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July 2010 Review Roundup

Finishing off some TV seasons dented the at-home movie viewing this month, but we hit the theaters every weekend this month, something we used to do all the time, but haven't in ages. As a result, the theatrical/home numbers are seriously upside-down.

July 3 - The Road (5/10)
July 4 - Toy Story 3D (7/10)
July 5 - Date Night (7/10)
July 11 - Predators (8/10)
July 18 - Inception (8.5/10)
July 25 - She's Out of My League (5/10)
July 26 - Salt (9/10)
July 27 - Step Up 3D (6/10)

Month's Movies Watched: 8
Previously Unseen: 8
Theatrical: 6
Home: 2
Year-To-Date: 59
YTD First-Timers: 54
YTD Theatrical: 19
YTD Home: 40

"Step Up 3D" Review

I went into the preview screening for Step Up 3D - the latest in the needless Step Up series of dance flicks with this review's lede already drafted: "Step up to a new dimension of suckitude." After my experience with its predecessor, Step Up 2 The Streets, and seeing how the 3D cow was being milked to death to the point it was worth avoiding most of these movies, I had less than zero interest in hanging wit da dancin' wiggaz for another go around. However, when the opportunity to catch a free screening came along, well, free's free and...

It was surprisingly....ummmm.....hmmmm. See, good" isn't the best word for it because the story - air quotes - is so predictable that it's hard to believe it took TWO writers (compared to five choreographers) to type it up, but the dance numbers are presented in a manner that if you look at it as a extended dance routine mix video, it's respectable and frequently impressive.

The story is that Moose, the nerdy kid from last movie, is off to college to study engineering and he gets into a dance battle in the park and meets Luke who has a loft full of dancers and they're gonna win $100,000 in a contest otherwise they'll lose the loft and club and there's a girl, but she's got a secret and there will be a betrayal you'll see coming two reels earlier and all is lost and BIG DANCE CONTEST FINALE and they live happily ever after. [jazz hands] Spoiler alert!

Since people watch dance films for the characters and dialog the way people watch porn to learn of the existential angst of pizza delivery boys, let's cut to the chase and talk about the dancing. Due to the constraints of properly presenting 3D in an intelligible fashion (i.e. not like how Clash of the Titans did it), director Jon Chu has to refrain from hyper edits and close-ups and let routines pass before the camera at a distance that allows the effect to not be broken by the edges of the screen. He doesn't turn it into Singing in the Rain by any means - though more on that theme in a moment - but unlike the last film, the calmer style, while still vibrant, works with the intended 3D effect, not against it.

And hoo boy, does the 3D work! I don't know for sure why the effect was so well-presented - I think it worked better here than even in Avatar! - and if my sitting in the back of the theater gave a different perspective, but the lighting and frame composition of the whole movie is stunning. The dance battle numbers are shot with a wide-angle lens that gives an extremely exaggerated sense of depth - the stage feels a football field deep - and the frequent instances of people sticking their heads and hands out at the viewer really sell the effect. This is directly attributable to the film not being slap-dash post-processed into fake, ViewMaster-style, 3D from 2D production footage by greedy studios to score quick sucker bucks (and already starting to backfire in reduced ticket sales), but being shot with the Pace/Cameron Fusion Camera System; the same setup that shot Thundersmurfs of Pandora. I'd occasionally close an eye to see how it looked in 2D and I really missed the depth, something that Toy Story 3D didn't provide as much of.

What really won me over to my surprise was a sweet number about 2/3rds of the way through between Moose and his best friend, a girl he doesn't realize pines for him, set to Fred Astaire's "I Won't Dance" which is presented in one long shot like an old-fashioned musical. They toss in a few hip-hop beats and moves, but for the most part it wouldn't look out of place in one of those classic MGM musicals. Combined with an interesting tango before this, it's nice to see something other than samey booty-popping to the latest Flo Rida tune. It was probably a big risk for them to make the intended audience sit thru, but I liked it.

