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May 2011 Review Roundup

The pace slowed down this month, but not bad overall. Almost evenly split between home and theater.

May 7 - Thor (8/10)
May 10 - Catfish (8/10)
May 13 - Event Horizon (6/10)
May 16 - Fast Five (6/10)
May 18 - The Hangover (Unrated) (9/10)
May 19 - Urgh! A Music War (8/10)
May 24 - Pandorum (6/10)
May 25 - Attack the Block (7/10)
May 28 - The Roommate (3/10)

Month's Movies Watched: 9
Previously Unseen: 7
Theatrical: 4
Home: 5
Year-To-Date: 51
YTD First-Timers: 41
YTD Theatrical: 13
YTD Home: 38

"The Roommate" Review

When's the last time you saw Single White Female? You know the movie: Jennifer Jason Leigh is a mousy woman who moves in with Bridget Fonda and, being a psycho hose beast, takes over her life and identity. It came out in 1992 and I don't think I've seen it all the way through since then, but the basic themes have been absorbed by the general culture and due to Hollywood's need to recycle the familiar rather than try to come up with something new, it's been prettied-up and dumbed-down as The Roommate for kids who watch the CW Network. (Seriously. Three stars are from CW shows and a fourth is married to Jensen Ackles from Supernatural.)

Minka Kelly is a girl from Iowa going to college in LA. (That she's 30 in real life is fun trivia.) Her roommate is Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester - which prompted me to snark that this was called Single Waldorf Female - who as we know from seeing the trailer is crrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaazeeeeeeee! She's clinging and possessive and...oh, watch the trailer, almost the whole movie minus a subplot involving Billy Zane as a lecherous professor is in there.

The best thing in Single, The Roommate is Meester's psycho hose beast performance. Yeah, it's predictable and poorly motivated - she's off her meds and had some obsession with a girl in high school - but she has fun with it, while not overplaying too much, and I hardly thought of Blair while watching her. (Bestest moment is how she deals with the earrings Minka lends her.) The others are blah, but there's nothing for them to really do and the pacing makes it feel longer than the 90 minutes it runs.

To refresh my memory, I looked up Single White Female at Wikipedia and the number of plot points cribbed should entitle SWF's writers some credit or perhaps a check and no association with this roommate.

Score: 3/10. Watch Single White Female again for the first time.

"Attack The Block" Review

Public Enemy said, "Don't believe the hype." Hype is a double-edge sword for while it can raise awareness and generate interest, it can also result in a big letdown when whatever was overpraised is given a lukewarm, "It was OK, but it wasn't all that." Shaun of the Dead, Little Miss Sunshine and even Fast Five could stood for a little less up-front praise. Now riding a heap of buzz from its Midnight screenings at SXSW comes the British inner city vs. outer space sci-fi/action/monster movie Attack the Block. It doesn't have a US release date yet - probably sometime this fall after an appearance at Comic-Con - but to capitalize on the SXSW bounce, screening were held tonight and once again, it was OK, but it wasn't all that.

I find it fascinating sometimes when pulling the trailers for these reviews to watch them to see how divorced from the movie they're advertising. Many times I've wished I could've seen the movie the trailer was selling because the actual film sucked. I've said that movie trailers are the highest form of false advertising, though I suppose political ads are worse. ("Call your Representative and ask them to stop drinking kitten blood while listening to Train.") To understand what most of the people lauding Attack the Block are conveniently leaving out, take a look at the trailer:

OK, it looks like sassy British kids with Jamaican-sounding patois (it's really, REALLY heavy in the movie, though not so bad as to need subtitles) fighting off monsters with pluck and fireworks. Did you notice the bit where the five mostly-minority kids are surrounding the white woman and robbing her at knifepoint, yanking her ring off her finger, etc.? No? Well, that's how the movie opens, by introducing the supposed heroes in a manner usually reserved for villains. While it sets the stage for the obvious redemption story arc, it's off-putting because we're not sure if we should be rooting for the thugs or the monsters trying to eat them.

When the mugging is interrupted by a meteor smashing into a nearby car, the woman flees and in the process of looting the wreckage, the leader Moses (no symbolism there), is clawed by something that scurries off into the night. The kids hunt it down and beat it to death and drag the carcass back to their council estate block. Later, more meteors land and legions of eyeless beasts that look and move like wolf-gorilla hybrids with rows of glowing neon teeth emerge, hunting the gang down. Hijinks ensue, though how eyeless monsters have interplanetary spaceships is never explained.

