Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"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.
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