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"Rushmore" Review

One problem with reviewing those films *everyone* considers to be a "classic" is that if you don't see what everyone else is praising you have to decide whether you're going to be that guy who "doesn't get it" (presumably because stupid) or you're the brave iconoclast whom many will probably disregard in the future because, "He's that stupid guy who doesn't get great movies." So with that clarified, I don't get what the big deal is about Wes Anderson's 1998 film Rushmore.

Jason Schwartzman made his acting debut - not just big-screen, but any screen as you can hear about in this interview or the Wikipedia entry on casting - as Max Fischer, a 15-year-old simultaneous over and underachiever at the private Rushmore Academy. He's the president or founder or captain of a slew of extracurricular activities and clubs while getting such poor marks he's on the verge of being tossed out of school. Why the poor grades? Because all the other stuff he's doing.

He's also smitten with a new teacher, a young widow played by Olivia Williams. She gets increasingly creeped out by Max's affections and shoos him along. When Max tries to impress her with the help of an alumni millionaire (Bill Murray) he gets booted from Rushmore and leaves Murray a clear shot at wooing the widow himself. When word gets back to Max, a nasty little Spy vs. Spy war of vandalism ensues.

While I don't have an axe to grind against Anderson's films, I've never quite seen what the film nerds worship so fervently about him. I liked The Royal Tennenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox, I wanted to punch Moonrise Kingdom to death with its excessively cutesy smug whimsy. While Rushmore has a pile of bits that are individually good, the whole is much less than the sum of the bits. I'm writing this less than 24 hours after watching it and had to look up a synopsis to remind myself of several plot details.

It doesn't help that Williams, while adequately attractive, doesn't really offer much to support the thesis that kids and millionaires will do anything to be with her. This movie supposedly helped Bill Murray cross over into "serious acting" (read: Wes Anderson movies and Lost In Translation because he made a TON of crap, too, like TWO Garfield joints), but I didn't find much particularly interesting and too many Murrayisms. Schwartzman, though, is top notch and even if Anderson and Murray provided him with extensive coaching, he's quite up to the task of hauling Anderson's whimsical construct on his back.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"American Sniper" Review

American Sniper has become a Rorschach movie where a lot of people are projecting their ideologies onto it. Liberals are hating it because they hate the military and America. Conservatives are over-praising it like they do anything that's not overtly anti-American/anti-military liberal hate like they did with Act of Valor, a good, but flawed movie. After taking in over $105 million in a record-smashing opening 4-day weekend, liberals have effectively lost their minds even more and declared open jihad on the film, the audience who saw it and even the plastic baby used when the human babies didn't show or were sick on the day. That's how angry, petty and miserable Leftists are.

I figured the reality of American Sniper's quality would lie somewhere between liberal critics bashing and conservative pundits overpraise and the fact it was nominated for Best Picture meant little because the Oscars are such a mess most years that the Golden Globes were invented to build a credibility floor underneath them. What I found was my suspicions were correct.

For those totally unaware, American Sniper is an adaptation of the autobiography of Chris Kyle, America's most lethal sniper with over 160 credited kills in the Iraq War. It opens with Kyle on the verge of his first kill, a gut-wrenching decision involving a young child and a grenade that may be headed for a squad of Marines he's providing overwatch on. The insane rules of engagement our soldiers faced over there adds another layer of tension as his backup reminds him if he's wrong about his decision, he'll be sent to Leavenworth for murder. Nice work if you can get it.

The movie then jumps back for nearly a half-hour crash course on his life, beginning with his childhood protecting his little brother from bullies to his days as a rodeo rider through his decision to join the Navy SEALs after the twin African embassy bombings in the late Nineties. Along the way he meets, courts and marries Taya (Sienna Miller) with their honeymoon cut short as his squad is activated to go to Iraq after 9/11. Caught up for 25 minutes, we return to where we started and he makes the call.