Once it gets past the misguided opening, Attack the Block is actually a respectable sci-fi/comedy/horror/action mashup with many good moments. The script is smart about setting up details that pay off later at crucial moments and the kids, once their crawl out of the sympathy sub-basement that writer-director Joe Cornish starts them in, are an appealing bunch. While the opening attack sets up the weird aspect of the gang and their victim crossing paths and changing their minds about each other - *SPOILER ALERT!* - they could've showed the hopeless dead-end lifestyles of the poor and unfortunate differently through some old-fashioned property violence and hooliganism, not tread into A Clockwork Orange territory.

As for the wild overpraise, if this movie was set in an American project block or ghetto, the same critics would be excoriating it as full of racist stereotypes, but because it's foreign, it's A-OK. (Look for 50 Cent to play Hi-Hatz and Allison Brie to play Sam in the inevitable remake with a bunch of Hispanic actors as the street thugs. Believe!)

Score: 7/10. Rent the DVD.

We were supposed to see The Hangover Pt. 2 two nights ago, but the screening was waaaaaay overbooked into a too small theater. This show was held at the Emagine Theater in Novi and I was decidedly unimpressed with the place. The Sony drones running the screening were only good for threatening the audience to not use their cell phones because when the movie started and was obviously out of focus - and I even called out, "How about focusing?" - nothing was fixed and the room full of sheeple sat and accepted the sub-standard presentation. Madness.

"Pandorum" Blu-ray Review

I've had Pandorum kicking around on DVD since Inception was new in theaters cuz I bought it from a closing Hollywood Video store for a buck. I'd heard it was similar to Event Horizon, but that it wasn't that hot. Needing a 5th title to get the 5/$20 Blu-ray sale at Blockbuster, I bought it again. Since I just watched Event Horizon last week, I figured it would be time to catch up on Pandorum.

It starts off with an interestingly: A giant spaceship is traveling the cosmos when they receive a message from Earth that seems to imply that the planet was about to be destroyed and the people on this ship are the last of the human race. Ben Foster (last seen being creepy in The Mechanic) awakes from his hypersleep chamber in a dark cold room. He doesn't remember who he is or where he is, relying on clues from his uniform for his name. He spots Dennis Quaid asleep in his pod and thaws him out. He's a lieutenant and believes he's part of Foster's flight crew, judging from the tattoo on Foster's arm, and takes command.

They're locked in the room, though, so Foster climbs thru the vents, seeking a way to get Quaid out and find out what's going in. He rapidly discovers things have gone seriously wrong as the ship is dark, grimy, and lousy with bizarre vampire mutant monsters, booby-trapped crewmen, a kick-ass chick (German actress Antje Traue*) with a great rack who doesn't want to play the Basil Exposition role, and other weirdos. What happened to the ship, the Elysium, which they eventually remember was being sent on a 123-year voyage to colonize an Earthlike Eden called Tanis?

Pandorum starts out well with a lot of building tension for the first half-hour. However, as the monsters appear along with survivors who either don't speak English or aren't interested in answering the simple question, "WHAT THE UNHOLY HECK IS GOING ON HERE?!?!?", it starts to get annoying and when it's over and you start to ponder the gaping logic holes of the movie, it really starts to deflate. The explanation for the monsters doesn't make sense, especially when the length of time that's supposed to have transpired; they should've starved.

I wasn't aware before watching, but it was produced by Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt who did...wait for it...Event Horizon. The attention to mood and production design clearly is evident, but they also brought the attitude that slick visuals will paper over the plot holes. Why go through all the trouble of creating a world and not telling a cohesive story in it?

While it ends up a mess, the performances are good - Quaid is turning into Harrison Ford a little - it has style and, for a while, some good tension.

Score: 6/10. Rent it.

* Hello there!

"Urgh! A Music War" Review

The seminal punk/New Wave concert film Urgh! A Music War has attained near mythic status because for decades, it's been almost totally unavailable for viewing and was never officially released on video. Bootlegs cobbled together from various tapes of the various versions can be had, but until recently, when a nearly-complete DVD was issued by Warner Bros. Warner Archives imprint, it was more the stuff of legend.