I'm in a quandary as to how to wrap this up because Step Up 3D is at its empty-headed core a trifle of a movie with adequate-to-laughably-bad acting, by-the-numbers storytelling, and not much reality between the two of them. BUT, the 3D makes a big difference and most of the dance scenes are fun. While I can't recommend the movie as a movie, it really should be seen as a spectacle. Yeah, that's contradictory and unlike the audience last night would require spending money that you don't really want to even in a good economy. Unfortunately, video and dollar show versions won't deliver the experience. It's a conundrum alright.

Score: 6/10. If you like these kinds of movies, see a matinee in 3D; if you don't, skip it because watching it on cable isn't really the same.

You can see the depth of field in the trailer here.

"Salt" Review

Is there another actress that combines Angelina Jolie's unreal beauty, genuine acting chops, AND can plausibly kick as much ass - and get her ass kicked - like she does? While there are many who can fill in two of the three boxes, I can't think of anyone who turns the hat trick like AJ.*** Finally back on screen for the first time in 18 months since her Oscar-nominated turn in Changeling, she's got a gun back in her hands, kicking muy booty as Salt.

As the trailers and ads tell you, she's a deep cover CIA agent whom a random Russian walks in and names as a Russian spy. Immediately suspected by counter-intelligence agent Chiwetel Ejiofor, especially when she takes off on the run, the chase is on to find out what's behind this accusation and the plot to kill the Russian President. What isn't hinted at in the trailers and I hate to even risk spoiling is what happens and who the real good and bad guys may or may not be. Suffice to say it gets really twisty and turny as director Phillip Noyce (who directed Jolie in 1999's The Bone Collector) keeps the proceedings moving at a rapid pace so that you won't have time to ponder the big plot "huh?" points until you're in the car going home.

By the time you're attuned to sniffing red herrings, you'll probably see the final twists coming, but when it's Angelina Jolie kicking ass and not bothering to get names, who cares? (I have to say that even under winter coats, she's still clearly too damn thin like she was in Wanted. Eat something, Angie!!! Get back to your Mr. & Mrs. Smith body, PLEASE!!!) With an ending clearly intended to set up a sequel - AJ as a female Bourne? Yes, please! - I can say that I certainly wouldn't mind having some more Salt in my diet.*

Score: 9/10. Catch a matinee.

False Advertising Alert: The shot toward the end of her humping someone in her underwear isn't in the movie. DAMMIT!!!

* Official Entry for the Gene Shalit Memorial** Horrible Puns in Reviews Contest.
** He's not dead; it just sounds better as a contest name.
*** A few months later, while watching some Brandon Flowers (singer from The Killers) video, I realized that Charlize Theron qualifies.

"She's Out of My League" Review

Stop me if you've seen this one before: A nerdy guy with esteem issues somehow attracts the affections of a super-hot babe, to the disbelief of his slacker pals and her bohunk ex-boyfriend and stodgy parents and her friends. While he's a decent bloke, even he can't believe his good fortune and finds a way to screw everything up, thus forcing everyone to work together to get these crazy kids back together. (Spoiler alert!)

Jay Baruchel (Undeclared, Tropic Thunder) plays the nebbish and Alice Eve (nothing I've seen though she's set to be Emma Frost in the next X-Men movie) plays the supposed hottie - she's like a more pneumatic Reese Witherspoon and I didn't think she was that hot - he's suddenly with and while they're an appealing couple, the rote opposites attract formula machinery really drags what in spots is an inspired bit of lunacy with absolutely hysterical throwaway lines and bits. Written by the duo who penned the somewhat unappreciated Hot Tub Time Machine and the really overlooked Sex Drive, I suspect studio interference for pasteurizing the final product.

While the overall product is only OK, I recommend watching She's Out of My League because when it drops the comic bombs on target, it's a scream. There are several conversation scenes which just go nuts (wait until he hear about and see Stainer's band) and points must be given for pushing the envelope of bad taste in a couple of spots including a ridiculous scenario involving junk shaving that could've been horrific, but ends up a hoot. Krysten Ritter, who plays the snarky friend/business partner of Alice, really caught my eye and I'm going to check her out further.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Inception" Review

In the middle of a dull summer where most everything seems to be a sequel or an adaptation of a videogame or comic book (or combination of all of the above), how does an ambitious original movie like Inception get made for a reported $200 million budget? Easy; writer-director Christopher Nolan's last movie was The Dark Knight and it made a metric ton of money and in exchange for securing his services for the hat trick of Batman films (that began with Batman Begins, or as I call it, Batdude Starts) Warner Bros. gave him a check to follow his bliss. Whereas Peter Jackson squandered his post-Lord of the Rings indulgence with the bloated King Kong remake (in which he thought what was missing from the original was Naomi Watts poor show biz fortunes and the reading list of sailors), Nolan serves up a complex, detailed creation that is very easy to admire, but somewhat hard to love.