What follows is a familiar structure of war movies lately. We see the soldier gradually worn down by the horrors of war and what waging it requires of those pulling the triggers alternating with Stateside sequences where they can't connect with their concerned loving families. While American Sniper doesn't make Kyle a thrill jockey unable to function at home like Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker, there's no mistaking the toll PTSD is taking while his need to protect his men draws him back to Iraq.

While the first half moves swiftly and tautly, the second half dragged somewhat for me as the here-there-rinse-repeat pattern became evident. (FWIW, my girlfriend didn't think it lagged at all.) An overarching plot thread involving an insurgent sniper nicknamed "Mustafa" seems cribbed from dueling sniper movies like Enemy at the Gates. A soldier chattering about buying an engagement ring could be call-signed "Goose" (from Top Gun) or "Dead Meat" (Hot Shots). The climatic battle seems choppy and disjointed compared to the spare urban warfare sequences before it like when Kyle's unit encounters The Butcher (who lives up to his nickname) and Mustafa and the final scene before Kyle's death is as cliche as they come.

The bedrock that American Sniper is built upon is Bradley Cooper's transformative performance, packing on 45 pounds of muscle and a reportedly spot-on Texas accent. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who was the sensitive reporter on Alias and the bullying a-hole from Wedding Crashers. I've always thought that he's been sort of marginalized because he's just so damned handsome (People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive 2011), but as he racks up his third straight Oscar nomination (following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) there's no doubt he's more than just blue eyes and a pretty face. (Dammit!) Though the script gives him little more to do than "be a resolute protector" and "be haunted by the killing" he makes the whole movie seem more significant. Miller is good in the thankless role of the Wife Tending The Home Fires. Eastwood's spare direction doesn't attempt to glamorize or demonize war, in fact forgoing a musical score when most directors would crank the Hans Zimmer Bombast Knob to 11.

While it's tempting to lash back at the haters of the Left by praising American Sniper as a instant classic, honesty precludes me from hopping on that bandwagon. While well-made, exceptionally-acted and a story deserving telling, I just couldn't escape the feeling that Standard Hollywood Structure was being applied to the true story. I haven't read the book or followed the biased media ankle-biting over it and the movie, so I don't know how accurate the story is, but movies must stand on their own merits and if this was exactly how it went down, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall should've found a way to make it seem less familiar and more evocative.

Score: 7/10. Rent the Blu-ray.

"Divergent" Review

I made one of my usual futile attempts to read (I'm REALLY slow at slogging through fiction for some reason) this discount Hunger Games knock-off back in mid-2013 ahead of the film's release, but got bored of the simpy protagonist's hot cheeks (if you've read this thing, you know what I mean) and set it aside about 2/3rds read. Then the movie came and went and I figured I'd catch it on video, but after watching the Honest Movie Trailer and Cinema Sins beatings (posted below), I was even less enthused. However, it was the only thing my girlfriend wasn't adamantly opposed to this evening, so it was time for Discount Hunger Games, er, Divergent.

In a world (heh) called Chicago after an unexplained war which has left the city a ruined dystopia where society has been carved into five distinct factions/cliques: the Farmers (aka Amity), the snooty Brainiacs (Erudite), the Honest (Candor), the Amish Martyrs (Abnegation), and the Cool Kids Who Have All The Fun (Dauntless). Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley, whose big neck makes her head look too small) takes the test to determine which club she should join and is informed by the worried test giver/tattoo artist Maggie Q that she appears suited for three cliques and that makes her....wait for it...weird. Just kidding. She's DIVERGENT!!!! and she'd better keep it to herself or bad things will happen. (If you're thinking she'll start lipping off and attracting attention to her defiance, give yourself a nonfat soy mocha latte!)

She chooses the Kool Kidz (Dauntless) and heads off to their Honeycomb Hideout to discover it's not all parkour and cool leather clothes, but brutal (and occasionally deadly) training to avoid being cut and ending up on the streets. Of course there's a cute trainer who digs Tris' fat neck and blah-blah-woof-woof fight the power, yawn. People die, society is cast into turmoil and we're not supposed to wonder why the El train runs into the Cursed Earth where the sequels lie. Just shut up and marvel at the love, kids!

