Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Movies A - C

-A-

A.I. (4/5)

The A-Team (3/5)

The ABCs of Death (3/5)  
                  The Abominable Dr. Phibes (3.5/5)
Abraham Lincoln VH (2/5)
                   The Abyss (4.5/5)
Ace High (3.5/5)
Act of Valor (2.5/5)
The Adjustment Bureau (2.5/5)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (4/5)
The Adventures of Tin Tin (3.5/5)
Adventureland (3/5)
After Hours (4/5)

After Life (4.5/5)
The Age of Innocence (4/5)  
Akira (4/5)

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (4/5)

Alice in Wonderland (2010) (2.5/5)

Alien (5/5)

Aliens (4.5/5)

Alien 3 (1/5)

Alien: Resurrection (2.5/5)

Alien Nation (3/5)

All Good Things (2.5/5)

Altered States (4/5)

Altitude (2/5)
Always (2.5/5)
Amadeus (4/5)

Amarcord (4.5/5)
The Amazing Spider-Man (2.5/5) 
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2/5) 
         The American (3.5/5)
American Beauty (4/5)
American Hustle (3.5/5)
American Psycho (4/5)

American Reunion (2.5/5)
American Sniper (2.5/5)
An American Werewolf in London (4/5)
Amistad (4/5)

An Education (4/5)

And Soon the Darkness (1.5/5)
Angels and Demon (3/5)
Animal Kingdom (4/5)

Anna (2.5/5)
Annabelle (2.5/5)
Anonymous (2.5/5)
Another Earth (3/5)
Another Year (3.5/5)
Ant-Man (3.5/5)
Antichrist (3/5)
Anvil! (4/5) 

Apollo 18 (2/5)

Arbitrage (3/5)      
                                Mr. Arkadin (3/5)
Argo (4.5/5)  
                                  Armored (2.5/5)
Army of Darkness (4/5)

The Art of Getting By (2/5)

Arthur Christmas (4/5)
Attack the Block (3.5/5)
August: Osage County (2.5/5)
Avatar (4.5/5)
The Avengers (4/5)
The Avengers: Age of Ultron (3.5/5)
The Aviator (4/5)

  -B-

T
he Babadook (4/5)
Back to the Future  (4.5/5)

Back to the Future Part 2 (4/5)

Back to the Future Part 3 (3.5/5)

Bad Boys II (1/5)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (3.5/5)
Bad Milo! (2/5)
Bad Words (3/5)
Barney's Version (3/5)

Barry Lyndon (4/5)

Barton Fink (4/5)  

Batman (The Movie) (3/5)

Batman (4/5)

Batman Returns (3.5/5)

Batman Forever (2.5/5)

Batman and Robin (0/5)

Batman Begins (4/5)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (4/5)
Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (3.5/5)
Battle: LA (2/5)
Battleship (1/5)
The Beach (2.5/5)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (4.5/5)
The Beaver (3.5/5)
Beetlejuice (4/5)
Before Midnight (4.5/5)
Beginners (4.5/5)
Being Flynn (3.5/5)
Being John Malkovich (4.5/5)
Bernie (4/5)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (3.5/5)
Best Worst Movie (4/5)
Better off Dead (4/5)
The Bicycle Thief (5/5)
Big Eyes (3/5)
Big Fan (4/5)
Big Hero 6 (3.5/5)
The Big Lebowoski (4.5/5)

Big Trouble in Little China (4/5)  

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (4/5)

Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (3/5)

The Birds (4/5)

Birdman (5/5)
Bitch Slap (1.5/5)

Biutiful (4/5)
Black Death (3.5/5)
Black Dynamite (3/5)
Black Hawk Down (4/5)

Black Sea (3/5)
Black Sunday (4/5)

Black Swan (4.5/5)
Blackhat (2/5)
Blade Runner (5/5)
Blazing Saddles (4.5/5)

The  Blind Side (2.5/5)

The Bling Ring (3/5)
Blow Out (4/5)
Blood Simple (4/5)
Blue Jasmine (4.5/5)
Blue Ruin (4.5/5)
Blue Valentine (4.5/5)
Blue Velvet (5/5)
The Blues Brothers (4/5)
The Book of Eli (3.5/5)
The Book of Life (3/5)
The Bourne Identity (4/5)

The Bourne Legacy (2/5)
                      The Bourne Supremacy (3.5/5)
The Bourne Ultimatum (4/5)

The Boxtrolls (3/5)
The Boy Next Door (1/5)
Brave (3/5)  
                           Braveheart (4/5)
Brazil (4.5/5)
Bridesmaids (4/5)
The  Bridge on the River Kwai (5/5)
Bringing  Out the Dead (3.5/5)

Broken City (2.5/5)
                        Broken  Embraces (4/5)
Bronson (3.5/5)
Brooklyn's  Finest (3/5)
Brothers  (3.5/5)
The  Brothers Bloom (3/5)
Bruno  (2.5/5)
Bubba  Ho-Tep (3.5/5)

A Bug's Life (3/5)

Bullet to the Head (2/5)
Buried (3.5/5)
Burn  After Reading (2.5/5) 
Burning Bright (4/5)
The  Burrowers (2.5/5)  
The  Butcher (Le Boucher) (5/5)

The Butler (3/5)
Butter (3.5/5)

  -C-  

The Cabin in the Woods (4.5/5)
Calvary (3.5/5)
The Campaign (2.5/5)
Cape Fear (3/5)
Captain America: The First Avenger (4/5)
Captain America 2 (4/5)
Captain Phillips (4/5)
The Captains (3.5/5)
Carnage (3.5/5)
Carrie (4/5)
Cars (3/5)
Cars 2 (2/5)
Casa de mi Padre (3.5/5)
Casablanca (5/5)
Case 39 (1.5/5)
Casino (4.5/5)

Casino Jack (3/5)
Catch Me if You Can (4.5/5)
Catfish (3/5)
Cemetery Man (3.5/5)
Centurion (3/5)
Le Cercle Rouge (5/5)
Chappie (1.5/5)
Che (4/5)
Cheap Thrills (4/5)
Chef (4/5)
Chernobyl Diaries (2/5)
Chico and Rita (3.5/5)
The Children (3.5/5)
Children of Men (4.5/5)
Chinatown (5/5)

Chop (3/5)
Chronicle (3.5/5)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (3/5)
Cinderella (3.5/5)

Citadel (2.5/5)
Citizen Gangster (3/5)
Citizen Kane (5/5)
City Island (3.5/5)
Clash of the Titans (4/5)
Clash of the Titans (2/5)
Clockwork  Orange, A (4/5)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (4.5/5)

Cloud Atlas (4.5/5)
Cold Fish (4/5)
Cold Weather (3/5)
The Collector (3/5)
Colombiana (2.5/5)
The Color of Money (3/5)
The Color Purple (3.5/5)

Come Out and Play (3.5/5)      
Commando (3.5/5)
The Company Men (3.5/5)
The Company You Keep (3/5)

Conan the Barbarian (3.5/5)               The Conjuring (4/5)                                The Conspirator (2.5/5)
Contagion (3.5/5)
Contraband (2/5)                                   Cop Car (3.5/5)
Cop Out (1.5/5)
Coraline (3.5/5)
Coriolanus (4/5)
The Counselor (2.5/5)
Cowboys and Aliens (3/5)
Crank (3.5/5)
The Crazies (3.5/5)
Crazy Heart (4/5)
Creation (3/5)
Creep (4.5/5)

Cropsey (3/5)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (4/5)
Curse of Chucky (3/5)
The Curse of Frankenstein (4/5)


A.I.

In this futuristic tale, a highly advanced robotic boy named David is 11 years old. He weighs 60 pounds. He is 4 feet, 6 inches tall. He has brown hair. His love is real. But he is not. He is a marvel of cybernetic progress who really only wants to be a real boy, loved by his mother and his father in that happy place called home. But David journeys out into the forests to find a way to become a real boy.

The Good: One of the most controversial films in Spielberg’s filmography has always been scrutinized and analyzed, mostly for the worse and mostly by die-hard Kubrick fans who think that master could tell the story better than this master. No…he couldn’t. In fact, Kubrick even admitted to it. He couldn’t make the film work cohesively, he was horrible with child actors and all his hired writers couldn’t get it the way he wanted. Nor could he figure out how to end it. Sometimes “fresh eyes” are what a project needs and what was a labor of love for Kubrick turned into one for Spielberg. It’s a collaborative film and it shows. It’s full of depth, a story on par some of Kubrick’s best (you can sense him throughout the film), a fantastic vision and a subtle emotional tapestry of love and wanting to be loved, loss, resentment and innocence. It’s complex and represents what science fiction, something Kubrick and Spielberg both share a fondness for, is supposed to be. While this is often under scrutiny of Kubrick fans, the film actually received good reviews. As a fan of Kubrick myself, I loved the film and felt a great meeting between the great storytelling of Spielberg and the richness and depth, not to mention intelligence, of a Kubrick film. It gets a bad rap but for the wrong reasons.


The Bad:
A think there’s no better example of a “flawed masterpiece” than A.I. It’s a patchwork of ideas and themes, the story tends to meander back and forth and it is aimless at times. When it’s powerful, it is ten-fold. When it’s not, it can lull you to sleep. This is where the biggest problem resides: the pacing. It grabs you one minute, then tosses you aside again. You don’t know what to feel, what is important and what you need to pay attention to. It sometimes comes across as callous and cold. It’s a chore to get through, all the special effects in the world can’t help the mismanaged pace and uneven story that, obviously, has two directors pulling at it (one posthumously).  

The Ugly: "Eighty percent of the critics got it all mixed up. But I could see why. Because, obviously, I've done a lot of movies where people have cried and have been sentimental. And I've been accused of sentimentalizing hard-core material. But in fact it was Stanley who did the sweetest parts of A.I., not me. I'm the guy who did the dark center of the movie, with the Flesh Fair and everything else. That's why he wanted me to make the movie in the first place. He said, 'This is much closer to your sensibilities than my own.'" - Steven Spielberg

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The A-Team

A group of Iraq War veterans looks to clear their name with the U.S. military, who suspect the four men of committing a crime for which they were framed.

The Good: Make no mistake, the classic television show The A-Team was cheesy, goofy fun. It never took itself too seriously nor did it attempt to go beyond its means in terms of drama or, simply, being well-written. In that spirit, this feature adaptation understands its place in the world. Why should it attempt to be nothing but spectacle when that's what The A-Team was always about to begin with. Stay true to the roots and you'll be done. Sure, better character development and richer depth of plot might have been nice, but I won't hold it against it just because those aren't there...because The A-Team isn't trying to be those things in the first place.

It's pure, unadulterated fun and entertainment. Done right, for the most part. In a year where there were quite a few ensemble-team action movies, this is one that knows exactly what it needs to do to work. It's fun, full of amazing set-pieces and a hell of lot of humor and wit to it. It's far from perfect, but close to pure mindless entertainment.

The Bad: The biggest issue with The A-Team is that it, sadly, tends to overstep its bounds on more than one occasion. So set on being a spectacle that it pretty much throws the concept of reality out the window. If you do that, you tend to never quite feel the threat or sincerity that might come with risk. Our team does the impossible and the risky, but not once do you feel compelled to be on the edge of your seat or tense at it all. It's all too shiny and new and laid out to perfectly for that.

Throw in a plot that's a little too convoluted for its own good, and much of The A-Team will leave you behind. It moves at breakneck speed for its desire to be spectacle that it hopes you won't have to think too hard on all that it tends to haphazardly throw out there. Double crosses, conspiracies, various factions, set ups, breakouts, assassinations, thefts. None of these things are finely tuned and plotted - more shoved into an electric tumbler set on "high." Carnahan's directing and how the film is shot is all over the place. There's great spectacles, but you aren't exactly sure how it all relates to what is going on and who is what and where and how. It just happens. Oh, those spectacles can be enormously entertaining and some are absolutely wildly original, but you never quite "see" it all as you would like to see it.

The Ugly: The film does a fantastic job creating its own mythos while nodding homages to its source material. It balances this beautifully as we see so many things that defined the show, but it doesn't feel obligated to stay with them and does them all justice enough to where fans won't feel they're slighted. Why can't more re-booted franchises given this type of treatment?

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The ABCs of Death

A 26-chapter anthology that showcases death in all its vicious wonder and brutal beauty. 

The Good: Well, you'll definitely see things on film you can honestly say you haven't seen before. It has variety to keep you engaged, certainly tries to play with your expectations which his great to see and all the more impressive considering the limitations the filmmakers put on themselves in all 26 shorts, but the novelty wears off and despite some trying to really be inventive and unique, really the one major thing to get you watching, a good chunk shorts themselves don't have enough quality to really make the film worth your time.

If anything, the film is good on a level of film experimentation rarely seen. Yes, many (most) won't hit it home but looking at the big picture, taking 26 filmmakers doing 26 shorts all with a unifying theme, and still retaining enough variety to keep your interest, is something that is surprising to even have been made. Anthology movies aren't anything new, but this one is and that's saying something.

The Bad: On paper, The ABCs of Death might have sounded like a really cool idea. Get a lot of genre directors, have them choose a letter and do a short about death based on that letter. It's a novelty that is, at the very least, worth the time just to see what comes of it. It grows tired of its own mechanics about a half-hour in.

Unfortunately the film is reliant on shorts and most of the shorts here are…they're bad. They're just bad. For every good one, there's three that are just too uninteresting, too boring, too bland, too poorly made or too convoluted and pretentious which makes for an incredibly uneven filmgoing experience.  Few look to have fun with the notion and even fewer are well made enough to warrant their dramatic intentions.

In many cases, something "bad" can get away form it considering the product it finds itself in. This is an anthology film. A massive anthology film that puts limitations due to its own devices. Nothing here will bring "depth" or "enlightenment." But that doesn't mean they still can't' be highly enjoyable, and a good amount of these just aren't all that enjoyable. Even as a novelty. Some even test your patience as you roll your eyes and just want to get to the next letter in the alphabet.

For example "F" is about magical farts. Yes, that sounds like ridiculous entertainment, and that is enough silliness to at least keep you watching, but it approaches it so earnestly then you realize you just watched a bad short about magical farts that wasn't trying to be funny. It grows tired and played out because really, how much can you do about magical farts? And why did I even bother watching a short about magical farts?

But you know…at least I remember that one. There's  a lot you probably won't even recollect.

The Ugly: This movie is a good insight in to people's fears. To see filmmakers all express certain fears on screen is very telling, and I learned that people are overall afraid of toilets or anything about toilets and any type of bodily function.

Anyways, personal favorite Chapters, and there's really not many:

C. This is a really cool short that I think would actually make a nifty feature.

H. Only because it's ridiculous. It's a live-action cartoon (ala Itchy and Scratchy) with Nazi foxes and nut-punching. This was one I felt really "got it."

L. Not because it's good, but just because it's a bit troubling and certainly one that will stick you.

N. Because it's one of the few that is funny. I mean, really funny. Also one of the more polished ones. Good pacing. Well shot. Not too long to drag it out or too short to feel pointless (see M for that). Just an overall good little short.

P. This is far better of a short than this movie deserves. This might be the best out of the bunch. Highly effective, even a bit emotional, and done entirely without words. This is visual storytelling at its finest.

Q. I'm surprised more didn't do this angle of meta-humor. Quirky and funny.

U. Really inventive use of the camera here. It isn't going to wow you (no character, story, etc…) but a visually cool one.

V. Just because there's finally one that feels like it's really trying. Out of all, I think this one might be the most original. "Not alive by law" alone is something you could build a pretty cool sci-fi flick around. It certainly has the biggest scope.

Also, you have to give props to F and Z just for the sheer audacity to put those to film. Leave it to Japan to make the weird ones.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Doctors are being murdered in a bizarre manner: bats, bees, killer frog masks, etc., which represent the nine Biblical plagues. The crimes are orchestrated by a demented organ player with the help of his mute assistant. The detective is stumped until he finds that all of the doctors being killed assisted a Dr. Vesalius on an unsuccessful operation involving the wife of Dr. Phibes, but he couldn't be the culprit, could he? He was killed in a car crash upon learning of his wife's death...

The Good: Note to self: do not anger Vincent Price. I would say "do not anger Dr. Phibes" but really differentiating between the two is pretty much impossible because Dr. Phibes is Price at his most Vincent Priciest. It's campy. It's over-the-top. It's utterly ridiculous, but such is many films from the era and especially those that starred Vincent Price. Luckily, the always fantastic Joseph Cotten keeps things at least a little level-headed. It's a simple tale of vengeance and revenge, but so unbelievably campy it often comes across as darkly humorous. It's a classic entertaining piece of camp horror.

The Bad: I know these types of movies. I know we shouldn't take them seriously and because of that we find ourselves having a good time with them, However, the degrees to which Dr. Phibes constructs his revenge is utterly absurd. I suppose if he was just another run-of-the-mill killer, it wouldn't be so loved, but to base every kill elaborately on the ten plagues of Egypt is a little unbelievable. Sure, Dr. Phelps has lost his mind, and we chalk up insanity to it, however he doesn't really have any connection to anything biblical that explains his decision to take that route other than that he studied theology. What's the message he's trying to send? Or is is merely a contrived way to make a fun film (which it is). If you look at Se7en, John Doe was a man obsessed with the seven deadly sins and he planned everything out because of it to send a message and remind people of their sin. Here, it's really not explained other than to be inventive in death scenes. Because of this, Dr. Phibes isn't nearly as sympathetic oas he probably should have been or perhaps was intended to be. We never really get to know him despite the Price monologues and his own obsessions. The character falls short of being memorable as a result.

The Ugly: Boy, those are some hungry locusts.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


About Time

At the age of 21, Tim discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

The Good: I can see why they tried to market and build this as a “love story.” I mean, you have Richard Curtis, you have people smiling and laughing in the rain and looking in love, the trailer would be easy to cut. But what isn’t said is that while the “boy meets girl” is an element of About Time, like Curtis’s previous films, Pirate Radio and Love Actually, there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Pirate Radio wasn’t just about a radio station on a ship and Love Actually, though romantic as About Time can be, is more about life affirmation and appreciation of family and friends as much as it is about falling in love.

In that respect, one might call About Time a bit of a retread. It’s conceit is that of a romantic movie with some comedy bits while it’s also about family and, especially, parenthood and fathers. Yes, Love Actually had that as well though more ensemble than linear. The messages are still the same but that doesn’t detract from their impact. It’s melodrama done well and right, you’ll be hard pressed not to love these characters and even harder-pressed to not get a little emotional when the full picture begins to reveal itself of what the movie is about.

What I particularly love is the movie doesn’t try to “explain” itself. It doesn’t need to, and that’s smart screenwriting by Curtis who knows if you try to explain it, then you’ll just lose focus of what the story is all about. It would be like if he went back and tried to “explain” Mr. Bean. You don’t “explain” Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean simply “is” just the fact that male members of the family in About Time able to travel through time simply “is.” The focus is the characters, their emotions and their relationships and how it all interconnects, and Curtis understands how to work within that system better than most.

The Bad: While About Time doesn’t try to explain how the “time travel” works, it does try to set up rules…and it doesn’t explain them very well. In fact, there’s a lot of drops in logic not about time travel, it’s all made-up anyways, but in how characters act and react when discussing it. Not to give spoilers, but a big event happens in our lead character’s life, and there’s a very important thing that his dad, I have to assume, forgot to tell him. Which makes no sense because his dad tells him everything. Then again, the entire “big”” thing is a bit ridiculous to begin with because it also makes absolutely no sense.

As a result, you have a bit of contrivance only there to stir the pot and create some conflict, but it doesn’t fit in to the “father and son” element of the story and certainly not in the Dad’s character (played beautifully by Bill Nighy) to not bring it up to his son. Certain elements like this, or another sub-plot involving our lead’s character sister which also seems oddly “loose,” weaken the otherwise strong story going on. They serve as a distraction and even as the minutes pass by, you keep thinking back trying to figure out why that happened or how.

Then we end up with something I liken to a bit of an identity crisis. These elements are very dramatic one minute, but light the next, and the weight of the situations never fully feel “risky” at all. The narrative stumbles and falters and those distractions begin to just grind in your head a bit. As much as you might want to just “turn it off” and not think too much, the film kind of relies on you thinking a lot, especially at the end where you need to remember certain rules and story points to know what’s going on. Still, as sloppy as it is at times, it’s a wonderfully beautiful film, and even sloppiness can be pretty in the right dress.

The Ugly: This will make even the coldest of hearts want to call their mum and dad and then go off and get married and have children.

PS: “Sentimentality” isn’t a critique. “Forced sentimentality” can be, and this isn’t forced at all, it knows exactly what it is. The question is, do you?

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, discovers vampires are planning to take over the United States. He makes it his mission to eliminate them.

The Good: It comes with the territory of director Timur Bekmambetov: you're going to get a great sense of style and some spectacular action. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn't disappoint in that regard. It has a gorgeous look to it, full of color and life and vividness that blends with the style of action Bekmambetov tends to lean towards: over-the-top, fantasy-inspired action that's a cross between a chopsocky film and the Underworld films.

It's a great blend, having a good dose of large-scoped action sequences and well-choreographed fight scenes that makes you wish it had more of them. Though it has the style, and lead Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln very well considering he has very little to work with for a character and ha to balance a mythological hero with one that actually lived, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter just never settles down and tries to put together a complete package.

The Bad: As bloated of an action movie as I've seen in a while, all that action just starts to bleed together after a while (pun probably intended) to the point of desensitization. No sense of cohesion, no sense of time passage, there's a reset of everything half-way through its two-hours of bloated content, lots of scenes that never quite feel connected, lots of talking with very little to say. There's a lot in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter yet simultaneously nothing really worth your time outside of its action fight scenes.

For this film, it's probably easier to list the things it does well and the huge list of things it gets wrong, from a forgettable supporting cast that have characters that go nowhere, to an obvious bit of misdirection, to a completely underdeveloped villain that never feels threatening to just...well...let's just say the whole "slavery existed because of vampires and the Civil War was caused by them also" is some of the biggest, ham-fisted bit of plot devices I've ever seen.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter simply tries to do too damn much. It starts well enough, focusing on a smaller-scale story of  young man, his training and desire to vanquish the undead, and a good ways into it you start to realize it's attempting to try on a bigger pair of pants. Soon we have sweeping scopes of over-zealous action scenes, including one of some awful computer generated horses, a backdrop of the entire Civil War and Lincoln as President giving boisterous speeches to thousands and an entire theme of slavery and freedom that is incredibly forced down our collective throats.

All that being said, I'll focus on one flaw that truly brings down the entire movie: the characters. We have Lincoln, more of a personality but a solid lead well enough, and then an assortment of men and women around him that the film puts up as important, but we really know absolutely nothing about them. I don't even remember their names, save for Mary Todd who comes off more as background fodder than of anyone important at all and the film gives us no heart to any reasons of why I should care about them. And I only remember her name because I went to elementary school. Apparently so did the script writers, and then they must have dropped out.

The Ugly: More gadgets or cool gizmos would have been a nice touch. We have a couple, but for a hunter in this fantasy world, Honest Abe could have used more cool things to play with.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Abyss

When an American nuclear submarine crashes, the United States Government believe the Russians to be responsible. They enlist the help of a team of underwater drilling platform workers who are to help the deployed Navy SEALS locate the crash site. As they get closer to their destination, the friction between the two teams increases. When some workers report seeing UFO's underwater, the SEALS grow increasingly suspicious and suspect a Russian mini-sub. After a series of near-fatal disasters, the workers find that they are the only people who are capable of stopping World War III. But they are not the only inhabitants of the deep, and strange things are happening back at the surface.

The Good: While overlong and perhaps a little preachy, The Abyss, I find, is one of the best science fiction movies ever made. Not because of the concept, although the mysterious aliens of the deep was intriguing, but more for what James Cameron always is able to manage in most of his films: its characters. The man knows how to balance the plot and action with his delicate take on his characters that are so easy to become attached to. On paper, that would seem so simple, but I think the utter failure to do so for many other action directors shows how difficult it is to pull off. Cameron has repeatedly. Although the Abyss is probably his least "actiony" of his films, even when put up against Titanic, it manages to gives us tension, drama and special effects that are all timeless.

The Bad: It has to be said that the final portions are melodramatic and overblown even for Cameron's standards, and are arguable the one aspect that keep the film from being a masterpiece. I feel as though he simply toys with us to pursue some message that, by that point, was pretty apparent and didn't really need to be re-drilled into our heads. All the subtext and nuances that the film was going for suddenly becomes pointless once the reveal is given.

The Ugly: I miss Michael Bien, and this movie really shows his range as an actor. Bien was in my office about a month ago, I barely recognized him, yet I have to admit I really felt like gushing over the fact he was there. This was Kyle Reece. This was Hicks. This was goddamn Johnny Ringo. I've always found it odd that Bien was the lead hero in two action classics yet never really reached the success of Stallone or Schwarzenegger - which is sad considering he's a better actor than either.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5

*Note: this would be my score for either cut of the film (theatrical and preachy director's cut). The endings are different, but the overall films are unchanged.


Ace High

After Cacopoulos manages to save himself from being hung on a false charge, he robs Cat Stevens and Hutch Bessyof a lot of money and steals their horses. This results in a merry chase and Stevens and Bessy become unwilling allies in Cacopoulus' revenge against the people who deserted him and framed him to get their money back.

The Good: True to its name, Ace High is an interesting Spaghetti Western due to many factors. One, it has three mainstays of the Spaghetti Western genre: Eli Wallach, Terence Hill and Bud Spencer all that the height of their popularity and probably the height of the popularity of the genre as a whole. They play their familiar roles well, Wallach the scraggly-underhanded Cacopoulos, Terence Hill as the stoic, quiet gunslinger Cat Stevens (no, not that Cat Stevens) and Bud Spencer as Hutch and doing what Bud Spencer does best: be a burly force on screen. It rolls through a lot territory we know the genre for, but it mixes up many elements that are just impossible to not like: namely the chemistry of these three characters. Their banter, their inner-play and the way the story weaves them through each others stories. Cat and Hutch are companions off a heist, and Cacopoulous is the wild card.

The theme of "poker" and "gambling" plays throughout the film. There's a lot of risk versus reward scenarios all coming to a surprisingly subtle but effective climax and "final showdown" that sways away from the grand finales of Spaghetti Westerns, and goes more for a poetic-justice theme to fit in with that theme of gambling (it does, after all, take place in a gambling hall and the deciding factor of what happens is entirely up to chance).

At its heart, though, Ace High is more of a heist movie. It has a number of scenarios of thievery, notably the planned heist of the casino at the end that echoes elements of Oceans 11 from 1960 where a team of very distinct characters come together to take down the bad guy. Director Giuseppe Colizzi, no stranger to Bud Spencer and Terence Hill in his Spaghetti Westerns (this film is actually the second of his trilogy with the same characters), just knows how to tell a great western story. All the fighting, the back-stabbings and double-crosses and suspense we love about this genre are here, and the pacing just right that brings out something that is relatively small on paper, but feels epic in scope when on screen. They're just fun because of Hill and Spencer and their relationship, the comedy never being too over-the-top and never undermining the gritty western tone, but this one with the added element of Eli Wallach just makes it the strongest entry in the trilogy by a mile.

The Bad: Colizzi knows how to tell a story, Ace High is a sharp tale, but when it comes to visual directing and setting up scenes, he's probably not anywhere near the top 10. It comes down to a lack of style plus a lack of coherence with action, which feels sloppy and a bit cumbersome. Due to that action being such an integral part of the genre, the fact it's rather mishandled is a huge detriment to the potential quality of this film. There's some great set pieces put in this movie, but they all have a strange sensation of passivity, as though the camera was just set up and the actors told to play it out. We're never "in" to these scenes or the action, not as much as we're "in" to the scenes of tension and suspense which Colizzi, thankfully, does quite well.

The Ugly: Wallach is almost too much in "Tuco" mode here (his classic character from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. It's great to see him doing something he does so well, he has that great charm about him, but this sometimes feels like a Tuco side-story when it's a lot more than that. He steals the show, yes, but not always in a good way.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Act of Valor

An elite team of Navy SEALs embark on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent.

The Good: It's movies like this that makes you wish they were just a little better. Act of Valor is an exhilaration action movie that's missing a few key elements to really make an impact. We'll get into that later, but what it sets out to do right it really does right. Solid action directing, inventive use of the camera, sharp (very sharp, actually) editing and a sensation sense of flow and pacing. From a purely directing, action movie experience, I have no reservations in calling it one of the best examples of the genre.

Act of Valor is completely a cathartic experience. It's entirely about the moment to moment of action, gunfire and explosions on a continuing path to one-upmanship, which is perfectly fine as far as I'm concerned, even if that's not quite enough to make it a good movie.

The Bad: Act of Valor is completely a visual experience. As great as it is on that celluloid surface, going deeper is out of the question. This wouldn't be so bad in relative terms for an action film, but Act of Valor lacks the capabilities to not have it be a distraction. Story is fractured and chaotic, characters unmemorable drones and the acting, and bad dialogue badly delivered, so awful at times that you can't help but quietly groan under your breath. You almost spot the moments where there were different takes or lines needing to be redone.

Scenes that involve any type of acting feels scattered and very rough, like someone dumped a few different puzzles on to the table and they're trying to piece together the best picture they can so it has some semblance of a whole. It's about the same quality of writing as a certain popular shooter series of video games, with about as human and realistic characters of those alongside it. Act of Valor even has a villain with a distinct scar and a big bushy beard to make sure we know it's the bad guy as well.

There's no doubt this is a film with an agenda. Usually you don't notice, you're too much in the moment of great action sequences, but there are times when the melodrama and heavy-handed ideologies of honor and brotherhood comes on a little too strong. A sudden upswell of symphonic sounds and slow-motion to falsely give us a sense of some sort of profoundness comes across as cheap, if not outright cheesy. Throw in obvious pandering to the crowd that has come to love and glorify the military, notably video game players (as there are numerous first-person sequences that are incredibly distracting) and you have what ends up, what I can best call, a failed success. Or is that a successful failure?

The Ugly: I'm very curious what will happen with director Mike McCoy after this. The action is just so well done, I hope he gets more action work as a result. At the same time, I wonder if the method of which Act of Valor was made would allow him to transition to other films.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Adjustment Bureau

The affair between a politician and a ballerina is affected by mysterious forces keeping the lovers apart. 

The Good: Despite what all the trailers and posters might indicate, make no mistake: The Adjustment Bureau is a romance movie. It's not your typical romance movie, however. It's more in the romance-category of calling The Princess Bride or What Dreams May Come romance movies: they certainly are but their conceits overshadow their romantic foundations.

The conceit of The Adjustment Bureau is, more or less, rather brilliant and keeps the romantic plot as a grounding device as we journey into a world of time freezing, powers, fates and fancy hats. Both Damon and Blunt suit their respective roles, but the movie, overall, has a hard time determining what it wants to be and do with itself.

The Bad: Full of exposition and speeches, The Adjustment Bureau loves explaining things. Sure, for a movie like this, you need some expository ramblings, but it's a conflicted film that seems in love with setting up scenes of speech making and soapbox moments from the very beginning. In fact, our character's entire "fate" is began by giving a speech to people. Throw in a few deus ex machinas here and there, plot events happening for purely convenient progression and a seemingly lack of good supporting roles (save one), and it's actually surprising that the film comes out as good as it does.

The romantic story keeps a good focus, but also isn't quite as developed and deep as it could be. Instead of spending time showing conversation or two people in love, it, rather, enjoys explaining how and why they're in love. Maybe our fates aren't much but equation, but for us to get to know and love and relate to characters, there needs to be less talking heads and more emotion. At least they have chemistry because the arc is inconsistent at best ranging from nicely subtle touches to overly cliched melodrama. The film is unbalanced and inconsistent, unfortunate because it has the elements to be a compelling film. In the end, it simply never comes together.

The Ugly: I think the film would have benefited from a darker tone. Maybe that would have undermined the romance story, but it wants to be a thriller, a fantastical piece of noir and a visual tone and, perhaps, more menacing themes and villains would have done wonders for it all. As it is, everything and everyone feels...complacent. It has ideas of ambition...but just makes do and moves on.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Adventures Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Adventurer/surgeon/rock musician Buckaroo Banzai and his band of men, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, take on evil alien invaders from the 8th dimension. 

The Good: If a person was to make a list of the best cult films of all time, as in the most popular and beloved ones, it would be remiss to not include The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Hell, it would be a mistake to not include it based on the title alone. It is truly one of the most unique, bizarre and strangely entertaining reason (if anything for the oddities within it) movie to ever be shot. I mean, our hero, Buckaroo, is a genius physicist slash neurosurgeon test pilot rock-star sharpshooting martial arts master. If this were a video review, I would repeat that emphatically. Instead, I'll just ask you to re-read it and think about it for a moment.

I like to think that Buckaroo Banzai was created with the intent to just see how far a genre movie could push itself. We know it was meant to be a send-up to 70s martial-arts exploitation flicks, but they really, really pushed the envelope by including elements of various genres, notably science fiction and fantasy with seemingly no direction whatsoever (which is about right as it was rewritten and redone over the course of many years). Sometimes, madness can create...well I won't necessarily say good art but art nonetheless...at least something unique and to be admired and loved because of that uniqueness.

Buckaroo Banzai is as unique as they come. It's adventurous, silly, funny at the right moments. Best of all, though, is how memorable that uniqueness becomes. Characters become ingrained into your consciousness, whether it's Buckaroo himself speaking to a lonely girl during one of his rock gigs, Jeff Goldblum wearing a cowboy outfit for an unnamed reason or certainly John Lithgow in one of his most bat-shit crazy performances ever (and that's saying a lot for an actor that lays claim to quite a few of those).  I think we love them because the sensation the actors give off that they love the silliness and uniqueness just as much as we do. Though it's a messy, mess of a movie, it's one to cherish. It's why the term "they don't make them like this any more" exists.

The Bad: As mentioned, I don't think anyone can deny that Buckaroo Banzai is one hell of a mess of a film. I suppose that's why it's loved. It's not bad as most messy 80s movies, there's still a sense of purpose to it and the characters certainly carry it more than the plot, but the pacing is everywhere and trying to do everything. Structure? Forget about it. I don't even know what happens and when, only that it does. Characters come and go, plot threads don't really go anywhere most of the time. Things just happen for the sake of happening.

Buckaroo Banzai isn't meant to be conventional, but it does need to be coherent. Despite all the crazy and nonsensical things that do happen, when it boils down to it...not a whole lot actually happens. It's like a series of vignettes loosely strung together. There's a lot of memorable moments and unique things, but it doesn't really add up to an all-encompassing scope of a narrative. But like I said...that's why people love it.

The Ugly: The writer and director of Buckaroo also wrote another off-the-wall 80s classic, Big Trouble in Little China. My question: why didn't more people hire him during this era. The insane excess of those two movies needed more company.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Adventures of Tintin

Tintin and Captain Haddock set off on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship commanded by Haddock's ancestor. But someone else is in search of the ship. 

The Good: Spielberg movies have a certain tone to them. Well, not all, obviously. You have two sides on the director. One is the dramatic side that gave us films like Schindler's List or The Color Purple. The other side is a playful, lighter side that gave us ET and Jurassic Park. The Adventures of Tintin is the latter, and it's something we haven't seen from the master in years. He is as "Spielbergy "as Spielberg can get in this one: high on charm and whimsy, always progressing and moving forward and constructs elaborate scenes of adventure and, simply, fun. And that's what Tintin, really is. It's just a lot of fun.

Spielberg's approach transitions well to the world of animation. So much so it's surprising he hasn't directed any animated film prior. He's been involved in great animated projects, though, notably the Animaniacs series and An American Tale, and much of what was great in those (these sense of humor) is found here, along with his still-top-notch sense of adventure. Spanning the glove, Tintin gives us deserts, biplanes, fist fights, open oceans, cramped cities and mysteries to be uncovered. Though many of the characters are, mostly, just facades of personality, they are certainly memorable personalities brought to life be some fantastic voice work, in particular Jamie Bell as the title role, Daniel Craig as a sinister villain and, most certainly, Andy Serkis as the drunkard Captain Haddock.

The animation itself is flawless. It's often shot none to different than if it were a live-action film with only the elaborate action moments showing showcasing over-the-top flamboyance. Notably a chase sequence in North Africa that goes on for minutes and never cuts away - the planning it probably took to construct that had to have taken the most out of the team of animators and Spielberg himself. I envision and large white-board and computer screens constructing every element that happens along the way, which camera angels to take us through and how to end it. It's, quite honestly, one of the best action sequences I've seen in a long time - all in an animated film. Mixing Indiana Jones with Looney Tunes, The Adventures of Tintin is a welcome breath of fresh air in the animated category and certainly a potential franchise and series should Spielberg decide to take up the reins once more.

The Bad: Highly entertaining, but a tad soulless in the process. I don't think Tintin's fault is in the art design, but in how it handles its characters. They're charming, but lack any sense of weight to their character - being more caricature than anything else. It's all a bit aloof as it looks to be fun, however this process doesn't allow the drama or risk of it all to sink in. Perhaps it's all a bit too loose for its own good as it is ever-progressing to an underwhelming finale (the finale far overshadowed by the previous action sequence, which is easily the film's best, an odd decision for a film focused on escalation of events).

The Ugly: The visual style, I found, is pretty spot-on here. It might be jarring to some, the art approach being more a blend of cartoon-meets-living person, but after a while you barely notice it. The expressions, fluidity and voice acting fit perfectly in its realm.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Adventureland

In 1987, James Brennan's dreams of a summer European tour before studying at an Ivy League school in New York City are ruined after his parents have a severe career setback. As a result, James must get a summer job to cover his upcoming expenses at the decrepit local amusement park, Adventureland, where he falls in love with a witty co-worker, Emily Lewin. In that bizarrely shady workplace, the young carnies have unforgettable and painful learning experiences about life, love and trust while James discovers what he truly values.

The Good:
Adventureland is completely dependent on its cast, and for the
most part it delivers as all the characters are pretty well-rounded and the performances solid. Even Kirsten Stewart, who’s role as a banal, bored, disinterested teen is perfect for her banal, bored, disinterested acting style. If there’s anything you’ll take away from this little Indie comedy, it’s that it has a good assortment of characters that will probably remind you of someone you knew as a teenager. That’s good, considering that’s the entire point of the movie. Though not as memorable as his character in Zombieland, this is the first movie I saw where I thought Jessie Eisnenberg really showed some good acting chops. He’s less in your face here, more laid back and subtle in his performance. Eisenberg is really what people were hoping to see from Michael Cera at this point, but Jessie has certainly leaped beyond him in my eyes and not just a one-note character actor.

It’s not trying to be a teen comedy. It’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be more reflection than anything as it comes across more as memories written in a journal than some formulaic situational comedy. It’s about the moments, not the action and reaction so many scripts tend to take, which puts Adventureland in a different category that’s shared with the likes of Linklater and Hughes – or at least aspires to be like them which in itself is commendable, it merely lacks the refinement and polish the films of those two often had.

The Bad: Despite the cast being good, the characters tend to be rather unlikable as a whole. They don’t really say or do anything to really bring up issues or be thoughtful as teens with their lives ahead of it. It badly wants to be a Dazed and Confused or a Hughes teen film from the 1980s, but at best squeezes by with a Waiting or Superbad (the director’s previous film) approach that can be charming at times but otherwise not really wanting to have a point and just have people we spend time with then it merely ends. Adventureland lacks the spark that even Superbad had, though, with people we want to spend that time with. Sure, they may be well-performed and solid characters...but they’re all pretty boring.

The Ugly: I actually like Ryan Reynold’s in the thing. Can you believe that? I can’t believe I actually said it. He’s pretty good here, but much of that is because he’s not the focus and mugging to the camera or showing off his abs every five seconds.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


After Hours

A meek word processor impulsively travels to Manhattan's Soho District to date an attractive but apparently disturbed young woman and finds himself trapped there in a nightmarishly surreal vortex of improbable coincidences and farcical circumstances.

The Good: If there's one thing Scorsese knows how to do, it's having a dark character study of his characters. After Hours does this to perfection as we wade through the yuppie-infestation that was the 1980s. It's slow pace of the story and thematic development has David Lynch-like tendencies; satirical, paranoid, intense, surrealist and uncomfortable. He takes on many new styles and approaches with bravo and succeeds across most of them. Like many of his early films, Scorsese explores New York and New Yorkers. The faults of the city and those within it are as apparent in After Hours as they were in Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. Notably, this is through Paul, played brilliantly by Griffin Dunne. Dunne is one of those classic 80s actors that kind of disappeared from the public eye over the years and only when you go back and see his performance do you see how good he was at his craft. He's perfectly cast and gives the performance of his career that is as subtle as it is inspired. With him leading the way and Scorsese in full command of a tight story and the camera, you have a very focused and candid look at a regular guy stuck in an irregular world.

The Bad: The film isn't a comedy in the vein of "joke, meet punchline" or situational humor, but is one that works in making you uncomfortable and laughing at the fact the character is uncomfortable or you're feeling uncomfortable. Due to this rather interesting dichotomy and non-traditional approach to trying to be funny while being dramatic, it's hard to determine whether or not it succeeds in doing so. Some feel it's a parable of Don Quixote, more akin to A Confederacy of Dunces than a Marx Brothers film, others just feel uneasy with it all (something Scorsese often did in many of his early films but didn't try to be funny while doing so). As a dark satire, it's brilliant, as something someone might want to watch again and get involved with, it fails. Unlike some of Scorsese's other films, After Hours isn't quite as timeless and noticeably set in the 1980s. The styles and look reflect that, but also the context of the story which can feel dated and not as accessible.

The Ugly: I'm not sure how, or even why, After Hours was labeled and marketed as a comedy.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


After Life (Wandâfuru raif)

After death, people have just one week to choose only a memory to keep for eternity.

The Good: After Life is a simple premise with a very deep and complex exploration. The premise: when you die, purgatory is a place your soul goes to and spends one week to seek a single memory to take with you before you pass on. The exploration of this, though, is a heartfelt dissertation of life, death, memories and purpose of existence. The memories, though, aren't just plucked from the past, they must be re-created and, in a way, After Life takes the phrase "life is a stage" to a whole new meaning as the "people" (I would say angels but the film is never that specific) in the purgatory way-station create the sets, effect and so for to shoot the memory on a piece of film the soul will then always have.

It's a non-linear dissertation of what makes us who we are as we explore a group of new souls at the way-station and we discover who they are, their dreams, their purpose and their search for that memory to be re-created. It's their perspective and subjectivity of their own lives, and maybe the realization of that subjectivity, that makes the film not a simple tale of life-after-death, but a discovery into an element of the human condition that isn't always done in such a grounded way. The film plays with its audience as well, as we aren't told what is accurate, what is true or what is fleeting, only that this is what is remembered and how these characters perceive it...and therefore perceive their lives. It's not done coldly, though it easily could have been. It's warming, affectionate and as sincere of a film about life and death as you will ever see.

The brilliance rolls back to the simplicity of the premise. We can take in all these complexities and emotions, these characters trying to come to terms with their past and let go, the way we remember and perhaps don't want to remember, because the premise is so inviting. What makes us who we are might be something set more for a piece of science fiction, but After Life plays out like a memory itself, or at the very least a dream.

The Bad: After Life's execution is unfortunately a slight downfall. This concept and exploration is something that I would say everyone should be able to see, but the structure and art-house sensibility of it doesn't make it as accessible. Though it asks little of us other than to sit and meditate upon its devices,  not having to worry about "twists" or "acts," it's very matter-of-fact in how it progresses and due to the non-linear nature of it, sometimes a bit hard to follow on top of all that.

The Ugly: They were going to re-make this. I'm glad they didn't. The premise might be there ripe to be easily accessible, but the exploration would be lost.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Age of Innoncence

Society scion Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland, but his well-ordered life is upset when he meets May's unconventional cousin, the Countess Olenska. At first, Newland becomes a defender of the Countess, whose separation from her abusive husband makes her a social outcast in the restrictive high society of late-19th Century New York, but he finds in her a companion spirit and they fall in love.

The Good: The Age of Innocence is to Scorsese what Barry Lyndon was to Stanley Kubrick. It's a period piece, a slight departure from the usual repertoire and style showing subtlety and patience; it's ambitious and at its heart a unique character study full or romantic ideals. It's elegant, although not without its darker side, and beautifully told romantic film that makes all those awkward romantic stories Scorsese has told in past look one-dimensional. It's complex with its love-triangle story and one film you need to pay attention to nearly every word spoken to fully understand, luckily the acting (as always with a Scorsese picture) will keep your attention but it's let's not forget the real character (again, as with many of Scorsese's pictures)- New York City.

The Bad: A common criticism, and one I share with those critics, is the overabundance of voice-over narration (by Oscar winner Joanne Woodward). Rather than sit and explore the delicacies of a shot or scene, often we're told about it through actual passages read from the book...and it sounds like actual passages read from a book and comes across as self-serving rather than interesting. It's slow and draws itself out, even monotone with no personality although strangely fitting at times. The visual feast and fantastic performances can't overcome it and it hinders the entire film.

The Ugly: More should see this film, it's one many tend to overlook, mainly because it seems nothing like a Scorsese film.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


Akira

Kaneda is a bike gang leader whose close friend Tetsuo gets involved in a government secret project known as Akira. On his way to save Tetsuo, Kaneda runs into a group of anti-government activists, greedy politicians, irresponsible scientists and a powerful military leader. The confrontation sparks off Tetsuo's supernatural power leading to bloody death, a coup attempt and the final battle in Tokyo Olympiad where Akira's secrets were buried 30 years ago.

The Good: Many hail Akira as the greatest piece of Japanese animation to exist. Well, I know it’s the most popular, most people have visions of Akira when someone says the word “anime,” but I kind of hold my reservations in claims like that. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic and compelling work. It shuns the notion of a simple plot, diving deep into a neo-Tokyo world with its own history that you have to pay attention to if you want any chance to understand what is happening. It’s a morality play but not as simple as good versus evil. It’s about good and evil, but how that is sometimes not always the same as right and wrong or moral versus immoral. Hell, sometimes evil isn’t even intentional at all, and intentional good can be seen as the true evil when all is said and done. If you look at it through those lenses, perhaps the same way you’d look at a Kubrick or Bergman film, you can see how easy it is to view it as a masterpiece of animation and raises the bar of what people can expect from their animated films. I feel the strongest aspect, though, is simply the world and look of it all. It’s Tokyo if Blade Runner got a hold of it, and it’s utterly stunning how detailed and fantastic, yet completely real, it all seems.

The Bad: I sometimes think that many love Akira simply because everyone else loves Akira. Oh, it’s not a bad film by any means, but it’s a flawed film, overly confusing for its own good with characters that you find a hard time to enjoy being around. You need a high tolerance for something like this, similar to a film like Requiem for a Dream or Blue Velvet where odd things occur or the story perhaps jumps around but it all has a point to it. Akira, though, doesn’t quite make that point entirely clear and leaves you scratching your head rather than enjoying what the film has to offer on screen. Like other anime that is on the cusp of true perfection, Akira is drawn back by spending too much time showcasing violence rather than trying to develop its story and characters better.

The Ugly: The final “showdown,” I feel, is intentionally absurd but unintentionally humorous.


Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

When Alice Hyatt is suddenly widowed after years of domesticity, she decides to travel to Monterey, California with her 11-year-old son Tommy to resume a singing career. In Phoenix, Arizona she gets a job singing at a piano bar and begins a relationship with Ben, who turns out to be married and a spouse abuser. In Tucson, she puts her dream of singing on hold and becomes a waitress. She meets a farmer, David and begins to think about a new life of domesticity.

The Good: Ellen Burstyn's Oscar-winning performance as Alice is the single most load-bearing beam on Scorsese's half-drama half-comedy house. Without it, it would all crash. Thanks to Alice, we're enthralled as we go with her as she tries to rebuild a life. It's not a pretty path most of the time, and Alice is an emotional wreck about as much, but there's a degree of sincerity, beauty and kindness in her that we can only wish for in the best of people. She feels real, she acts real, and as a result she is real and the story that much more believable and impactful. It's one of Scorsese's more conventional films and his usual stamp is few and far between, but he gets the best of his actors and his script as usual with this subtle little trip through Alice's life. The child actor, Alfred Lutter, is of equal interest and importance. He's an odd kid but the chemistry between he and his mother, Alice, and her potential beau, David, is another strong foundation to the whole story and his performance rather impressive for one so young and arguably carries the weight of some of the best scenes in the film (which so often feel like home movies from the mid-west than a typical narrative film).

The Bad: As strong as Alice is at times, she's also a tad on the strange side, almost bi-polar in how she treats herself and her son. One minute she's likable and loving, the next she feels bitter and cold. While Burstyn plays it all beautifully, it's still a tad difficult to fully like her. You'll feel pity one minute and then shrug and ask "why did you do that?" the next. I suppose it's this element that, at the time, put many on opposite sides on whether the film was for or against women's right and equality. It can play off as feminist one minute, then misogynistic the next with Alice as weak and apparently perfectly fine being a diner waitress, a stereotype single mothers were synonymous with then and today.

The Ugly: Harvey Keitel's small cameo will stay with you, his stage-presence is outstanding. He's ruthless and the few scenes he's in are remarkable, overshadowing a lot of other performances in the film. Had he been in it more, he surely would have received some accolades.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Alice in Wonderland (2010)

19-year-old Alice returns to the magical world from her childhood adventure, where she reunites with her old friends and learns of her true destiny: to end the Red Queen's reign of terror.

The Good: If there's anything director Tim Burton would be able to grasp when it comes to something like Alice and Wonderland, it's the atmosphere. Alice is absolutely beautiful and perfect in its visual artistry. It's surreal just as you'd imagine a live-action Alice and Wonderland to look and the utter randomness of everything is very in tune with what Alice in Wonderland is about. Characters are outrageous, costumes even more so, and the vibrant and smart use of its palette is admirable. There's also, somewhere, an enjoyable story and, thankfully, some enjoyable characters (Hathaway, Depp, Glover and our Alice, Mia Wasikowska are all nicely cast) to go along with it. However, there's no sense of "magic" to any of it.

The Bad: That "magic" being the joy and wonder that a world like this should evoke. Instead, it all seems rather rudimentary of itself. It wants to have this world as merely a backdrop. This just won't do. Wonderland is meant to be a character itself and instead of its sense of life we seem to really grasp it as we rummage around with a poorly paced story and abysmal climatic battle.  There's no emotion. There's no weight to any of the personalities that dot its landscape. There's certainly no heart, even though Wasikowska does her best to try and bring a little, and certainly a complete lack of comedic whimsy that this classic Fairy Tale is meant to behold (even if this is a sequel of sorts). This film should have had the same fervor and love that Burton managed to squeeze out of films such as Big Fish or Beetlejuice. Instead, we're left wanting a lot, lot more - and not because we enjoyed the little we got but because we demanded it in the first place.

The Ugly: I can't recall the last time I saw a movie use so much build up and utterly fall completely flat at its climax. The final sequences are an utter bore, far too drawn out and lacking any drama to it, making the rest of the film seem utterly worthless as a result.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Alien

When a mining ship lands on a planet to investigate upon a suspected SOS, the entire crew are unaware of the terror which they would unleash upon their ship. When a alien life-form attach's itself to the face of a crew member, the rest of the team act fast to try and separate the two organisms. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the start of the terror which would affect every member of the seven person crew.

The Good: People often throw the word "masterpiece" around too often. Not for this movie, as far as I'm concerned. It's the greatest science-fiction/horror movies, and one of the best films period, to be shot. Ridley Scott creates a whole new universe for us to buy into. This isn't the future we hoped for, nice and neat, this is the future that's full of bureaucrats, dirty cargo ships and, of course, nasty creatures. It's cold, lonely, isolated and unforgiving. Few films give us that sense of loneliness and despair on this level. Fewer films are able to pace and plot itself perfectly, building tension flawlessly to a perfect and fulfilling climax. The story isn't Alien's strength, it's the way its told, how its told, and how it lets it all sink in. On top of that, we have our heroine, one of cinema's best, in Ellen Ripley who moves from the subservient role to a woman who takes control. By the end, you sense her fear of the alien that has stalked and killed her crew, at the same time you sense her loathing of it. The low budget helps Alien just as it helped Jaws: we barely see the thing. Not seeing what's around the corner is far scarier than it just jumping out, again a testament to perfect plotting and tension.

The Bad: The film tries to give us an insight into the characters, but outside of Ripley and Ash, the characters really aren't much more developed than your typical slasher movie. Many feel like placeholders to merely meet their untimely deaths and barely have a personality to speak of. With the rest of the movie so much better than your standard killer-victim scenario, far more intelligent than its given credit for, it's actually a little disappointing the character aspect is as shallow as a Friday the 13th movie despite the cast and characters older, as though they've been doing this for decades (which I love). This is Ripley's story, however, so it's a minor fault to say the least.

The Ugly: Honestly, would you go back for the cat? I know it's important thematically, how it's the last pure thing left and Ripley feels obligated, but it is a cat. At least Aliens made it to be a little girl. That I could buy.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Aliens

Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of the alien attack on the mining ship Nostromo, awakens half a century later when she is found by a salvage ship. The welcome given to her by the "Company" officials is far from warm, since they refuse to believe her discovery of alien existence and strip her off her flight officer's license. Ripley also discovers, much to her horror, that the planet LV-426 where her crew had encountered an alien species for the first time, is now colonized by the company. But when all contact from the planet is lost Ripley is called back into action again as an advisor to a team of tough space marines with lots of firepower. To get rid of her recurrent nightmares about the alien creature, Ripley prepares for a final battle with the monsters - and this time, there are hundreds of them out there.

The Good: Despite the contrast in setting, style and approach (the desire to go in guns ablazing rather than be intelligent or logical) Aliens, for some reason, feels consistent to the original. It shouldn't, but it does. Much of that has to be Sigourney Weaver, who solidifies Ripley as one of the great screen heroes in this film, and her speaking of the past incidents and references ties the first film well to this one. Again, she starts in the subservient role, and again she takes control because now she knows what she's up against...and now she has guns. Strangely, this sequel fixes the issue I had in the first film with the characters.  It's a great assortment of characters and the actors all feeling distinct yet together. While not as visually striking as Alien, there's a great deal of consistency from the first film combined with original concepts and creations. Again, we get that sense of loneliness, even with a large team, not to mention isolation thanks to the character of Newt showing the results and her detachment from humanity. Now, though, it's a place ravaged by the aliens as though this team of soldiers came upon hell itself. It builds tension, taking a cue for Alien with the simple beeping getting louder and faster of the motion/proximity detectors, an obvious sound cue to a heartbeat getting faster, and the ominous score by James Horner.  

The Bad: Unfortunately, the story itself is no where up to par. It's a typical action film, offering little in terms of plot and story progression: aliens come, fight, hide. That's pretty much the repeated standard for the entire film, there's little in terms of originality or depth. As great as the action is, and it offers some interesting twists in terms of plot, it repeats the cycle far too often.

The Ugly: I'm sorry, but Newt gets pretty damn annoying in the film. We get it. She's a cute innocent little girl, I don't need that bashed repeatedly into my head.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Alien 3

After escaping from the alien planet, the ship carrying Ellen Ripley crashes onto a remote and inhabited ore refinery. While living in the ore refinery until she is rescued by her employers, Ripley discovers the horrifying reason for her crash: An alien stowaway. As the alien matures and begins to kill off the inhabitants, Ripley is unaware that her true enemy is more than just the killer alien.

The Good: David Fincher's big-screen debut, and although he, like everyone else, wishes he could take it back (he walked out after principal shooting), he does give the film it's best aspect: it's visuals. The dark, gloomy industrial feel, the warm tones and cold facades and the intense angles and first-person perspectives are all well presented and showcases a director still not quite ready to fulfill his destiny (he wouldn't find that until the film Se7en three years later). Weaver does what she can and shows Ripley's power and resourcefulness, although her character arc is, again, a retread from the first two films, but she can't overcome the muddy plot and the overall dullness of everything else

The Bad: There's simply no heart (and no pun intended) to Alien 3. It's a cold film with little in terms of relateability and humanity. It's hard to draw a liking to a bunch of convicts and even Ripley seems a cold shell of her former self. As much as I try to find something redeeming about the film, it's hard to. It's an ugly movie and a mess of a story (thanks to numerous writers trying to work on it). Fincher was brought in last-minute, and it shows as he could only work visually and not try to develop the material. Scenes were scattered and cut almost as much as the script was. It's simply put a bad film and damn near unwatchable.

The Ugly: It's obvious Alien 3 was a salvage operation. Most can credit Fox president Joe Roth for more or less ruing the film as the producers and creators of the Alien franchise had originally pitched it The producers wanted to write Ripley out, only giving her a cameo, and retool the series with a new approach and concept focusing on the "Corporation" and the rising military aggression. Michael Biehn was to take the reigns at least for this third film. Roth, though, hated this idea and forced the producers to do what the studio wanted which was to make and market another Ripley-centered film (and, truth be told, this was a good point from Roth, Ripley was a great hero), this lead to conflicts between them, the producers and directors (yes, that's plural), the various writers/drafts and so forth. The result was dislodgement of the film by everyone involved as well as people who worked on Alien and Aliens (such as James Cameron who called the film a "slap in the face").

Final Rating: 1 out of 5


Alien: Resurrection

200 years after the conclusion of Alien 3, the company is able to resurrect Ripley through the process of cloning and the scientists successfully take the Queen Alien out of her. But, Ripley's DNA gets mixed up with the Queen's and she begins to develop certain alien characteristics. The scientists begin breeding the aliens, but they later escape. Soon the Xeno-morphs are running amok on the ship, which is on course to earth. The Queen then gives birth to a deadly new breed of alien, which could spell disaster for the entire human race. It's up to Ripley and a band of space pirates to stop the ship before it reaches earth.

The Good: I love the way this film looks. It's got a sense of style and smartness to it. Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a keen eye, nobody will deny that, and the visual craftsmanship shows and is easily the best aspect of the film. The movie (story and visuals) takes more cues from Aliens than anything, focusing on action and violence even more so than Cameron ever did. Here, though, it's done with a little bit more panache and style and, overall, can be fun at times. There's a bit of campiness to it now, a tongue-in-cheek approach saying "We know you've probably seen this before, now for something completely different." I actually ended up liking this new tone (especially after the soulless third film) and took it for what it offered: entertainment.

The Bad: Alien: Resurrection changed a lot of the formula that we knew about the Alien moves, notably Ripley. One thing it changed and failed at, though, is what the Alien movies are about. They're supposed to be scary and full of tension, yet Resurrection does not do that. Instead, it exchanges that fear with a sense of discomfort and uneasiness. Also, much like Alien 3, it's a little hard to like anyone in this movie (although Pearlman is pretty enjoyable as usual), even Ripley. That's because it's not Ripley. Sure, it may look like her, talk like her, but there's something gone. I would have to say it's the human side of her and the spirit she gave in the previous three films. The Ripley we knew and love is 200 years dead, now. The film is far from memorable, and it tries hard to wrap its story into a neat package like Alien and Aliens did, but, while admirable at times, it's a very forgettable movie. If the first two movies are the Big Mac, this one is a decent quarter-pounder (Alien 3, I would say, is at best a McNugget)

The Ugly: There's a lot of ugliness to the film. From Weaver clones that are deformed to the weird Alien-hybrid that gets sucked out small hole in space. As mentioned, the film seems more inclined to cause uneasiness than scare you.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Alien Nation

A few years from now, Earth will have the first contact with an alien civilization. These aliens, known as Newcomers, slowly begin to be integrated into human society after years of quarantine but are victims of a new type of discrimination. When the first Newcomer police officer, Sam Francisco is assigned his new partner, he is given Matthew Sykes , a mildly racist veteran, the animosity between them soon gives way to respect as they investigate the Newcomer underworld, and especially Newcomer leader William Harcourt.

The Good: Believe it or not, some of the best science fiction came from the 1980s. Who would have thought a decade full of heavy metal, cocaine and yuppies would give us classic science fiction films and television. Alien Nation is one of those that has become a bit lost over the years, as well as its television series, but is really one of the more original (at the time) and entertaining films, but perhaps for those fans of the genre as the common moviegoer probably wouldn't enjoy it (of course, I could say that when it came out as well). While a B-Movie at heart, it has a crime-drama and conspiracy angle that keeps it interesting and characters that are compelling, if at least enough, to really draw you into a world that does feel as though aliens are now a part of. Like Robocop, another 80s sci-fi classic, the world and aesthetic take is the film's greatest strength, more than the story itself.

The Bad: I know James Caan is a fantastic actor, but he really doesn't quite fit in for this role. I think he's supposed to be a hard-edged, tough cop but I can't say as I really buy any of it. Often, he's upstaged by Mandy Patinkin. The film also seems overly ambitious for what its budget will allow and it ends up apparently having to make compromises resulting in a lackluster ending that feels thrown together.

The Ugly: I haven't seen the movie in years, only recently seeing it again about a month or so ago. Wow...it has not aged well. Oh, it's still entertaining, but it is distinctly an 80s movie. I don't hold that against movies, though.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


All Good Things

A love story and murder mystery based on the most notorious unsolved murder case in New York history...

The Good: Three really good actors doing really good things that are hard to really appreciate due to a convoluted story that leaves more questions than answers. In appreciation of it, though, All Good Things is a psychological tale about the dimensions of one man. The confusion surrounding who he is and what he is done, though there is certainly no reveals to them, is an exploration of his dimensions. It's a character study at its heart, the unsolved mystery aspect merely a vehicle, but it's not one done particularly well.

The Bad: Ambiguity is a narrative element that, in the wrong hands, can end up ruining a film. Some elements of a plot are supposed to be without full answers and conclusions either because the story wants to have an audience form its own conclusions (and perhaps, in the case here, there aren't quite enough facts to give a full conclusion) or to show a thematic motif. Ambiguity is necessary for All Good Things' premise, but the problem is it can't handle the uncertain nature of it all. Uncertainty doesn't always make for a great story and all All Good Things can carry with it is strong performances to keep you interested. Otherwise, it's a trite and rather boring movie that can turn ambiguity into confusion and a plot into a footnote of a film that feels unfinished because it's so determined to stay true to facts and not make conclusion. That might make for an interesting story, but not a very compelling film. At least not in how it's handled here.

It comes down to the fact that the film plays everything safe. It doesn't take a lot of chances or draw conclusions because it doesn't want to. It might risk something, whatever that may be. What is the intention of the film, then?  It's more restating facts than enlightening the story in any way. In another mysterious case, the one found in the neo-noir Hollywoodland, they use a private eye as a framing device to bring out the possibilities of the various mysterious surrounding one man's assumed suicide. Also based on real events, it too does not draw conclusions, but enlightens on the possibilities of the situation and the fact we may never know. All Good Things feels restricted to its own structure, determined to not take even that small of a chance in bringing out a poignant point and purpose to seeing the film to begin with.

