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"A Band Called Death" Review

People who know nothing about music think punk started in England with the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Those who know a little about music think it started in New York City with the Ramones and the CBGB's crew. Those who really know music and can get past the media's insistence that nothing of merit comes from anywhere between the coasts know that punk's roots started in Michigan with The Stooges and the MC5. However, there was another band that could've laid claim to Founder status...if only anyone had heard of them before 2008 and that is the subject of A Band Called Death.

The trailer below gives the Reader's Digest version of the story: The Hackney brothers - David (guitar), Bobby (drums) and Dannis (bass) - were three black guys growing up in Motown-era Detroit who, inspired by The Who and Alice Cooper, shifted from R&B to what would be considered now to be proto-punk/garage rock. Dubbed Death by David, they literally picked a recording company by throwing a dart at the Yellow Pages and cut a 7-song album that was shopped and rejected by every label, partially because of their raw sound, but mostly because of their gloomy-sounding name. Clive Davis was very interested in taking on the band, but they'd have to change the name. David refused to compromise and that was pretty much that for the band.

The irony is that the name Death wasn't meant to be a downer and when they tried rebranding themselves as The 4th Movement with an overtly Christian theme (so that's where ICP got it from!), they were panned for being a good rock band, but could they keep the preaching to themselves? The brothers moved to Vermont, though David moved back to Detroit and basically drank and smoked himself to death (no pun) from lung cancer in 2000 at age 48. The remaining brothers had been touring as a reggae band and started families and their days as Death remained in their distant past until a copy of their single landed in the hands of Dirtbombs drummer and rock writer Ben Blackwell, who set off a chain of events leading to the release in 2009 of their album on Drag City Records. The part where Bobby's son relates hearing his father's voice on a record being played by a collector pal is a hoot. It also shows that it only takes one person to change fortunes as if Blackwell had just listened to it, but not told anyone, we never would've known about them. (It reminds me of how Clerks and Kevin Smith owe their fame to one man who caught a screening at a NY film festival and recommended it to Sundance's programmers.)

If there is a problem with the story of A Band Called Death it's that as interesting as the long, twisted road to notoriety for the band may be, they weren't influential to anyone because no one saw them to be influenced. The all-black hardcore punk band Bad Brains sounds similar, but they appear to have formed their sound themselves. Unlike Rodriguez, subject of the Oscar-winning doc Searching For Sugar Man (and another Detroit who had to wait 30+ years for fame to knock), who was a huge seller in South Africa (not that he knew about it), Death only became a footnote to music history by a fluke.

While the surviving brothers say they credit David for being true to the Bible verse admonition, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" it's hard to see the upside of throwing away a record deal from Clive Davis over a name that was, pardon the pun, commercial death.

Finally, the makers commit a sin way too many other documentaries do in failing to inform us what year things are happening or how old people are. While band dates are fairly well presented, the ages of the band members aren't. 

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

2014 Oscars Livesnark

Another year, more snark, mostly on Twitter. Refresh for updates...
  • If you had Ellen wearing a dress in the pool, what were you thinking?
  • Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are both wearing white tux jackets, so it appears they'll be serving drinks at the after-party.
  • The Somali guy from Captain Phillips is this year's Hang S. Nygor, except he won't be winning.  
  • Yummy Girl! Short hair looks decent.  
  • Jared Leto wins and dedicates it to his mom and bro first. Shouts out to Ukraine and Venezuela and has to be running long.  
  • Ellen's opening monologue was OK. Missing Seth McFarlane now.  Jim Carrey is scaring me.
  • At the rate of one award per 1/2 hour, they won't be done with the  until sometime Tuesday. Pharrel's wearing his Malcolm McLaren hat.
  • At this rate, I could watch Walking Dead & Girls and only miss 3-4 . Naomi Watts looks like she's auditioning for Young Hillary Story.
  • How does Catching Fire not get nominated for Costumes or Makeup ? How about The Hobbit being snubbed for Hair & Makeup? Lame.
  • Channing Tate-yum comes out to intro contest winners which is the only way he'll be at the . Dude, your Magic Mike bro's gonna win!
  • It's ironic that Kim Novak is out there for animation considering her face is absolutely immobile. Scary  time!
  • Kim Novak is 81. Her face is not.  
  • Frozen wins for Best Animated Feature, a category Pixar's weak Monsters University wasn't even nommed for. Good. Pixar blows now.  
  • Gravity wins Best VFX, filling in the Free Space on your  bingo card. Just as with Life of Pi, if it didn't win, it was riot time.
  • Wouldn't it be awesome if Pharrell's dancers came out behind Karen O and whoever that guy is at the ? Total mood clash!
  • Haven't seen 20 Feet From Stardom yet, but it's interesting to see the  go for a non-political film, like Sugar Man or Motown.
  • Whoa, whoa, Darlene Love; who said you could mention God in front of all these people at the  who think they are?
  • This Ellen wandering the audience stuff at the is the worst Samsung Galaxy Note 3 ad ever. OK, let's see that selfie!
  • Down in front, you're blocking AJ! RT If only Bradley's arm was longer. Best photo ever.
  • Lupita Nyong'o is the first Klingon to win at the . (That's what the apostrophe in her name means, right?)
  • Does anyone think this pizza delivery running gag that's holding up the  show is funny? Lame callback to when Steve Martin did nosh.
  • HELL YEAH! Bill Murray shouts out to Harold Ramis at the . I don't think Gravity should've won Cinematography; it's all VFX, like Pi.
  • Why is Pink singing at the ? Haven't wasted enough time been wasted on Ellen's phone ad wandering? Double-sided tape is the most worn.
  • Does this Oz dress blow the Ellen  pool? Jennifer Garner is wearing Anne Hathaway's old Oscar-hosting dress. Make it swish!
  • Boy, sleep with the director (Baz Luhrman) and win ! Two of them! It appears they're not going to play anyone off for talking long.
  • Once again, the  People Who Died montage isn't backed by Jim Carroll's "People Who Died." It's a gimme, folks! Make it happen!
  • Suck it, Obama!   
  • I wonder who else noticed Sarah Jones, the 27-year-old camera asst who was hit by a train the other day, when the  went to break?
  • AAAIIIEEEEEEE!!!!!! Goldie Hawn, STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING!!!! Scary  again.
  • Why does Idina Menzel sound like a pitchy American Idol contestant with mushy diction when she sang it so well in the movie? Weird.  
  • Glad Gravity's score won. Really did what music is supposed to do. Steven Price got a handshake from John Williams, who IS Movie Score God.
  • So glad "Let It Go" won over U2's drab pander. And the writers got the EGOT! Cute acceptance speech!  
  • From Undercover Brother to winning an Oscar for 12 Years A Slave. Way to go John Ridley. Whoa! Spike Jonze won?!? Play "Cannonball!"  
  • Sidney Potier is 87. So is his face. Thank God for that. Alfonso Cuaron wins Best Director for his 2nd . Will he turn the hat trick?
  • Cate Blachett's  dress looks like it has fishing lures all over it. Haven't seen Blue Jasmine yet, but Amy Adams was great in Hustle.
  • Matthew McConaughey (yeah, I have to Google the spelling) completes his career overhaul at the . 6 years ago he was in Surfer, Dude.
  • I guess those billboards playing the White Guilt Card - "It's time." - paid off for 12 Years A Slave at the . Guess I'll watch it now
  • Overall, Ellen was pleasant, but bland. The  show lacked surprises and could've been under 3 hours if they'd cut the schtick.
Well, that's a wrap, folks! Thanks for reading. See ya next year.