Since Divergent is a direct ripoff to The Hunger Games series, it's not unfair to judge it against that juggernaut. Hmmmm, it fails across the board starting with the premise that the solution to war is to cram people into rigid behavioral castes and then stomp out any free thinkers. The Districts of The Hunger Games were geographic. (Both of the spoof videos also riff on the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter and the One with the Sorting Hat.) From then it follows a rote, checklist path of bringing the book to life for the illiterate or those lacking imagination.

Director Neil Burger helmed my favorite movie of 2011, Limitless, and previously did The Illusionist which was pretty good, but without an imaginative script, there's little for him to do here. The best aspect of Divergent is the seamless VFX to create the post-Apocalyptic Chicago, which presumably wasn't rebuilt after the Decepticons attacked in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

The performances are functional, but unremarkable. When the usually meat-headed Jai Courtney doesn't suck, that sets the level. Kate Winslet is playing the Donald Sutherland part, but doesn't really spark to the trashy slumming she's doing; she doesn't twirl her mustache enough. And as for Woodley, she ain't no J.Law in any dimension. I hear she's popular with the tween girls for her TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but I don't see anything that leads me to believe she'll transcend her roots as Claire Danes did going from a dewy ingenue in My So-Called Life to the unraveling CIA agent in Homeland.

Score: 3/10. Skip it and watch Catching Fire again.

"In A World..." Review

Lake Bell was a virtual unknown to me beyond her bodypainted nude New York magazine cover and some scene from the HBO series How To Make It In America where she appeared topless, so I was intrigued by In A World... which was written and directed by her to star in. Savvy actors have a long history of generating their own projects to showcase their talents - Stallone with Rocky; Damon and Affleck with Good Will Hunting; Nia Vardolos with My Big Fat Greek Wedding; lying child molester Lena Dunham with Tiny Furniture and Girls - but Bell's sweet satirical comedy is an eye-opener.

Winner of the Best Screenplay prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Bell plays a vocal coach and voice artist who's trying to break into the Big Boys Club of movie trailer work. She's been living with her father, a legend in the voiceover biz, who doesn't think much of his daughter's ambitions and tosses her out so he can move in his much younger girlfriend. Bell crashes on the couch of her sister, a concierge of a fancy hotel. inadvertently triggering problems in her marriage.

Taken individually, the pieces of In A World... are familiar and perhaps a bit trite, but Bell has wrapped them in some genuinely sharp and unexpected observations which really elevate the material. It would've been easy to just make it the story of a plucky girl fighting the patriarchy, but there are other angles examined, especially at the end. I don't mean to make it seem overly deep, but where it could've taken shortcuts, it actually attacks things head on.

I started watching Childrens Hospital after this and I see that half of that show's cast (which Bell was a lead player) shows up here and they're all good. Bell also takes a very self-deprecating position on her looks (she dresses like a slob and has one guy comment on how "rough" her face is when she's kind of a cross between Mariel Hemingway and Alexandra Daddario) and plays her role as a bit of a goofy mess. Geena Davis and Cameron Diaz have cool cameos as well as Eva Longoria, who's featured in a trailer.

Based on In A World..., I think the world could use some more Lake Bell-made movies in it.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Amazon Prime shows it in the proper aspect ratio; Netflix has it cropped down.)

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" Review

Tom Clancy's storied protagonist Jack Ryan has had quite the checkered cinematic career as Alec Baldwin, who fronted The Hunt For Red October, was replaced with Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger before getting replaced by Ben Affleck for the political correctness-damaged Sum of All Fears which replaced the novel's Islamist bad guys for generic Euro-trash villains because political correctness. After a dozen years on the bench, Hollywood attempted to reboot the franchise with Chris Pine (Star Trek's Captain Kirk) in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and judging from the results, it may take another dozen years for anyone to care if they try again.