The Ugly: All Good Things is, unfortunately, a mess of a thriller. I watched the film twice and had difficulties on both viewing trying to understand what it is it's trying to bring out. I will say for a move that was shelved (usually an indication it has too many issues - there are a ton of movies and TV shows made every year that are never released) before being bought back by the director, I did expect far far worse. At the same time, I can see why the Weinstein Company.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Altered States

An American researching different states of consciousness with the aid of mind altering drugs and an isolation chamber begins to experience disturbing physical changes in his body that point toward an evolutionary regression.

The Good: A cross between David Cronenberg and his often-used theme of “transformation” and the surrealist quality of Luis Bunuel, Altered States stakes its claim as one of the most strange, bizarre and often unnerving films to ever be released. It’s intense, sometimes an expression and practice of “sensory overload” - and then it hits you: that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Altered States doesn’t just put its characters through the ringer,  notably its sympathetic and obsessive protagonist played brilliantly by William Hurt, it also puts the audience through it as well. You don’t need to take drugs or go through sensory deprivation to see what there is to see here. You’ll be every bit on edge and often frightened and confused as the characters within the story. This is purely intentional as it tricks you narratively, many times actually as you piece things together, and will hypnotize you to a point you feel the exact same relief the characters feel when you come out of it. Hell, some of those “sequences” seem to never end, and the shocking realization when reality comes back into play will have you grinning as you see just how powerful the cinematic form can be and how badly you fell into its trap.

It’s more than meets the eye as quite the complex and allegorical/metaphorical films to ever be made. From faith and spirituality, to existential commentary and the visceral nature of humanity. The truth is, I could make a list about what Altered States touched upon, some deeper than others, and all seemingly random yet, as you progress, you find they all bind together as an overarching plan by the ambitious writers, the director and the novelist himself.

The Bad: It takes a good third of the film for Altered States to really get going. It tries to lull you to sleep for a good amount. Once it starts getting into its “flow” of things, it becomes an incredibly effective psychological thriller and a pretty damn effective piece of science fiction horror. That first act, though, drags to no end and is seemingly aimless with its shocking, random visuals and screeching soundtrack.

The Ugly: There’s this often cliché phrase that reviewers will use to get their names on a poster. It’s the phrase “..a roller-coaster ride.” Usually it’s in reference to some action movie with lots of explosions and an adrenaline rush. I would prefer to save that phrase for a film like this- where the “ride” isn’t so obvious. It’s completely psychological and in your head and not bombarded with gunfire and bombs. The gunfire is the insanity, and the bombs are the imagery. Altered States is not a movie can recommend to everyone, but at the same time recommend to everyone.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Altitude

After a mysterious malfunction sends their small plane climbing out of control, a rookie pilot and her four teenage friends find themselves trapped in a deadly showdown with a supernatural force.

The Good: Inspired by pulp comics and HP Lovecraft, Altitude is an interesting premise and overall enjoyable little DVD flick that even horror fans will probably end up cultly loving it, or just hating it entirely. It's a trip through a nightmare of mystery and claustrophobia with a simple but entirely effective premise. Shot well, especially considering the budget and effects work, Altitude is a decent-enough watch, though it will probably be completely forgettable for most people and a missed opportunity to make a classic genre picture.

The Bad: To have things happen inexplicably is ok to a degree, but here we have a major plot point as to why things are happening. Yet, the "why" is never really dived into. Oh, there's an explanation, but for something that major you really need a "why" behind the "why."

However, it is easy to forgive Altitude on the complete randomness of it all. It shows in the film itself that it gets its inspiration from Weird Tales, The Vault of Horror, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales From the Darkside and the like. Thing is...maybe a shortened version of this feature would have done that much more for it. There's certainly a lot of padding and character dialogue that doesn't amount to anything and it's easy to see how it could be cut down to an hour and aired on an episode of Tales From the Crypt. At an hour and a half long, it feels a half hour too long and might have made for a far more effective pilot (pardon the pun) for a new series than a feature length movie. It's that element and the constant progressing of the story that makes you desire more and more reasoning behind everything that's happening. A shortened version would have simply been done and over with and our expectations of an hour long ride would have been better met.

The main problem, though, stems entirely on dialogue and characters. For a movie that takes place in one confined location, everything hinges on that...and Altitude just doesn't deliver. The situation and threat is there, but you end up not caring because the characters are so obsurdly annoying and do absurdly stupid things that you wish for the plane to simply start a nose dive.

The Ugly: Jessica Lowndes upstages our protagonist here. She's far more effective as a heroine, even though, technically, she's not the main character. She's good, but it's too bad she's simply not getting very good movies to work in.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Always

Pete is a pilot who drops water on forest fires at very low heights. His intended Dorinda is also a pilot who doubles as a radio controller for the pilots who do this work. Pete always takes chances, confident that his skill will bring him through. One day it doesn't and he is killed. He finds himself returning as an invisible ghost who's presence is barely felt giving advice to his successor. Pete then finds that his successor is also falling in love with Dorinda.

The Good: To be honest, there’s not a whole lot to write in this section this time. It might play to your melodramatic tendencies and maybe move you, as contrived as it may be, with emotional scenes, but that’s about the core of the whole thing. It’s the concept that I would label “good” but the execution a little more geared towards the “bad” side (maybe mediocre is best). The concept is great fantasy. A man dies and his spirit is sent back as a kind of guardian angel. Unfortunately the man he’s sent back to be a guardian angel for is striking up a relationship with the dead man’s wife. Now that concept is great, and to be fair if it were made today it would probably end up being a comedy, but Always is dramatic through and through...and maybe that’s when we just start to get a little tired of it. At least it manages to be a little funny and get a smile to crack once in a while.

The Bad:
Enough niceties, though, if any of that qualifies. The film is the showcase a director a little too sure of himself and tackling a subject completely new to him. Sounds a little like Spielberg’s attempt with 1941 to do a comedy, here he is doing a dramatic love story (although sometimes funny). It has elements that is good for the director’s comfort zone about fantasy and nice special effects. Despite that it feels dated and bored with even itself. There’s not vibrancy or liveliness in the film (and for Spielberg that’s a surprise). It’s overly sappy (and overly long now that I think about it) in nearly every facet without trying to explore actual intimacy or true emotion that feels believable. It tries too hard for its own good For some, they like that. For others, we just roll our eyes.

The Ugly:
Richard Dreyfuss is at his most nasally Dreyfussy in this flick. It's this movie that all the impressionists seem to base their act on. It’s actually kind of charming in hindsight.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Amadeus

Antonio Salieri believes that Mozart's music is divine. He wishes he was himself as good a musician as Mozart so that he can praise the Lord through composing. But he can't understand why God favored Mozart, such a vulgar creature, to be his instrument. Salieri's envy has made him an enemy of God whose greatness was evident in Mozart. He is set to take revenge.

The Good: It’s so easy to call Amadeus a “grand” picture. It is about Mozart, his life, his music, and a time where hedonism was prevalent. Amadeus is a difficult film to review. It’s a simple, understated drama with the backdrop of the exuberant and somewhat decadent 17th Century Europe (in this case Vienna). It looks like a costume drama, but it anything but. Instead we are told the story of Mozart through the eyes of his (supposed) rival Salieri, played brilliantly by F. Murray Abraham and bringing him an Oscar (one of 8 for the film). What Amadeus gives us a smaller tale of Mozart through Selieri’s eyes and, maybe, his bitterness and jealousy. It’s his account and, thus, his interpretation of it all about this young, genius composer who had the world in the palm of his hand and it all ending by the time he was 35. It’s also a tale of regret and greed as Salieri is just as flawed and amoral as the composer he critiques and condemns. It’s a richly complex film, beautify shot by legendary director Milos Forman and has, arguably, some of the best use of music to grace a film, you feel the joy and sincerity from the characters within it and when they hear it. Then again it is Mozart compositions and we should be thankful it graces our ears at all…as little of it as there actually is.

The Bad:
The life of Mozart was no doubt complex and difficult to both comprehend and, thus, appreciate. This isn’t a full recreation of him or his life, we actually know very little about the man, and instead this can be dubbed a caricature of who he was-an idea more than a literal representation. As beautiful as the film is, the problems actually stems from the original play and Peter Shaffer’s, let’s just say “dramatic license” of nearly everything. Salieri is difficult to get a grasp on, we never really know if he’s full of regret or actually happy in his actions. A great scene at the end showing Salieri and Mozart working together is hard to figure out as Salieri appears sincere one minute to be there, then cold and callus the next only caring about the music. Is there no human attachment? His wife, too, is represented more as a harpy and a tailcoater one minute, distant and reclusive, and then a consummate lover the next. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for any of them. Inconsistencies and hard to grasp personalities and motivations aside, in the end, I suppose the biggest flaw is we never really got to know Mozart and now just know him as this young genius…but maybe nobody knew him in the first place. Maybe he was just a used man, by his father, his rival, his lover...and if anything Amadeus reminds us how tragic he really was, even if we knew little about the man himself. The film is also a little to reliant on showcasing various operas. They often parallel what is going on in the story, but unless we have Salieri's voiceover, by the third or fourth one it merely comes across as unnecessary padding, even if they are beautiful to behold.

The Ugly: Can we forgive Amadeus for giving us “Rock by Amadeus” by Falco? The jury is still out.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Amarcord

A year in the life of a small Italian coastal town in the nineteen-thirties, as is recalled by a director with a superstar's access to the resources of the Italian film industry and a piper's command over our imaginations. Federico Fellini's film combines the free form and make-believe splendor with the comic, bittersweet feeling for character and narrative we remember from some of his best films of the 1950s. The town in the film is based on Rimini, where Mr. Fellini grew up. Yet there is now something magical, larger-than-life about the town, its citizens and many of the things that happen to them.

The Good: Memories and moments, as well as a strong dose of self-deprecations, builds Amarcord (I Remember) into Fellini’s most personal film. It’s light. It’s comedic. It’s a bit strange even and certainly full of strange “life moments” and even stranger characters. Like a lot of later Fellini films, there might seem to be no direction or point to it all - that’s because there really isn’t. It’s more as series of vignettes and anecdotal stories and when it’s done do you realize that the structureless nature to it all was intentional and, in this arena, almost necessary considering the context of the film itself. Memories and our thoughts of childhood, adolescence and so on is never in a straight line. It’s all over the place, full of randomness of smells and tastes, the touch of a fabric or the voice of another person to draw the memories from – like smelling pumpkin pie and remembering Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house. You don’t think of your life from beginning to end, you think of the individual moments that make it – that’s what Amarcord is going for and where it fully succeeds.

The Bad: Fellini’s career divides people. While all are in agreement he was a wonderful director and filmmaker, most prefer his early work or his later work. It’s merely preference, and not surprisingly I do prefer his early material simply due to the fact I love Neorealism a great deal. I felt there’s an emotional richness and depth to his early work that his later material doesn’t quite have, Amarcord, as great as it is for different reasons, is an example of that. There’s a lot going on in it, it’s about those life moments, as I mentioned, but it never does much beyond the surface of observational musings and less-than-subtle commentaries.

Does that affect my score on how brilliant a movie it is? No. It's far too well made a film for it to have much impact. It only strengthens the notion that I do prefer his earlier works for those elements that were more dominate – structure, character arcs and so on. In fact, Amarcord isn’t nearly as fantastical or full of excess as some of his other, more art-house friendly films. It’s a bit of an homage to his earlier work, in a way, and maybe that’s why, out of all of his later films, I find it his very best.

The Ugly: Some claim the film paints caricatures of its people, outlandish appearance, rationale and behavior, rather than the intimate portraits. I say - "They're Italian, what do you expect?"

By the way, the giant ship in this movie? It's not real. Pretty impressive looking.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Amazing Spider-Man

Peter Parker finds a clue that might help him understand why his parents disappeared when he was young. His path puts him on a collision course with Dr. Curt Connors, his father's former partner.

The Good: A well-cast, well-acted and very energetic superhero film that just doesn't do enough "new" to really distinguish itself. It's solid, and feels like it's just fine being solid and not going above the call to do much more than that.

Well, that doesn't sound like a "good" entry, does it? Truth is, there's not a lot to write about The Amazing Spider-Man, and maybe that's the film's biggest fault. But it does get some things down that are superb, the best being a very well cast set of actors in the principal roles and a real threat of a villain, though underdeveloped at times. Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Aunt May and Uncle Ben is about as good of casting as one could ask for. Rhys Ifans mugs and chews the scenery as Dr. Connors with the best of them, simultaneously playing a sympathetic role alongside that of a mad-scientist, and Emma Stone brings a strong female presence alongside Field that a film like this badly, badly needs (and something the Raimi Spider-Man films lacked).

Then you have Andrew Garfield, and you can tell the kid loves his character and absolutely owns the role. Though there are issues with Parker on the script page, as a personality and character Garfield is obviously having fun both as the dweeby outcast and the mockingly fun Spider-Man as he whips around the city of New York, pokes fun at thieves and muggers and manages to get in funny one-liners whenever humanly possible.

And boy, if there's one thing that this movie is prolific at, it's some damn awesome and inventive fight scenes. There's really no super-hero that can fight like Spider-Man, and as the camera free-flows through the action much like it does his swinging over the city of New York, you feel a great sense of energy as well as urgency. It never gets old and the entire realization of Spider-Man's style is really best foundation the film has to build upon, and for a first film of a rebooted franchise, that foundations is pretty solid. It just needs to work out the kinks.

The Bad: When is too much "too much?" The Amazing Spider-Man has so many sub-plots and spinning so many threads, and yes that is a joke I just made, that it's a bit hard to get a feel for what's going on. For example, there's a major plot regarding the parents of Peter Parker that isn't even resolved; as though the film realized it was getting over two hours long and couldn't spend any more time with it despite the fact it set a ton of it up.

With so much happening, a lot of storylines feel unsatisfying if not outright glossed-over. Aunt May, for example, never feels resolved as a character despite the fact her husband died and Peter turns cold on her. Even a very minor one like the bully at school that, suddenly, accepts Peter. A bully wouldn't care if your uncle died, especially after you humiliated said bully just a few days before (another plot line that looked like it was going somewhere, had a great message, but just dropped it and didn't really have Peter learn anything). Some characters are sorely underused (Dennis Leary for example) and nothing ever fully feels grounded, which is the biggest flaw any fantasy-action movie like this could muster: the inability to invite the audience in is just asking for trouble, and throwing everything at them at once is certainly going to spin their heads.

The film tries to cram in way too much, and it has two hours to do it in. Some restraint really would have done wonders here, because stylistically and performance-wise, the material is there (though it tries desperately to be an odd high-school indie flick, full of odd indie-music that's out-of-place early on and will no-doubt date the film in a few years), it just badly needed to hold off and maybe give us a little more in a sequel for some of these plots. And let's not forget that: yes this film had issues, but it also shows a ton of potential to carry out storylines with more efficiency in sequels.

The Ugly: Plus, let's not forget many of these plotlines were already done in the Spider-Man films before this reboot, making it all feel a bit sluggish and just a retread. That's one of the problems of re-booting a franchise and throwing in another origin tale. You not only have to retread the original, but also put in something new in the process. As a result, you just end up with too many plot-line cooks in the kitchen.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him, impacting on his life.

The Good: With some nice special effects and solid character chemistry, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, at least, watchable. Cluttered, messy, too drawn out yet, somehow, still rushed, the film never finds a balance but at least it hits some solid points where it needs to, though it seems far more interested in presenting the future of the franchise than anything.

It did particularly get the humor down, which I give up to Andrew Garfield able to nail that type of delivery and understand that, despite the earnestness of most of the film, there is still to be “fun” found in Spider-Man. Though he's unable to nail Peter Parker's character, because I'm not sure who this Peter Parker fellow is on paper and that’s without the comic Peter Parker even brought up to compare, I can't deny that the quips and physical mannerisms are incredibly enjoyable and arguably the best thing of the film.

That's not to say the other actors are horrible. There's just too many of them. Jamie Foxx works nicely as a sympathetic villain turned angry and bitter, and Dane DeHaan absolutely owns every scene he's in to the point where you look more forward to his scenes than that of the titular character. Emma Stone plays well off of Garfield, and vice-versa, though there's far too much of it and neither of their characters feel fully fleshed out as actual people.

I suppose the best compliment I can give the actors is that they do well with whats given to them...it's just that everything else around them is overkill.

The Bad: Sony has the rights the Spider-Man, and they know it. The result: They want to ensure the future of their brand. They want to shove everything Spider-Man related into one film, foreshadow the films to come and show everyone they know what they're doing. What they aren't doing, though, is making a good movie. An entertaining one? Sure, at times, mostly because of the actors. But good?

Pacing, uninspired action sequences, too many plot threads, too many villains, too little character moments outside of awkward Gwen Stacey and Peter Parker conversations (of which there are way too many of), Spider-Man is the type of superhero movie made for people with ADD, or at the very least an homage to the era of Joel Schumacher Batman films where everything is uninhibited and no restraint is given. Nay, it's not as bad as those...then again...

The problem is best represented by one simple question: what is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 about? For the life of me, I can't answer that. Not without sounding like some child trying to describe his amazing time at summer camp to his parents through nonsensical ramblings: "So first I did this, and then this happen, and Jerry got sick and I this girl and I broke up, then we didn't, then we did again, then this other guy almost drowned and stuff and got really angry at the counselors and then Jerry got sicker and he started to turn green...it was awesome." There's a lot that happens, but it's not really about anything. It's just a series of scenes, only three of which are action scenes, that add up to a film that's yelling loudly yet saying nothing.

The Ugly: I gave the original the benefit of the doubt as it was new across the board and new take on everything is always going to jarring. Flawed, but passable. But this sequel seems to not have improved on any of that formula - as though no lessons were learned - it just added more of it as it believes that quantity equates quality, and at two and a half hours long, it still really couldn't get any of it right.

Also, two movies in, and how much death does this kid need around him? So much so that Uncle Ben is barely mentioned anymore, that’s how much.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The American

After he survives an ambush beside a remote Swedish lake, an American hit man goes to Rome and contacts his control, Pavel, who sends him to an Abruzzian town with the warning, "No friends." He takes one look and goes instead to nearby Castelvecchio where he poses as a photographer and waits for his control to take care of the Swedish problem. While waiting, his control gives him a job constructing a special weapon for a Belgian assassin, he converses with the town's priest, and he spends the occasional night with Clara, a local prostitute. After the priest calls him out on his profession and the Swedes get a line on his whereabouts, is it time to get out?

The Good: I remember when George Clooney first began really getting to star in features. He has always been good, but when 2002's Solaris was released, he showed something he hadn't really been known for before: restraint. Since then, he's played such a character a few times, such as Syriana and Michael Clayton. The American follows with that trend, and because he's refined that side of his acting ability increasingly well, we get a role that's absolutely tailor-made for him. He, like the film itself, it a contemplative character. He says little, but you can tell he thinks a lot as events of The American slowly unfold. He's not here to be "charming" or "nice," he's here to be a real person and it's hard not to buy into it as The American is a strong, realism-driven film that is as non-actiony and methodical of a thriller you'll see.

Much of The American draws inspiration from French crime thrillers of the 60s and 70s, such as Le Samourai, Rififi or Le Cercle Rouge. None of these films are "big scope" pictures. They're smaller, more intimate and focused on less obvious goals than they are larger ones. The American has that in poetic form, driving the point home with a fitting end that brings it full circle. It's not a thriller, it's a drama with guns. It doesn't have all the twists and turns of a conspiracy plot or action because that's not the point - those that demand otherwise miss that entirely.

The Bad: Through its focus on character, plot is often in the background. It's about tension and questioning who to trust and The American does this incredibly well as it sets its scenes. But you unfortunately know all the answers well before there are any reveals. The American doesn't worry about trying to hide its plot or keep its reveals secrets because it handles the entire story straightforwardly while pitting the character in the middle with personal dilemma. Works for the character...story needs a life. Bad guy is obviously bad, themes are obviously themes, and foreshadowing tends to reveal too much where we can't vicariously feel what Clooney's distant character is feeling because we already know what's going to happen as he or another character sets it up. We only watch and maybe get a hint.

This allows us to fall in love with the character story, and again that's the point of The American, but a great film can have a plot and woven story to back that up. The American just slightly misses - a triple rather than a homerun, if you will.

The Ugly: The American brought in largely mixed reviews and for the obvious reasons. Yet, I can't help but bring up the Melville or Bresson angle, which The American draws upon to a T. People criticize The American for being "slow and boring" yet applaud a Melville or Bresson film for the same reasons, only calling it "paced and deliberate." I was curious after writing my initial impressions and read a good dozen or so of the reviews to see what they said. The ones that hated it really made little case when they throw that out there, some even bring up those older filmmakers yet applaud them right in the middle of the picture. Is The American as great a film as some of the classic Auteurs'? Probably not, but you can't have a double standard to determine it as such.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


American Beauty

Lester Burnham is suffering a mid-life crisis that affects the lives of his family, which is made up of his super bitch of a wife Carolyn and rebelling daughter Jane, who hates him. Carolyn is a real estate agent, a little too wrapped up in her job, who takes on an affair with business rival Buddy Kane. Meanwhile Jane seems to fall in love with Ricky Fitts, the strange boy next door, who is a drug dealer/documentarian and lives under a roof governed by a very strict marine father and a speechless mother. Lester's mid-life crisis causes him to drastically change his life around when he quits his job and works at a fast food restaurant. He starts working out to gain the attention of Angela, a friend of Jane's, who brags about her sexual exploits every weekend. Lives change and not for the best.

The Good: There is only a select few of films that can be described as “poetic.” Many times these films are lyrical and with a message achieving artistic heights, but not always are they something that a regular person can relate to as though it could actually happen in reality. It’s not quite a comedy, not quite a drama, but most certainly a tragedy. It’s a powerful piece of strong performances, a strange sense of bitterness behind it all, and beautiful directing by Sam Mendes and even more beautiful cinematography by legendary photographer Conrad Hall, who would go on to work with Mendes on his next film before passing away.
Kevin Spacey is utterly magnificent in this Oscar-winning performance, as he so often is, as Lester who, rather than fear his mid-life crisis soon comes to relish in it. He sees it as a way, if not an excuse, to be reborn and we follow him and, often, find ourselves laughing at his absurdity although the situations would be quite frightening if they were to happen to our family. Despite all that a person may come to despise about their lives and themselves, there are still some things that give a slight glimmer of light in an otherwise dark world. For some its as simple as a memory, others a bag blowing in a breeze, dancing as though there’s some purpose to it all. We take that brief dance with Lester, even if we aren’t entirely sure why. Maybe that bag is our life, as the movie implies, and we’re all as aimless as it. Maybe we can relate to the family the film portrays: the so-called “american” family that is as far from The Brady Bunch or Leave it to Beaver as you can get yet at the same time strangely familiar as though those other families are hiding something.

The Bad: Is American Beauty mean-spirited? That’s a question I often ask myself. It can be pessimistic, yes. It can not resolve the issues it brings up, certainly. But does it say “no matter what you do or try to do, you’re going to die?” In a way it does, it looks down on every facet of a family with little kindness to it. Dysfunctional as they may be, it’s almost sad how we see glimpses of what they once were and even sadder that the movie refuses to bring them together, even if briefly, to get back in touch with that love that is long gone. Everyone is so cold and emotionless, and the only time a person truly feels anything, has one instance of a moving thought and an idea that says “maybe everything will be alright” ends up with a blood-splattered wall. There’s no denying that it’s still lyrical in its assessment, it stays true to its roots to the very end, but by the time that point in the film comes up we’ve already withered those roots enough, I think. At its most poetic moment, as Lester thinks back to his life, the touch of his grandmother’s hands and nights watching the stars, the smile of his wife and growth of his daughter, won’t even let us cherish that beyond a few mere seconds before shocking us into despair. For the film…that’s all life is.

The Ugly: American Beauty is one of those films that is different for many. It’s an interpretive film. For some it’s about the hollowness of life and how we so blindly conform to what is expected of us. Others find it as a commentary on love, how youth has it so much more promising before they get old and grow weary of it, hence why Lester wishes to recapture it in, shall we say, a male fantasy-way. What I find frightening though, and strangely one of the film’s greatest strengths, is how natural it all seems. There’s nothing pressing in the film, it doesn’t force an issue on us, the acting isn’t contrived…it all flows, as Lester says, like rain. This nonchalant feeling to it all is the real tragedy, because the reality is that it tells us what we already know…and what we don’t want to hear.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5

American Hustle

A con man, Irving Rosenfeld, along with his seductive British partner, Sydney Prosser, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso. DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

The Good: I'm not entirely sure how he does it, but David O. Russell more often than not gets the best performances out of any actor that he puts a camera in front of. For all sakes and purposes, he's an "actor's director" meaning he puts them in the right scenario to let them do their craft. Of course, you need a good script to guide it all. Like his previous two films, American Hustle has all that, but unlike his previous two films, it's far more "fun" along the way.

The lightness doesn't detract from the drama at hand, it's just that the drama at hand is geared to creating funny banter, uncomfortable scenes and larger-than-life characters thanks to the cast. It's a silly plot taken seriously, and that's where it becomes comedic: drama by way of a con artist's comedy-of-errors. Christian Bale is our con man. You don't buy him completely, but you're not supposed to. He's a caricature of ridiculousness, just like his co-hort Amy Adams with the British accent. Throw in a Bradley Cooper, always one for comedic timing, and Jennifer Lawrence, quickly becoming one of the best actresses of her generation, and you have the players in the silly plot.

American Hustle is less a movie about the 70s and this “based on true events” tale and more of a satire of all of it. The glamor. The style. The bad hair. The bad slang. The music. The drugs. The clothes. Everything is turned up to 11 with a little con-story to tie it all together and Jeremy Renner's character to keep it all a bit grounded. Taken as a light film, a departure when pitted up against David O Russell's previous few films of drama, it's hard to not find entertainment and a bit of joy in the insanity of it all.

The Bad: But here's the thing, it doesn't know if it wants to be light or not. There's a moment in the film that shows the gravity, not levity, of everything going on that turns the entire film upside down. Suddenly these aren't caricatures and music montages, it's real people with lives and dealing with consequences that they never intended.

Tonally, the film ends up all over the place as a result of this. While the script is sharp, the "sensation" or "feel" of some scenes doesn't play well when pitted up against the lighter ones. While Renner is great, he ends up as a plot device to remind us all that nobody is really good and nobody is really bad...but families and people we love have to deal with the unintended consequences. All the music and fun dancing and awful clothes that might make us laugh can suddenly feel awkward and out of place.

The Ugly: It took me a few scenes to realize that Louis CK was in this movie. He's a damn good character actor.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


American Psycho

Patrick Bateman is handsome, well educated and intelligent. He is twenty-seven and living his own American dream. He works by day on Wall Street, earning a fortune to complement the one he was born with. At night he descends into madness, as he experiments with fear and violence. Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis.

The Good: Before we knew him as we do today,  Christian Bale utterly lit up the screen in 2000 with a flawless performance of serial-killer-socialite Patrick Bateman. Unlike other serial killer films that are told from the killer’s perspective, often overly dark and serious, there’s a certain amount of whimsy and joy, not to mention satirical comedy, in American Psycho and Patrick Bateman himself that really sets it apart from most films. In fact, I would go as so far it’s on the same satirical level as The Player, MASH, Sullivan’s Travels and Dr. Strangelove. Behind the glitz and glamor is a man, like many men, desensitized and removed from society on every level that would classify him as “human.” It's so easy to just start doing what Patrick ultimately ends up doing. He's perfectly groomed for it. The issue and subject matter is serious, but we laugh at it because it seemingly laughs at itself and the utter absurdity of this killer, the 1980s and the entire “yuppie lifestyle.” True, that laugh might by a man drenched in blood holding an axe after killing a colleague because he was able to get reservations at the posh restaurant he couldn't, but that’s what’s so unique and insanely fun about it.  It’s Bale’s voiceover as Bateman that utterly sells the film and the character (as well as allow for some very quotable bits of dialogue from the very tightly-written, although sometimes uneven, script). If it wasn't for him, it would have failed miserably.

The Bad: American Psycho is an extremely pessimistic and cynical film. It’s ugly and filled with hate in this regard as it doesn’t quite know what to say, other than that it has nothing to say. Call it Nihilism if you want, but a story like American Psycho feels like it wants to make a point, but ultimately never quite does. We might enjoy the journey, but the final destination leaves you as empty and hollow as its anti-hero.

The Ugly: Some people might actually look to try and be like Bateman rather than realize the irony of his existence. He’s strangely become a role model for many, similar to Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


American Reunion

Jim, Michelle, Stifler, and their friends reunite in East Great Falls, Michigan for their high school reunion.  

The Good: It's hard to separate the personal attachment when reviewing this movie. Don't get me wrong, I've never been a huge "American _____" fan, but these movies did coincide with my life. The first film came out the same year I graduated, the second when I was college, the third when all my friends were out getting married and now, this fourth, makes me remember why I didn't go to my reunion. I see a lot of myself in many of these archetypes, and I knew a lot of people like the ones found here. From the nerdy weirdos to the sex-obsessed douchebags.

What American Reunion is able to do well, though, is show that entire generation. Before cellphones were everywhere and how people change, usually, over time. Of course, it's as subtle in doing this as any of those old American Pie movies can be, but the purpose of the film is there resulting in something that, while the fourth in this series, at least has something new and fresh to say. It's focus on generations, moving on, living with regrets or fulfilling those dreams you used to have in your classes as you doodled on your desk. It's able to understand that even though it lacks the finesse in making something really meaningful. I suppose a low-brow, on-the-nose comedy will just have to do, but there's no reason to expect otherwise.

The Bad: Stale jokes, old call backs, lazy character arcs, incredibly hard-lined act breaks (I mean, right down to every cliche in the book) and an over reliance on old characters none of us really remember making cameos, American Reunion is a little like a high school reunion itself: our recollection of it is fuzzy at times, and even though we might have had a few laughs it's also a time best forgotten. Though American Reunion does make a nice comment on that, in terms of structure, story, gags, characters and everything else, it's basically a movie that reminds us why we kind of don't need to watch more of these movies just like we don't need to go back to high school.

The series has never been the pinnacle of comedy writing, though. In all honesty, American Reunion is about true to form for what the series is known for, and despite the nostalgic affection I might have (only because of relatability, not because it's ever been particularly good) it comes off as a sub-par comedy, but still a decent little entry in a tired series - even with the "freshness" of everybody "grown up," the entire series has been about "growing up." This one, at least, is a reflection on growing up and the loss of youth rather than being a major story arc.

The Ugly: As I said in my Trailing Trailers, this better be it. We're all ok with there being this one, it wraps it all off nicely, but no more. We don't need it.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


American Sniper

A Navy S.E.A.L. recounts his military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills.

The Good: Typically Eastwood, American Sniper is a restrained piece of biographic filmmaking that takes a direct, matter-of-fact approach to the life of a military sniper. There’s something admirable about that. In the approach towards military situations, things are brief, quick and to the point. Bullets hit hard, gunfire is completely impossible to know where its coming from, things happen fast and you’re thrust into the moment without a lot of melodrama taking you out of it. You’re shot. You’re dead.

American Sniper may not always hit its best beats, or even the right ones, but it has moments that are quite striking. I suppose the parts are better than the sum of the film, because every so often it manages to be incredibly tense, taught and engaging despite the sense of detachment it has due to the approach by Eastwood (it wants to be dramatic but holding too much back for its own good). There’s a patience to admire here, but only in certain spots (the military action). It doesn’t quite land when cutting to family moments or trying to get into the head of someone with trauma, which ironically is when the character becomes more interesting but its never developed enough for you to care.

If it sounds like I’m down on American Sniper, I am. It’s not a horrible film nor a great one. When it works, it really works. When it does, it really doesn’t. We end up with a messy movie that has some solid acting and moments of great directing, but mishandles the core elements of what might have made it great.

The Bad: Dare I say the most interesting parts of American Sniper are way at the tail end of the movie when all the sniping is nearly done? Yes I do, because its there where, for the first time in the film, Chris Kyle feels more like a person rather than the “rah rah ‘merica” Jarhead that had taken up 90% of the rest of the film - a flawless character that could do no wrong, did no wrong, and did it all for the stars and stripes. It might make for some decent good set pieces, nicely executed at that, but never does it feel like the character is real or we should even care about him.

Instead, that comes at the end, and by then its all too brief as it struggles to find an emotional core to a movie that should have had one from the very start. Like most of Eastwood’s films, American Sniper is a restrained portrait, but here it shouldn’t have been. The script tells us one thing, the calculated execution on screen says otherwise and even Bradley Cooper feels as though he’s just being pushed along from moment to moment just to check off the call time.

The lack of a central theme is arguably the worst thing happening here in American Sniper. It tells the story of a guy who shot a lot of people, but we really never get to know him or get into his head other than the caricature that is presented. We hear in the film how men look up to him, but we never really see it. We hear that he’s emotionally drained, but again it’s never really shown or, if it is, it’s passed over as neither less nor more important than Kyle driving a truck through Texas.

This is all most apparent during one crucial scene where some assets are being harmed and Kyle is unable to help them. He’s trying, but he fails. Now this could have led to an interesting development of a character, but instead it all just moves along. That’s where American Sniper fails: lots of vignettes, little to no connection from one to the other resulting in no discussion of consequences or interesting character developments like regrets or second-thoughts. It just passes through, has some fantastic sniping scenes, then end with a too-little-too-late search for a heart.

The Ugly: Everything feels so damn wasted here. Cooper is good. It’s shot well. It has some solid tension to build on. But nothing is retained as it just jumps around, shows some stuff, then moves on. It desperately tries to center on a “rival” sniper, but if I want to see that done well and more interesting, and also be a biopic, I’ll go watch the underrated Enemy at the Gates. Yes, that’s a different style certainly played up for drama, but maybe Eastwood’s style simply isn’t a good fit for a movie like this.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


An American Werewolf in London

Two American students are on a walking tour of England and are attacked by a Werewolf. One is killed, the other is mauled. The Werewolf is killed, but reverts to it's human form, and the townspeople are able to deny it's existence. The surviving student begins to have nightmares of hunting on 4 feet at first, but then finds that his friend and other recent victims appear to him, demanding that he find a way to die to release them from their curse, being trapped between worlds because of their unnatural death.

The Good: One of the first great horror films to balance comedic elements with legitimate scares. Before, either a film was a straight comedy with some scary moments (various Abbot and Costello films come to mind) or simply a horror film with a funny character or two. It's able to touch upon a human element as well, more than many horror movies can hope to do. You legitimately care for our hero and his conflicts and, sadly, you know it's not going to end well. He knows this, everyone else knows this, but to admit that you are what you are is tough even without the transforming into a hideous beast (The movie is often noted for its makeup effects, still impressive to this day. It shows the agony and pain of transformation and the practical effects truly make you feel David's pain, shock and horror). David Naughton and Griffin Dunne have fantastic chemistry on screen, even better than the romance subplot, that shows two friends who technically died long before they even arrived in London. Now it's just picking up the pieces as David (Naughton) is haunted by his friend, his victims and disturbing dreams of his family. It's his encounters with his friend Jack, though, that give the a air of lightness despite the rather dark tones in it all. Their conversations and dialogue are easily the most memorable parts of the film. The way Landis handles some scenes is also interesting as they too have a lightness in them, such as David waking in a zoo completely naked and scampering around hiding from the public eye with the classic line "A naked American man stole my balloon."

The Bad: Although the friendship with David and Jack is well developed, every other character is pretty sub par and the romantic angle is an absolute mess. There's also a sense that it feels incomplete, or at least haphazardly thrown together, but I honestly think that can be said for every John Landis movie that build on ideas rather than cohesion (Animal House and the Blues Brothers climatic finales are proof of this and are equally as messy). The script could have used some rewrites, that's for sure, because it feels as though something a little tighter and focused would have done wonders for the overall package.

The Ugly
: The film cheesily has a soundtrack based on the moon. I think it's meant to be thematic, but it comes off as funny instead. I don't think that was the intention.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Amistad

Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the U.S. in 1839. It is carrying a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba, taken on board, and chained in the cargo hold of the ship. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the U.S., Cinque, who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. They continue to sail, hoping to find help when they land. Instead, when they reach the United States, they are imprisoned as runaway slaves. They don't speak a word of English, and it seems like they are doomed to die for killing their captors when an abolitionist lawyer decides to take their case, arguing that they were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. The case finally gets to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release.

The Good: The story of the Amistad is one that they don’t teach in history books. When a high-school student opens up a text there’s simply a blanket chapter about slavery and that’s often the end of it. Films, too, often a fail to tell more than necessary, are rarely detailed and almost never try to put a face to the victim. Outside of the made-for-TV route (Roots, A Woman Named Mosees) there are few of significance. Amistad shows it in all its gut-wrenching glory. It’s not an easy subject to tackle and Amistad has all the elements to present an epic film. It’s a thriller, a court-room drama and a mystery story.

The Bad: One thing Amistad sets out to do is to “humanize” the slaves in its story. By this I mean to have the characters of the time realize that these are human beings and they have rights and emotions, families and friends…no different than any other person on the earth. The film, though, while convincing the characters in the story fails to have them come across to an audience as more than that. What happens to them is powerful, deeply moving, but we still know nothing about them other than where they come from and that they went through some horrors. In fact, the entire film, while giving great performances and showcasing historical figures, fails to go beyond that. It plots through its timeline, its court-room drama, but doesn’t put any more depth into its characters other than to say they were there, this is what they did and this is what happened. Spielberg showed he can do that in his past films, balance an epic story with human drama and characters with subtle depth, but seems to barely bother in a film that, really, seemed to demand it.

The Ugly: The deposition given detailing the atrocities of the slaves is heart wrenching and difficult to watch. The film had only spoken of the horrors, then to see them is going to make some people squeamish.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


An Education

A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age.

The Good: Strong performance and superb direction make a bit of a "been there done that" plot far more intriguing and compelling, not to mention its excelled set design and artistry in recreating 1960s London. The film is about the education of youth, and it parallels life education and lessons learned with school education and lessons studied. It's not quite a romance movie, not quite a family drama, but just simple story of a girl going through the trials and tribulations of life. That girl is played by Carey Mulligan who is incredibly strong in her role and, simply, the film would be nothing without her. She balances the nievity of a young girl with the strong yearning of a woman wanting to find her place in life. She is slightly upstaged, however, by Alfred Molina who is utterly amazing as her father. It's an actor's piece, but also film that really uplifts the typical "coming of age" story to new heights.

The Bad: If there's one issue, it's that the film begins so originally and unconventionally, then ends so predictably and conventionally. It's as though one writer came up with a great script for 90% of it, then someone completely different came in for the final 10%. This is shown no better than in the inconsistency of two major characters. One is our central character, Jenny, who shows strength for most of the film. She sticks up for herself, expresses her opinion and will tell it to your face. Then comes in a scene where she should continue that, yet does not. Rather, she sits and stays quiet, then pouts. Jack, her father, is another that is inconsistent. No better than his forceful nature for her to get an education, then does a complete 180 and says she should run off with a man. I feel these two fantastic performances are utterly wasted on inconsistency, which is overall sad. Then you have the plot itself which seems wonderfully unique and original and ends up all tied up neatly in a bow that feels a little too happy for happy's sake (it even includes a montage sequence and voice over ending). As I said, 90% of this film is brilliant if not beautiful. The rest is unfortunate and had that 10% been stretched out over the course of the film rather than the final push to the end, it would have not been nearly as noticeable.

The Ugly: I'm having trouble deciding whether or not I like the fact that David drops out of the picture. On one hand, I understand why because it's a reflection of life and the story itself. In reality, he would drop out and you'd never hear from him again. Afterall, we only saw David through Jenny. At the same time, we still became invested in him yet know little to nothing about him. Then again...apparently Jenny didn't know him as well as she thought either. Perhaps this interesting take, arguably daring enough to cut him out, makes up for the inconsistent characterizations elsewhere in my final score.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

With the 70s behind him, San Diego's top rated newsman, Ron Burgundy, returns to take New York's first 24-hour news channel by storm.

The Good: While the story is essentially the same story and plot from the original film, it's hard not to be endeared by the collection of silly, absurd characters found in the Anchorman universe. Yes, that's kind of a thing now, as we have our returning cast slipping on their tweed jackets and groomed mustaches and expanded on with even more ridiculous scenes, new characters and apparently a pet shark.

The fact is, if the actors weren't having so much fun, and doing such a good job being funny as their characters, the film would be awful. Just flat-out unwatchable. It's entirely driven by them, though, and they salvage every single scene and every single plot thread (that usually ends up being nothing) and even throw-away gags have their moment in the sun. A humorous film, though it's not a good comedy movie.

The Bad: More often than not, Anchorman 2 is a beat for beat retread of the original film. In fact, many of the film's best gags and puns are drawn from the first film, making their impact, no matter the new cameo or new angle, feel almost underwhelming and uninspired. While funny, this isn't a movie that is funny entirely on its own. It relies on the first film to a fault, and it can't find its own voice and uniqueness to overcome that shadow because it doesn't bother trying. Th result is a forgettable, almost pale-imitation of a better movie rather than a fun and unique film on its own.

It lacks the cleverness that the first film had - that cleverness being what allowed the off-the-wall improvisational humor to work - whereas now it comes across as forced and only there to "up the ante" as a sequel rather than find its own unique take on the material.  The original was a silly story full of silly characters, but it had structure. Anchorman 2 is what happens when you don't even bother with that structure to wrangle it all in and the only concern of everyone involved is to take elements of the first film and simply do more of it. All you're left with are vignettes of humor rather than one complete comedy film

The Ugly: As though The Other Guys already didn't show Adam McKay faltering as a director, giving less direction and just saying "ok be funny," this one solidifies it because you can put it right up against the first Anchorman and see how much better that film was. Perhaps having more freedom as a filmmaker has worked against him (much the same way it's worked against a Michael Bay, M. Night Shyamalan or even Judd Apatow). Some filmmakers are better with restrictions.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


And Soon the Darkness

When two American girls on a bike trip in a remote part of Argentina split up and one of them goes missing, the other must find her before her worst fears are realized.

The Good: Gorgeous photography and even more gorgeous leads at least make And Soon the Darkness pretty to look at. The country of Argentina, the sweeping vistas and rolling clouds, probably has never looked this good outside of a tourism video. The directing, too, is competently done. Scenes are well shot, well lit, you get a great sense of place.

If it sounds like I'm stretching to write something in the good portion of this review, you would be right.

The Bad: Picture a cake. Let's say a wedding cake. It's three tiers high and beautifully ornate. You get a slice, though, and you see the inside looks like it's been sitting in a fridge for ten years. It's moldy and green and there may even be a few nasty worms making a home in it. That, as gross as it sounds, is And Soon the Darkness. Why? As mentioned under good, it's beautifully shot and capably directed. But it feels like a piece of cake that's been sitting dormant for a decade and is just now being eaten. It's a tired formula, predictable and there are times when it feels even bored of itself.

And that's what it really is: just...boring. There are literally no surprise, you will be at least three steps ahead and its characters and plot are not intriguing enough to make you care. I'd be surprised if most could watch more than 40 minutes because you'll be saying to yourself "haven't I seen this movie before?" Yes, you have...the plot is everything from Touristas to Wolf Creek to A Perfect Getaway and more...and this version doesn't have enough else going for it to draw you in and wow you. It's just so...bland. It's fine if movies have similarities, but there still needs to be enough outside of the basic plot structure and one-dimensional characters to at least entertain you and to get you to care to watch other than a couple of pretty faces. Otherwise you'll find yourself yawning more than once (I counted myself at least a dozen times).

The Ugly: Pretty girls....wasted. Not the first horror/thriller to do that...but man...really wasted (plus I know the cast is so much better than this material as a whole, especially Karl Urban).

How about that title too? That's a cool title. It makes it sound ominous and mysterious. Grandiouse even. Yet, it too is wasted on sub-par material.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Angels and Demons

When a murder of a physicist, Leonardo Vetra, finds a symbolist, Robert Langdon, and Mr. Vetra's daughter, Vittoria, on an adventure for a secret brotherhood, The Illuminati. Clues lead them all around the Vatican, including the four alters of science, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. An Assassin, working for the Illuminati, has captured four cardinals, and murders each, painfully. Robert and Vittoria also are searching for a new very destructive weapon that could kill millions. 

The Good: Tom Hanks gives us a great performance again, making Langdon an appealing character. Also noted is the fantastic performance of Ewan McGregor. While the character himself has problems towards the end, McGregor really shines through what, unfortunately, ended up being a very contrived and muddy script. Howard's directing, too, emerges well from it, along with his trademark cinematography with Salavatore Totino, but it doesn't save it entirely. The pace is brisk, moving better than the Da Vinci Code for sure, and keeps you on your toes, but it all stops a little short. The parts are greater than the sum, but the parts are good in and of themselves.

The Bad: Hanks is seemingly the smartest man alive. He comes across as far too nonchalant, almost infallible, in his assessment and figuring out mysteries. There's a lack of exploration and trying to understand, it just comes far too casually. That can be minor, because Tom Hanks does give a good performance. What isn't minor is the final 30 minutes of the film. Up to a point, it's a thriller of a movie and pretty solid. People are getting killed, time is running out to prevent the next one. Although repetitive, it's engaging....Then a point comes where it just becomes ridiculous and, sadly, predictable. Far too melodramatic. The tension is gone, the pace is altered and everything ends anticlimactically. Far too over-the-top plot devices that blindside you. Far too neat in the very end.

The Ugly: So...you're telling me that you have all this high-tech security in the Vatican Archives, and not a goddamn manual release lever?  Really, movie? Who the hell designed that place?

Final Rating: 3 out of 5

Animal Kingdom

Tells the story of seventeen year-old J (Josh) as he navigates his survival amongst an explosive criminal family and the detective who thinks he can save him.

The Good: "It's a crazy fuckin' world."

That it is, and through Animal Kingdom's almost naked and bare, quiet and thought-provoking approach to that crazy fuckin' world do we begin to see and realize that it's something we just can't quite understand. Animal Kingdom is a movie that's a little hard to review. Everything about it is solid yet it's such a low-key film, it's hard to talk overly positive because it seems to go out of its way to not entice you. You're just gradually sucked into it and before you even realize what happened the credits are rolling. In that sense, it's easy to say it's just good and the atmosphere and story-evolving pace so spot-on that you don't even realize how good it actually is. It moves forward but in this casual manner that brings both a sense of realism and authenticity as well as a complete lack of heavy-handed filmaking craftsmanship that never draws attention to itself.

The story itself is completely simple, though the characters make up the more complex elements, however its the principles of the story that get under your skin. It deals with the cycle of criminal minds and thought processes and the fall of an entire family. It's done elegantly and with a hushed whisper rather than a loud bang, which might seem odd for what's labeled as a "crime" genre picture. It's a not that, though. It's more a family drama with criminal elements than a crime movie about a family. It handles this first by showing us starkly realistic characters, their distinctions and relations and, eventually, their personal losses. It's just their way to go about dealing with it all that is different, and thus makes Animal Kingdom a different animal of a film entirely and one of the finest directorial debuts in recent memory.

The Bad: On one hand, Animal Kingdom is an enthralling crime drama with a tight script and fantastic characters, on the other hand it doesn't necessarily go out of its way to engage you into it. It's one of those more active-viewing films than merely passive, and this is something that can often bring out the word "boring" to a passive viewer. However, going one step further there are elements found in Animal Kingdom that should be naturally engaging, yet it doesn't necessarily attempt to do that.

The Ugly: There's this sort of...implied incest...

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Anna

A man with the ability to enter peoples' memories takes on the case of a brilliant, troubled sixteen-year-old girl to determine whether she is a sociopath or a victim of trauma.

The Good: A movie like Anna is difficult to discuss. It’s not bad, nor is it particularly good. It’s in that realm of “eh…ok” movie making for a tough response to having seen it. Some movies you regret immediately seeing. Some you can’t wait to see again. Then there’s some that just kind of come and go and you just forget about. Well, most movies are that way really.

You remember the bad ones, you remember the good ones. All those in the middle, which are most, are out of your mind within a month. Seriously, have you thought about Gangster Squad or Dead Man Down or The Company you Keep in the past few years? Probably not. You probably had to IMDB them just to say “oh yeah, that movie."

What allows Anna to be watchable despite being indistinguishable is that it is, overall, well acted and well directed. In fact, it’s really well directed and shot, making me wish it had a better script to go along with all the solid visuals. A strong grasp on space and setting a scene makes it obvious that director Jorge Dorado was paying attention while under the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Pedro Almodovar. There’s a confidence in how a scene unfolds, and the award-winning Oscar Faura shoots the hell out of it (The Orphanage, or El orfanato,also one of the best looking horror movies you could ask to see).

Then you have the solid cast. Mark Strong is an assured lead, he always brings it, and despite some clunky dialogue it all feels convincing when uttered form him or his supporting cast, notably Taissa Farmiga and Brian Cox. Now, you would think that with a solid cast and capable directing, it would end up a solid movie. Well, it is solid to an extent, but it goes to show that good and great movies are first stemmed from a good screenplay. A great script can be ruined by the directing and acting, but rarely is a bad script saved from them, and Anna’s is simply bad and apparently without saving.

The Bad: Sometimes, you just have a  movie with a really cool and interesting concept completely squander it with poor writing and pacing. The actors are fine, the directing too is solid as is the score and, well, a lot of technical stuff like that I won’t detail, but the point is there’s a good movie in Anna just screaming to get out. Yet, it’s held down by the usual culprits of unable to deliver on all the potential.

Anna wants to be a throwback to the slow-burn thrillers of old. The problem is, those thrillers still managed to remain interesting throughout that pace and, more importantly, have a climax and payoff you remember and that really hits you. Anna starts that way, but it never elevates itself and seems content to flatline its own ideas before they even manage a beat as a sign of life.

While Anna isn’t necessarily outright “bad” it is extremely disappointing. The elements are certainly there yet it can’t wrangle all those ideas into a good structure on the page. It’s actually impressive the actors and directer managed to make, at the very least, a competent film with the script that feels as though it was written and re-written numerous times, but even then it’s still not a good one.

The Ugly: I want this director to do more. I hope Anna doesn’t impede his career before it even gets a chance to start.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Annabelle

A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.

The Good: Well shot, good atmosphere, solid acting despite one-dimensional characters…yeah it’s kind of a modern day horror flick across the board with really little to distinguish itself. Parts of it are well done, visually it’s solid for example, and it has a good balance of creepy moods and cheap scares, but Annabelle is, unfortunately, a victim of its own devices. Sure, dolls are creepy, but I need to really care that the doll is creepy and that there’s things at risk. Annabelle never quite gets that down and we have a bit of dullness to contend with.

At least it has a few good scares, I suppose.

The Bad: Annabelle feels too calculated yet, simultaneously, clunky. I know, that sounds like an odd “one two” punch of “bad” but basically the scares are far too easily to see coming a mile away because it plays by so many numbers and end up falling a little flat while the plot just jumps around and can’t really decide on a way to settle it all, ending with a boring and uneventful finale that goes on for far too long.

When Annabelle works, and there are plenty of moments where it does, it’s wonderfully creepy. Then you have the plot, the mess of characters that often feel shoehorned into the story just for an additional scare, a lead actress that’s trying her damnest to sell you yet she literally has no character to work with and flatline in terms of the ebbs and flows of what makes a good horror movie work. The scares are handled as blandly as exposition, and the exposition is just dull and uninteresting - often being far too convenient for convenience’s sake.

Annabelle, though, isn’t a bad horror movie. It has some solid moments throughout, which you need, however it seems disinterested in its own concept to make it all work. It feels rushed and thrust out there to an audience that never really asked for it. By comparison, and you have to do this, The Conjuring’s little vignettes involving this doll are better than an entire film based on it, which pretty much says that a movie entirely about a possessed doll might not have been the best idea and should have stayed in small doses.

The Ugly: Dolls, man. I never quite get the “oh, she’s gorgeous, let me put her with all these other creepy dolls I own” train of thought. Might as well have her be a clown for a profession that adopts a weird looking child that whose parents died under mysterious circumstances while you’re at it.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Anonymous

A political thriller advancing the theory that it was in fact Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford who penned Shakespeare's plays; set against the backdrop of the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Essex Rebellion against her.

The Good: Take one part Shakespeare in Love, two of a parts "what if" scenario and throw in director Roland Emmerich's visual flare and, if anything, you have a pretty damn entertaining and intriguing picture. While it can't always keep its story in line and clear, Anonymous plays the part of historical fiction well. Sure, this might have happened, but if you're looking for facts you should be steered more towards a documentary than the high-camp of Anonymous. It asks the question that runs through the veins of the entire film on its very poster: what if Shakespeare was a fraud?

It is campy, and certainly ludicrous at times, but it's also fun. We see Shakespeare as an illiterate, egotistical actor looking to make a name for himself at the cost of the true author of those great plays and sonatas, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford who has a passion for writing. Unfortunately, writing plays and the like is beneath the blue-bloods to which he lays claim to, but he, like any writer, wants his material shared. Scenes of his plays evoking emotional response to his audience, playing them like a violin and even inciting political discourse are some of the most powerful in the entire film.

De Vere is played wonderfully by Rhys Ifans, an actor of great capability but often dragged down by mediocre films. Anonymous, despite its good intentions and lofty goals, and despite the visual panache of Emmerich, unfortunately ends up another of those types of movies for him.

The Bad: The problem of the film certainly doesn't like on Roland Emmerich. If anything, the visuals, directing and acting are superbly done. However, it's the jumbled puzzle of a script that could use a few more rewrites under its belt. Time seems irrelevant, there's no sense of how long this all takes place in. It's all tossed out, scenes seem disconnected and the pace goes from great-swells of powerful performances to mundane, unclear blandness of stilted character development. Sure, you know the players, but not much beyond their name and what they do.

It's not a dumb movie by any means, it simply lacks the dramatic punch of getting us to care about it. The idea is most certainly intriguing, but it plays it in a constant tone of "then this happened" and moves on to the next. The best moments are found in the recreation of Shakespeare's own plays, which makes for fairly lazy writing on the rest by comparison. It's a story that's more in love with its conceit and question than it is with its character. We needed to care about this character, and though Ifans is fantastic we really get no sensation of him whatsoever to be drawn to him. He simply was...and perhaps he was William Shakespeare.

The Ugly: What made something like Shakespeare in Love, another historical-fiction piece of Shakespeare, work so well was it had fun with itself. Its characters were well-realized and fleshed out, it had humor at the right moments and knew how to play the drama and romance well off of those elements of its script. Anonymous is missing that - taking itsel far too seriously for an audience to truly be captivated and, certainly, care about what its trying to say.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Another Earth

On the night of the discovery of a duplicate planet in the solar system, an ambitious young student and an accomplished composer cross paths in a tragic accident.

The Good: What if there is a better you? That question alone is rich with science fiction nuance and subtlety and Another Earth attempts to explore such a question: exploring questions of this nature is what great sci-fi is build upon. In Another Earth, a young woman, Rhoda, carries a burden of regret. Her anguish has become the single most dominant factor in her life. Then, a mirror planet of Earth appears and as the years go on, it soon is revealed that it's not just a planet, but all the people as well. What if there's a version of Rhoda that doesn't have those regrets.

Another Earth humanizes the idea of choosing paths. One Rhoda goes one way, and now she wonders if the other her went another way instead. She obsesses over it and tries her best to find forgiveness, though due to her still being young she's not entirely successful in the ways she goes about it and eventually becomes trapped in a lie on top of all that regret.

Another Earth is improbable, certainly. It's probably more fantasy with science fiction themes than anything, but it takes on a part of the human condition that sci-fi is so good at exploring and is really the only genre that can do it - even if it has to make up another planet in doing so. It's very simple and straightforward, ponderous and perhaps a bit too slow for its own good, but Another Earth is one that genre fans shouldn't miss.

The Bad: As mentioned, Another Earth is a bit too slow for its own good. It's taking its concept and really stretching it as much as it can over an hour and a half that feels longer. It treads water at times and seems intentionally set on filling time without leading to a point.

While it explores a unique theme and I feel the main story, though stretched, is strong, there's a serious lack of focus or sense of realization of any sub plots. There's one involving Rhoda's family that seems to never get off the ground. We see her parents and brother, but there's implied story elements that only touches on, what I would consider, major aspects of Rhoda's character and history. Another sub plot concerns a co-worker, which again is never really explored. With better pacing, cutting down on the wandering shots and too-slow thoughtfulness, and giving more time to these sub-plots, Another Earth would have been far closer to a great film rather than just a good one that genre fans might enjoy.

The Ugly: Predictable final shot is predictable. It almost feels as though the entire film is building itself up for that one final moment.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5

Another Year

A married couple who have managed to remain blissfully happy into their autumn years, are surrounded over the course of the four seasons of one average year by friends, colleagues, and family who all seem to suffer some degree of unhappiness.

The Good: Subject matter in a film is usually very easy to define. It's not, however, easy to always explain. So when I say Another Year looks at the idea of "aging" then that probably doesn't quite entice any viewer. It looks into the lives of a small group of friends and family. It's heartfelt and believable in its own understanding of life and friends and, sadly, unhappiness often overshadowing happiness. As more is revealed of each character in Tom and Gerrie's life visit them, insight into the dimensions of the human condition flow out.

 Life can take its toll. Friends discuss their deteriorating minds and life, not to mention their loneliness. "Wasted on the youth" as one character says. As people grow older, things seem to simply not be as warm and inviting as they once were, which parallels the film's decision to start in beautiful spring and end in a cold, lonely winter. It shows how cyclical life is and how year upon year our emotions are seemingly toyed. Mike Leigh takes the only approach one can take on this whole "aging" thing: spend a year, a slice of life if you will, and simply observe. It's beautifully directed, wonderfully acted and a film that may not thrust you into being engaged, but can certainly stay with you once your year, which could be any year in a life, is spent.

The Bad: It can be easy to feel unsatisfied with Another Year. It simply drops us right in the middle of people's lives. There is no conclusion because it is just this one year, and there is not beginning or set up because that would ruin the point. However, the shuffling in and out of characters is often done on a whim. A friend will suddenly show up, then be gone the rest of the film. A brother's wife dies yet we really have no indication of him existing before or that his wife was sick. Even through the casual conversation, which you simply must pay attention to, you never hear of these things. It's usually the matter-of-fact and mundane conversations you hear every day. That makes for a wonderful sense of realism, but not necessarily a story that you can track and know where it wants to go and why.

The Ugly: Lesley Manville as Mary is certainly the character that will stick out. She's completely off the wall, likely bi-polar, and you can never quite get a feel for her. You do pity her a great deal, and she's the only friend that appears throughout the film. It's heartbreaking because you likely know someone just like her.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Ant-Man

Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, cat burglar Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world.

The Good: Much of what the Marvel pantheon of movies has been structured around is a sense of escalation. Every new movie has to somehow outdo the previous movie. Stakes need to be higher. Concepts bigger. Heroes tested on a grander scale.

Now we have Ant-Man that pretty much throws that all to the side and reminds us that it’s not the plot or the larger picture, though that’s always in the background, but it’s about characters. It’s about having fun with the stakes not about a huge scope but about a personal journey - something that’s kind of been missing in most Marvel movies. Here we have Scott, played by Paul Rudd in a “it’s about time he headlined something like this” role fighting for his family.

What I love is that it has that element without going too far into mushy melodrama. There’s a story to Scott that is told without a constant sense of exposition. He actually only has a few scenes with his ex-wife and daughter and those few scenes tell you everything about Scott: He screwed up and is trying to walk a different path. What’s clever is that Scott is still Scott and he is still on that path, but with the angle of doing it for good rather than for just selfish reasons. It’s a simple moral lesson that Ant-Man weaves nicely and isn’t over-incumbered with McGuffins and bad guys.

On top of that you have Michael Douglas and the story with his daughter, played Evangeline Lily in another “it’s about time she headlined something like this” role of her own (and hopefully even bigger in the future). She’s not lost in this like she was in the Hobbit movies, she gives a lot of weight and playing alongside Douglas just gives the whole thing a next-level element of human emotion in a movie that’s already driven with that theme in mind.

Taking a smaller-scale stance on plot and focusing entirely on a couple of characters is the only way this movie would have worked. There’s no world or galaxy that needs saving, no big item that has to be obtained and really no bad-guy for most of it. There’s a guy you don’t like, but the superhero versus villain aspect doesn’t really enter the picture until the last 20 minutes. Up until then, it’s about learning. The world. The characters. The heist they’re trying to pull off. All that stuff in a scaled-back Marvel movie works, essentially showing that Marvel can reshape their approach to best suit the material, even if the material doesn’t always hit dead-on.

The Bad: What Ant-Man might have in charm and a lighter woven tale it kind of lacks in cleverness and cohesion. It shifts back and forth from a smart and witty, and often humorous, script to being a pretty uninspired montage-ridden “be the best and redeem yourself” story with not a lot of flavor to it. For example, the script has a lot of exposition. I mean, a whole helluva a lot. And none of it is really interesting so what you want is to have interesting visuals to go along with it, but even those are relatively dull and often feel as though it’s just going through the motions so we can hurry up and get to that third act when stuff starts to actually happen. Character development stalls, people fall in line and we get the power-usage/learning to fight/understanding motivation spiel that lacks the sharpness that so much of the rest of the script seems so damn good at.

There is that lingering element that Ant-Man could have been absolutely great with more consistency and less exposition rather than just really entertaining and good. Some plot points creep up without explanation (or in one case necessity) and others kind of clunkily move along (the heist doesn’t play out all that smoothly from a pacing and structure standpoint). Thankfully all the actors are totally awesome during all this so it helps. It’s a great, rounded cast that has everyone working together in great scenes although the throughline holding them together can have some up and downs along the way. That’s fine. They’re all too likable to have it be a huge fault.

The Ugly: Michael Pena needs a spinoff. I don’t care how. It’ll never happen, but he owns in this movie. Hell, I just want more Michael Pena in general.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Antichrist

A couple lose their young son when he falls out the window while they have sex in the other room. The mother's grief consigns her to hospital, but her therapist husband brings her home intent on treating her depression himself. To confront her fears they go to stay at their remote cabin in the woods, "Eden", where something untold happened the previous summer. Told in four chapters with a prologue and epilogue, the film details acts of lustful cruelty as the man and woman unfold the darker side of nature outside and within

The Good: I have a feeling most people will decide in the first opening scene if this is a film they want to see or not. As always with Von Trier, it's beautifully shot, well acted, yet strangely hypnotic if not downright disturbing. It is the pure definition of a film that some, surely not most, will watch once then probably never see again - but that's sometimes Von Trier's films as a whole, sometimes he can be too artistic for his own good, and sometimes too pretentious (such as found in his film Dogma, one I wasn't especially fond of). While not as entertaining as Dancer in the Dark or Breaking the Waves, Antichrist is utterly compelling, if anything, as a character study. That pretension is still very much there, but so is his storytelling and psychological, as well as philosophical, study of grief and despair that takes precedence over his own self-serving views this time.

