOO TV in 1992 for $35 a ticket. I priced comparable seats for the 360 Tour and it would've cost us $520 for a pair. We didn't go.)

Also unmentioned is what the net profits of these massive spectacles are. Having three claw stages - one sets up in the next town; one is being torn down in the last town; the third is where the band is currently - and the army of crewmen necessary to assemble and move them must be enormous. They mention needing 200 hotel rooms for crew and band and a thousand workers per show, but how does that impact the bottom line? We know U2 grossed over $700 million, but did they spend $650 million on production costs? The ego stroke of having that top ranking seems to take precedence and while U2 mentions that they were barely breaking even on ZOO TV due to the costs, we don't know how Fogel fixed it other than cranking up ticket prices.

It's not all successes, though; the disastrous Diana Ross and the non-Supremes tour and a Guns n' Roses tour that had riots are mentioned, but overall it's a shallow lovefest for a guy who's clearly revolutionized the touring business, but we never get to understand how other than the stars he's made very rich like him bunches.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable if you're a music business nerd; otherwise skip it. (Watched on Netflix, but Amazon Prime has it, too.)

"Sunset Strip" Review


The legend of the legendary Sunset Strip is the topic of the part-history lesson/part-reminiscence documentary of the same name which is at its best when living in the distant past.

Covering its literal beginnings as a poinsettia farm in the early-20th Century through the rise of legendary nightclubs where the Rat Pack would hang out (before Las Vegas became the in scene for that crowd) in the post-war years (a la L.A. Confidential) through its reinvention as a hub of the counter-culture in the Sixties through the hair metal days of the Eighties until today, it weaves tons of interesting footage through interviews with the likes of Johnny Depp (founder of the Viper Room), Hugh Hefner (duh), uber-groupie Pamela Des Barres and more. When stand-up comedy's heyday is covered, the footage of Robin Williams took an a poignancy due to his recent suicide.

When the talk is of the history and their perspective, it's engaging, but as they approach the 1980s, it starts to come unglued as they short-shrift the punk scene of the late-Seventies with X and The Germs and then really underrepresented the Eighties metal scene with only Steel Panther (a parody act) being shown. Where is Van Halen? Where are Guns & Roses and Quiet Riot and Ratt and Motley Crue other than quick statements from Slash, Tommy Lee and Ratt. Where is Gazzarri's, other than just a passing item in the closing credits animation? Too often, celebrities are included in group interviews and never say a thing. Who cares about Jack Osbourne sitting there? While it's cool to see The Screaming Sirens' Pleasant Gehman sitting with Cherie Currie, unless you know who she is, it's irrelevant and why is Courtney Love doing most of the talking? Why is Billy Corgan's opinion relevant since Smashing Pumpkins were from Chicago?

What's most ironic about the detailing of the debauched history of the Sunset Strip is that unlike most parties you hear about, I didn't ever wish I had been there to partake.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable. (Watched on Netflix)



"Jack Reacher" Review



I've never read any of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels - partially because the genre doesn't interest me and mostly because I don't know how to read - so I went into viewing the 2012 Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher fairly cold beyond the controversy about his casting which I'll address below.

The movie opens with Jai Courtney parking in a Pittsburgh parking structure and ruthlessly gunning down five apparently random people across the river. Police investigation leads to the arrest of someone else entirely upon whom a tidy frame-up job has been placed. He has only one response to his interrogation - "Get Jack Reacher" - before he is beaten into a coma while in jail. Who is Jack Reacher? As the trailer hints, he's a former military policeman who is off the grid and doesn't get found. He strides into the police station and basically believes him to be guilty because he's done something like this before in Iraq, but the convenient pile of evidence convinces him that justice won't be done unless the actual killer is found. Along the way, various forces try to stop him by first attempting to beat him down, then framing him for another killing. But nothing stops Jack from fighting back.

Adapted from the novel One Shot and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects) Jack Reacher is a fast-movie, occasionally surprisingly witty procedural with more flair than you'd expect from the material. The huge complaint about Cruise's casting is that the Reacher of the novels is described as "6'5" tall with a 50-inch chest and weighing between 220 and 250 pounds" (thanks Wikipedia!) which had many thinking Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would be an obvious choice (though the book version has blue eyes and dirty-blond hair, too), but the diminutive Cruise. However, I think having a more mortal-sized Reacher works in this context because the thugs that gang up on him don't anticipate his being able to clobber them back whereas any sentient being attacking The Rock would know that it was probably a poor idea to start with.

The actual machinations of the caper are somewhat thin - really, it's about construction contracts? - and Rosamund Pike's wide-eyed agape performance as the lawyer defending the accused is dopey. But Cruise delivers the goods and the movie doesn't bog down in pretensions of significance. Movies like Jack Reacher are what cable TV was made for, so put the feet up and enjoy with little thought.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.



"The People vs. George Lucas" Review


The People vs. George Lucas.jpg


The title overstates the case of The People vs. George Lucas, the 2010 documentary which purportedly takes the Star Wars creator to the woodshed for the crimes of "raping one's childhood" and "Jar Jar Binks," but in actuality it's more of a statement of occasionally misplaced and other times justified frustration at the man who sparked so much imagination in generations of fans and then didn't do what they imagined he should with the prequel trilogy.

Briskly combining numerous interviews with fans and sci-fi/fantasy luminaries ranging from Neil Gaiman to Chris Gore with archival footage of Lucas, The People vs. George Lucas attempts to square his towering achievement (original trilogy, episodes 4-6) with his supposedly ignoble failure (the other ones, particularly The Phantom Menace), which while not as good as the original trilogy, are a damn sight better than garbage like Pacific Rim. While some arguments are cogent, as when they contrast his firm opposition to colorizing movies with his alterations for the Special Edition versions released in 1997, they also take cheap easy shots at Jar Jar Binks while ignoring what really wrecked The Phantom Menace: Jake Lloyd's dippy Anakin. (There's a reason this kid never really worked again. He's gotta be in his 20s now, someone should ask him about being terrible.)