"Dallas Buyers Club" Review

The march through Academy Award nominee territory continues with Dallas Buyers Club, the fact-based (as far as movies go, there's loud anger from the LGBT community over changes that were made) story of  Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rowdy Texas good ol' boy in 1985 who likes to bang women two at a time at the rodeo (uh, what happened to them?) and works as an electrician until an accident sends him to the hospital where he discovers he has full-blown AIDS and about 30 days left to live, so get your affairs in order, Tex.

In the first of several credulity-straining details, he heads to the library (Texans can read? j/k) and within days knows of experimental treatments from around the world, none of which are approved for use in America. While participating in a clinical trial of AIDS drug AZT, he meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgendered woman who he initially lashes out at (cuz he's a homophobe, donchaknow?) but eventually teams up with in forming a "buyers club" to distribute drugs purchased from Mexico and elsewhere. He's hoping to skirt the legal issues by charging "memberships" to join the club, but giving away the bundles of drugs and vitamins.

McConaughey and Leto are strongly favored to win Oscars for their work for good reason. While much of the attention to McConaughey's shedding of over 40 lbs for the role, he navigates the transition from roughneck to savior better than the script gives him motivation for. Ever since The Lincoln Lawyer, he's been racking up one interesting performance after another as if he turned 40 and decided he didn't want to be a joke anymore. Leto's been on a lengthy hiatus from acting while concentrating on his band, 30 Seconds To Mars, but he's going to be getting more calls for acting as he never seems to be playing Rayon (a composite character) as a drag role.

While the acting is strong, even from Jennifer Garner as a kindly doctor, the script is lacking. No one seems to have had lives before the beginning of the movie and while some have scoffed at the transition of Woodruff from stereotypical homophobe to the bestie of the Friends of Dorothy, the greater problem is the rapid expertise he seems to develop and some vagueness over whether he's a selfless humanitarian or ruthless profiteer as he sends a sick man with only $50 away with the admonition to come back with another $350. It really could've benefited from more getting to know the characters overall lives scenes to better contextualize their current struggles.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"American Hustle" Review

(Note: Because I let this sit in Draft for over a month without hard-coding the date and time of watching, this is only a guess as to when it was viewed. I'm pretty sure it was before Her, so I've put it here. Boo for sloth!)

David O. Russell has been a bit of an Oscar factory lately with his past two films - 2010's The Fighter (which won Best Supporting Oscars for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, and a nomination for Amy Adams) and Silver Linings Playbook (Best Actress J.Law, nominations in all the other acting categories including Bradley Cooper) - continues his streak for actors with American Hustle which reunites Bale, Adams, Cooper and J.Law for a trip to 1978 to revisit the barely remembered AbScam (for "Arab scam") sting which roped in several Congressional critters.

The veracity meter is tempered right out of the box with the helpful title card stating, "Some of this actually happened," but Russell clearly isn't super interested in a history lesson as much as crafting a character study of various grifters and desperate people, though he isn't very successful because in creating his menagerie of characters to play with, he didn't really give them much to do. There's a weird timeline jump right off the bat only because it seems Russell wanted to do a long bit about Bale's ridonkulous combover hairdo. Everyone in this movie seems defined by their hair from Bale to Cooper's permed curls to J.Law's blowsy blondeness to Adams Farrah-esque waves; there's more attention to the hair than plot at times.

Muddying things further is the use of narration by some, but not all of the characters. If we're going to know what some are thinking, why not everyone? So interested in the surface elements Russell is, we never really know what's motivating the relationships. While it makes sense for single mother J.Law to latch onto a sugar daddy and Bale's dry cleaning grifter snagging a hot young MILF sorta makes sense, why not find a less ball-breaking, unencumbered woman? It feels as if a half-hour of interesting story details have been trimmed out to leave enough time for the hair and plunging necklines.

The reason the story even holds our interest is due to the stellar performances across the board. Oscar buzz is that Cate Blanchett has Best Actress locked up, but if it wasn't for her, I can't see how Amy Adams wouldn't win. Her character has a look of steely desperation in her eyes and she's so hungry for the good life, she's lost her grip on who she really is. I've seen reviews dissing her dodgy British accent, but those critics clearly weren't paying attention as to why that is. J.Law is a blowsy hoot and if she hadn't won an Oscar last year and wasn't so young, she'd probably win here. Cooper, Bale, Renner and even Louis C.K. are money. Too bad the story doesn't groove as much as it hustles.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Gravity" Review

My original review is here and my overall impression and score remain the same, but after watching a very clean, Blu-ray quality copy - I'll definitely be buying the BD if it comes loaded with extras as it should - I've got some further thoughts, pro and con with some light spoilers:
  • The Visual Effects Oscar goes to this or there will be (or should be) riots. Just as with Life of Pi, if the VFX don't work, you literally have nothing. I've seen only one thing showing how it was done, but can't find it online. If people knew how this movie was made with almost nothing on the screen being real, they'd really be impressed.
  • Same goes for Sound Mixing (or whatever its called) because the subtle and realistic use of audio. Notice that you only hear the people breathing or the mechanical vibrations of things that are touched. This isn't Star Wars where things go boom; there are scenes where massive destruction is occurring in silence other than the effective score.
  • When the movie came out, nerd killjoys like Neil deGrasse Tyson whined about the "inaccuracies" of the movie like how Bullock's character was undertrained and the orbits were wrong and the space stations aren't that close and astronauts wear diapers so those hot bike shorts she's wearing are wrong and her hair wasn't floating correctly and blah-blah-woof-woof. We don't have a space program, there was no shuttle Explorer and IT'S A MOVIE, not a documentary, but woe to a dramatic story not being shot on location say the nerds. Screw 'em. 
  • On second viewing, the clunky Unobtainium* dialog in the early going really, really sucks. When Clooney asks Bullock how long she trained (A: 6 months) it pretends shuttle mission crews don't train together, but when Mission Control explains that the shrapnel from the satellite is "traveling like a high-speed bullet up to your altitude," that's simply terrible. Are there "slow-speed" bullets? Why would MC say this? If Bullock asked and the incoming trouble, "How bad is that?" and Clooney replied, "Pretty bad. We've got a scrapyard coming our way at 17,000 per hour," it would've told viewers what they needed to know in an organic manner with some color.

    So many movies are packed with such terrible dialog these days it's as if during the writing, development, rewriting and filming (or even post as dialog patches could be applied in ADR), no one noticed that this is drivel. I'm not asking for Paddy Chayefsky-caliber speechifying; just not clunky trash.
  • Sandra Bullock really does good work here and it was lucky for the production that they got her over the super-human Angelina Jolie because she brings a sense of normalcy some larger-than-life stars may've had their outsize lives adding baggage to our perception. Bullock is likeable, so we're already rooting for her, but as she gets put through the mill, we really feel for her pain. She spends most of the movie alone and the only duff notes are those the script occasionally makes her sing. She's going to get an Oscar nomination for this in a couple of days. Don't know if she'll win - haven't seen Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine yet - but as my girlfriend noted, "She was better than Tom Hanks talking a volleyball for 2 hours." Indeed.
  • I was watching this on a 60" HDTV and it really made me want to road trip back to the theater I suffered my theatrical experience at and junk-punch the manager and projectionist. While I had proper brightness, it simply deserved to be seen properly on a huge movie screen. Jerks.

If the damn dialog wasn't so clunky I probably would've bumped my score up a point. Gravity is a breathtaking thrill ride with stunning visuals, but it tries so hard for metaphor on one hand and spoon feeds us like we're idiots with the other that it gets weighed down when it should float. (Yes, I see what I did there.)

Score: 8/10. Watch it.

* In my review of the Avatar DVD I thrash the terrible Basil Exposition Hall of Shame handling of the "This is Unobtainium. This is why we're here." scene which has people who already know this stuff talking to each other in order to inform the audience.