The Bad: Films like Antichrist are difficult to review. It's not a bad film. It's well shot, well acted, well written, well paced. Its subject matter is interesting yet, sometimes, appauling and disgusting...visceral and raw without inhibition. Either way you're compelled by it so it surely fits Von Trier's needs.

The Ugly: Some of the imagery and scenes...it's a very haunting picture...not really in a good way I might add. This film is not going to make you feel good once you're done seeing it.

Final Rating: Hmmmmm....tough call here. I say see it if you want, I can only warn you so much, otherwise skip. Personally, 3 out of 5


Anvil! The Story of Anvil!

At 14, best friends Robb Reiner and Lips made a pact to rock together forever. Their band, Anvil, hailed as the "demi-gods of Canadian metal, " influenced a musical generation that includes Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax, despite never hitting the big time. Following a calamitous European tour, Lips and Robb, now in their fifties, set off to record their 13th album in one last attempt to fulfill their boyhood dreams.

The Good: Beloved by critics and moviegoers, Anvil: The Story of Anvil shows more the pitfalls of being a rock star (or former star...or not even a star at all) than the glamor you might read or hear about. Anvil is the negative of a Motley Crue or Van Halen, lost in the history of rock and roll alongside the likes of the Kinks or Badfinger. Sure, you have heard of them, or their songs, but probably wouldn’t seek our their records or concerts. Anvil focuses on one of countless metal bands that really came to fruition in the 1980s, had a hit or two, then faded away like many of them. Unlike those that just break up, Anvil still continued on. All I have to say about the film is that you journey with them and truly hope for the best as you become closer and closer to Steve and Robb, who are incredibly likable, during their tribulations (which is likely a daily thing with them, making it all the harder to watch them still grasping for that dream) . You see the men behind the leather-clad rock and roll, the entire idea of hope and patience that someday that fame that slipped through their fingers might just come back a little. It’s dramatic, funny, touching...really everything you’d love in a documentary.

The Bad: Of course it’s expected this documentary will paint everything in good light, but it briefly makes mention of personal problems and drug use (assumingly still going on) that never seems to go anywhere. It’s not quite as candid as it wants to be. It also isn’t so much the “Story of Anvil” as much as it is “Where are they now?” It goes little into Anvil’s past and focuses solely on their current situation. I think there is plenty of room for that history of rock and Anvil, but barely touches on it.

The Ugly: If I hear the word “rocumentary” one more time...

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Apollo 18

Decades-old found footage from NASA's abandoned Apollo 18 mission, where two American astronauts were sent on a secret expedition, reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon

The Good: Hoping to just work with a good concept, I would even say a great concept, Apollo 18 re-creates a moon landing with surprisingly accuracy and great camerawork. But that's all it does...it does, literally, nothing else.

The Bad: About ten minutes into Apollo 18, I started to get a headache. I think it was the bad audio and constant cutting, the over-exposed light and bombardment of ambient sounds with lack of music. My eyes were already feeling pain as I rubbed them, whether it was due to tiredness or the excessive hot-flash edits I couldn't quite say, but either way I experienced it and very quickly in the film, making me wonder if I wanted to watch the rest of it. It wasn't the shaky-cam, that I know. I've seen plenty of shaky-documentary style films and "lost footage" horror movies to know it's not that, but I was wondering if I could take the "period look" of it with all those flashy edits along with it.

Turns out I couldn't and I started to close my eyes a bit more than needed, though it turns out I lost little in the experience in the process. I made up my mind pretty quickly on whether or not I would enjoy Apollo 18 because much of it's identity is found in the presentation: to re-create that sense of lost NASA footage from so many decades past. If that's all it wanted to achieve, it did. It does a damn good job of it. But that doesn't make for an engrossing or even interesting film. If this is the way it's going to present itself, it was going to be a bit of a chore and it most certainly was.

To counter-balance that, I hoped it would at least offer a sense of fright, scares, threatening, claustrophobic atmosphere. It never really achieves that either because this "lost footage" loses its appeal due to the excessive edits and pretty much taking place in one single cramped location that doesn't allow for anything to actually happen. Throw in the sense the footage has been tampered with (literally pointing out what you should be looking at) and haphazardly slapped together, we are taken out of the "we found this so just watch" mentality that a lot of movies like this manage to do a better job with and puts a distinct, intangible wall between you and what's going on (that illusion of "being there" is more important than you realize, and seeing this film proves it).

As there's no story, no characters to draw you in all that much, the entire film was hoping the presentation was what would sell it and get you into it and as I mentioned, I started to be annoyed within ten minutes by it. That's really all Apollo 18 ends up being. A tiresome, fright-less feau-documentary that I wish I hadn't wasted my time with and goes down as one of my most disappointing films of 2011. It had the right idea but just squanders it completely.

The Ugly: It's amazing how much hype something gets. Apollo 18 was put on a pedestal by genre fans well before its release thanks to a sharp trailer and good one-sheet. Hell, even I was on board because the idea sounded interesting. I still went in with trepidation as I've learned numerous times that a good idea doesn't necessarily make for a good movie. Turns out, that has never been so true as it is for Apollo 18. 

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Arbitrage

A troubled hedge fund magnate desperate to complete the sale of his trading empire makes an error that forces him to turn to an unlikely person for help.

The Good: Arbitrage is one of those films that I would best classify as a thriller, but it's not trying to be a thriller. It's tense situations and lots of dialogue stemming from us caring about Richard Gere's character, Robert, when we really shouldn't be. Robert's an asshole. He's that 1% jerk that thinks he's above the law. We aren't supposed to like him. Yet, we kind of pity him and hope he just "comes clean" for once in his miserable, fraudulent life. We both routing for him, and routing against him, and that really says something about a script that really traverses that gray area of a character study with Richard Gere giving one of his best performances in a long, long while. He carries it with a great balance of brevity yet focus.

As this is a character piece, we're given a good assortment of characters around Gere's Robert. The most notable is Tim Roth as the detective tracing Robert's steps. He's not on an agenda, per se. He's just doing his job and knows Robert has something to do with it. Ever scene Roth is in is the epitome of "casual intensity." He's just talking, having a conversation, but he's so commanding in every line delivery you honestly think he'll pistol-whip you at any minute.

Of course he won't. This isn't that type of thriller. This is lots arguments and paper-trail revelations. And lots of Richard Gere yelling "fuck" because he's so into his role, you buy every bit of him. His rage. His seething calmness. He's fear…and yes you pity it all because you know he deserves everything that's coming.

The Bad: Repetition causes Arbitrage to turn a little boring outside of anything regarding Gere. Maybe it's because we really don't get to know who these other people are, or how Robert knows them, or why we should care what happens to them. Especially with the other rich-white-people as they're the "other side" that's probably the lesser of the two evils. Maybe. Can't be for sure and I don't think the script is sharp enough to try to explain it all.

I think it comes down to the "investment" of the film (pardon the pun, this is a movie about lots of money being thrown around). We aren't really invested in this situation Robert finds himself in because the film isn't really invested in clarifying it. As a person, we are drawn to Robert, but the conflict around him isn't something that's really appealing or clear as to why we should be so concerned. We don't like Robert enough to be concerned, so how high are the stakes regarding all the obstacles that come up on the path to him getting away with fraud? Like the ending itself, we're kind of just left holding the bag without fully understanding what's in the bag in the first place.

The Ugly: A film that's probably going to be forgotten by some, missed by most. It doesn't have that "it" factor to it to get the indie-crowd on board and it's not broad enough for anyone else. Still, for a first-time director, it's a damn solid little flick and worth checking out when it's streaming on Netflix in a few months.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Argo

A dramatization of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation to extract six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran.

The Good: It's a story that's so ludicrous, it has to be true. And it was, making Argo not just an incredibly entertaining and polished film, but an incredibly fascinating one as well. This look into this period of time is unbelievable, just the sheer audacity of everyone involved yet they completely are aware of its audaciousness.  As said in the film "This is the best bad idea we have, sir."

Making this story into a film is far from that, though. This was a story destined to be a film...about a film that didn't even exist that saved lives in a revolutionary Iran making this the best idea anyone could have handed to them. Argo, miraculously, manages to balance a keen sense of humor and wit, notably with tongue-in-cheek nods to the film industry, with the severity and tension of the situation. It never makes light of the serious drama unfolding here and maintains clarity every step of the complicated way.

Argo is relentless in its pressure it puts on you with an energy rarely seen for a . It's not some action-packed thriller with guns a blazing, it's just a taught, dialogue-driven film where a phone call and seconds off a clock are where the tension resides.  Much is reminiscent to the great thrillers of the era it takes place in, not just visually but stylistically. I recall Steven Spielberg's Munich, another recent film that takes place during the 70s and sets out to emulate the style of that decade's filmmakers.

Affleck takes a similar approach, though the script is far more self-aware to be a carbon-copy of a 70s thriller. He chooses sharp shots, letting a scene breathe and characters speak, edits that fall in to another scene seamlessly, camera movements that stay simple and effective, never bringing too much attention to itself because it would be dismissive of the story if it did.  But the script is the standout, witty and humorous at just the right moments, and just as much a film about making movies and Hollywood than it is a CIA suspense thriller about getting hostages out of Iran. As I said, this was destined to be a movie, because only a movie could showcase the making of a movie like this, and the strange parallels of our government and the entertainment industry's audaciousness to pull it off.

The Bad: The tension is full realized, the situation and risks clear, but what's not brought to the forefront is the much-needed emotional core. It's a film where the situation is the story, not the characters, and we never fully know or understand any of them. Oh, they're memorable, but we've no idea who they really are - especially the diplomats in hiding that all seem to run together and we never fully "get" even when there's montages of them showing their individuality. Situation and personality is the focus, an understanding of who these people are beyond "they're our people, we need to save them" is never clear.

Then you have Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck (who is, obviously, not Hispanic). Again, we know little about him, only that he's good at what he does and has some personal issues that we, again, aren't made clear about. Either way, he's in this situation, and it needs to be solved.

When watching, the situation is our drive. We really don't think or care about these other things because the film doesn't really slow to allow us to. That's a good thing, but also a bad thing. Good in that the script is taught enough that you're on the edge of your seat at the right moments, bad because we don't really learn the why to it all: as in, why was it so important to save these people? Why is Mendez the only person that can help them? Why do we feel underwhelmed when we know that the revolution in the streets of Iran will die down and the hostage situation will end well? Who are the people helping them other than their one-line "Canadians?"

Thank God the film is so well put together and you probably won't care, because afterwards I had to read up on these types of things. Maybe that was the point the entire time: to give you just enough and get you invested in this story to look in to the actual story on your own. If that's the case, and it may very well have been, then that's success.

The Ugly: Affleck is given the major props here, but man…people need to start talking about Chris Terrio more. This is Terrio's very first feature script. As in…ever…and he could very well win an Oscar for it. The guy can probably choose any project he wants now.

Is it a little odd, or maybe just strangely befitting, that this film and the material it is about is still socially relevant today? We're still in this type of turmoil, and if anything this movie has one clear message: over three decades have passed and nothing has changed. It's a film that really makes us look at ourselves and our relationships with other countries, even if it's poking fun at us along the way.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Mr. Arkadin

Guy Van Stratten, American smuggler, leaves an Italian prison term with one asset, a dying man's words about wealthy, mysterious Gregory Arkadin. Guy finds it most pleasant to investigate Arkadin though his lovely daughter Raina, her father's idol. To get rid of Guy, Arkadin claims amnesia about his own life prior to 1927, sending Guy off to investigate Arkadin's unknown past. Guy's quest spans many countries and eccentric characters who contribute clues. But the real purpose of Guy's mission proves deadly; can Guy himself survive it?

The Good: At its core, Mr. Arkadin’s plot is fantastic. A man feigns amnesia to hire another man to hunt down his past – in the process making note of who he contacts and promptly having them killed to erase a history that he doesn’t want haunting him. The unraveling of the mystery is well done, unfortunately Arkadin suffers from some questionable plodding, an uninteresting lead and telling its story clearly and with a sense of “satisfaction” at the end. Despite issues, which we’ll get more into in the next section, Welles’s visualization of it all is top-notch.

The Bad: I’d hate to just follow the cliché critique that Mr. Arkadin often drums up, but it’s absolutely, 100% true: you just do not, in any way, care about Mr. Arkadin. He’s a character, sure, but when it tries to turn him into someone we should feel sympathy for, the movie utterly fails. When he was a mysterious character, one you weren’t sure if you could trust like a figure in the shadows, the movie worked wonderfully. That’s because Arkadin wasn’t the focus. I couldn’t care less about the parallels and similarities to Kane, they are certainly there, but in a way it needs to be brought up because Kane simply tales the same story much, much better and much much more clearly.

More importantly is how Arkadin being presented as a sympathetic character seems to come out of nowhere, and not having him up front and center probably hinders more than helps because when the movie makes that turn, you realize you don’t know anything about Arkadin at all other than his boisterous personality as only Welles can deliver. This lack of care and connection most hits you in the ending – an utterly disconnected, unmoving and underwhelming climax that feigns emotion in hopes of getting you to care one final time.

Also, Robert Arden is not a compelling lead whatsoever, especially when he’s put in scenes with Welles directly and Arkadin’s personality completely diminishes whatever Arden is trying to do. Like many of his films, though, it too suffered from the Welles curse where he would point the blame at the lack of control, but what we’re left with is just a bit of mess that might look great, but tells its story horribly.

The Ugly: Hopefully there will be a remastered and comprehensive version of this film. The quality of the copies I have (including the one on Netflix streaming) is less than stellar.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Armored

A newbie guard for an armored truck company is coerced by his veteran coworkers to steal a truck containing $42 million. But a wrinkle in their supposedly foolproof plan divides the group, leading to a potentially deadly resolution.

The Good: The best thing that Armored has going for it is that it is completely unassuming. It doesn't have lofty goals and seems perfectly content in at least offering 88 minutes of entertainment. It's a fairly small and tight script that doesn't ever give the impression it's wasting your time. This is both good and bad, bad is noted below, but it is good because much of the fluff is removed and it gets to the point in developing and moving it's story along. Mostly, at least. There's a good, gritty look to everything and director Antal shows he might have a good career ahead of him with smart scene presentation and pacing within them. He might be a guy to keep an eye on as this is a decent second film although probably not the best in terms of a follow-up to another sub-par film from him, Vacancy.

The Bad: It all starts well enough, but it's quite apparent that the story reached a point where it just gives up, throws in some obvious conclusions and climaxes and ruins itself by being far too cheesy with its ending. It's worth seeing, but know that the enjoyment you're first feeling, that "wow this is pretty good so far" likely due to your low expectations won't last and will turn  to "oh, that's more like it" that would fit those low expectation. It's fine to start small and grow, which Armored does well, but you constantly expect some hint at freshness or ambition to emerge. This simply never happens and as a result you're left actually disappointed that your low expectations ended up being met seeing as how it looked like might exceeded them at least a little bit. The acting starts in a similar fashion. Everyone is stiff but at least enjoyable at first before succumbing to irrelevance, annoying plot holes emerge then that too turns to cheesy and predictable  (as well as numerous "why don't they..." questions) , if not outright eye-rollingly contrived. It seems the story has no place to go. A decent third-tier thriller, but not one worth remembering or seeing again.

The Ugly: For some reason, the film "Judgment Night" kept rolling around in my head. That, too, was a movie with an ensemble of actors you know but don't wow you, a concept that starts fresh and turns bland and you find yourself disappointed once the credits start. Judgment Night had the benefit of Dennis Leary, though.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Army of Darkness

In this sequel to the Evil Dead films, a discount-store employee is time-warped to a medieval castle beset by monstrous forces. Initially mistaken for an enemy, he is soon revealed as the prophesied savior who can quest for the Necronomicon, a book which can dispel the evil. Unfortunately, he screws up the magic words while collecting the tome, and releases an army of skeletons, led by his own Deadite counterpart. What follows is a thrilling, yet tongue-in-cheek battle between Ash's 20th Century tactics and the minions of darkness.

The Good: Much like Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness will offer you an original, unique and imaginative experience that, really, has yet to be repeated in both execution and enthusiastic energy. Unlike Evil Dead 2, it’s more a tale of adventure than anything resembling horror, but because it keeps the same humorous tone to everything, you don’t notice the change in genre styles. It’s a little more goofy, certainly less gory, but has some great special effects, a hero that really comes into his own and we embark on an odd adventure with him that is every bit as fun and enjoyable as the past two Evil Dead films. All this and the fact that Army of Darkness is quintessential Campbell. The man is at his very best in style, attitude and spouting one-liners as easily as a chainsaw lops off limbs in this movie and you simply can't get enough of the guy and end up admiring him by the end of it all. Evil Dead II was the set up to him, and Army of Darkness is certainly the knock-down as he lays it all out. Raimi does as well, using more special effects, more crazy camera work and more insane plot events than you can shake a severed hand at.

The Bad: Army of Darkness starts its tale in the vein of a road-trip movie, of sorts. Campbell’s Ash is asked to retrieve an ancient book and has to venture into the wild to nab it. This portion is, by far, the best and most entertaining. Sadly, it doesn’t keep up with it and unlike Evil Dead 2, where the energy and flow of everything is constantly moving forward, Army of Darkness halts itself about two-thirds in and has a climatic final battle that doesn’t quite live up to its name and makes you wish Ash spent a few more days outside the castle walls before that ending, see more of this odd world and get into more small adventures along the way.

The Ugly: Army of Darkness was not only the first Evil Dead movie I saw back in the early 1990s, but was also one of the first horror movies I remember seeing that wasn’t Nightmare of Elm Street or Friday the 13th (I wouldn’t get into the genre more until well into high school). I was probably eleven or twelve when I watched it on VHS at a friend’s house. I was both appalled and enthralled...and as it turns out that hasn’t changed much since.

Also, make sure you watch the director's cut, the intended version of the film which has a more fitting ending.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Art of Getting By

George, a lonely and fatalistic teen who's made it all the way to his senior year without ever having done a real day of work, is befriended by Sally, a popular but complicated girl who recognizes in him a kindred spirit.

The Good: Confused, aimless George is like a lot of teenagers, I'm betting. He has a sense "why does it matter?" and I know for a fact that I had those thoughts roll through my head on more than one occasion in high school as well. I think most teens have at some point. You feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, you have pressure to do something but no motivation to do it and you desperately seek a reason and cause to get off your ass and take those tests, do that homework and find your direction in life.

For most of The Art of Getting By, that singular thought is its driving force. George starts out as appealing and relatable, the outcast that says and does things that most other students put aside as just fleeting thoughts. But they DO have those thoughts, George simply acts more on them. But that's not enough to carry a film, and eventually that thought wears thin as the film soon fumbles to find a point in itself entirely.

The Bad: "Will you have sex with me?"

So the movie kind of loses me at the utterance of these six words. The film is fairly honest and true in its depiction of these rather artsy/hipster/odd teens. Their conversations ring true and George's own look on life is a rather believable one for someone his age: one of aimless and seemingly insignificance. Then it turns into something else entirely that I just can't buy.

It then begins to spiral downhill, becoming worse and worse and it gets lost in its own fleeting ideas and directionless story. It doesn't recover from those six words. The characters, George in particular, spiral as well as you slowly begin to loathe them. Sally's not much better as her dialogue of "we're just friends" turns as equally as annoying as George's outlook on life which devolves from quirky and interesting to just being a pretentious asshole for no good reason. Scenes continue to spiral, becoming more and more annoying, more and more unbelievable and you end up with a simple mess of a film that has nothing to say. It throws in a new indie rock song every few minutes to try and conform to the genre it desperately wants to be a part of but it insults even that niche genre of mopey teen dramas.

Then it gets particularity worse around an hour end where it finally (yes finally) tries to have a plot and it does it as unbelievable as the rest of the film. George is given one last chance, but why him? Why are all these teachers and principles at his school so determined to get him to do something with his life? Why the interest? He insults them. He obviously doesn't care. What's worse it that the more I think about how he got here, which is never addressed, the more I wonder why they just now realize it. Sure,it's about "just getting by" but even that's not addressed all that much because he really doesn't do that, he simply "just doesn't do" anything at all. Then you start to loathe him anymore and then then entire film and other characters as well.

Here's the thing: I would like the film far more if George didn't make those around him so miserable in the first place. You can have a miserable character, but when he's affecting those around him and he obviously doesn't care all that much, then that's an issue at the story level that makes me wonder how the film got shot in the first place. It handles this and resolves this issue in as a by-the-numbers way I was hoping it wouldn't do, but it does it. Montage. Special talks in diners. A kiss. Maybe if the film didn't so try hard for me to loathe George by the time all this started to happen, I would have cared when it actually does.

I could go on further about the issues of the film, but I'll stop there and say this: I wanted to like this film. It shows promise, potential, has good acting and the directing is solid. But it starts as good as it will get and slides slowly down for an hour and a half into a tedious, dismal bore of a wannabe indie-film. By the time it does something, you just don't care because it made you do so.

The Ugly: So they talk to George directly about his classes and students but don't meet with the parents to arrange something? Anything?

The entire film is just full of "little things" like that. But enough little thing put into one bag and you have one big problem made up of them. This movie frustrates you like that. It stars well, has moments of appeal, but simply begins to frustrate and annoy you.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Arthur Christmas

On Christmas night at the North Pole, Santa's youngest son looks to use his father's high-tech operation for an urgent mission. 

The Good: If you aren't familiar with Aardman Animations, the only thing I can tell you is to consider them the British equivalent of Pixar. Their repertoire may not be as vast, but they certainly made an impression with the likes of the Wallace and Grommit animated shorts and later feature (a personal favorite), the criminally underrated Chicken Run and, now, a large-scale and much-broader animation feature in Arthur Christmas.

And it's absolutely fantastic.

Arthur Christmas hits all the right notes. In fact, one might say the story is predictable as are the character arcs. However, it's the way the movie goes about presenting it that makes it a joy to watch - not too dissimilar to the equally-predictable yet equally-wonderful Dreamworks movie How to Train Your Dragon. Sure, you know what's going to happen, but you fall in love with the world, the characters and the style. For Arthur Christmas, it has the burden of being another Christmas movie - trying to do original Christmas movies is harder to think of and even harder to pull off. This, though, does it just right. It brings the idea of Santa, and his family, into a modern-day setting of elf-SWAT teams, PDAs and Star-Trek inspired transportation.

As strange as it sounds, it's familiar, yet different. We've seen some of this before, but just not this well-done. The animation and artistic style is top notch, characters, especially Arthur himself, wonderfully voiced and full realized and despite a dragging late second act, it never loses a step in remaining progressive, fun, clever and with a lot of heart.

The Bad: That late second-act slug of a plot line really drags a lot of the movie down. It's nice to be reflective, and as mentioned the predictability of the plot made it obvious it was going to happen as our second-act conflict, but it stagnates and dwells on it far too much.

That's only a minor issue, not something overly detrimental to the entirety of the movie. I suppose you could chalk of the predictable nature of all the characters and story as a fault, but you'll be having too good of a time with it to really notice, I think.

The Ugly: I really want this to be a new holiday classic. Perhaps in the UK it will be, but people on this side of the pond, as they say, should really give this a harder look. It has the whimsey of A Christmas Story, the message-centrality of It's a Wonderful Life and more originality than any Christmas movie of the past 20 years.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Attack the Block

A teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion.

The Good: In a very loose, though streamlined and quick pace, Attack the Block is one of those movies that isn't necessarily "great" yet you'll likely have an urge to watch it repeatedly. It's called a "cult" status and in the same way Edgar Wright's brilliant Shaun of the Dead gained a following on DVD and word of mouth, Attack the Block (though not quite as sharp) is certain to follow suit. It's unique in that there's not a lot of British comedies dealing with inner-city children, it doesn't pander or attempt to heat those predictable beats that something like this might succumb to and you'll certainly come to appreciate the characters and actors in really giving it their all. Especially young John Boyega, who plays the central character of Moses and is absolutely a star in the making.

Writer/director Joe Cornish gives an impressive debut feature, knowing exactly what a movie like this needs to survive: great characters. While not all characters are going to be memorable, a solid core group of four or five are certainly wonderfully realized both in script and by the remarkably talented young actors on screen. If it was your standard group of un-relatable and stock horror-movie characters just waiting to die, the movie would never get off the ground. Yet, you come to know them, even if briefly, and when things turn intense you can't help but feel good when they succeed, bad when they fail and sad when things begin to become a little too "real" for them. You route for them, hope they make it, and that bit of hope is something that's missing in genre movies like this. Cornish found it. Truth is, it's always been there, it's not that hard to write and to get into a film's narrative. Instead it took a little low-budget movie to show the bigger genre pictures with ten times the budget how to do it right. Sometimes having less to work with makes something that much better.

The Bad: The only downside to Attack the Block to really be disappointed on is it's lack of polish. It's a low-budget b-movie that's better than most low-budget b-movies, and it's certainly far sharper than those, but it's still a low-budget b-movie that badly want's to have the refinement and wit of what Edgar Wright might be able to offer, but it never quite reaches those heights despite the occasional flash of brilliance. It's far looser than it perhaps needs to be, almost seemingly thrown together and it struggles to find a balance with the horror and comedy aspects and be able to give us a solid dramatic hook to the characters. Truth is, it's never convincing dramatically, it's spotty in terms of horror and the comedy is often lost in the entire process with only two characters really giving us some laughs (and they aren't on screen enough to have it be consistent). Despite the flaws, though, there's no denying such charm, something rare in movies these days, in the hodge-podge of ideas, scenes, tones and enthusiastic low-budget enjoyment.

The Ugly: Though not a fault, be forewarned the accents are thick, as is the slang. It makes you need to watch it a few times. Oh darn, I suppose I'll just have to see it again.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


August: Osage County

A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

The Good: I don't know if I've come across a film that's more difficult to review than August: Osage County. It's a wonderful character piece full of solid performances and memorable characters. Overall, it's a solid family drama that is based on a fantastic play. The elements are there because of that play and you can see it, for the good elements and the bad.

Seeing as how this is a section labeled "good" I better focus on that for the moment. This film is full of great characters and great, albeit sometimes over-zealous, acting. The characters give it life, and director John Wells handles every scene with grace, in-particular a dinnertable scene that is as tense as anything you could ask Hitchcock to do in terms of suspense. Well directed, well shot, well acted even well-written on the character front....you would think it would be a great film as a result.

The Bad: It's not just based on a play, plenty of films are, but this feels like a play. When the characters are at their best with the actors feeling well-rounded, the film is wonderful. Then you have those scenes that are just full of over the top melodrama to showcase Meryl Streep acting as Meryl Streep in a play. Far more emotional, far more extroverted. On a stage, that's great. In a film, it feels unnatural and can take you out of the entire thing.

There are moments of great dialogue and conversation happening, but every time there's a moment that just screams "this is a play!" it takes you out of it entirely. Overwrought to the point of inanity, August: Osage County has flashes of brilliance but too much distraction of falsity to actually invest or believe in a single moment.

Not once does this family feel like a family. Yes, families can fight, even resent each other, but here there's nothing but spite and hate that any sense of these people ever actually being more than just a hateful trainwreck becomes lost. This isn't resentment over time, it feels as though everyone was created and born to hate and despite one another, and that wears thin after two hours.

The Ugly: Ewww...just....ewwww.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Avatar

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's intentions of driving off the native humanoid "Na'vi" in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with the use of an "avatar" identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand - and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.

The Good: If you aren't entertained by Avatar, then why the Hell do you bother going to the movies? It may not be perfect, but it's as entertaining and engaging a movie-going experience you will ever have. James Cameron reminds us what it means to make a movie, coming back after over a decade to show he is still King James in every since of the word. Avatar has much in common with his past films, from the characters, themes, pacing and special effects to the quality story that he somehow weaves through fantasy and science fiction better than any other filmmaker today. He always reminds us of the humanism and emotion that should come in this genre, not be absent due to it. Avatar brings back the wonder that is filmmaking. It is something you haven't seen before, yet is familiar so you feel comfortable in it. The unseen is the world, the special effects, the 3D while the familiar grounds you through story and character. To be too much "new" would have caused an unseen distance, but because our relationship to the characters and story, as stock as they may be, we can focus on the wonder of the experience, the action and the setting itself - all this being Cameron's intention from the beginning when he set out to implement ideas from his favorite Science Fiction stories. He goes one step further into the relm of fantasy as well with Avatar and creates a place, people, language and makes us actually believe it, feel for it, care for it and sometimes wish we could actually be there.

Of course, the major performances are done through CG, with Worthington and Saldana being the main focus in their giant, blue cat-like personalities. As expected, not only are they convincing and you eventually throw aside the notion they aren't real, there's an entire new layer to them that is rare with CG characters. There's a subtlety in the mannerisms, expressions, their dialogue delivered like real speech and eyes full of life. The last convincing CG character was probably Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, and Cameron, like Jackson, takes a similar approach in treating the characters like actual people and performances shot with cameras, not just a special effect with no weight to it. The 3D, too, is approached in similar fashion with it rarely drawing attention to itself as most 3D films tend to do. Here, it feels a part of the movie to where you can't even imagine it without it. How this will play out in the home video market will be interesting.

Avatar may not be the best movie ever, it's not be the best in Cameron's canon even, but he absolutely delivers what he promised and shows us how an action, fantasy epic could be done. See it in 3D, sit back, and just enjoy the ride.

The Bad: Some corny dialogue, heavy-handed themes and predictable plot, but that's not to say the characters aren't engaging and storytelling not superb - this comes with James Cameron territory and none of this should surprise anyone who's seen any of his films. It does rush to a third act, and the beginnings are a tad drawn out, but it gives a sense of time and scale to it all and, let's not forget, this is by definition of Fantasy Epic and the best of its kind since the Lord of the Rings films - being lengthy and perhaps long-winded is to be expected. The only element I wish had been elaborated on is the humans to be focused on as much as the "savages." Many of Jake Sully's human team are very background-oriented with his friendships with the Na'vi taking full focus. Sully is new to both worlds, it would have been nice to see his human relationships developed a little further.

The Ugly: The amateur and juvenile critics need to grow up. You can read more thoughts on this in the blog section.

Final Rating
: 4.5 out of 5


The Avengers

Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings together a team of super humans to form The Avengers to help save the Earth from Loki and his army. 

The Good: Simply put, this is how an action film needs to be done. Basic plot, a sense of humor, action we can follow and that has variety and structure and, above all else, characters we care about and have great chemistry. It's an ensemble piece streamlined to an impressive sheen. Nothing feels wasted or unneeded. Even more impressive than the structuring and pace is the ability of the script to incorporate a large cast and make each one feel relevant. It might have been easy to have two or three central heroes, then just have the rest in the background, but The Avengers makes it to where you can't remove any character without losing something. Not merely a great action moment or special effect, but something relevant to the plot as a whole. The Avengers is already impressive in the fact it brings together high-profile franchises and makes sense, but the ability to make everything feel needed, and us wanting them to succeed because we give a damn, is its best quality.

Writer/Director Joss Whedon was the first choice to handle this film, and obviously the best choice. The humor never feels out of place or cheap, organically grown from the characters and the situation and done subtly in a manner where it grows from the situation, not shoehorned in for a cheap laugh. Thor might be defensive of his brother, but when he's told Loki has killed 80 people in two days, he promptly, casually states "he's adopted." Thor had some of the bigger action moments in the film, which I suppose is there to make up for his lack of development compared to the likes of Bruce Banner, who learns to understand his other half (though this isn't entirely shown), Captain America who  (as expected) grows into the leader and Tony Stark who has the singular thread of a character arc throughout the entire film and embodies what being an "Avenger" is all about. Throw in the non-superhero-powered likes of Hawkeye and Black Widow, played capably by Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson - both never doing too much or too little and the entire Shield operation bringing them all together given a big dose of credibility with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who feels both vulnerable yet passionate and focused at the same time - in a way how every character feels when coming into the fold and he leading the way.

It's an action-heavy film, but there's variety and all well done. Fight scenes are memorable, especially when our superheroes fight one another. Keep in mind before this, fight scenes between these characters sere simply panels on a page. To turn it into something distinct, engaging, well choreographed and plotted out to a point where it doesn't get boring is another feat that Avengers sets the bar on. In fact, the film is incredibly taught. Nothing feels wasted or without a purpose. Ever punch thrown feels as if there's a meaning behind it rather than endless clutter and noise.  Dialogue feels woven and natural, never just to spout endless exposition and one-liners (save for one must-have line) and revelations and progression are done through scenes that might appear as banter, but in fact are thought-out conversations. It's only that the actors give off a sense of comfort and fully into their character that we tend to not notice just how purposeful it all is.  

I would say the Avengers sets the bar on how a fun, as in not taking itself too seriously, superhero film should be done. The blending of action, character development and humor with the streamlined polish found here is going to be difficult for any film to follow up on. It hits all the right marks and beats and does so in a fashion that feels satisfactory yet not predictable. It's a rare blockbuster of a film, one that's going to be remembered for years to come.

The Bad: A crazy, sometimes rushed third act makes The Avengers seem more of a two-act play than something that is consistently and smartly progressing. It pretty much just falls into the climax, rushing a few of what seemed to be important scenes that really ended up not going anywhere (notably a self- reflective moment for Thor and where Mr. Banner ends up after the second act) rather than transition to it, and makes one wonder if there's a few cut scenes that never made it into the final picture that would help build a better bridge to one of the most enjoyable climaxes I've seen in a movie in a long time. I suppose it wouldn't be as big of an issue if the film wasn't so finely paced up to that point. It's quick turn into a giant action set piece of a third act and we barely caught our breath from the one we just left.

The lack of a "breath" is most noticeable when it comes to the Hulk, who ten or fifteen minutes prior was having trouble coming to terms with his powers, but then suddenly shifts to be able to do that. It's an odd, noticeable gap. The separation of him, as well as Thor, from the main group seems needless because nothing happens with either while they are gone and you feel there was something left on the cutting room floor. This not only drops the consistency, up to that point at least, of the character arcs but drops out the sense of pace and progression The Avengers had been flawlessly executing along with it.

The Ugly: It's astounding how this came to be. It's smart producing and taking a rare (almost non-existent actually) farsighted approach to creating an intertwined movie experience. The ability to get fans into a fervor yet still maintain broad appeal, to plan years in advance rather than just rush something to the screen as most studios do and, in the end, to consistently just make good, fun action movies, to me, sets a new standard in how filmmaking should be ran from a business standpoint.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Avengers: Age of Ultron

When Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program called Ultron, things go horribly wrong and it's up to Earth's Mightiest Heroes to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

The Good: We know the routine by now. Heroes fight bad guys, there’s a lot of fun, some funny banter with memorable lines and awesome special effects. The trick here, though, is that it all comes together and works, which is more than I can say for most spectacle movies like Age of Ultron. Go and see a Transformers or Jupiter Ascending and see how easily it could not work.

It comes down to a central figure in Joss Whedon understanding the dynamics, not of action necessarily (his action sequences are nice but not the end-all be-all of action filmmaking) nor is it the special effects (as big as the movie is, the special effects are there to serve a purpose, not be the centerpiece) but it’s the characters. For something this big and loud and with so many threads to follow, you have to centralize it on something to get the audience invested and that something is juggling a dozen characters, giving them all moments to shine and be memorable and never have them slow down the plot.

There’s a lot of comic book movies that only have, maybe, seven or eight main characters and at least half you won’t remember. Here, just as in the first Avengers, we all take something away from each one. We learn something about them. We “get” them, which means, in some form, we kind of identify with them and then get behind their heroism, whether it’s the snark of a Stark or a boy scout of a Rogers, we understand all their various perspectives of who they are and how they see the world - which is crucial to the plot of Age of Ultron.

Age of Ultron captures the essene of comic book action. It's big, well shot with some great character moments along the way. Unfortunately, it can't tell all that compelling of a story while doing so and there's not enouh intrigue in the plot, and far too many quips and one-liners, to truly feel stakes of what's happening. On sheer entertainment though, it’s probably one of the best you could ask for.

The Bad: Age of Ultron is a comic book brought to life, and that's both a good and bad thing. As entertaining as it can be, it also lacks any sense of drama in its plot. Character material is superb, but the plot moves like a train with no slowing even on the sharpest turns. It's breakneck pace of getting from one major action scene and a ton of superheroes to shine to the next. Age of Ultron does give us great characters and their respective moment, but none really offer up any depth or even revelations - even the much ballyhooed Black Widow reveal. The first Avengers managed to pace itself out far better and really nail moments of characters, adding a richness to them. Then again, that's the luxury of a kinda-origin story: you are allowed time to do that stuff. In a sequel, you have to raise the stakes and for a movie like this, raising stakes doesn't mean we're going to really get to care as much about them because we just want to see them do cool stuff.

It attempts this, though I'd argue it fails, as it tries to parallel Tony Stark with Ultron and their respective ideologies to usher in a sense of complexity to them. Neither are all that original, which is fine, but neither are developed enough to understanding or to justify the time spent trying to shoehorn it in there - especially Ultron who lacks charisma and intrigue for a villain despite a great voice performance from James Spader. Their world views are one-dimensional, as is everything else in this movie as it crams every character it possibly can into a couple of hours. Everyone is given a moment or two to shine, but, though many are memorable, it feels more arbitrary and obligatory than organic and woven into the fabric of the action.

As spectacle, Age of Ultron works. Wonderfully works, I should say. It's fun and loud and characters likable so you route for them and Hawkeye seems the most self-referential he's ever been so that's great. Yet, Marvel's standards for story and character surpassed it years ago (probably culminating to last year with Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy). Unfortunately, just going on its structure and sheer amount of characters alone, this movie was never going to be able to do that. So lower expectations and just have a good time, it has that in spades.

The Ugly: Falcon's absence doesn't make sense considering his role in Winter Soldier. They dismiss him off as having some other assignment he's not happy with, but I wonder who actually gave him that when he helped save the planet a year ago.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Aviator

Phenomenal public success contrasts with private behaviors close to madness: Howard Hughes from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, from "Hells Angels" (spending a fortune on details) through the only flight of the Hercules, a huge, money-losing transport plane. Along the way, the public Hughes sees the big picture - in movies and in aviation, building TWA and leading it through a fight with Pan Am and the US Senate. In private, phobias and compulsions threaten him with self-imposed solitary confinement. How long can his imagination, drive, and the sympathies of Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and the men who work for him stave off these internal disorders?

The Good: The Aviator is not only the story of Howard Hughes, which it tells wonderfully, but a story of a lost time. The glamor and celebrity of Hughes parallels that of America, notably Hollywood. The cars, the movies, the women...it's the decadent rich lifestyle and "American Dream" that is the story here, Hughes is merely the vehicle as we take a trip through this Golden Age. He was a tragic man, obviously with a mental illness and social awkwardness, I can't help but look at a similar film to compare it to: Citizen Kane. The characters are engaging yet mournful and, despite all the stories and perspectives we see and hear, we really don't know that much about him. The difference is Hughes was a real man, flawed yet remarkable, and it's all the more tragic as a result. Similar to Gangs of New York, the film is full of vivid imagery and beauty. There's a care and delicacy here that is somewhat realistic yet somewhat glamorized, which seems to be a reflection of Hughes himself.

The Bad: When it comes to biography pictures, we often demand to see candidness and be enlightened on the person's life. The Aviator, while candid at times about Hughes, doesn't quite tell us anything about him we didn't already know. It's more our interest in the things we heard and now seeing that draws us in, but we don't really learn anything from his life or the experience in watching him falter for his lofty dreams. It's hollow, impassive and occasional stoic in how it handles it all.

The Ugly: DiCaprio is great in the role as Hughes, although some might have problems with his youthful look and some just didn't like him in it. I think it's the performance of his career-showing how great Scorsese works with actors.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Babadook

A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.

The Good: It takes a lot of guts to make a movie like The Babadook. While your standard “horror” movies are pretty straightforward, hit certain beats and move along at a leisurely pace, The Babadook is a lesson in restraint. It’s also a full-on allegorical fairy tale about depression and grief - things that you never are “cured” of and the best you can do is lock it away in the basement of your mind. Even then, though, it will still creep out once in a while.

Don’t be fooled by The Babadook’s simplicity. It’s a strikingly deep and rather artistic approach to horror - playing with more ambiguous real fears than the simple boogyman we try to hang everything. It’s often confusing, but the answers are there as are the reasons (such as the kid being more savvy as to what’s happening and what the threat is than we give him credit for). The constant sense of unsettling visuals and atmosphere, mostly contained in one decrepit house barely lit by the glow of a television or flickering bulb, gives The Babadook a unique visual style to accompany it all.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent has a steady and sure hand to it all - she knows exactly every facet of this story, these characters and how to present it to an audience. There’s no fluff or corner-cutting, it all feels purposeful and from that sense of earnest do we get a unique horror movie where simply calling it a “horror movie” just doesn’t sound quite right. It’s a lot more than that and is a study on solid filmmaking and storytelling.

The Bad: There are two prominent things about The Babadook that will likely bother/annoy you. One: the child is incredibly obnoxious. Now he’s supposed to be, but boy-oh-boy is it over-the-top. It’s all the more prominent put up against the subdued and restrained nature of the rest of the film and it is to the point where I could easily see it breaking the movie for some audiences.

Two: The sister is an awful person and I Just don’t buy her uncaring and unconcerned demeanor towards it all. Structurally, the story needs a character like her to have simply another character for our main protagonist to interact with, but the story also requires our protagonist to feel isolated and completely on her own. The solution was to make her sister just an awful person, but it never quite lands right. Though it makes me loathe the sister more for the fact she doesn’t work than the fact she’s an awful person (it doesn’t work because she obviously cares for her sister enough to invite her to things and watch her son) it’s still not enough to ruin the movie.

The reason is because those two things are all buildup to the second act. The Babadook is a slow-burn thriller that makes you uncomfortable from the get go: i.e. the shrill sister and obnoxious child. There’s no real scares happening here, but it’s all unsettling if not disorienting as we’re thrust into Amelia’s world of no sleep and head-splitting ordeals of trying to cope with depression, a husband’s death and a child she can’t control. Yes, there’s some things that will grate you, it grated me, but it all leads to a brilliant payoff.

The Ugly: You’ll figure out some of the story pretty quick, but Kent doesn’t pull the punches in the conclusion and it’s a benefit to the entire film as a result.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Back to the Future

Marty McFly, a typical American teenager of the Eighties, is accidentally sent back to 1955 in a plutonium-powered DeLorean "time machine" invented by slightly mad scientist. During his often hysterical, always amazing trip back in time, Marty must make certain his teenage parents-to-be meet and fall in love - so he can get back to the future.
 

The Good: Marty McFly is a likable guy. In fact, when it comes to teenage movie characters from the 1980s, he and Ferris Bueller always jockey for position. If it weren’t for him and Michael J. Fox’s performance, Back to the Future simply wouldn’t work. You need that strong lead and all-American boy with that slight hint of teenage rebellion. Fox hits the mark perfectly and it’s not so much we’re watching Marty go on an adventure as much as it is we feel we’re joining him on that adventure. He become a friend to us and so we take that much more investment in his predicament and goals. We also enjoy the company of his friend Doc Brown, probably one of the great movie characters in cinema, who’s excitement and energy leaves us forcing to catch our own breath when he still hasn’t caught his. Back to the Future isn’t so much about time travel, you see, as much as it is about characters. You love them from the very beginning. The comedy is a melting pot of comedic styles, all somehow coming together seamlessly. You have the brilliant dialogue banter of a Wilder movie, a bit of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and a whole lot of Frank Kapra. It's a brilliant film that is often overlooked when people discuss the great comedies.
 
The Bad: As Marty unwillingly disrupts the timeline and altering the future, Doc Brown works with him to try and set it right. He brings up the repercussions of mucking with time and even subtly brings in time travel theory without a ton of exposition. At the same time, he willingly disrupts it because he thinks it will set it right, but you have to ask "how does he know?" I mean, Marty still screws with the timeline and when he returns to 1985, thins are still changed only now for the better. It's hard to know what would happen if Marty didn't go back in the time, does a parallel timeline become created. Is there another 1985 that Marty didn't return to and his parents cry in heartache over the disappearance of their son? As with any movie dealing with time travel, sometimes asking too many questions just causes headaches. You should enjoy the ride, but Doc Brown's constant reminding us about travel theory causes us to ask a lot of questions.
 
The Ugly: As Ted from another 1980s time travel movie once said "It's your mom, dude."
 
Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Back to the Future Part 2

The second part of the trilogy begins as Doc, Marty and Jennifer take the time-traveling DeLorean into the year 2015 to straighten out the future of the McFly family. But Biff Tannen steals the time machine and gives his younger self a book containing 50 years of sports statistics, which the young Biff uses to amass an enormous gambling fortune and transform idyllic Hill Valley into a living hell. To restore the present, Doc and Marty must return to the events of their previous adventure in 1955 and retrieve the book.
 

The Good: Although the “traveling to the future” element is what got people into the theaters, lets face it that part is a lot of fun to see with the various flying cars and hoverboards, the real meat of the story is the alternate timeline that is created and the return to 1955. Like the first film, the highlight here is the characters. In particular the character of Biff and rather brilliant performance by Thomas F Wilson who plays teenage Biff, awkward adult Biff, sleazy adult Biff, teenage Griff (who is like teenage Biff only little twitchier), and elderly Biff. Michael J. Fox was no slouch either playing young Marty, old Marty, his daughter and his son and having to redo shots from the First Back to the Future at the same time. This is what made the movie so fun and just a great ride. It’s about generations, family and how, in the end, we’re all relatively the same. Ending in a cliffhanger was brilliant, giving the whole trilogy a great sense of continuity although I recall a ton of groans in the theater back in 1989.
 
The Bad: Any movie that deals with traveling to the future sadly only has the relevance of when it was made. In 1989, many of the references were fantastical yet believable, now they’re merely laughable. However, I don’t hold this against the film. It’s a product of its time just as 2001: A Space Odyssey was. It’s fun, with lots of goofy gags and observations that are reminiscent of a Jetson’s cartoon, but is merely there to throw set up the real elements of the story. Once those begin, that’s when the real movie starts and you start to realize how seemingly pointless (despite the foreshadowing to the third film) that the future plots seemed to be. I’ve also always found it interesting that Doc Brown, so obsessed about not harming or altering the timeline, is so gun-ho about jumping to the future to save Marty’s kids (and drag his girlfriend along for the ride). That element of his character seemed to be tossed out the window and instead of looking at it as a scientist (if not a philosopher) he changes his tone solely for the sake of having an adventurous story for a movie.
 
The Ugly: Wait…so we can predict the exact moment that rain stops yet apparently have poor mail service? What’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Doc?
 
Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Back to the Future Part 3

Stranded in 1955, Marty McFly receives written word from his friend, Doctor Emmett Brown, as to where can be found the DeLorean time machine. However, an unfortunate discovery prompts Marty to go to his friend's aid. Using the time machine, Marty travels to the old west where his friend has run afoul of a gang of thugs and has fallen in love with a local schoolteacher. Using the technology from the time, Marty and Emmett devise one last chance to send the two of them back to the future.

The Good: From the very first film, this third film was foreshadowed (especially the 2nd film, which the third reflects and references many times). It's puns and gags are a way of showing how time and things repeat, such as Marty quite good with a gun thanks to videogames or taking a cue from Clint Eastwood on how to act a cowboy. It's as "sweeping epic" as you can ask a time-traveling movie to really be with wide vistas, cliche's old west towns and facades and, of course, cowboys who'll shoot first and ask questions later. It's more a celebration of old westerns, a little John Ford with a dash of Sergio Leone, and the fish-out-of-water plot we've loved so much finally comes to an end. It even manages to dish out a nice and charming romance story in between it all. It's a solid send-off with characters we've come to love and, once the credits roll, we realize how much we'll miss.

The Bad: I suppose the biggest problem is how this, the climatic finale, is utterly "basic." There's no great orchestral choir and uplifting concerto, just a four-piece chamber ensemble that peters out. As fun as the movie it is, it's not much of a difference than a lot of western comedies, which it emulates from start to finish, rather than a funny adventure through time that the previous two movies were a part of. Perhaps its the lack of connections the characters, Doc and Marty, have to the old west where the times of 1955, 1985 and 2015 they were direct with. We see them and their families progress through those times, in our finale we see the original generations. Nice concepts, but perhaps should have been a small portion of something grander and more fitting as we've seen in two previous films. There's also the odd conundrum of Doc Brown and his family who are, apparently, the "Time Family" as best I can describe. They exist in and out of our own time, jumping from era to era...putting right what once went wrong...and hoping each time that his next leap....will be the leap home.

The Ugly: A Time Train?  Really? A bit ridiculous, even for Back to the Future standards and really forced way to end on a high note. But that ensemble is weary by that point anyways, but at least it's still fun to listen to.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Bad Boys II

Narcotics cops Mike Lowrey and Marcus Bennett head up a task force investigating the flow of ecstasy into Miami. Their search leads to a dangerous kingpin, whose plan to control the city's drug traffic has touched off an underground war. Meanwhile, things get sexy between Mike and Syd, Marcus's sister.

The Good: Some fantastic action set pieces, and though their characters fall completely flat, Smith and Lawrence make a good duo. It’s too bad all that is wasted for a mind-numbing film.

The Bad: It was around this time where Michael Bay seemingly pumped out an action movie every other month. It’s also around this time where his filmmaking inability really started to show. His previous films were, at least, broad, high-budget special effects extravaganzas carried by their set pieces and characters. Then he made Pearl Harbor, his effort to turn legitimate, which pretty much fell on its face. So, he went back to his original film and decided “that’s still, probably, a lot of people’s favorite movie...how about a sequel?”

So why not a sequel to one of the few decent Michael Bay films? Because the Michael Bay in 2003 was much different than the Michael Bay in 1995 where he actually showed some restraint. Bad Boys II is his balls-to-the-wall action flick, and while some might applaud it, he sacrifices every other aspect of the film just to get “that shot” or “that bit of slow motion with a musical score.” You can see him setting up every single scene and bit of dialogue with that in mind. The chemistry that was found between Smith and Lawrence in the original film is completely shoved aside for gay innuendos and banter that adds absolutely nothing to the story or their characters. It’s as though everything is in this little bubble: the characters talk about stuff that never seems relevant to the action which never seems relevant to the plot and the humor feels as though some fourteen year old snuck into the office, scribbled some screen notes on the pages and Bay just went with it (probably because the handwriting of that teenager looked strangely like his own and he got confused).

The Ugly: Michael Bay has never made a “good” film, but he’s made some fantastic entertaining ones. Bad Boys II is, really the first film that you think would be geared perfectly towards that same approach, especially when trying to bounce back from Pearl Harbor. Yet, it feels like it tries so hard to force us to like it, it ends up causing us to feel insulted and demeaned as a result. Bay has since made at least one more film that can qualify as “Not good, but entertaining” in the first Transformers movie, but has failed to reach even basic entertainment on everything else.

Final Rating: 1 out of 5


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Terence McDonagh is a drug- and gambling-addled detective in post-Katrina New Orleans investigating the killing of five Senegalese immigrants.

The Good: There's really nothing like watching a movie where are central character isn't above doing anything and everything. Watching a complete psycho can be entertaining if done right and, for the most part, this movie does do that right. Cage is daring in his portrayal of a cop that has one foot over the edge and the other foot in the grave. Watching an actor exploit his fearlessness is a joy and Cage, although sometimes a parody of himself in films, is absolutely superb here. It's an interesting subject matter for Wener Herzog as well, this is a bit of a departure in nearly every facet for him. Like the original Bad Lieutenant, this film is more a character study with some surrealist elements (in other words, like McDonagh, you aren't sure what is real and what is it...it could all just be a dream). If it wasn't for Cage, and his off-the-wall antics, this movie would probably be nothing. Then again, that can be said for the original Bad Lieutenant as well only that film took itself far too seriously most of the time. Cage emits glee and Herzog presents it in unabashed glory. As a result, we have something daring yet at the same time darkly funny. It's the perfect tone for this type of movie. The question is, though...is that intentional?

The Bad: Sometimes a movie can just try too hard, and in the case of BL:PCNO (Yes, I just did that) it seems to indulge itself in trying to show just how depraved McDonagh can be and how utterly nuts, although it's a brave nuts, that Nicholas Cage can appear. We find humor in this as a result, but is the film trying to be funny or, especially considering it is Herzog, is it tragic in its depiction of the character? There's really no story here to justify either scenario, just a series of events, and there's really no character development because the entire film does a complete 180 and, instead, has everything wrapped up nicely and tied up in a bow that, again, feels almost comedic. Funny or not, so forced is this "happy ending" that it utterly brings down the entire film as a result. It's obvious, it's contrived, it's all handled in a period of five minutes. Everything is going to be fine, when they really should not be. McDonagh hasn't really learned anything, those around him haven't fully figured him out and how insane he is and there's no solid "just desserts" that he really gets.

The Ugly:
I have to say, Xzibit has, time and time again, shown some pretty good acting chops in television and film. Playing a drug dealing villain here is a good turn for him as he often plays good-guy roles. It brings a good balance to Cage's antics.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Bad Milo

A horror comedy centered on a guy who learns that his unusual stomach problems are being caused by a demon living in his intestines.

The Good: At it's heart, Milo is like a cross between Ghoulies if Ghoulies was entirely about wish-fulfillment. It's bloody, it's classic puppetry at work, it's like an old-school 1980s horror comedy in the vein of a Basketcase.  Though there are things that really drag it down, and the comedy is very hit and miss, the energy and weirdness is hard to ignore. I mean, the graphic on a news report after a bloody victim of Milo's reads "Raccoon Kills Man" and if you look hard enough, you'll see the crawler talk about "Rabid Raccoon Attacks on the Rise." Next scene: a room completely covered in blood…because of the raccoon. That's funny, and that's when the comedy works best in the movie: when it's not trying so hard. When you're putting the pieces together and not being told that it's funny. Then again, that's good comedy in the first place.

Ken Marino, who works an absolute ton but hasn't yet broken to superstardom, is a natural comedic actor. His timing and conversation is great and plays the "man one step removed from reality" nicely. Veronica Mars fans probably already know all that, but in Bad Milo, really his first leading role as far as I can recall, he's really incredible and often the best thing in any scene. Especially scenes with Milo, the demon from his butt.

Ok, that was funny. And conceptually Bad Milo works. "Demon from the butt" is a hilarious log line. It's the execution of it all, occasional laughs, good practical effects and Marino himself aside, that never quite nails it.

The Bad: The Duplass Brother style, them being producers on this film, is a cross between indie quirky and mumble core mundane. Often they, and other similar filmmakers like Jacob Vaughan here who are in their wheelhouse, have a great way with dialogue: it's comedic, but often feels real. Bad Milo, though, doesn't quite have that. A lot is a set-up for a gag, a lot conversations that really wouldn't happen and people speaking in ways that people really don't speak. About ten minutes in to Bad Milo there's a dinner table scene that best exemplifies this, and it's a cringe-inducing "will everyone please shut up" moment that made me question why the writers wrote it this way, because it's bad.

I feel as though in certain scenes like that, and they're spread out throughout the rather streamlined hour and twenty minutes of film, that Marino is the only one that sees how weird it is. He plays off that, and he's great, but everyone else just keeps going and soon patience wears thin and you end up not buying what the movie is trying to sell.

It's easy to assume it's trying to be satirical, after all "Milo" is pretty much a satire itself and a metaphor for the frustrations of male dysfunction (physically and mentally) and certainly meant to be a bizarre look at fatherhood. But it's trying too hard. Way too hard. It's practically shoving it's desire to be a satire down your throat. It's a satire that's trying not to be a satire and only until Milo turns up to shake up the entire plot and story does it even begin to become slightly interesting and entertaining. At least it's only about 20 minutes for that to happen, up to that point I wanted to stop.

The Ugly:  A lot of good character actors in this thing, I wish they were in it more. I mean, Peter Strormare plays a therapist that gets advise from a talking bird…just put that through your brain-grinder for a moment. That's kind of what Bad Milo! works with: a lot of funny bits and ideas, but no consistency to really bring it all together.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Bad Words

A spelling bee loser sets out to exact revenge by finding a loophole and attempting to win as an adult.

The Good: Though it has a meandering and sometimes unfocused story, Bad Words is held up by strong characters. Not great characters, mind you. Nor are they people you might actually like. But their interesting and unapologetic as Bad Words never compromises the fact it wants to take this “great American establishment’ of a spelling bee and shit all over it as much as possible. Jason Bateman drives the entire film, both as director and letting the crude comedy play out organically, and as Guy Trilby, out despicable yet always intriguing lead making sure you’ll certainly never be bored.

The humor is often mean spirited, but intentionally so. Guy has no qualms with being a complete asshole, and in the same vein of a Bad Santa, you want to have his back but you aren’t sure if you should. It’s fun to be toyed with in that manner and Bateman makes Guy both interesting and funny yet unappealing all the same. It’s a unique balance to his characterization that lets Bateman shine as an actor just as much as he does as a director. He’s shameless, and that’s why it works so incredibly well even when the script isn’t quite sharp enough to deserve his performance.

Speaking of performances, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Rohan Chand and young Chaitanya. Child actors either work really well, or horribly. There’s rarely an in between but Rohan goes all-in alongside Bateman in this. The movie would not have worked with a bad child actor and the casting is absolutely spot-on here - he and Bateman really shine together.

The Bad: While it’s appreciated how Bad Words never compromises itself, it also never quite hits the emotional moments that it seems to want to hit as a result. Guy Trilby has an arc, and its subtle without making him a “nice person” but unfortunately it makes his goals in the story uninteresting. Guy himself is interesting, and you will certainly route for him, but not matter how many sob stories he says or mysteries he might reveal about his past, you never really feel anything for him.

But I suppose the biggest problem is, though it commits to everything its doing, it doesn’t go as outrage and offensive as it seems to want to. It holds itself just as that event horizon, unsure if it wants to go all in. There are spots when it does, though, and those are some of the funniest moments in the film, but one can’t help but wonder why not just do the entire film in that manner? It’s never quite as consistently raunchy, or constantly anything outside of Bateman and Chand, to be a memorable movie.

The Ugly: Bad Words, like Bad Santa (no relation) isn’t a movie for everyone. If you don’t like the first 15 minutes, stop watching because it won’t let up.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Barney's Version

The picaresque and touching story of the politically incorrect, fully lived life of the impulsive, irascible and fearlessly blunt Barney Panofsky.

The Good: Considering director Richard J. Lewis had little to his name prior to Barney's Version, some TV work but nothing worth noting in the feature world, to tackle a rather difficult piece of work left me pretty skeptical. Barney's Version may not be without its issues, there are plenty in it, but it's also better than one might expect considering the years it was in development, the people on and off the project and the rather messy script. One that isn't an issue is the directing and cinematography. Every scene is shot well and presented well and always looks beautiful thanks to veteran photographer Guy Dufaux who has been consistently working for nearly five decades.

Barney's Version is an actors piece, though, and there's a great number of good performances that lay within that carry the film. Giamatti is brilliant, as always really, as Barney is one of the best fully-realized assholes you could imagine, and Rosamund Pike is equally so as his third wife who is headstrong, sexy, beautiful and loving all the same. Smaller parts with the likes of Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Addy and Scott Speedman are solid as well, though not really full developed or realized as much (Hoffman the closest to that). Barney's Version tries, and even though it doesn't quite succeed, it's an interesting piece nonetheless.

The Bad: It's hard to like Barney whatsoever - that's really the gist of it. He's our central character and the heart of the story, but there's no heart in his story - at least not until it begins to wrap up and by then it's just too late. He's a pathetic character that seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever until we approach the end of the film and even then it wasn't through his own discourse. He has no revelations really, the film itself a continuing cycle of sadness thanks to his blunt and rather confusing personality. Giamatti is indeed great in the role, but the role, the heart of the entire film, needed something more worthy of his effort. You'll find yourself hating him and probably continuing to do so even after the film is over. You never feel or understand his life because you never feel or understand towards him, and thus you ultimately don't care about anything...maybe just like he does.

The Ugly: An uneven film if there ever was one, Barney's Version is oddly being marketed as a comedy. It's far too dramatic for that, I found. Don't expect to laugh. Lord help it, it does try, though.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Barry Lyndon

Redmond Barry is a young, roguish Irishman who's determined, in any way, to make a life for himself as a wealthy nobleman. Enlisting in the British Army, fighting in the Seven Years War in Europe, Barry deserts from the British army, joins the Prussian army, gets promoted to the rank of a spy, then becomes pupil to a Chevalier and con artist/gambler. Barry then lies, dupes, duels and seduces his way up the social ladder and enters into a lustful but loveless marriage to a wealthy countess named Lady Lyndon, takes the name of Barry Lyndon, settles in England with wealth and power beyond his wildest dreams, then slowly falls dramatically into ruin.

The Good: Strangely one of Stanley Kubrick’s more overlooked films, Barry Lyndon is one of his more refined and all around polished pieces- authentic, moving and quite epic. Clocking in at around 3 hours, it’s now considered by most critics as the director’s best work overall, reeling back the philosophical ramblings of 2001 or the ideological head-pounding of A Clockwork Orange, it retains those thematic elements but Kubrick underplays the cards. It’s Kubrick’s approach to minimalism and being subdued that allows this film to work the way it does and thus we have a fantastic sandbox for him to play with as our hero is already detached and cold before Kubrick even needs to say “action.” It’s about irony, satire and a time when human beings seemed insignificant. It was a bold approach to filmmaking as well, as Kubrick insisted only a camera, actual locations and natural light be used through the production. Aesthetically, I would go as far to say this his Stanley Kubrick’s best by quite a margin.

The Bad: While it’s finely crafted, acted and an overall beautiful, vivid film to look at, it, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, lacks the core entertainment value to sit through and watch. It’s the artistic vision that draws you in, but when it comes to storytelling it lacks the ability to match that visual vigor. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “boring” but comparing the slow, arduous storytelling to the visual craftsmanship and acting, or even the set and costume designs, the disparity is obvious.

The Ugly: The time of the shoot? 10 months. That’s just principal photography. Throw in pre and post production, and you have a film years in the making. Compare that to most films that are shot in three months and out three after that, and you can get the idea. I hope the crew got overtime.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Barton Fink

In 1941, New York intellectual playwright Barton Fink comes to Hollywood to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Staying in the eerie Hotel Earle, Barton develops severe writer's block. His neighbor, jovial insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, tries to help, but Barton continues to struggle as a bizarre sequence of events distracts him even further from his task.