As someone whose DNA was written as a 10-year-old boy in the summer of 1977 by Star Wars, I've always been annoyed by the squalling crybabies who grew up watching Star Wars on VHS lecturing me how I should be pressing sexual assault charges on behalf of my childhood, something The People vs. George Lucas addresses by noting that it's not as if the three "good" movies ceased to be good because of the "bad" ones. There's an element of, "Who owns Star Wars: the Creator or the Fans" and while that can't be truly answered, they at least give voice to both sides of the argument.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently available on Amazon Prime and Netflix)

P.S. There's a fresh rumor that the original, unaltered versions of the Original Trilogy may be coming ahead of Episode VII's release in Dec. 2015, something fans have been clamoring for since forever and will probably not shut up their complaining when they get it.



"Holy Motors" Review



Critics suck. (Yes, I appreciate the irony of that sentence.) When Holy Motors topped many critics' Best of 2012 lists, I noticed something odd: While many did the usual orgasmic rhapsodizing about how amazeballs it was, almost no one was discussing the plot. I finally called out one such critic in the comments and his mealy-mouthed reply was the usual chin-stroking about how it was blah-blah-woof-woof; it just turns into the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons at that point. While flicking through Netflix's virtual shelves trying to agree on a movie with the girlfriend, it came up and so we decided to see what the hoohaw was about.

Short Version: It's weird.

Longer Version: It's weeeeeeeeeeiiiirrrrrd.

You can look at the trailer below (which for some dumb reason spoils the very end of the movie, not that it matters) it looks like a surreal miasma of nutsy crazoid WTFery, but it barely scratches the surface of the trip (both meanings) we take with director Leos Carax and star Denis Lavant who plays Mr. Oscar, an actor(?) chauffeured around Paris on "assignments" which involve him stepping out in a variety if guises. First he's an elderly woman begging on the street then he's a motion capture performer busting out ninja moves before simulating sex with a contortionist then it gets weeeeeeiiiirrrrrd in a segment involving Eva Mendes as a model. (According to Wikipedia, this character originated in Carax and Lavant's segment from the omnibus film Tokyo! - I have this DVD, so I'll have to backtrack) which leads to more odd, oddly banal, banally weird, crazy pants huh, and then super-weird and head-scratching. Don't ask me what it means; I suspect a lost bet was involved with this production.

If you're someone who likes tight plots and snappy dialog, keep on moving. But if you're someone who doesn't care if movies are so open to interpretation as to have nearly no inherent meaning, then Holy Motors may just be your cuppa. There is no denying that it's unlike pretty much anything else you'll see this or any year. Whether it makes sense or means anything will be up to the viewer to decide as no assembly instructions were included.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable. (Netflix has it.)



"Machete Kills" Blu-ray Review


I've been avoiding watching Machete Kills for several months now. I was so dispirited by the Aztlan-reconquista agitprop of the original Machete in which all the gringos were racist caricatures and the slackly co-directed and edited action - usual multi-hyphenate director Robert Rodriguez's strong suit - that I never finished my review in Sept. 2010 (it scored a 6/10, rent the DVD). Add on his unappealing kiddie flicks Shorts and Spy Kids 4 and I wondered if he'd somehow lost the plot, making me fear for the coming-in-two-weeks Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Finally, I tossed the BD into the player and....

He appears to have lost the plot. Badly.

Machete has always been a thin joke from its origins as a fake trailer in Grindhouse (his tag-team with Quentin Tarantino in which he surpassed handily), but amidst the rancid politics of the first film was some decent cheesy action and kicks, especially M.Rod as Shé (get it?). Piled high with cameos, it was OK, but nowhere as good as R.Rod's prime work like Desperado and the first Sin City.

After a funny fake trailer for the proposed 2nd sequel, Machete Kills Again...In Space, the momentum grinds to almost an full stop as a clumsy and confused opening sequence serves to just kill off Jessica Alba's character (still no sign of acting life either) and put Machete (Danny Trejo, duh) in a noose at the hands of a racist Arizona sheriff. (Would you be surprised to learn that R.Rod hosted a big dollar fundraiser for Obama at his place recently? Didn't think so and, no, I'm not kidding.)

Saved by a call from President Carlos Estevez (recycling the gag from Machete where Don Johnson was titled with "introducing"), Machete is dispatched to Mexico to grab a terrorist (Dimien Bichar, making his minor role in The Heat look respectable) who controls a rocket aimed at Washington D.C. While on his quest, Machete gets a brothel of hotties led by Sofia Vergara and Alexa Vega (unrecognizably growed up from her Spy Kids days, no really, look for yourself)...

Aye carumba!
...on his tail along with a hitman called The Chameleon played by....well, that's half of the limited fun, so I won't spoil it.

Eventually Machete finds his way the the true villain, Mel Gibson (having a total blast despite getting lots of boring yammering), who has a scheme to live in space and something something bad guy blah-blah-woof-woof. At this point, who cares other than to watch R.Rod recycle other gags from his movies, especially the end of Once Upon A Time In Mexico. The script by rookie typist Kyle Ward is a mess; why did R.Rod shoot this weak pastiche?

While the Machete films were never meant to be taken seriously and the first one was saddled with enough unfun baggage to make a burro sigh, Machete Kills is simply boring 99% of the time. I'm sure that someone on YouTube has chopped the isolated good bits into a fake trailer; go see if I'm right rather than slog through this mess. There's has a cheap patina to everything and I don't mean as a tribute to its grindhouse roots by rather a tacky, overly bright SyFy movie vibe. VFX are occasionally impressive, but frequently SyFy/Spy Kids caliber. The story doesn't hold water and there's too much speechifying about nothing, not even agitprop like the first had. (When you're missing 2nd string Rage Against The Machine-style rhetoric, that's a bad sign.)