Since the ads are very oblique as to what it's actually about, here's a spoiler-free thumbnail: Thanks to a device that combines the tech of Strange Days and The Matrix people are able to share dreams. Leonardo Di Caprio has mastered this tech to become a highly-paid corporate espionage agent, breaking into the minds of client's competitors and stealing their secrets. Unable to return home to his family due to slowly-revealed reasons, he takes the proverbial One Last Big Score job for an exec who doesn't want an secret stolen, but an idea planted (the titular "inception") in the mind of a competitor. In return, all of Leo's problems are promised to go away. What could go wrong? Well, plenty.

As the caper piles dreamstate upon dreamstate - by the end we're coping with FIVE levels of existence (note that I didn't say reality) - Nolan relentlessly drives the story along to the point that it becomes too much. If you thought the last half-hour of The Dark Knight (i.e. the ferry boat scene) was more than was needed, then you'll feel the same by the time the last fifth of Inception unspools. We only need our minds blown so much before it starts making our heads hurt and at the end, the logic that glued together the previous 80% doesn't seem to be applying. At no time does it get very confusing - efficient editing reminds us as to what's happening on all the playing fields - but the last step is a bit of a doozy.

I've found Leo's recent work to be a bit "screw-faced" and mannered - thinking Shutter Island and The Departed - but he's very good here as a man who's made his own dream Heaven into an endless Hell. The rest of the cast is solid and it's nice to see Ellen Page playing an actual young woman in what's otherwise a total sausage fest. And while she doesn't look like this in the movie...

...Marion Cotillard is real purdy as Leo's wife. There's something simply lovely about her.

If there's a real impediment to latching on fully emotionally with Inception it's because there is so much plot to cover we're thrown in fast and never given much respite to reflect on what's happening and what it means. Other than new girl/audience-surrogate Page to show us the ropes and rules of the dreamcatching game, there is little room for levity and I can recall only one out-loud laugh in nearly 2-1/2 hours; not that it's a comedy or needs to be played lightly, but I can think of a few spots where a bon mot calling out the absurdity of what's happening would've been appropriate. The special effects are seamless and it's notable that no matter how crazy the dream situations get, the dream worlds never look anything less than naturalistic and real. No Van Gogh skies or Dali landscapes here; just freight trains running down streets and Paris folding upon itself.

It seems mean to fault a film for being too ambitious, but it's not fair to give bonus points for effort when it doesn't completely pay off. As brilliant as 85% of The Dark Knight was, the last half-hour was too much and by the time we hit the "basement" of Inception, I was thinking that I was about to be offered a wafer-thin mint at any time now. I'll be buying the Blu-ray for sure and it'll be fun to see how the Internet slices and dices their theories about what it all meant, but don't be too caught up on the nerd hosannas. Inception is an very, very good film stuffed with interesting moving parts. It just doesn't run as smoothly as it could.

Score: 8.5/10. Catch a matinee.

UPDATE: Some interesting theories about What It All Means can be found here and here and here. Don't read them until AFTER you see the movie!

"Predators" Review

Despite three other movies with "predator" in their titles, it's taken 23 years for a proper sequel to the 1987 Ahnuld classic Predator to finally drag itself out of the jungle and the gap is to its benefit because if the Robert Rodriguez-produced and Nimrod Antel-directed Predators (with an "S" on the end, you see?) had come out in 1990 like the mediocre (OK, lousy) official next-number-increment Predator 2 had, it would've been ripped for hewing too closely to the original's story beats and set pieces.

It starts off with a nice grabber opening as the first thing we see is a long shot of a man falling from the sky. When we get close, we see it's Adrien Brody. Oh, he's unconscious, too. He wakes up and realizes he's falling which induces a panicked reaction. (Duh.) However, his parachute is rigged to only open when the mechanism wants to and he barely decelerates enough to survive the landing in the jungle and as he lies there we get the title card like the end of a Lost episode.