Collecting three dozen raw live performances filmed in 1980 in New York, LA, London and France, the line-up of Urgh! and be broken down into acts everyone knows (e.g. The Go-Go's, The Police, Devo, Oingo Boingo, Joan Jett); acts most people have at least heard of, if not actually heard (e.g. XTC, The Cramps, Dead Kennedys, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four); and then the acts that 99.44% of the general public have never even heard of like Athletico Spizz 80, John Otway, and Invisible Sex, whose only performance ever (if Wikipedia can be believed) is captured in the film. One after another they come in a tidal wave of music.

I think Urgh! will probably be most interesting to aging Gen Xers looking to reconnect with their high school years when bell-bottomed classic rock was supplanted by spikier hair and music to match. The sheer number and variety of performances starts to work against it after a while. Standout bits like Devo's surprisingly raucous "Uncontrollable Urge" (see below) or the pre-Kathy Valentine Go-Go's (with a really tubby Belinda Carlisle) "We Got The Beat" are shoulder to shoulder with weird artsy crap like Pere Ubu, but like Michigan weather, if you don't like something, give it a few minutes and it'll change.

The screening I saw had something weird going on with the sound leaving half the acts with buried vocals. I can't believe it was mixed improperly, so it's probably a safe bet to pick it up. While there are rumors of even more material in the vaults, the same music licensing and rights issues that have kept it off the market all this time will likely preclude anything better.

Score: 8/10. Buy it.

"The Hangover (Unrated)" Blu-ray Review

I scored preview tickets to a screening of The Hangover Part 2 next Monday, so I decided to refresh my memory of the first film by watching the original. I haven't seen it since it was in theaters.

Is it still funny the second time around? Yes, but the neat mystery structure in which we share in the Wolf Pack's discovery of their bender's path is lost because we know what the mattress on the sta means and that a naked guy is in the trunk. *SPOILER ALERT!*

What's different in the Unrated version? I'm not sure. There's a web site with a list of differences, but despite the 8-minute longer run time, I didn't notice anything that stood out as new until looking at the linked site. Most of the changes are extended scenes. They didn't hurt the pacing, but were mostly extraneous. (The theatrical cut is also included.) The last of the camera photos - the ones in the elevator with Zach Galifinakakakakakakis (sp?)- are uncensored (i.e. not pixelated like the DVD was), but they were clear in the theater as well.

The Blu-ray's image quality is super sharp and clear. Audio isn't too impressive, but that's by design. I haven't watched the extras yet other than the start of the reel of Ken Jeong improvising like a maniac on his scenes. (Fun Fact: This guy was a doctor before Judd Apatow made him a comic star.) I'll update this section if/when I do.

Score: 9/10. Buy it.

"Fast Five" Review

The buzz going into Fast Five was that the series had reinvented itself as a heist caper flick, moving away from its "ricer porn" street/drift racing roots. Many reviews lauded this change, calling it the best of the series.

It isn't.

To be brief, it's too long with too much talky-talk and not enough zoomy-zoom. Paul Walker still can't act (was Running Scared a fluke?); all the lousy characters from 2 Fast, 2 Furious (the worst of the bunch) are included; and the presence of the Japanese dude who died in Tokyo Drift (but was in Fast & Furious; the 4th movie) means that this movie is set in between #4 and #3. Huh? (i.e. The chronological order of films is 1-2-4-5-3; the world ends with Tokyo.) M.Rod, who was foolishly killed of as an inciting incident is still gone. Or is she? (Tune in below.)

There are some crazy action sequences that defy fundamental physics and reality - that chase with the bank vault being dragged as wrecking ball through the streets of Rio goes on forever - but the biggest, baddest special effect is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the FBI specialist sent to catch Vin Diesel and his merry men. He is JACKED and when he and Vin throw down, it's like watching two slabs of beef brawl.

When it's not trying to be deep and just making a mess, Fast Five is decent popcorn fluff. However, if they plan on continuing in this vein, they'd better get over listening to the sound of their voices.

Score: 6/10. Catch it at a dollar show.

OK, slight spoiler/teaser time: In a mid-credits coda, Eva Mendes (who was in 2F2F) is shown bringing a dossier into The Rock's office. Inside are photos of someone who robbed a armored car in Germany. Who is it? M.Rod! They're going to bring her back from the presumed dead?! WTF? OK, I'm down. I missed her. Bring it!