Robert Rodriguez used to be my favorite filmmaker. I've read his book Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player about how he made El Mariachi and created an accidental sensation. I've devoured his commentaries and his terrific 10-Minute Film School featurettes from which I've taken tips that I've used in my videos. He's DIY aesthetic and "creativity over throwing money at it" philosophy were terrific. But something has happened with his work. He'd slipped before with the kiddie flick The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl (so mediocre I gave it to a fiend for her kid to watch), but just as Tiger Woods never being quite the same after his marriage blew up, R.Rod's dalliance with Rose McGowan after they'd worked on Planet Terror seems to have changed him for the worse. His expanded TV series take on From Dusk Til Dawn lost me after 4 or 5 episodes and Machete Kills really makes me wonder if Sin City co-director Frank Miller will be able to slap some sense into him. (Based on how bad The Spirit - Miller's attempt to copy R.Rod's Sin City style by himself - turned out, unlikely.)

As far as the Blu-ray goes, it looks and sounds fine with rich colors and fine detail and booming bass, but the crispness only amplifies the video-ish look. (They used Arri ALEXA cameras, the same as Roger Deakins used for Skyfall, so it's not the gear.) The extras are pitiful with some deleted/extended scenes that I didn't bother watching and a 20-minute making of which mostly consists of everyone happy joy talking R.Rod and how great he is and how sweet Trejo is. If you understand what a happy cast means in conjunction with making Cannonball Run 2, you know why this explains the movie. Otherwise there's nothing else: no film or cooking school; no commentary; no nothing but the fluff. So disappointing.

The only thing R.Rod killed with Machete Kills is the franchise. Please don't make Sin City: A Dame To Kill For suck, PLEASE!!!

Score: 2/10. Skip it.



"The Art of the Steal" Review


Slick, amusing and utterly unmemorable; that's The Art of the Steal  - not to be confused with the excellent 2009 documentary of the same name about how Philadelphia and Pennsylvanian politicians conspired to confiscate a multi-billion collection of art - a comedic caper flick filled with colorful cartoonish characters capering around the world. It won't make you regret watching it, just as long as you have no expectations going in. (There's some advert copy!)

It opens with Kurt Russell being shown to his cell in a Polish prison before flashing back three days to explain how he get there in the first place as a convoluted art heist going sideways led to his half-brother Matt Dillon ratting him out. (From arrest to conviction is only 2 days in Poland?!?) 5-1/2 years later, Russell gets out and is working as a discount Evel Knievel, deliberately crashing his bike for an extra $800 at the behest of the promoter. As if that's not bad enough, Dillon has been screwing over new accomplices and when one of them comes after Russell, he decides it's time to get the band back together for an ultra-complex heist of a mythical book locked up in an impenetrable Customs facility in Niagara Falls. Hijinks ensue.

With all the obligatory double-crosses and what not the plot is a jumbled mess of contrivances and counter-scams, but it goes down easily thanks to a a game cast that also includes Jay Baruchel and Terrance Stamp. It's also very striking in its production design, art direction and the way writer-director Jonathan Sobol shoots and edits the action. It's a great-looking movie with good performances and a decent amount of laughs like when Dillon is pickpocketing people including a little girl, but not particularly worth hunting down. It's the very definition of "watch it if it happens to be on while you're flipping channels.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable. (It's currently on Netflix.)



"John Waters: This Filthy World" Review


After finishing I Am Divine, Netflix suggested John Waters: This Filthy World, suggesting it was a documentary by comedian Jeff Garland. It isn't; it's a filmed stage performance from 2006, like a stand-up comedy special, where Waters is the witty raconteur recounting his career. 

He pretty much recaps his life and career with plenty of LOL moments in this brisk 85-minute talkathon, occasionally digressing into stand-uppy material like who would let their burned kids visit Michael Jackson, that was taped prior to the film of his musical Hairspray beginning production. While it's very funny and he's a great talker, it's best consumed by fans who are aware of the broad outlines of his career. If you watch I Am Divine first, that should be sufficient to get you through this without being too lost.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (Netflix has it and it's currently embedded below.)



"I Am Divine" Review


If they've even heard of Divine, most people's knowledge of gonzo trash cult filmmaker John Waters' longtime collaborator/muse is probably limited to this: "That's the fat drag queen who ate dog poop in that movie." While that's absolutely correct (I will probably watch Schindler's List before Pink Flamingos), there's a whole lot more to the fascinating and ultimately tragically short life of one Harris Glenn Milstead as told by the expansive documentary, I Am Divine.

With the prominence of gay and transgender/crossdressing performers like RuPaul common in the media today, it's hard to imagine the late-Sixties/early-Seventies' reaction to Divine and frankly, compared to what passes for "transgressive" today (e.g. oooooh, Miley Cyrus twerked), the antics and work of Waters and his band of misfit misfits are still pretty terrifying. But behind the shock were a group of people orbiting a sweet man named Glenn, whose ravenous appetites were his undoing, who were just doing their thing because why not.

With plenty of clips from Waters' films and Divine's stage and concert performances (she was a big - no pun - disco star in the Eighties, like a scary fat Dead Or Alive) and interviews with his mother, Waters and many of the performers and crew from the films, we get a feeling for Divine's life, though the seeds of his ultimate demise are clearly planted. Face it, he was eating for a reason and it finally killed him the night before he was to start work on Married With Children in a male role. It's sad that no one was able to stop him from putting himself in an early grave because he was clearly transitioning into a new and potentially interesting phase of his career.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on cable. (Netflix has it.)



"Broadway Idiot" Review


When Green Day's American Idiot album was turned into a Broadway musical, the initial and understandable response was to snark that Billy Joe Armstrong and company had drifted farther away from their punky Gilman Street roots than anyone could've imagined (read: "SELLOUTS!"), but how does a concept album become a hit musical? You get a glimpse, but not much insight, from Broadway Idiot.