"Broken City" Review

For some reason, Hollywood keeps making potboiler thrillers about corruption in New York's City Hall set in an alternate universe version of NYC where the Mayor isn't someone everyone is aware of by default. While fictional Presidents have always happened and not felt weird (though it's gotten more political in the past 15 years; face it, 24's David Palmer is why Obama is President; people thought he'd be like the TV version; whoops!), the four men who ran NYC over the past 36 years (Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, Bloomberg) are so familiar, it just seems nuts to pretend Al Pacino or Russell Crowe is living in Gracie Mansion.

Anyhoo, in Broken City, Mayor Gladiator hires small-time private detective Marky Mark to follow his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whom he suspects is having an affair. Marky used to be a cop until a shooting under sketchy circumstances ended his career 7 years earlier, but connected him to the mayor, which is why he was brought in. With election day coming and a strong challenge based on populist class-warfare rhetoric by City Councilman Barry Pepper, Marky is under pressure to find out what the wife is up to in time. However, she catches on to her being tailed and warns Marky that things aren't what they seem. Of course not.

With a convoluted script about shady real estate dealings and mostly flat performances with the exception of Crowe (who's weirdly random) and Jeffrey Wright (who seems to know he's in a crappy movie and goes for it), Broken City just goes nowhere slowly. Subplots about Marky's actress girlfriend ring false and his relationship with his Girl Friday (a spunky Alona Tal, who was Jo on Supernatural) at the end seems tacked on needlessly. Marky is too deadpan and the rest of the cast is wasted.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Room 237" Review

When is a documentary not a documentary? (No, not like when liars like Michael Moore or Al Gore release polemics and fairy tales with a “documentary” label.) A: When instead of, you know, documenting a subject but instead have a bunch of apparently crazy people wildly speculate as to the meaning of something, in this case Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s The Shining, which gets some freaky interpretations in Room 237.

In case you're unaware of The Shining's plot, it's about Jack Nicholson going insane while working as a winter caretaker in a Colorado hotel with his wife and son. He's a novelist working on his latest book, but evil forces, redrum, all work and no play and here's Johnny! Well, if you think it's about evil spirits and a weird kid, you're totally wrong according to the nuts featured here. The Shining is about the Evil White Man genocide of the Injuns. No, wait, it's about the Holocaust. Hold on, it's about a minotaur! You're all wrong, it's Kubrick's confession that he faked the Moon landing!!! Oy vey.

Making the tinfoil-hatted speculation even more surreal is the use of footage from multiple Kubrick films beyond The Shining and other footage to illustrate the narration of the never-seen crackpots. The film opens with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut looking at a club window which has posters for The Shining cleverly composited into the shot. My first reaction was, "How did they get all this footage cleared?" but as things got more removed from reality, that was the least of my worries. They all seem to believe that because Kubrick was so brilliant and obsessive with detail, there is no way that anything and everything on the screen is anything but a coded message they can't believe everyone else isn't seeing.

The basic problem, other than it's nothing but a collection of obsessive Rorschaching of the movie where every picture on a wall "proves" whatever nutty concept they've projected onto it, is that it stays long past its welcome, cramming perhaps 75 minutes of content into a 102-minute box. I've seen a lengthy thing online about the Moon landing theory which went way more in depth than what gets mentioned in Room 237 and it's too bad because it's better "reasoned" than the stuff about a German typewriter meaning Holocaust. The most-interesting segment involves the juxtapositions that occur when a copy of the movie is projected reversed (i.e. starting at the end) atop a forward-running copy. The snippets are intriguing, but mostly in the way playing Dark Side of the Moon over The Wizard of Oz is.

Since movies - as with any art - can be open to interpretation, what's crazy about The Shining weirdos isn't that they're seeing something, but they've gone all the way down the rabbit hole elevating what are probably continuity errors into Rosetta Stones for their fevered imagination.

I've always read the ending of Ghost World, when Enid gets on the bus out of town, represents her committing suicide. (Go to the bottom for full explanation.) I've pitched this interpretation to several friends and no one agrees, but they acknowledge my reasoning isn't particularly kooky. The difference is that I'm not making a Federal case out of it like these shining happy people.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

Throughout Ghost World there is a running bit where Enid (Thora Birch) encounters an old man sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. She tells him that the bus no longer runs through here, but he dismisses her saying she's wrong and one day she eventually sees the bench empty, the man gone. At the end of the movie, after pretty much thoroughly trashing her life and friendships, she packs a suitcase and goes to the bench. A bus comes along and she gets on it, riding out of town into the credits.

I've always thought the man's disappearance meant he'd died and her going to the bench and getting on the bus meant she killed herself. While putting this part together, I Googled and found a lot of people apparently share my interpretation, though the Wikipedia page reveals this: "Enid’s eventual fate in Ghost World is not explicitly shown; however, she does pack her bags and leave the city on a bus after her relationship with Rebecca ends. In a 2002 interview[5] Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff were asked if the ending of the film adaptation was a metaphor for suicide. Daniel replied "Yeah, it could be. It’s hard to figure out why people have that response. The first time I heard that I said, 'What? You’re out of your mind. What are you talking about?' But I’ve heard that hundreds of times."

Maybe his subconscious slipped it in and he can't see it, mang!

"Prisoners" Review

A veritable murderers row of Oscar-nominees - Hugh Jackman, Mario Bello, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Jake Gyllenhaal - plus Oscar-winner Melissa Leo star in the Oscar-baiting, but overlooked Prisoners.

Jackman and Bello are a Pennsylvanian couple who spend Thanksgiving with Howard and Davis. While the family relaxes after dinner, the young daughters of both couples go outside and disappear into thin air. While out walking with their older siblings (both families also have a teenager; son for Jackman, daughter for Howard), a creepy RV was spotted and is immediately suspected of being involved and is promptly spotted and its driver (Paul Dano) apprehended.

However, there is no forensic evidence of the girls inside the and Dano's character has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. It doesn't seem possible that he was involved, so the police turn him loose over Jackman's objections and when Dano says something to Jackman on the way out, the latter decides to take matters into his own hands, abducting Dano and sequestering him in an abandoned building where he proceeds to cajole him into cooperating and by that I mean brutally beat and torture him to the great angst and consternation of Howard.

While the performances across the board are top-notch - forget his nomination for Les Miz; Jackman should've been nommed for The Fountain - and the cinematography by the ever-a-bridesmaid-never-an-Oscar-winner Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, 11 Coen Brothers movies!) is beautifully gloomy, there is something airless in the tension that director Denis Villeneuve spreads out over a 2-1/2 hour length which never feels slow as much as moving in place.

With all the time spent, we never really get inside the heads of most of the characters and their motivations. Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki (really, no one thought that post-Avengers that a different name might be appropriate?) has supposedly solved every case he's had, but misses a HUGE detail connecting a seemingly unrelated discovery to his case (that I spotted) until dramatic necessity allows him to connect those dots. A second suspect adds to the mystery, but ultimately matters nada. When all the pieces fall into place, it turns out the picture isn't as compelling as it was when half-assembled.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"Sellebrity" Review

Kicking off the New Year with Sellebrity, a documentary by celebrity photographer Kevin Mazur about the pernicious and symbiotic relationship celebrities have with the paparazzi who hunt them. Mazur is a A-list shooter and that allows him to get a good batch of AAA stars to sit for interviews including Jennifer Aniston, Elton John, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, Kid Rock and Secretariat Jessica Parker as well as an assortment of paparazzi, publicists, magazine editors and others from this interconnected world.

While it's a fast-moving and fairly focused exploration of how the celebrity publicity racket has evolved (devolved) from tightly-controlled product from studios to anyone with a cell phone able to snap celebs 24/7, it doesn't really dig too deeply into how, if it's even possible, to break the cycle. When you see a small army of shooters aiming at SJP while she walks her son to school or the large armies staking out clubs and nail salons, it's hard to not sympathize and think things are out of hand and something needs to be done about it.