The reboot retcons Ryan's origin story by beginning with him as a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford when 9/11 happens. Like many patriots, he enlists in the War on Terror and gets seriously injured in Afghanistan when his chopper is shot down. While undergoing arduous rehab Stateside, he meets a pretty doctor (a worryingly thin Kiera Knightley) and is tapped by a CIA agent (Kevin Costner) to go back and finish his doctorate and work on Wall Street to sniff out the funding for terrorists.

While there he discerns irregularities in accounts between his firm and their Russian counterparts, so he's dispatched to Moscow to meet with in-no-way-totes-the-bad-guy Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) and hijinks ensue as Ryan tries to unravel a plot to crash the world's economy by shorting the dollar after a terror attack.

While there are a few moments of tricksy spycraft shenanigans, overall Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit plays as a 2nd-string generic spy thriller with little of the intricate intrigue that marks Clancy's novels. It's not egregiously bad, just dull and not engaging. Pine is a charming fellow, but he's doing too much Kirk schtick here and it doesn't fit.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

One note about where to watch it on streaming: For some reason Netflix has a cropped 1.78:1 version like you'd see on HBO instead of the OAR of 2.40:1. Fortunately, if you have Amazon Prime, they have the correct version.

"The Skeleton Twins" Review

The hook of The Skeleton Twins is to see SNL funny folks Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in serious roles, but while they do well in their performances, they are undercut by a thin script without full confidence in its story.

Hader is Milo, a gay man in LA who, after a breakup, attempts suicide by cutting his wrists. Wiig is Maggie, who lives across the country and was contemplating taking a handful of pills when the call comes in about Milo. She decides to go get her bro and bring him back home to stay with her and her husband, Luke Wilson in the role Bill Pullman used to play in the Nineties as the decent guy who gets crapped on by an ungrateful significant other.

Rapidly the twins get into bad situations due to their depressed natures. Milo tries to reconnect with a former high school teacher (Ty Burrell) whom he had a relationship with when he was 15. Maggie starts shagging her hunky scuba instructor. There's a visit from their terrible New Agey mother and lots of catching up on the past decade they've spent apart.

While the performances are good - Hader is more a surprise than Wiig, who's done good film work before - the story is annoying because self-defeating people are bad enough when we understand their motivations, but when they just seem to be making bad choices for the purpose of the story, bah. But the worst is when it seems like they realized people really want to see madcap antics from the funny people so they have a painfully contrived scene where they lipsync Starship's kitschy "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." Weak.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Interview" Review

We had an international incident over this? Really? Such silly times we live in.

Unless you're more detached from reality than the average bear, you've heard about the massive leak of emails from Sony Pictures in which trash talking emails, personal information, unreleased movies, etc. have been flowing onto the Internet. The alleged cause for all these antics is North Korean hackers enraged over The Interview, the latest bromedy from Seth Rogen and James Franco which is about a plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Apparently it's rude to make light of killing real-world foreign leaders or something. (If you're thinking about that fake documentary and other works fantasizing about the assassination of George W. Bush during his time in office not getting any backlash, join the club.)

As the movie was pulled from release, then partially put into theaters, then streamed online to allow everyone a crack at pirating it, it was sometimes touted as one's patriotic duty to see this movie, because screw terrorism. Or something. Again, silly times. Of course, the usual suspects made the usual noises about how terrible it was because of the patriotic marketing angle - leave it to the liberal media to hop onto anything they can to stroke their oikophobia - but all the surrounding noise just elevated/denigrated the movie itself and whatever merits it had.