Committing one of the most common sins of documentaries - not telling the viewer when things are happening - Broadway Idiot gives a superficial overview of how the album was adapted for an initial skeptical band (who could've killed the project after extensive work had already be put in if they didn't dig it) and follows as the show is initially mounted by the Berkeley Repertory Theater before moving to Broadway.

While we see the rehearsals and discussion of how to thread a narrative through the album's songs, there's very little solid in the way of insights or struggles shown so it comes off as more of a glossy tour souvenir/fluffy promo piece. That a chunk of the songs came from Green Day's follow-up 21st Century Breakdown is totally ignored, making this a poor source for those unfamiliar with the show's construction. (You really shouldn't need to know so much before watching a documentary.)

Armstrong's stint on Broadway as St. Jimmy is portrayed as the director's dream when in actuality it was a bit of a stunt to goose sagging ticket sales. However, this portion includes the surprising footage of an 11-year-old Billy Joe singing "Send In The Clowns" and "What's The Matter With Kids These Days?" with the revelation that took voice lessons for 10 years and sang Sinatra. This leads the show's music arranger/orchestrator, Tom Kitt, to theorize that Armstrong's songwriting was influenced by his exposure to non-pop music fare.

I've seen the touring production twice (my review here) and while it's a bit of a whiny, dour bummer, the music is solid and really soars when blown out into these arrangements; this is what I listen to over the original albums. If you're a fan of the show, it's worth giving Broadway Idiot a look, but it's too superficial to make it essential or reference-grade.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Netflix has it.)



"Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage" Review


Canuckian prog-rockers Rush were inducted into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame in 2013 and for 40 years have been the epitome of musician's musicians, never really being considered "cool" and never really topping the pop charts, while being a consistent and sizeable-drawing act and their rise and further rise is documented in Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, a slick if somewhat superficial retrospective.

Tracing the band's history from Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson's childhood friendship in North York (a suburb of Toronto), the doc is chockablock with tons of info tidbits that I, a casual fan of their early mid-era material (i.e. Permanent Waves until the keyboards ate them alive in the Eighties), didn't know. How they got their record deal in a day after having a song hit in Cleveland that was basically chosen to give DJs a chance to take a dump (the same reason "Stairway To Heaven" and "Free Bird" and "Kashmir" and "Inna Gadda Davida" were FM staples) is one such detail. Their association with then-new KISS and their time touring with a pre-superstar Ted Nugent were also news to me. There's footage of really early shows and behind-the-scenes drama with Lifeson's family that appears to be from a contemporaneous documentary that's never explained, but provides an angle rarely covered because who has people covering them in their earliest days?

The emphasis is mostly on their beginning and after the mid-Eighties it seems to skip over albums with a wave of the hand, so it's far from complete; it's like a glorified Behind The Music episode for a band where no one had drug problems and the only devastating tragedy was the deaths of Peart's daughter (accident) and wife (cancer) in a short period that sent him a 55,000-mile motorcycle journey across North and South America to cope, putting the band on hold for what they thought could be forever.

A hardcore Rush fan friend of mine groused that the doc didn't cover Peart's trip to England before joining the band where he discovered Ayn Rand's work which deeply informed his lyrics and other trivial details, but since this was before he joined and Rand's influence is touched upon, I think this is being nitpicky. While not a penetrating expose laying bare the souls of Rush in encyclopedic detail, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage manages to leave most viewers more informed and possibly curious to delve deeper into the band's massive catalog than before.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on cable. (Netflix has it.)



"Guardians of the Galaxy" Review


Marvel Studios has been knocking them out of the park with terrifying regularity since the first Iron Man arrived in 2008, paving the way for two Captain America and two Thor movies, not to mention the pair of Iron Man sequels and The Avengers, which is only the #3 highest-grossing movie ever (or the highest-grossing not directed by James Cameron) with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to Hoover up any remaining money to pay the cryogenics storage bill for Walt Disney's head. They could clearly just keep churning out Avengers crew sequels and check the mad chedda stacks while Warner Bros./DC are still two years away from their next stumbling steps towards a hoped-for Justice League movie, but with some serious cajones they've thrown down the (Infinity) gauntlet with their boldest departure yet: Guardians of the Galaxy.

Why bold? Because hardly anyone outside of the hardcore nerd corps has even heard of them. (My Culture Vultures co-host, Otto the Autopilot, knows all about them which makes the fact that he has a wife and kid seem even more miraculous.) A cult series of books in the Marvel pantheon, the Guardians are so obscure I have to admit I'd never heard of them when it was announced, though I was very intrigued by the promise of a talking raccoon with a machine gun in the announcement art. And if the idea of a machine gun-toting talking raccoon is enough to get you into a theater - and why shouldn't it? - then you're in for a treat because while that's the best thing about Guardians of the Galaxy, it's not the only good thing.

The plot is a blur of names and places, but here's what I can sorta remember: Chris Pratt is Peter Quill (but he's trying to make the handle "Star Lord" happen), a fortune hunter who was kidnapped from Earth in 1988 for no explained reason and raised by space pirates called Ravagers led by a blue-skinned Michael Rooker who has a whistle-controlled killer arrow. (This isn't even the weird part.) After retrieving a silver orb from ruins on a planet, he finds himself being hunted by forces ranging from minions of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree who seeks the destruction of the planet Xandar for reasons and wishes to deliver the orb to Thanos (a performance-captured Josh Brolin) to have him do the deed.

Also chasing him is Zoe Saldana's Gamora (this time she's green!) who is Thanos' adopted daughter and a pair of bounty hunters chasing Quill for reasons, voiced by Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper playing, respectively, a walking tree (think the Ents from Lord of the Rings) with a three-word vocabulary (i.e. "I am Groot.") and that raccoon. When they're all captured for reasons and sent to a space prison for reasons they encounter Drax the Destroyer (MMA/WWE star Dave Bautista), a bruising hulk of a man whose family was murdered by Ronan and seeks revenge. Prison breaks and hijinks ensue.