It really comes down to the public not buying the magazines and visiting the sites that traffic in the minutia of celebrity. No demand, no need for supply, and I'm speaking as someone who has sold "paparazzi" photos to major publications for some nice coin.

Score: 7/10. Watch it.

It's available on Amazon Instant Video, free for Prime members. I don't know if Netflix has it because doesn't return any hits.

"Don Jon" Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure come far from being "the kid on 3rd Rock From The Sun" and he now adds "writer/director" to his CV with the impressive, but ultimately not-totally-satisfying Don Jon.

He also stars as the titular Jon, a stereotypical Jersey Shore-esque Italian-American Guido who likes to work out, hang with his bros, score with the hot ladies at the club and watch and jerk off to lots and lots and LOTS of online porn. You know, typical male guy stuff or something. His crank-yanking habit hits a snag when he starts dating Scarlett Johansson, who doesn't let him bed her immediately and who seems to be The One though she has some MAJOR problems with his looking at porn. (This isn't as crazy as it sounds. I once dated a girl who was appalled that 19-year-old me was a Playboy subscriber because she thought she should be enough for me.)At her urging (read: badgering), he starts to take a night class and cuts back on the porn (his real extramarital sex vs. porn wanking ratios are tracked via his confessions), but there's something wrong with how this is happening, so problems ensue.

There's a lot to like about Don Jon. JGL has a snappy eye and ear and the cinematography and editing are ace. However, there are some tonal issues which really threaten things late with the character played by Julianne Moore. She's set up sketchily and there is a detail about her that is too heavy (no, she's not fat) for the overall light tone of the rest of the film and frankly, what she teaches Jon seems rushed and too pat. I just didn't quite buy what she was supposed to represent; it's as if JGL wanted to end with a Deep Thought About Love when the previous 85% of the movie was of a different stripe.

That said, there are some astute observations, particularly about how rom-coms are the woman's version of pornography, presenting unrealistic images of what relationships are about. (I'm not going to spoil who the cast of Special Someone is but to say that the guy is sure getting around for wacky cameos.) ScarJo is also very good as a gum-cracking ball-breaker and it's interesting to see her play what is ultimately a beyatch. It's too bad that JGL totally passes on the appropriate comeback for their final scene; both my girlfriend and I agreed on what the line should've been.

Score: 7.5/10. Rent it.

"Runner Runner" Review

Runner Runner is one of those movies that isn't bad as much as inconsequentially not very good. Justin Timberlake stars as a Princeton business student who attempts to make his tuition bill - which apparently is $60,000 in one lump due - by playing online poker, only to lose despite the odds. He discovers he was cheated by the site and decides to go to Costa Rica to confront the elusive operator (Ben Affleck) whom he meets rather easily and is immediately ushered into the inner circle of money and more money. Unfortunately, there's an FBI agent (a snappy Anthony Mackie) leaning on him to help bust Affleck, problems with his gambling addict father, the hot woman (Gemma Arterton) he works with who may be Affleck's squeeze, too, and corrupt local officials demanding a bigger cut of the action.

And that's pretty much it and you can probably guess how the major story beats play out. It's a short 90-minutes long and that brevity comes at the expense of anything like deep characterizations, understandable motivations, or logical schemes and counter-schemes. Everything just sort of happens without much impact. Timberlake is OK but I was looking at Affleck with an eye as to how he's going to play Batman in the Man of Steel sequel. (He's definitely got the chin.) There's just not enough there there to get involved with or offended by.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Elysium" Review

Neill Blomkamp's 2009 feature debut, District 9, would've garnered my vote for Best Picture out the Academy Awards nominees that year. It was a sharp sci-fi tale whose political undertones were the antithesis of Avatar's heavy-handed clobbering of the audience with a placard; if you got the allegories or not, the story worked. However, as word started seeping out that his big-budget follow-up Elysium was a class-warfare story tapping into the envy madness of the Occupy Wall Street morons, I became concerned and when reviews confirmed it was pretty much as I feared - even some liberal critics were complaining about how heavy-handed it was - I decided to give it a miss in the theaters. Why should I shell out cash to be lectured by a multi-millionaire celebrity like star Matt Damon about how greedy I am when he himself is part of the rich elites who are supposedly the villains ruining everything?

While watching Elysium from my couch, I rapidly realized that its biggest problem wasn't the simple-minded "Poor people GOOD! Rich people BAD!" politics as much as it was a stupid story filled with unsympathetic and poorly-motivated characters. Matt Damon's dying poor man driven to desperate measures is an ex-con who brings a lot of his misfortune upon himself and if Blomkamp was trying to make him a complicated and conflicted reluctant hero, he fails, partially on the page and in Damon's meathead performance. (Note: While Damon is a douche offscreen, I generally like his work. Unlike some, I can cope with the toxic hypocritical politics of most celebutards and enjoy their work, but he's just weak here.)

Then there are the myriad dumb things we're supposed to just accept like Jodie Foster's evil defense director of Elysium ordering renegade shuttles bringing dirty poor people to the station shot down by her sleeper agent Kruger (an off-the-chain Sharlto Copely who appears to have decided to be in his own movie) with a shoulder mounted rocket launcher and we're supposed to believe the rockets were able to catch up to speedy ships with a couple hundred mile head start. (Aren't there defense guns on the station if this is a problem?) That badass exoskeleton bolted to Damon is put on over his clothing raising the question of how he ever showers or changes clothes. The top of Elysium's ring world is open to space, but the air doesn't leak out. Huh?

Where the world-building really fails is explaining how this system works. Yeah, yeah, the rich suck and built a space station (think: gated community) to get away from the po' folks (think: Detroit) and they hog magic medical beds in every house that can cure cancer or reconstruct broken bones and blasted faces in seconds, but if the filmmakers were trying to make a statement about the need for universal health care, they don't really explain why this magic devices aren't ubiquitous. We're just to accept that it's Mean Rich People being mean and rich, but at the movie's end we see shuttles filled with beds heading to Earth to cure the peasants. Why do these ships exist? Heck, why do people have med beds in their homes to eradicate their skin cancer cells; can't they have a community bed at the clubhouse like a tanning bed?

Even Foster's scheme begs the question: How is Elysium's government set up that a chunk of computer code can reboot the station, replace the President and allow someone to change the status of the billions of people on Earth to citizens. I get that there isn't time to explain everything, but Elysium explains absolutely nothing about how the world came to be that way. It's just, "Things sucked, so the evil rich people moved out, leaving us noble poor folks behind to suffer." Just as Avatar refused to explain what was so important about Unobtainium so as to not cloud the Manichean preaching, Elysium begs the question and hopes we'll just accept it and get on with the bone-crunching bone-head story.

Speaking of Foster, she's simply awful here; even more cartoonish than the rest of the cartoons. Sporting a severe coif and an accent even more indeterminate than Idris Elba's mess in Pacific Rim. I don't think I've ever seen a performance from her that could be described as bad, but I guess there's a first time for everything. Granted, lousy characters begin on the page, but she's nearly twirling her metaphoric mustache here. (If you want to see a better version of Jodie being sexy bad, check out Spike Lee's Inside Man.)

With all the dumb, noisy stuff going on, the excellent production design and visual effects work gets lost in the shuffle. District 9 had a very natural look in the way its prawns were integrated into the environments (though I've got to imagine the poor VFX artists trying to keep the aliens feet on the ground within the handheld camera work weren't too thrilled with the task) and that carries over here as well with few exceptions. Whether its the way the Mexico City and Vancouver locations are altered and extended to be the slums of LA and the space station or the robot cops oppressing the people, it looks and feels real which only makes the dunderheaded script feel worse.