The Good: A movie about classic Hollywood filmmaking by fans of classic Hollywood. It may come on the verge of pretentiousness at times, but Barton Fink is a story about consciousness more than anything. What a man wants to do isn’t always the path he takes, and what he finds himself doing isn’t the path he wants. Barton Fink is about writing and, as Fink says in one of the opening scenes, there’s a gut feeling over what is good and what is merely adequate. It gets into the head of our writer, his thinking and observations and, of course, his serious block due to his lack of conviction of having to parlay his talents to mere adequacy. Like Miller’s Crossing, there’s a stylish surrealism to everything. It’s realistic yet almost neatly so. Every prop has as much purpose as every word spoken, but it’s all rooted neatly in the early 1940s - at least what we think of the 1940s as looking like in our imaginations.  The Coens bring in their distinct style, noting small observations  (like Fink never able to get a word in or drink his coffee) against the bigger issues of the scene. They are masters at this, and this is probably the first film where that mastery is really seen in full.

The Bad: The Coen brothers films are known for having a combination of satire and dark humor mingled in with classic comedic presence. Even in their dramas, they often manage to add those elements in somehow. Barton Fink, though, sometimes doesn’t know what kind of approach to comedy it wishes to be and often we’re confused on how it wants to handle the material. When its in its stride, its fantastic, other moments feel as though it’s full of malice and fear, even anger, and the changes in tone sometimes can be jarring. In fact, one scene goes from calmly odd to comedic banter and dialogue to comedic observation to sudden sense of fright in less than five minutes. Then there’s a point where it turns utterly dark, even for a Coen movie, turning the entire film into a mystery noir and some plot points becoming unresolved or dropped entirely which is something the Coens play around with in their movies from time to time. Offbeat is an understatement, it’s a Coen brothers movie of course it is offbeat, but it’s also a little less focused than some of their other gems yet still more creative than others. I think that’s a fair trade, though, in an otherwise brilliant piece of filmmaking.

The Ugly:
John Turturro made his career with the Coens, appearing in a majority of their films. He is so under appreciated and has given top-notch performances, yet has yet to even really acknowledged outside of his win at Cannes for this film. Now he’s doing bit roles in Transformers movies. Damnit.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


Batman the Movie (1966)

When Batman and Robin are called out to rescue Commodore Schmidlapp, they are unaware that they are actually being fooled and the real Schmidlapp is being kidnapped by four of Batman's most feared enemies. The Catwoman, The Joker, The Penguin and The Riddler are working together to try and take over the world once and for all. 

The Good: It's a fun, campy style Batman and Robin as only Adam West and Burt Ward can deliver. Slapstick, sometimes poking fun at itself, and absurd. The story is completely nonsensical and there just to get all the bat-villains together from the television show.

The Bad: If you prefer the Batman from the 1980s to now, this is not for you. It's very much set in its era and if you approach like that, you'll enjoy it. If not, you'll hate it. As a movie, it's oddly paced and a bit all over the map in concepts and plot points, though that doesn't diminish the fun tone it carries throughout.

The Ugly: Batman versus Shark, enough said, and worth a laugh but really shows how far the character has come.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Batman (1989)

Gotham City: dark, dangerous, 'protected' only by a mostly corrupt police department. Despite the best efforts of D.A. Harvey Dent and police commissioner Jim Gordon, the city becomes increasingly unsafe. We all know criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot...so his disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. He becomes a bat. Enter Vicky Vale, a prize-winning photo journalist who wants to uncover the secret of the mysterious "bat-man". And enter Jack Napier, one-time enforcer for Boss Grissom, horribly disfigured after a firefight in a chemical factory...who, devoid of the last vestiges of sanity, seizes control of Gotham's underworld as the psychotic, unpredictable Clown Prince of Crime...the Joker. Gotham's only hope, it seems, lies in this dark, brooding vigilante. And just how does billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne fit into all of this?

The Good: Tim Burton brings an amazing sense of style and artistic vision to Gotham and Batman himself. Michael Keaton plays Batman well, dark, foreboding, a silent threat and Jack Nicholson steals the show as the Joker, bringing a good balance of the 1960s Cesar Romero Joker with the more darker and sinister Joker we've come to expect. You can tell he's having a great time with the character.

The Bad: While Keaton is great as Batman, as Bruce Wayne there is a major sense of underdevelopment. We really know little about the man behind the mask despite the screentime. The music by Prince has not aged well and really dates the film when used, especially in contrast to the brilliant Danny Elfman score.

The Ugly:  There's also an often debated issue in Burton's Batman movies regarding Batman killing people, which he does. Batman isn't regarded as an "anti-hero" in this sense, yet Burton portrays him as such. This mainly can be an issue to those dedicated to the character. Good or bad? It depends on how you view Batman to begin with.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Batman Returns (1992)

Having defeated the Joker, Batman now faces the Penguin - a warped and deformed individual who is intent on being accepted into Gotham society. Crooked businessman Max Schreck is coerced into helping him become Mayor of Gotham and they both attempt to expose Batman in a different light. Earlier however, Selina Kyle, Max's secretary, is thrown from the top of a building and is transformed into Catwoman - a mysterious figure who has the same personality disorder as Batman. Batman must attempt to clear his name, all the time deciding just what must be done with the Catwoman. 

The Good: Another visually stunning film, now with a gorgeous palette of the dark Gotham cityscape contrasted with snow. Keaton gives his best performance, and this time we see a little more on the Bruce Wayne side of things. Michelle Pfeiffer is sexy, Devito disgusting, and Walken, well, Walken. A solid cast.

The Bad: The movie has a hard time with both villains, the Penguin and Catwoman, neither of which live up to The Joker from the first film. It sometimes feels as though it just doesn't know what to do with either and the story itself feels a little thrown together. I agree with Roger Ebert on the issue in that it's not a bad film, just a misguided one.

More interestingly is that it's a movie with very little Batman happening in it. Often it's too focused on the villains and getting lost in sub plot entanglement that it has no place to go but eventually have Batman show up once in a while and then just end. 

The Ugly: Probably the darkest out of all the Batman films, the violence, sexuality and the grotesque Penguin caused a backlash from the media and parental groups.

 Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Batman Forever (1995)

Batman's third film follows the practice of the second by giving him two villains to face, Two-Face and the Riddler. Two-Face blames Batman for his disfigurement and simply wishes him dead. The Riddler is a disgruntled inventor who worked for Wayne Enterprises and is terribly jealous of Wayne's success and sophistication and uses his riddles to show his superiority over Wayne and Batman. Added to this mix are a sexy abnormal psychologist who is not only studying the criminals, but has a thing for Batman as well and Dick Grayson, (Robin) is introduced. Gotham is still a dark and foreboding place in which Batman begins to come to grips with his own psychology as he relives the deaths of his parents in his dreams.

The Good: A step back, no doubt, but it's a fun film. Val Kilmer steps into the role well. Jim Carrey gets top billing and, although over-the-top (as is the whole film, similar to the original Batman series) he pulls off the Riddler pretty well. Some of the better action scenes in the franchise, and the film does what the studio hired Joel Schumacher to do: entertain us.

The Bad: Nearly everything else. The loss of Burton's dark style is supplanted by a lot of green and shiny things, it's like throwing a piece of aluminum foil into a monkey house and watch them stare at it for a few hours. Don't mind the horrible story on top of that, we'll just throw in a few fight scenes. Kilmer and Carrey are wasted in the film and Chris O'Donnel might as well been a talking sock puppet.

The Ugly: Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face takes a favorite character and turns him into a mumbling sidekick that just agrees with everything Jim Carrey wants to do.Both he and Jim Carrey feel like they're doing parodies of the Joker, only  in different costumes.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Batman and Robin (1997)

The dynamic duo are back but this time they are up against the nefarious Mr. Freeze, who is bent on turning the world into an iceberg, and the slyly seductive but highly toxic Poison Ivy, who wants to eliminate all animal life and turn the Earth into a gigantic greenhouse. And Batman's butler Alfred is dying for a mysterious disease that Freeze's wife has. It's up to Batman, Robin the Boy Wonder and the new heroin Batgirl Alfred's niece to fight all three villains and save Alfred before he dies! But unfortunately Mr. Freeze holds the key to save his life.

The Good: *crickits chriping*

The Bad: This isn't regarded as one of the worst movies made for nothing. Nearly everything will make you cringe, roll your eyes, or vomit profusely into your popcorn. It's one of those movies where I don't even know where to begin in describing. The large scope: the acting is horrible, one-liners and dialogue nauseating, Robin is annoying, the plot is literally that of the 1960s series along with the characters themselves, the action uninspired, the music forgettable and, goddamnit does Batman actually have a "Batman" credit card? The only thing missing are the comical "Unmps" and "Cracks" popping up during the fight scenes. We can at least say it got one thing right: it killed off the franchise to allow for it to start from scratch.

The Ugly: The barrage of one-liners from Arnold Schwartzenegger is the pinnacle of annoying muscle men in tights. It takes the character and makes him into a comedian. Oh, and nipples on the suit and the up-close shot of Batman's ass as he puts the suit on.

Final Rating: 0 out of 5


Batman Begins (2005)

In tone with the early "Batman: Year One" style comics. As a boy a young Bruce Wayne watched in horror as his millionaire parents were slain in front of his eyes, a trauma which led him to become obsessed with revenge but his chance is cruelly taken away from him by fate. After disappearing to the East where he seeks counsel with the dangerous but honorable ninja cult leader known as Ra's Al-Ghul, he returns to his now decaying Gotham City overrun by organized crime and dangerous individuals manipulating the system whilst the company he inherited is slowly being pulled out from under him. The discovery of a cave under his mansion, and a prototype armored suit leads him to take on a new persona, one which will strike fear into the hearts of men who do wrong - he becomes, Batman. In the new guise, and with the help of rising cop Jim Gordon, Batman sets out to take down the various nefarious schemes in motion by individuals such as mafia don Falcone, the twisted doctor/drug dealer Jonathan 'The Scarecrow' Crane, and a mysterious third party that is quite familiar with Wayne and waiting to strike when the time is right.

The Good: Toning back the camp and approaching Batman more seriously is exactly what the franchise needed. Christian Bale is great both as Batman (I'm lineant on the voice, unlike some) and Bruce Wayne as a misogynistic playboy and he has great scenes with Michael Kane as Alfred.  The story is very well paced, and showing the past of Bruce, his training and eventual emergence of Batman is plotted perfectly with a gradual build to the climax. A big note to Morgan Freeman as Lucious Fox and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, both fitting perfectly into their roles. Liam Neeson as Ra's al Guhl does well with what's given to him, especially considering he doesn't have a lot screen time to begin with.All in all, it did what none of the previous Batman films did: allow us to spend some time with the characters and get to know them a little better.

The Bad: The action scenes are hard to follow, cutting away far too much to see what's really going on and way too close to comprehend what exactly is happening. I think this is more due to Nolan's inexperience with shooting such scenes, he's improved much since then. Also, the ending and final chase sequence is pretty contrived, putting Gordon in the Batmobile, and, again, having Batman more or less kill the villain (even his 'justification' is shoehorned in to try and bring credibility, but it just doesn't make sense). Also, I don't think Scarecrow is given his due, Cillian Murphy does well with what he's given, as little as it is (yet more than Ra's), but the character really is a footnote to the mob/Ra's Al Guhl storyline.

The Ugly: The Microwave Transmitter is walking the line of campiness and really sticks out in Chris Nolan's otherwise very real world. Why not just have al Guhl steal a large warhead or something? At least we know those exist. I guess that wouldn't fit as nicely with drug-running plot.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman is wrongly implicated in a series of murders of mob bosses actually done by a new vigilante assassin.

The Good: Take the quality writing and style of Batman the Animated Series and make if feature length. Same writers, same dark-deco art style, same composers and directors. That's what this movie is and it makes no attept to try and be otherwise. Truth is, I don't think fans would have wanted it any other way. If there was some other Batman animated film that came out in 1993, it would have been compared to the series and, most likely, be deemed inferior considering the series was already doing so much right.

This Batman animated film isn't about action and fighting crime, necessarily. It's a character study of Bruce Wayne with a mystery to be solved. Through flashbacks we learn the elements of Bruce and, what I would have to say, is the one true love in his life - the woman that almost deterred him from being Batman entirely. He wasn't always cold and brooding, there was a time when he laughed and loved.

The animation expresses that emotion well. The setting of scenes and how they're staged brings out Bruce's sense of self-hatred and loneliness. Yes, there's he's a superhero and he has to figure out the mystery of the Phantasm along with taking on his arch-nemesis, The Joker, but he's still a man. It's that element, almost study of a psyche, that makes Batman such a unique superhero in the first place, and Mask of the Phantasm honors that tradition with a fantastic sense of style and class.

The Bad: It's just so easy to figure this one out. That's really the only thing that keeps Batman: Mask of the Phantasm being great rather than just really good. It hinges on its mystery and reveal, but we've figured it out long before even Batman has because the way the story is structured and set up, it makes it obvious. New costume character appearing at the same time as this other new character? Keeping one or the other mysterious or not as relevant to Bruce's story would have made for a far better mystery. As it is, we just have a good time with Batman and the moments with The Joker and the Phantasm, because the twists and turns just aren't there. In fact, the biggest twist is The Joker and his story arc. That alone makes much of this worthwhile (and he doesn't appear until 40 minutes in, talk about quality over quantity).

We end up more a story about Batman's conflict, even though it tries to plug in the mystery factor for a good hook. As strange as it is, if the story had spent less time with the Phantasm and did even more with the story of Batman/Bruce and Andrea, we might have had a better film. But because we know the mystery, many of the scenes with the Phantasm almost feel as filler.

The Ugly: The acceptance scene is one of the most powerful scenes in anything Batman. Bruce finally puts on his cowl and turns to Alfred, who no longer recognizing the boy he helped raise. It's goosebump-educing. The writers intentionally made this the most pivotal scene in the entire film, overshadowing anything else the Joker, Batman or the Phantasm would do. It's brilliant.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

When a desperate Mr. Freeze, to save his dying wife, kidnaps Barbara (Batgirl) Gordan as an involuntary organ donor, Batman and Robin must find her before the operation can begin.

The Good: It was an odd time, the 1990s. When it came to Batman, at least. After the run of Batman the Animated Series, the only source of Batman entertainment was really awful live-action movies directed by Joel Schumacher. Fans would take anything they could, I think the creators of the series probably knew this and look to take advantage of it now that the series was off the air. The result was a direct to video release of Batman/Mr. Freeze SubZero, putting to shame the Schumacher film with Mr. Freeze that came out around the same time.

So, by comparison, you have something good simply be default. However, even by not comparing it, you have a very well told story with solid animation, something the creators were certainly accustomed to. The story is nothing new or special, it’s simply told well, and that’s all you really have to do with it. Mr. Freeze is pulled back into a world of crime (or, at the very least, questionable morality and a unique perspective on what is right and wrong). Freeze is interesting in that, to him, much has to do with logic, not emotion. He’s like the Spock of Batman villains: his wife needs a new organ and Barbara Gordon just happens to be a close match. As unlikely as that is, let’s face it it’s a bit of a forced plot point, it allows for some tense moments and I don’t know if we would have as good and emotional ending as we would if we didn’t.

And that emotion is what has always carried this incarnation of Mr. Freeze. For a man who shows none, his stories are full of heartache and tragedy. He has always walked that line of good and evil, never falling too far on either side, and that dynamic is certainly tested here. Batman, especially, knows this and is able to use that knowledge in his approach to Mr. Freeze. Well directed by Boyd Kirkland with a solid Paul Dini Script, and legendary voice acting of Kevin Conroy and Michael Ansara, SubZero is often an overlooked animated film that Batman fans shouldn’t miss.

The Bad: A bit too brisk, but when your film is only a little over an hour long (in other words, two episodes of the Animated Series), you have to really cram as much as you can. It’s not as well paced and as sharp as the production team is often known for, but it’s also curious as to why they didn’t work in an extra twenty minutes either. They don’t have restrictions on time so they could have expanded and developed the material far better than what’s given. What’s given is fine, as mentioned it’s well told, but it’s also as basic and simple of a story as you will see. As a result, things happen quickly and sometimes forcefully, such as the aforementioned plot point of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, which is less for a twist and more just to push things along and make things happen. More time, maybe more grandeur in plot and location and action, and you might have had something...well you might have had Mask of the Phantasm, I suppose. That’s a good thing.

The Ugly: I love the ending, yet absolutely loathe it. To spoil it, as I’m about to do....Bruce Wayne cures Freeze’s wife. She’s awake, not in a chamber, perfectly healthy and there’s no explanation as to the how and why. The way Freeze made it sound, it was damn near impossible. He had to do it illegally...but to finally see Mr. Freeze cry. That’s just something beautiful.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Battle: Los Angeles

A Marine Staff Sergeant who has just had his retirement approved goes back into the line of duty in order to assist a 2nd Lieutenant and his platoon as they fight to reclaim the city of Los Angeles from alien invaders.

The Good: Some movies ask you to really turn your brain off and simply enjoy the action. Battle: LA is such a movie and if you at least do that, you can embark and a series of scenes that, perhaps within every other one, might thrill you and get you excited in its guerrilla style directing and incredibly loud noises. It's intense and frantic, as I would have to think any actual war-scenario might be. Here, it's with aliens, and that unique take along with the fitting style at least gives Battle: LA a nod in the creativity department. At least stylistically. That can't carry two hours of gunshots and explosions, though.

The Bad: A film can get by a repetitive structure, and Battle: LA most certainly is repetitive, if it at least has characters in it you care to follow. You get to know the, care about them, feel sad when they fail and joy when they succeed. This film doesn't manage that in any effective manner, despite a strong lead in Eckhart. Then you begin to feel that repetition to the extent of boredom. Then you stop caring about the movie entirely. Battle: LA turns into such a bore by the mid-way point and you get a sense it's reaching to plug in action set pieces seeing as it often tries too hard to make characters to care about that feels contrived rather than organic to the situation.

Battle: LA has a hard time trying to figure out what it wants to be. Once the ending hits, you realize it's not much more than a shallow action movie that's scripted more like a videogame than what it tries so ardently to be, which is an "in-the-trenches" war movie. It has some nice moments, the directing is unique and interesting, but it never strives to reach beyond a simple, forgettable action flick, shallow archetypes included, despite it trying to damn hard to. It tries to be have a creative "take" on a very tired concept, but is an empty, soulless romp through west Los Angeles infested with aliens.

The Ugly:  This film a great example of you saying "well...if that's all it wanted to be, then I suppose it got that right." However, you can see elements that, had a better script been involved, might have made for a far better picture. The ending, notably, is a rush job to try and show some sort of big final piece. In the context of the rest of the film, you might think it doesn't fit at all. Something more fitting and subtle could have done wonders for it. Then you realize that's actually what it was all along and nothing more.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Battleship

A fleet of ships is forced to do battle with an armada of unknown origins in order to discover and thwart their destructive goals.

The Good: Oooh…pretty. Maybe a little bit of cheesy humor done well at times, but usually not.

The Bad: I have nothing to say here. At all. I mean, sometimes the badness of something is so overwhelming, I just don't know where to begin. What's worse, is that everyone and their mother have noted how bad this film is, from its conceit, to its story, to its acting, to its design. Outside of some fancy special effects and a couple of action scenes, what else does this film have going for it?

It's vapor filmmaking: vapid in every sense of making something worth our time. Making something that might, at least, have a bit of remembrance on us as an audience. It's a struggle to even watch it as you witness the complete emptiness that unfolds. There's nothing creative here. Nothing worth our time even as a guilty pleasure where we can say "sure, it's not a very good movie, but at least it feels like something put SOMETHING into creating it." It's just empty. Soulless. An example of everything wrong with studio big-budget/tentpole moviemaking that assumes being loud and grandiose is the same as being good and worth shelling out ten bucks to see.

It's a film where there's almost no point in listing out the elements where it utterly fails. Think of what you want done well in a movie and it probably fails at it. What is worth noting is the fact it does nothing right and how, apparently, nobody cared. They still wrote it. Still shot it. Still marketed it and then expected us to sit back and enjoy it. After all, nobody intentionally makes a bad movie. Battleship is a film that makes me question that assumption. I think they knew they had a bad movie before a single frame was shot but still didn't give a shit. It was big. Loud. And was going to make money, right? Unfortunately, that's right..Battleship did fairly well despite its bloated 200+ budget with B-grade stars and wasting the A-grade stuff in director Peter Berg, who is more to blame here than you might expect as he's also a producer of this abortion of a film, and the only actor with any memorable presence, Liam Neeson, who probably at least enjoyed the paycheck and wearing a neat hat.

And the exposition. My God…the exposition, people. Everything and line seems to be stated, read by actors who obviously couldn't care less about anything, then stated again, then stated and explained one more time by someone else in the room as we quick cut our way through it all. We get it. Aliens. Death. Us versus them. We don't need someone saying "so you're saying…" for us to "get it." That's another thing movies like this always do: assume the people watching are complete idiots. It's insulting. Then again, I suppose we are all idiots if we're watching this movie, especially considering how you know everything that will happen before it happens.

And the exposition wouldn't be so bad and even all that overdone repeating if at least the line reads were good. It's as though they did one take, the actor read the line for the first time ever, then said "cut" and went with it. Every other line comes off as though the actor is struggling to deliver it, or at best the actor was hired from the local community theatre or straight out of their very first semester of a basic acting course before they got to Shakespeare but after they had to re-enact their favorite sitcoms for a passing grade.

Yes, you've seen this movie before, you just haven't realized it yet. You'll go along with it, maybe try and turn your brain off, but nothing surprising or unpredictable will happen. Like the film, you just go through the motions of observing it without any sense of passion or care. Every shot you've seen before. You know, like shots of people looking up at stuff with their mouth's slightly open and appearing not-quite-sad but not-quite-scared either.  Blank, probably just like your unemotional state while watching it or a metaphor for the rest of this film.  Shots of overdone slow motion and running away from things. Usually explosions. Or a big alien. Or watching…pegs fly through the air. On grids. No…really.

Every tired character trope we've seen a dozen times before in movies like this (in particular every Michael Bay movie under the sun). Every action beat. Every "wow look at that, everyone!" computer generated shot. Every bit of dialogue and every plot point that thinks it's being smart when, in reality, it's just regurgitating techno-babble that has no basis in reality or science. It just sounds fancy. Then, take all that and string it together to make a complete, uneven mess of a story and you have Battleship. That's it. Congratulations everyone involved with this picture. I've been reminded how uninspired moviemaking can be thanks to this film.

This is just awful movie making. Plain and simple. In an age where big-budget has shown it can still produce quality, and especially in this very year with the likes of The Avengers, movies of this ilk need to be retired. It feels old. Out of its element. Dated. A thing of the past that should be shelved. There's no excuse for tossing 200 million at something and it NOT being good. This is a film that should get people fired and deservedly so. The worst thing you can do to an audience is make them feel like they just wasted, not their money, but the time they spent watching your shitty movie.

I love, and I mean love, a guilty pleasure. I love to have a film I can just turn my brain off with. But even guilty pleasures will have inspiration to them. They'll have creativity. Name your favorite guilty pleasure. There's something there in between it being a "bad" movie that still captivated you, made you love it. Battleship doesn't have even that quality. It's not even bad enough to have bad memorable dialogue like "Welcome to Earth!" or "I'm an FBI agent!" It's just…boring.

The Ugly: What's ugly with this in the mix? Everything is bad, so what constitues "ugly?" I suppose this would be considered "ugly": I was willing to give it a chance. Sure, everyone else was on board the "let's trash this horrible movie" bandwagon and I thought to myself "well, I'll still give it a fair shake." No…I feel as they do. It is that bad, but more specifically is just how badly it represents what's wrong with Hollywood big-budget moviemaking today. Sure, you might get a pass here or there (John Carter) where it didn't end up great, but not atrocious either. But when it's THIS bad and THIS vapid and THIS much of a waste of time and money, it's a sad reminder that nobody involved with moviemaking really knows what the hell they're doing most of the time. They just coast through and hope it makes money.

Battleship made money, or at least broke even. It did well enough internationally, which means nobody will learn their lesson and coast on through to the next waste of our time. Just a bloated, ugly movie that just looks pretty with a lot of flash.

Also…is that the Pink Panther theme song? Seriously? Are you kidding me? I suppose that's supposed to be funny and witty during a moment that's not funny nor witty because I don't care about whoever that guy is and don't even know his name. Somebody sat in an editing bay and said "yes…nailed it."

Final Rating: 1 out of 5


The Beach

Twenty-something Richard travels to Thailand and finds himself in possession of a strange map. Rumours state that it leads to a solitary beach paradise, a tropical bliss - excited and intrigued, he sets out to find it

The Good: Visually stunning as Danny Boyle's films always are, full of life and energy and you can feel the charisma coming off the screen. Throw in a solid musical score and beautiful people, and you, at the very least, have something to keep you stimulated.

The Bad: Some movies have good ideas and intentions, but ultimately end up an utter bore. That's The Beach in a nutshell: a boring and forgettable movie. The story is unfocused, it can't decide if it wants to be psychological or even remotely interesting, and the main character...

...ok, let me just cut to the chase there. I hate this main character. Oh, DiCaprio's fine in it. He plays the role and, to be honest, is a good fit for it. But I hate this character and absolutely can not route for him or his friends, or Tilda Swinton's egotistical matriarchal bitch character. In fact, I can't think of a single character in this entire movie worth giving a damn about. Perhaps Boyle bit off more than he could chew by trying to tackle the material, but it's just a shallow, loveless and unappealing film with little attributes other than fantasy fulfillment we might vicariously live through.

The Ugly: You know what's sad, though? If you've read The Beach, the original novel, one of the filmmakers that might come up in your head as perfect to adapt it would be Danny Boyle. Visually, he hit it square on the head...but perhaps his narrative hand just wasn't developed enough to really get this on to film yet. So you think to more experienced directors, such as Peter Weir, rather than some that might just speak to the generation it portrays.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Beasts of the Southern Wild

Faced with both her hot-tempered father's fading health and melting ice-caps that flood her ramshackle bayou community and unleash ancient aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy must learn the ways of courage and love.

The Good: Well damn, where to begin on this one? It's probably the most lauded film of 2012 and, after finally going out and actually seeing it, I can't say I necessarily disagree with it. I think it boils down to one attribute that is rare to say when it comes to films today: you probably have never seen a film like this. Full of energy, heart, beauty, sincerity and life, all set in a strange world with even stranger characters who live strange lives, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an absolute one-of-a-kind movie. To try and explain it by comparing it to other films is impossible, as I said there's just nothing quite like it.

I think, what I can best use to describe the film, is just a series of words. It's a very lyrical movie, so like the film things just jump out at you in this stream-of-consciousness style that emulates the energy of the film itself. Words like: ragged, difficult, sad, imaginative, rough, slums, poverty, floods, life, death, direction, personal demons, alcoholism, disease, love, hate, kindness, harmony, nature, trying to do what's right, beauty in the smallest of ways, emotion, wishes, hope. All

All these things and feeling just rush out at you from the first frame in a dream-like atmosphere from the perspective of a child. The cinematography gorgeous, music stunning, the actors and characters they create organic, natural and frightening believable. I don't know if any of them, especially Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, are going to get any recognition for their performances, but dammit they should. Wallis, who is probably only about four or five years old, is incredibly earnest and Henry creates a character that, you swear, has to be real. The way he acts, the way he speaks, the way he looks…how is he just an actor? Go watch some interviews of the two, then watch the movie or vice-versa. Are they the same people? I can't tell.

The Bad: It's an emotionally-driven film. Melodramatic. Sentimental. It tries too hard sometimes, not hard enough the rest. It lets its emotions guide it, making for a difficult story structure to follow, but also to understand entirely due to it being from the perspective of a child. She sees things and relays it to us, but we never fully understand the context. It's a form director Benh Zeitlin went for that doesn't fully function as well as it should. Being emotionally drive to progress the story is fine (a similar film in style though very, very different in what it's wanting to say, to me anyways, was Where the Wild Things are with it's unique approach) but it doesn't quite let us sit back and contemplate the bigger picture that the film wants us to understand.

These people, this culture, this society of individuals just outside what we consider "normal" is never really looked at or understood. The film plops us right into this world, which is fine, but we never feel it's real enough or understand the way they live or even what they do. The film treats them, often, as a punchline and not a real society. We laugh at them because they're so different, but we never understand why they're so different. This visual poem is wonderful, but the world around it and lack of usual narrative focus is strange and not quite as inviting as the rest of it.

Either way, you'll probably cry.

The Ugly: The director (and writer and composer) is only 30 years old (younger when he made this movie). Screw you, Benh Zeitlin. You're ruining the curve for the rest of us.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Beaver

A troubled husband and executive adopts a beaver hand-puppet as his sole means of communicating. 

The Good: Mel Gibson is a great actor. Make no mistake, the man can command a scene and is willing to do what is necessary of any role asked of him, and there's a lot asked of him in The Beaver. He is giving a performance within a performance, being directed off-center with a little puppet on his hand being the star. The puppet is an extension of his character and Gibson is now not only portraying a man suffering from severe depression but also portraying a man talking through his hand as well as having that hand-puppet be a character in and of itself on top of it.

Controlling this rather uncontrollable character is the strong, surprisingly-so considering she's done so little and it's been such a long time, directing of co-star Jodie Foster. There's an intimacy in her use of the camera that is both admirable and willing to take on this rather odd idea of a film with bravado and not show restraint in being honest with the material. She gets you in it, lets shots linger and thoughts be provoked, actors act and emotions develop seemingly naturally, making the idea of a man talking through a puppet convincingly real rather than surreal. You buy it, understand it, get the idea of Walter Black's illness and his relationship with his family that he's on the verge of losing. More importantly is her directing and the acting plays it straight, not as a comedy which it easily could have sunk to. The puppet, or the fact that there's a man talking through a puppet for nearly the entire film, isn't the point: it's a story about loss, depression, acceptance and family. The film is bold in its candidness and well acted by the entire cast to be emotionally straining.

The Bad: An uneven tone makes The Beaver a strange blend of charming yet irritatingly uncomfortable. I think the discomfort stems from the notion of a serious mental illness seemingly treated aloofly until the film takes an even darker turn that shocks the audience yet tidies up the entire plot at the same time. It ends up feeling fake, contrived and cold in its final acts, not because of the phenomenal acting and steady directing, but in simple Point As leading to Point Bs to Cs in the script itself.

Perhaps its in that method it just misses the target. It's so intent on telling us its doing something, it forgets to simply just do it. Despite the sincerity and look into this illness being well intended, it never quite feels legitimate. It captures the sensations of what a depressed man, and a family around him, fells and goes through, but it doesn't really involve us. Perhaps the wall The Beaver builds between Gibson and the audience allows for the disassociation of the audience to the material as well, making you not entirely sure how to feel when things seem they should be funny or serious. I don't have the answer for such thing, and perhaps my psychological assessment of the film and its relationship to the audience isn't much deeper than putting a puppet on my hand to deal with depression.

The Ugly: Gibson certainly reminds us how good of an actor he is. At the same time, I can't help but think that so much of his performance is drawn from his own life experience (and the dark places he might go) as it deals with very, very similar issues: a marriage in turmoil, a search for identity, a fall from grace, estrangement from family etc...

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Beetlejuice

A couple of recently deceased ghosts contract the services of a "bio-exorcist" in order to remove the obnoxious new owners of their house.

The Good: Weird, crazy, completely off-the-wall and never simply adhering to predictability, Beetlejuice is one of the most unique comedies and fantasy movies from a decade that was pretty full of uniqueness. The film should have been some little cult movie because it’s so bizarre, yet what we end up with is a greatly accessible, original and deceptively clever film that was one of comedy film’s biggest hits. It had style, atmosphere and the now noticeable Tim Burton, macabre design that feels tangible and real rather than being superfluous. It uses misdirection like no other, and from that stems comedy, maybe even a bit of uneasiness because we have no idea what to expect as we travel into a different dimension of existence. Who would have though the afterlife would just be so damned weird?

What could possibly said about Michael Keaton’s complete transformation here? The title character makes the film, and even though he is as over-the-top as you could possibly expect, the subtlety of his performance is what really makes the character. A small look or glare, a sickening smile, his foot tapping impatiently are all smaller degrees of his performance in between the hooting and hollering and special effects that really made Beetlejuice one of the most memorable screen personas in decades. It’s even more interesting in that Beetlejuice himself isn’t a hero nor is he a villain. He’s just a really, annoying bug, hence the name I suppose, that is completely selfish. Yet, you like him. You might even envy him a bit.

The Bad: Of course, I could be saying he’s a character you envy because the rest of the characters are a little difficult to like or not nearly as well written. The “straight” characters of Adam and Barbara, though played well by both Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, aren’t much more than vehicles for us to ride on as we travel through life, death, the afterlife, and eventually meeting Beetlejuice. The story throws in another lead character, Lydia, again played nicely by Winona Ryder, but she offers and does little and, like Adam and Barbara, is yet another vehicle into the world. In other words, none of these characters feel relatable - just props for Beetlejuice to play off of. They’re observers, just as we are, that are just outside of reality.

That’s the running theme in the film, you see. Being “different” and “outcasts,” yet it compromises itself in having a lot of people we just have a hard time feeling are real people. We can like them, Adam and Barbara are likable enough, and I’m sure the younger teens would like Lydia, but they they are really secondary to the journey and world itself and the uniqueness and scene-setting for Beetlejuice himself.

The Ugly: That damn song....in my head...still to this day.


Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Before Midnight

We meet Jesse and Celine nine years on in Greece. Almost two decades have passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna.

The Good: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have crafted one of the best trilogies found in cinema. Underrated, probably under seen, but lyrically beautiful. Before Sunrise was already a personal favorite film of mine, showcasing a more realistic and believable "love at first site" story, Before Sunset every bit its equal as old friends catch up and realize they never stopped loving each other even if they never saw each other again - that quick moment when someone form your past randomly pops in to your head as you walk down the street. I never thought that could be captured on film so well, but it is. Then comes the final story. Before Midnight - a more mature and, because that's the only way this story could go, bleak and honest look at relationships beyond those fleeting moments.

The strength of these films has always been that since of being genuine. It's not a "Romantic comedy" with a series of errors where two people fall in love and find themselves in a situation. It's simply two people who talk. We get to know them and their entire purpose, dreams and emotions through dialogue. That being said, there's been one element of relationships that the previous two films didn't touch upon because the set up wouldn't allow it: what happens if those two people are in each others company for years?

The first film was love at first site, the second was running in to each other years later and realizing that love is still there, this third one is a dynamic all its own. These are still Jesse and Celine, but there's not a break at the end of the second film. They've been with each other ever since. Living with each other, moving, finding directions in life with each other, building a family, giving up dreams…this is the element that the previous two films have been building up to for 20 years and the authenticity is beautiful yet heartbreaking. All the same, it's still genuine. It's still very much real. Love isn't what you see in the movies, it's just two people sharing those moments…the good and the bad. Linklater, again, having long takes and just letting the camera roll is even more brutal when the conversation is something you wish would come to an end.

The previous films are the good moments, certainly. Those are moments you think back to because you were young. As decades go by, it turns from love to tolerating being together. The love is still there, but it's changed. It has a different person than meeting on a train or running in to each other at a book store 10 years later. It what relationships really are. Before Midnight is not only essential to this "Before" trilogy, but arguably the finest due to its brutal honesty.

The Bad: These aren't complicated films. You sit, watch some people discuss their lives about everything form films to love to a fading sun on the horizon, and then it's over. Before Midnight had a little more meat to it, it's far more dramatic than the first two films combined, and if you were to say a fault is its lack of consistency in terms of the trilogy itself. The first two are naturalistic movies, and Before Midnight is mostly that until one night in a hotel room where, for the first time, you get the since that they're "acting." It's no longer a fly on the wall with Jesse and Celine, it's a movie with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

Still, it's a great scene showing that even though I no longer saw just Jesse or Celine, I was enthralled by the acting of Hawke and Delpy every step of the way. Anything that might be "bad" in this film is eclipsed by the films purpose of thematic narrative and superb acting from its stars.

The Ugly: I really would have liked more - much of the conversation is about the past rather than the present, again it's forced to do this, but a few more scenes might have helped balance it more. 

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Beginners

A young man is rocked by two announcements from his elderly father: that he has terminal cancer, and that he has a young male lover.

The Good: Don’t let the log line and simple summary about a son finding out his father is gay fool you: Beginners is much, much more than that. To put it simply: it’s a movie about falling in love and finding out what love is, whether it be easy or hard (usually hard).

I suppose to put it more complexly is that it’s a film about the affirmation of life, love, influences and the purpose of being with another person. Beginners is less about a simple plot and more about a series of emotions and thoughts that are meant to represent the culmination of our being. Our parents when we were children and how they acted and treated us echoes to who we become when we’re adults. Our constant search for that “other person” is ever apparent in our minds, even when we try and block them out. Life and love go hand in hand, as does death and sadness. Beginners blends all these in a juxtaposition of poetic thoughts and imagery, McGregor’s simple and beautifully effective voiceovers and even the dash of humor, never forgetting there should be smiles in life, often conveyed through the simplest way a person can relate to: a cute dog.

It’s honest about it all too. It never panders or attempts to become some episode of Full House where we all learn an important lesson. The only lesson it really teaches is that we are ever and always learning. We never fully know anything, from the past of our parents to the fact one might very well be gay and the other possibly Jewish. That’s its message about life, and Beginners is more about life, the cycle of beginnings and ends, the often confusing sentiments of love and happiness, than simply “a son finds out his father is gay.”  The film is intimately directed, lingering to a sense of uncomfortable realism at times, beautifully composed in terms of music and getting some superb performances from every actor that is on screen for more than 30 seconds – the chemistry of McGregor with both Plummer and Laurent, unstated and subtle in both counts, shows an actor who has more dynamic and raw ability than people probably give him credit for. It’s a balanced film of drama and humor, of art-house style with contemporary entertainment, of poignant sincerity with laughing playfulness and one of the rare “true” movies about love – the good, the bad, the sadness and happiness, the surprises of it all like fireworks...or finding out your father is gay.

The Bad: Sometimes when something is so poignant and deeply personal, much of the film based on director Mike Mills' own life, an aura of self-service can come across, if not out right self-indulgence. While Mills, mostly, is able to hone this to a small fraction, particularly in the honesty of his own reflection in Ewan McGregor – bad traits and all – it’s often cutting away to his own voice and mouthpiece to make a point rather than allow the story to flow into it freely. There’s “telling” the audience...then there’s literally “telling” the audience. The melancholy feeling of the movie will likely cover that up, but it’s still there, even if tongue is firmly in cheek. In other words: Hipsters are going to love this movie.

The Ugly: Certainly a hard film to market, the long trailer does a good job in at least capturing the mood and tone. If this small movie is playing in your vicinity, check it out...but I’m sure some knock-off romantic comedy probably starring Katherine Heigel or some other thing that Hollywood shit out will be taking up three screens at your local theater.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Being Flynn

Working in a Boston homeless shelter, Nick Flynn re-encounters his father, a con man and self-proclaimed poet. Sensing trouble in his own life, Nick wrestles with the notion of reaching out yet again to his dad.

The Good: Being Flynn begins rather unassumingly. It's a drama about a father and son, right? Well, about fifty minutes in or so it's going to punch you in the face, and you realize it's a lot more than that. A lot. It's not sudden, it's a gradual, slow realization of something more than just a tale of a father and son reunited that you kind of see coming but aren't convinced it will go that route. Eventually it does, for the better, as it begins to deal with a very difficult and very emotional analysis of the paths we choose to take in life. It becomes a film that becomes increasingly difficult to watch for a number of reasons that going into detail here would be an injustice.

De Niro is spectacular in this film. The whole cast is, but De Niro has been waffling in his role choices for a few years and here we finally see him commit to something with some meat to it. It's emotional, it's an interesting character, it's him doing such a great job that it's hard to imagine many other actors pulling it off. The emotion is high, the dialogue beautiful at times, and it's his best performance in probably a decade. His pretense on screen is the best it's been in years, and you're enthralled by it every step of the way. Paul Dano carries the rest of the weight on holding the rather loose script together, but he shows how great of a young actor he is by showing a very conflicted, very candid and difficult character that you route for, yet aren't entirely sure why. He simply feel real, and real people have flaws as this film, based on a memoir, showcases.

The Bad: Being Flynn sure does have an inflated sense of its own self-importance. It's an adaptation of a well-loved book, and it feels like an adaptation of a well-loved book. Lots of voice over. Lots of forth-wall breaking. Lots of leaping back and forth of narrators and perspectives all culminating into a big "look at me" mess of a film at time. There's no singular central plot as much as a lot of roads being taken down with the story of a son and father kind of showing up from time to time to remind us there's a through line. Despite some great dialogue, great performances, great blunt candidness of it all, it never tries to "settle" and always wants to move on to something else that doesn't feel quite as connected. Never is this more apparent as it attempts to wrap itself up, leaving what appeared to be a staunch, poetic film to the side and rushing to just say "the end" and get it over with.

Director and screenwriter Paul Weitz is no stranger to adaptations, especially adaptations about relationships between family. About a Boy is, still to this day, one of the best book adaptations out there, American Dreamz is, still to this day, one of the more under appreciated films of the past ten years. Both with the nod towards conversation and dialogue and interesting relationships. Even his In Good Company had that element. So though there's good intentions here, perhaps Being Flynn is more a merging of Weitz's own career where he's trying to do so much but really should have attempted much much less in hindsight. Being Flynn is a film that never quite gets its footing though it loves trotting through a lot of great ideas: it tells us a lot, but it never gets to a point where we want to listen to it.

The Ugly: The title Being Flynn is just so unappealing and generic. The original title was "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City." Now THAT is something to get you noticed.

Also, I'm a big Badly Drawn Boy fan…and there's one song that's ruined now because I'll associate it with a very tough-to-watch moment in the film.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Being John Malkovich

Craig, a puppeteer, takes a filing job in a low-ceilinged office in Manhattan. Although married to the slightly askew Lotte, he hits on a colleague, the sexually frank Maxine. She's bored but snaps awake when he finds a portal leading inside John Malkovich: for 15 minutes you see, hear, and feel whatever JM is doing, then you fall out by the New Jersey Turnpike. Maxine makes it commercial, selling trips for $200; also, she's more interested in Lotte than in Craig, but only when Lotte is inside JM. JM finds out what's going on and tries to stop it, but Craig sees the portal as his road to Maxine and to success as a puppeteer. Meanwhile, Lotte discovers others interested in the portal.

The Good: A match made in heaven, certainly. One of the most daring and unique screenwriters having his brilliant script brought to life by one of the most ambitious and bold filmmakers in the industry. You simply couldn't have it any other way. That's not to say another director couldn't do Kaufman's material justice or another script wouldn't serve Jonze so well, but these are two universal powers that, when combined, work together to create an end product that has you say "I wouldn't have it any other way." You will also say, as is often the case with Kaufman's work, "I've never seen anything like it." Visually, it's subtly lyrical. The cast is absolutely perfect, and we all know they're in on the "joke" (for lack of a better word) as we move forward in its Alice in Wonderland-like plot. It's a film that demands repeat viewings, getting better time and time again as we explore its dark satirical humor and societal viewpoints and commentaries, and just a seminal work for both Kaufman and Jonze.

The ability of a film to have me say "there's nothing like it" goes a long way with me. Of course, that doesn't mean it's automatically good, but originality and being one-of-a-kind is something I greatly applaud, especially considering there are few risk-takers in the film industry and something so risky is refreshing both on screen and off as I think about the daring nature of the creative minds behind it. Being John Malkovich is a that a more. It takes the idea that there's nothing else like it, holds on to it tight and close, and the movie is that much better because of it. 

The Bad: I could only think of one slight thing that I would consider "bad" (note, bad is pretty relative here, it's only by comparison because the rest of the film is so brilliant). Seeing as how most of the characters aren't really that likable, which is sort of the point, none really have a lot of depth to them either. Their personalities are certainly present, their dialogue perfect and overall "look" spot on to who they are (and what they represent). Yet, in many cases, they can feel more like a prop (like Malkovich himself, only that was intentional) rather than actual people - just material in a scene to advance the story rather than a living, breathing person.

The Ugly: Even Malkovich can't make puppets as popular as they become in this story. No way.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Bernie

In small-town Texas, the local mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she's alive.

The Good: Bernie has a lot of great things that make the uniqueness of independent filmmaking so wonderful. In that it's just a movie that is hard to really explain on a conceptual level, it's a comedy/crime/drama/character study about an odd little man in Texas, which just doesn't roll off the tongue, and hard to explain its methodology, it's a narrative film yet has a "mocumentary" aspect interspersed throughout it that blends actors and actual people that were knew the real Bernie.
Yes, it's based on a true story. You probably even read about it. To see it unfold, though, and be so engrossed in every scene, every little tongue-in-cheek bit of humor, sincere moment and wonderful performances all directed by a man who's damn good at directing unique little films, Richard Linklater, is something you simply have to do to appreciate it.

For example, if I were to tell you this is one of the best lead performances you'll see in any film this year and it's done by Jack Black, you'd probably think I'm an idiot. But then you see it in action, see it unfold, see Jack Black become completely consumed by this character where you no longer even see the actor and just become lost in it all, then you'll understand what I mean: hard to explain, hard to buy, but once you see it, it's a damn impressive, fun, silly, dramatic, slightly documentary, slightly darkly comic movie that never tries to force itself too much, making it this unbelievable true story that much more real.

The Bad: The only issue with Bernie is that we kind of wonder, ponder and attempt to figure out exactly what the film is trying to say yet never really get an answer. It's a film that, at its core, is looking into the element of moral ambiguity. Bernie is a very nice, wonderful caring person...does that make up for a serious mistake? People loved him, do they feel betrayed? Should we? Was Bernie meaning to do what he did the entire time, or was it that one brief moment?

It loves these questions. We loves these questions. But we never quite understand what the stance is on the film itself. It paints Bernie as sympathetic and deals with the issues earnestly, but we aren't really sure of where it all ended up, how the people ended up feeling, how the lawyers felt, how the case impacted the community. Was it a strong lawful debate, or was it just a blip on a radar in a small Texas community? It's as though the film wants to tackle a bit moral issue, but reels it back to never quite take it on.

The Ugly: Maybe nobody else is going to say it, but I will: Jack Black should probably be seriously looked at for awards at the end of this year. Problem is, he probably won't. Rarely do mid-year indies like this ever get recognition by the time the awards season rolls around.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. Less luxurious than its advertisements, the Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways.

The Good: A great idea that is brought to life by a great cast. Fundamentally, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (an unnecessarily long title I might add) is as basic as they come. Very straightforward. Very simple. But that's kind of the point. Here, it's a very basic, simple premise made wonderfully funny, sincere and sweet thanks to the cast given room to shine and work comfortably in their respective character skins. None miss a beat. I mean none.

When you have this many vets, the quality is to be expected. But all are not only well acted, but distinct, believable, heartwarming characters you remember. Their characters have clear goals, clear points to being there, their chemistry is undeniable and their friendship feels authentic as we explore who these people are, most of all, the lives they have lived to get them to this one point. Their dialogue is witty, charm undeniable and there's enough heart to leave you with a great impression and experience.

The Bad: With great straightforwardness comes unfortunate cliche and predictability. Well, not a ton of predictability, there's some nice gems of funny, comedy of errors happening that you might not see coming, but even when you see it you aren't surprised it happens and certainly already might know how it ends. The characters are wonderful, storytelling fine, but it's a film that goes through the motions rather than take a few risks, which is surprising considering director Jon Madden's previous efforts and willing to push a few things here and there so the dryness doesn't dry us up too much.

There's a sub plot here as well involving the hotel itself, which seemed like was going to go somewhere and be interesting, but also ends up falling back on pretty standard "let's all work together" troupes that comes off as genially disinterested in its own points and only used as a means to an end to find a way to give us something to be risked.

The Ugly: A great example of actors elevating the material if there ever was one. Dench is the driving force, Wilkinson the beating heart, Smith the emotive, dramatic core and Nigh there to help alleviate it all and ground it a bit. This really is one of the best casts you could as for and it shows, it's just too bad they're stuck in a pretty standard-fare story and not given quite enough to do.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Best Worst Movie

In 1989, unwitting Utah actors starred in the undisputed Worst Movie in History: TROLL 2. Two decades later, the legendarily inept film's child star unravels the improbable, heartfelt story of an Alabama dentist-turned-cult movie icon and an Italian filmmaker who come to terms with this genuine, internationally revered cinematic failure.

The Good: There's a point near the end of Best Worst Movie where an epiphany comes to the film. It's as though the film found itself and its message and purpose. Best Worst Movie isn't about Troll 2 at all, the cult classic film that's the heart of the movie, as much as it is about movies as a whole - the love people have for movies and the love those have in making movies. The term "genuine" is thrown around in Best Worst Movie quite a bit, and when you start to understand it's about the connection of the people that made the movie with the audience that watches it, you start to understand that a movie like Troll 2 can mean a million times more to someone than all the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters put together. It was made by real people with the best intentions, and it's those intentions that are applauded over the fact that it's such a bad movie in the first place.

It's about how, through all the budgets, producers, actors, execs and so on, that there are still real people making these works of art - art being a pretty subjective thing to begin with. If something becomes something else to so many people, here a movie so bad that people love it, it's every bit as successful as it was meant to be as a "good" mvoie. It's taken and reshaped into something new. As we follow the actors, producers and director of Troll 2 and the fervor of fans that love it, we see something that is the root and love of moviemaking to begin with. Best Worst Movie, though it may have not realized it until the very end of its own runtime, is a look into the phenomenon of movie love, of fans of genuine appreciation for those that put their money, time and perhaps sanity on the line to offer up something for mass consumption by people. Troll 2 wasn't meant to be as bad as it ended up being. Nobody sets out to make a "bad" movie...but can you say the movie is "bad" when so many people have a positive reaction to it and have made it their own? Best Worst Movie answers that proudly and with assuredly "no" because there's a distinct difference between something being "poorly made" and something being "bad." Any lover of film would do right in seeing Best Worst Movie because it showcases the most important aspect of movie making - the audience itself.

The Bad: While the film shows a great deal of emotion and humanity to the "bad film" that is Troll 2, its story of being made and cult impact, there's a slight loss of contextual understanding with some of the persons in association to the film. One in particular is a sad sight to see, the actor that played the mother in Troll 2, but we never really find out much or understand what's going on with her life, how she became what she is or what came of her over the course of the film. It seems to just glaze over it, and a few other actors from Troll 2 as well. Sure, not all can be as charming and likable as George Hardy, which the film smartly centers around, but perhaps more time and thought into them would have added a little more heart in an already heartfelt film. I sometimes wonder if having an impartial third party rather than one of the stars of the original film make this documentary, who is strangely absent through most of it, would have seen some elements of that. Things feel restrained and often wanting to paint it in an overly positive light.

The Ugly: Not a single shot of the "oh my Godddd!!!!" scene? Strangely absent, or maybe it went by so quick I didn't notice.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Better Off Dead

Lane Meyer is a depressed teen who looses his girlfriend Beth. This is her reason for the split; "Lane, I think it'd be in my best interest if I dated somebody more popular. Better looking. Drived a nicer car." Anyway, poor Lane is left alone and thinks up treacherous ways of killing himself. He finally meets a French beauty called Monique and falls for her. Simultaneously, he must endure his mothers terrible cooking which literally slides off the table, his disgusting next door neighbor Ricky (and his mum) and he must prepare for the skiing race of his life - to get his old girlfriend back!

The Good: Back in the 1980s, there were countless one-shot comedies that just came and went. They were, as they say, a product of their time. Better Off Dead is not one of these movies. There was also the flip side. The movies that were extremely popular and are still utterly brilliant to this day. Better Off Dead is also not one of these movies. Better Off Dead, instead, was a comedy that was, somehow, ahead of its time. It was original, dark at times, imaginative in its presentation and spot-on . Its charm is found in its seeming randomness, like a writer sitting down and just doing free-thought writing and putting whatever comes to him over a subject on to paper. The subject here is a girl. The presentation is complete stream-of-consciousness until it decides to wrap itself up. Don't let that fool you, though. It only acts like it has no idea what to do. The truth is, it's a sharp script that is well-thought out by trying to appear not well-though out - much like our protagonist in the movie itself who seems to get into more troublesome sub-plots Lord of the Rings and has more day-dreams than a Luis Buñuel film. With a great cast of characters you really get to know, a charismatic lead and a great sense of humor to itself, it's just a smart, funny movie that is deservedly a cult a classic.  

The Bad: It really doesn't see itself all the way through. This is most apparent with the stock ending race sequences that really aren't that entertaining, go on a tad too long and feel as though a different movie was thrown in just to bring closure to it.  It's really at this point when our realization 95% of the movie is incredibly unconventional, then when it turns conventional we love the unconventional that much more.

The Ugly: Apparently, John Cuasak hates this movie. I have no idea why, he's brilliant in it.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Bicycle Thief

A man and his son search for a stolen bicycle vital for his job.

The Good: How can something be so simple and small, yet incredibly complex and profound at the same time? Not only that, but have it feel natural and never forced; somehow it can draw upon our own lives and related memories to reach a mutual understanding, yet broaden our view to greater societal issues and indifferences. How is it a film that’s can do all that...and it be sixty years old? The Bicycle Thief is as pertinent today as it was in 1948.

Much can be attributed to Vittorio De Sica and the entire neorealist movement in Italy during that era. Because Neorealism used non-actors, shot guerrilla style and focused on being as realistic as possible, nothing ever feels fake or acted or needless. It feels like real people with real issues rather than something simply “acted” or “written.” It was a technique that flourished during this era, even transitioned into other movements such as the French New Wave, and is pretty much a trend that is nonexistent today. That’s odd, considering a film like The Bicycle Thief is every bit as emotive and touching and poetic as anything from today. It’s even more odd considering it’s a film that is taught the worldwide in film class and schools and the technique is applauded and admired still.

But I don’t want to make this a review about technical admiration. It’s De Sica, that’s a given. There is one strong element that carries the film, and that’s the touching story of a father and son. For the entirety of the film, the son simply doesn’t understand the father. He doesn’t understand why he doesn’t take more action, what the problem is or how much his bicycle meant to him. It’s consistent and heartbreaking...until the final two or three minutes of the film where it utterly breaks your heart. Then, a small calm after the storm. The father, once more, at a dead end and utterly humiliated, begins to cry as he walks down a busy sidewalk. His son reaches up and holds his hand, and they walk off together into the crowd.

The Bad: The Bicycle Thief is not what you would call an “obvious” film. In that, it’s a simple story and for that you can enjoy, but it’s also a very deep and rich one that can be over the heads of people. In this, The Bicycle Thief can sometimes get lost for some as its subtlety is to a fault. Well, “fault” isn’t the right word. Being subtle isn’t bad, but it makes The Bicycle Thief a film for film fans that can see its depths, but it’s probably not something a regular moviegoer would just pick up for entertainment.

Anyways, what do you want me to say here? The film is pretty much perfect.

The Ugly: For years, going back to my old film classes, the film has always been titled “The Bicycle Thief.” That’s what the books label it as and what the DVD cover says. Lately, though, and maybe this is because IMDB and The Criterion Collection are so influential, it’s been called “Bicycle Thieves” with a “The” sometimes there as well the past three or four years. I still call it The Bicycle Thief. Not that the number of thieves matter, of course.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Big Eyes

A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

The Good: It’s impressive what restraint can do for a filmmaker not really known for it. It kind of reminds you that “oh yeah…this person isn’t always just about style. There’s a good storyteller there somewhere.” Over the years, the verdict on Tim Burton has been reduced to style over substance, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Often his tone is out of whack, characters usually intolerable and atmosphere given more prominence than solid narrative structure.

I also think it has to do with budget, because Big Eyes isn’t big-budget in any way. It’s rather small, with bit players and scaled-down dramatic story - and that’s where it kind of succeeds. It’s a personal story - something a filmmaker can invest himself into rather than simply going through the motions of making a goofy character and then trying to tell a story around her or him (usually him..and usually Johnny Depp). Big Eyes is about artistry and recognition for the passion and talent, abusive relationships that develop based on a lie, and the 1960s and women’s empowerment in an era where men still dominated the conversations. “She’s a woman…she’s no artist” is a running theme in Big Eyes, making for quite the satisfactory turn given that we go on the journey to see an artist struggle to be noticed and, above all, accepted by her peers.

Big Eyes might seem a pretty “standard” little pic, but that’s fine. The passion and energy still shines through form its director and especially its stars played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Though Waltz is a bit of a given to give us a memorable and dynamic character, the subtlety of Adams balances that. You believe their relationship, as silly as it was because we see the truth when Adams as Margaret Keane does not, and their play off each other showcases an abusive relationship that’s explored and set against the theme of one a true artist and the other a true piece of human garbage taking advantage of a situation he created.

The Bad: Big Eyes ends less on a bang than it does a whimper. It’s a movie that hits a high point, then kind of peters itself out. The energy kind of stops. The passion seems to fall out. I suppose that has to do with the real story as Keane slowed on the artistic front and we’re suddenly in legal entanglements. I’ll give the movie credit in streamlining it all it can, sitting in a courtroom will screech any story to a halt, but it still screeches to a halt.

We kind of end without a sense of completeness to it all. The trial is just one small thing, but it’s kind of a reflection of the larger issue. It plays loose with about everything, willing to say a lot but not really commit, and it becomes inconsistent as we go over decades of peoples’ lives yet never really feel intimately involved with them. That wouldn’t be so bad if the film was more comedic, ala Ed Wood which also did a ton of loose/fast fact reconfiguring but did it with love and self-awareness. Here, it doesn’t have that. It wants to be a straight up drama but never quite commits itself to getting there.

The Ugly: Still, despite the inconsistency of it all, I’d love to see more of this Tim Burton. There's an affection here that seems missing in a lot of his recent works.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Big Fan

Paul Aufiero, a hardcore New York Giants football fan, struggles to deal with the consequences when he is beaten up by his favorite player

The Good: After seeing this follow up to The Wrestler from writer Robert Siegel, who steps into the directing chair with this, I have to say he knows how to write troubled characters about as good as anyone. Oswalt, who shines as a troubled, depressed, lonely and child-like character, does as good a job making us uncomfortable as Rourke did in his role as The Ram. That’s what Big Fan really does: make you uncomfortable. The situations, the characters themselves, the fact that it feels very real and there’s a good chance there are people like Paul Aufiero out there, brings a film that is difficult to watch as  result. You feel antsy and squirm in your chair because the smart, painful story makes it to where you feel sympathy for Paul, yet loathe him at the same time. It’s as dark and troubling a film you can see, a great turn for Oswalt and shows the raw writing talent of Siegal.

The Bad: The script is great with its character study aspect, but fails to really get past the repetitive nature of everything that happens. There is seemingly a checklist that the story has to go down from scene to scene. As good as those scenes are, and they build off of each other to escalation, you get a strong sense you’ve seen it two or three times already. It’s great it doesn’t compromise itself, but it seems more is needed to really bring it home instead of merely repeating the same plot device over and over again.

The Ugly: Oswalt has always been a bit-player in movies, usually small roles in comedies with a few dramas. I find it interesting the first film he headlines, being a comedy guy and all, is a very dark psychological drama. Kudos, Mr. Oswalt.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Big Hero 6

The special bond that develops between plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax, and prodigy Hiro Hamada, who team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes.

The Good: A wonderfully, gorgeous and unique world blending pop, Japanese inspired art and a lot of loveable characters gives BIg Hero Six a distinction: being enormously entertaining despite not being all that interesting or unique.

In Big Hero Six we meet a new hero, actually a good number of them, but the main is the lovable Baymax: A Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man looking fellow with a monotone voice and a lot of heart. Yes, he was likely designed to sell toys and figures across all ages and genders, but he has an incredibly memorable and fun personality. If there’s one thing to love on Big Hero Six, it’s the art design. It’s a gorgeous looking movie with distinguishable characters and a unique world for them to play in.

The heroes get in adventures, solve a mystery and learn what it means to have courage and care about each other. Yes, it's very typical, but the energy, fantastic animation and great voice acting allows Big Hero Six to be a fun and entertaining movie that, despite lack of depth, feels like an amusement park ride with a streamlined story that hits all the right notes and all the right beats…even if it doesn’t take the risks to truly be unique.

The Bad: Big Hero Six is a solid film, but it's also a safe film. There's nothing necessarily wrong with being safe in story, characters or ideas, nor is there anything wrong with being boilerplate as Big Hero Six goes through the motions that are very much a part of its genre template.

But there is something wrong in having that one really good idea and not doing anything particularly interesting or unique with it. It goes through the expected motions, ending up squandering what could have been something special. For example, we have an interesting idea of what "heros" can be, as well as a nifty little character of Baymax to drive that idea, but it really just takes that and plays a safe "hero origin story" and not much else. The story feels too predicated on previous films and too unwilling to take a few story or plot away from the norm of a basic “origin” story resulting in emotional beats and action scenes feel too surgical - less an organic story being told and more a re-telling of other stories of the same nature.

Despite Big Hero 6 doing a lot right, and make no mistake it's an incredibly entertaining film, it feels like it's trying to do the most basic and uninspired approach to a world and character that could have been something special and unique. I both enjoyed the hell out of it, but also have a hard time retaining a lot from it as well. It’s just there, it does its job, and that’s about it. No big moment to impact you, nothing to truly be distinguishable like Ralph willing to kill himself for his friend and be a hero in Wreck it Ralph or finding a new meaning of what “true love” means in Frozen. Big Hero 6 is fine with its most basic elements, and I suppose we’ll just have to be fine with that as well.

The Ugly: Other than Hiro, I can’t remember a single name of any of the characters. I can picture them…but there’s not enough meat for their characters for them to be distinguishable other than their eventual hero costumes.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Big Lebowski

When "The Dude" Lebowski is mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski, two thugs urinate on his rug to coerce him into paying a debt he knows nothing about. While attempting to gain recompense for the ruined rug from his wealthy counterpart, he accepts a one-time job with high pay-off. He enlists the help of his bowling buddy, Walter, a gun-toting Jewish-convert with anger issues. Deception leads to more trouble, and it soon seems that everyone from porn empire tycoons to nihilists want something from The Dude.