I haven't even mentioned what's so important about this orb, or rather what's contained within, because I'm afraid I'm making it sound like you'll need to take notes for a quiz. Suffice to say that if you saw Captain America: The First Avenger and Avengers and Thor: The Dark World, it ties in with the magic items from those movies, but it won't really matter until the third Avengers movie in 2017 or 2018, so don't sweat it. Instead just sit right back and take a two-hour trip to the wacky weird side of the galaxy.

What makes Guardians of the Galaxy work despite its overstuffed and barely comprehensible plot is the wit and charisma of the cast, especially the computer-generated ones. It's easy to want to compare Pratt's Quill to Han Solo, but Star Lord isn't a charming rogue as much as overgrown man-child who has but two artifacts tying him to his home on Earth. Saldana is sexy as usual playing a cybernetically-enhanced assassin with a tender heart even when chased by her adoptive sibling, Nebula (Karen Gillen), because reasons. It's too soon to say that Bautista could be the new Rock in the "surprise acting chops" department, but he is very deadpan as an irony-deficient, ultra-literal warrior confounded by Quill's jargon.

Lastish, but not least, is the work of Diesel and Cooper. People seem to have forgotten that Diesel was the voice of The Iron Giant 15 years ago, but his challenge here is conveying emotion with only the same three words. He's helped by deft CGI, but it works. However, the standout is Cooper's Rocket (not exactly a raccoon), who steals the movie with his snarky, sarcastic dialog emanating from a utterly realistic raccoonish body. Of all the characters, Rocket is the most fleshed out especially in a drunk scene where he slips about his origins. When the trailers showcasing Rocket came out, I suggested that Marvel better have plushy toys stockpiled because they're going to be this year's Cabbage Patch Kids, but now I KNOW they'd better have all the child slave labor in Asia making them because they're going to be hot-sellers.

I'm interested in my diligently non-nerdy, not-particularly-into-comic-book-movies girlfriend will make of the blizzard of plot and references that jam-pack Guardians of the Galaxy. (She'll probably like the AM-radio greatest hits soundtrack of Bowie, Runaways and other soul-pop hits that's used instead of some current wubby techno bleep-bloop; not that there's anything wrong with that.) My sidekick really loved it and I really, really enjoyed it, but the avalanche of story caused by combining origin stories and a Big Bad plot cost it a half-point. I recommend just rolling with it because it's not really that important to enjoying the loose, breezy humor and wackiness. Sure, real people would have their skeletons pulverized by the beatings dished out in the numerous fight scenes, but what's real in these sorts of movies? Make sure to stick through the credits for the traditional button scene which is either a hint at a future Marvel movie or merely Marvel showing that no matter what happened in the past, they're mighty enough to own it.

Score: 8.5/10. Pay full price.

One warning: If you are sensitive about a loved one dying of cancer, the opening may be emotionally troubling. I was talking to a woman whose step-mother recently died suddenly from cancer and I suggested she wait until it hits video to catch it because it may be too soon. 

"The Monuments Men" Review


"Historical" dramas (note the quotes) which claim to be "based on real events" are tricky because they blur the lines between fact and fiction often leaving viewers with a misleading impression of how things actually happened. (e.g. The Social Network invented Zuckerberg's girlfriend credited as the incitement for creating Facesmash and "Wardo" wasn't screwed as badly as they made out, though he was only a low-end billionaire after they diluted his shares.) Thus warned you should approach George Clooney's latest, The Monuments Men, with due caution to enjoy this somewhat entertaining, though uneven "historical" dramedy.

It's WWII and Hitler is looting the art treasures of Europe for a massive museum he has planned for when his Thousand-Year Reich has secured victory. Stolen from museums and churches and private collections (mostly Jewish families), art historian Clooney is concerned that as the Allies advance and liberate Europe, historical cathedrals may be bombed and the art within lost as well as seeking to recover what the Nazis stole. He proposes that a team of art historians and architects go through Europe treasure-hunting. The building of the team plays out like Ocean's 7: WWII Art Hunters as Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin (The Artist), and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) are assembled and rushed through basic training (ha-ha, fat Goodman can't get over the obstacle course wall and doesn't know they use live rounds, guffaw) before landing at Normandy, much pacified in July 1944.

From there the team splits up and the film's tone sort of fractures as well. Director/co-writer Clooney and long-time collaborator and co-writer Grant Heslov are trying to balance an old-fashioned feeling war movie with a caper flick with  broad comedic moments and somber sad times and it's just too tricky an act for them to pull off. One example is when the gently bickering duo of Murray and Balaban are bunked with troops during the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas time. They receive packages from home including a record from Murray's family. While he showers, Balaban pipes the record over the camp's PA system allowing everyone to hear Murray's family crooning "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" (one of the most depressing Christmas songs ever!) while in another part of the camp a mortally-wounded soldier found by the road by Clooney is tended to. It's very well done as filmmaking, but totally manipulative and it's not an isolated instance of jarring tone switches, though even deaths are handled lightly.

A plot thread involving Damon trying to convince Cate Blanchett, a French Resistance sympathizer unwillingly working for the Nazis hauling away artworks, goes nowhere over a long period of time and her reluctance to trust him because she fears recovered art will be spirited away to American museums (because it would be better if the Nazis or Russians keep/get it?) is hard to believe. Urgency is increased when they learn that Hitler has decreed that if he's killed that all the art is to be destroyed and the Russians closing in on the eastern front are claiming recovered art as reparations for their tens of millions killed.

I can understand what Clooney and Heslov were going for - a bit of a romp with undertones of the horrors of war and the need to protect art as a collective historical memory of a people - but it just doesn't quite gel up with the episodic structure, predictable tropes, and wasted time on dead end scenes like when Murray has to go to a dentist which seems to only exist as a meaningless callback to his cameo in Little Shop of Horrors. Taken individually, the scenes and sequences are fine, it's just as a whole that they don't really amount to a fitting monument to the fictionalized heroes (ALL the names have been changed, so it's probably more fiction than fact) of The Monuments Men.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.