As "income inequality" is being hyped up by a liberal media desperate to distract from their President's failed ObamaCare disaster, we'll probably see another attempt to have Elysium propped up as an Important Parable after it disappointed at the box office. While that's BS, the fundamental problem with Elysium isn't its trite politics but it's flaccid and thin story.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Snitch" Review

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays somewhat against type in Snitch, a drama that wants to crusade against mandatory minimum drug sentences, but can't quite make the supposedly fact-based story gel effectively despite a solid cast.

The Rock is a small businessman, running a trucking and construction business when his teenaged son from a previous marriage is busted after receiving a box full of Ecstasy pills from his best friend. It turns out the Feds had caught the friend while shipping the pills and in order to reduce his sentence, he set up Sonny Boy. Unfortunately, Sonny can't try the same gambit because the only person he knew with drugs was the one who screwed him over. His son facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and getting beaten in jail frightens The Rock into taking desperate measures and he offers the prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) a deal: If he can go out and find drug dealers, she'll have his sentence reduced. (This is also a plot problem, if judges hands are tied, but prosecutors have so much leeway in charging, why send first-time offender dumb kids away for a dime when they clearly aren't kingpins?)

With no knowledge of the underworld, he combs through his employee's applications until he discovers one (Jon Bernthal, Shane from The Walking Dead) with two convictions for drug trafficking. Shane's trying to avoid getting his third strike and failing his wife and young son, but gets sucked into introducing Rock to a former drug dealing pal who tests him by having him run a small shipment from Missouri to El Paso, which then attracts the attention of a Major Drug Kingpin who has Big Plans for The Rock.

Snitch is a mixed bag because while the script is subtle in some spots, it's ham-handed and soapboxy in others, as when the son's lawyer walks up and immediately rattles off a bunch of factoids about mandatory minimum laws. Also, the leap from a small-time dealer to a kingpin is instantaneous and not credible. A better aspect is how they initially reveal Sarandon's prosecutor is running for higher office by having a campaign poster unobtrusively in the background of a scene. The climax feels tacked on to throw a bone to people who were wondering when The Rock was going to get into some action and reminded me of Jason Statham in The Bank Job at the end when he's suddenly beating the crap out of some guys. The ending is also unsatisfying because the good guys have to live in fear forever for what they did. Huh?

The Rock does OK with a primarily dramatic role, but his physicality wars against the story of a desperate father trying to help his son. When he's getting beaten up by some street toughs, my girlfriend exclaimed, "They're beating up The Rock?!" While not as jacked as he is in say the Fast & Furious movies, it's still hard to believe he doesn't just go in and tear bad guys in half.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Trance" Review

I've never been too impressed with Danny Boyle, primarily because he rarely makes movies that don't sh*t the bed in the third act. From 28 Days Later to (especially) Sunshine, Boyle just doesn't seem capable of not botching his stories when they should be paying off. Trance only breaks the usual "2/3rds decent until it falls apart" formula by disintegrating halfway through the proceedings.

James McAvoy stars as a high-end art auction house employee who was acting as an inside man for a heist of a Goya worth tens of millions of pounds (because it's England) by a gang led by Vincent Cassel. However, he has double-crossed his partners and stolen the painting for himself. The problem is that during the heist, Cassel cracked his skull with a shotgun butt and McAvoy can't remember where he hid the painting. In order to recover his memories and the painting he goes to hypnotherapist Rosario Dawson under the close watch of the gang. Stupidity ensues.

While the early portrayals of the hypnosis are interestingly surreal, about halfway through Dawson starts shagging the ringleaders which slows the momentum to a crawl and tips us off that there's going to be a bunch of what Boyle thinks are clever twists ahead, but we can figure them out easily. With the "truth" constantly being messed with, it's hard to stay engaged because it's no longer a story about identifiable characters but just a series of rugs being pulled out despite our having seen the threat and sidestepped them entirely.

Well-shot with enough metaphoric glass walls and reflective surfaces to make even me able to get the joke, Trance is a good-looking flick, but with little under its shiny, cold exterior. While Dawson gives up very brief full-frontal nudity (hardwood floors!) and is good in the role, it's underwritten along with everything else. Trance is a doze.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"The Prestige" Blu-Ray Review

Made in between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's 2007 film about dueling Victorian-era magicians, The Prestige, seems to be mostly forgotten despite it starring Batman, Wolverine, Black Widow, Alfred and Ziggy Stardust. Perhaps it was because the title didn't convey what it was about unlike The Illusionist, which came out a year earlier and is also similarly sorta forgotten despite being a good film itself.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are up-and-coming magicians and friends who are torn apart when a stage accident kills Jackman's wife setting off an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks that lead to more death and misery for the participants. Bale's act features an illusion called The Transported Man which obsesses Jackman as to how it's done and when Bale thwarts his version, he heads to Colorado Springs where Nikola Tesla (David Bowie with one of cinema's greatest entrances) is making scientific magic and makes the apparatus for Jackman with the cryptic admonition about whether he's considered the cost of the thing. Jackman thinks he's referring to the price tag; he isn't.

I'd forgotten how out-of-hand things got in their war in the years since first seeing it. It's also a profoundly different experience watching it a second time as you realize that from the very first frames the Nolans (Christopher and his co-writing brother Jonathan, whose Person of Interest is a really cool TV show) are foreshadowing everything. Just as The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects read differently upon their second viewing, so it is with The Prestige and that extends beyond the big reveal at the very end. It can get a little too cute with the flashback structure revolving around encoded diaries, but overall The Prestige earns its applause.

The Blu-ray's image is nice and sharp, but there are very few extras - just 20 minutes of light behind-the-scenes discussion of the themes. There's no commentary. For some reason you can't stop the disc from the menu screen. I had to punch into a scene to be able to stop. Weird.

Score: 8.5/10. Buy it.

"The World's End" Review

The team behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz - director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost - reunite for the conclusion of their "Cornetto Trilogy" with the oddball drinking dramedy-slash-alien invasion flick The World's End, whose title refers both to a pub and the plot.

In 1990, five school chums attempted "The Golden Mile" - drinking a pint at each of 12 pubs in their hometown - but didn't complete it for various reasons. Now in the neighborhood of 40, Pegg, who is an alcoholic who still dresses in the Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and black trenchcoat of his youth, cajoles the old gang to leave their comfy, boring lives to attempt the Mile again. While drinking and catching up on old times and grievances, they discover that alien robots(!) have replaced many of the townsfolk. Hijinks and much combat ensue.

There are a few contrary themes going on about being responsible vs. being a free spirit and some of the beefs the fellows have with each other aren't explored as deeply as they could've been, but then again they had that robot invasion thing to deal with. Pegg gets a good showcase as the talky Gary King (he co-wrote the script with Wright) and it's odd to see Frost as a more buttoned-down type after his usually being the slobby buddy as he was in Shaun and Paul.

What's cool as that they didn't bother to make the lingo and culture friendly to us Colonists; it's very British; and the soundtrack is packed with circa-1990 "Madchester" tracks. The use of The Housemartins' "Happy Hour Again" as the closer is inspired.

Score: 6/10. Rent it.

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" Review

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone came and went with little critical (a paltry 35% RT score) and commercial (only $22.5 million) notice despite having Steve Carell and Jim Carrey in the cast. While not a comedy classic, it's a decently entertaining little flick.

Carell is the titular Wonderstone who has been resident at Bally's in Las Vegas for a decade with his childhood bestie played by Steve Buscemi. Their act is cheesy and losing audience and Burt is an egomaniacal jerk who beds comely female fans (illustrated by Community's Gillian Jacobs) while sporting enough bronzer to coat those giant Oscars you see outside the Kodak Theater. Pressured by a hot street magician (Carrey taking the piss out of David Blaine and Kris Angel), the pair attempt their own Xtreme stunt with spectacular failure, splitting the pair and sending Burt hunting for redemption.