The Good: If I may be so bold, I will have to throw out a moment of self-serving conceit and claim that Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski is one of the greatest characters to every be put on screen. To have an actor so embody a character is a sight to behold, and Jeff Daniels pulls it off to where we both love “The Dude” and hate “The Dude” simultaneous. We love his occasionally innocence in the matter, just a free loving guy who wants his rug back, but hate the fact he probably takes the most insanely difficult path in doing so. With him are other great characters, Walter his friend a different kind of nutcase and the Alpha Male of the group with The Dude more a passive observer who waits more than takes action (and when he takes action, it’s usually poorly planned). The Big Lebowski is purely a character film. The story itself is nothing here, the Coen brothers pointing it out by simply having the Dude’s search for a new rug the main plot. Instead, it’s about the oddballs that come and go as Dude goes on his quest in a Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure style of strangeness and surrealism. The entire film feels as though it’s set just right outside the room labeled “reality” and we end up indulging ourselves in one of the best comedies to ever be created. The precise directing, the music and the characters all build up to a Coen brothers classic and one of the top films in their repertoire that is now as much a cult classic as A Clockwork Orange and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Bad: Although the Coen brothers strip down the main plot to something simple, they still manage to over complicate things on our journey through it. By the end of the movie, you don’t even know what the original point of it all was to begin with. In a way, I suppose that’s reflective of The Dude’s quest itself, he doesn’t even know what the hell just happened and we share that utter ignorance with him and unlike some other Coen films, the odd and messiness of it all feels completely deliberate. That doesn’t mean we can just simply accept that, though, as there are times when things out of left field are so out of left field you will never be able to put the pieces together of the odd puzzle the Coen’s have given us. By all accounts, The Big Lebowski shouldn’t engage you at all, but maybe that’s why it completely does.

The Ugly:  Peter Stormare playing a weird, unsettling foreign guy? You don’t say.

Final Rating:
4.5 out of 5


Big Trouble in Little China

While kung fu warriors and otherworldly spirits battle over the fate of two women, Russell's swaggering idiot manages to knock himself out or underestimate the forces he's dealing with. Jack Burton, a tough-talking, wisecracking truck driver whose hum-drum life on the road takes a sudden supernatural tailspin when his best friend's fiancee is kidnapped. Speeding to the rescue, Jack finds himself deep beneath San Francisco's Chinatown, in a murky, creature-filled world ruled by Lo Pan, a 2000-year-old magician who mercilessly presides over an empire of spirits. Dodging demons and facing baffling terrors, Jack battles his way through Lo Pan's dark domain in a full-throttle, action-riddled ride to rescue the girl.

The Good: Unabashedly campy and straight-forward fun. That's Big Trouble in Little China in a nutshell, if the title alone didn't already tell you that. Big Trouble in Little China is one of the most popular cult movies for a reason: there's just really nothing else quite like it.  Originality can go a long ways in moviemaking and I'd be lying  if I didn't say that, for me, to see something so wonderfully one-of-a-kind and to say "I haven't seen that before" is one of the best compliments I can give a movie. Big Trouble in Little China will have you saying that every ten minutes as it has action, drama, SUSPENSE!, and ROMANCE!- it's like a 1950s serial and I'll be damned if it doesn't hit those elements spot-on - I expect those descriptive words to just flash on the screen in giant lettering when I see this movie. It's also an homage to 1970s kung-fu films and b-movie chopsokey shlock, and it loves every minute of it. It's a big, epic movie that's shot and presented that's fitting for its modest budget - a case of a concept's reach well exceeding its grasp. Yet, we end up loving this. The obvious sets. The goofy costumes. The odd-ball dialogue. It's all a large pot brewing that explodes into an ecletic and downright entertaining piece of fantasy.

The Bad: I know the film has issues, but when it plays in its element so well, you can't really hold it against it. Sure, the story isn't that great and only two characters you find yourself caring about, and there's no denying the messy third act, and I don't think any of this was intentional at all, but it all seems to add to the "feel" of the movie. To demand it actually get everything right tends to go against what it's actually trying to do. A movie like this is one you don't ask for polish or refinement, or even to have things make any sense.  It would be nice to have, sure, but the fact that it's flawed gives it more character than actually makes it a "bad" film.

The Ugly: I remember having nightmares as a kid of the guy that blows up. I still sometimes do.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

With only a few days before their high-school graduation, Bill S. Preston, esquire and Ted 'Theodore' Logan are doomed to flunk out of school. The history teacher, Mr. Ryan, decides to give Bill and Ted a chance. If they can ace an oral exam on the topic of how a famous historical personality might react to modern times, they will be allowed to pass. If not, Ted's father will place Ted in military school, thereby disbanding the Wyld Stallyns, the heavy metal band that was formed by Bill and Ted. Bill and Ted get help from an unexpected source: Rufus, an Emissary from the Future. It seems that in Rufus' time, Bill and Ted's music is the basis of all existence, and if the Wild Stallyns are disbanded, Rufus's world will no longer exist. Bill and Ted are whisked off in a time machine to retrieve a few historical characters for their oral exam so they can pass, but Bill and Ted soon discover that finding the historical characters and getting them to the high school won't be easy.

The Good: Inventive, original and imaginative. I feel originality can go a long way and overshadow a film's shortcomings. There's really nothing else quite like Bill and Ted. It's smarter than it presents itself and endearing to those that grew up during the era of Bill and Ted. The story does a great job staying focused and keeping movie, and for less than an hour and a half it does a great job cramming a lot into it while not feeling too rushed. The strength, though, comes from Bill and Ted themselves. They're fantastic characters you can really find yourself wanting to hang out with. George Carlin does his bit well and each historical figure is distinct and memorable, with enough. It's a classic fish-out-of water tale from many angles and is subtle in how it deals with its story and character arcs.

The Bad: While original and fun, the film is still pretty predictable. We know how things will end up and where they will go. Also, the movie, while smart with Time Travel at times, does imminently have issues of plot holes that seem to emerge with many films dealing with time travel theory. With the light feel of it all, there's some things you can just grin and take, such as setting traps and diversions, but the more you think about it, the more you wonder why they didn't set up everything in the first place. Also, the ending show presentation Bill and Ted put on is pretty hokey, but it had to end the way and at least had some funny moments. There's a slight issue with the music, but that's likely because of the film being independent and unable to really have the rocking tunes that Bill and Ted reference.

The Ugly: Showcasing the film's subtlety, the scene of Sigmund Freud hitting on two girls at the mall with a corndog in hand, only to slowly lower it as they reject him, is funny yet disturbing considering who is holding the corndog.  "

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey

The world of our distant future is a veritable utopia, thanks to the lyrics of two simple-minded 20th Century rock and rollers, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan. However, a would-be conquerer threatens to throw history off-track by sending "most non-non-heinous" evil robot Bill and Teds back to kill their good counterparts. Finding themselves dead, the boys must outwit the Grim Reaper and traverse Heaven and Hell to return to the land of the living, rescue their "babes" and have a "most triumphant" concert at the all-important Battle of the Bands.

The Good: Like the first film, it's imaginative. The visualization of Heaven, Hell and Death's realm are fantastic. It may not have as many memorable moments as its predecessor, but the games with Death, the halls of Hell and the odd sights of Death (the best character in the film) staggering around the real world looking bored are original and funny. Of course, the strength, again, is Bill and Ted who are really about where we left them off in the first film, struggling even more now because they have to find real jobs and still try to be with their girls. Their dose of "reality" has sunk in, and they know they have a long ways to go before they reach "savior" status they are destined to be. You really feel their frustration. They also show how they've grown, now dealing with things like bills and rent, thinking a little more on their feet rather than just wading through life and overall showing the lessons they learned in the first film. 

The Bad: Bogus Journey is film that you'll love one minute, but get annoyed and hate it the next. Throwing Bill and Ted into the afterlife is a great concept, and the execution works through about 2/3 of it, but the final act tells us the writers and creators really tried to force the issue to close it out. Along the way it repeatedly trips itself up by leaving our beloved Bill and Ted for "evil" Bill and Ted who are more annoying than threatening. I don't know know why you would program the wannabe-Terminators to do that. If you can send them back in time, then...oh, don't get me started. It's finale, too, is even cheesier than the first film's and at a point you really want it to end. It also does a poor job dealing with the first film's closed-story. Again, I can bring up the time-travel element, but that's not a focus here (at least, not until the very end of the story where future Bill and Ted show up, which makes me think I might be right in critiquing it as the whole setting up of traps and tricks just doesn't make sense). Concluded story arcs in the first are either not dealt with or rehashed, such as Ted with his father. It's a movie with good intentions but a poor execution.

The Ugly: The aliens are bad additions to this story. There's no exceptions to this fact. They come in too late and feel too forced in. On top of that, their look and effect is horrendous and end up just being an annoying commodity to Bill and Ted. Also the "Reaper Rap" at the end. I had to cringe on that one.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Birds

Spoiled socialite and notorious practical joker Melanie Daniels is shopping in a San Francisco pet store when she meets Mitch Brenner. Mitch is looking to buy a pair of love birds for his young sister's birthday; he recognizes Melanie but pretends to mistake her for an assistant. She decides to get her own back by buying the birds and driving up to the quiet coastal town of Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends his weekends with his sister and mother. Shortly after she arrives, Melanie is attacked by a gull, but this is just the start of a series of attacks by an increasing number of birds.

The Good: I've always wondered how the various "killer animal" or "killer giant animal" movies from the 1950s  are often looked at as campy and goofy yet once Alfred Hitchcock does one, it's a piece of suspenseful brilliance. The set ups and formulas are pretty much the same and the whole "nature run amok" idea wasn't new back in 1963. The truth is, though, The Birds is every bit as much a B-Movie as you would think it would be without Hitchcock's name plastered all over it. Still, he too creative approaches to it in regards to special effects, gore (such as a pecked-up, eyeless corpse that was pretty graphic at the time) and use of music (such as there isn't any in the entire film). It's just you, the characters, a lot of bird sounds and a constant sense of dread because the number of birds (and the violence) escalates as the film progresses to its final climax. It may be a B-Movie at heart, but it's crafted with A-Caliber technique and ability (similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark). Hitchcock made birds scary. Just remember that. This isnt' a shark or a giant snake which are already frightening. These are just regular seagulls, sparrows and crows.

The Bad: I would argue that The Birds is one of Hitchcock's more lazy films, yet also one of his most beloved. He really shows little care to the story and to the characters and focuses solely on the tense situation at hand. Usually he balances both remarkably, but perhaps the larger scale of the film and the emphasis on special effects was something he was more in tune with than trying to hand us a story or memorable characters (thanks to less than memorable leads as well, I might add). The fact he doesn't try to explain why the Birds are attacking is actually the best element of the story, the fact that there's no investment into the story and really no love given to the characters at all are easily its weakest. It's built upon set piece after set piece. As great as those are, it also feels like cheap scares at times.

The Ugly: I still love the eyeless corpse and how Hitchcock absolutely doesn't sway the camera away. It's completely explicit and in your face and shows that these birds aren't messing around.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Birdman

A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.

The Good: A movie that will leave you breathless and in awe that something so damn good could still be made. Not just good, of course, but unique and imaginative, fully original and, yet, so engaging it makes you comfortable despite the constant sense of uneasiness that permeates through it. You constantly expect the other shoe to drop, then another, then another as we peel back layer upon layer of story, theme, character and concept to, eventually, reveal all one can. Stripped bare. There for you to take in and ponder on the outcome.

Michael Keaton has always been one of the best actors, going back to days of Clean and Sober for drama or Beetlejuice for broad comedy, there is honestly no better actor I can think of that fits into this role so perfectly. It's not just the superhero/washed up actor connection, it's that you need an actor that understands the balance and Birdman is comedy with serious drama with just a slight hint of rage and frustration boiling underneath of every character in it. For Keaton, it's a crown jewel in a great career and it's impossible to picture anyone else embodying a character as much as he does here.

But he's not the only great actor here. Every single actor, every one, gives their all. Put up against the incredible directing and cinematography, it's all the more impressive. Long takes, few cuts, needing to know a constant sense of space and knowing where the camera is, how to stand, where to go, how to be lit. Birdman is a technical feat like few others and never sacrifices being entertaining and darkly funny while doing so. It's quite possibly the best film of the year.
For me personally, it is.

The Bad: A bit of an overlong second act causes Birdman to make its third act feel a bit rushed. Truth is, though, you hardly notice. The structure and pace is unique and it's such a free-flowing film that any "slowness" or "fastness" is more relative than anything. It can turn a tad repetitive, but the visual approach to shots and the fantastic acting pretty much covers up any flaw that Birdman might or might not have. Who cares, really? It's an experience.

What might be bad, though, is that Birdman doesn't really know subtlety, nor does it quite know what kind of tone it wants to go for. Playful one minute, melodramatic the next, it's a scattershot of a lot of different moods that, as much as I would say is intentional as though it's a reflection of the main protagonist, still never reels itself into a cohesive whole - often leaving you unsure on whether you should be laughing or finding some sort of sentimentality through it all.

The Ugly: Every person in this movie is giving the performances of their career. It's almost unfair to the other movies out there - that one movie can have everyone's A-game and probably get every Oscar nomination under the sun.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Bitch Slap

Three bad girls travel to a remote desert hideaway to steal $200 million in diamonds from a ruthless underworld kingpin.

The Good: Well, what can be said? The film is pretty much hot, big-breasted women beating people up and shooting guns. It's exploitation and, truthfully, the film barely deserves a review because it's more in line with a movie made for Cinemax Late Night than anything. In that case of standards, it works fairly well. It's dumb, but it's fun dumb. The acting is bad, but that's expected. The Special Effects are horrible...but it's in line with the budget.  I did like it's 24-esque directing, though sloppy, and how it presents itself almost like a goofy comic book.

The Bad: One element that certainly becomes tired quick, and this is within the first half hour, is the desire of the film to try too hard to show how "badass" its girls are. Eventually it all melds together in to one constant noise where even if there is a neat sequence, it's lost because of the disinterest from everything else that occurs before and after. It's like Charlie's Angels, only more exploitative, vulgar, obvious, and uninspired. It's simply overwrought with its own self-worth.

The Ugly: Like slow-motion akin to the opening credits of Baywatch? You're in for a treat. Also enjoy a nice dose of bad green screen because every scene that doesn't take place outside a trailer in the desert takes place in front of poorly implemented green screen background. But honestly...were you expecting high standards given the title? It pretty much is exactly what you think it is.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Biutiful

This is a story of a man in free fall. On the road to redemption, darkness lights his way. Connected with the afterlife, Uxbal is a tragic hero and father of two who's sensing the danger of death. He struggles with a tainted reality and a fate that works against him in order to forgive, for love, and forever.

The Good: Much like director Alejandro González Iñárritu previous effort, Babel, Biutiful is a somber, lyrical look through a very dark window of a life. It's a film about death and life and the fragility of it all. One can't help but feel the personal nature of it all as though we're reading from a faded, tattered diary found in an old basement on a tenant building. It's waterlogged and crumpled, but it's still a life expressed poetically. Biutiful is an ever-progressing film that doesn't rely on plot twists or revelations. It's the day to day life of a man seeking redemption - something that isn't found through one mere act but through a series of trials and tests that the Greek Gods themselves would have been proud to put someone through. It's tragedy, plain and simple, and beautiful in its honesty.

Bardem re-affirms his status as one of Spain's finest actors in this bare, almost naked portrayal of a man with difficult choices and even more difficult consequences to deal with. As the central character in every shot and every scene throughout the film, his range of emotion is astounding as every test of mettle one man can go through is put on display. He loves his children, yet fears for their future. He once loved his wife, yet can only hope to love her once more. He cares for far too many people than one man should, yet he's cursed with, perhaps, knowing the world (and beyond) far better than any of them and overwhelms his own being. Bardem is this film. Make no mistake, it would not have worked if an actor of his calibur layed it all out there as he does, and the film, despite the lack of light within its world, is one worth seeing and, perhaps, understanding what hope and light really is in the first place.

The Bad: It's a well told story, as bleak and probably depressing as it is, but did it need two and a half hours to be told? Certain characters fall out, plot lines seem to go nowhere and many points are pretty unresolved or almost cheaply handled off-screen. The central story of Uxbal himself is unrelenting and, pun intended, Biutiful, but was everything else absolutely necessary to have that occur, especially certain elements that don't add much to the story of Uxbal in the first place? Certain plotlines such as a Chinese man's family and gay lover, a construction site, a friend deported (who is never really mentioned again) and even Uxbal's brother and deceased father (just to name a few of them) are nice minor ingredients, but nothing truly substantial in them. The story is him, his unique ability and his love for his children (and potentially his wife of a failed marriage). Many of these additional things don't go anywhere or achieve much withing the scope of Uxbal's life, especially when there's already more than enough to sustain our interest in the man and his internal and external conflicts.

The Ugly: Loose ends and certain unresolved plots seem to simply fade to black but perhaps its a life unfinished and a story saved for another day, to carry one well beyond a final credit scroll.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Black Death

Set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England, a young monk is tasked with learning the truth about reports of people being brought back to life in a small village.

The Good: There's been a few movies similar to Black Death recently. Not necessarily setting but more tonality and plot. Black Death, though, manages to rise above those rather a-typical films with strong performances, a great aesthetic touch and atmosphere and, especially, a lack of pandering to an audience to have some sense of happiness and wonderful fulfillment of glee. It's medieval times and it's about the black death...there's not going to be rainbows and sunshine here. There's also no major action sequence save for one and no clearly happy ending as it showcases a cycle of brutality and hatred that is never ending. It's more thriller than something that feels obligated to be an action film all for the better. Death begets death. Violence begets violence. This is just one story that could have very well have happened. It's unsettling in atmosphere and tension rather than relying on gore, blood and action - shades of The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General are certainly found (in fact, this film would feel right at home during that era of filmmaking) and genre fans will certainly appreciate this back-to-the-basics plot and story that just nails it.

At it's heart, Black Death is a mystery movie. There's a strange village with a puzzling lack of plague. Is it merely a clean and blessed society, an evil abomination or something else they can't quite predict.? While the first part of the film plays out as your typical "band of men growing closer on their journey," the second half is a tense thriller: that kind of tension you get when you go to a Thanksgiving and you know one half of the family doesn't like the other half but they all smile and nod as they eat their turkey. You're stuck in the middle and just hope things don't explode. Black Death exploits that sensation wonderfully and has a haunting finale that is hard to shake.

The Bad: The film is brisk, almost to a fault. You do come to know these characters more than the typical movie of this kind, but to a point where you say "I'd like to know more about them." It's as though there, perhaps, was a very deep and long script going deeper into each man's past and their reasonings for their crusade - yet that was streamlined into what we have here. It works for this, I'd be lying if I didn't say the pace and flow was fantastic, but I tend to think fans of this genre would have loved to have seen more in terms of character. I know I would have, in particular Sean Bean's character whom we only touch upon.

Director Christopher Smith also has a hard time deciding on a style to stick with. He isn't a director that seems able to utilize a vision for the material, he just throws in a directorial idea that seems out of place. It's noticeable enough to draw attention to itself and rare enough to say "that's a weird decision to do." It lacks consistency and, more importantly, relevance. Most of those shots, such as shaky-cam or mounted handhelds, are seemingly unnecessary to begin with.

The Ugly: The ending makes no compromises.  I could see people feeling unsatisfied with it if they were seeking something else. Still, I think this is a movie that fans of the genre will really get into and will gain popularity once word gets out. Having no expectations probably will have something to do with that.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Black Dynamite

The story of 1970s African-American action legend Black Dynamite. The Man killed his brother, pumped heroin into local orphanages, and flooded the ghetto with adulterated malt liquor. Black Dynamite was the one hero willing to fight The Man all the way from the blood-soaked city streets to the hallowed halls of the Honky House.

The Good: Taking more a Mel Brooks road than a Scary Movie/Date Move/Epic Movie pop-culture laced road, Black Dynamite will sure be a hit amongst moviegoers, especially those that enjoy the filmmaking process and can laugh and giggle at boom-mics, poor edits, missing scenes and obviously bad fight scenes that so dominated Blaxpoloitation Cinema in the 1970s.  I think those that come with that background will appreciate the film more, because many probably won’t quite understand the concept and exactly what Blaxploitation was. Michael Jai White is solid in this role, his martial-arts background and charisma illuminating every scene and his one-liners infinitely quotable. It’s goofy, intentionally funny rather than accidentally funny or full of shocks to get you to laugh. It’s funniest moments come when it’s attempting to recreate Blaxploitation. It’s still a parody, but it’s funny because it’s exactly what would have been done in 1973, only done today makes it hilarious. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to not realize it was made just last year.

The Bad: Eventually, the parody and comedy begins to wear on you. While a few scenes might still get you to chuckle at the half-way point, by then it’s really run its course and the martial-arts filled finale can’t even save it. It’s a worthy film to watch once but sadly probably won’t have staying power even as a cult film due to its inconsistent bouts of humor and rushed ending.


The Ugly: Three people involved with the screenplay and it doesn’t quite hit its stride, and instead it’s a series of seemingly episodic parody scenes. What that says is that it’s some friends, who got a camera, and just went with it. Sometimes it works, but after a while it doesn’t.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Black Hawk Down

123 elite U.S. soldiers drop into Somalia to capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord and find themselves in a desperate battle with a large force of heavily-armed Somalis.

The Good: Black Hawk Down is less concerned about telling a story as much as it is rattling your bones and spending your adrenaline so that when the moments of calmness come, you breathe the same sigh of relief that the characters do. The story here is secondary, it’s not important. It’s not supposed to be. What is important is the utter visceral experience being put right in the middle of violence and see it, up close and personal, through the eyes of a soldier. In that, Black Hawk Down not only succeeds, it utterly excels. There’s a script there, somewhere, but it’s all more set up to the moments over many hours that could be the best, most realistic depiction of modern urban warfare ever shot.

Scott is absolutely at the top of his game here. The pacing and framing and overall staging of scenes is spectacular and when combined with its soundtrack, for which it won the Academy Award for, it bombards your senses and you find you’re the one out of breath when the credits role. Performances are solid, though often indistinguishable, and the cinematography breathtaking. Black Hawk Down has far more good in it than bad, though the bad aspects are what really divide people.

The Bad: Though it’s meant to be frantic and more about “putting you into a situation” alongside the soldiers, it can sometimes be a difficult movie to follow. Characters can become indistinguishable, though it does a decent enough job focusing on a handful of prominent ones so we know who they are, and there’s often a difficulty getting your bearings on where everyone is at all times and exactly how separated they are from their comrades.

Hmmmm....probably a bit like a real battle, I’m willing to think.

Despite that, sometimes being frantic and hard to follow can also cause you to “tune out” and maybe not get to know the characters nearly as well as you should. You can see the script, occasionally, trying to develop them and spend time with them (especially McGregor, Hartnett and Sizemore’s characters), but it all tends to fall a little flat and forgoes pushing it further. It’s more the idea of their archetypes that we attach ourselves to, not that they were necessarily real live human beings. It’s a glossed over account of a real event, changing history so it can stand proudly waving the Stars and Stripes in its brutal and realistic portrayal of violence, and seems to care little in doing anything outside of that.

The Ugly: Revisionist history is always a touchy subject.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Black Sea

In order to make good with his former employers, a submarine captain takes a job with a shadowy backer to search the depths of the Black Sea for a submarine rumored to be loaded with gold.

The Good: There’s just natural drama and tension to something like a submarine. The trick is to keep it fresh and moving and thankfully Black Sea does. It doesn’t quite hit all its character marks that it strives for, but it never gets dull or uninteresting. Even better is that the movie is full of memorable characters. Yes, they’re not exactly deep, but they are distinct and easy to distinguish. Everyone has a certain look and personality and purpose, making their presence and potential sudden departure have more weight even if they are cardboard. For a rather streamlined thriller like Black Sea, it’s a solid fit.

Director Kevin Macdonald directs the hell out of the movie. Macdonald has always been pretty solid and showing an ability to adjust to the material. The Last King of Scotland didn’t look and feel like State of Play which didn’t look and feel like The Eagle which didn’t look and feel like Touching the Void or One Day in September. Here he has one small space, a handful of actors and only so many angles and way to shoot a scene and manages to keep it all in check. The old rusty submarine feels wonderfully claustrophobic and quaint, you get a quick feel on how it’s all laid out and where everyone is at any given time. Even the story isn’t hitting its marks, the directing is focused enough to adjust.

But I have to give a lot of mention here to Jude Law - an actor that I feel never quite gets a whole lot of appreciation. There’s not a ton for his character here, yet at the same time he makes it feel as though there is. It’s a one-liner: a man tries to hunt down some gold and hopes to win back his wife and child. What that doesn’t tell you is how misguided it is, but Law is able to do that in a subtle way where it doesn’t need to be explained to you. You kind of get it. You read it on his face. It’s the one thing in the back of his mind constantly and he doesn’t have to mention once. That’s all the actor, who elevates his character tremendously as a result to the point where you can either love or hate him but, certainly, understand him without the story beating you over the head with it.

The Bad: Black Sea really has to force the issue on a few occasions to keep the ball rolling. There’s a good flow for most of it, moving a solid pace and keeping it lively and interesting, but to take that next plunge the film has to throw in a contrivance here and there to shake things up. It just doesn’t work in that respect. There’s plenty of drama happening already and forcing the issue, something you can see coming a mile away at that, doesn’t do the story any service and distracts more than anything.

This is frustrating because there’s a lot to like about Black Sea and these small elements that crop up detract immensely from it. Perhaps the writer felt it needed to be more distinct and different than the run-of-the-mill submarine movie, but it comes across as trying too hard when it might not have even been needing to try that hard in the first place. From a couple of plot turns that feel out of place to, especially, character motivations that are way too irrational to feel natural, Black Sea was one the cusp of being a great movie rather than just a mildly good one.

The Ugly: Ok…look…you know the guy is a little nuts…why risk it? Why? That’s how you introduce him and you don’t think the audience is going to say “bet he’s gonna screw this up?"

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Black Sunday (aka La Maschera del Demonio/ The Mask of Satan)

A vengeful witch and her fiendish servant return from the grave and begin a bloody campaign to possess the body of the witch's beautiful look-alike descendant. Only the girl's brother and a handsome doctor stand in her way.

The Good: A beautifully shot, atmospheric piece of black and white horror cinema that was one of the most influential films of its time and put Italian aueteur Mario Bava on the map. Black Sunday is a purely "creepy" type of horror film, as anything regarding satan, witchcraft and possession probably would be, and is one of the most gorgeous looking and original directed horror films you could ask to see, implementing long takes and interesting (and still frightening) use of light, shadow and the camera's movements. It's a classic approach, with an old castle, secret passageways, and a good sense of storytelling that really reels you into its world. It's also a shockingly gory film with blood and sexual overtones that made it banned in the UK and censored in the US. What it might lack in characters it makes up for in character.

The Bad: The characters are mostly one-dimensional, although with good personalities, and the villains are theatrical (although this is an Italian film so its understandable). The story is told well, however it doesn't offer a lot of originality or twists to the formula. It pretty much takes a formula and does it well. In older horror movies, I don't think we can ask for much more than that.

The Ugly: Why would you have two giant portraits of a satanic couple that haunt your nightmares in your own home?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Black Swan

A thriller that zeros in on the relationship between a veteran ballet dancer and a rival.

The Good: Demented. Dark. Erotic. Black Swan is the exact type of movie you think of when someone says the term "Psychological Thriller." It's an incredibly well paced dive into madness that grows and evolves and constantly thrusts into a sense of dread and tension. I would take it one step further and call it "Psychological Horror" because it certainly has its share of dark, frightening imagery that deals with everything from hallucinations to death to monstrous metamorphosis.

Natalie Portman is an actress that everyone knows, maybe even loves, but she's always lacked that one defining role of her career. Well, this is it. The entire film is about duality, and she manages to jump back and forth with grace and easy from vulnerability and innocence to insanity and obsession and determination. It also has quite a lot to say about art and artists where "losing yourself" can sometimes be a bit too literal in some circles. The entire film is on her and her alone, though the supporting cast is fine too, Portman is absolutely perfect in what is one of the finest and daring performances you'll see all year.

And boy, does Aronofsky know how to subtly jar and frighten you. It's as unsettling as anything the man has done. Everything is "around" the characters, in shadows and in the background (or in mirrors, a mise-en-scene Aronofsky uses a lot here). Special effects are used incredibly effectively, with smart camera trickery and brilliant use of angles and light with just a slight bit of computer effects to bring a world utterly imploding and exploding at the same time. Hallucinations have never felt so visceral and real and this Lynchian-esque dream thriller is one of the best of its kind. An absolute must see for fans of horror and suspense.

The Bad: There is certainly a disconnect to the humanity of everyone. Who is real. Who isn't. We even wonder if Nina herself is real. That plays well for intensity, but not particularly well to draw any kind of emotive connection to her or to those around her. We pity her obsession, but that's more drawn from Portman's superb performance than depth of written character. We really know very little about, well, anybody. It's a hell of a journey (or 'trip,' a far more fitting word) either way. The film is so set on its jarring unreality, we just aren't sure what is reality in the first place and who we should be caring about.

The Ugly: Intense sexuality and erotica at its best. By that I mean something with meaning and purpose and weight to the story, not merely there to "arouse" but to actually say something about the characters, situation and scenes of sex themselves. Sometimes having a brief scene of something sexual that actually has meaning is more arousing and intense than anything that just throws out nudity left and right.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Blackhat

A furloughed convict and his American and Chinese partners hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.

The Good: Moody and stylish - that’s a Michael Mann trademark and Blackhat has that in large quantities. Even at his worst, and Blackhat is arguably Mann at his worst as he stumbles through an awful script, it looks damn good. Striking imagery, solid action, amazing use of light and shadow in framing as Mann is an absolute master at - Blackhat has some fantastic things going for it visually but its style over substance and, unfortunately, that’s not going to give it a pass because even the great style can’t overcome the muddy, ugly substance of its story.

Actually, there is one things I can absolutely applaud in terms of what Blackhat tries to be: it is constantly tense. It deals with some great ideas that, because it hits so close to the real world and tries to be as grounded as possible (until our hacker somehow because a trained killer) that when it hits themes of information manipulation you have a sudden thought to change all your online passwords. Then you realize that if someone really wants that info, they’re probably going to get it because it’s really not that hard. Behind all the technology, it comes down to people doing bad things. Computers become the weapon and though Blackhat tries to make it all work, it never comes together in the slightest.

But hey…it looks pretty.

The Bad: Looks great, less filling. Michael Mann’s movies have always been methodical in how they tell their stories, but in the case of Blackhat it takes that methodology and manages to make it dull. For whatever reason, the sense of risk and stakes feels absent in this movie. I suppose when a good chunk of your screen time consists of a lot of typing and people on phones and computer screens left and right, it’s only natural that you start rolling your eyes at it after a while.

However, there’s a larger issue because even a dull story can have characters, right? You know, people you can route for, understand, relate to…and again Blackhat fails completely. Hemsworth, who isn’t particularly good in the role to begin with, has one strange character here. I can’t quite explain it, but the character is someone that you can’t quite figure out. He’s really smart, knows computers, but is also a trained fighter and can turn into Jason Bourne at the drop of a (black)hat. The film seems to have no idea what the hell to do with him, not properly establishing him or explaining him in any way, and we’re left curiously distant from a character that’s in every single scene.

Blackhat feels like a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s about hacking and being a thriller, but also goes down the road of action and guns and hand-to-hand fighting that feels so out of place. Its plot is thin yet convoluted somehow and its characters even thinner with no way to really care what happens to them because the film spends forever with its story that essentially boils down to “a hacker is doing some bad stuff and needs to be stopped.” It’s like putting in an address in google maps that’s just down the street yet the directions take you to the other side of town first to get there.

The Ugly: Two hours long yet it feels like three, Blackhat also wastes good action scenes in a film where we can’t really appreciate them.

Final Rating:  2 out of 5


Blade Runner

Los Angeles, 2019: Rick Deckard of the LAPD's Blade Runner unit prowls the steel & micro-chip jungle of the 21st century for assumed humanoids known as 'replicants'. Replicants were declared illegal after a bloody mutiny on an Off-World Colony, and are to be terminated upon detection. Man's obsession with creating a being equal to himself has back-fired.

The Good: The one word so often tossed around when someone describes blade runner is "Visionary." Not merely technical or artistically, but in terms of story, plot, design, it’s ability to create a world that doesn’t exist better than a lot of movies to this day. It’s an allegory, and poetic presentation of life and death and the questioning of man’s own soul and existence. Blade Runner is has a classic sense of crime noir mixed with intelligent (and fairly realistic) science fiction (as films based of of Phillip K. Dick so often is) that is still emulated to this day. Blade Runner combined these two elements, which just so happen to be two of my favorite genres when done correctly. Ridley Scott does both well, and both in the same film, and something like that simply doesn’t come along often. Ford is fantastic in this role, much more subtle and low key than a lot of his other characters at the time. So iconic is his performance that I would say it’s every bit as fantastic as his Solo and Jones, and shows the man can add a subtext of drama and insecurity to his performances that maybe gets lost in his various action roles. Of course, he is upstaged by one Rutger Hauer, and with him all I really do is leave you with his final lines (from a wonderful script) and I’ll leave this review at that: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.... Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.... All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.

The Bad: Perhaps a product of its time, the action and fighting in Blade Runner is unfortunately clumsy if not laughable. Luckily, it's all pretty minimal (it isn't an action movie) and really only distracting in one or two scenes. Blade Runner probably moves a little slower than it needs to for its cause, but no more than Scott’s Alien or Legend.

The Ugly: It’s amazing that some of the greatest films of all time actually weren’t successful when they were first released. I wouldn’t put Blade Runner with Citizen Kane in that regard but...no wait, yes I would.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Blazing Saddles

The Ultimate Western Spoof. A town where everyone seems to be named Johnson is in the way of the railroad. In order to grab their land, Hedley Lemar, a politically connected nasty person, sends in his henchmen to make the town unlivable. After the sheriff is killed, the town demands a new sheriff from the Governor. Hedley convinces him to send the town the first Black sheriff in the west. Bart is a sophisticated urbanite who will have some difficulty winning over the townspeople.

The Good: A movie like Blazing Saddles would never get made today. It’s too insulting, too racist, too politically incorrect…and damn is it good. It’s intelligent on top of it all, somehow finding a perfect way to shock us, be intelligent and not insult us yet still be a parody and satire. Blazing Saddles is one of those films that is immensely rewatchable, quotable, memorable and just loved by just about everyone. Why? Simply put, it is film making fun of films. It throws everything at us without thinking twice. It mocks and criticizes racism and prejudices, stereotypes and bigotry but being racist and full of stereotypes itself. It’s lewd and raunchy and shows the ridiculous nature of being stupid and prejudice. It’s so shocking, the story is in there somewhere, but it’s more a critique than anything; a hodgepodge of…well, everything. The characters and their lines are legendary and many would consider this Mel Brooks best films. I don’t know if it’s his best, but it’s his most wild and memorable, that’s for certain.

The Bad: For about 90% of the film, it’s rather straight-forward  and funny…then it goes wild. It becomes a montage of jokes, gags, styles, parodies. It’s not a polished piece of filmmaking, it’s like Brooks reached into a bag, pulled something out and said “here, do this.” Then he does that for at least a dozen or so times. It never feels together and is merely a series of scenes that sort of work together. The randomness makes for hilarity, and is why most people love it including myself, but it also makes you wonder if Brooks put forth the effort to be more cohesive what he would have come up with….I suppose that would have been Young Frankenstein which came out the exact same year. Looks like we got the best of both worlds from him in 1974.

The Ugly: Will there ever be someone with as big of balls as Mel Brooks to do a movie like this? Well…yes, actually. Many consider Sacha Baron Cohen as a spiritual successor in the way he handles similar material on his old television show and films A different approach, as he plays various characters, but the same shocking results that maybe will remind people of Brooks genius again. Unfortunately, as I noted, today’s society is so uptight and politically correct that more people take issues and burn effigies than just enjoy a good laugh.

Final Rating:
4.5 out of 5


The Blind Side

"The Blind Side" depicts the story of Michael Oher, a homeless African-American youngster from a broken home, taken in by the Touhys, a well-to-do white family who help him fulfill his potential. At the same time, Oher's presence in the Touhys' lives leads them to some insightful self-discoveries of their own. Living in his new environment, the teen faces a completely different set of challenges to overcome. As a football player and student, Oher works hard and, with the help of his coaches and adopted family, becomes an All-American offensive left tackle.

The Good: While it's been marketed as a "Sandra Bullock" film, the truth is The Blind Side is Quinton Aaron's film. He is the lead, the star, the man with the best performance in the film and the entire drive of the story. Bullock might be there to kick it in the pant a few times, but her presence wears thin. It's a good story, and told well at that, but if it weren't for Aaron's portrayal of Michael Oher, it wouldn't have worked and if there's any actor that should have received more credit for the film, it's him. As it is, he's billed in the third position which is odd considering it's his story.

The Bad: For what it wants to do, The Blind Side works. It's a great story, no doubt. That being said, it's also completely by the book in terms of stories like these if not entirely on the nose at any given melodramatic moment. And believe me...there are plenty of melodramatic moments so heavy handed that John Lee Hancock must have written the script with the cast iron glove on his right hand and directed it with the steel one on his left. It's a film that likes to remind you how emotional and powerful it is supposed to be. Nothing feels really powerful if it all feels like just a set up to show how powerful and emotive it is.  While Bullock's performance is good, it's not a huge departure for her abilities and, truthfully, the performance by newcomer Quinton Aaron is not only more believable, it asks more of the young man and ends up overshadowing whatever Bullock tries to dish out with her down-home southern shtick.

The Ugly: So full of cliche is the Blind Side that it surprises me this wasn't a made-for-tv movie. It's as vanilla of a biopic as you can get. Cliche is fine if used correctly. It isn't here.

Final Rating:  2.5 out of 5


The Bling Ring

Inspired by actual events, a group of fame-obsessed teenagers use the internet to track celebrities' whereabouts in order to rob their homes.

The Good: I know it might be easy to write that there’s little to no depth in The Bling Ring, but I had to sit back and realize something as I watched it: it’s a movie about shallow, delusional people who want nothing more than to be famous. That’s the means and the end for them as movie subjects because that’s the end and the means of them in reality. Asking for more “insight” is pretty much impossible when these people only care about magazine covers, tabloids and fashion and how social media allows people to be “hangers on” with ease.

That’s their dream. That’s their goal in life. Blame their ignorance or advertising or the celebrity-obsessed culture, but there is no depth in them beyond that and you can’t dig for gold when all these people have is top soil for ugly societal weeds.

What is has to say, though, makes up for that. There’s a “lifestyle” that’s put out there that 99% of people can never achieve, yet here are these famous celebrities, often born in to it, that are the same generation yet have excess of everything. They live in a world of free dresses and shoes, cameras around them constantly and tabloids claiming “look how amazing these people are!”

To these kids, all rich kids, mind you, they wanted that. Not the material, but the sense of identity by associating, even if it meant theft or sleeping in their beds, with fame. In a way, it’s the tale of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" in real life: try to find that right bowl of porridge or that perfect bed that was “just right” and pretend it’s yours. For a moment, even if it’s not real, you might actually feel a part of it all and find happiness.

The Bad: Awful people doing awful things. Yes, they’re all shallow, and the film isn’t trying to make you feel sympathetic, and that’s why it falls short. At the end of the day, we just don’t care about these kids and don’t like them and their superficial ways. While we can understand them, we all were teens trying to find direction at one point, good lord are they unlikeable. The way they speak to each other, to their parents, to people at a party, all the enablers that leech off of them and vice-versa, it’s a culture of spoiled rich kids that you can’t help but loathe and wish nothing but the worst for.

Sure, you might say “wow, their parents are idiots,” especially in Emma Watson’s case, but then you’re reminded they’re saying about one thing, then doing the exact opposite. That’s not merely delusion, that’s just being an asshole. They achieved their 15 minutes of fame by being awful people, which explains why reality television is so popular, doesn’t it?

The Ugly: I can’t quite tell if Emma’s accent is…well I’m not sure what it is. It kind of sounds like “soiled white California kid” but also sounds Romanian...

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Blood Simple

Abby is cheating on her saloonkeeper husband, Marty. The object of her affections is Ray, one of Marty's bartenders. Marty hires Visser, an unscrupulous detective, to kill them. But Visser has other, more lucrative plans of his own. So begins a calculating round of double and triple crosses that build to a bloodcurdling, surprise-filled climax.

The Good: A tight script and restrained, smart directing is what the Coen Brothers are known for and showcased in their very first film. Unlike a lot of debut films from filmmakers, Blood Simple is surprisingly well-crafted, acted and an overall solid, if not timid at times, thriller. It loves to weave its story in and around its characters, something the Coens eventually come to master by their third film, and everything feels so utterly deliberate yet utterly nonchalant at the same time. It’s darkly humorous and the Coens, as they will continue to do for the next few decades, really get the best out of their actors (M. Emmet Walsh and Francis McDormand being highlights here). It’s a type of thriller that gets to the real nitty-gritty of life’s minutia, because sometimes the smallest things can be what brings you down. This film, to me at least, always felt like a classic Shakespearian tale. All the elements are there, that’s for sure, and maybe Bill S. would have been proud.

The Bad: Oh, but that minutia can be a fickle one, demanding our undivided attention through a slow pace which can come across as a chore more than an indulgence (intellectually or not). Blood Simple is a smart film and well crafted, but also full of self-serving snobbery that film brats are often known for despite their own addition of whimsy to it all. All that isn’t particularly exciting, as though they are simple observations with little relevance, and it revels in that fact rather than really bring it to have an impact on an audience. Perhaps the Coens were just not there yet, their next two films hitting those marks with easy and joy. Then again, in their notes on the recut, the Coens write that “a pace that was once glacial is now merely slow and scenes that were once inept are now merely awkward.” Well, at least they’re good sports about it, and at least the film isn’t bad because of it.

The Ugly: Who would have thought that we owe the emergence of Joel and Ethan Coen to the likes of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Blow Out

A soundman accidentally records the evidence that proves a car "accident" was murder, and consequently finds himself in danger. 

The Good: By the time Brian De Palma's Blow Out was released, the director himself was already one of the most celebrated thriller directors out there as well as a fondness for the horror genre in films such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill, the sci-fi oddity The Furty and, of course, Carrie. All were small films yet celebrated. Blow Out was also a small film, but it solidified one major thing: De Palma just knew how to tell a suspense story on a level few can lay claim to. While his career has had its ups and downs, his ups are impeccably "up."

What defines a good thriller? It's not so much a script or acting as much as it is understanding pace and how to construct a scene. The movement of the camera, what you see and don't see in the frame, the angle and set and lighting, the timing and the understanding and trust of actors to see your way of presenting every second. In fact, thrillers are far more concerned with "presentation" than just about any genre. Hitchcock once said that "If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on."

Blow Out is that in every since of the word, the ironic point being it's a film entirely about sound and audio. It's one of the finest constructed thrillers of its era and dabbles in numerous angles from conspiracy to serial murders to the determination of one man to uncover and reveal the truth...all of which just gets so out of hand the film just continues to boil and boil over. The conspiracy runs deep, the murders get out of control and the man, played by John Travolta in really one of his finest performances, turns more obsessive. De Palma's camerwork has never been finer as ever scene feels like a moving piece of art with a purpose, character actors abound make even the smallest roles memorable (Notably John Lithgow, doing what John Lithgow does best) and though the stroy can wain at times, it is consistantly moving and chugging forward where it's nearly impossible to tear yourself away from it. Plus, at it's heart, it's a movie about making movies (or at least the process and technical nature of them). So film nerds I'm sure will get something more out of it than others as well.

The Bad: This is going to sound bad, but the downside to Blow Out can be summarized in two words: Nancy Allen.

Simply put, Allen is awful. Ok, not "awful" because she is playing the role convincingly, but the character and her performance can really grate on you. She's less a part of this story and more a distraction. Her dialogue is pointless and her performance an annoyance with her only reason of being in the film to expand Jack (John Travolta) than it is to be some standalone counterweight to him and even barely a love interest. Like Jack, we are intrigued by her because she's different, but that doesn't make us feel drawn to her the way he is. She's there to reveal something about Jack and nothing else, and only until the end do you realize what that is.

As a plot device, I can see why she has to be there. As a character, surely there could have been a different "take" and perhaps a better actress put into the role. The shrill, ditzy voice combined with the overall lack of sincerity doesn't put any weight into her character, even when situations get tense. We can see it in Travolta, that sincerity that things could go wrong and that they're in over their heads, but Allen plays Sally like a complete idiot - completely clueless on anything and everything going on around her even when it's right in front of her. It's frustrating because so much of this film is impeccable and the character could have been a hell of a lot stronger on paper. Perhaps in a lesser movie, she would fit more in. Everything is so top-notch and raw here that her accent, light approach and aloof demeanor simply feels out of place in a rather dark and gritty film.

Now I could go on regarding out the themes of the film needed her to be light. But annoying? I don't think so. That's just a misfire.

The Ugly: I don't know if I've ever seen a film with such a dark ending. It's shocking, but not the way you think it is. It's not some "twist" or anything like that, but a subtle hint of dark in one man.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Blue Jasmine

A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister. She looks a million, but isn't bringing money, peace, or love...

The Good: There's so much that Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine, wants to say that it's hard to keep in such a short review. From bad marriages and relationships to class warfare (in a sense) to the position of a woman in society to depression and anxiety to delusion and nostalgia and painting a false image of yourself all for the sake of appearing "normal." In lesser hands, all that (and more) might be too much for one film, but Allen offers up one of his best films, best screenplays and best cast of actors to portray it all.

Cate Blanchett gives one of the finest performances of her career, but mainly because she has so much she can work with and approach in so many different ways. Allen's portrait of this woman, who you want to pity yet is so abrasive you have a hard time doing so, shows an emotional wreck and Blanchett thrives in the role - playing with your expectations, your assumptions and your emotions along the way. Her brilliance is unparalleled as this character feels less "written" and more "lived in."

She's surrounded by yet another spectacular Allen ensemble of actors, Sally Hawkins damn near unrecognizable as she becomes lost in her role and Andrew Dice Clay as her ex-husband who exudes a man who's still waiting for that break in life. Blue Jasmine is about broken things and trying to pick them back up, but it's also about bad judgements, decisions and not accepting reality as well. Blanchett's final moments in the film relate that better than any film I can think of: how delusion and fantasy can make someone damn near psychotic when it all comes crumbling down.

Blue Jasmine is best viewed as a film that's "in the moment." Despite the numerous flashbacks, the truth is we know little about Jasmine other than the now and recent past, not to mention the pieces she fills in along the way, but we really don't know much outside of that. I almost have to say it's an oversight, because her sister's life and personality is such a 180 to what Jasmine is, I can't help but wonder what happened along the way that made them so damn different?

Then I realize that, like the characters in the film itself, she's not going to let us in and explain all that. Most likely she'd just lie and say something else until, finally, she breaks once again.

The Bad: There's certainly a lot of "Allen" in the dialogue, and that's to be expected, but it does draw attention to itself over the course of the film. The movie is best when there's a sense of emotion and ad-libing and at its worst when we have so many different kinds of characters all talking like Woody Allen sporadically throughout it. It causes some inconsistencies in how some of these character seem to otherwise be portrayed, but that doesn't make them any less memorable.

The Ugly: This is not a comedy, despite some funny moments, so shame on the negative reviews I've seen saying "it's not funny." It's not supposed to be. It's a heartbreaking depiction of a woman losing herself.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Blue Ruin

A mysterious outsider's quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.

The Good: Revenge thrillers often only come in two categories: the small, stripped down kind and the larger, bloody play-it-big kind. Usually the latter has some big star or director and the former often comes out of nowhere with, maybe, someone you recognize but usually not. The former is usually darker, less optimistic, less clear on good and evil and usually more realistic.

Enter Blue Ruin, not only one of the best movies of this year, but also one of the best of its genre in a long long time. Patient, beautifully shot and with a star-making turn in its lead.

It is not a fast film. It is not "action entertainment." It's about patience and raw violence that is all centered around the idea of a normal person doing awful things. Our lead, played impeccably by Malcolm Blair, is a good man, yet he feels he has to do some bad things. It's a struggle of his actions versus his sanity versus his own morality that make the film so compelling. It's the web he's caught in. Or, more specifically, the web he created for himself. He knows there's only one way out of it, and it's not with smiles and sit-down talks with the opposition. This is about the consequences of revenge more than revenge itself.

Blue Ruin nods to its backstory, and to the world around our "hero," but it's never taking clear sides and we aren't always given the clear picture or full answers. Such is life: rampages and violence are never clean-cut and understood, and Blue Ruin not only embraces that theme but embodies it as a commentary about cyclical violence as a whole.

The Bad: I, quite honestly, have little  to say in a negative way. It's a film that has a certain set of goals and a certain style and it meets those perfectly. It's one of those movies that stays with you.

But, if only there be one negative, is that our "bad guys" are pretty stock and predictably cliche. They're just outright awful people with no real discussion on them as actual human beings - unlike our lead or even the people our lead meets as they view the scenarios happening. They're gun-nut hillbillies that need to be killed...and that's just too simplistic for an otherwise complicated morality tale.

The Ugly: It's, what...July now in 2014? I may already have my favorite film of the year. Of course, I say that every year and something else comes up, but Blue Ruin just hit all the right notes for me.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Blue Valentine

The film centers on a contemporary married couple, charting their evolution over a span of years by cross-cutting between time periods. 

The Good: Blue Valentine is uncomfortable on many levels. One is that it feels very real thanks to some wonderful performances by the leads, both of whom will be given their share of awards I'm sure, but also real in its depiction of a love-fallen-from-graces. Their chemistry and believability together is astounding and I think will go down as one of the great screen couples (bittersweet as it bay be) in cinema.  It feels spontaneous, natural and sincere. As Blue Valentine parallels their beginnings with their ends, it's utterly heartbreaking and saddening to see how two people once so in love can falter. This is true life, though, and Blue Valentine doesn't shun the notion of honesty. We see them happy and gleefully in love then cut to them falling apart - detached as they scream to each other how there is no love left. It's all used up as is the happiness of it all. Time is a cold-hearted bitch when it comes to those types of things.

Blue Valentine is damn near perfect film. Yet it's not one that one can easily sit through or easily recommend. The directing and cinematography is intimate, going for mostly close ups and long takes and letting the actors' performances flow naturally from within, and it makes little compromise in its tale of love and loss. This is a film that is going to be remembered for years to come.

The Bad: Everything is about escalation, so you need the patience to see and appreciate it all. The patience, though, can be a little tried as much of the film relies on the minutia of life or the tedium of everyday marriage to showcase how love, soon, becomes more a forgotten memory than a living experience. Personally, this is something I loved, but others may find tedious if not redundant.

The Ugly: It's a good thing that Blue Valentine manages to show the couple as they once were and as they are now, cross-cutting their time together is both artistically powerful and, thankfully, helps alleviate the cold nature of what their marriage and love becomes. At the same time, it also compounds that fact as well - to see them as they once were versus what they become, but all we can enjoy are those small, brief happy moments in life, if you think about it.

Maybe it's that brutal honesty that caused the archaic MPAA to give the film an NC-17. It plays it all close to the vest, as they say. It makes no compromises in its anguish and that, I think, scares people.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Blue Velvet

A man returns to his home town after being away and discovers a severed human ear in a field. Not satisfied with the police's pace, he and the police detective's daughter carry out their own investigation. The object of his investigation turns out to be a beautiful and mysterious woman involved with a violent and perversely evil man.

How can I say something bad about a movie where a character screams "I'll fuck anything that moves!"? Well, you can't, really, because Blue Velvet is about as flawless of a film as you can make. Still, there's that underlying David Lynch tone, so it's also not for everyone at the same time. In the right mindset, though, you can come to really appreciate this rather noir-like story set in a Lynchian dream/nightmare world full of odd characters, odd events and severed ears.

Dennis Hopper is our primary character here. Sure there's Kyle Maclachlan who's technically our "main character" (in similar to Jack Nancy in Eraserhead, coming off as an observer) but Hopper is synonymous with this film because he brings to the screen one of the craziest, most insane and simply fucked up people to life in his portrayal of Frank Booth: a man who loves to fuck and also loves blue velvet...and cursing...and inhalants...and fighting and guns..you get the idea. As much the film is about Jeffrey (Maclachlan) falling deeper into this strange world and lifestyle, it is about Frank and how he is so far gone and depraved there's no going back.

I can't really decide if Blue Velvet is entirely accessible for people. It's got a pretty coherent story for Lynch, but still has that rather weird style and pace to it all that turns people off of Lynch in the first place. For me, I think it's a perfect balance and easily his best film. If you like it, then explore more of the Lynch universe, if not, then his films aren't something that you'll enjoy. It's not so much a matter of taste, it's an understanding that Lynch is so different and odd that some people enjoy his work, others don't (a similar approach to Peter Greenaway, Luis Bunuel or Stan Brakhage - the movies aren't bad, but not a good fit for some moviegoers). Blue Velvet is one I think most enjoy, Lynch fans or otherwise.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


The Blues Brothers

After the release of Jake Blues from prison, he and brother Elwood go to visit the old home where they were raised by nuns. They learn the church stopped its support and will sell the place to the education authority, and the only way to keep the place open is if the $5000 tax on the property is paid within 11 days. The brothers want to help and decide to put their blues band back together and raise the the money by staging a big gig. As they set off on their "mission from god" they seem to make more enemies along the way. Will they manage to come up with the money in time?

The Good: A cavalcade of plot, characters, slapstick, screwball comedy that plans its antics precisely when they need to be revealed. It’s chaotic at times, but in that chaos we find our ground with Jake and Elwood, two rather idiotic but incredibly endearing characters that help us through it all. We may only see a few days out of their lives, but they show us deadpan expressions as though this type of stuff just happens to them all the time. Full of music and energy, the film makes sure you have a good time even if some of those times are a little disorganized.

The Bad: Chaos is hard to control, and it shows. The story gradually becomes more and more over-the-top as it progresses and more nutty characters introduced that are on Jake and Elwood’s trail. It’s almost like a fable, but not a particularly reasonable one, and while the trip is fun, it just gets a little too crazy and hectic as it goes on and we lose sight of what we really love about the film to begin with and what drew us in the first place: Jake and Elwood. Their journey turns into a series of chases, car wrecks and the gradual escalation of people chasing them. A large concert/assembly is already a movie cliché for an ending, but it also throws in a final chase which is even more of a cliché…it plays it more safe when it seemed it would be anything but.

The Ugly: The music is the film centerpiece, from beginning to end, and it’s going to get stuck in your head. I guarantee it….they’re on a mission from God.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Book of Eli

A post-apocalyptic tale, in which a lone man fights his way across America in order to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind.

The Good: Fans of classic westerns, the Mad Max films and samurai flicks will thoroughly enjoy this movie. It just so happens I’m a fan of classic westerns, the Mad Max films and samurai flicks (especially cheesy samurai flicks). The Book of Eli shapes all of these into something that’s very entertaining, thought-provoking and, although rough around the edges, a story that’s very well told. Visuals and sound carry the weight of the film, this nobody can deny. It looks slick, the action efficient and moving and the use of sound and music masterful. The characters are brought out well, although there’s little meat to them, and the journey itself feels long, arduous and difficult as we partake in the journey down absolute desolation to the final destination.

The Bad: I’m not sure why the Hughes Brothers decided to be so incredibly heavy-handed with this post-apocalyptic allegorical, religious preaching, but if certainly hinders the film. The reason is because it’s so damned focused on doing that rather than trying to focus more on the characters and plot itself. While Oldman and Washington do their best, with a little hamming it up certainly, there’s simply not much there for them to work with and their characters end up as one-dimensional and shallow puddles of potentially better characters (characters we’ve seen in post-apocalyptic movies before I might add, so why they struggle here I‘m not sure). The ending is sloppy, it arguably should have ended ten minutes sooner, and undermines the reveal that the entire thematic principle was based on. Considering that it was that element the directors were so focused on, you’d think they would have presented it a little better. It’s a solid film, but a very rough one that turns shamefully sloppy.

The Ugly:
There’s a certain twist that I’ve noticed has people a bit up in arms. Thematically, it fits. At its heart, this is a post-apocalyptic piece of mythology. I’d argue that not everything is meant to be literal, in the same way the Iliad or (dare I say it?) the Bible isn’t meant o be literal. At the same time, the film tries damn hard to be realistic, in tone, feeling etc… While I think it’s a great approach in terms of myth, I think it wasn’t quite handled as smartly as the film likes to think it handles it. I’m not to spoil it here, though.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Book of Life

Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastic worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

The Good: Rooted in Mexican folklore, this is a charming fairy tale of an animated film that is really unlike any other animated film you’ve seen. It’s familiar in one way, it’s story, but its atmosphere, sense of style, energy and characterizations are unique - making it less just a story about a love triangle and a journey to the land of the dead, but a celebration of Mexican culture as a whole. It has a great cast of voices and incredibly memorable characters to handle the rather messy story well enough.

It’s an impressive debut feature from director Jorge R. Gutierrez. It has signs of it being someone’s first animated movie, sure - lots of safe things like music and story for example - but it also has a unique sense of place and energy and world building that go beyond any of that safe stuff. Instead of getting lost int he shuffle, The Book of Life gets to stand out thanks to his approach to animation and the uniqueness of celebrating his own culture.

Animation allows for diversity and insight into a lot of different places from around the world, all usually held together by the universal nature of the medium and story. The past few years have shown us a lot out of Europe and the UK as well as Asian countries, but this is one that is so distinctly Mexican that it’s hard not to appreciate it and the culture when watching it. It’s both there for its own cultural significance while opening the door for a gringo like myself to walk into and enjoy it at the same time.

The Bad: The Book of Life gets by beautifully on a great art style and tremendous energy. The story, though, is where it stumbles. As fun as it is to go into Mexican folklore, The Book of Life doesn’t do the best of job in presenting it narratively. Things “simply just happen” as we fall down a rabbit hole with a rush of pacing and not nearly enough personal character moments where, in this story, it would have gone a long way. It’s a simple fairy tale that tries its hardest to not be simple, and that’s where it fails.

The passion is certainly there, but jumping from point to point, having character deaths with little to no emotional impact or context and introducing new elements and characters on a whim, never allows The Book of Life to get settled. It has its strengths, but boy does it have its weaknesses as well, making for an uneven film that seems to want to have an emotional resonance but is too busy moving on to the next thing to make it last. Throw in the occasionally out-of-place crude humor gag or pun, and The Book of Life ends up a well intended but messy animated feature.

The Ugly: The song covers are simultaneously solid covers, but also out of place given they’re contemporary songs. An original soundtrack would have been wonderful here. A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” just doesn’t sit right and is completely out of place given the scene it appears in.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Bourne Identity

Based very loosely on Robert Ludlum's novel, the Bourne Identity is the story of a man whose wounded body is discovered by fishermen who nurse him back to health. He can remember nothing and begins to try to rebuild his memory based on clues such as the Swiss bank account, the number of which, is implanted in his hip. He soon realizes that he is being hunted and takes off with Marie on a search to find out who he is and why he is being hunted.

The Good: The Bourne Identity has the benefit, first and foremost, of being an origin story (of sorts). Any writer will tell you, an origin story, in other words the first act of a story, is one of the best parts to write and often tends to be the most interesting. It’s story may not be as full of twists or as complex as its sequels, but how it introduces us to this world and its characters is well polished and it’s easily the best paced out of the trilogy. It’s always tense, observing and thanks to a solid cast manages to deliver fantastic characters – especially a villainous performance by Chris Cooper and an overlooked performance by Clive Owen. Damon is superb, as he always is, really, and his boyish looks juxtaposed against his raw action scenes and cold gaze is a great mix. The action scenes themselves are also well handled and as cold and calculated as Bourne himself. What’s really notable, though, is that is approaches everything without being gimmicky. This is an old fashioned action movie if there ever was one; would have fit right in to the early 90s action genre. Great stunts, solid action/fight scenes and one hell of a car chase with no tricks to top it all off. This film and the sequels create the Bourne Trilogy as some of the best action movies in the new 2000s.

The Bad: The Bourne Identity tells its story incredibly well. Hell, better than its sequels even. But unlike its sequels it doesn’t quite get rid of the cliches that it desperately wants to avoid. There are moments of brilliance and uniqueness in story, tone and set pieces, then you have some elements that are tired and worn because they’ve been done too many times before. You can see things happening an mile away, predict how it will play out and realize you were right when it finally ends.

The Ugly: I know this one is still considered the "generic" Bourne movie. It's very vanilla outside of some nice action sequences. Yet, I find its handling of its story far better, not to mention a solid, comprehensive tale that is woven. Sometimes, what someone might call "generic" or "simplistic" can also be viewed as "well conceived" and "coherent."

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Bourne Legacy

An expansion of the universe from Robert Ludlum's novels, centered on a new hero whose stakes have been triggered by the events of the previous three films.

The Good: Jeremy Renner sells it well, and he's a great lead for an action film, but he can't carry this sloppy, bland and uninspired movie. He's a star looking for a better vehicle; like going to a Mercedes lot with dreams and hopes of driving the latest model but realizing they somehow gave you a used 1994 Hyundai Elantra. This movie isn't bad because of any of the stars, it's pretty obvious where it fails miserably.

The Bad: Where to begin? Other than a fantastic final chase sequence, there is absolutely nothing going on in this film except a guy trying to get off his med addiction. Seriously, that's the entire plot, and then people try to kill him along the way. No big "taking down the bad guy" story or "revenge" or anything of that nature. Aaron Cross wants to kick the habit, he and Marta (Weisz) run away from people. Then it's over. I really have no idea who he really is, how or why any of this is important or why I should care, I have absolutely no clue who Ed Norton is supposed to be and the constant references to Jason Bourne just makes me realize how much lesser of a movie this is.

But we don't need to compare to the previous Bourne movies to showcase that, because it all is readily apparent very quickly: the story has nothing going on, the characters are completely uninteresting and as far as action, we're given little and certainly even less that is inventive or memorable in any way. It comes down to this: this film lacks passion and shows a franchise desperate to hold on to its established name. There was potential, but it squanders it every step of the way, from a convoluted and badly told script, to one-dimensional characters that go nowhere and that you probably have no idea who or what they're doing to only one inspired action scene that only slightly makes up for sitting through the film to get through. A bland, bore of a film that should never have been bothered with.

The worst part is seeing Tony Gilroy just overwrite and under direct the entire movie. He wrote the previous three Bourne films (along with State of Play and Michael Clayton, two excellent films) but maybe having him write and direct this makes you realize that he's a guy who probably had good intentions to carry on with something he loves, but just can't handle an action film of this nature. It's overwrought and self-indulgent, and this is a movie that really just wastes everybody's time when it can barely muster an action set piece worth its weight.

The Ugly: You won't realize how good the previous three Bourne films are until you see someone try to do the same thing and fail miserably at it. All this movie will make you want to do is to watch the previous ones.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Bourne Supremacy

After escaping from the emotional and physical pain he previously encountered. Jason Bourne and his girlfriend Marie begin a new life as far away as possible. But when an assassination attempt on Bourne goes horribly wrong, Bourne must re-enter the life he wanted to leave behind, in order to find out the truth why they are still after him.