"Event Horizon" Blu-ray Review

Since seeing it when it came out in 1997, but not since, I've remembered Event Horizon as a cheesy sci-fi horror flick with really excellent production design. Watching it again, not much has changed, though it did make me wonder why a giant spaceship in 2040 looks like a steampunk bondage dungeon with most of the technological workings being made of iron.

The titular ship disappeared without a trace and was the largest disaster in spacefaring history. Seven years later, in 2047, it has reappeared in low orbit over Neptune and a ship under the command of Laurence Fishburne has been dispatched to investigate, bringing along Sam Neill, the inventor of the gravity drive that powered the Event Horizon. When they arrive, spooky things start to happen. Hijinks ensue.

The production design still looks terrific with the use of elaborate practical sets. It has the gritty tactile appearance that made the Nostromo in Alien convincing, though there are more sharp edges than you'd think a safety-first spaceship should have. The smokey cinematography by the late Adrian Biddle (whose first film was Aliens) almost makes hack director (and Milla Jovovich's baby daddy) Paul W.S. Anderson's film into a film of minor significance, but the thin script - is the ship itself evil or just converting the crew's inner demons into physical reality, a la the planet in Solaris - and reliance on BOOM! loud noises to provide the shocks holds it back. While the sets and models look great, the primitive CGI effects really stand out now in their shiny plasticness.

As a haunted house in space flick - right down to lighting and thunder(!) in the exterior shots - Event Horizon could've been an effective psycho-thriller if only the script and direction were more competent. Why did Neill's wife kill herself? Did he cut corners in the design of the gravity drive? Why are some crew member's guilt manifesting as apparitions while others seem to be driven made or totally unaffected? We don't know.

After a scary few moments of the extremely grainy Paramount logo, the Blu-ray transfer is really great to look at with a clean image with lots of depth and detail, all the better to reveal how poor the CGI is. Grain isn't an issue, but they haven't scrubbed it with DNR to leave waxy skin textures. The surround audio isn't as impressive, but that's more by the audio design than technical problems.

On the extras front, I haven't listened to the commentary, but there's an making-of documentary that manages to stuff perhaps 40 minutes of information in a 1:45 package so slow and droning that I watched it over three or four nights, dozing off each time. The biggest takeaway is that the film was probably crippled by a ridiculously shortened post schedule.

Directors are contractually allowed 10 weeks to make their first cut, but Anderson waived it to six weeks and then lost two of those while shooting 2nd unit material. With only four weeks to slam together an FX-laden film and crippled by a poor mix, the first test screening was a disaster. Slashing out hunks of the film, the 2nd screening went better, but they ran out of time, so what we have now is pretty much the 2nd or 3rd cut. Because this slightly pre-dated DVD, apparently no one thought to keep the extra footage, so there are few deleted scenes on the disc and no hope for a proper director's cut. The first Star Trek picture suffered the same short-post/botched mix situation and when it was released on DVD, the fixed that up somewhat.

Score: 6/10. It's cheap enough to buy if you think you'll watch it twice, otherwise Netflix it.

"Catfish" Review

There has been a glut of fake "documentaries" lately. I don't mean liberal propaganda pieces that dishonest folks - excuse me, fat lying bastards - like Michael Moore or Al Gore make and win Oscars for, permanently damaging the genre for REAL documentary makers in the process. I'm referring to movies like the Paranormal Activity series or the upcoming (and reportedly awful) Apollo 18 which comprise the "found footage" genre in which the audience is supposed to accept that what they're seeing really happened. (Or at least go along with the setup because, as Johnny Carson noted, "You buy the premise, you buy the bit.")

I've been avoiding watching Catfish because I haven't been in the mood for a fake shock doc which is sort of implied by the trailer and was leery of the "real Facebook movie" hype it has around it, playing off The Social Network. I may've totally given it the miss if my girlfriend hadn't watched it, told me it was good, and then started nagging me to watch it so we could discuss it. Persistently nagged, as in when we spoke on the phone earlier tonight and I was mulling my entertainment options, she said, "Why don't you watch Catfish? It's only 86 minutes long. I instead played a videogame until I realized I was sucking at it and gave into the movie.

It's impossible to discuss the events of the movie without spoiling the surprises, so all I will say is that you're not going to totally guess where it's going and that no one gets their heart ripped out. Literally. Figuratively, though...