The reviews were pretty lethal, so I was surprised that it was actually LOL funny in spots and not totally drenched with pathos and formulaic tropes, especially when he connects with the magician who inspired him as a boy, played by Alan Arkin. While the terrain is familiar, the path taken is off the usual paved areas. I think some were offended by just how crass Burt is, but Carell manages to make him not totally reprehensible. (Maybe some people are wimps, like the one critic who whined about the massive illegality of their comeback trick.) Carrey's character is literally nuts and not really doing "magic" so what happens to him makes sense.

With good supporting performances from Arkin, Buscemi, Olivia Wilde (as their long-suffering assistant) and James Gandolfini (the casino owner), while The Incredible Burt Wonderstone may not be totally "incredible," it's above-average and worth a watch.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"2 Guns" Review

Based on a graphic novel that most people probably never heard of, 2 Guns stars Denzel Washington and Marky Mark as a pair of wisecracking robbers who knock over a bank and as they head into the desert to split the take, discover that each is actually a lawman seeking to take the other down - Denzel a DEA agent and Mark with Naval Intelligence. Mark wounds Denzel and leaves him in the desert, but as things proceed the nagging fact that there was $43 million in the vault when they expected only $3 million means that the owners of that money are going to be hunting for them, too. (One guess as to who the 3rd party is.)

While it starts off like a breezy lark, 2 Guns can't decide on a tone - gritty crime or comic romp - and quickly just got noisy and dull. The hoot is that Marky Mark is supposed to be Naval Intelligence but doesn't show much of the latter. The "twist" as to who the third party involved was predictable and once you realize everyone is double-crossing everyone it's easy to spot the backstabs coming a mile away.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"The To Do List" Review

It's been a while since there's been a good teen sex comedy and frankly I'm drawing a blank on any told from the female's perspective. (i.e. It's a girl trying to get laid. Superbad, Sex Drive, Road Trip, etc. were all about boys seeking poonanny.) Seeking to fill this gap (double entendre totally intended) comes (heh) The To Do List, the feature debut by writer-director Maggie Carey who is former SNL star Bill Hader's wife.

Snarkalicious nerd hottie Aubra Plaza stars as her Idaho high school's valedictorian in 1993. She's heading to college in the fall, but is concerned that her utter lack of sexual experience will be a problem for her in the big city. Her sister (Rachel Bilson) is an oversexed idiot, so she decides to make a to do list of sexual activities to check off before leaving. The montage of her assembling this list and trying to look up in the encyclopedia various terms (and noting to ask the librarian about some of them) under her framed Hillary Clinton photo is a hoot, though just how this smart girl could be so sheltered as to have no idea why a pearl necklace isn't elegant strains credibility even in pre-Internet Idaho.Working as a lifeguard at a public pool, she's got her eyes on a hunky co-worker to punch her V-card, but there are others interested she's overlooking.

The shaggy story ambles from one episode to another delivering laughs with decent regularity. Pitching in with extended cameos are Donald Glover (Community), McLovin (Superbad) and Andy Samberg as an Eddie Vedderish grunge singer. Hader gets plenty of screen time because he slept with the director. (You go, boyeee!)

But the star is Plaza and I like her a lot. She manages to walk the line between fizzy sassy sarcasm and off-putting bitchiness. Perhaps I'm missing the old, pre-insanity Janeane Garofalo, but Plaza equally grounded Safety Not Guaranteed last year. The shortcomings of The To Do List aren't her fault and her charm helps smooth some of the creepier bits over.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Detropia" Review

As a life-long Detroit area resident, I'm always interested to note how the loudest cheerleaders for the benighted hellhole are those who wouldn't actually be caught dead living withing the city's borders. For these scolds who perch in their safe suburban homes, documentaries like Detropia allow them to scratch their itch to preen their civic-mindedness.

A loose amalgam of overly arty lo-fi footage and interviews with people scraping by in the ruins, there are very few insights to be garnered other than outgoing Mayor Dave Bing's observation that as soon as anyone gets the scratch up to get out of town, they do. Looking at the ruins and watching a UAW Local President musing about past glories while seeking scapegoats for the ruination of the auto industry is old hat to a local, but there's little here for outsiders to learn from.

Shortly after watching this, Anthony Bourdain aired an episode of his Parts Unknown series which was far more enlightening. Hunt that one down instead.

Score: 5/10. Skip it.

"Monsters University" Review

Man, Pixar has fallen off. There's no denying it - they've managed to throw away their reputation for consistent excellence and are now just churning out lazy sequels and now a prequel to the terrific Monsters Inc., the "When Mike Met Sully Meets Revenge of the Nerds" mashup, Monsters University.

Did you ever wonder about how besties Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) first met and how they hated each other at first because Sully was a lazy jock and Mike was an over-achieving social pariah and they had to form their own misfit fraternity (a la The House Bunny) in order to win a competition against all the other frat houses and stop me if you've seen this story several times before? No? Me neither, but Pixar felt it was necessary and it's definitely not because of any toys or Disney Infinity videogame tie-ins or anything like that because that would be cynical or something.

Pixar has announced Finding Dory. Oh joy. Can't wait. (Note: Sarcasm.) Monsters University looks great, but that's just technology advancing. Storywise, Pixar's lost the plot.

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable.

"Phantasm" DVD Review

I'm really beginning to wonder about the collective madness behind declaring certain things "classics." One such "classic" is the 1979 horror flick Phantasm which I watched for the first time and had two questions about:
  1. How did this thing get made?
  2. Why hasn't MST3K/Rifftrax torn it to pieces yet?
All I knew about it from back in the day was that there was a silver sphere flying around with blades and a drill on it. There's also one shot of a person on a bed in a graveyard being attacked by bodies popping out of the ground that was in the trailer. (See below.) Otherwise, nada. Unbelievably, there's almost nothing more to it.

It opens hilariously with a couple screwing in a graveyard. She's a blonde with some rather egregious blue-and-purple eye shadow going on; he looks like a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd. After he gets off, she stabs him to death. Bummer, dude. Then we get interminably long shots of a kid having trouble riding his dirt bike through the cemetery and another guy wandering the halls of a mausoleum. I'm not even going to go into what their relationship is, but there are also little Jawa-looking things running around; a bar that's the size of a garage that our "hero" walks into, immediately picks up the killer blonde from the opening scene and goes off with her to shag (I know the Seventies were pretty free-lovely, but come on now); another planet (not kidding); a fortune teller's assistant played by an actress so terrible that I stopped to check whether she "acted" again (she hadn't); and a whole lot of other stuff that made me wonder, "Why is this even here?" There's a scene which consists of a guy pulling up in a Good Humor truck, pulling an acoustic guitar case out, going up onto the porch where the hero is sitting jamming on a Stratocaster, and doing a brief song together. Da fuh?

Phantasm was written, directed, edited, shot, co-produced, and generally all his faulted by Don Coscarelli (proving that Robert Rodriguez is star systems away in one-man band chops) who would go on to make three sequels and the much better (but still wildly overrated by fans) flicks Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies At The End. (Apparently he was only 24 when he made it, but Orson Wells made Citizen Kane when he was 25, so there goes that excuse.) I love this detail from Wikipedia:"The first test screening was a disaster due to the length; Coscarelli says that he erred in adding too much character development, which needed to be edited out." MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!

I haven't watched the DVD extras yet, so I can't comment on those at the moment. The technical presentation of the disk is adequate, but it hardly matters how it looks when it's a stupid story.

Score: 1/10. Skip it.

Seriously. The only memorable parts are at the end of the trailer, minus the gore of the sphere doing its work.