Franco is Dave Skylark, the host of Skylark Tonight, a frothy chat show peddling celebrity news like Rob Lowe being bald (another great self-deprecating cameo in line with his DirecTV adverts) and Eminem admitting he's gay, the best bit in the movie. (Pay attention to the Chyron's with things like, "CLEANING OUT HIS CLOSET; FINDING HIMSELF?") After his producer (Rogen) runs into an old college classmate who's a producer for 60 Minutes and disses their trivial production, Rogen seeks and finds an opportunity. It seems Kim (Randall Park) is a fan of Skylark's, so he reaches out to get an interview with the reclusive dictator which is accepted.

With a trip to North Korea booked, CIA operative Lizzy Caplan approaches them asking that they "take out" Kim because they'll have a rare opportunity to knock him off. They're not to psyched on the idea - particularly the part about how they'd escape a country whose leader they'd just murdered - but agree to take on the task. Of course everything goes wrong because they're basically gringo Cheech & Chong and not particularly brilliant. Complicating matters is that Skylark is taken in by the facade of happy, well-fed people in front of well-stocked stores and a day spent bro-ing out with Kim makes him believe that killing him would be a mistake because he's just a nice guy with bad PR problems.

Because of all the geo-political tensions surrounding the release, The Interview has been scrutinized waaaaaaaaaaaaay more than it merits. At its core, it's another collaboration with Evan Goldberg with whom Rogen co-directed This Is The End (they also wrote Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Watch and The Green Hornet) and how you like those movies is a good indicator of how you'll appreciate (or not) The Interview. It is lowbrow dudebro humor with plenty of gay jokes, drug humor, slapsticky ultra-violence - you know, all the things you look for in a Jane Austen adaptation. (Wait, what?)

One of the tidbits from the leaked Sony emails were complaints about Franco's performance and it shows that some Hollyweird studio weasels may have a clue because he's pretty awful. However, it's almost funnier because it's bad, but maybe I was just feeling charitable for the holidays. He's pretty bad. Rogen is Rogen; nuff said. Randall Park's Kim is interesting and Diana Bang (not a porn actress!) as the North Korean minder is amusing.

As I write this review a few weeks later, it's hard to remember what the big deal was about The Interview. It's just a dumb movie that caught some unneeded heat.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Gone Girl" Review

Gillian Flynn's bestseller Gone Girl gets the typically icy and shiny treatment by David Fincher and it's almost impossible to properly review the movie without spoiling the movie. In fact, even mentioning this pretty much gives away the one big twist, but since most viewers will probably surmise what the main one is, let's see how far we can get before needing to stop.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are Nick and Amy Dunne. They met in New York City where they were magazine writers, though she also was the basis for her parents' passive-aggressive series of children's books called Amazing Amy. They met cute, fell in love, got married, lost their jobs in the recession and eventually moved back to his Missouri hometown to care for Nick's dying mother. After her passing, they're stuck in a McMansion with no spark in their marriage. Nick runs a bar - meta-named The Bar - with his twin sister Go (short for Margo, played tartly by Carrie Coon) while Amy, who is so NYC that she probably thinks of anything west of the Hudson as "Indian country", is clearly bored to death.

On the day of their 5th anniversary, Nick returns from his usual morning check-in with Go at The Bar to find the front door open, signs of a struggle and a smashed glass coffee table and Amy gone. He calls the cops and as time goes on he finds himself to be the prime suspect because the husband always does it, right? He stumbles into a couple of situations which make him look like a bounder and this doesn't even count the ex-student mistress ("Blurred Lines" video hottie/Victoria's Secret model Emily Ratajkowski) no one initially knows about. Eventually, despite the lack of a body, he is charged with Amy's murder. Except...


She ain't exactly dead. But you probably suspected that, didn't you? (We did, voicing our suspicion about 30 seconds before it's revealed.)


Since the back half of the movie is off-limits for recapping, it's to play What Works/What Doesn't. Rosamund Pike got an Oscar nomination for her performance (I'm writing this several weeks after viewing) and I don't think it's that exceptional. Sharon Stone was better in a similar Hitchcockian murder blonde role (hint, hint) and I didn't get much of an Oscar-worthy vibe off her.