Catfish follows co-director Ariel Schulman's brother Nev as he strikes up a relationship with a young girl, Abby, from Ishpeming, MI (pop. ~6700). An artistic prodigy, she paints renditions of his photographs and sends them to him in New York City. Nev speaks on the phone with her mother, Angela, and gets into a Facebook romance with Abby's sister Megan, a hottie with really good photos on her profile page. They talk on the phone, send hundreds of sexy texts messages and really seem to be falling for each other. Then Nev starts discovering that big chunks of Megan's story aren't passing the smell test, confusing him. Something is clearly screwy and looking to get to the bottom of the story, Nev decides to pay the family a visit in their remote Upper Peninsula town with the cameras in tow. What he finds is fascinating even though it's expected; he just didn't know how far down the rabbit hole went.

What makes Catfish odd is that it's like the Oscar-nominated fake documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop - I'm in the camp that believes the whole thing, including Mr. Brainwash, is an elaborate long con by real artists Banksy and Shepard Fairey - in that there's enough tugging around the edges to make it seem fake, but by the end it seems really hard for it to be anything but real, because if it turns out to be even a semi-hoax, there are some other issues with what's shown that should be addressed.

The opaque title is explained (somewhat) at the end, but what sticks is what the film says about relationships, connections with people who are supposedly our "friends," and the lengths some people will go to make these connections. I haven't read around yet to see what's supposed to be true or false about the movie, but I did see an IMDB thread that goes into heavy psychological analysis of the architect of this all and I think they're over-thinking it. (Write me after you see it and I'll tell you what I'm talking about.)

Sorry if this review leaves some basic elements out, but like EARLY M. Night Shyamalan movies, the less you know going in the more effective it will be. Suffice to say that this Catfish is worth catching (ouch!) and that if you mull over what it subtly implies, you'll probably want to stay in "meatspace" for companionship.

Score: 8/10. Rent the DVD.

"Thor" Review

The journey down the path to Marvel's The Avengers movie next year takes another step with the arrival of Thor, director Kenneth Brannagh's - yes, the Shakespeare movie guy - big operatic take on the Norse God of Thunder. While generally epic in scale, it's held back by some thin writing on the Earthly side of the ledger.

Chris Hemsworth - best known until now as Kirk's ill-fated father in the prologue of J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot - is Thor. A brash, arrogant young god, he angers his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins rocking Christopher Plummer's metal eye patch from Star Trek VI), after he leads an attack on the Frost Giants world after a sneak attack on the day he was to be made King of Asgard. Stripped of his powers and hammer, he's cast down to New Mexico until he learns some humility and become worthy of the power of Thor.

I don't know why the trailers downplay the Asgard side of things because those are the best parts. Brannagh manages to take material that could go waaaaaaaay over the top and keep it appropriately over the top with more bacon than ham in the performances. Hemsworth is really good, playing the fish out of water/humbled god arc well, and Tom Hiddleston is interesting as half-brother (and full villain) Loki. Some reviews have claimed he almost seems sympathetic, but I don't see him that way. Yeah, he's got daddy issues and a case of ingratitude, but how hard has his life really been? Twit. And as the traditional post-credits scene indicates, he'll be back as the Avengers villain.

Where the film runs flatter is the Earthly portions with the wasted Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, upgraded from a nurse in the comics to an astrophysicist of some sort. (The way they dispose of the Dr. Don Blake facet of the original comics is a neat touch.) Her research isn't given any greater significance and while she's more plausible as a scientist than Liv Tyler was in The Incredible Hulk, it's a nothingburger of a part. Kat Dennings as her tart, slacker assistant is cute (though why cover up that body?) and delivers much of the comic relief. While on the subject of women, look for Jaimie Alexander, who is Sif, Thor's kickass warrior chick pal, to become a major nerd icon as she looks like a cross between Missi Pyle (Galaxy Quest) and Lucy Lawless, which leads to the largest LOL in the whole movie.

Overall, Thor, is entertaining and slick to look at with above-average performances. It's just that it feels like it could've been longer and punchier with more for Portman to do.

Score: 8/10. See on the big screen at a matinee. Don't bother with 3D; it's dark and fast-moving.

This trailer is rather mediocre in selling the spectacle.

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