"Lucy" Review


Well, this will save me the hassle of recapping; watch this:



In case you didn't watch it, ScarJo is the titular (this means title character; not a comment on her boobs) character, a party girl in Taipei, Taiwan whose current hookup entraps her into delivering a briefcase containing drugs, gets drugs sewn into her, they leak, she becomes a cross being Neo and Dr. Manhattan, hijinks ensue. That's pretty much it.

Writer-director Luc Besson has always had a thing for kickass chicks from his original La Femme Nikita - which spawned two remakes, the American Point of No Return (pretty good with a better 3rd act) and Hong Kong Black Cat (not very good); and two TV series, La Femme Nikita (bought the 1st season on DVD and gave up after 2-3 episodes) and the recently concluded Nikita which I quite enjoyed - and The Fifth Element with Milla Jovovich's Leeloo. Thanks to ScarJo's (she hates being called that, don't you ScarJo?) performance which starts off suitably terrified and ends up approaching god-like power (more on this in a moment), Lucy is another cool Besson creation.

While the movie moves swiftly and efficiently, there really isn't much more to the plot than what the trailer shows, there are so MASSIVE plot holes beginning with the whole drug mule concept (if it looks like blue laundry crystals, why not ship it in small detergent bottles that travelers would carry?) and why someone carrying valuable cargo for a brutal crime lord would be beaten up in the first place? I don't think we're supposed to think to hard about the details, but Besson used to be better with these things. (See Léon, aka The Professional, which was Natalie Portman's debut, for a good example.) At the end, after Lucy has amply exhibited superpowers, when the crime boss says, "I'll kill her myself," I leaned over to my girlfriend and whispered, "Based on what that has just happened makes him think he's going to be able to do that?" Indeed.

On one level, Lucy manages to answer the question of what happens when people get unlimited knowledge and power through technology much better than the stupid and woeful Transcendence did, but I wish Besson had scribbled more than his usual notes-on-a-cocktail-napkin I imagine he does for the projects he has others direct like From Paris With Love and the Transporter series. It felt like another reel of exposition could've easily been added to more gradually track her evolution as a superbeing at the cost of her humanity. There's a touching scene where she calls her mother under crazy circumstances and another where she announces that she's losing her old self, but it would've been interesting if there'd been something showing an in-between state as her emotions try to hang on while her intellect tosses them aside.

I've been seeing some weird things in the reviews and coverage of Lucy. Some hack at Forbes, in reporting that it's the #1 movies this weekend, rages repeatedly about how the marketing is "full of lies" and "blatantly misleading" - read what I just wrote, the trailer tells almost everything - and another (can't find) by some guy bashed ScarJo's "blank expression and limited range" which indicates he wasn't paying attention at all and to him I want to say: "Hey, Bub, she's not f*cking me either, but I'm not going to take it out on her in my reviews." Loser.

Score: 6/10 (bonus point for ScarJo's performance). Rent it.

BTW, the whole "we only use 10% of our brains" thing is total BS.


"Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" Review


When you see a title like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, you can safely assume it isn't a documentary. As the trailer lays out...



...Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are witch hunters with a distinctly anachronistic manner about them as they battle witchy doings of a coven led by Famke Janssen. The fight sequences have a visceral Hong Kong flavor with lots of bone-crushing pounding going on. Side plots involved Hansel and a pretty girl with a secret and Gretel and a troll enslaved by the witches add variety, but there are little in the way of big surprises overall. It's a good-looking and decently entertaining popcorn flick that's worth watching if you come upon it.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It's currently on Amazon Prime.)



"Transcendence" Review


When reviewing bad movies it helps when the trailer lays out almost every detail of the plot for me; so watch this:


Ok, where to begin? How about with the so-on-the-nose-it-IS-the-nose character name of Will Caster? Get it? Because he casts his will? Isn't that clever? Of course it isn't and neither is anything else about the dull and silly Transcendence, whose script was on the 2012 Black List of best unproduced screenplays despite having a will-casting character named WILL CASTER. (Cypher Rage from After Earth on line one for you idiots who didn't change this at the first notes meeting.)

The movie starts off with a series of gaping plot holes and logical missteps that cripple the proceedings before they ever get going. The opening scene is in a world out of the lame TV show Revolution where there is no power. Paul Bettany's character is narrating and speaking of Johnny Depp's WILL CASTER and wife (Rebecca Hall) in the past tense immediately draining all tension from the story because we know they're going to die, he's going to live, and Something Really Bad has happened.

Jumping back 5 years we're treated to the setup where Neo-Luddites are killing artificial intelligence experts in a coordinated attack of explosions, stranglings and poisonings. While WILL CASTER is shot, he's merely wounded and seems to be OK until - dun-dun-DUHN - he discovers the bullet was laced with polonium and he'll be dead in a month from radiation poisoning. Fortunately, this allows Hall and Bettany the time to upload his mind into the computer as if they never saw The Lawnmower Man and raises the 2nd fatal plot hole: What if the shooter had, I dunno, SHOT HIM IN THE EFFING HEAD?!?! Movie over! Donezo! It's sure lucky for the bad guys and our intrepid trio that they thought to make sure the bullet was radioactive in case they didn't kill him instantly like all the other victims of their scheme. Ferfryingoutloud.

The rest of the movie continues along the predictable and obvious path: Jobe, er, WILL CASTER builds a massive underground facility in the desert where he perfects nano-bots which can create matter and heal the sick as if he's Cyber-Jesus and so what if he's able to control these people remotely. Lots of "he's gone too far" and blah-blah-woof-woof. It's a sub-B-movie plot with AAA casting and production values. There are some germs of a potentially profound ideas buried under the schlock but they've been handled far better in films ranging from Ghost in the Shell to The Matrix to even The Lawnmower Man which can be forgiven a little of its cheesiness by remembering that it came out in 1992 ahead of the World Wide Web and the ubiquity of tech as now take for granted.