"Muscle Shoals" Review

There's been a spate of documentaries in recent years covering the stories of the musicians involved in some of music's seminal hits. From Standing in the Shadows of Motown (about the "Funk Brothers", the house band at Hitsville, USA) to 20 Feet From Stardom (backup singers) and others, the stories of the unsung folks behind the music are being told and one of the more remarkable exposes is Muscle Shoals, about the titular town in northern Alabama (just south of the Tennessee border) behind some of rock and souls greatest hits and the amazingly sad story of the man who made it happen.

Just as Motown had Berry Gordy and Sun Records had Sam Phillips, the sound of Muscle Shoals' FAME Studios was Rick Hall, a man who has lived a life of constant tragic incidents which sound like a mash-up of every country and blues song cliche possible; I think the only things missing are prison and the dog dying. But despite being born into grinding poverty and having such misfortunes, he still founded the studio and assembled the house band - The Swampers (as name-checked in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama") - which backed seminal hits from Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and many more. Unless you're so white that you think Justin Bieber is funky, you've heard a LOT of the songs that came out of this humble building that looks like a carpeting warehouse more than a house of hits.

What's more fascinating is that in this tiny town (population NOW is only about 13,000) they were able to put together not one, but two groups of musicians (after Capitol Records stole the first house band) to lay down the hot soul grooves while dealing with their collective cases of crippling melanin-deficiency. (Translation: They were all white guys, not that anyone could hear the difference which is more than a little bit racist, donchathink?)

If there is a deficiency to Muscle Shoals it's that the filmmakers occasionally wander into too-artsy camerawork and metaphysical ramblings about the water and spirits, etc. There's no rational scientific or spiritual explanation for why this town turned out special and it's not as if anyone wonders why West Grand Boulevard in Detroit (where Motown's Hitsville USA was located), so I would've preferred more inside scoop on how the hits were made than navel-gazing. Still, it's a fascinating story; just a little unfocused in its telling.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.

"Embrace of the Vampire (2013)" Review

1995's cheese horror "classic" (quotes indicate mild sarcasm) Embrace of the Vampire is remembered for precisely two things: Alyssa Milano's glorious boobs. I never understood why she and her mother were suing sites that posted fake nude photos of her when the real goodies were captured for spank bank posterity by this movie about a college girl and...uh....a vampire and ummmmm, mostly boobs. I honestly don't remember what the movie was about other than the scene were Charlotte Lewis (playing some photographer who doesn't know how to hold her camera) attempts to seduce Alyssa. It is among the three best minutes ever filmed for any movie. Yes, I'm 12-years-old.

So why are they remaking Embrace of the Vampire? Beats me, but here we are with a dreadfully dull thing that manages to make college "lesbianism" (quotes indicate this is a horny boy's idea of what college girls do) boring and doesn't really have much to do with embracing or vampires.

Sharon Hinnendael (me neither) is an orphan who has come from an all-girl Catholic school to some college located in the mountains of Vancouver. (To be fair, the scenery is gorgeous.) She's there on a fencing scholarship and she'd be doing better if she wasn't constantly having nightmares and hallucinations of blood and demons and Nickleback (OK, the last one I added) and getting hazed by the mean girls on the team. She rapidly unravels, though not before she's the recipient of some supposed hot Sapphic attention from the bimbo next door and frankly I'm bored writing about this; that's how anemic this movie is.

It's over 2/3rds of the way through before the titular vampire is introduced/revealed and by then who cares? There's a prologue set in the 1700's which is meant to set up the connection between our poor girl and the vampire stalking her, but it doesn't make sense and we're left with just tedium to separate the gratuitous boobs scenes. I don't even care to spend much time beating this up, so let's just save all our time and call it a night.

Score: 2/10. Skip it. (Go look at the Charlotte Lewis/Alyssa Milano scene online instead.)

"Carrie (2013)" Review

I've never seen the original Carrie. (I'll wait while you pick your jaws off the floor. Back? OK then...) I was too young when it came out and frankly so many of the bullet points of the plot are floating in the collective cultural consciousness, it feels as if I've seen it.

Like this: Carrie is a homely girl with a crazy religious fanatic mother who is picked on in school. When she gets her period in the gym showers, she doesn't know what it is and her mean girl classmates throw tampons at her and laugh. Eventually she gets asked to the prom, but her mother (rightfully) thinks that they'll just laugh at her. Pig's blood. Psychic powers. Lots of fire and death. Kills mom. Dies. Hand comes out of grave at end.

Did I miss anything important?

Though the original Brian De Palma take on Stephen King's novel is a horror classic (or so they say), since Hollywood isn't really big on new ideas, it's time for the obligatory remake, this time with Kimberly Pierce, the director of Boys Don't Cry (which won Hillary Swank her first Oscar), calling the shots and Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore filling the roles played by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in the 1976 original.

Though there are new faces, there doesn't seem to be much new to the story. Oh, it's been updated with Carrie's shower torment videoed on a cell phone and posted to YouTube, but the modern aspects of bullying aren't really explored. Moretz is really good as usual making the thin, rote script come to life, but she's hampered by the unavoidable reality that she's not particularly plain or unattractive, what with her cherub libs and wavy hair. This isn't to say she's too glammed-up; just that she's not as drab as Spacek. Moore, on the other hand, is a shrill, one-note cartoon; the default setting for portrayals of religious people in Hollyweird movies.

My girlfriend used to watch the original version annually didn't think that much of it either and mentioned a couple of plot points that we're left out or changed for the worse, specifically that the OG Carrie was scared of her powers while Carrie 2.0(13) seem to revel in them. (I'd noticed this was similar to Chronicle's tale of why giving bullied kids superpowers generally goes badly for everyone.)

Even more damning is that over dinner, I was able to thrash out a better story that kept 90% of the plot points of the movie as presented, except recontextualize critical bits to make a much more rational, logical, "plausible" and satisfying story. As has happened so many times this year, timidity and laziness in the script development phase leads to a thin gruel result on the screen.

Score: 4/10. Catch it on cable.

"We're The Millers" Review

I love movies like We're The Millers because the trailer saves me the time of having to synopsize things, so watch this:

That's pretty much it. (Note: Aniston is one of those movie "strippers" who would wear less to a beach. Actresses who don't want to do nudity shouldn't play roles which require it for basic realism.) Do you think that this band of thrown-together misfits will ultimately become an actual family? (Duh.)

While it eventually succumbs to the formula of such movies, We're The Millers delivers some great big laughs, mostly in weird throwaway remarks like why Ed Helms drug overlord bought a whale. Not up to the laugh standards of recent R-rated comedies like Ted and The Heat but worth catching.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Heat" Review

Watched the video with the girlfriend. Original review here.

"Gravity" 3D Review

The buzz around director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) Gravity has been deafening for a few years as various actresses (Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman) have been bandied about before Sandra Bullock was signed to play a rookie astronaut who is stranded with another astronaut (George Clooney; Robert Downey Jr. had been talked up) after a catastrophic disaster destroys their space shuttle.

After debuts at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals the reviews have have been laudatory, but this led me to wonder if we were getting another Pacific Rim in which a somewhat overrated Mexican director with an overpraised career delivers a nerd-bait movie to rapturous applause unwarranted by the end product with even the most enthusiastic fans admitting the characters are thin. Fortunately, Gravity is much better than Pacific Rim, though  there are a few issues.

A cut-to-the-bone 90 minutes long (but feeling about half that), Gravity asks audiences to accept a few fudges in its premise in exchange for the thrill ride. Our space shuttle program has been over for years; the International Space Station and a Chinese station (that I didn't even know existed and thought was made up) are nowhere near the orbit of the Hubble telescope; and why a medical doctor is responsible for a device being adapted for astronomy are all complaint-bait for HARDCORE science nerds, but are necessary conceits to support the roller coaster ride Cuarón puts you on. If you find yourself realizing you haven't been breathing for a while, join the club.