Attention grabbed, we're rapidly introduced to seven other characters, all badasses from around the world (except for a doctor), who grudgingly trust each other if only because they're all confused as to how they showed up there after the last thing they remember, a white light. They realize when they see the sky with other planets and moons in it that there aren't in Topeka anymore and that they're being hunted. Dun dun DUUHHNNNNN!!! Hijinx ensue.

While you'll be able to figure out who the likely survivors are within 10 minutes, Antel does a good job keeping the tension on as their encounters with growing danger result in dwindling numbers. There are a couple of cool plot twists, but for the most part Predators reruns the formula of its father, but it seems fresh because the intervening films - the aforementioned Predator 2 and the Alien vs. Predator crapfests - wandered so far afield from the series' roots. It succeeds by not sucking with style and energy.

Brody is an actually believable hard-ass badass and it'll be interesting to see how they use him in the sequel. Oh, did I spoil that he doesn't get his spine ripped out in this movie? Sorry. (Like you really thought he'd get croaked.) The other's are as good as they need to be, but special mention has to be made of Lawrence Fishburne's loony tunes part as a guy who...well, you'll see. I wasn't crazy about the design of the Predators' helmets and weapons, but they aren't dealbreakers.

Overall, Predators, delivers the goods better than expected, if you're hunting for this sort of game.

Score: 8/10. Catch a matinee.

"Date Night" Review

Gentle and not particularly surprising, Date Night delivers the expected goods from a light comedy. While that may sound like damning with faint praise, it's actually a good sign that if you go in with appropriate expectations, you'll be satisfied.

Steve Carell and Tina Fey are a New Jersey accountant and real estate agent with two kids and a marriage that's fallen into a bit of a rut. Concerned when a couple they know announce they're getting divorced, Carell decides to break them out of their "date night" routine of salmon and potato skins by going into Manhattan to a chi-chi restaurant called Claw that is so upscale, ("You know. From Fergie," Fey says) eats there and the snooty maitre d's answer the phones, "Hello, Claw. You're welcome."

Naively thinking they could get a table on a Friday night at 7:30 in Manhattan without a reservation, it appears that they'll have to leave until he presents themselves as the couple for a table that appear to be no-shows. A pair of goons, thinking they're the absent couple, haul them out into the alley and threaten to kill them unless they give back a USB key drive with blackmail material. Unwilling to believe their story, Carell decides to bluff them by pretending to know what they're looking for. Hijinx across the city ensue.

Movies like this with ludicrous premises live and die on the execution and what keeps Date Night afloat is the great comic timing and chemistry of Carell and Fey. They're likable and you root for them while they fumble around town trying to outsmart their pursuers. Great cameos from Marky Mark, Kristin Wiig, Mark Ruffalo, James Franco and Mila Kunis pop up and when things slow down to talk about their relationship, it doesn't grind to a halt, thanks to the tight 90 minute run time.

What's best is the crazy phrases that these clearly too-square-to-be-hip pair spout off with and as the end credits bloopers/alternative takes clips show, the two of them improvised their butts off with Fey capping her reel with a line that absolutely kills Carell. (Tina, if you're reading this, me want to go to there.)

While not one for the Comedy Hall of Fame, Date Night is a worthy rental and a must viewing for fans of the stars.

Score: 7/10. Rent the DVD or catch at a dollar show.

"Toy Story 3D" Review

Pixar is the new Disney - the studio name that almost guarantees quality movies. Their films are beloved and are huge money-makers and as a result, they tend to be overpraised by critics and too-stridently defended by fans; a lesson I learned the hard way when I wasn't sufficiently circumspect in my review for Cars, the only truly bad film to come out of the House That Luxo Jr. Built. (Seriously, I could've burned an American flag at Arlington on Memorial Day and gotten less grief than that review brought.) So, it's no surprise to see the third installment of the franchise that launched Pixar into features, Toy Story 3D, rocking a 99% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but what was surprising was how disappointing the film actually is. It's not a failure, but coming after what I consider the best Pixar film of all, Toy Story 2, it was a big letdown.