Ace cinematographer Wally Pfister (he shot all of Christopher Nolan's features from Memento to The Dark Knight Reloaded, winning an Oscar for Inception) makes his directorial debut (and finale, if the box office flop results are counted) and shows he wasn't paying attention to how Nolan told stories as the pacing drags and the performances from Depp and Hall are phoned in and blank respectively. Morgan Freeman and Bettany fair better with the latter actually able to bring some depth because he's the lone character written with some depth as he is torn between the promise of the tech and the ethical and moral downsides.

Pfister didn't DP Transcendence but that doesn't explain why it looks both slick and cheap with characters in near-silhouette most of the time. He also appears to have never seen an actual keynote presentation as anyone who has seen an E3 press conference/TED Talk/Apple product reveal/whatever will be distracted by the artifice of that opening scene. Also, how does such a massive underground lab get built without anyone talking out of school about it? And how did he get all the money - just by playing the market or cyber-stealing it. I'm thinking more about it than the filmmakers clearly did.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"I Know That Voice" Review


In between the writing of an animated film of any length and the actual animation process comes the critical, but generally unthought of by the audience, step of recording the vocal performances of the characters

Executive Producer John DiMaggio (Bender on Futurama and Marcus Fenix in the Gears of War games among many, many others) and Director Lawrence Shapiro interview dozens of performers behind many popular cartoons and video games as they discuss the process which is more acting than just making funny voices. Many do so many different roles that when they're identified in subsequent segments, different projects are listed. Unfortunately, probably due to the clearance issues, there isn't enough show footage to illustrate what each performer has done. There's more in the back half, but for a long time I wondered if they were just going to have people talking about their craft without seeing what they've done. (Imagine a film with people talking about an artist or photographer without showing the viewer any of their work. Exactly.)

While somewhat interesting, many of the names and shows passing by were lost on me because I don't watch those cartoons due to the lack of young children (that I'm aware of) or not smoking weed and vegging in front of the tube.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable (it's currently on Amazon Prime Video).



"Transformers: Age of Extinction" Review


So, yeah, a new Transformers movie. Yep. That this is. Uh-huh. Over 2-1/2 hours of cutting edge visual effects and BAYSPLOSIONS!!! If you've seen/enjoyed/endured/hated the other three, it's more of the same with some differences which don't really matter unless you were the person who was seeing these for Shia LeBeouf because he's gone (along with all the other humans and most of the Transformers), replaced by Marky Mark and some new Autobots.

It's five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the ravaging of Chicago. Despite the Autobots cooperation in thwarting Megatron and Sentinel Prime's scheme, they are now in hiding, being hunted mercilessly by a CIA squad commanded by Kelsey Grammar. He thinks the Transformers, whether good Autobot or evil Decepticon, need to be vanquished from Earth. But he's not so anti-Transformer as to not be in league with a new Big Bad, Lockdown, who is a bounty hunter seeking Optimus to add to his collection. Apparently there are masters he's serving which I'm sure we'll learn more about in the inevitable sequel.

Marky Mark is a widower with a hot teenage daughter (natch). He's an inventor who hasn't gotten anything working well enough to fend off the foreclosures and shutoff notices, but he has a hunch about a rusty old truck he finds in a movie theater he's junk-picking. He suspects it's a Transformer and he's proved right as he's able to jumpstart it to life, learning he was nearly killed in an ambush by Frasier's death squad and he's been incognito. Of course, Frasier's forces show up at the farm and threaten Mark's family forcing Optimus to reveal himself, explosions, chase, reveal of hot daughter's secret boyfriend, chase, boom boom, silly stuff, BAYHEM!!! BAYSPLOSIONS!!!! and something about something.

Frankly, as I'm writing this less than 24 hours after seeing it, I can't really recall much of anything about Transformers 2014 because it's all inconsequential, silly, dumb and just there to connect the eye-popping visual effects sequences. But that doesn't make it a bad movie as much as another Transformers movie. After the third one, I didn't really need another one and I'm still good. While it's all perfectly well-made and elaborately executed on a technical front, it's just too much meaningless noise - truly sound and fury signifying nothing.

But it's still hella better than Pacific Rim - yes, I still have a raging hate on for that thing and the morons who blindly defend it - which isn't a compliment to Transformers as it is a knock on Pacific Rim's inept, vacuous and intelligence-insulting insipid drivel. Transformers: Age of Extinction doesn't have any characters to sympathize with beyond the basic "I hope the good guys don't die" level; the secret boyfriend's trait is that he's Irish and Marky calls him "Lucky Charms" repeatedly; the lack of good guy military personnel (like Oscar-snubbed Tyrese - yes, sarcasm) leaves a void that makes things even more downbeat and joyless as Optimus wants to wash his wheels of this stinkin' planet of ingrates.

Parts were shot in Detroit so it's fun to spot the Russell Industrial Center suddenly pop up in the middle of a chase. (Shooting last August caused some hassle for my radio show that week as the parking lot was closed for the film's use.) An area near Grand Circus Park was turned into a Hong Kong location which explains why the People Mover kept showing up and the top of the Ren Cen peeks over the tops of buildings where they didn't bother with sky replacement.

Score: 6/10. Catch it at a dollar show if they have a good sound system.




"Gone Home" (PC Game) Review


Note: This is the first videogame I've posted a review for here at Dirkflix. While I've played many games, some with interesting stories, since starting this blog, the purpose of this site doesn't really lend itself to games in general. However, I'm making an exception here because, as you'll soon read, this isn't really a game and more like a story you walk through. Also I'd posted this to my FaceSpace page and figured, why not toss it here as well? Booyah!
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Just finished "playing" Gone Home. The reason for the quotes is because it's not really a game as much as a guided interactive narrative story. You are a 21-year-old girl who's gone home (heh) in June 1995 from a lengthy trip across Europe to find the huge family home empty with a note on the door to not look for your younger sister.