The Good:  Paul Greengrass absolutely exploded on to the scene with The Bourne Supremacy. His intimate camera work and rather direct take on action sequences, while not quite perfected here, are tense, visceral and have you on edge from beginning to end. His previous films were solid, but they never really showcased that he could actually handle an action movie. While Supremacy was still a bit of sophomoric effort, it still was compelling. A lot of that also has to do with Jason Bourne himself who is just a great character and film hero. Matt Damon utterly own the role. Supremacy has both the benefit and problem of following up a successful first film with a more complicated story. While it doesn't quite compel you narratively, it still ushers in intrigue and, let's face it, conspiracies and secret agencies are always intriguing - the Bourne trilogy better than move.

The Bad: Overwritten and under-performed. There’s a almost candid sense of detachment to much of what is happening, as though we’re simply watching rather than feeling stimulated or involved, much less sympathetic to Bourne who comes across as merely a facade than an actual motivated human being. Much of the story is a retread of the first film, though the action sequences are every bit up to snuff, the convoluted plot and sloppy storytelling has you more scratching your head than feeling involved, much less feel tension or sympathy to whatever is happening - it not only feels like a sequel forced into existence, but feels like a set up to the eventual third film on top of it (a true, middle child indeed). There’s no human condition to be explored or even characters that feel human to have a condition to begin with. Even powerful scenes are done with a unwavering calculation than any sense of emotion or weight. It’s so focused on revving up its spectacular action sequences that it tends to forget its soul in the process.

The Ugly: I love Brian Cox, but he almost feels completely wasted here. I have to say, I'm not entirely sure who he is, what his motivations are or why he comes across as rather meaningless by the end.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Bourne Ultimatum

Bourne is once again brought out of hiding, this time inadvertently by London-based reporter Simon Ross who is trying to unveil Operation Blackbriar--an upgrade to Project Treadstone--in a series of newspaper columns. Bourne sets up a meeting with Ross and realizes instantly they're being scanned. Information from the reporter stirs a new set of memories, and Bourne must finally, ultimately, uncover his dark past whilst dodging The Company's best efforts in trying to eradicate him.

The Good: The things that the Bourne Supremacy maybe didn’t fully click on were perfectly rectified in this final installment. The visceral, raw feel of the action is not only still present but better shot, with better stunts and a far better performance by Damon who makes Bourne understanding and sympathetic to give us his human side of a cold killer once more. Greengrass’s style is a little more toned back and allows his action scenes to develop far better and steadies himself for moments of drama and emotion more effectively. Everything about this finale overflows with confidence from everyone involved, making for one of the best action movies in the past decade. It’s a constant, tense and utterly exhilarating film that doesn’t forget to be thoughtful and intelligent (without being confusing) in the process.

The Bad: The film tells its story far better than the previous one, but there’s no denying that much of it is treading water – as though it’s a “make good” of the rather murky waters the Bourne Supremacy waded in. Either it’s underwritten or it just doesn’t quite present its story particularly well enough to be memorable away from the other Bourne films. It has enough going for it in terms of action, but much of the set ups are repeated from scenes in the previous films and doesn't quite offer anything "new" as much as it offers it all more polished. Still, though, they are done better here even if we had similarities before.

The Ugly: I love the way Greengrass shoots New York. I just wish we could have had more of the film take place there, utilize it and make the city a character itself. There’s a lot of potential there.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Boxtrolls

A young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator. Based on the children's novel 'Here Be Monsters' by Alan Snow.

The Good: There is no denying the technical achievement of The Boxtrolls. Like their previous efforts in Caroline and ParaNorman, Laika sets the bar incredibly high in art design and stop-motion animation quality that is nearly indistinguishable from a 3D animated film rendered on a computer. There’s something very natural and unique to stop-motion - I think it has to do with the tangibility of it all: the gritty, down-to-earth, less-polished nature of its sets and characters. Even if it’s as smooth and gorgeous as your latest from Disney, the organic “feel” of it comes across on screen.

For The Boxtrolls, it’s almost necessary. A computer animated version of this would feel too slick. Too easy. The animation itself is a character, and the complexity of the shots would make even a computer animator earn their day’s pay. It feels lived in. Unique. And for a movie about a small town’s history with strange little creatures, it adds a new dimension.

Great voice acting and a very dry, British-wit to the world building and dialogue allows The Boxtrolls to transport you to a unique world that is like a steampunk version of a Dickensian novel, though it only lacks the quality of a Dickensian tale.

The Bad: Let’s take a moment and set the visuals aside for a moment. Just put it up in a little bubble in your mind, as it really has nothing to do with this section. It’s the best thing in the movie by far and well worth seeing just because of them.

The story, however, is not. Poorly paced, uninteresting, rarely funny or even all that clever, emotionally flat…while The Boxtrolls certainly is Laika’s most gorgeous visually, it’s the worst story they’ve told and it really begins with there being characters that are very difficult to relate to. You’ll care about them, sure, but we really don’t know a whole lot about anything happening and the film is too interested in trying to have that tone of “whimsy” rather than have interesting (and I would say likable) characters at all.

This is most notable in its final act where, as they should, things get more serious. But it also needs an emotional connection to make it work and it never really bothers to establish one. You don’t feel sad, or angry, or even all that happy. The seemingly aimless approach to the story, jumping here and there and never really letting characters settle in and find that connection, creates a climatic letdown. It just runs over it, tries to play it big to make up for its lack of emotional core, but it never really finds what it is desperately trying to: a heart.

The Ugly: The marketing of this one put out various posters of the Boxtrolls with their names. I think you might remember two (Shoe and certainly Fish) but none of the others are that prominent…making all their designs feel pointless as the movie doesn’t make their uniqueness a part of the story.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Boy Next Door

A recently cheated on married woman falls for a younger man who has moved in next door, but their torrid affair soon takes a dangerous turn.

The Good: Ummmm….Jennifer Lopez looks great. It’s all kinda sexy and stuff.

The Bad: Look, I’m all for trash. Even trash can be well-done. But The Boy Next Door is the kind of trash that takes itself so seriously and is so overly melodramatic that it never reaches its full potential. It’s something that, had it seen itself all the way through and maybe go for that Hard-R rating that is just grazes, might be one of those classic little trashy thrillers that you at least remember (see Basic Instinct, Wild Things, Body of Evidence or Sliver, ah…the 90s were just full of those types of movies weren’t they?)

The Boy Next Door is the sanitized, distilled version of those trashy 90s thrillers you might have caught in edited form on late-night cable TV. But comparative reviewing only takes this so far. Hell, I don’t even like it because I think it’s unfair to whatever movie you’re looking at - just because something is similar in style or tone and maybe that something does it better isn’t a way to really approach a movie. Even a trashy one.

So where does The Boy Next Door really fail? None of the characters are likable in the slightest. I can forgive the stilted dialogue and faux-sense-of-urgency the movie presents, but I don’t even like Jennifer Lopez in this thing. Her estranged husband. Her son. The Boy Next Door himself. I had to spend an hour and a half with a bunch of people I didn’t like and didn’t care what happens to.

I came to this revelation when, a little over mid-way into the thing, Lopez goes to her classroom to find a line of students waiting. She’s late. Had to think of that hot boy next door that’s screwing with her life the night before. So she unlocks, peeks in and sees there’s photos all over the place of her and said boy in a steamy embrace. “Oh shit” she thinks and tells her students to wait as she rushes in, locks the door behind her and scrambles to clean up all the photos.

As she does so, a principal or vice-principal that we haven’t really met yet sees all those students and starts knocking on the door. Lopez scrambles faster. There’s a lot of those steamy pics, afterall. He gets out his keys, she scrambles and scrambles and…

…I didn’t give a shit. I really didn’t. This was a scene that made me realize I simply didn’t care about Lopez’s character. I mean, there’s a lot of risk happening here: she could lose the trust of her son, her husband, get fired for sleeping with a student and many other things but I didn’t care about any of it. Why was that?

Because I don’t know who she is at all, that’s why. I get her in a way: she’s not happy with life and made one mistake and that one mistake haunts her. I think that’s a good way to start a thriller, but we never know who she really is or why we need to care about her. Her life isn’t the best, but it’s not awful either. She has a steady job, a son who loves her and a nice home. She has a shitty husband but who cares? Tell him to screw off with that girl is San Fran again and don’t bother. In other words: Lopez’s character is supposed to be about independence yet she so isn’t. She’s not her own person here and the movie needs a hackney third act to actually have her get off her ass and do something about it but then I sit there and say “did it really have to come to this? I mean…come on.”

The Boy Next Door is the worst kind of trashy cinema because it feels so unwilling to commit to its own ideas. There really might have been a great thriller happening here, but it just feels content in being stiff and contrived throughout.

The Ugly: A B-Movie is only good when it knows its a b-movie. A dull B-movie is even worse than that.

Final Rating: 1 out of 5


Brave

Determined to make her own path in life, Princess Merida defies a custom that brings chaos to her kingdom. Granted one wish, Merida must rely on her bravery and her archery skills to undo a beastly curse.

The Good: The core of Brave is as a straight-up, by-the-books fairy tale, something Pixar really hasn't done in their history. The setup is more akin to classic Disney princess stories, only less about a Prince Charming and more about a Princess showing how good a Princess can be. Women's empowerment meets a deconstruction of the the Princess Fairy Tale cliche all at the same time. Our princess here is Merida, and she's absolutely wonderful.

Merida is one of the best female heroes put to animation - something that's a small group for the most part. She doesn't play second to any prince or king, doesn't have "looking for love" as her motivation and certainly doesn't act proper or nice. She gets in arguments with her mother about how she should act, loves to play with her bow and arrow (which isn't seen nearly enough in the movie) and when the time comes, rises up to overcome the odds entirely on her own. Strong will. Strong heart. Best of all, is she has a hell of a personality while doing it and is the heart and soul of the entire film.

Visually, you know a Pixar movie is going to be there and again they deliver. Brave is thick with atmosphere and a style all its own as we see clans of Scotsmen wage war against each other. Well…more like drink a lot and throw food at each other. The forests feel intimidating, the sense of magic in the air, though underdeveloped at times, rooted in Celtic myth and a sense of dread possible around every corner that isn't lit by the warmth of the fires in the castle.

The Bad: Our heroine deserves a better movie and story than this. Brave is far from the weakest of Pixar's efforts, it still has a wonderful artistic design, a lot of heart and great characters, but our story just never quite gets there. It starts down the road, hits a few bumps early but manages to curtail into the main plot, but once that gets going it just never quite gets much further as it rolls ahead for a few extra yards rather than crossing the finish line.

For most of the film, it just seems aimless. There's never a consistency to it as it stumbles around with a bunch of setups but little delivery on tired tropes. It tries to have a "full circle" theme about generations and how the past repeats itself, but it not once feels satisfying. It also never quite reaches that "fun" element that Pixar is able to do, even in its most mature and emotional films. It's underwhelming yet over-produced. Visually stunning, yet a bit soulless save for our heroine. It feels rushed, often aimless, and in bad need of a central theme that is mishandled every step of the way and goes down routes that feel cheap and lack definition (why a bear? We don't know. Who is the witch? We don't know.  Call her Witch Plot Device, I suppose.).

Brave intimately fails on the forcefulness of it all - as though the writers were saying "I bet we could get some people sad and concerned in this story, let's make sure we tell them how sad and concerned they should be." There's nothing quite organic about it or that ever feels real. It's as fleeting as the will-o'-the-wisps that Miranda chases in the forest, and just as transparent.

The Ugly: There's a sub-plot that could have been so much better done involving princes trying to the win the hand of Merida. It seems like it's going to go somewhere, but is cut short and we never see what could have been an great comedic element for the film, which often takes itself far too seriously. A missed opportunity…though at the same time it would have made it a very different film so it's a catch-22.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Braveheart

In 14th Century Scotland, William Wallace leads his people in a rebellion against the tyranny of the English King, who has given English nobility the 'Prima Nocta'.. a right to take all new brides for the first night. The Scots are none too pleased with the brutal English invaders, but they lack leadership to fight back. Wallace creates a legend of himself, with his courageous defense of his people and attacks on the English.

The Good: If there’s anything that can be universally praised about Breaveheart: it is old-school filmmaking through and through. It’s raw and simple yet somehow has the style of a David Lean epic, amassing “a cast of thousands” (a term used so widely during the height of the “epic” films in the 50s and 60s).  With it comes a beautifully photographed piece, lavish music and memorable war-rallying lines. It’s not a complex film, thankfully, and the story is simple and straightforward enough, rallying itself on basic emotions and plot points that we can take it all in and appreciate its simplistic beauty, even if that means it's going to be soaked in buckets of blood.

The Bad: Self indulgent? Yeah. Historically inaccurate? Definitely. While inaccuracies come with the territory, it’s not as though anyone alive was there to give their input, it does alter things that are pretty widely known in terms of William Wallace and his companions (notably Robert the Bruce who is badly downplayed in terms of his importance yet is revered as a Scottish national hero). It’s the romanticized version of William Wallace, the idolized myth that exists in the mind of Mel Gibson. IN that regard, Braveheart works as it plays off of Gibson’s own ego combined with the Wallace that it placed on a pedestal. Yet, due to the fact it sacrifices the context and the fact its dubbed a historical epic is why it ultimately fails. It’s not historic. It’s period, yes, but not historic…but maybe we put too much stake in our movies to begin with. Despite the mythological status of Wallace, that Gibson whole-heatedly achieves, in the end we still know very little about him. We know what happens to him, that he believes his own form of freedom and conviction is absolute but as a human being, other than his basic emotions that we can somewhat latch on to, if anything the film simplifies him a little too much.

The Ugly: One thing that is polarizing to some is the graphic detail of the battles (gore and blood something that Gibson has become synonymous with). I fall on the side of "I bet it was a lot worse if you were there." I liked that attribute quite a bit. Sometimes you have be unflinching if you're going to try and be realistic, Braveheart is just that.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Brazil

In an Orwellian vision of the future, the populace are completely controlled by the state, but technology remains almost as it was in the 1970's. Sam Lowry is a civil servant who one day spots a mistake in one of the pieces of paperwork passing through his office. The mistake leads to the arrest of an entirely innocent man, and although Lowry attempts to correct the error, it just gets bigger and bigger, sucking him in with it.

The Good: Fantastical and satirical, Brazil is and likely always will be Terry Gilliam's best film. Reason one: it encapsulates British dry humor perfectly thanks to a sharp script and wonderfully witty dialogue. Reason two: it satirizes the world of bureaucratic nonsense and how our lives are seemingly just paperwork and numbers. Reason three: the comedic approach to an Orwellian and Kafkian story is so perfectly suited with Terry Gilliam's sensibilities that you see Brazil and think "this simply was a film that needed to be made."

It's interesting that Brazil, really, isn't at all original (well, outside of its great visual design, which still has homages), but you haven't seen this take on this subject matter. In other words, we haven't quite seen Gilliam's take as he thrusts us into a bizarre world with interweaving stories and fantastical energy. In that respect, Brazil is familiar yet original, and maybe that's why it's such a great blend of elements we can get into easily and Gilliam's sometimes abstract approach to presenting it all. It's a neo-noir, ala Blade Runner, but plays up its fantasy elements - or rather haphazard fantasy elements because everything feels and looks so cheap which goes against our usual belief of a future where things are clean-cut and perfectly working. Yet, that's kind of the charm to it and adds a sense of tangible realism to it all which makes it all feel like an alternate reality. Its lead, Jonathan Pryce, is the one character to help you through it all, believe me you need such a guide, and we dive in and out of his daydreams and fantasies as they help flesh out his perspective of the world...but what are daydreams and fantasies and perspectives exactly? Brazil merges them into reality, and you can't tell what what is entirely real and what is just a part of the mind. Either way, it all looks the same...but that's the point.

Brazil's approach to its commentary on our society is, I think, one of the finest of its kind. It's comedic, but all through that it has this element of poignancy. Are we destined to be nothing but numbers in a system, or, like Sam in the story, do we suddenly figure out there's love and dreams and desires? Nothing new, as I said, it's straight out of Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Trial and Brave New World, but the look, the style and the ride makes Brazil something different entirely.

The Bad: Like a number of Gilliam's films, Brazil simply has no idea how it wants to end. It's full of life and eccentricities, takes us on an adventure with things we've never seen before and memorable characters and artistic design, but then it has no clue how to finalize it. It rises and rises then plateaus.
More significantly, though, is that at the end of the film, you need to ask yourself a question: "What was the story?" That's a little hard to answer, and the many subplots and fast pace doesn't help us try and figure it out. There's not a lot of plot here, more a situation-after-situation tale elongated to a feature length running time and made a whole only by the presence of Pryce as our guide. The story is everywhere and sometimes flat-out nowhere as we spend more time watching a scene and enjoying it than really understanding how everything relates to each other. It's a series of ideas woven together, and most will remember those ideas and scenes on their own rather than the story or even the characters as a whole. It's a hell of a woven piece of fabric to swing on, though.

The Ugly: It's no surprise the studio hated the movie, and changes and arguments ensued. Thankfully, DVD has changed how we watch movies and now you can easily find the definitive version of it no problem. You must watch the Gilliam cut, otherwise you'll end up with something that goes against the entire point of the film. Cynical? Yes. But far more fitting.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Bridesmaids

Picked as her best friend's maid of honor, lovelorn and broke Annie looks to bluff her way through the expensive and bizarre rituals with an oddball group of bridesmaids.

The Good: At its structural core, we've really seen Bridesmaids quite a few times before. It's just that we haven't seen it quite crudely and, to be rather forthright here, non-pander to the female audience with hunky guys and cute "girl stuffs" that often make up your standard female-driven comedy. You know, shopping and shoes and "hilarious" comedy of errors of the boy they have a crush on but, wouldn't you know it, he has one too and then their parents show up and they have to pretend they're married...

Bridesmaids gets it right on two facets: one is having genuine, three-dimensional characters and the other is not treating women like cutesy, silly, shallow stereotypes as most romantic comedies tend to do.

Despite that it is structurally comparable to stories we've seen before, it's all in the execution. This is a rather honest and believable depiction of women, how they honestly act and truly speak.  They talk about things that I know women talk about: sex, fart jokes, porn. Yes, you might call it low-brow humor, but it's better than painting a portrait of perfection and always yearning to go after men that you see in a lot of films aimed at the female demographic. These women are stronger, sweeter and even though men play  part in the story, they aren't the end-all of it. They're believable characters first, silly, fun and comedic next.

It's more raunchy comedy by way of Sixteen Candles rather than Sex in the City. It's about friendship and the occasional bout of diarrhea while shopping for a wedding dress. It's about growing up and saying goodbye juxtaposed with rages of name calling and discussions of male genitals. It's more believable and, honestly, more funny and entertaining and sweeter as a result. What sets Brides Maids apart, outside of great casting and terrific dialogue, is how it's unlike everything else.

The Bad: But, as mentioned, it is structurally founded in something we've seen many times before and there's not a ton of differences once it's all said in done. It's in the execution of it all that makes Bridesmaids a great comedy, but once the final scenes start to play out, you realize you've kind of seen it before and pretty much expected it to end exactly how it ends. With so many great moments and willingness to be different, it didn't end up all that different by the time the credits rolled around in terms of basic plot. Then again, maybe it doesn't need to. Maybe just putting that type of dialogue and those type of characters into a founded structural base is all it really needed in the first place to be a universally appealing comedy.

The Ugly: I haven't laughed at a diarrhea/vomit joke in a long, long while. Hell, maybe since Jeff Daniel's in Dumb and Dumber and that's fifteen years old. There's a scene that, I felt, is up there with some of the best comedies ever, whether it's Blazing Saddles at the camp fire or Bill Murray cleaning the pool in Caddyshack. It shouldn't be, but it is. A bunch of girls just letting loose.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Bridge on the River Kwai

After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.

The Good: It’s difficult to nail down exactly what The Bridge on the River Kwai gets so right. On paper, the story of a bunch of British (and some American) POWs in a Japanese camp building a bridge doesn’t seem that interesting. Then I started thinking...on paper any story about a prison can seem a little uninteresting. So what drives those types of films? Characters. The plot is just a means, not the end, and Kwai is a film that understands that and does the character element just right. A good cast and fantastic script bring that out...

...but a great cast and script can bring it out even further. The Bridge on the River Kwai, in that respect, is one of the finest prison movies, war movies and character studies all at once. It’s thematic elements and chess-like quality of its pieces are tight, absolute and clear, and it’s damn entertaining in the process. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of those films that reminds us why we love film. It’s action. It’s spectacle. It’s deep. It’s meaningful. It’s artistic on every level from the set design to Jack Hildyard’s Oscar winning photography to the musical score by Malcolm Arnold which equally earned an Oscar alongside all the other ones the film garnered at the Academy. It deals not with war itself, but what war can cause to a man. It’s slow, methodical and is, in some cases, a disease that can be injected, forced and hopefully cured before its too late. There’s few guns fired or explosions set and more battles of mind and will not to mention the psychological war within a man, here the man being portrayed by Alec Guinness who is utterly broken but doesn’t feel he is broken. It’s a complex idea executed to perfection.

Kwai is also entirely about perspectives. You know: those messy things that cause war in the first place. Everyone feels they’re right, everyone has a view and opinion, and everyone, eventually, will see it boil over. The intensity of some of the scenes has you often asking the question in the back of your mind on who is morally right, just and correct. Nobody is demonized, not even the Japanese soldiers, but nobody is clearly defined as a hero either. As Guinness follows a buried cable linked to explosives, who do you hope comes out on top when he reaches the source? The poetry of that scene alone gives me goosebumps. Col Nicholson isn’t a bad man, in a way nor is Saito, who becomes quite friendly once Nicholson agrees with him, and certainly not Shears played by William Holden who sees a simple bridge as an abomination. You don’t dislike any of them, yet you don’t exactly like what they do either. So is the way of war: confusing, difficult and certainly tests the limits of man and how he defines himself and what he represents.

The Bad: Maybe the strange shift in tone and acting style can be a little sharp. The American actors seem to carry themselves slightly different than the British. It can even feel a bit like two movies. But I'm not considering that a fault. Just an observation.

The Ugly: “Madness!” - sometimes a delivery can seem really out of place, and anybody if not everybody notes the delivery of this line seems a bit off. It could also be how it feels so sudden. If you’ve seen the film, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Bringing Out the Dead

48 hours in the life of a burnt-out paramedic. Once called Father Frank for his efforts to rescue lives, Frank sees the ghosts of those he failed to save around every turn. He has tried everything he can to get fired, calling in sick, delaying taking calls where he might have to face one more victim he couldn't help, yet cannot quit the job on his own.

The Good: There are flashes of brilliance in this film, from Scorsese's return to gritty style directing and one of Nicholas Cage's better performances. Brilliant dialogue and narration by Cage and an overall tightly written script by Scorsese's old friend and collaborator, Paul Schrader (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Taxi Driver). It's not entirely doom and gloom, there's often some light with humor and sarcasm throw in with the dreary, dark visual imagery. I see it as an honest, naked, sometimes poetic journey of the few days we see Frank struggle through. It can be quite beautiful one minute, then hit you with the harsh reality the next. A personal favorite of mine, but it's not without its problems.

The Bad: Bringing Out the Dead is by-the-book for Scorsese. Although well crafted, it lacks the energy he seemed to have in similar New York stories like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. It's lethargic and slow, attempts to be deep and philosophical, but ultimately ends up just an average story lifted up to better heights by the camerawork and acting. It dawdles with its intentions and even can turn boring after extended watching, luckily it's roughly two hours, which is short compared to many of Scorsese's films, although it arguably could benefit from being a tad shorter.

The Ugly: It's so odd to see films with Tom Sizemore in them these days. He's such a good actor, but his personal life problems makes it hard to see him in a film as anything other than a drug addict and jail bird. In fact, of this writing, he was arrested again just a few days ago. I don't pity him, I pity the talent he's wasting.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Broken City

In a city rife with injustice, ex-cop Billy Taggart seeks redemption and revenge after being double-crossed and then framed by its most powerful figure: Mayor Nicholas Hostetler.

The Good: If I could give someone an A for effort, it would be Allen Hughes. He's trying his best to take a mediocre script, with a bunch of actors pretty much phoning it in (though Wahlberg has a nice moment here and there) and trying to make it work.

It doesn't. Though serviceable at times, Broken City never quite lives up to whatever expectations it tries to make for itself.

The Bad: I think the biggest problem with Broken City is that it keeps "building" towards something, and that something is pretty uneventful. It plays itself up too big for a plot that's pretty tame when it all comes down to it. It stakes its claim on the plot - trying to weave a compelling story full of twists and turns and back-door deals, but it's just not really that type of movie. It's not a "big" twist and reveal, it needs to be a character piece. Broken City needed to run with the notion of a character piece, Billy's reception being the only interesting thing in the film, rather than trying to be a slick political thriller.

There's a serious disconnect of all the characters as well. It's a bit hard to describe, but none of the characters seem fully aware of other characters - as though they're just in their own bubble with their own stories and, once in a while, they'll have a chat with someone in another bubble. It just comes across as line reads, not actually conversation of characters with a personality and, thus, believability.

I suppose this all kind of fits in with the overarching theme of the film: it just kind of settles for being mediocre. Other than Hughes having a solid eye for when to let a dramatic scene breathe and when to handle solid moments of tension, nobody else seems quite as committed. The plot is a haphazard mess of ideas with no central tone, character motivations are trite and dialogue, as mention, is just a stilted mess of lines with no sense of flow, conversation or explanation to the big question: Why is any of this really all that important?

The Ugly: Predictability isn't the issue here. At least not in terms of the movie plot. Most films I figure out quickly and few surprise me anymore with their stories and plot. The issue here is simple writing itself - it's far less clever than it tries to pretend to be, and the fact there are 21 credited producers on this one single film, which shows there were a lot of notes, probably a lot of rewrites and changes and just way too many hands that the script had been through. It's about what I'd expect a first-time screenwriter and over-produced film (we're talking 21 people with producer credits on this thing) to be…and that's predictability that's far more of a concern to me than any movie plot.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Broken Embraces

Harry Caine, a blind writer, reaches this moment in time when he has to heal his wounds from 14 years back. He was then still known by his real name, Mateo Blanco, and directing his last movie.

The Good:  While not as rich and compelling as his other works, Almodovar delivers exquisite visuals, engaging dialogue and characters a story that is beautifully told. The story, on the surface, is about a filmmaker who loses his sight and has his life, love and career stripped from him (much before he lost his sight). However, it's more about regrets, I found. The kind we have purposefully and those we have unintentionally. Almodovar knows how to construct his films to showcase an intimate story, yet at the same time has a courtesy to it in that we don't see every intimate detail. He balances that incredibly well because we still get a sense of completion, or satisfaction, but not having all the answers. In the case of the subject matter, regrets, it also draws in a sense of loss and unfulfilled feelings that we feel from the characters...that those intimate embraces (hence the title) will never come again. Almodovar is one of the finest filmmakers today, his muse Penolope Cruz showcasing the boundless quality of her acting ability, and his films always unique and wonderful to sit and watch.

The Bad: I can't say much bad about anything Almodovar has ever done. Everything feels so purposeful and intentional. It does tend to sway towards melodrama, and forceful plot devices to stay interesting through a very simple story (although the layers speak for themselves). To compare it to his other works, it does fall short, but if this is considered a "sub par" Almodovar, then we should be fearful once he creates his masterpiece.

The Ugly: I chuckled during a scene when Cruz, looking in the mirror, says to herself "I look awful." No...no you don't. Cruz couldn't look awful no matter how hard she tried.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Bronson

In 1974, a hot-headed 19 year old named Michael Peterson decided he wanted to make a name for himself and so, with a homemade sawn-off shotgun and a head full of dreams he attempted to rob a post office. Swiftly apprehended and originally sentenced to 7 years in jail, Peterson has subsequently been behind bars for 34 years, 30 of which have been spent in solitary confinement. During that time, Michael Petersen, the boy, faded away and 'Charles Bronson,' his superstar alter ego, took center stage. Inside the mind of Bronson - a scathing indictment of celebrity culture.

The Good: As I was watching Nicholas Windling Refn's, I tried to recollect a few things. One, what was the film Bronson reminded me of. It's incredibly unique and for this review, I wanted to think of something to compare it to as more an explanation of what it is because, truthfully, it's a difficult film to describe. The second thing was what the style of the film and who director Refn's style and approach reminded me of. It's darkly comic, ranging from violent, funny, horrific, disgusting but all of this compelling and at the same time intensely interesting as a character study and a quasi-psychological therapy session on celluloid. It doesn't make compromises, tries to find answers or even explain itself.

To both of these questions, I had one answer: Stanly Kubrick's A Clockwork Organge. (I felt even dumber when I realized it was printed right there on the poster once I started this review, but I digress). There is no other quite example in tonality, expression or as a character study because Clockwork, like Bronson, doesn't seek answers, just throws the questions and odd and unsettling observations your way.

The film begins and ends with Tom Hardy, though. It would be nothing without him, plain and simple. Had Bronson been an American film and with a wider release in 2009, Hardy would have received many nominations, certainly, seeing as how he won the Best Actor award at the BIFA and from the London Critics Circle, but small British films are overlooked, even amongst Bristish circles. Will you like this film? Hard to say. You'll like Hardy's performance, and the visual eye by Refn, but it's not going to be something everyone enjoys. At the same time, I think you'll at least say "I haven't really seen a film quite like that."

The Bad: There really is no story, and sometimes, seemingly, no method to the madness. Then again, it loves its madness and absurdities. It's more experience than anything, a deviation from reality than an attempt to tell us anything. It's a movie with no point, just observations...and it's perfectly fine with that.

The Ugly: Lots of male nudity here. A whole lot. Be forewarned.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Brooklyn's Finest

Three unconnected Brooklyn cops wind up at the same deadly location after enduring vastly different career paths.

The Good: Do you like well done cop dramas with good acting and purposeful, intelligent directing? You haven't seen Brooklyn's Finest yet, a film that really came and went? I love a well-done crime thriller. From the classic noir of the 30s and 40s to the gritty cop movies of the 70s to neo-noir of the 90s and today. Truthfully, Brooklyn's Finest has more in common with the 1970s era than it does today. It knows this. Understands this. It approaches everything in the film with this mindset and there's no doubt genre fans will be perfectly happy with that if not appreciative of it. It's characters are solid, the cast really giving their all in their respective role, and the dialogue pours onto the screen with their delivery.

The Bad: Yet, though the directing admirable and acting solid, the story is a jumbled mess of character arcs that attempt to converge to a conclusion but never quite feels satisfying. It's like Chinese food. You love eating, savor its tastes and variety of entrees, but you're left rather empty at the end of dinner and know ordering seconds won't help matters. So much of Brooklyn's Finest is well done that the sense of blandness it ends up with causes this to be one of the most disappointing films I'd seen in a while. Not a bad film, necessarily, but the idea that it should (should) be a hell of a lot better than it ends up being. It's a messy story that never quite comes together and a finale that feels incredibly forced...all those fine ingredients might as well be thrown down the garbage disposal.

The Ugly: Every actor in this movie is great. I mean really great. It's too bad the story isn't strong enough to carry all their characters' subplots.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Brothers

When a decorated Marine goes missing overseas, his black-sheep younger brother cares for his wife and children at home‹with consequences that will shake the foundation of the entire family.
 

The Good: A film full of emotion, it's hard not to get caught up in it and feel for the characters: all are well worthy of your attention and appreciation. Maguire's strife is clear and concise, and he pulls it out well as a man simply not there, and Gyllenhaal as the "opposite" brother shows a sweet, caring side to his character that makes him all the more believable as a real, tangible human being also trying to find his way in life. Brothers isn't going to wow you, but you will still find enjoyment in seeing it -
even if just once. The story of Sam and his loss of emotion, feeling, what it's like to be with his children, acceptance from his wife...his scrambles to retain and find a mend to the connections that were stripped form him is harrowing and sympathetic. Maguire really shines in these instances as a man who survives because of his love, but returns to find his love may have been gone already. It's bittersweet, sometimes utterly heartbreaking, and despite the flaws a worthwhile picture from Jim Sheridan who capably directs it from beginning to end as he always does.
 
The Bad: Brothers is simply far too melodramatic at times to be taken seriously (Sheridan's In America had a similar vibe). There's no particular character study here, there's really little development, and the sentimentality, while good in nature, can come across as forced. Jake
Gyllenhaal showcases a great performance that becomes a footnote to Maguire, who gives a strong effort but far from convincing as a military man (a military boy, perhaps, would have been more fitting). I can't discredit it too much for being overly sentimental, in a way that's how it is with
family, marriage, regrets and lost paths of life.
 
The Ugly: The development of the grandfather seems to drop right off an edge and never heard from again. There's an emptiness to it all.
 
Final Rating:
3.5 out of 5


The Brothers Bloom

The Brothers Bloom are the best con men in the world, swindling millionaires with complex scenarios of lust and intrigue. Now they've decided to take on one last job - showing a beautiful and eccentric heiress the time of her life with a romantic adventure that takes them around the world.

The Good: Caper movies can either be really smart and funny or a chore to sit through and hope that something good will come of it. The difference between a Caper and a Heist film is that the heist movies usually take themselves seriously, capers rather are quirky, fun and bring back the old style Hollywood films of bank robbers, con men and memorable characters. In that respect, the Brothers Bloom succeeds, so much so that I was thinking had the setting been the 1930s, it would have fit right end. At has that classic, lively sensibility to it. It's a fun movie at heart with characters you will grow to like, although they try their best to get you to not like them as you too succumb to their cons as a viewer. Ruffalo and Brody are great playing off each other with witty banter, and Weiz is wonderful as always.

The Bad: While fun at heart, it tends to veer towards drama more than a movie like this really should.  In that respect, it's not a caper movie at all - not in the vein of Oceans 11, The Pink Panther or The Great Train Robbery. The tone becomes immeasurably off the scale, going back and forth that can cause you to never quite grasp what the film wants you to feel, think or say about it. Hell, I'm having difficulties trying to figure out what to say about it now. I suppose it comes down to one word: consistency. That is something The Brothers Bloom simply lacks and suffers from as a result. You can't hold an audience in the palm of your hand, as any film does, and dangle them over comedic fun one minute then serious, drama and sadness the next. It wasn't even that "profound self reflection" drama that comedies might have (like Garden State or numerous Wes Anderson films). This is odd for me to say because I thought the script itself, other than a forced moment in the third act to get things rolling again, was pretty smart and witty with great dialogue. I did like the film in the end, but perhaps it was the handling of the material by the actors or director that just makes it jarring and even, occasionally, confusing.

The Ugly: I previously mentioned a really forced aspect towards the end. So obvious is this that it makes me wonder how it made it into an otherwise clever script.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Brüno

Brüno is a gay Austrian fashion guru. He has his own fashion based television show, Funkyzeit, the most popular German-language show of its kind outside of Germany. After he disgraces himself in front of his Funkyzeit fan base, he is ruined in German speaking Europe. He decides that in his quest for worldwide fame, he will move to Los Angeles and reinvent himself. Accompanying him to the US is Lutz, his former assistant's assistant. Lutz is the only person left in his circle that still believes in Brüno's greatness. Brüno goes through one reinvention of himself after another, ultimately straying to areas far removed from his own self. Perhaps when Brüno finds an activity that he truly does love, he will also find that über-fame he so desperately desires.

The Good: There's no doubt you will be surprised, shocked and surely uncomfortable. If that was the goal of Sasha Baron-Cohen, then he succeeded. Bruno is a caricature of a gay man, and at times funny in his portrayal and surely brilliant in his ability to have no shame whatsoever. Sadly, I have more respect for the process Baron-Cohen probably went through in putting this film together than the end product itself.

The Bad: The ultimate and utter failure of Bruno lies in the character himself. It's simply hard to sympathize or even remotely like Bruno. He's extrovert, yes, but more in-you-face than is comfortable, homosexual or otherwise. Annoying, contrived and simply a character you don't want to spend any time with. Any type of commentary that Sasha Baron Cohen is attempting to make regarding homosexuality and prejudice is completely undermined by the fact that the character of Bruno is just obnoxious. It's not the formula or even the story of the film that doesn't work, it's the fact that Bruno is simply not a good vehicle to relay it all through. It's hard to buy the fact that he is that dumb and oblivious to everything, unlike Borat where his innocence and charming ignorance is what allowed certain dynamics to work far better (notably bringing out dialogue with people rather than forcing it out of them as Bruno does). Everything is artificial and a bore after the first thirty minutes. His goal, almost a complete opposite of the unwittingly gullible Borat, is Bruno's desire to become famous. That's about as much depth of the character as you can expect, eventually it all just tuns into a parody of itself; no better than a gnat that keeps buzzing by your ear and on par with, at best, the likes of Tom Green.

The Ugly:
The biggest problem, and this occurs more than once, is the fact that you start to sympathize more with the people Bruno encounters more than he, which should never be the case. For example, if I were in a audience in anticipation of seeing a bout, and instead two men began having sex in the middle of the ring, I would be pretty damn upset. Bruno is missed opportunity from beginning to end. Another example is the brief encounter with an anti-gay rally. It was perfect fodder for Baron-Cohen to approach those people and show how utterly stupid they are, and instead he turns it into a dumb joke that says nothing. Borat, at the very least, would have tried to talk to them. That previous film hit the formula right on the head, as did Ali G In Day House. That's all he needed to do, the people would respond and probably show their stupidity. Bruno never gives anyone that opportunity, he's in your face, then on to the next set-up for an absolutely uncreative knock-down. It goes to show that you can only take so much of the character, which is why his small bits on the Ali G show work and anything longer than that will just turn you off.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Bubba Ho-Tep

Based on the Bram Stoker Award nominee short story by cult author Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-tep tells the "true" story of what really did become of Elvis Presley. We find Elvis (Bruce Campbell) as an elderly resident in an East Texas rest home, who switched identities with an Elvis impersonator years before his "death", then missed his chance to switch back. Elvis teams up with Jack (Ossie Davis), a fellow nursing home resident who thinks that he is actually President John F. Kennedy, and the two valiant old codgers sally forth to battle an evil Egyptian entity who has chosen their long-term care facility as his happy hunting grounds.

The Good: Who would have thought that one of the best depictions of rock legend Elvis Prestley on film would have come from Bruce Campbell?  Then again, who would have thought we'd ever see an elderly Elvis team up with John F. Kennedy (who is now black and has sand as a brain, according to him) to take on an ancient mummy that preys on people of their retirement community by sucking their souls out of their rectums. "A shit eater" says Elvis, although Kennedy insists he was after his soul. It's a film that is familiar territory for Campbell who really sells it with his voiceover narration and pitch-perfect Elvis accent. Its tone is similar to that of Raimi's Evil Dead series of films although a little less gory and a little more intelligent. Much has been written about its themes of death and the fear of aging. By all accounts, this movie should be utterly awful, yet there's this odd joy when watching it. It's not quite a "so bad it's good" joy, there are times when it's so bad it's bad,  but it's a film that understands its elements and has a good time being comedic while also endearing us to characters that are supposed to be dead yet refuse to die.

The Bad: Despite its budget, the film has a solid style and look and aesthetically better than it probably should have been, that is until the finale where it struggles to bring it all home and it turns messy, visually boring and uncreative. There's also many moments in the script that simply aren't relevant and make no sense to what is going on (such as bathroom hieroglyphs) and are only fitted in to try and explain the existence of a soul-sucking mummy rather than just relishing in the fact there's a soul-sucking mummy in the first place. Truthfully, though, the best parts of the film have nothing to do with the mummy whatsoever and its strength lies in the friendship between Elvis and John, Elvis's voiceovers and flashbacks and the people of the retirement community. Hell, it makes me wonder if it needed the mummy at all.

The Ugly: The mummy design is both cheap and laughable. The film is full of absurdities, but the first image of the mummy will probably make you laugh in that "really, you're going there?" mentality than be seen as a legitimate threat. At the same time, though, Bubba has become a cult image of a cowboy mummy with a feathered hat that, if there were a movie prop figurine, I would probably buy.  Oh wait...there is.  Best $13 bucks I'm going to spend....ah, and it's part of a set. Ok, best $39 bucks I'm going to spend.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


A Bug's Life

Flik (the resident misfit ant) sets out on a journey to find "bigger bugs" to save his colony from the evil grasshoppers. Yet he mistakenly ends up getting a group of circus bugs for the job... and the adventure begins...

The Good: I’ve always been fascinated by the world of insects. I like to imagine the universe as various “perspectives” where we look down the bugs and, at the same time, they look down on something smaller and something bigger looks down on us. We’re all thinking the same thing: I wonder what’s that like from that view.

Well, A Bug’s Life does its best to offer up that view. It’s a monarchy, as expected, and there’s bad insects along with he good insects. Thought it doesn’t offer anything “great” to the table, A Bugs Life, at least, offers up an entertaining experience from the view of an insect thinking outside the box, going against the norm and trying something different. Yes, we’ve seen this before (especially in animation) so it’s not surprising A Bug’s Life comes across as a bit uninspired, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film in a any way.

The Bad: As much of a soft spot as I have for A Bug’s Life, it was the first Pixar film I saw, it’s just not an overly strong film. I think this stems mainly from the characters, who are either completely stock in their concepts or just plain forgettable in their executions. It also lacks the “levels” that Pixar films often work on; instead veering more towards a simple story and idea with little depth to it all that can find an audience just about anywhere. It lacks that heart or desire to be more than it is, which is ironic considering that’s the theme of the movie, and, instead, comes off a bit of shallow, perhaps cold romp through a dull landscape of ants and bugs that could have been so much more.

The Ugly:
  Honestly, I far preferred Woody Allen’s ANTZ which came out the same year. It had a more appealing, original world and more memorable characters...though it does lacks Dennis Leary as a Ladybug.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Bullet to the Head

After watching their respective partners die, a New Orleans hitman and a Washington D.C. detective form an alliance in order to bring down their common enemy.

The Good: Though it wastes it, the strongest attribute to Bullet to the Head is that sense of "sleaze" that permeates through it. Taking place in New Orleans, it's a film that plays to director Walter Hill's strengths: dark, scummy and dirty grindhouse-inspired world populated with equally dark and scummy characters. Usually prostates or drug dealers. If you've seen his style in Red Heat, The Warriors, 48 Hours or Streets of Fire, you can get a good sense of what the atmosphere of Bullet to the Head gives us. It's a film stuck in time in both style, action and story, and while that might make for a good "throwback" in better hands, we're stuck in mediocrity if not outright uninspired blandness for most of its runtimes.

That aside, there are some flashes of fantastic entertainment here. Solid action and good set-pieces are found throughout, and the first act of the thing sets up what could have been a solid action film. But it doesn't want to do that, it's story, like the actors themselves, begin to meander throughout it with no real place to go or anything interesting to do.

The Bad: Where's the third act? Maybe I missed something, but the film seems to move along well…then just end. There's a set up, there's a conclusion, but there's something in between that's missing or there's a finale that needed to happen to finish this movie off with a bang. Well, maybe it's not just a third act, maybe it's just the overall structure of the film that makes it seem as though a part of it has been omitted because it never feels fully satisfying: as though it's building towards something then decides to just go with an ending as best it could manage. 

Even the grittiest of b-movies are able to weave together a solid story, though, and Bullet to the Head plays out like an idea gone awry - putting the elements together to make a good throwback movie but forgetting it still needs to make a good movie along the way. But mismanaging seems to be the name of the game for this film, because it mismanages everything from our villains to comedy puns and one-liners.

Even worse is that the film makes us less want to watch it, as it's merely an imitation of what it's trying to be, and more want to watch what it's trying to be by digging out old DVDs of Hell Up in Harlem, Death Wish or Hill's own The Warriors or Stallone's own Cobra. Trash, but well done and entertaining trash. Trash with a voice and something interesting to say and do and to spend 90 minutes of your time enjoying it. Bullet to the Head tries to emulate that but never reaches it and watching it flop around is like watching a goldfish on a hardwood floor gasping for its last breath.

The Ugly: Seeing the "flashback" photos of Stallone just made me want to watch older Stallone movies. More interesting is that I could name some of the movies they were lifted from, or at least the eras they came from when Stallone could sell a movie like this.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Buried

Paul is a U.S. contractor working in Iraq. After an attack by a group of Iraqis he wakes to find he is buried alive inside a coffin. With only a lighter and a cell phone it's a race against time to escape this claustrophobic death trap

The Good: How do you make a movie that only takes place in a box visually compelling? By utilizing every type of disorienting and claustrophobic camera shot you can think of. It reflect the situation perfectly as we're moved left, right, rotated to where we don't know which way is up and only lit by a lighter, a glow stick and the occasional illumination of a cellular phone. In that regard, Buried is a finely crafted, visually at least, little film that gives you a sensation like no other film really has. The fear of being buried a live is something that many can probably find tense and unnerving, and Buried reflects those nerves quite well.

Here's the thing though...you're going to laugh. Buried isn't a thriller, folks. It's a satire. A very dark comedy about politics, bureaucracy and all the bullshit of life's line-waiting and paperwork burying. It's far smarter than you might assume a movie about a guy in a box to be about, fittingly his only outlet to the world a cellphone as it is so many of ours. While it tends to be a little, shall we say, overdone on the concept at times as it tends to find anything and everything to throw at us as a thriller, it very much stays true as a dark satire to the very end. Buried is less about being stuck underground and more about being stuck under the thumb of bureaucratic bullshit and a better film than one might simply assume.

The Bad: Knowing it can only do so much for its concept, though, things begin to boarder near ridiculous. It's a sign of something that was likely an idea suited for a short film that's stretched to feature length as convenience is something a film like Buried should have avoided. Need something to happen? Let's throw a snake into the mix, then a fire just for good measure and a few other things simply because we need something, right? It's a cheap way to just get a rise out of an audience, but it's particularly disappointing here because Buried really didn't need to always go that route. It shows lack of conviction towards the script and faith in the idea of it and Reynolds carrying the picture.

Above all, though, Buried works well most of the time, just not all of the time. It feels like a short stretched to a feature length. It's still a daring thing to do no matter the runtime, though, and the technical side and daring final act makes it a pretty memorable experience.

The Ugly: Reynolds has some dissent out there in the world, but the guy is a perfectly fine actor. I first saw his potential in the Amittyville Horror remake where he pretty much owned every scene he was in and had a great presence. Then he regressed a little bit into rom-com territory again with a few modest indie flicks for good measure, but he's never been one to show his acting ability simply because the roles have never been there. This movie is all him.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Burn After Reading

Osbourne Cox, a Balkan expert, is fired at the CIA, so he begins a memoir. His wife wants a divorce and expects her lover, Harry, a philandering State Department marshal, to leave his wife. A diskette falls out of a gym bag at a Georgetown fitness center. Two employees there try to turn it into cash: Linda, who wants money for elective surgery, and Chad, an amiable goof. Information on the disc leads them to Osbourne who rejects their sales pitch; then they visit the Russian embassy. To sweeten the pot, they decide they need more of Osbourne's secrets. Meanwhile, Linda's boss likes her, and Harry's wife leaves for a book tour. All roads lead to Osbourne's house.


The Good: A strong cast keeps the film afloat and engaging. The utter mediocrity of everything else tries to sink it. I liken Burn After Reading to a board game with a lot of pieces missing. Sure, you can still play it, and at times it’s a lot of fun, but you still hit occasional ruts and problems along the way.

The Bad: A completely average film that is as uneventful and uninteresting as the worst of the Coens’ efforts, yet more noted here due to its complete sense of displeasure in itself. That’s unfortunate considering Burn After Reading is supposed to be a comedy. Other than some blissful moments with Brad Pitt, there’s little to really laugh or gawk at. It’s a film where you can see what it tries to do but it never quite comes through clearly enough to be enjoyable. It feels lazy, haphazard and pretty unneeded for something the Coens really needed to even tackle. The only actor with any energy is Pitt and the only character worthwhile is from Malkovich who reminds us all how great of an actor he is if given the right role.

The Ugly: The biggest laugh comes from the reveal of George Clooney's "invention." That might be a good sign, but in reality, relying on a funny reveal as the only major laugh-out-loud moment doesn't really make the journey worthwhile.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Burning Bright

A thriller centered on a young woman and her autistic little brother who are trapped in a house with a ravenous tiger during a hurricane.

The Good: Burning Bright is a ridiculous concept that will have you absolutely sold on it thanks to an impeccable execution. One night. A sister and her younger brother. A boarded up mansion during a hurricane. Oh, and a very hungry tiger. A tightly done, briskly paced thriller that makes a rather simple concept rich with tension where even a bead of sweat will have you on the edge of your seat. Believe me, you'll see simple scenes done to perfection as newcomer director, Carlos Brooks with only his second feature, shows a sensational talent of craftsmanship that brings the script to life with drama, humor and just enough scares to stay completely unpredictable (a rare thing in this genre)

Another element is actress Briana Evigan, who plays the sister, and Charlie Tahan, who plays the autistic younger brother. Briana shows a fantastic range in a very basic role. Strength, courage, fear, love as every scene, save for two small ones, have her carrying the load of the picture. Throw in the physical demands and you have one hell of a heroine with just enough depth of character to feel like the girl next door...who just happens to be trapped in a house with a tiger. (and yes, real tigers were used...and she and Charlie were that close to them, that alone earns everyone involved in the films merits and shows how smart angles and editing can be far more effective than a robot or computer animation.)

The Bad: There's so little to really draw from in Burning Bright, it's hard to find a lot to gripe about. As mentioned, it's a very basic and simple concept done very very well - it's neither complex or convoluted. It's bare bones and that's all it absolutely needs. The ending feels a bit rushed, if not a tad downplayed, but there's a great sense of satisfaction just seeing some brilliant, taut moviemaking done well. At best, there's some action not done particularly well, the film is far more fine-tuned as we lurk down halls and creep around corners.  

The Ugly: Meat Loaf cameo! Not ugly...just awesome...and reminds me we need more Loaf in movies. That guy can act.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Burrowers

A band of courageous men sets out to find and recover a family of settlers that has mysteriously vanished from their home. Expecting the offenders to be a band of fierce natives, the group prepares for a routine battle. But they soon discover that the real enemy stalks them from below.

The Good: I only knew one thing about the Burrowers before coming into it, as described to me by other horror fans it is "The Searchers" meets "The Descent." In terms of tone and, perhaps, plot-meshing, that is true. Quality in those two films isn't quite as good as a comparison. In terms of visuals, The Burrowers looks incredibly especially considering the budget. The actors also bring out the characters as well as the script can let them with some great personalities running around. Special effects, style, and acting really, surprisingly, very well done even if the material itself doesn't quite deserve those qualities.

The Bad: In terms of quality, though, that's a bad comparison. I'm fine with a horror movie being slow (see House of the Devil) as long as it continues to move or still has something to contribute to me watching it. Usually these are well-paced and methodical in hopes of a big pay off. But The Burrowers doesn't offer that. It's shallow characters we never really get to know despite many dialogue-heavy campfire speak, and the final moments simply happen with no sense of completion and, certainly, no satisfaction on part of an audience. The monsters emerge gradually, again I like this, but when there's little in terms of scares and monsters you need to have some meat to the bone that is story and character development. The Burrowers doesn't offer that and it quickly, and I mean quickly, wraps itself up very suddenly. Conceptually, it's a pretty cool movie. When it comes to execution, it misses the mark.

The Ugly: I think in hindsight, those two films (Searchers and Descent) used as a comparison to this film is a result that this film simply lacks an identity and instead of saying what it's about, you can only compare the ideas of other, better, movies to it in hopes it might give you a general direction.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Butcher (Le boucher)

Butcher Popaul meets schoolteacher Helene at a marriage in a small rural French village. They become friends. But girls are murdered in the area and Helene finds on the scene the lighter she offered to Popaul...

The Good: What makes Le Boucher so interesting is that it is a mystery film revolving around a murder, so we're automatically intrigued, but this is never the focus nor is it the point of the film as a whole. Rather than be procedural or put the crimes front and center, we see the police and their solving of the case in the background - told through playgrounds with kids and rumors or shops with people discussing the situation. It's never direct, and we remain solely with our main character, Helen, and her perspective. The pacing of this is absolutely impeccable. It doesn't hit the typical beats of most thrillers, rather it pushes its story along and develops it beautifully as one overarching narrative in your typical three acts but, because we see it all from Helen's perspective, some things are not revealed to us until it's revealed to her (save for one, critical scene but it's needed). So there's not a lot of foreshadowing and absolutely no scenes without her. This is fairly typical of the French New Wave, but it's rarely done in terms of a murder-mystery so eloquently. Stephane Audan is remarkable by being unremarkable. Helen feels real, her emotions seem genuine and the growing concern of her character is handled with a fine eye as she carries the entirety of the film and every single scene on her shoulders.  So remarkable is the film that Hitchcock himself was quoted that he wish he had made it.  Le Bourcher is understated, subtle and one of the finest films ever made and a must-see for fans of thrillers and mysteries.

The Bad: I've found that the only time a person can find a fault, or what they might deem a fault, for Le Boucher, is when they simply look at it on the surface. Some things and certain scenes might appear irrelevant or inconsequential to the overall story. But dive deeper, and you'll find that everything is purposeful and intentional, and there is multiple layers and artistic symbolism lying underneath, from sexual desire to the horrors of war changing people to the notion that we never know the victims first-hand...so we find the "real" victim in the last place we'd look.

The Ugly: This goes to show that just because a film might be deemed "slow" doesn't mean it can't be interesting or captivating. That's a concept that escapes people. The pacing has more to do when and how certain plot elements are handled and the way the story is told. It may be slow, sure, but if it appears to keep moving then it won't bother you because you won't even notice. A craftsman can tell his slow story and still compell you, a lesser director will try to tell the same slow story, but not hit the right marks, lose your interest and stagnate in trying to develop the next scene. Of course, a quality screenplay might appear to be a major factor as well, but Le Boucher's script is very brief and simple with less to do in terms of plot and more to do in terms of scenery, setting and situations. You can probably count the major scenes and plot points on one hand, the rest is entirely about the craft, not the story. Truthfully, only the best of directors can really handle this, and Chabrol certainly was that.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


The Butler

As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man's life, family, and American society.

The Good: There’s a good soul to be found in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, something that was lacking in his previous film, The Paperboy. It is a film with a purpose and a heart, there’s no denying that. The heart is there, as is the emotion, even if the story isn’t quite sure on who or what to focus on to really bring it to the top.

The Butler is bookended by two great performances. Say what you will about all that’s in the middle, but the strength is found in Forrest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey, both more than earning their share of creating people that you could very well know yourself. Their marriage is tricky, but believable because of that trickiness. You might ask “well why does he stay with her or her with him if they’re unhappy?” Well you could ask a thousand couples that, but what’s great about The Butler is that you see that evolution, that fall, and that reconnection in a believable fashion. It’s not perfect…and sometimes the worst things in life is what brings you closer together.

I like that. The “butler” part of the story I honestly was never drawn to, but these two and their children carries the load of a befuddled script. The family drama is what allows it to work and for you to care despite the shortcomings in other areas.

The Bad: The Butler is full of a great sense of respect and awareness to its themes of racial relations and civil rights over the decades, it just doesn’t go about the best way in presenting them. The fact is this: while the movie is selling itself as “The Butler of the White House,” the stories of the White House, the Presidents and working there are the least interesting parts of the film. Yet, they take up the most time because that sense of nostalgia is a nice element to have.

The most interesting parts are away from that and seeing our lead, Cecil, deal with his family and friends and community. Why, you might ask? Because in those elements, we have an active lead character. We have an involvement and an awareness of his existence. The irony of the black staff at the White House and the white leaders isn’t lost, but it also isn’t given nearly the notoriety and poignancy the log line of the film would make you believe. It’s stunt casting with a few scenes of actors trying to play presidents, not men that feel as real as Cecil’s family or first-ladies as interesting as his wife.

As a result, those times at the White House are a distraction. They impede the point of the film: that this man who was always told he couldn’t do anything could…and after time and seeing minorities and those that fought alongside them persecuted for civil rights, he reached a breaking point and finally understood that he not only could, but that he already did. Should the White House half of the film been played down? No, it’s already played down, but it’s given too much time, which is why it feels so off-putting when I simply want to spend more time with Cecil and his family.

A great example of this is a scene where one of Cecil’s sons is getting bailed out by his other son, and there’s a brief scene there. I found it more interesting, emotional and meaningful than anything out of Cecil’s adventures at the White House would give us. Perhaps the film lacked an identity (or dare I say “direction”) to realize that its best moments, are when its at its smallest and most heartfelt, not a cameo by Robin Williams.

The Ugly: That’s…not a good Nixon. That’s not even trying. If they hadn’t literally put up a title card that said “This guy is supposed to be Nixon” I never would have guessed.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Butter

In small-town Iowa, an adopted girl discovers her talent for butter carving and finds herself pitted against an ambitious local woman in their town's annual contest.

The Good: There's a lot of heart running through Butter. Well, more like good-intentions, I suppose. It's a unique, freshly so, piece of satire about white people. Yes, you heard right: white people. In particular, mid-western white people where things like county fairs, "family" values and "go get 'em capitalism" shine. It's a satire because it shows what we pretty much know about it, but also the hypocrisy behind a lot of it and done so in a light, charming way that never quite pulls the trigger on making a point and being sincere, but takes the time to acknowledge it all at the very least and have a little bit of fun along the way. It's a fun movie, the actors are obviously having a good time (and it's a great ensemble to boot) and can be entertaining even though it may not do much to make a lasting impression when it's all said and done.

The Bad: Butter has a bad case of the following: being interesting, but never doing more other than being interesting. It's never quite passionate with being poignancy even though the energy is certainly there. It never quite makes an impression despite having a ton to work with to do so. It's never quite hilarious, just content with having some funny moments in this odd world its created for itself. There's a lot to like about Butter, but what's not to like is its lack of conviction. It's never quite satirical enough, sometimes it's oddly forceful and direct with being insulting and mocking, and though the actors do wonders on screen, in particular Jennifer Gardner who really shines here, on paper their characters really don't make an impression other than being cardboard stand-ins.

The Ugly: Overuse of music is something I don't really ever bring up. In fact, I don't think I ever have, but there's an inordinate amount of music montage sequences in this film. You'll have one falling into a second then falling into a third on more than one occasion. It's as though the script was, perhaps, overly long and they ahd to condense a good amount of the story into briefer segments. Each with it's own tone and musical accompaniment that really has no consistency whatsoever. I only bring this up, because it's noticeable...and it's not something you're supposed to notice at all. It's supposed to be a passive element of cinema as you're seamlessly witnessing a form of time-travel without realizing it.

So, when you do notice it, and so obviously as it beats you repeatedly over the head with it, then there's something wrong with it all.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Cabin in the Woods

Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods.

The Good: There's one line I can use to describe The Cabin in the Woods: it is a movie by horror fans for horror fans. All the love, self-awareness, over-the-top gore and everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach exudes the craft of fans of the genre who know exactly what their audience wants. It's smart not only in being what is essentially a piece of brilliant satire, but smart in just basic, simple script narrative full of foreshadows and subtleties that if you blink, you might just miss.

Best of all, though, is the complete lack of ego in this movie. Sometimes these types of "meta-horror" film love to show how smart they are, sometimes being far too on the nose when pointing it out, but in The Cabin in the Woods not an ounce of self-gratification is to be seen. It simply wants to put it out there for you to enjoy - and you most certainly will because the pure entertainment value of the film is on par with its craftsmanship.

The Cabin in the Woods will go down, quite easily, as one of the best of its genre - or should I say genres. It's not only a great horror movie, but one of the wittiest little comedies I've seen in years. It remind us why we love horror films. They are meant to be fun, and The Cabin in the Woods is the most of fun I've had with a film in a long time.

The Bad: An unclear final act leaves The Cabin in the Woods just a step below perfection. It's already a great film, but the loose approach of the script and the film's sensation of "fun" doesn't quite work in the climax, though you're still left quite satisfied.

The only other bad thing? The fact you can only watch The Cabin in the Woods for the first time once.

The Ugly: Some say The Cabin in the Woods might reinvigorate the horror genre. Well, I say it does the exact opposite: it puts in the final nail with fond farewell. I don't see any other horror movie about horror movies topping this one.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Calvary

After he is threatened during a confession, a good-natured priest must battle the dark forces closing in around him.

The Good: I have been a fan of Brendan Gleeson since I first saw him as a small player in Gangs of New York. While he had been in numerous films before that, Michael Collins one that comes to mind, Gangs of New York was the one that made me say “who is this wonderful actor?” Since then, he’s become one that I’ve always appreciated, even in movies you may not be a fan of, he’s at least one that delivers and he does so again with Calvary, which also happens to be a good movie so we’re not talking about 2012’s The Raven here (where he was the best thing yet again).

Calvary reunited Gleeson with writer/director John Michael McDonagh. Their previous effort, The Guard, was not only one of the best films of that year, not to mention a wonderful example of great, modern Irish cinema, but one of Gleeson’s best performances. Sincere yet irreverent. Here, though, we drop the irreverence though Gleeson is every bit just as powerful. Calvary is less of a story and more of a situation that leads to reveals. The truth is, even the situation is bit ham-fisted, but that’s not what drives Calvary.

What drives it are those reveals - little bits here and there of characters and Father James (Gleeson) contemplating on those bits and situations. It’s a “day in the life” of approach as we start the week and watch it begin to spiral out of control. Father James is a spectacular character and Gleeson has an absolute force. The supporting cast populating our little Irish town are strong too, including character actors M. Emmet Walsh and Chris O’Dowd. Director McDonagh shoots his homeland beautifully, capturing the often cloudy, melancholy atmosphere as we explore faith, humanity and morals.

The Bad: Calvary simply lacks motivation. We never quite reach a satisfying or understanding end despite the many conversations and nods about such things. The film attempts to have a point as it repeatedly presents its argument, but it never offers a competent end to that discussion. While we certainly don’t want or need answers and conclusions, the characters in this town often do. Without a sense that so many of these threads that are crated never get a final understanding by us because we feel the characters have learned nothing, then it ends up undermining the point the film, and perhaps Father James, were trying to make.

One might say the journey is more important than the destination, and for Father James that is most certainly the case. However, there’s a irksome sense of these people of this town, save for a few, abusing that. You want, no need, to see some sort of comeuppance regarding a good chunk of them. Thankfully, they are minor players as Gleeson is so prominent and powerful

The Ugly: Despite the reuniting of the director and actor of The Guard, and though it has some wry bits here and there, Calvary is a straight-up drama. Don’t go in expecting comedy, presmptions are the root of bad film criticism.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Campaign

In order to gain influence over their North Carolina district, two CEOs seize an opportunity to oust long-term congressman Cam Brady by putting up a rival candidate. Their man: naive Marty Huggins, director of the local Tourism Center.