Affleck is OK, but I kept thinking about what makes his performance work is what made the normally laughable Denise Richards so effective in Wild Things (beyond her big champagne-drenched boobs) - she was playing a dumb girl who thought she was smart and thus it seemed spot on, though more by fortunate accident than deliberate portrayal. Affleck gets bad-rapped for his acting a bit much (he was quite good as the doomed Superman George Reeves in the middling Hollywoodland), but I never felt he was being deliberate as Nick.

The rest of the cast is uniformly solid with, as you may've heard, Tyler Perry(?!?!?) totally killing it as a superstar defense attorney hired to flack for Nick. Seriously, he rules and it's time for him to hang up his Madea dress. Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris as a pair of Amy's exes, Kim Dickens as the lead detective, Patrick Fugit (the kid from Almost Famous all growed up!) as her "he's guilty" sidekick and Missy Pyle as Nancy Grace in all but name round out the cast.

I wasn't crazy about Fincher's too-dim compositions which leave faces in near shadow as they're primarily backlit and I don't think Flynn's script (adapting her own novel, which I started, but didn't get far into) nails the media circus and marital commentary angles they seemed to be going for. There are several big logic gaps and a scene towards the end begs us to scream, "Why haven't they bathed all the blood off?!?!?" The Honest Movie Trailer (posted below) describes it as a big Lifetime movie, but Fincher never gets the pot boiling enough. Trashy material needs some tawdry heat and Gone Girl never escapes the chilly waters of the Mississippi which flows by.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

If you've seen the movie (or don't care about tons of spoilers), watch this; it's a hoot:

"The Lego Movie" Blu-ray Review

When The Lego Movie rolled around a year ago, I dismissed it as just a cheap toy commercial for the kiddies. Then I started seeing reviews that said, no, it's not that but rather a sharp intelligent animated movie. My Culture Vultures co-host, Otto the Autopilot, said it was surprisingly good, so when it was a Black Friday deal for $4 on Blu-ray(!!) I figured I'd take a peek at what's happening in the brick yard. It turns out, the hype was right.

Chris Pratt voices Emmet Brickowski, an average Joe with no real creative impulses who accidentally becomes "The Special" by discovering the Piece of Resistance which can thwart the evil Lord Business' (Will Ferrell) scheme to use a super weapon called the "Kragle" (the reveal of what this is is a hoot) to freeze Legoland in place forever. Along with Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who Emmet is smitten by only to learn she's dating Batman (Will Arnett), and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), they cross the various Lego realms on their quest with Emmet naturally screwing things up most of the way.

What makes The Lego Movie click is the frequently brainy and meta visual and verbal gags it slings. Executed with computer animation that deliberately mimics the limitations of the figures (if they had endless time, money and manpower, it could've been stop-motion animated) and little details like the fingerprints on the figures (hint, hint), it's a visual joy. But it's the occasionally randomish bits and cameos that blast buy (which I shant spoil lest I deprive you of the fun) that keep things kicking. Pay attention to the credits to see who Superman and Green Lantern are. Heh.

There's a reveal foreshadowed which I didn't expect to manifest and take so much time at the end, but it made me think of Toy Story 3 and the irony of an elaborately-made computer-animated movie which ultimately argues that the most fun you can have is to take physical toys - not video simulacrums - and imagine your own adventures with them beyond what the instructions direct.

What's most shocking about The Lego Movie is how it was totally snubbed for the Best Animated Feature category* despite being a smash hit and the relentless earworm anthem, "Everything Is Awesome," garnering a Best Song nom. Come on, Oscar!

The Blu-ray looks and sounds fine and the extras delve somewhat into the production aspects showing the filmmakers visiting Lego headquarters in Denmark and how every piece in the movie is based on a real-world equivalent; you could pretty much build anything that's shown onscreen.

Score: 8/10. Rent it.

* Review written 1/20/2015, after the Oscar nominations have been announced.

"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.)

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