As you walk around you can pick up objects (most are irrelevant) and read many, many notes and letters; listen to cassettes; hear what seem to be audio diaries from your sister as she tells a tale of her falling in love. As you discover secret passages and learn about supposed ghosts, the tension builds and the "game" frequently gets spooky.

While game critics have fallen all over themselves to shower Gone Home with effusive praise, a LOT of gamers are hating on it pretty hard. Part of it is because many gamers are caveman mookheads who are used to shouting profanities at their Madden Warfare peeps and a story where you aren't the real protagonist that deals with grunge-era riot grrrls and middle-aged marital and life troubles doesn't interest them.

A greater part though is that it is an extremely short experience, taking no more than 2-3 hours to complete. For a game that retails for $20 - it's currently $5 on Steam; I got it for $3 on a Flash Sale - that doesn't really have you do much more than walk around looking at stuff, that's a hard sell. (The excellent Spec Ops: The Line is another example. It takes about 6 hours to beat and at $60, that's a terrible deal, regardless how good the story is. However for the $6 I paid on sale, it's a must-play.) Other than a couple of locked areas that need combinations to open, there's almost no "gaming" in Gone Home.

I was fascinated by how they laid out the story and understand why screenwriters I've heard talk about it enjoyed it. While it sets out a clear trail for you to follow, it relies on you to pick up the crumbs and understand the loaf they fell from. (OK, that's a yellow card for terrible metaphors there.) I think I missed a few things judging from the reviews and videos I looked at elsewhere; I never found one safe's combo. The way some things are scattered around are clearly for storytelling than logic's sake and the way the sister's journals are presented doesn't make sense until the very end and even then doesn't make total sense.

That said, if you can pick it up for cheap (like $3) and you understand what you're signing on for (i.e. not a GAME game) and you want to hear some Bratmobile, then you might want to give Gone Home a home in your home's game collection. (Suck it, Gene Shalit!)

Score: 7/10. Play it.

UPDATE: After writing this I remembered that there's a Commentary Mode. I haven't played it yet, but will update the review if/when I do.

"Edge of Tommorow" Review


Somewhere in the marketing department of of Warner Bros. is a group of supposedly smart people who managed to make the brilliant Tom Cruise sci-fi action flick Edge of Tommorow into a box office disappointment. They need to be unemployed immediately and frankly should've been cashiered last year when they came up with the fatal mistake of renaming it from the source graphic novel's awesome title: All You Need Is Kill. How badass is that title? A: Muy badass! Hell, they should've called it Live Die Repeat (the tag line) because it sums up the plot succinctly and to call it Starship Groundhog Troopers Day may give the wrong idea though that's pretty much what it is.

Cruise is Major Bill Cage, a spokesman for the United Defense Force who goes on television to talk up the war effort against the Mimics, an alien race that has captured all of Europe. Summoned by the Supreme Commander in London he is informed that he is to be part of the media team covering the invasion of France (shades of D-Day) with the soldiers. He's never actually served in combat (he did ROTC in college) and only joined the military media relations team after his ad agency folded post-invasion, so he's not inclined to go where the real danger and he tries to blackmail the General into letting him off. It does not go well.

He wakes up finding himself in handcuffs at an army base the day before the invasion is to occur, with Master Sargent Bill Paxton (who is now Apone!) believing him to be a deserter, stripped of rank, a green private. Assigned to the squad of colorful misfits and unable to even figure out how to turn off the safety on his mech armor suit's guns, he's not long for this world but neither are anyone else as the invasion is a total calamity for the Mimics seem to have known they're coming. He manages to blunder across the landing beach until he is ultimately killed.

Then wakes back up where he began at the base the day before.

As he rapidly learns from Emily Blunt's kickass "Angel of Verdun" - aka Full Metal Bitch, the face of the war effort - when he died, blood from the Mimic that took him out mixed with his and now he had the Mimics ability to reset time, reliving the previous day endlessly and thus allowing him to learn by trial-and-error. And there are a LOT of errors. LOTS. Various people have tried to figure out how many Groundhog Days Bill Murray lived through (this guy has almost 34 years) and I'm sure someone will try and figure out how many laps Cruise takes here, but it's clearly a mind-boggling high number.

What makes Edge of Tomorrow work so brilliantly is a combination of factors beginning with a very sharp script adaptation by The Usual Suspects scribe Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who also penned the upcoming James Brown biopic Get On Up?!) which cleanly sets up the rules of the universe (though the aliens powers and motives aren't clear, but generally irrelevant) and then trust the audience to keep up. What the ads don't show is just how funny the movie is in its telling.

Next star goes to Cruise for his subtly layered performance. For this story to work, we have to sympathize with the jerk whose initial poor decision makes saving the world possible and in lesser hands, the balance could've been thrown off. I don't get some people's aversion to him - yeah, the Xenu stuff and couch-jumping is wacky packs, but people manage to get past a LOT of reprehensible stuff about other celebs (drugs, cheating, cuddling with Third World dictators) while putting their foot down hard on Cruise. (My girlfriend adamantly refuses to watch this despite my enthusiasm because she can't stand his face.)

Finally, kudos to director Doug Liman who brings the steady action chops that made The Bourne Identity and especially Mr. & Mrs. Smith successes, clearly conducting the kinetic action in a comprehensible manner. When you realize how much is VFX - I can't wait for the making-of stuff on the Blu-ray - it's that much more impressive.

If there's a fault, it's in the ending which can be called predictable or perhaps a cheat, but when you consider the predictable menu of binary options (i.e. he saves the day or doesn't; he lives or he dies for good) available, they went with the least awful combination platter. I've seen some complain; I'm cool with it. Ignore the title and have a blast.

Score: 9/10. Pay full price.



 
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