The Good: A great premise brought to life with endearing, memorable characters put out there by Will Ferrell, in a restrained George W. Bush impression he's known for, and Zach Galifianakis, who has played this oddball character before in shorts but, finally, has a whole movie to have fun with Marty Huggins: a heartfelt, charming, sometimes dim-witted effeminate man who loves pugs and steals the show in this flick. Make no mistake, Ferrell is good as a complete asshole of a politician, but Galifianakis runs the show as Marty who is incredibly hard to not like, even when he does awful things.

Director Jay Roach has been here before. The man knows his way around a farce and what's better to make a farce than the absurdity of politics and political campaigns. There's a lot of familiarity here, but nothing that feels tired. It's a brisk, fun movie that, despite some hiccups, is going to make you laugh because Ferrell and Galifianakis are so committed to their respective characters, even if they aren't given a ton to do with them (Ferrell's character in particular given a background to work around in for a good chunk of it all).

The Bad: By the third act, the film just stopped being funny. There's really no way around it. Up to that point, it's a funny film. After the rather predictable second act breakdown, it turns a corner to being far more serious outside of one callback gag about opening a door. Though it's a better put together film than one might expect it to be, it falls victim to an inconsistent tone that suddenly tries to have a "message" about how votes are garnered and how campaigns are ran culminating in a complete sham of a scene where everybody is in one place and someone gets up to share a speech.

The characters stop being who we were introduced to them as, the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, the final scene feels like a last-minute rush job in the writers room and Ferrel and Galifianakis haven't a clue on where to go or what to do; practically reading a cue card with their character voices rather than "being" those characters we thought they were. Was this final scene a complete re-shoot? It sure feels like it. Hell, even the second-act bastardizing of their characters goes way overboard in each direction to a point of it no longer caring to be a fun little satire, but just a goofy movie that has no idea what it wants to do with its otherwise great premise.

It's a shame, though. It's an over the top film with good intentions and, unlike a lot of over-the-top films, it has a solid through line and a well-paced story up to a point. But then it just drags, reels back the ridiculousness and changes form right before your eyes as it steps on characterizations and gives way to convenient plot points. It's expected it's going to have this type of ending, just not this much of a drag to get to it. The funny moments of reciting the Lord's prayer or the utter insanity of the campaign television ads they "approve" gives way to a "gee…we were wrong, you were right" moment that should have been put into an episode of Full House.

The Ugly: Look, I'm not saying The Campaign needs to be a smart political satire, like Dave or Thank You for Smoking or Wag the Dog or the rather overlooked Man of the Year. It's a nutty, crazy, often loud comedy. The problem is that it doesn't know it is and suddenly tries to be smart rather than just staying on the nutty, crazy path it set itself up for for most of the film. A good comparison as an example, is director Roach's own Austin Powers films. What if, at the end of Austin Powers, we have a moment of sincerity and self-reflection that goes against the complete farce we've been enjoying? It would be a horrible change of momentum and have you wondering why it didn't just continue with the fun characters and silly story…and that's exactly what happens here.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Cape Fear

Sam Bowden is a small-town corporate attorney/"Leave It to Beaver"-esque family-man. Max Cady is a tattooed, cigar-smoking, bible-quoting, psychotic rapist. What do they have in common? Fourteen years, ago Sam was a public defender assigned to Max Cady's rape trial, and he made a serious error: he hid a document from his illiterate client that could have gotten him acquitted. Now, the cagey, bibliophile Cady has been released, and he intends to teach Sam Bowden and his family a thing or two about loss.

The Good:
Scorsese has always gotten the best out or Robet DeNiro. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Mean Streets and so on. Cape Fear is, without question, one of their most engrossing collaborations. Not because the film is particular good, it's not, but because DeNiro's performance makes it good. Everything plays off of him and his presence on screen. Max is every bit a psychopath and we relish in it every minute. It's an intense movie, moving a breakneck speed at times as though a small spark will ignite it at any given moment, and will have you intently from the very beginning. Scorsese gives us some fantastic scenes of tension and just pure evil, making Max one of the best on-screen bad guys we've ever seen, even surpassing Robert Mitchum's original interpretation.

The Bad: While it attempts to be a stylish thriller, Cape Fear ultimately fails in a major aspect: its tone. While Max is menacing and enthralling, the things he says and does to Sam come off more as funny to watch occur than menacing and intimidating. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Bowdens themselves are rather unlikable and when Max tests their mettle, we end up laughing rather than hoping they find a way out. Moral ambiguity and shades of gray are nothing new for Scorsese, but it simply doesn't work in this film when we're supposed to feel sympathetic and sorry for the family being harassed. The original was a taught thriller and a classic, this was arguably an unneeded remake.

The Ugly: As solid the directing is, Scorsese does try to get a little too smart with the shots and some noticeable "special effects" can be seen throughout it. This can take someone out of the real tone of it, almost making it appear a fantasy.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Captain America: The First Avenger

After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending America's ideals. 

The Good: It's not complicated, it's not over-zealous, it doesn't strive to be more than it is. No, Captain America is a film that lays it all out very straightforward and simply, and that's all it needs to do. The concept is straightforward, so telling a straightforward story is all a film like this needs because the quality is determined in the "how" of a superhero film (the action and the pacing and the characters) not the "why" (exposition and explanations and multiple plot threads that may or may not be resolved to try and explain everything). Straight, clean, some might say streamlined, Captain America not only manages a brisk bit of entertainment with great action, but it leaves you wanting (if not begging) for more to come.

Eventually it will, but not quite like this. One of the strengths of the film is its setting and atmosphere. It's rooted deep in the 1940s with spectacular sets, costumes and the playing up of the "duty calls" and "We Want You" high-morality standards of the military. It was a time when everyone were routing for the same thing, it's where Captain America was born after all, and the film meticulously plugs that into every aspect, from posters to soldiers to spies. It's World War II by way of Indiana Jones: it's not meant to be accurate, it just loves swimming in the mythological, good versus evil angle of the era.

Chris Evans was doubted by some to carry a leading, morally good and very "heroic" (as in, America is great and will slap you if you say otherwise) role. Turns out he does it with absolute unabashed bravado as he plays a dynamic character full of heroics but manages to show that he's also a bit of an untrained, skinny kid from Brooklyn behind all that. That's who he was before his hero-making procedure, done with exquisite special effects to turn the actor into the scrawny, asthmatic weakling. He's nieve but with good intentions and full of heart, and though that might make him a tad one-dimensional, Evans absolutely embodies it. He hits the highs of the character, great speeches and punching Nazis, and the lows, showing frustration for being relegated to a mascot and a bit of anguish at a pivotal moment. With a strong lead like this and solid directing and script, Marvel hits a high again with a memorable and well made comic book movie.

The Bad: The movie is brisk, which is good as it feels streamlined and tight, but it also feels rushed in its finale to wrap things up. There's a montage of action sequences which feels like it would lead to a major reveal or set up for something bigger, but it doesn't and it doesn't quite relay the importance of everything happening all that well alongside it. It moves right along to the next and the emotional impact, as well the sense of satisfaction in a rousing climatic finale, just feels like it's turning another page rather than building to something grand.

Evans is great, he has to be, and Weaving perfect as a villain, but the supporting cast and other soldiers seem tacked on and most are one-dimensional caricatures that we probably would have liked to get to know better. Good personalities around, but most of the names you'll probably never catch.

The Ugly: Captain America is a film that knows how to have fun with its material, therefore making the entire experience fun. How is it Marvel is owning the Superhero Movie Market right now (other than a few hiccups such as Wolverine)? I feel it's because they found a tone to it: have sincerity, but don't take yourself too seriously. It's worked for Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor and, now, Captain America. Meanwhile, DC and Warner Bros are still trying to figure out what went wrong with The Green Lantern.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Seve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.

The Good: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is exactly what  you want out of a sequel. Better acting. Better character moments. Better story and plot. Better action directing. It’s better than its predecessor across the board. The reason? A complete 180 to tone, style, approach and just about everything else. The Winter Soldier doesn’t just expand on a story, it’s an entirely different kind of film for the better.

Captain America was a solid first, foundation-creating film that established a world and character. The thing is, it also runs the boilerplate superhero origin story tit-for-tat across the board. It does it well, of course, but it’s a light romp as you kill of a bunch of bad guys in fun action sequences. The Winter Soldier is fun for different reasons, and those differences is why it elevates the entire Marvel cinematic universe. It’s a thriller with action elements rather than a straight-shot action movie trying to be something its not, it manages to turn heads with twists and conspiracies and has an uncanny ability to make old feel new again. Fights are more visceral, violence more brutal and realistic (as they go), story more compelling and, best of all, it even strikes an emotional core that the first film lacked (Chris Evans’ wonderful portrayal aside).

Credit goes to a lot here, from the screenwriters and producers willing to take some risks to the cast that, quite honestly, is the best I’ve seen in any Marvel movie to date in terms of showing character depth, emotion and even humor (Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson notably alongside Chris Evans who gives one of the beset “hero” acting I’ve seen in any of these movies). But so much needs to given to Joe and Anthony Russo, who have little to no experience with action directing, doing a bang-up job on a variety of action set pieces strewn throughout our conspiracy thriller film. Car chases, gun fights, even Captain America’s use of his shield have a raw, intimate feel to them. You feel every punch and every thud, and though the final “big” fight can feel underwhelming, it’s only because so much of the other stuff was top-tier action filmmaking.

The Bad: Our Winter Solider is our “big bad” in the same way that Igor is the “big bad” to Victor Frankenstein. While he has some great moments, it all comes ahead to be a little forced when they try to knock out the “emotional” element behind him - less a person or character they badly try to show him to be and more a superficial bad guy that shows up when something needs to explode. It likely has to do with the film only able to do so much. Considering the man plot threads happening, twists and turns and new characters introduced, you can at least say “they tried” and hope the sequel goes further with it.

The final climax is an odd one, a blend of really cool and big with “that doesn’t make any sense” and “how convenient.” It’s really the only way to end the film, it’s all about escalation, but it’s also forcefully big that it feels odd in a film that mostly did grounded action pieces for most of its over-two-hour runtime.

Though the more dark and I would say even grounded elements of the film add to it, the various twists also take a bit away. It’s not a complex plot as much as it is a convoluted one, including a major twist that, while daring, seems almost too-bold for its own good. Some action and emotional beats end up undercut, notably a strong potential one with Anthony Mackie simply because there were there other scenes going on simultaneously. Perhaps too big for its own good, The Winter Soldier doesn't lack the ambition, that's for sure. It only lacks a solid framework to build it around. The action and acting may make up for any of those missed opportunities or failed resolutions, but perhaps a leaner, streamlined film would have allowed for more of the elements to shine rather than all just sparkle on occasion.

The Ugly: The internet forgets so quickly, doesn’t it? Remember when people hated Chris Evans being cast? Yeah, they’re eating crow. The man has been a solid rock of an actor, showing range and even humility when it comes to putting on a silly costume character and throwing a shield at people.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Captain Phillips

The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

The Good: You wouldn't think that four men in a skiff trying to take over a massive cargo ship would be edge-of-your-seat intense for over two hours...but Captain Phillips shows it's all in the means, not the end. In other words, there's a lot you could look at on a paper or read in an article and it would be interesting, most certainly. But with Paul Greengrass's knack of understanding intensity and pace and having you see every bead of sweat on a character's brow, you're thrust right in to it with them. Captain Phillips is one of the most intense movies of the year...and you probably already know how it ends.

That's the sign of a solid script, amazing acting and a director who knows these types of films like the back of his hand. Take a story we all know, and all know how it ends, and still have us guessing what's going to happen next. Greengrass did that first with Bloody Sunday in his native UK and later with United 93, a film I don't particularly want to watch again because of that very reason of knowing it wasn't exactly going to end well. Sure, I knew what would happen, but suddenly I was witness to it. Thankfully Captain Phillips isn't quite in that bleakness, though it does a terrific job showing desperate men in desperate times on both sides of the fence.

I know most will laud Tom Hanks here, and rightfully so, but the entire supporting cast is amazing and intense throughout. Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirate leader, has never acted before to my knowledge. You sometimes forget that it's an actor. A look, a moment of pause, a fit of anger all met tit-for-tat with Hanks, sometimes even exceeding him in some key moments. Captain Phillips may be a story you know, but it's different once you have it told to you in this manner, and you're all the more happy that somebody did once it's finally over.

The Bad: It's wonderfully intense, but it's not exactly emotional. At least not until the end. But there's really no knowing much about Phillips here. In fact, you'll probably feel a bit more sympathy with the Somali pirates and the rock and a hard place they're in: go out and get stuff for your warlord or be shot. For Phillips and certainly for his entire crew, there's not a lot of that going around. To them it's just a job, and they don't even know each other all that well.

Then again, there's no time in getting to know them. The attack happens quickly, probably less than 24 hours after they left, so "getting to know them" might have been in some script draft early on, but in the context of the purpose of the film, it might have been dropped. But we never really see or hear a lot about Phillips, just a brief email and a car ride to the airport. That's it, and that lack of human interest on that side makes for an odd imbalance when you're feeling sad for the guys with the guns.

The Ugly: Four pirates. Three pairs of sandals...nobody thought to say "Hey, grab your shoes?"

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Captains

The Captains is a feature length documentary film written and directed by William Shatner. The film follows Shatner as he interviews the other actors whom have portrayed Starship captains within the illustrious science-fiction franchise.

The Good: The Captains is a film that is simultaneously a personal journey of five actors and a documentation of what Star Trek means to the ethos of our culture. It takes Star Trek away from its lofty heights and the walls fans have built and puts it on ground level. The curtain is pulled back and we're invited inside. What's unique, because there's plenty of Star Trek interviews and documentaries out there, is that The Captains is far more personal. It's a conversation: Shatner sits down and chats with the other actors. Simple. Clean. So obvious that you're amazed it hasn't been done before. Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Scott Bakula, Kate Mulgrew and the recently ordained Chris Pine don't tell us things, they simply have a chat with Bill. It's light. Fun. Enjoyable and surprisingly human in its affection and sincerity as we walk the road down regrets, family and the real people behind icons. As Shatner notes in the film itself, put a camera in front of some of these people and talk with them, and they'll open up, borders will melt.

It's not just The Captains, though. It's a lot of the casts from the films and series. Jonathan Frakes makes an interesting note of how Star Trek has reinvented itself without having to reinvent itself. It's all essentially the same…except the captain. All were cast against type, and that casting is what's allowed Star Trek to endure both familiarity and uniqueness from each evolutionary leap it puts in front of itself. To my knowledge, only Star Trek and the legendary Dr. Who are the only two major franchises that have ever accomplished such a feat. It's no surprise that both are two of the longest lasting pieces of pop culture entertainment in history. The Captains is a unique and wonderful, candid addition to the world of must-see documentaries about Star Trek.

The Bad: There's no denying that this is a big love fest for Star Trek. It's a film that loves its roots and its purpose, but it's not an argumentative film. It's a love-fest across the board, and despite the moments of intimacy and even profoundness, there's nothing to really say otherwise. Shatner is Shatner, fun and sweet as an interviewer, but not someone who really seeks to explore anything. He has conversations, people chat with him, it's all organized pretty well and then it's done. However, it begins to tread water and break apart in its final twenty minutes to become less an insight, and more a soapbox.

The Ugly: I have been going through and watching Star Trek in its entirety the past month on top of watching movies and writing. The films were already handled over the years, but I've recently completed the original series and should be done with The Next Generation in the next week or so, then on to the rest. Lots of watching happening at the home these days and I've been enjoying them from a nostalgic standpoint (lot of memories coming back from when I originally saw much of these) and from a standpoint of appreciation that you really don't notice until you sit down and watch it all in order at once. If you have a month or so to spare, take some time to at least jump into Next Generation. Its too bad the Next Generation's films don't live up to the series.

Much has been said that Shatner interjects himself a bit too much. What I think those critics don't quite realize is that while Shatner can interview everyone, nobody is interviewing him. IT's a conversation, a two-way street, so he discusses his relationship to the world of Star Trek and Kirk while other do to their respective characters. Is it intrusive at times? Perhaps, but how else where we have the insight to it all unless Shatner says it himself.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Carnage

Two pairs of parents hold a cordial meeting after their sons are involved in a fight, though as their time together progresses, increasingly childish behavior throws the evening into chaos.

The Good: Incredible performances and a patient director who allows scenes to unfold is the driving force of Carnage. There really is no story, simply a situation that consistently escalates that shows the various sides of two couples. They love each other, hate each other, argue, complain, seem interested and disinterested at the same time and you truly wish that someone, anyone, would just say "let's leave."

But nobody can. Their pride won't let them and that pride is what really is tested with both of them. Aspects of each marriage creep up and the fireworks begin making you feel that none of these people will be same after this afternoon get-together. What's fantastic is that none are people you dislike nor feel sympathy for. You see so many sides of them that you can't choose which route for. You aren't supposed to because these are, very candidly, very realistic people. They have a multitude of dimensions and traits that paint a portrait of believability. There's subtle humor to be found too. Whilst there's arguments and chest pounding galore, there's a line or an act that can bring a smile to your face. Certainly a chuckle despite the overall seriousness of the situation they find themselves in.

The Bad: Carnage is a play. When a play makes a leap to screen, it either reworks itself to fit the medium or it comes across as tedious and contrived. Carnage, despite the solid directing, the escalating pace and the solid performances, doesn't do enough to warrant such a film adaptation. Everyone is projecting, dialogue is theatrical and there's no sense of satisfaction in the end. It simply becomes thinner and thinner and then calls it quits. In a theater, you would stand up and applaud at the actors on the stage. In a film it just fizzles out and rolls the credits.

The Ugly: I've always taken issue with stage adaptations. Some, like Carnage, do so little that it ends up nothing more than the filmed play for those that couldn't see the play. Carnage isn't as bad as some, such as a number of adapted musicals, but not as unique and distinguished enough as a Driving Miss Daisy, Glengary Glenross (a personal favorite) or even this year's War Horse or Coriolanus. It's an exercise in non-necessity. A well done one for the most part, but unneeded in the end and unmemorable in the long run.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Carrie

Carrie White is a shy young girl who doesn't make friends easily. After her class mates taunt her about her horrified reaction to her totally unexpected first period one of them takes pity on her and gets Tommy Ross, her boyfriend and class hunk to invite Carrie to the senior prom. Meanwhile another girl who has been banned from the prom for her continued aggressive behavior is not as forgiving and plans a trick to embarrass Carrie in front of the whole school. What she doesn't realize is that Carrie is ... gifted, and you really don't want to get her angry.

The Good: What is evil? A question asked in Carrie because, if anything, Carrie is definitely not evil. The true horror of Carrie is that of her mother, played brilliantly by Piper Laurie (both Laurie and Spacek nominated for Oscars, rare for a horror film). Carrie shows us that evil isn't always inherent. It's molded, shaped, and truly takes the "nurture" side in the nature versus nurture debate. Carrie, a social outcast, is given a chance of a lifetime. Nothing she does is bad until it's forced upon her. She hates this thing, this unknown ability, within her yet, probably, also loves it. In a better situation she might have even used it for good. But, as mentioned, the true horror of Carrie is that she never even had a chance. It's all those outside elements that cause her to become what she eventually becomes: a mass-murderer. If her mother was loving, if her schoolmates were accepting and if that bucket had confetti instead of blood, maybe Carrie could have been what, in her heart, she really wanted to be: just a normal girl. I utterly love this dynamic and question in the film, strengthened ten-fold by the outstanding performances by the cast. Brian de Palma also has a daring, stylish and in-your-face approach to it all with a climatic ending that is part of film history (and, no doubt, was incredibly difficult to shoot and edit). A classic film and exercise in stylish horror that still holds up incredibly well to this day.

The Bad:
Carrie slowly brews until it boils over...then it continues to uneventful fare. It's not quite "jumping the shark" as much as it is an epilogue that just pales in comparison to the events at the prom. There's one instance in particular that feals a little too "neat" to bring some closure to everything, then the final scenes at Carrie's home that are beautifully done (the slow pace, the washing up etc...). It also dwells in melodrama a little too much as well as overusing slow-motion that, while effective in the climax, is still a little overdone and overlong. The characters, too, are far too unforgiving for us find any appeal in them. Although Carrie and her mother are the centerpieces, the entire supporting cast is just bland and are really nothing more than dead bodies at the end and contributing about as much to the story then as they did when they were alive. They're there to merely be hated, then killed. Even the ones we supposedly liked.

The Ugly: I've never liked the cheap scare at the end of Carrie, it felt out of place to the rest of the film and thusly felt cheap in comparison to a  film that seemed to intelligently design itself. At the same time, it was also one of the first to really do that, influencing countless horror films to this day.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Cars

While traveling to California for the dispute of the final race of the Piston Cup against The King and Chick Hicks, the famous Lightning McQueen accidentally damages the road of the small town Radiator Springs and is sentenced to repair it. Lightning McQueen has to work hard and finds friendship and love in the simple locals, changing its values during his stay in the small town and becoming a true winner.

The Good: Likable characters help pull you along through one of Pixar’s weaker efforts, as though it’s a lesser animation company taking a shot at doing a Pixar-like film. If it weren’t for the characters and the voiceacting and personalities (even though, I’m sure, the toyline had a lot to do with their distinctiveness), Cars would be a bad film. It’s not, thankfully, thanks to that and, naturally, the spectacular animation that Pixar always delivers, resulting in something watchable but far appealing to anyone over the age of twelve.

The Bad: What Cars fails to really achieve where so many other Pixar films do is in the world it sets before us. Simply put, it’s bland, uninteresting and just not that enjoyable to really be involved with. The characters might help pull us through, but the world of talking cars and setting a majority of it in a small little town blended with a completely uninspired, lazy, by-the-books story just feels incredibly underwhelming.

But what really harms Cars is how superficial it all feels. It’s about fame, and though Lightning is likable enough, a lot of the characters are actually, the end goal is to reclaim fame and fortune rather than the subtle nuances most Pixar movies have. It all has a very callous and cold feel to it all, I’m sure metallic character have a little to do with that, rather than the heart it’s able to achieve easily in pretty much every other film from the company. Then you look at the running time. Two hours. They absolutely exhaust every single thing they can with these characters, its story and yet we never feel close to it all or convinced of its world.

The Ugly: I find it weird that the movie is trying to be nostalgic...but it’s nostalgic about things that, technically, aren’t a part of its world. It’s based on ours, but not. It makes for awkwardness when you see buildings and towns, Route 66 and things familiar with people...yet there’s no people.

Cars is a film that gets a lot of flak. Some of its certainly justified, it's by far Pixar's weakest effort, but even a weak effort by them is still an enjoyable film and much of the issues people spout are unfairly exaggerated.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Cars 2

Star race car Lightning McQueen and his pal Mater head overseas to compete in the World Grand Prix race. But the road to the championship becomes rocky as Mater gets caught up in an intriguing adventure of his own: international espionage.

The Good: Full of energy and animation far better than its material deserves, Cars 2 is a change for Pixar as it's a  focus towards pure children's entertainment and not much else. Though a bit shallow in some regards, it manages to muster up a little bit of heart and charm thanks to nice voicework and an overall good arc for our central character. No, not the face of the franchise in Owen Wilson's Lightening McQueen, but in Larry the Cable Guy's Mater. It's too bad it's overshadowed by a focus far too spent on cheap laughs and annoying dialogue.

The Bad: Overdone car-themed gags and punchlines and a far-too-excessive focus on, what is easily, the most obnoxious character in the Cars franchise makes Cars 2 an absolute chore to sit through. As our main character is the hillbilly-hick-inspired tow-truck, horribly voiced with atrocious dialogue by comedian Larry the Cable Guy, the annoyance factor is turned to eleven. He's cute and simple as a supporting role, but given the main focus here you realize that it's a character that will grate and wear thin after about ten elongated minutes.

It's a regression to early non-Pixar animated films as developed and interesting characters, capable and smart comedy and refined storytelling are not found here at all. A lack of an emotional core with these otherwise inanimate objects doesn't help. On top of that, you still have the awkwardness of the world: buildings built for humans just as cars are, but there are none in sight. That was already an issue with the first film, but here it's even larger in scope and even harder to digest and comprehend as it draws way too much attention to this fact in its design.

Cars 2 is just an unenjoyable film. For children, I'm sure it's great. The animation is nice and flashy and the characters recognizable and vibrant, but there's no depth or interest here in this awkwardly-paced and awkwardly-set movie. It's as shallow of an animated feature that Pixar has ever done and sadly forgettable in the end.

The Ugly: After all those issues add up, the best word to describe Cars 2 is Tedious. From storytelling to you just wanting to stop watching due to a lead that's far too overdone in terms of characterization (think Jar-Jar Binks given the lead, if you will). It's sloppy and all over the place, hoping to get by with the always-gorgeous animation and cheap laughs. But even that turns tired and bland after a while, and you really just want it all to end less than half-way through.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Casa de mi Padre

Scheming on a way to save their father's ranch, the Alvarez brothers find themselves in a war with Mexico's most feared drug lord.

The Good: In a blend of broad appeal met with subtle comedic nuance, Casa de mi Padre is one of the most unique comedies in years. I suppose the distributor knew this, considering it's barely playing in just under 400 theaters throughout the country. It's daring and a tad brave to create a film with such a narrow appeal, though I think once someone actually sits to watch it, not knowing anything about it, the comedy would reach just about anyone. On paper, it's not a movie that plays it safe in just about every aspect of its creation. Once in a theater seat, though, it's hard to not fall victim to its spells.

Will Ferrell has the comedic chops and range to completely dedicate himself to this role and do it convincingly. He can play caricatures, he can play drama, he can play straight-man and just be a normal guy. He manages to do all that here, the caricature being a "Mexican leading man" when he's obviously not, he has moments of sincerity that are undeniably sweet and he, for the most part, acts the role straight because the comedy occurs naturally around him.

Casa de mi Padre is simultaneously a parody, but also a homage. Similar to films such as Black Dynamite or Hot Fuzz, there's an admiration to be found in the ability to balance the elements and never turn it into going too far one direction or another. You can tell the filmmakers and actors love what it's based on and re-create in a way to where the absurdity of it shines through, making it something worth laughing at. Obvious painted backgrounds, fake horses and lots of smoking abound.

The Bad: Casa de mi Padre is a brave film to be had, however it lacks one thing: consistency. There are moments and scenes that are utterly brilliant, but there's no cohesion in bringing them all together. Though it manages better than, say, the past Will Ferrell vehicles to at let a thread of a story and characters come through, it never quite gels as a constant vehicle of comedy. There's ideas that work half the time, but in other times never quite shines through though it's hard to at least not appreciate the effort. Supporting characters are never really given much to work with, and those that do are subjected to rather shallow comedy in comparison to the rest of the film's dedication of a sense of subtlety - as though there's a puppeteer pulling the strings and a roundtable of writers off camera making sure the telenovela and exploitation movie references are in full swing.

The Ugly: This is Ferrell's best comedy in years. Going through his list of films, it's probably his best all-around movie since 2007's Blades of Glory and it's significantly better than that as well. This is a movie that will start small, have a cult following, and in retrospect be considered a classic like Zoolander or Anchorman.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Casablanca

Colorful characters abound in Casablanca, a waiting room for Europeans trying to escape Hitler's war-torn Europe. Humphrey Bogart plays Richard "Rick" Blaine, a cynical but good-hearted American whose café is the gathering place for everyone from the French Police to the black market to the Nazis. When his long-lost love, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), surfaces in Casablanca with her Resistance leader husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Rick is pulled into both a love triangle and a web of political intrigue. Ilsa and Victor need to escape from Casablanca, and Rick may be the only one who can help them. The question is, will he?

The Good: Roger Ebert, arguably the best film reviewer in history, likens Casablanca to music: in particular a person’s favorite album. You can watch it repeatedly, at any moment, and it never gets old. It’s familiar but not tiresome and instead you find yourself merely appreciating it. Casablanca can play to a viewer as a simple tale of love and loss, regret and bravery in times of crisis and at the same time play as a complex metaphor about American values and World War. The characters make the film, embodied by the legendary actors who portrayed them and their delivery of classic banter and conversation and, of course, the one-liners that most people quote and often haven’t even seen the film. Considered one of the greatest scripts ever written, all great films start at that juncture first, it’s also the performances and Michael Curtiz’s subtle directing that brings it all to life (which was a slight stretch for Curtiz, who was more known for his action/adventure and gangster films). It’s Bogart’s most renowned role as well but for completely different reason than his usual gangster-persona. He’s the everyman stuck in the middle of a difficult situation. He could take the easy road numerous times. He doesn’t. He could end up with the girl. He doesn’t.  In fact, we really don’t know how Rick will end up, only that we liked him and wish him the best as he fades into the fog of a Casablanca airstrip with Reault (the always fantastic Claude Raines).  Casablanca is both a film that stays with convention, defies convention and creates its own conventions throughout its various layers. It’s a film rarely surpassed in the numerous aspect of cinema it succeeds at, living up to its own mystique, and is one of the few legitimately perfect films to ever be created.

The Bad: Absolutely nothing.

The Ugly:
  The only detractor I’ve read is of pretentious novelist Umberto Eco, who considers it mediocre, and Pauline Kael who was known for making her career by taking the opposite of stances on most films that are universally loved (The Sound of Music, most Charlie Chaplin films, most David Lean films, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life most notably). Then again, she even admitted to falling for its romanticism. Kael was more influential as an observant writer than a film reviewer, but her scathing was influential. Maybe I’ll write something about her myself one day.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Case 39

"Case 39" centers on an idealistic social worker who saves an abused 10-year-old girl from her parents only to discover that the girl is not as innocent as she thinks.

The Good: The benefits of being visually astute has its benefits and drawbacks. Director Christian Alvart has shown he is able to give a film with visual enjoyment and no doubt had everything worked out in his head. Unfortunately, as with Pandorum, he has shown that visuals are his primary focus rather than really trying to offer up an original, compelling story. Like Pandorum, you have some solid acting from the leads but a complete disinterest in everything that happens to them. It's centered on setpieces, which are enjoyable, but rather than trying to set up to those set pieces it merely runs through them. Unlike Pandorum, Case 39 also fails at building any type of tension and suspense - which is odd considering that is what the film is supposed to be about. Nontheless, at least it looks good.

The Bad: I can't say I can pinpoint the exact reason why, but there's this odd disconnect to everything that happens in Case 39. Maybe the characters aren't likable enough, maybe the girl isn't evil enough, maybe the story just doesn't do enough...but I found myself utterly bored and emotive to all that happens. It's as though the film knows it's completely derivative and uninspired, therefore it must showcase that in every facet from the directing, to the subplots that have no buildup, to the monotone acting to the "scary" moments that aren't so much scary as inexplicable while at the same time seemingly arbitrary.  An example of them being inexplicable is how young Lillith is able to "influence" people by seemingly only having to think about doing it...even if they're miles away. If that's the case, why isn't she the queen-all ruler of the world? An example of them being arbitrary is the fact that it runs through the predictable beats of who lives, who dies and what happens as though it went through the "scary kid" file on movie plots and pulled out every obvious piece it could throw in - therefore the only way it can be unpredictable is by being inexplicable, which does not make for a good story, buildup of suspense or fear of consequence much less a good film.

The Ugly: The film really came and went, certainly overshadowed by Orphan last year which did the scary kid motif far better (although no less unoriginal).  I do like Christian Alvart quite a bit, but this film is not a good one to have sitting on your resume.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Casino

This Martin Scorsese film depicts the Janus-like quality of Las Vegas--it has a glittering, glamorous face, as well as a brutal, cruel one. Ace Rothstein and Nicky Santoro, mobsters who move to Las Vegas to make their mark, live and work in this paradoxical world. Seen through their eyes, each as a foil to the other, the details of mob involvement in the casinos of the 1970's and '80's are revealed. Ace is the smooth operator of the Tangiers casino, while Nicky is his boyhood friend and tough strongman, robbing and shaking down the locals. However, they each have a tragic flaw--Ace falls in love with a hustler, Ginger, and Nicky falls into an ever-deepening spiral of drugs and violence.

The Good: While not as focused narratively as his previous mob masterpiece, Goodfellas, Casino still tells an entrhalling tale with some engrossing, if not difficult to watch, scenes, eclectic characters and fantastic dialogue delivered as only the likes of Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro can deliver. Fast, natural, sometimes even frightening in the casualness of it all, these characters feel real, act real and the fact that they were real makes it all the more frightening. This is like going to a reunion. Not only are Pesci, DeNiro and Scorsese invited, but so is Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the books Casino and Wiseguy (Goodfellas) and their respective screenplays. It's authentic from beginning to end and, let's face it, when it comes to criminals it's hard to not be engaged form the moment DeNiro's car blows up in the first few minutes of the film.

The Bad: As mentioned, Casino likes to jump around a lot. There are a lot of intertwining stories and the storylines become difficult to manage and fully realize, the fact you're going through it for three hours makes you wonder why it needed all that time to not clear it up and focus a little harder on the characters a bit more, something he did beautifully in Goodfellas. It doesn't quite reach the perfect craftsmanship and even poetic beauty of Goodfellas, but it's still one of Scorsese's best.

The Ugly: Pesci. Cornfield. Baseball bat. Still one difficult scene to watch.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Casino Jack

A hot shot Washington DC lobbyist and his protégé go down hard as their schemes to peddle influence lead to corruption and murder.

The Good: Casino Jack isn't so much a compelling film, though Spacey is always compelling no matter what, as it is an intriguing film. As sad as it is, what is depicted in the film is  pretty accurate depiction of politics in general. It's not that people are in it for the masses' best interest, their in it to further their own  agendas. Casino Jack may not offer a lot of insight or newness to that concept, but it still compels you with it because the idea itself in our own reality compels us: this is how our country works and there's nothing we can do about it and guys like Jack are a dime a dozen.

I suppose this is why Casino Jack, despite being based on true events, is considered a work of fiction. It has an agenda and plays it off as a satire of sorts of the actual events themselves. In other words, it's more inspired by than based on. Overall,Casino Jack is full of good performances that are all wasted on mediocrity.

The Bad: It would have been nice if the film added depth to its story, because that is one thing that it is missing and that would have made it a smarter, better film as a result.  The only thing the film has going with it is Kevin Spacey who just owns every scene he's in. I couldn't tell you much about the story only that it's about wheeling and dealing and off-the-books political agendas that are neither clear nor understandable or really give a scope of who is involved in it all and why. It never seems to "say" anything, only show with smart dialogue and good acting a string of scenes that never quite fit into a whole puzzle - more just starting with the border and leaving the inside unfinished.

The Ugly: Jon Lovitz! He's alive! And does a nice little supporting role act as well, I might add.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Catch Me if you Can

An FBI agent tracks down and catches a young con artist who successfully impersonated an airline pilot, doctor, assistant attorney general and history professor, cashing more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in 26 countries.

The Good: Catch Me if you Can could have easily been a traditional caper film. It could take itself seriously and just end up as another drama lost in the shuffle. Thankfully, it doesn’t do any of that. The fact the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, almost as though it’s enjoying itself as much as we are it, is what allows the whole thing to work. It celebrates the time, it is tongue-in and it moves at a brisk tempo that lets you just enjoy it, the characters and the nostalgia at a constant and consistent pace. It’s often considered one of Spielberg’s “lighter” films but it is also one with a lot of heart. DiCaprio’s character’s family is the centerpiece and catalyst for everything and the pain he feels for them, and they for him at times, is etched on everyone’s faces. We pity him, and rightfully so, and can only hope to wish him the best even if what he is doing isn’t necessarily “legal.” The film doesn’t make out those after him to be the “bad guys” either. In fact, there are no “bad guys” in the film, just a man being chased and maybe for the legal reasons, but not necessarily the right ones. It’s a feel good film from beginning to end and you often find yourself happy once the credits start to role. Both Hanks and DiCaprio are fantastic, both obviously having fun with their characters and the time period, and you get to love both of them as they, as the title suggests, run around the world and chase each other. It's one of the more enjoyable and simply entertaining movies Spielberg has ever done.

The Bad: For a movie that is a rather small story, it seems to just never end. The universal critique of it is that, while fun and charming, it’s just far too long for the story it needs to tell. It’s entertaining still, yes, but its length can cause a viewer to keep thinking its going to end, antsy at the expecting of it (and there are numerous times when it feels like it will end) but it just doesn’t.

The Ugly: Walken is great, but he’s almost a parody of himself at this point. Can you believe he won an Oscar? It’s not even the same guy anymore…but that doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoyable.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Catfish

In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sensed a story unfolding as they began to film the life of Ariel's brother, Nev. They had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives. A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.

The Good: An interesting look into friendship on the internet, and how people seem to live a different life through it. The intenet is a mask. You can be anyone and everything, and I don't think I'm spoiling this by saying the friendship developed in Catfish between Nev and an entire family in the mid west. It's endearing, but as we all know, some things are too good to be true. Catfish is able to capture this phenomenon, something we usually only see on a 60 minutes piece or have Chris Hansen cornering pedophiles (actually, possible pedophiles, technically meeting someone isn't breaking the law, not that I'm complaining about utterly embarrassing them which they rightly deserve).

Catfish is more a real-time approach. Instead of a story outside, we're inside. We're with Nev and his friends as things develop and progress and strange mysteries begin to add up. It hits the right beats, some would say too perfectly (making for the often rumored it's all fake, but who really knows) and brings out this entire world of online identity. Who are we, really? Who is the person typing this now? To many, the world online is a better place. They can be whoever they want. To see reality clash with it in Catfish makes for one of the more compelling documentaries you could ask to see, so much so it's uncomfortable to watch.

The Bad: It all boils down to Nev and the filmmakers we see in Catfish. Honestly, they're really hard to like. They feel to be forcing the issue to make a captivating film, making for the oft-rumored "fictionalizing" of some events, rather than have things unfold naturally. They literally go out of their way to confront everything, and they just happen to have a camera while doing it. While the message is still clear, whether certain things are a bit questionable, the impact it has on the characters is lessened as they push things rather than "capture" life.

That's a pretty big "hit" against a documentary. To not at least get behind the people doing it because they, perhaps desperately, want something to happen. It doesn't necessarily feel spitefull on their part, but it does feel desperate and they just lucked out in the end.

The Ugly: More pertinent now than ever.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Cemetery Man

This movie is based on a novel of Tiziano Sclavi, and it always reflects the "sclavian philosophy" diffused by the most succesful comics in Italy: Dylan Dog, the detective of the nightmare. There is the duality between love and dead (in Italian "dellamore" means "of love" and "dellamorte" means "of death"), a duality that Dellamorte feels in a really hard way. He is the guardian of the cemetery of Buffalora, a little town in the north of Italy, in which, we don't know why, corpses rise from tombs and Dellamorte has to destroy them. Dellamorte seems not to ask to himself why this happen, he shoots and loves. But at the end he wants to leave Buffalora...

The Good: If it weren’t for its sensational sense of style and camp, Cemetery Man  (known under various other titles, but mainly its original Italian title of Dellamorte Dellamorte) would be an utter mess of a film. It’s everywhere and attempts everything but never quite comes together. Thankfully, it has such a sense of fun and enjoyment, not to mention a solid leading man Rupret Everett. It’s stylish and full of energy as it throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. Blood. Comedy. Gore. Romance. Thriller. Action. Lots of people getting shot. It’s as though the filmmakers, director Michele Soavi and writer Gianni Romoli (and novelist Tiziano Sclavi) had one of those bags of magnetic words you put on a refrigerator to make sentences and strung together various things to attempt a story and plot from them.

Yet, that is why people love it. It’s the same reason horror fans love the randomness of the Evil Dead films or the over-the-top nature of Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive. It’s right smack dab in the middle of that campy, over-the-top genre that, though it’s not as refined as either of those movies, understands its place among them. It’s not attempting to be a great piece of horror, just a fun movie that’s less about thrills and scares and more about off-the-wall, almost Warner Brothers cartoon-like entertainment. It exudes style, when it’s not exuding zombie brains at least.

The Bad: It can take quite some time for Cemetery Man to really get going. Its pace is already a little loose, but when it finally hits its stride, it’s an absolute compelling and a classic piece of horror entertainment. It doesn’t really bother with “explaining” anything, even hinting at things. Stuff just happens, it goes a little awry and is more a rush of energy than some nicely woven narrative.

The Ugly: Everett has had himself a very strange career. He’s been nominated for awards, most notably My Best Friend’s Wedding and An Ideal Husband, yet has one of the most bizarre filmographies I’ve ever seen. He’s done the fine dramas, Shakespeare, and has played Princes, Kings and Sherlock Holmes...then he’ll do a movie like Dunston Checks In or Inspector Gadget with a ton of voice work in the Shrek movies. I understand every actor has movies they do just for a payday, but never such a massive disparity. I mean...Dunstin Checks In right after fantastic The Madness of King George and then followed by his Golden Globe nominated performance in My Best Friend’s Wedding?

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Centurion

Britain, A.D. 117. Quintus Dias, the sole survivor of a Pictish raid on a Roman frontier fort, marches north with General Virilus' legendary Ninth Legion, under orders to wipe the Picts from the face of the Earth and destroy their leader, Gorlacon.

The Good: Centurion loves ambiguity. It's a story about a Roman legion, or what's left of them, on the run from a group of "barbarian" Pics hunting them down one by one. In most films, the Romans would be the heroes, the Pics the villains, and the lines clearly drawn. Centurion doesn't quite go down that path - its "heroes" are as flawed and brutal as the people they run from; a people that act as they do because of the Romans destroying their land and killing their people. It makes sure to convey this, and as a result we end up with a film that has quite a lot to say about good, evil and the entire concept of war. In other words, we end up with a film that may be an a solid, well-crafted, bloody and brutal action movie in its own right, but a thought-provoking one in the process. It's a film with a point and with a purpose.

This all suits Neil Marshall's talents perfectly. His films always have more working behind the scenes and under the surface than merely films to be cast as a "claustrophobic horror" or "that cannibalism movie." Here, we have much more than just a "gory period action movie." A solid, well-done action movie that has a point to it.

The Bad: A rather unmemorable cast of characters have the effect of simply not caring about what happens to them. This is a story where you very much need to have a distinct set of people to get a little more out of "well, now that guy's dead." While the story has some interesting points to make about war, honor and morality, it only does that with the plot at hand - not so much with the characters despite Michael Fasbender's best effort to be a solid leading man (he succeeds, but just barely while the rest of the characters are entirely interchangeable and forgettable). The dialogue, too, is sometimes out of place and inconsistent. One line will sound of classic tongue, then the next will be a more contemporary line with a few "fucks" thrown in. It simply draws attention to itself and is rather stilted rather than feel natural or believable (especially considering the period).

The Ugly: This is Neil Marshall - if you aren't prepared for the blood and gore, then you should not see this movie.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Le Cercle Rouge

Corey is a cool, aristocratic thief, released from prison on the same day that Vogel, a murderer, escapes from the custody of the patient Mattei...

The Good: Auteur Jean-Pierre Melville made a career on crime thrillers. It's easy to just say that but it's not just the subject matter that defined him, but how he went about doing it. Melville was a master at, what is best described as, patient observation. Le Cercle Rouge is the man at his finest and most grandiose (in relative, Melville restraint, that is). It's a consistently flowing journey into a film about bad men doing bad things that develops into a climatic heist of a jewelry store. It doesn't have your typical Hollywood set pieces or action scenes but plays out more as a morality play of human nature along a flowing river that eventually has to reach an end.

Of course, those "bad" men aren't exactly bad in the traditional sense. They're criminals, and you see them do things from murder to thievery, but at the same time they're never painted as one-dimensional. In a strange way, as is always the case with Melville, you find yourself wanting them to succeed. You don't agree with their actions, but the film manages to make them understandably sympathetic even when they're at their worst. That's because in the world of Melville, everything is just one big shade of gray. You want the good guys to catch them, but you've probably become closer and more invested in what the bad guys are doing.

This dynamic is what makes a Melville picture so unique. He never paints with such defined lines or broad strokes. Le Cercle Rouge is an intimate, understated tale of crime and the various perspectives of it: it is not a cops and robbers story. It's a slow analysis of criminal acts with sophisticated moodiness and intelligent bravado. It exudes cool without trying to be "cool," creates characters that feel real and grounded and is shot in a subtle still frames of classic mise-en-scene development where every layer of a shot is something to observe and take in. You hear the quietness of a room, can smell the rain on a Paris street at night or feel the grimy mud caked on a trenchcoat as a man takes a drag from a cigarette. Mood and atmosphere was second nature to Melville. Here, he is precise, purposeful and, as always,  grim as we see the "just desserts" play out in the final act with characters we aren't "for" but aren't entirely "against" either. Whereas Melville's Le Samourai is a poetic character study, Le Cercle Rouge centers itself on one single act and then has us follow the branches to see what characters spring from it along with the twists and turns and crossings their little paths take them. A masterpiece of noir and suspense, Le Cercle Rouge is a must see for any fan of crime thrillers.

The Bad: Only one: it can take a bit for the story to really pick up and know where it wants to go. At its heart, it's about second chances and testing fate...it just needs a good spark to occur before any of that really starts to happen.

The Ugly: All about this film can be found in the title, and of course the little proverb that Melville always loves to put at the beginning of his films. Here, it's about destiny and that people you meet...you were meant to meet all along...for better or worse.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Chappie

In the near future, crime is patrolled by a mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he  becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.

The Good: Great special effects and solid action, though that action part is pretty sparse as we spend most of the time learning about the world of a criminal right along with Chappie. “Criminal robot” sounds kind of neat, now that I say it outloud. Or write it, actually. But Chappie never even rises to that as the film can’t seem to get a handle on its own ideas.

At least we get some pretty solid Hugh Jackman villain action. Jackman, often, can save a bad movie. Hell, I’ve seen Van Helsing a dozen times solely because he’s awesome in it. Chappie, though, probably doesn’t have enough of Hugh. Instead we’re hanging out with bad actors and bad characters for most of it, which includes Chappie himself.

The Bad: Chappie is horrible. No, not the movie though that is also the case, but Chappie as a character. I hated Chappie. He started off well, I dug the whole childlike wonder he gave us, but then he started to become a gangsta/street hooligan thanks to the three other awful characters in the movie who pretty much make him that. All these people and Chappie are obnoxious, annoying and you want to see killed and you want it to happen nearly immediately you realize that you'll be sitting for the next two hours listening to them talk. Yes, they are the leads, and they're awful.

Deon, Dev Patel who admiringly is trying to his best here, isn't really our lead. Deon kind of starts strong but soon takes a backseat to these street hooligans (because they're not really gangsters now that I think about it, just dumbasses) as Chappie spends nearly all his time with them. Because Deon is absent and our moronic hooligans obnoxious, you’ll soon start to identify with Hugh Jackman. Jackman plays our villain. You don't want to identify with a villain do you? Well you will because Jackman came to play and seems to be the one person I’d rather spend my time with.

Vincent is a sociopath yet so is everyone else in the damn movie and our "Normal" guy in Deon isn't given enough time to relate to. He just whines and complains and eventually you just wish Vincent had bullets in that gun he carries around because everyone needs to be put out of their misery. That might include the audience. Chappie is an idea presented with awful, unrelatable and often obnoxious characters that add nothing to the story and detract everything along the way. There’s no insight to them, to their world, to Chappie’s understanding of them and we end with a climax that falls emotionally flat.

Spoilers in reviews are pretty hackney, so I apologize that I’m actually putting a spoiler here, but honestly you either are going to see Chappie or not and if you haven’t then you won’t care and if you have then you already know:

Spoiler part:

The annoying gangsta characters are brutally murdered and it’s fantastic. You’re not supposed to feel that, it’s not the intention obviously, but when I see a guy get ripped in half by a mech’s claw, I cheered. These characters we’re supposed to care about? Yeah, you aren’t going to, but you can look forward to their deaths.

End Spoiler part.

Chappie is a poster child for potential wasted, right next to Elysium most likely, and I actually didn’t mind Elysium because we at least got an interesting world to play around in and no dumb characters to make me ask myself “why have i not walked out on this yet?" Chappie is dull and repetitive and without a single character to actually care about, which makes me wonder why we should bother caring about Neill Blomkamp anymore as well.

The Ugly: Wait. You have one of the biggest actors in the world in Hugh Jackman to play the bad guy in your movie and you just stick him in a chair with some joysticks? C'mon.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Che

An epic biopic by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh about the life of revolutionary figure Ernesto "Che" Guevara, his missions and approach to bringing freedom to the Cuban people. Che isn't merely about the myth, but about the man.

The Good: If there's one word to describe Soderbergh's Che, it is "Comprehensive." I had seen this movie nearly a year ago, yet could never quite think of what to say about it. It was one of those that sits with you, and you mull around trying to find what to say. It's neither good nor bad, but it certainly covers its bases. One thing you can't deny, other than the comprehensive part, is that it's impeccably shot and acted. Del Toro has what is arguably the crown-jewel of his underrated career, so much that he is completely removed and all we see is Che Guevara. Another thing Che does well is not necessarily take sides. It's a biopic but done more as a documentary simply giving us facts and being reenacted. I think this element is the root of what divides people on this film. There's seemingly no melodrama or emotion, it's just a statement of facts through a timeline. Certainly, this is true, but it's this element, the lack of glorification or deviating from those facts, that actually made me enjoy it probably more than I should have. It shuns the myth and shows the man. It's quietly observant, and one of the finest biopics ever made.

The Bad: Sure, I like how it handles the material, but sometimes you have to know when enough is enough. Che is a chore to sit through. As interesting as the subject is, as capable as Soderbergh is behind the camera (he shot this himself) it doesn't draw you in. The "quietly observant" element I praised has its limits on how much of it one person can take. Four and a half hours isn't a fault as long as the film is engaging enough that you don't even notice. Because the quiet observer is the approach Soderbergh has decided on, it's not a movie that you can really sit through its entire runtime nor is it a film you can find yourself enjoying in doing so. As technically fantastic it may be, this is arguably it's biggest and most glaring fault.

The Ugly: The lack of talk last year for Del Toro as Best Actor was heartbreaking.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Cheap Thrills

A scheming couple put a struggling family man and his old friend through a series of increasingly twisted dares over the course of an evening at a local bar.

The Good: Boy, is it hard to really describe Cheap Thrills. It’s log line is straightforward, as the plot and “concept” itself is, but it’s all in the execution. Cheap Thrills dabbles in a lot of genres, from comedy to outright horror to character drama, but the only broad-stroke is that it’s a thriller. While those other elements may come and go throughout the film, the sense of suspense and absolute tension is constant, and you won’t be able to tear yourself away from it. It takes a simple concept and makes you an active participant.

This low-budget indie flick is what happens when you have a set of solid actors working with a sharp script. It just shines, and you get the sense that everyone in front of and behind the camera are in-tune with each other and the material to a degree that you end up saying “this movie is far better than it probably should have been.” It’s classic grind house thrills but with a lot of brilliance in tone variations, in showing restraint at the right time and having just enough “shocking” moments to make you just a bit squeamish.

The best part is how absolute unapologetic it is. It goes down a path and twists and turns and constantly peels back layers better than some of the “A-List” movies could ever do. It’s willing to and it does without compromise. There’s no way I can say more without absolutely giving it away, but this movie will ensure you remember it.

The Bad: I can’t quite say what is or isn’t bad here. Some things are intentionally bad. Perhaps a “slow start” but you need the build for investment. Perhaps that odd lull in the third act, but after what we just went through you really need a breather. Perhaps that one scene that is a little more stomach-churning than what you were expecting, but the movie is all about escalation so it’s to be expected.

Maybe it having “flaws” and then me wondering if they’re actually “flaws” is the flaw? Perhaps it doesn’t matter because this is absolutely a genre movie made for genre fans. Like Straw Dogs? This is for you. Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer? Sure. Bit of that here too. Slither or other dark horror comedies? Yep. Those kind of movies most people hate but genre fans love…and this I loved. Perfect? Nah, but I don’t care. I’ll watch it again.

The Ugly: There’s a reason why this is nearly 100% on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment. It’s hard to really find anything “bad” about it…though you can certainly find plenty “wrong."

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Chef

A chef who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing back together his estranged family.

The Good: Sweet and charming, and certainly not something you want to watch while hungry, Chef reminds us of the talent and range director John Favreau has when he can stick a passion project like this out there on top of the big-budget blockbusters he has become associated with. This passion project won’t amaze with originality, but that’s not the point. It’s a simple, light and fun story about a father and son finding a connection.

That connection is shown with passion, much like cooking and being a chef comes with passion. The parallels are obvious and work wonderfully in the connections of a chef and the people that eat the food, a father and son who wants to understand him and generations coming together in understanding. It all is on the lynchpin of the doesn’t-act-nearly-enough Jon Favreau as Carl. You feel and understand his passion as a chef and his awkwardness in being a father.

The supporting cast is mainly come-and-goers such as Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Goffman, Bobby Cannavale, Amy Sedaris, Oliver Platt…you know, really good actors that can bring something to the small parts they have. The centerpieces are Sofia Vergara and John Leguizamo, pretty much playing Sofia and John wonderfully, but the son, Percy, is played by Emjay Anthony. And let me just say this: this kid is a name you need to pay attention to. Chef would not work if the chemistry between Favreau and Anthony wasn’t strong, and it’s not only strong but utterly convincing. Chef blends family drama and comedy beautifully thanks to all these people taking an otherwise straightforward script and giving a personality and believability.

The Bad: While the main focus with the father and son is strong, there are a few plot threads that crop up that really don’t go anywhere, namely the one with Robert Downey Jr’s character and another with Scarlett Johansson. They’re filler, but it’s so very loose with them that we really aren’t sure if we should care about them or not - especially in the case of Molly (Johansson) which seems as though there’s something more than just co-workers hanging out.

You tend to forget about them because the film really changes itself up in Act 2, for the better. It becomes a fun road trip movie that shows the new era of chefs out there: not limited by restaurant owners but finding a passion just for their food and a way to deliver it. But that’s also where it becomes the least interesting. While the journey on the road is a joy, there’s little to no drama or major events that happen. Thankfully, the performances from Leguizamo, Favreau and especially Emjay Anthony hold it all together despite the fact that little happens plot-wise and the strong dramatic elements of the first Act seem completely swept aside in favor of an entirely different movie.

The Ugly: Chef is about moments - finding them in your life and appreciating them. Favreau brings out this message wonderfully. Despite the first Act seemingly completely different, you really need it to make the rest of the film make sense, so it’s less a flaw and more an understandable fault.

Now I want Favreau to do more like this. I know he won’t, he’ll go an do some big movie next, but this shows that he still has the ability to go back to his roots. In fact, the film is almost auto-biographical in that sense, only the director is a chef and the product is food instead of movies.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Chernobyl Diaries

Six tourists hire an extreme tour guide who takes them to the abandoned city Pripyat, the former home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. During their exploration, they soon discover they are not alone.

The Good: It's a spooky setting shot actually at Chernobyl (some of it, anyways) and is a great expression of atmosphere done right. You truly sense the dying land, the harm that occurred here, the barrenness and isolation of it all.  The filmmakers knew how to approach the material well, moving in and out of buildings and ruins seamlessly and showing the scope of it all well while still maintaining an intense, intimate sensation to bring out scares (sometimes). It's a spooky setting with great use of hand held camera that allows for a "found footage" feel without having to constrict itself to being a "found footage" movie.  

The Bad: Everything else? Sure, the director knows how to approach the material, but the material itself is mediocre at best, sometimes just out-right awful. The setting is great, but that's thanks to the visuals and smart use of light and shadow for a truly creepy feeling. But it never goes beyond just being creepy. It spends more time with our annoying characters wandering around Chernobyl looking at stuff, including an awful CGI bear that takes you right out of the sensation of actually being there, and anticipating something to scare them when nothing really happens for about an hour or so.

It's cheap, b-grade bunk that isn't even good enough to be enjoyable b-grade bunk. Movies like that can be fun, at least scary, but Chernobyl Diaries wears out its welcome very quickly thanks to characters we care very little about with predictable horror-movie personalities and a whole lot of absolutely nothing happening for a good chunk of the film's runntime. When the most interesting and well-done part of your film is the "let's take a tour" segment, because Lord knows I'm never going to Chernobyl anytime soon, then there's something wrong with your horror film.

The Ugly: Does this show Oren Peli as a one-trick pony? Well, he only wrote it...and he at least shows he can't write worth a damn at all. It does, however, show that director Bradley Parker has a keen eye for thrills and chills, and maybe with better material behind him he could make something really enjoyable down the road.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Chico and Rita

Chico is a young piano player with big dreams. Rita is a beautiful singer with an extraordinary voice. Music and romantic desire unites them, but their journey - in the tradition of the Latin ballad, the bolero - brings heartache and torment.

The Good: If there ever was a visual interpretation of jazz, Chico and Rita would be it. Considering it is a period-drama in the jazz world, full of recognizable jazz icons, popular jazz locals and varying forms of music, it's a unique fit. Dance, bands, singing, vivacious and eclectic colors are the form, jazz is the function. It feels emotional, spontaneous and purposeful as we tell our decades-spanning tale of two people in love. At its heart, it's a musical celebration of the genre and that loveletter mentality shines and is as clear as Dizzy Gillespie wailing on a trumpet.

Chico and Rita is an animated film for adults. Truth is, I hate that term. An animated film is just an animated film. Saying "for adults" gives a presumption that animation is equated to being solely for children. However, in this case it's a bit more truthful. Not merely because there's cursing, drug use, drinking and nudity, but because of how it's handled. Chico and Rita could easily have been shot as a period, live-action drama. It moves slowly, has many moments where the music is simply being observed and the adult-themed story of love is far from typical romances. It's sincere and believable - full of tears being shed, alcohol-fooled jealous rages and heartfelt regrets. It's not that I simply say it's "for adults" as much as me saying "it's a reflection of adults" therefore an older audience would find more within it.

The Bad: Backgrounds and settings are gorgeously rendered in Chico and Rita, but the animation of the characters really leaves a lot to be desired - all the more noticeable when you put one of them, very simple looking with limited expressions, against a gorgeous backdrop full of life and detail. They bring out a sense of floating in space, as though they're not really there. It's often distracting, and although the film can evoke a wonderful sense of emotion despite the simpleness of them, thanks to use of music and mood, they never quite feel grounded in the world that's around them.

On a different level outside the aesthetics, I still can't quite see what Rita saw in Chico. He's brash, temperamental, presumptuous over every little thing and full of jealousy at the drop of a hat (repeatedly). Yet, because he constantly pursues, she keeps giving in. I suppose I just don't buy it entirely. It wouldn't be so frustrating if there weren't flashes of her being strong. One moment she tells him upfront, the next minute she gives in. For Chico, sometimes you pity him, other times it seems the story really goes out of its way to make you hate him, and after a dose of that, your pity can only lead to anger towards him. The story is a lot like the animation in many respects - inconsistent.

The Ugly: There's a bad-guy here that, I swear, I practically expect to mug at the camera and twirl a mustache. You see him and you think "yeah, he's a bad guy." It's kind of comedic how he's drawn.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Children

A relaxing Christmas vacation turns into a terrifying fight for survival as the children begin to turn on their parents.

The Good: The Children is not high art, that much is certain. It's barely passable as a good film. But if there's anything I've learned in the countless films I've seen, "good" and "enjoyable" aren't always in the same boat together. No, it's not particularly good. The script is sloppy, the characters annoying and story absurd. But it is enjoyable thanks to its rather simple idea and presentation. It manages to throw in a morality play in the process, which gives it a deeper layer than merely "kids killing adults." It's unsettling, incredibly uncomfortable at times, and ends with a unique take that I can't say I expected and really puts it all in perspective. I also applaud it for not attempting to be overly-bloody and gory, it's all relatively low-key in that respect. It's not graphic, violent certainly, but after some recent French splatter movies it's tame by comparison. I think by toning it back a bit, you get a sense of the pain being caused, internally and externally, because it doesn't glorify it and instead feels more real. A great, aesthetic decision, as this could have been a massive gory bloodbath that would have undermined the emotional resonance it was going for. It's this element that puts The Children above other films that attempt to try the same plot but don't quite get it right.

The Bad: I think I accidentally listed the problems under good, but that was in passing. I do think it's a sloppy film, almost in need of a more capable director and writer behind it for it to be fully realized, and I also think people give the film a "pass" on this because of its low-budget nature. I do not, because I don't like excuses for anything. It's characters, too, are an annoying bunch. I can understand a parent protecting their child, but most parents aren't so passive to dismiss their friends and automatically take their child's side every time. I'm sure we all can think of times that our parents scolded us, but you don't really see that here. They lock them away, then get upset when others talk bad about them. I simply wasn't convinced on this at all and you end up hating the parents more than anything...then again, maybe there's something it's trying to tell us.

The Ugly: The movie was pretty average until the final moments, which I think were absolutely fantastic and at least raised the final score on my end. It's on DVD now, so check it out. Keep an eye on director Tom Shankland, he's young (and inexperienced) but has a bright future I'm thinking.  

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Children of Men

In 2027, in a chaotic world in which humans can no longer procreate, a former activist agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea, where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of humankind. 

The Good: Humanity is slowly phasing out of existence. Rather than a war or a disease outbreak, we begin to simply stop creating new life. I don't know if there's anything quite as harrowing as this concept. The day to day dealings we have to get through yet still knowing that, eventually, it's going to all end. We're not sure when, it could be in ten years it could be in fifty, but someday the very last human being is going to die and there's nothing we can do about it.

Children of Men is science fiction done right. Hell, it's just moviemaking done right. It's moments of tension and action is lyrical to the juxtaposition of the human condition it so eloquently touches upon. What really makes Children of Men work, though, isn't so much the violence and the drama, but the realism it portrays. This is a very subtly different future. This is a future that you could easily envision, and because it creates such a distinct connection between the now and then, it's able to be that much more relatable and appealing as a result.  Like any good science fiction, it has a firm grasp on social commentary, showcasing everything that human beings take for granted (freedoms, liberties, mortality or simple childbirth) completely off-kilter and unidentifiable yet familiar at the same time because this strange future isn't too far off what we might actually expect in dire times of our own present. It asks the questions, and has us questioning and prodding our minds just as much, and though it's action might undermine it at times, it's one incredibly intelligent piece of fiction.

I think what I've found most interesting, though, is a little hidden. I love (for lack of a better word) the look into the slow demise of humanity: how it will go out as a quiet whisper over time rather than one sudden burst of nuclear destruction or disease outbreak. Looking at the people on screen, from the primary characters to the background extras, you get a sense of the impending doom always being in the back of their minds. They continue to go through their routines, even knowing the end is coming, as some fall-back comfort zone. They fear the truth. They fear death. I love this small, subtle dynamic and while it might not make the headlines as to what the story is about, which is more a chase movie about the last pregnant woman, it is what the film is about at heart.