The story is slight: Andy has grown up and is going to college - a good move since it almost tracks in real time with the 11 years that have passed since the last film - and through misadventure, the toys have ended up at a day care center. While they are at first happy to finally be played with again, it quickly turns into a nightmare as the kids thrash them around and they learn that the seemingly friendly Lots-of-Hugs bear that rules the center is a nasty bit of work. The toys' plan to escape and get back to Andy, even if it means getting stored in the attic, occupies the bulk of the film.

While the story is simple, the plotting is quite complex with plans and maneuvers and as a result, there's very little time to just hang out and enjoy the cast of characters. Everything feels forced and rushed because they've got to move the details along. The new toys introduced aren't given much time beyond Lotso and the choice to depict the Ken doll as a self-absorbed metrosexual (bordering on totally queer) is just laziness. What would've been unique would've been for Ken to be a Jack Bauer-grade badass who is slapping G.I Joe around and complaining that being forced to live in a Dream House with a bunch of poofster disco clothes in the wardrobe insulting to his machismo. That would've been cool; Pixar took the easy way out. Lame.

The last really great Pixar movie was 2004's The Incredibles and everything they've made since - Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up - have had serious flaws in their tone control with some rather heavy emotional material and downright cruelty sneaking in. There has always been threat and menace in Disney and Pixar cartoons, but it's getting out of hand. When the toys - characters we've loved for 15 years - hold hands in preparing for what seems to be certain destruction in an inferno, even though we *know* that they aren't going to die, it's a depressing and fatalistic image that is needlessly mean since we know they'll manage to escape. Just as with the scene in Up when Kevin is trapped in the net, it's too specific, too horrifying, too real for the audience. This isn't Woody getting packed off to Japan to live in a collection.

There are also too many recycled elements like the trash compactors from WALL-E and the conveyor belt chases from Toy Story 2. But if there is one very special thing Toy Story 3D does well it's to show the importance of imagination and playing with REAL toys. Grabbing a doll and creating situations for them is something no video game can deliver and the film's opening sequence and the coda when Andy passes his friends on to another to enjoy really provide a subtle nudge that parents would do better for their kids to buy them the tie-in toys and not the official video game. It's too bad the rest of the movie didn't strive for that sort of depth.

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

The 3D effects are minuscule and not worth the extra money over 2D. The depth of image on the Blu-rays is fine and you aren't missing a thing in 2D.

"The Road" Review

To call The Road the "Feel Bad Movie of the Year" is easy; to understand why they bothered to make a feature film out of Cormac McCarthy's Oprah Book Club pick (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel is harder to figure. Even with the built-in fan base for this well-regarded best-seller, expecting people to shell out the cash for tickets, snacks, babysitters, whatever, to watch Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee starving to death in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland devoid of life and hope is a tall request. (Even The Cure makes happy music now, you know?)

Some unnamed cataclysm was decimated the world, killing all the animals and plants, and other than the Man and Boy (as they were called in the book, which I've listened to about half of the audio version), the only other survivors seem to be predatory road gangs and cannibalistic clans. The two trudge along, stumbling into misfortune after misfortune in the gray wastes and by the end I was desperately in need of watching Chicago or something lighter like Wall-E.

The problem with most post-Apocalyptic movies is that beyond the protagonists there never seem to be any other types than monsters and victims and The Road is no exception. At one point, they stumble over another cannibal camp and witness a rather clean looking mother and child getting hunted down. Assuming it's been 8-10 years since Armageddon, how did those two manage to survive all this time only to get trapped so foolishly? Another encounter in which our pair are ambushed ends abruptly when you'd think there'd at least be a conversation along the lines of, "Why the hell are you shooting at us?!?"

Some environmental wackos have glommed onto The Road as a cautionary parable about ecological destruction but that's just stupid like they are. The speculative consensus is that the disaster is either a comet/asteroid strike or super-volcano eruption, how is this mankind's fault to prevent? As a story of the human spirit enduring in the face of certain doom, it works somewhat but I think that despite looking good (in a terrible manner) and being well-acted, McCarthy's spare prose just doesn't work when literally presented on the screen with the specificity films portray.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.
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