Since the premise is clear in the trailer below - bad thing makes for bad day, fight to survive ensues, someone lives or doesn't - all that's left are the details and if you've been following any of the press about Bullock's performance alone you can sorta guess that ol' Georgie doesn't make it to the last reel and since it's highly unlikely a studio is going to spend tens of millions on a space disaster flick in which America's Sweetheart dies a slow and agonizing or fast and fiery death, that question become one of manner of her survival, not whether she'll survive. (Hey, you knew Titanic was going to sink going in, right?) There are also a few obvious "symbolism" moments that call too much attention to themselves.

A little attempt to give her a back story which casts some question over her will to survive is done, but it's not as if it's a serious question. That said, Bullock does an excellent job drawing us past the artifice of the script's missteps. Of all the candidates for the role, I think she was the best choice. As awesome an actress as Jolie is (she's sorta cute, too), I can't see her being that put out by her spaceship being destroyed. I mean we're talking about a woman who can curve bullets fercryingoutloud! "Spaceship gone? Pshaw! I'll fly home myself!"

Which leads to the true centerpiece of the experience: the stunning, 3D, let's-just-give-them-the-Oscar-now visual effects. I want the Blu-ray with extensive making-of featurettes NOW because if you look at this gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and realize that pretty much the only thing used was the actors' faces, it's mind-boggling. Or it should be, because it wasn't for me at the show I caught. (More in a moment on that.) All the usual tells of wire work etc are missing and with Bullock in a tight tank top and underwear like this...'s hard to suss how they got her floating, but it works.

I saw the very first show of the day in the room I saw it and for some reason the picture was dim and fuzzy. Because it opens with a 13-minute-long single shot, it wasn't as if I could run out and complain, so I was stuck with grays instead of bright whites and flattened 3D effects, especially when it was very dark on the shadow side of the planet. I complained to the manager afterwards and he went and checked the projector and returned admitting that it wasn't bright enough and giving me a pass to come back anytime. Gee, thanks. You had shows late last night and today and no one bothered to notice if the projector was cranked up sufficiently.

Because I didn't truly SEE the movie dampened my mood about the whole thing and perhaps this score is too low. It's 10 hours later as I write this and I still want to punch the projectionist who only had one job to do. I wrote a complaint letter to the theater chain management explaining that I drove twice as far to their theater because I prefer it and generally have a good experience, but such sloppiness isn't very reassuring for future excursions, especially after seeing Metallica: Through The Never a couple weeks ago.

While my experience was weighed down by poor management, Gravity manages to soar beyond its occasional cliches and deliver an experience worth the trip.

Score: 8/10. See a matinee in 3D in a properly set-up theater.

"Europa Report" Review

Watch this spoilerific trailer:

OK, let's run it down: A "found footage" science-fiction movie about a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Something happens. Any guesses? Someone dies on the way perhaps? They discover life maybe? I was mulling about how to handle the ultimate denouement when I noticed the box art helpfully says, "Fear. Sacrifice. Contact." Well, that sums everything up, now doesn't it? Pffft.

Europa Report has garnered a mystifying amount of praise for it's allegedly realistic portrayal of space travel done on a shoe-string budget, but that's like giving first prize to someone for just showing up. What kills the movie is the baffling choices they made in the structure in using a documentary flashback style which has to hide the "stunning conclusion" and thus requires some ridiculous things to happen in order to make the trick work. In trying to hide the rabbit we know is inevitably going to be produced from the hat, they spend a lot of time looking at the assistant.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Parker" Review

While Donald Westlake's Parker character (appearing in 24 novels) has been portrayed in films like Point Blank and Payback (where Mel Gibson was "Porter"), the Jason Statham-starring Parker is the first time the man has been named, not that it makes a difference in this bland, generic caper-revenge flick.

Statham is a part of a crew who pull of a million-dollar heist of the Ohio State Fair, but as they make their getaway one of the crew played by Michael Chiklis announces that he needs the whole take as seed money for a Really Big Score he's got planned. Parker doesn't want anything but his share as per the arrangement (Statham always sticks the the deal donchaknow?), so the rest of the gang shoot him and leave him for dead on the side of the road. He's found by a family of farmers and and taken to the hospital where he survives (duh) and sets out on the revenge path.

He beats the info out of others that they're in Palm Beach, FL and posing as a Texas oil man, gets a tour of the neighborhood from real estate agent Jennifer Lopez, who is struggling with bills and on the verge of her car being repossessed.

OK, now it's 3-1/2 months later and I'm trying to clear the backlog of un- and half-finished reviews and I frankly can't remember where I was going with this review which pretty much says it all, doesn't it? Staham gets one really brutal fight; J.Lo is OK in a role that's beneath her; and I recall there was something inexplicable involving her mother which didn't make much, aw, who cares?

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Metallica: Through The Never" IMAX 3D Experience Review

I was a latecomer to Metallica, starting to listen to them after hearing everyone raving about Master of Puppets (I was ahead of herds who hopped on with "One" and "Enter Sandman"), but their post-Black Album material hasn't interested me which means I've been ambivalent about them for over 20 years. I saw them on their ...And Justice For All and Black Album tours and they were great shows, but I haven't even watched my DVD of Some Kind of Monster and I've had it a few years.

So when I heard they were releasing Metallica: Through The Never, a 3D IMAX Experience concert film, my pulse remained unchanged. I read a review that was laudatory and while it moved the interest needle a hair, I wasn't sure I'd go to the screening until an hour before its start time because it was a bit of a drive and I was still meh at the prospect.

Hoo boy, I'm glad I went.

After Avatar, Hollywood when on a rampage seeking to make (and mostly convert) movies to 3D in order to cash in on the higher ticket prices and many of these movies have been shoddy, half-assed in their composition and conversion, and as a result the share of tickets sold in 3D are declining. They did it to themselves, but if there is something that could make a good testimonial to how useful 3D can be, it's Metallica: Through The Never.

Director Nimrod Antel (Predators) gets the cameras right into the band's faces and cleverly shot five shows allowing for intercutting between nights in order to get the best shots. (I figured this out quickly when a Steadicam operator with his massive Cameron-Pace 3D camera rig - which is TWO cameras with a prism - would be visible shooting close-ups in long shots only to disappear from his position when cutting to another angle with that spot in view.) The depth and clarity is stunning and frankly better than a front-row seat would provide. The audio is immaculate and the band is on fire throughout. Unless you have a really awesome home theater, anyone not seeing this in a proper theater isn't getting the full effect.

Using a dopey "story" frame involving a roadie named Trip (Dane DeHaan from Chronicle and the new Harry Osbourne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) on a mission to retrieve a bag from an out-of-gas truck in a deserted nameless city (it's Vancouver) overrun by bizarre denizens and monsters, what the film is mostly (thankfully) is a condensed version of a headbanging show by the band as they perform 16 songs, all but three from their good era (i.e. Kill 'Em All through Black Album), as if even they realize they've sucked for a long time.

DeHaan is good in a thankless, meaningless role - he's going to be a big star and looking like a young, darker Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't hurt - able to convey Trip's trip (heh) without dialog. All the dumb narration in this trailer below is NOT in the movie; he has literally one word of dialog.

Frankly, I don't know what Metallica bothered with the "story" part because they're the stars of their show and the abrupt ending - it's only 93 minutes long with credits - startled the audience who clearly wanted more, having already had "Wherever I May Roam" truncated down to just its intro. Weak.

If you're a lapsed Metallica fan like me, revisit your bygone youth at the theater. While the IMAX ticket prices are premium, it's definitely cheaper than what you'd pay to see the band live and you wouldn't have as good a view.

Metallica: Through The Never opens Sept. 27 in IMAX theaters and regular theaters Oct. 3.

Score: 9/10. Catch a matinee in 3D. If you're a fan, spring for the full price IMAX ticket.

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