The real character here, though, is the directing, art design and photography - basically everything visual. Cuaron is one of the best auteurs in the business, with Lubezki one of the best cinematographers by his side to which he was nominated for this film. Cuaron himself already nominated for three Oscars yet with only a handful of credits to his name. He's young, ambitious and a visionary. Children of Men would not be as good as it is if it didn't have his bold hand in it. Its plot shows depth without needing to be forcefull, his approach is daring with the desire to never cut away from action and his subdued approach to the nuances of storytelling and actors' performances shows that he is well beyond his years sitting in the director's chair. His decisions is to use as few cuts as possible. His visual framing and understanding of artistic expression and space blends incredibly well with the rather intimate approach to everything.  You are firmly rooted into every scene with long, drawn out takes no matter how complicated it might appear (ranging from simple walking and talking to complex action with camera trickery for the desired effect) and everything appears as poetry in motion even when shots are fired and bombs are going off.

The Bad: While I don't necessarily having issues with the sudden infertility of humans being unexplained, truthfully I think the "why" is pretty irrelevant and completely works, there's this odd observation I noticed. It's as though in this future, people are, well, a little dumb. Nobody is asking questions in this future despite the end in the back of everyone's minds. It seems as though everyone is content with blissful ignorance. It's not so much that the "why" isn't compounded upon, because it shouldn't be, but more the search for the "why" itself. The Human Project, assuming, is a last resort yet is this strange, lofty and mysterious thing that is never really explained. If such bureaucracy and repressive governments can be found, how is that no longer look into the "whys" or "cures" to this world-wide epidemic is really a part of their agenda? Do they want to see the end of humanity?
I don't have the answers, and the movie doesn't really touch upon asking the questions in this matter. It's a bit of a jumbled mess when it comes to it, actually. So you end up with this weird movie that asks you to always be observing, always asking questions yet if you look too hard into it, you start finding flaws. I have a feeling that having five (yes, five) writers working on this screenplay, being passed off from one to the next, ended up hurting it more than helping it, especially considering "The Children of Men" is only about 250 pages long.

The Ugly: Children of Men is one of those films that, over time, is grow and grow in popularity and be in the same breadth of visionary and compelling science fiction as Scott's Blade Runner,  Lang's Metropolis, Kubrick's 2001 or Tarkovsky's Solaris. "Cuaron's Children of Men" has just a good a ring to it, even if we have to wait a few more years for it to really ring true.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Chinatown

JJ 'Jake' Gittes is a private detective who seems to specialize in matrimonial cases. He is hired by Evelyn Mulwray when she suspects her husband Hollis, builder of the city's water supply system, of having an affair. Gittes does what he does best and photographs him with a young girl but in the ensuing scandal, it seems he was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray. When Mr. Mulwray is found dead, Jake is plunged into a complex web of deceit involving murder, incest and municipal corruption all related to the city's water supply.

The Good: A great film, usually, will stem from a great script. Not always the case, sure. Some great films work without a great script and some great scripts end up being ruined on film. You need not only a great script, but a director that understand it and knows what to do with it as well as a cast that fully grasps the extent of their respective characters. All in all: a "great" film is a rarity. When those things all come together, though, you have a classic.

Chinatown has the luxury of what is considered one of the best scripts ever written, up there with The Godfather, Casablanca and Dr. Strangelove. It's sense of pace, it's slow brew approach and poignant reveals and the eventual heartbreak of an ending, I'd have to say that Chinatown isn't just one of best scripts, but one of the best stories to be told in any medium. To bring out a great script, you still need a great director, of which Polanski is with a steady hand, sense of pace and an understanding of spacial interaction between characters and scenery that is rare, and a great actor, here Jack Nicholson is one of his many great roles from the 1970s (this was already his fourth nomination for an Oscar, he wouldn't win until 1976, though). Nicholson utterly embodies Jake Geddes. He's snide and a complete asshole, obsessed with finding the truth and problematic with getting himself in situations that is only matched by his unique ability to get himself out of those situations. His dialogue flows from Nicholson, as does it ever actor in this film, and you feel that every word hinges on some degree of importance and is far from idle talk (as most great noir films tend to do, from Maltese Falcons of Confidential LAs). Chinatown is a timeless masterpiece that has few in its league.

The Bad: Impossible.

The Ugly: Not gonna happen.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Chop

Lance Reed is forced by a psychotic stranger to confront his duplicitous past. Seeking retribution for a crime, the man forces Lance to reveal his inner most secrets by systematically removing his limbs.

The Good: I'm not entirely sure what I had just watched, but I think I liked it. I think I did. Truth is, Chop is so unique and absurdly entertaining that you kind of can't help but like it. For the horror genre, and Chop is probably more thriller than horror, originality and uniqueness can really go a long way. With a tone of fun and excitement mixed with dark and sometimes just nasty, Chop consistently keeps you on your toes simply based on the fact you haven't really seen a movie like it. Sure, it's a revenge tale, and you've seen hostage stuff in horror more than enough, but not with a ton of near-glee and absolute black humor that Chop delivers.

The Bad: Acting isn't quite up to snuff and the way the film is shot might cause you a headache. A director with a sure-hand and maybe a bit of patience might have turned Chop into a must-see movie. As it is, it's range is limited. The audience here is solely for the horror-fan that can look past its faults and "get" the tone of the movie to have a good time. It's not to be taken seriously, but that joke might fly over the heads of some not because horror fans are better versed and geared for a movie like this, but because the execution is a tad sloppy and you sometimes can't distinguish campy fun to darkly serious.

The Ugly: Chop is a passable movie that really could have been a great one. It has something going for it, I'm not entirely sure what that something is, though.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Chronicle

Three high school friends gain superpowers after making an incredible discovery. Soon, though, they find their lives spinning out of control and their bond tested as they embrace their darker sides.

The Good: Chronicle is brisk, fast and a film that you're surprised is over as soon as it is. It does a lot in its miniscule 83 minutes, though. Nothing feels too wasted, it handles each second with a purpose and, at least up until its final moments, never forces the issue to the point of being ridiculous. It's grounded for the most part, using its POV camera aspect better than just about any POV "found footage" film I've seen in many years. It has a reason to doing it, and is able to give us a view of "superpowers" and special effects we don't see too often.

The film's strength, though, is its characters. It has a simple structure to its story, one that is predictable, but its characters and personalities are what make the most impression. It's all familiar, almost too familiar, but with a fresh twist which makes it seem new again and we end up with an immensely entertaining film.

The Bad: As mentioned, at its core the film is far too familiar for its own good. Where it succeeds is the new perspective, though, not its narrative. Throw in likeable characters and you're at least in store for something entertaining. Chronicle, though, almost feels restrained as a result. As though it could have pushed itself further, but decided not to and ran itself dry by the third act.

The Ugly: The ending of Chronicle really forces the "found footage" aspect of the film to its limits...and it's so absurd that I can't help but roll my eyes out of the convenience of it all. The final act was already a bit hamfisted, but here, though its method and having no choice as it wrote itself into a corner, it's almost laughable.

There are other instances in the film as well. There just happens to be a camera on in a room (which really has no business being on) or there just happens to be a woman with a camera who also just happens to film almost everything for no reason because...well it's never explained. At least not convincingly. The method of the found footage approach is both a good direction for the film, but a hindrance of feeling contrived which works against the entire point of being "found footage."

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Lucy and Edmund Pevensie return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace where they meet up with Prince Caspian for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader. Along the way they encounter dragons, dwarves, merfolk, and a band of lost warriors before reaching the edge of the world.

The Good: You know, there's this whole slew of films that I like to call "passable." That's not an insult necessarily. They're usually well made and entertaining, but you don't retain them afterwards and they're utterly forgettable as time goes on. A lot of movies we just forget over time. They didn't grab us. Such is the case with the Narnia films. All are entertaining and well made, but they're also not particularly memorable either. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is no exception. It's high-fantasy, acquiring great vision but lacking heart.

The "meat" of the film is the climax at the end which goes for a good fifteen minutes or so and is utterly captivating. The effects are gorgeous, the beats are hit spot-on where you really feel the risk and the tension and the imagery it is able to create (very classic iconic visions of myths and lore) is beautifully poetic. Sure, nothing is quite explained as to the how and why or what, but visually it will suck you in and you'll be on the edge of your seat in probably one of the best action sequences in a fantasy film. Dragons and ghosts and giant leviathans and king sand knights and magic swords and crashing ships and lightning from the heavens and evil mist all mushed together for an enthralling 15 minutes or so....it just never stops and is all handled surprisingly well.

The Bad: As is the case with the previous Narnia films, much of what happens is pushed through with unforeseen events. Sometimes even the goals are a bit unclear and convoluted and things just happen for the sake of happening because that's kind of what fantasy is and tends to do. It's also very important to note, though not a fault as it's merely be design, that you must know the story up to the point, because it spends no time really catching you up on things. Characters are paper-thin, with only one having a complete arc and sense of satisfaction when it's all said and done, but knowing the few beforehand can help bring a sense of completion to them.

But the fact is, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, though well made and acted, is a clinical bore of a movie. It never tries to liven things up or attempt anything new or even create a sense of urgency until the final climax. This is primarily because there's no real antagonist, only a situation as it attempts to emulate classic Greek myth was figures on a vessel traversing uncharted waters. Truth is, it needed more of, well, everything.

The Ugly: The final scene, an epilogue of sorts in a way, is eye-rollingly on the nose and over direct.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Cinderella

When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella's fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger.

The Good: It’s a well told tale of Cinderella. Meaning that it’s a classic fairy tale story that is hard to screw up as it interjects some humor and emotion into the tale of a young girl and her prince charming. It’s straightforward but offers new angles in the story without deviating from the classic tale (notably showing us more of our Prince’s story as well, which helps make him better as a character than some abstract goal). Cinderella is Cinderella, it’s how you put the pieces together that make it work and thankfully this production pretty much gets a lot of those pieces down.

While everyone in this movie is quite good, I utterly love Cate Blanchette here. She absolutely owns the evil step-mother role as she delivers her lines with dismissive menace towards Lily James, who in her own right plays the role of wide-eyed wonder and emotional sadness of a destined princess to be and dealing with life, loss and romance. Director Kenneth Branagh is a perfect choice here. There’s a sense of poetic and artistic quality to how the story is told, the actors shot and arranged and all with magnificent art design and special effects that bring the fairy tale aesthetic to life.

That’s what you need here. You need good execution because Cinderella is Cinderella. Branagh knows this approach better than anyone: he’s done some incredible Shakespeare adaptations. Sure, they’re still Shakespeare, but the execution in a movie like Henry V or Hamlet are what make them distinct, unique and worth watching. With that same approach with Cinderella, it may not surprise you and you may know the story, but he and the cast make it worth watching.

The Bad: It’s a well told tale of Cinderella. Meaning it’s not going off the beaten path or attempting new things in doing so. It’s very matter-of-fact in how it all progresses as it hits all the beats in has to hit to work. “Oh, you are my fairy godmother and this is totally normal.” “Of course I talk to animals.” “Naturally thisis going to end well for me.” “I’m not happy as a Prince…” man, in that scene the movie is screaming “Stretch this out!” as much as possible.

Look, it’s a fantasy world, of course, but the sense of wonder falls flat because, to everyone here, it’s just a normal day and it feels as though it’s simply trying to extend its own runtime. Dialogue and each scene is tongue-in-cheek and borderline self-aware that it’s a fairy tale.

What I mean is…it’s Cinderella…and as great as it is that they didn’t screw it up, it’s also entirely unnecessary if we’re not doing a little more than your base story of boy meets girl, glass slipper and all that. I suppose you could say it’s the definitive live-action Cinderella, there’s a ton of those already, and it feels utterly bemused to be focused on the animated Disney take, but then it just feels less a passion project to create that definitive version and more “we have this property let’s just do it.”

After some time, Cinderella transforms into a background movie. A movie that you already know every beat and scene to and only look up to appreciate the good visuals (because make no mistake, it’s a gorgeously shot, dressed and designed) because the story you know completely. It’s a well made movie that doesn’t feel all that special.

The Ugly: One plot point is weird, it happens in the third act and comes from nowhere.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Citadel

An agoraphobic father teams up with a renegade priest to save his daughter from the clutches of a gang of twisted feral children who committed an act of violence against his family years earlier.

The Good: Atmosphere can go a long way in a horror movie. In fact, for me personally, establishing a setting and a "feel" to the story is more important than anything. That doesn't mean other things can be neglected, we'll get to that in in a moment, but it goes a long way in giving a sense of suspense and dread. In the urban decay of Citadel, it absolutely nails that feeling: you do not want to be here. It's unsettling in atmosphere alone, which is why Citadel works well as a horror setting even if it falls short as a horror movie.

Writer/director Ciaran Foy keeps it simple and straightforward. The story isn't complex, the situation speaks for itself and with good characters that's about all you need. Here we have Aneurin Barnard really carrying this whole film and doing it well. His character of Tommy is afraid, and you are so much in his head and understand his situation to a degree of personalization that makes you feel his plight, that Barnard's performance becomes all that more impressive when you realize he has such a simple story with so many holes yet makes it all work.

James Cosmo is "The Priest" and though we know little about him, he's commanding on screen and as much a presence as the world around these two as they look to save Tommy's kidnapped daughter. Though better in concept than in execution, Citadel might just be up horror fans' alley even if it might end up polarizing them.

The Bad: I really wanted to give Citadel a glowing review. I think, for genre fans at least, it will hit the right marks and maybe some of the issues can be overlooked. It looks good, it has a great tone, it has a fantastic sense of tension and atmosphere, but it boils down to one serious question that is never answered: do the police not exist in this world?

There's a major dose of belief suspension you HAVE to have to accept that the only way these characters can do anything is to take up arms themselves, because if any man went to a police station and told them a bunch of feral children kidnapped his infant son and he knows exactly where they are, I'm pretty sure they would do something about that. It's just one of those thoughts that is constantly in the back of your head as you're watching an otherwise well-put-together horror picture. It undermines everything, from the plot to the themes to the allegory. It's just too much of a hard pill to swallow.

There are other questions here too - why is killing everyone the only answer, how do you know there aren't other innocent children in the building, why does the priest have such an agenda and death wish...but these are all minor compared to that one little voice screaming "call the cops." As much as the film wishes to convey that this urban setting is it's own world with its own rules, we see plenty of people and places outside of that realm which our characters interact with and are a part of, so it's not self-contained. It's not "we gotta do it all ourselves." They don't even try (for comparison, in Attack the Block which also was housed in a decaying, inner city environment, it's about those two worlds coming together to work when the authorities are overrun...here they don't even give the authorities a call). Due to that, we're left with not so much a sense of it being a bad film as much as it is an immensely disappointing one.

The Ugly: There's a better version of this movie out there. This one almost had it, but that one hiccup is a doozy and simply too much for the rest of the film to overcome. More quest

Final Rating:  2.5 out of 5


Citizen Gangster

WWII vet Eddie Boyd is torn between providing for his young family and an unfulfilled dream of becoming a Hollywood star. He discovers a way to do both, but his dream leads him down a path of danger and tragedy.

The Good: Don't let the word "gangster" in the title fool you, this isn't just about Edwin Boyd, the bank robber, but is a character study of Boyd, the man, and a look at a world post World War II where not everyone returned home to open arms and good jobs. Boyd struggled, like many, and his acts were a result of desperation, not malice.

But we see him grasp on to it - a man needing something to grasp on to. Robbing is both an outlet for him, he most certainly is enigmatic if not gleefull as he holds people at gunpoint, as well a burden as he is, at heart, a family man. He loves his wife, his children and wants to provide for them. This is interesting in the fact that, more often than not, movies about gangsters (especially those with Type-A personalities like Boyd) are often robbing for the sake of robbing. Here, it's a necessity due to the dire times and he takes all the bad, the paranoia of looking over your shoulder, not knowing who to trust and being arrested, along with the good: a wife and children that are happy and love him.

Citizen Gangster is a wonderfully acted film, Scott Speedman as Boyd giving a fantastic and complex performance, but is notably beautifully shot. The world looks cold, bitter, harsh...a reflection of the world Boyd is trying his best to make ends meet in, if not the way it looks in his mind to begin with. Writer/director Nathan Morlando, in his first feature, may not have a full-on steady hand from beginning to end, but he understands patience, how to set a scene and certainly how to allow his actors to simply act and captivate you. It's contemplative, allows you to think but not be bored, and certainly gives you more to take in than a simple story of a man and his gang robbing banks.

The Bad: After an hour, there's not much more that Citizen Gangster has to offer. It makes one wonder if it wouldn't have been better suited for a lengthy short-film than an hour and 45 minutes of repetitive narrative. It goes through some pretty typical motions for a film, hits some elements strong (Boyd and his family) and others not so much (The gang's relationship, none of who I even remember the names of, and the celebrity status of Boyd). It's a mixed bag of a movie that gets right really right, and not-so-right as completely forgettable.

As astounding as Speedman is as Boyd, there's no denying he is a conflicted and complex character as we see him, there's really no exploration to the reasons why that is. He's emotionally unstable - being rather sulky and depressed one moment then as charismatic as the papers make him out to be the next. He simply is as he is, and that's about all we have to work with. Considering that's all Speedman had to work with, it makes his performance that much more captivating, but the character unfortunately that much more shallow. This is, at its basic core, a biopic and an exploration into the deeper, emotional state of the character (especially the rather washed-over relationship with his father, played by Brian Cox who might as well been credited as a cameo) would have been a great asset to this story

The Ugly: The final five minutes or so are so beautifully poetic, that it overshadows any issues the film might have had. End on a big note, as they say.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Citizen Kane

A group of reporters who are trying to decipher the last word ever spoke by Charles Foster Kane, the millionaire newspaper tycoon: "Rosebud." The film begins with a news reel detailing Kane's life for the masses, and then from there, we are shown flashbacks from Kane's life. As the reporters investigate further, the viewers see a display of a fascinating man's rise to fame, and how he eventually fell off the "top of the world."

The Good: I had originally planned just to say "do I need to go on about this one?" and call it a day. I easily could. Of all the books, reviews, analysis, papers, essays and everything else done and written about Citizen Kane, I won't cover a single bit of new territory when trying to list what's "good" and "bad" with it. Truth is, if you're reading this you've proably already seen it, so when I go on about the unique use of camera with stark lighting, thematic motifs, depth of field and tricks you probably already know what I'm talking about just as if I describe the tight, complex scripts that was years ahead of its time and based on one of the most powerful men in history of the United States. I'm willing to be you probably know about Orson Welles' performance, the make up, the varying degrees to which he portrays Kane, or Joseph Cotton, always but always one of the finest actors of his era. Sure, I can go and  say those things "are good" but merely pointing them out does more than enough. You know they're good, spectacular, artistic if not a bit pretentious on top of it all.

So I'll say what Citizen Kane surely is, other than a landmark: it's the purest definition of "cinema" to me. It's not at the top of "Best of all time" lists merely because it's so impeccably made, it's because people can look at it, what it achieved, and realize the validation it gives to the world of movie making as a legitimate art form. It is the ambassador, the shining example, the poster child of everything that was, is and will ever be when it comes to motion pictures. It's that reason that people appreciate it so, why it's always, decades and decades after it squeezed in one Screenplay Oscar and was overlooked on everything else (notably Best Picture to which went the Ford film How Green Was My Valley which isn't even in that director's list of "greats" as is), that people think so fondly of it. It will continue to play that role because no other film will have that impact, that daringness against societal norms and taking on threats to see it through, or sense of artistic vision well ahead of its time. This is and will always be the greatest film ever made.

The Bad: Citizen Kane demands rewatching, not for its appreciation, however, but because it is a series of scenes that you simply must pay attention to across all four corners. It's complex and you see ever single shadow, angle and bit of dialogue had thought put into it. Not a single word wasted. Not a single shot thrown in for the hell of it. To appreciate it, if not fully understand it, you have to watch it numerous times.

The Ugly: Joseph Cotton wasn't even nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Now that is crime, but it's not surprising considering the lukewarm reception Kane originally got in the first place. It's amazing how time changes things. Kane is the greatest film ever made, Cotton credited as the "glue" that holds the thing together and the fact it didn't win in 1941 has been a stain on the Academy for decades that they will never overcome - nor should they.

Final Rating: I sometimes have to laugh at the absurdity of putting numbers on reviews. But it makes for easy categorization, I suppose.


City Island

The Rizzos, a family who doesn't share their habits, aspirations, and careers with one another, find their delicate web of lies disturbed by the arrival of a young ex-con (Strait) brought home by Vince (Garcia), the patriarch of the family, who is a corrections officer in real life, and a hopeful actor in private.

The Good: Even if City Island doesn't really set itself apart from the indie-comedy pack, it's still a well done, written and acted piece (and even has now-indie staple Alan Arkin) small film about family and the lies families tell and the secrets they hide. It could have been overbearing as a drama going by those words, but it lightens it up with its performances and a surprisingly very engaging and comedic performance by Andy Garcia. It's not "fully" funny, of course. It's in that now-hop genre dubbed "dramedy" that the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways find footing in, but it certainly will get some laughs and grins as it's as much poking fun at New Yorkers as it is about them.

If you play with nitroglycerin, you're bound to have a major explosion. Here, the lies and secrets are the nitro and the ultimate explosion is a flurry of every emotion a person can go through. Anger. Sadness. Anxiety. A tad bit of humor and lot of tears as the characters come to revelations and, one by one, you feel it alongside them. Things are exposed and people are stripped bare of the walls they have built and Andy Garcia, an actor who probably has never quite achieved the notoriety he deserves over the past few decades as some fantastic supporting roles, could be offering us up his finest performance ever. City Island is a movie where the conclusion is obvious because it can't end any other way, and you feel a great sense of satisfaction and even burden off your own shoulders once it does because you shared so much of it with the characters.

The Bad: The focus here is Garcia, plain and simple. However, the film wants to touch on every family member and their own perspectives and issues at hand. A wife who feels the love is gone, a daughter not telling her parents her newfound career and a son with a...fetish for overweight women? One of these is not like the other, the son certainly a footnote to the film and a character that sadly has no arc or purpose to the story, but two more characters that probably should have been dealt with a little more as well. They feel distant but at the same time off-putting whereas with Garcia we're invited into his world and the issues at hand. Perhaps if the ending weren't so strong and we see all these actors really lay it all out there, the earlier lack of development wouldn't have been as noticeable. Instead they really force them into a conclusion whereas Garcia's character evolves far more naturally and poetically.

The Ugly: The son is not only a footnote, but he is quite the annoying little character too. Then he just ends with the film with no sense of understanding or resolution with the rest of the family (whom he treats a bit like crap through most of it). He is certainly the standout issue of the film and pretty damn off putting at that.

Final Rating: 3.5 out 5


Clash of the Titans

Perseus has to rescue Andromeda, before she has to marry a monster. Zeus has set up a few tests for Perseus on the way, like capturing Pegasus, defeating Medusa, and finding a way to kill the dreaded Kraken.

The Good: As one of Ray Harryhausen's final films, it occurred to me that many of his films have the same thing in common: they were his films. Who were the directors? Nobody. Only there to serve the need of special effects. Who were the leads? All no names: Jason, Sinbad and Perseus were all young leads that were new on the scene. Again, only cast to portray the rather one-dimensional archetypes they were to represent. Clash of Titans slightly alters the formula by putting known actors into the supporting roles, and who better to play Zeus than the greatest living actor of the time: Lawrence Oliver? Though he was on the downturn of his career, he was still Lawrence Oliver. The story is a fable, as most Harryhausen films tend to be, and is structured so there are two things we get out of it (and, really, the same structure many special-effects and adventure movies are today).

The one thing that Clash of the Titans does better than previous, similar films, is that its cast is far better and characters far more intriguing. Not only that, Olivier and Meredith are two actors who seem to just be having an absolute blast with their characters, making them all that much more enjoyable to see because they know exactly what kind of movie this is.

The Bad: Hamlin's Persueus, however, is relatively shallow. He's a solid lead actor, but the character is unfortunately so underwritten that he seems more a framework of a cliched archetype than a character with a personality and weight behind him. His backstory has more drama, emotion and substance the actual living, breathing character on film. The script, while certainly epic, isn't a very tightly written one and the some of the action sequences far less compelling and inventive than what we might be used - save for the fantastic and tension-filled fight with Medusa, arguably one of the best moments in film history. The story tends to rush through itself towards the end, suddenly bringing everything to a final climax seemingly earlier than it should have been...as though this titan was pulling its punches rather than following it through.

The Ugly: Though it blasphemy, truth be told the special effects for Clash of the Titans really wasn't a major leap from what they were twenty years prior with Jason and the Argonauts. It's just that they are done with more refinement even if the techniques and "look" is identifiable. If anything, seeing Clash of the Titans puts Jason and the Argonauts even higher and showing just how amazing those 1963 (and, even prior) effects were.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Clash of the Titans (2010)

The mortal son of the god Zeus embarks on a perilous journey to stop the underworld and its minions from spreading their evil to Earth as well as the heavens.

The Good: A gorgeous looking and special-effects laden adventure tale that, quite honestly, is  harken back to the days of Sinbad, Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts if there ever were one. This is certainly a good thing as it seems at this stage, those classic special-effects infused Harryhausen tales are brought to full realization. Leterrier handles the material well when it comes to action, that much is for certain. It's entertainment for entertainment sakes, and in that light it works well...though it is a dim bulb.

The Bad: Here's the thing about Clash of the Titans. Like the original, there's an "it is what it is" mentality to it. The original was a special-effects driven, basic and rather shallow tale that gave us adventure, and so does this version. The problems of the original are reflected in this reimagining. Characters are pretty one-dimensional, the story is only there to serve the next special effect and the acting ranges from bad to passable. Unlike the original, there's one additional problem with this updated version - everything is just a little too neat. What I mean is that there was a certain charm, if not heart, in the presentation of the original film. Perhaps it was the Harryhausen effects, or the actors understanding their roles and intentionally hamming it up, but the melodrama here (still hammy but taking too seriously) and the pristine effects just seem to be going through the motions rather than really be captivating: like a classic Shelby versus a sleek new Mazda with tinted windows and spoilers. There's just more to be said about the craftsmanship of that old Shelby than the sleekly quiet Mazda. Sometimes being too extravagant makes for an unappealing final product and loses focus that it's still four seats and a wheel at the end of the day.

The Ugly: Damn, this is actually a really good cast, but the Gods are far more interesting than those pathetic mortals. There's a disconnect here between the human characters that I just flat-out did not like. It's like a bunch of mannequins moving their lips than actual, living and breathing people. This transitions to the story. In a movie like this, you need substantial characters to really guide you through its series of effects and set pieces. This movie just doesn't quite have it and you find yourself bored and uncaring when you shouldn't be.

Also, at this juncture, this is my vote for most disappointing film of the year. Leterrier could have brought us something so much better (and, supposedly, much was cut per studio notes...so we'll see once a DVD hits)

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


A Clockwork Orange

Protagonist Alex DeLarge is an "ultraviolent" youth in futuristic Britain. As with all luck, his eventually runs out and he's arrested and convicted of murder and rape. While in prison, Alex learns of an experimental program in which convicts are programmed to detest violence. If he goes through the program his sentence will be reduced and he will be back on the streets sooner than expected. But Alex's ordeals are far from over once he hits the mean streets of Britain that he had a hand in creating.

The Good: Malcolm McDowell owns this movie and embodies his role to absolute perfection. Really one of the best performances in film history, he has become synonymous with Alex even to today; as though the two can’t be separated. The voice over narration and his voice makes this movie work and pushes the story forward. Daringly directed, the film balances a small, paranoid reality with a fanatical surrealist quality, both visually and with its narrative, showing the duality of human existence and of our title character. It’s a bold film from numerous perspectives, notably philosophically and an observation of societal problems, apathy and hypocrisy.While it's just as deep as Kubrick's other pieces, it also manages to give us a very interesting look at a dystopian future where violence rules, laws are made to be broken (as though it's a badge of honor) and any man with a knife and completely lacking morals can become king.

The Bad: Probably the quintessential Kubrick film, it’s a slow-paced, talkative and ideologically-ridden piece that more or less conveys Kubrick’s own belief and commentary on society, hence why he was so attracted to the book. Often, when a filmmaker goes out to make a “message” movie that is more or less a mouthpiece for them, we can get a bit of a messy film. A Clockwork Orange is no exception and more or less proves the fact. Far from understated as some of Kubrick’s other works, such as Dr. Strangelove or Barry Lyndon, it puts it all out there, more or less preaching, and can cause you to turn away from its pretentiousness (although some may say the director does this to shock us into this world, the air of needing to feel self-important still resides). There’s also an issue with the language, which was also prevalent in the book, and it doesn’t help when trying to understand what was going on with the made up slang of Burgess’s world.

The Ugly: The rape scenes are still pretty brutal to this day. The film has an all-around aura of uneasiness and discomfort…which is exactly what Kubrick wanted you to feel. Unfortunately, as per usual by this point, we hear bad things about Stanley Kubrick and his often unchecked ego during production.  

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Cableman Roy Neary is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountainlike image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy and the agents both follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.

The Good: While George Lucas’s film broke box-office records in 1977, Spielberg’s masterpiece of science fiction was released to critical acclaim and box office success. How does one shoot an intangible thing like “awe” and “wonder?” Well, Spielberg did. In fact, he would go on to do that for the rest of career. But it all started with this (notoriously over budget) film that was his dream project from the very start. Close Encounters appears so simple on the outside. It tells of obsession and the strange draw of people to mysticism. They want their questions answered. They might even lose their minds if they don’t, and we go on their journey with them as they avoid military personnel and scientist and push their friends and family away until culminating in one of the finest climaxes and endings of any film. But it’s more than just that. Hollywood loves aliens and UFOs visiting, but there was never a “real” approach to them outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey (of which there are no aliens, only theories of them) and the legendary The Day The Earth Stood Still (to which Close Encounters owes much to). Often they would arrive to the United States, destroy landmarks and kill anything that moves. Close Encounters transcends that rather shallow and gullible notion that everything wants to kills us and is a story about communication. We reach out, they reach out, and maybe we can shake hands in the middle while we sit and awe of something that we can’t comprehend. It’s the human condition in ethereal believability blended in with real emotion and real people. What sets it so above all else, though, is the idea of plausibility. Much of this can be thanks to the fantastic acting, which is never campy but rather subtle and down-to-earth, and the slow progression and reveals that come through. Not twists, necessarily, but more like those awes and wonders finally becoming reality as ships dart down a road or shadow mountain finally stretching up over the horizon. There hasn’t been many plausible movies about aliens, but it wouldn’t matter anyway. Every person, more or less, thinks of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the way it would all probably go down and those monuments of ours won’t be blown to smithereens….at least we can hope.

The Bad: Close Encounters is about patience. Maybe a little too much. I can appreciate the willingness to not give us instant gratification, it is a mystery film at heart, but it tends to move quite slow for what it wishes to tell us and newer cuts of the film have it going even longer. But length of a movie isn’t a flaw, unless it is absolutely unneeded. Close Encounters uses every second with a purpose so it doesn’t drag however a lot of that might depend on the viewer and his or her interest in the subject matter. The second act, showcasing the obsession of Roy, is usually the point that many lose interest. It’s a hill that has to be climbed and leaped over for the finale. I think it’s worth it, though, and over the years others have really caught on to the pure brilliance of this, easily one of Spielberg’s masterpieces.

The Ugly: There are various cuts of this film, one notoriously showing the inside of the alien ship at the end. If you want to know the definitive version, watch the 1998 Collectors Edition overseen by Spielberg. It’s basically the 1977 version with some tighter editing and better scenes and is the one the illustrious director considers finally “final.” There’s the regular 2001 DVD and the 2007 version which contains it and the other two more well-known versions as well. But just stick with the final one, and lets not get any more confused than we already are.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Cloud Atlas

An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

The Good: I can't recall the last time I saw a film on the level of scope that Cloud Atlas brings to the table.  Here, it's not just visually and physically as we travel through distant time periods, though that certainly is the most prominent element. Rather, it's the scope of an idea. Here it's just one, and how that idea transcends through time and our own existence. It's a small idea at heart, but the relationship of that idea to the human condition is damn near overwhelming. Cloud Atlas is damn near overwhelming, putting together numerous threads and genres in to one universal theme. Flashes of DW Griffith's Intolerance can be seen throughout, and Cloud Atlas takes a lot of elements of that epic masterpiece and wields it with a modern flare. The stories and approach is new, but the theme is ever so classical and poetic.

The single most impressive thing about Cloud Atlas is how it edits together so many different stories and ideas and themes, and we become so invested in all of them. It uses music cues and sound effects and voice over to transition seamlessly from one to the other, and our thoughts and feelings from one carries along with them as connections of themes and characters and philosophical concepts that are so easily given to us without ham-fisting the dialogue weave their way throughout the story. You soon find yourself enveloped within it, buying its approach and presentation without even knowing it.

This is a dense film, but not a difficult one to grasp. In other words, it's complex, but not convoluted. It's dense in ideas, the stuff you would think about afterwards, than it is in how it simply tells its stories which consume you and you become invested in the plots and characters of each, then reflect afterwards about the connections the film strives to make for you to interpret. The stories themselves are very straightforward, the ideas they bring up, however, are not and your thoughts about the film will certainly not be straightforward either.

The Bad: I don't know if I can "dislike" this film. From it's sheer lyrical audacity alone, I would find a crime to point out the flaws. Movies like these are so rare, I applaud more the fact it was made at all than what it actually ends up achieving or where it might fall short.

But there is one element that can noticeably cause apprehension, and it's really in the way the film structures itself. As we cross-cut through time and stories, the film also attempts to showcase a continuing cycle of actions and reactions, choices and fates. As a result, we get this odd sensation of starting and stopping again as we reset to certain Acts and never quite get the full story on all of them. In some cases, stories are simply put together with large chunks missing, then many just shoving their way to the exit door without a sense of true and satisfying conclusions.

We leap and jump, and many build wondrous stories, but never quite show the "completion" of a full circle that the film tires to paint due to the many starts and stops we have to be subjected to. There's numerous rise and falls of strong emotional investments, and you feel that they have ended, but then you realize that the story isn't over yet. It still has two hours...and you'll have that feeling at least a half dozen times in the way the film manipulates you. It's a great sensation when it happens, but also shows you need serious patience and acceptance of that type of structure.

The Ugly: Movies like this rarely get made, and going by the fact that nobody went to see it, there's a good reason why. You can't blame the movie makers for not making more movies like this when nobody really shows any interest to watch them in the first place.

You'll not see a more ambitious film this year, or even the past few years...and probably the next few years to come.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Cold Fish

When Syamoto's teenage daughter is caught stealing, a generous middle-aged man helps resolve the situation...

The Good: I had seen Cold Fish some time ago. I got some European DVD, or maybe it was a region-free Asian one, and was looking quite forward to seeing it. I expected it to be pretty brutal, violent and gory as hell. It was a Shion Sono film, afterall, and that pretty much comes with the territory. I sat and watched for two and a half hours, the stopped and absolutely couldn't think of what to say about it. It turns out I didn't even write any notes, save for one: "damn, this is gory."

Cold Fish is one of those films you have to let digest for a bit. I did just that and still didn't know what to say. Actually, I did know what I wanted to say ("damn this is gory") but I didn't know HOW to relay that in a review. I knew the film was much, much more than that, tapping into some ancestral human instinct of violence and brutality in an area of submissiveness and niceties - particularly when it comes to men - and putting it right in the face of the audience. After watching it again, watching it again saying it had to have been doing something right, I suppose, I finally thought of the what to say: Cold Fish is just brilliant. It's easy to not think about that when someone is shoving body parts on screen (internal and external, and some genitals) but when you think of the "why" it's doing that, you realize it has a hell of a lot more to say than "damn, this is gory."

Truth is, Cold Fish, a double-entrende of a man in the fish business but a "cold fish" himself, has much to say about the place of a passive male in a world full of turmoil. Is there a place for such a person? In Sam Pekinpah's classic film Straw Dogs, we're given a similar theme: even the most timid man has a breaking point. If you push far enough, he will snap into his animalistic nature and fight a visceral evil with equal visceral vengeance.

Cold Fish follows this same method but goes one step further to say that going that far to fight evil with evil , to actually cross that line, isn't something you can come back from. More specifically, Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs was a clear 'good' in his fight. He crosses that line but we understand his position and clearly who the 'bad guys' are as he defends the life of he and his wife. Here, Cold Fish isn't quite as optimistic or, at the very least, defined in it boundaries. Once you cross that line, there's no going back. It's brutal and unrelenting and you come to understand that it's not just about the breaking point of a man, but it's also about his fall as a human being. Then again, like Straw Dogs, maybe this is what human beings naturally are. The more you suppress it, that animalistic and brutal nature, the more destructive it will be once it is finally unleashed.

Mitsuru Fukikoshi plays our lead character, Syamoto, in what is one of the finest performances I've ever seen. The range and brevity he shows here is astounding as we spend two and a half hours slowly watching him stew until it just boils over in a rush of blood, violence, sex and gore. Like the film itself, Syamoto starts at one stage and tone and slowly moves 180s degrees to something else entirely. So much so that both Syamoto and the film itself are unrecognizable from their humble, straightforward beginnings. It's practically a sleight-of-hand because you don't even realize it's happening until the end, then you realize it was actually happening all along.

The Bad: There's no doubt in my mind that Cold Fish is going to not sit well with people. It's masochistic and chauvinistic to the absolute extreme and not something to be taken in for a light evening at the movies. However, even film fans of this nature, who contemplate it's thematic motifs and digest its message, still might have a sense of anger towards it. Cold Fish is so raw that it boarders on depravity, making its own interesting ideology become lost in the method of madness if holds firm to. It's odd, but it's a film that could easily be as abhorred as it is applauded for its daringness.

As much as I want to recommend Cold Fish, it comes with that caveat. It might be far too over-zealous for its own good, not dissimilar to Shion Sono's previous films such as Noriko's Dinner Table, Strange Circus or Suicide Club, also good films but with a similar caveat themselves, or even certain films of Takashi Miike, notably Ichi the Killer and the ever-troubling Audition. If those are films you're familiar with, you will no-doubt enjoy this dark (occasionally humorous in a shocking way) violent film. If not, then perhaps Cold Fish is something you should prepare for to know if it's the type of film you should see. You will grimace. You will squirm. You will cover your eyes even though you might also laugh a bit at the absurdity of it all. But it's absurdity with poignancy, as strange as that might sound. It's not meant to be enjoyed, despite some dark humor, but is one meant to ponder on and think about what it's saying as you watch the blood fly.

The Ugly: I've used the words raw, brutal, visceral and gory throughout this review. This isn't "fun gore" though. This very real, very nasty stuff. When it comes to blood and gore, it's entirely about context and tone. Certain films flourish with blood and body parts, but maybe they're meant to be fun with it, if not goofy. Here, the tone is serious, but not necessarily disturbing. You'll just feel a little gross and dirty afterwards, especially if you're of the male gender and to see men do some pretty awful things to just about everyone.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Cold Weather

Doug returns home to Portland, Oregon after dropping out of college in Chicago. When his ex-girlfriend, Rachel, materializes and subsequently disappears, Doug sets on an investigation with his co-worker, Carlos, as the two men put their love of old detective novels to use.

The Good: A minimalist, character-driven mystery movie. That is something I enjoy seeing on paper. As a fan of mystery and suspense genres, I've found the restrained and focused far surpass the conspiracy theorized plots of larger-scale film. That's why I was drawn to Cold Weather and, for the most part, it meets those expectations. It's less concerned about twist, reveals and confrontations and more about the reality of a mind wandering and hands trembling. If real people dig deep into a question needing answering, it might play out a bit like this.

In our heads, we like to think we would be brave enough to investigate the mysteries that come our way, or steal something from someone or make some plan. In reality, which Cold Weather explores, we sit in silence and wonder if and when we can, how would be act? There are moments when our characters doubt and sense the tension. They contemplate and wonder if they should act or not...and we get all this by them not uttering a word. Cold Weather utilizes its visuals remarkably well, the directing and cinematography simply could not be better, and the actors full of expression and thoughts on their faces. Cold Weather might have made a nice silent film if it were made in the 1920s.

The Bad: Cold Weather begins down one path. It takes you on a road where you feel it will be a small-scale, contemporary Sherlock Holmes mystery. Then it goes somewhere else that, unfortunately, makes the film seem as though it could have been so much more. Perhaps it didn't have the willingness or assuredness to do it, but it feels as though it just falls short of being brilliant.

Due to it's own timidness or even its lack of seeing itself all the way through, thinking back to the slow, sluggish pace makes it feel more tedious than deliberate. That sense of lacking resolution and open-endedness makes you wonder if the entire journey was worth it to begin with. Up to that point, it's a wonderful small movie that's well shot, well acted and has a point...then it loses its point and thus everything else seems lesser as a result.

The Ugly: I'll first say that Cold Weather is a good movie, but it will not appeal to most people. It's just shy of being digestible much less a great film. It reminds me a bit of last year's Melville-inspired The American, but even then it doesn't quite have the character study of that picture though it has equal art-house appeal to fans of European mood. I see Cold Weather as something that, if it reached a little further, it might have grasped a lot more. It seems set in its place, however, and fine with being "good, but not great."

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Collector

Desperate to repay his debt to his ex-wife, an ex-con plots a heist at his new employer's country home, unaware that a second criminal has also targeted the property, and rigged it with a series of deadly traps.

The Good: I'll tell you what The Collector is not, perhaps in an attempt to explain why it's surprisingly decent as a little independent horror film: it's not some stock Hollywood, predictable and unintentionally funny horror movie (ala The Stepfather which I've recently reviewed). It's uncompromising, brutal, gory and overall, simple. There's not a huge amount of backstory or even a hint as to motive other than that there is a purely evil man and he does purely evil things. Unlike the Saw films, this from the writers of that, it doesn't bog itself down with some sort of "message" or "history" with all that is going on. It's streamlined, simple and, and this is even more surprising, very well shot. The construction of the scenes and the smart use of the camera is incredible, especially considering the confined nature of this one house the film takes place in. It had no budget, no stars (the actors here are actually quite good, especially Josh Stewart in the lead) and barely a script to go off of, yet is entertaining even if it can't quite get past our suspension of disbelief.

The Bad: The Collector is based off a short (or more a trailer of a short) and it shows. There is a lot of filler and strenuous moments of the film really trying to lengthen itself. There is also an attempt at a story to our main character which makes him sympathetic (he's not exactly a "good guy" either) but ultimately doesn't go anywhere or reemerges until the very end. Dunstan and Melton also takes cues from their Saw scripts and implements the idea of elaborate traps built around the house. Although this seems minor, simply a means to an end to have something interesting occur, it's actually the film's biggest flaw. So elaborate are these multitude of trip wires, cogs, pulleys, sharp objects and so forth, you can't help but ask the question "when and how did he manage to put them all up?" Surely he didn't do it while the family was asleep (it's not even midnight yet) and he most certainly didn't do it in the few hours they may or may not have been gone for dinner or something. This is never explained and is really the hardest part of the film to swallow. If it were just a home invasion and a typical slasher movie, which Dunstan's short Midnight Man implied, it would have worked much much easier and certainly more believably.

The Ugly:
Just a warning, this is very nasty and gory film that arguably rivals the Saw sequels in many respect. The difference, though, is that the traps here are more grounded rather than some sort of puzzle. They're just things thrown out there to hurt people, not a timed puzzle before something snaps your head back. Everything that is made seems as though it could actually work, even make you cringe because many things are found around the house (simple nails, razors and knives) it's too bad we can't actually believe someone could secretly and quietly make them all happen.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Colombiana

A young woman, after witnessing her parents' murder as a child in Bogota, grows up to be a stone-cold assassin.

The Good:  Colombiana is one of those action movies that doesn't try to re-invent the wheel, as a result we have something that's a good way to turn our brains off for a couple of hours - and I'm actually fine with that even though it's a rather standard-fare action flick. Zoe Saldana, though given little to act with, shows a good knack as a convincing action star. She's quick, fast, tough and just cold enough for us to buy her abilities to shoot people. Lots of people.

Really, if you want to see an extremely attractive woman shooting guns and murdering people, this is the movie for that. It's not as well-constructed as, say, Salt, but at least it's not to the low depths of a Catwoman or Elektra either. The female-driven action film can be very hit or miss, more miss than anything because the material usually isn't up to snuff even by action movie standards because they often assume sex appeal will work over quality action and not given a good heroine the material she probably deserves. Well, the material here isn't quite up to snuff either, but at least it's entertaining, has solid action moments (including a great opening) and Saldana a good enough action star to pull it off.

The Bad: Colombiana is as basic and straightforward of an action movie I've seen. It works its tried and true troupes well but far from exceeds them.  It tries to be sharp but it's just more flashy, less constructing action and a story and more sloppily (or lazily) trying to be hip with explosions, gunfire, fast edits and jump cuts that flash back and forth rapidly. It's the MTV video version of a rather generic action film, not something that's particularly well made despite a decent sense of entertainment it might bring.

Then again, the director's previous film was pretty standard and flashy fare too, so the fact this is no different isn't a surprise. It's a shopping list of action standards that, while done well enough, is a rather basic list for an average meal. It leaves little to no impression other than noting the ridiculousness of various scenes, bad dialogue, predictable twists, forced and implausible plot contrivances and a gorgeous star, comfortable in her role of kicking ass, utterly wasted.

The Ugly: I would love to see Saldana in a better action movie, plain and simple. She really is the one great thing about this film and she has absolutely nothing to work with. The plot and dialogue feels rushed out by a teenager that received Final Draft for Christmas from his aunt.

Do you know what's so incredibly sad about me saying that? The story is by Luc Besson, the godfather of movies like this (Le Femme Nikita and The Professional notably) and the script is by Robert Mark Kamen (Taken, The Transporter). Now both have a history of hits and misfires, but this was a genre both know incredibly well and the complete laziness of it is pretty inexcusable.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Color of Money

Pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson finds the young, promising pool player Vincent in a local bar and he sees in him a younger version of himself. To try and make it as in the old days, Eddie offers to teach Vincent how to be a hustler. After some hesitations Vincent accepts and Eddie takes him and Vincent's girlfriend Carmen on a tour through the country to work the pool halls. However, Vincent's tendency to show off his talent and by doing so warning off the players and losing money, soon leads to a confrontation with Eddie.

The Good: A sequel to the 1961 film, The Hustler, starring Paul Newman. Like that film, it's Newman's performance and charisma that outshines everything else. Tom Cruise gives a solid performance, one of the better ones of his career, as the young and ambitious upstart who seems to follow the same path "Fast" Eddie went through in the original film. The story follows a similar track to the original film, The Hustler, and is full of a certain love for the game of pool that many films just can't capture. I suppose, at its core, it's a "sports movie" but it's far more cynical than the typical uplifting films like Hoosiers or Rocky.

The Bad: Unlike the Hustler, however, is the rather bland and uninteresting plot that more or less recycles the story from the original film with less ambition and less interesting characters. I've seen the term "generic" thrown around with this film by critics, and I sadly would have to agree with that assessment. There's no personality to it. It's by the books and by the numbers from beginning to end that could have been directed by anyone non names Martin Scorsese, who's style and technique appear only in small flashes throughout.

The Ugly: This simply should have not been Paul Newman's only Oscar winning performance. Not only was his character better in The Hustler, but he had done so many other fantastic characters over his great career. Some consider his win a "make good"  and I suppose it's better than nothing.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Color Purple

Steven Spielberg's masterful adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel stars Whoopi Goldberg, in her impressive screen debut, as Celie, a sharecropper's daughter living in rural...  Steven Spielberg's masterful adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel stars Whoopi Goldberg, in her impressive screen debut, as Celie, a sharecropper's daughter living in rural Georgia. The film opens in 1909 when Celie is a young girl, a victim of incest, pregnant with her father's child. Ugly and unloved, separated from her children and her sister, Celie's only option is marriage to an abusive, philandering husband (Danny Glover) who treats her little better than a slave. Her life changes forever when her husband brings his mistress, a beautiful blues singer named Shug, into the house.

The Good: There’s an honesty to the whole picture that’s subtle and moving. Spielberg wasn’t known for being a dramatic storyteller and to tackle a subject like Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is probably not the best way to stick your feet in those waters. Spielberg does it, though, but mainly thanks to the cast that sells the story, world and characters to us. In fact, The Color Purple is probably Spielberg’s least directed film as far as him drawing notice to the camera or using any particular technique. It lets us focus on these characters, their struggles and the time period it all takes place in, which is what it should be focusing on to begin with.

The Bad: It’s a romanticized story, there’s no denying it. It wallows in its own melodrama it creates and, although the characters are lovingly memorable, tends to simplify them to mere cardboard cut-outs with no depth beyond “this is why you’re here, do this.” There is little humbleness to it all when it’s a film that, perhaps, is best suited for an up-and-coming art house director than the then “golden boy” of Hollywood blockbusters.

The Ugly:
The Color Purple is simply a love or hate it film for many and for the varying reasons stated above. It’s probably Spielberg’s most polarizing piece of cinema. Either way it was one of his most lauded with eleven Oscar nominations.

Final Rating:
3.5 out of 5


Come Out and Play

Beth and Francis, a young married couple, are on holiday together when they venture to a beautiful, but highly remote, island. When they arrive, they notice that while there are plenty of children present, the adults all seem to be missing. Initially attributing this to the after effects of a recent festival, they quickly realize something far more sinister is afoot. 

The Good: A finely-honed, slow-brew gory and bloody thriller that is built entirely on the idea of escalation. Things start fine, get bad and get increasingly worse in Come Out and Play. Blood, violence, character struggles and certainly more and more detachment of our "monsters" in the film, who seem to become more monstrous and removed from reality as  we become more detached in seeing them as human beings. Of course those monsters are children, which  makes it all that much more difficult. That cute little girl? Oh, don't mind her, she's just playing with some severed limbs.

So what do you do when the children are monsters? Come Out and Play asks that question without having to directly ask it. Our tourist couple have to make those decisions themselves and we do as an audience. The film does a fantastic job of depicting that struggle, noting a brief moment with one of the few living adults on the island who states "who could kill a child?"

See what it did there? It does the old bait and switch...they're not the monsters, but maybe we are. I wasn't expecting to think and contemplate with Come Out and Play, murderous kids are nothing new to horror movies, but I was and it did which really sets it apart from the pack in my mind. With a very smart structure and story, feeling almost plucked from the quality horror flicks of the 1970s, Come Out and Play is a genre film that might just end up as one of my favorites of the year.

The Bad: There's still that classic horror-movie questioning going on here. This being the often asked "Why are you even there?" I couldn't quite get over that. It's an old staple: naive and ignorant tourists go off to some area they're not supposed to or that normal tourists would never bother with and get more than they bargained for. While Come Out and Play does a great job with its characters, especially with the psychological pressure put on them in this situation, it all still boils back to that tired trope of dumb white people going off in some backwoods part of some country and usually dying a horrible death. I mean...do horror movies not exist in this world? Even if they didn't, what's so intriguing about a ratty fishing village that makes you go through so much effort to get there in the first place?

At least it presents it realistically, though. Yes, they go off to this weird little town for really no legitimate reason (with a pregnant woman, I might add) but it plays out nicely - the discovery and slow-escalation of everything I mentioned earlier. So even if the roots are withered here, the rest of this movie is nicely bloomed.

The Ugly: The ending is, as mentioned, very reminiscent of the kind of horror movie you'd have seen decades ago. It's one of those you aren't quite sure if you like, but you're happy it took the risks to get there anyways.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Commando

Colonel Matrix has retired and is living with his 10 year old daughter in the country. His Daughter is kidnapped to assure that Matrix will kill the president of a latin American country to allow the return of a dictator. Matrix escapes off a plane flight and has until it lands to rescue his daughter. Matrix must follow the clues he has and solve the mystery in time.

The Good: Even a b-movie, mediocre director like Mark Lester couldn't screw this up. It's a simple premise: film Arnold Schwarzenegger beating up people and shooting guns. Let the script (as in the pacing and set pieces) and Arnold's natural charisma do the work. It pretty much writes itself, and because of that the movie absolutely works. It's not going to wow you with impressive action, just solid action, and it certainly isn't setting out to give us deep characters and story. It's a simple, straight-forward action movie. Period. Because everyone understands this. The one-liners, the characters, the killings and explosions - it's just a pure-blooded action movie.

Seriously, the tag line is "Somewhere, Somehow, Someone's going to pay." That says it all.

The Bad:  There are moments when the movie tries to be sincere, and these bits just don't work. Sure, they're needed (Matrix and his daughter scenes, primarily) but the dialogue is incredibly stilted and Arnold wouldn't really grasp a decent range of acting (especially comedy) much, much later. While he has the wit, he doesn't have the chops to pull scenes such as "contemplation" or "breakfast with daughter" moments. Just give him a gun, or a garden tool, and call it a day. It's those moments why we watch this movie, and the director knows this, but the other moments certainly drag it down a bit.

The Ugly: Arnold needs to use more garden tools in his movies, Commando proves it. Also, who keeps blades of circular saws in their sheds? I mean really.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Company Men

A year in the life of three men trying to survive a round of corporate downsizing at a major company - and how that affects them, their families, and their communities.

The Good: As a winner of numerous Emmys for The West Wing and ER, John Wells's first major film as a director (and writer) needed to play to his strengths: character and dialogue. For the most part, The Company Men does just that. It won't amaze you with its prowess or even its script, but it will at least bring a solid film to the table. It's a pertinent and relevant film of today, in similar fashion to last year's Up in the Air (my favorite film of 2009) and its tale of economic crisis and job firings.

Sometimes we forget the people behind stories of these types. The men here (and the film says something about men as a whole, particularly masculinity and "worth") are rich, have money and everything they could desire. It would be easy to simply not care because they have more than us. But the film is remarkable in its ability to show they are still people with feelings and emotions and heartbreaks behind all that. Those material possessions and country club outings are more masks and walls they build around themselves for protection: they want to keep the real person hidden and let the external image of them thrive. Once all that and their purpose is taken from them, they struggle to find their way again and those walls are knocked down (a slight bit of symbolism is having a character try to build a wall in a house, but I digress). Some never do. It doesn't pander nor does it fully romanticize it all; The Company Men shows an honest depiction of how quickly and sharply life can change and the shock it has as  a ripple-effect that can go on for months if not years. It's a gradual transition into a hope-loss cycle that we find these men in.

The Bad: The one character we can never quite get a feel for is potentially the most intriguing, and this Phil played by Chris Cooper. Cooper does well enough for the time he's given, but the character has layers that are simply never fully explored and considering he's one of the three major points of the film, he feels put more on the backburner. The Company Men thrives on showing how difficult losing a job can be. It's a struggle internally and externally, but it seems to casually undermine it by finding convenience in the end. It seems to say "if you wait long enough, something good may happen." This just doesn't quite work with the film's own sentiment and is a bit disappointing when we're thrust into a concluding paragraph with no means of a transition.

Though it manages to showcase the men losing their job, I think the film would have garnered more dramatic effects if it also focused on their lives at home. Outside of Affleck (and there only his wife and son), we only see little glimpses of them. We don't see their friends really, nor do we fully understand why the reaction of their family seems less honest than their own.

The Ugly: Yet again, asshole critic Armond White takes time out to insult those that disagree with him on this film. A pathetic man if there ever was one because he actually brings up excellent points in the process but his self-serving voice overshadows it. Talk about missing the point of film criticism.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Company You Keep

A thriller centered on a former Weather Underground activist who goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

The Good: A well acted and very well shot and directed picture that isn't going to wow you with twists, turns but with a focused, almost methodical, sense of purpose to every scene. There's a lot of threads to keep track of in this film, all with great actors in them across the board, with many layers upon layers of points being made, characters introduced and things you probably, normally, would have problems with following.

Yet, The Company You Keep is never convoluted. Complicated? Yes. Lots of moving parts? Certainly. But the script is sharp enough to keep it all in line so you know all the players, all the points and it never loses sight of what it really is: a cat and mouse game. It's not fancy in it, but it never loses sight of that and all those extra parts, from backstory to family members to associates; all those various sub plots never takes away from that aspect as its a slow-brew kind of old-school thriller about patience and trying to find a way out over trying to turn a plot twist in to the crux of the entire film. With a strong array of actors and character actors, notably Shia LaBeouf who plays mousy-obsessive quite well, The Company You Keep may not find a ton of company to see it outside of those that enjoy these smaller thrillers.

The Bad: Some might say methodical, such as myself, but others could just as easily call it tedious. I enjoy a slow-brew thriller, but there's no denying that the sense of urgency and tension wafts in and out of the story inconsistently, so much to the point where you barely notice when something important is revealed or a major turn in the plot is relevant. All that seems to happen is that we're constantly introduced to new characters throughout the film as more is dug up and more contacts made. We really don't know the context of any of them, only that they are there and really aren't sure why we should care or feel about any of them. While we "get" the historical context, the human one is missing entirely.

Do you know what's a little odd? In a film where the sense of urgency is pretty downplayed, the scenes of the FBI cracking down on people at their board meetings and the like are energetic, as though the fate of the world depends…on finding a fugitive that's been pretty dormant for 30 years. It's not like he's planning something, or carrying a bomb, he's just kind of walking around doing his thing. It's strangely out of place.

The Ugly: An actual period thriller about the WUO would be really impressive. It's one of those things of history they don't teach you in high school, and as good as this film is about explaining them, it would have been more impressive about a piece set in the 1970s. Where as this film is very passive in its tension, a period-piece of the WUO and their doings would be a more active approach. Maybe that's why so much of the reviews for The Company You Keep is mixed: it's like we're catching up to a story that was already told 30 years ago.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Conan the Barbarian

When his mother and father are killed in a raid by the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom, Conan is sent to a slave camp. As the years pass, he develops into a powerfully-built man, still determined to get revenge for his parents' death and solve the riddle of steel. He learns that Thulsa Doom is the head of a mysterious snake cult and in his attempts to get closer to the evil sorceror Conan makes some powerful friends and many deadly enemies.

The Good: For all sakes and purposes, we shouldn't buy Conan. Not the character. Not the world. Not the nonsensical story. Yet, for some reason, we absolutely do. If there's anything that the Conan movies did right, especially the first one here, is have this air of conviction and confidence to its purpose. It portrays its atmosphere with assurances that this is a time and place that truly existed, and these people, too, once lived. None other than Conan himself, the mythological man forged from the Gods themselves. Yes, we should look at Conan and laugh (and sometimes we do though unintentionally) yet we are still captivated by it when we really shouldn't be.

I'll tell you why: Conan is one of the few, true pure adventure movies. It doesn't have twists and turns. It doesn't have emotional impact or character development. It's a movie that perfectly grabs a character, then a few more, and thrusts them out into the world with the horizon their destination. I love this concept, effectively executed where so many adventure movies (especially fantasy) fail miserably and often get caught up in their own self-importance. Indulgent though Conan may occasionally be, it never feels full of itself or "kneading its own dough" as a professor once described to me. It just gets the job done and enjoys doing it.

There is one indulgent thing the films certainly have, though, and I can't put a good section here without mentioning the musical score. Basil Poledouris's composition is one of the best film scores in history. No question. It's epic, bombastic and absolutely iconic.

The Bad: Obviously low budget, certainly clunky and not as much of a "high fantasy" as it likes to be. I sometimes wish Barbarian was a little more like Destroyer in terms of tone. Barbarian was still the better of the Conan films, but I wish it had been a little campier and maybe even goofier because it really takes itself far, far too seriously. If it was a big-budget movie, then sure, be as serious as you want, perhaps you can put together a good script that made sense and get your action set-pieces a little more polished. But it's low budget, it's cheaply made with obvious sets/bulky costumes and bad choreography, but it's just so damn dull and melodramatic. There's not enough of a spark of "fun" to this adventure other than a couple of supporting characters, and James Earl Jones is insanely out of place in this movie. I feel they cast him because of the voice, because the look just doesn't fit.

I think this great adventure, though, really could have been slimmed down a bit. It tends to wander and become tiresome at over two hours long. It's reach far exceeds its grasp (though ambition commendable) but the filmmakers should have realized this and perhaps streamline certain scenes to establish a better pace.

The Ugly: I've always felt the Conan films, especially his one, had this weird dreamlike quality to them. Obviously they're fantasy, so naturally it's going to have some of that already within it, but I think it has to do with its rather hushed tone broken up by bits of violence as we venture forth. For example, take this movie and watch it late at night, perhaps with a bowl of popcorn and a blanket over you as midnight approaches. You get this weird feeling when watching it at that time, and the only comparison I have is when I do the same for silent movies, particularly horror movies like Nosferatu or Dr. Marbuse. Hmmmm...maybe it's just me.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Conjuring

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.

The Good: You never want to "cheat" an audience. Good horror knows this, great directors thrive on it. James Wan, whether it's a horror movie or a movie about cars doing stunts, knows exactly how to deliver what an audience wants but still make sure it's not what they're expecting. They only realize that it's what they want after it happens. They get that since of glee and satisfaction. Wan nearly achieved that with his debut horror flick Insidious, already showing a command of scene presentation and camera movement in the most effective ways. The script didn't quite live up to his ability, though.

The Conjuring does. It's made perfectly for a director who can make a room, or a music box, or a piece of furniture, a character all its own. It's a smart, fully realized and fleshed-out horror movie that has an amazing balance of character drama, jump-scares and creepy atmosphere. The cast sells their roles well, all at the top of their game but none more than Lili Taylor who soon emerges as the lead amongst a great ensemble; including a handful of child actors that, you swear, aren't acting and are just great at being children. Though they may be more props than character, they all have great scenes with great acting.

There's a lot of story in The Conjuring, sometimes getting muddled, but the characters and the risk of everything at hand is so strong that you tend to not mind. If you have risk and good characters, then you'll go along with just about anything a movie will throw at you.c

The Bad: Aside from the sometimes-convoluted script, which is minor, a rushed third act really takes away from what the rest of the film was working so well in. For most of its runtime, The Conjuring is a wonderfully methodical take on a haunted house/possession tale that brings one to think of The Changeling or The Exorcist. But it cuts from its second act and runs head-first in to trying to get a big "scene" for a finale. It's not entirely the writer or director's fault, though. It's a slow mounting of scares and dread and risk that ultimately needed a payoff, but the transition to that payoff is not only sudden, much of that transition happens off screen with the character of Carolyn. Seeing as how Lili Taylor absolutely owns every scene she's in, seeing only the A and C stages and completely missing the B is not only unfortunate in terms of story but a completely missed opportunity to see a great character actor shine.

The Ugly: Love that this is set in the 70s. I think the genre would benefit from more period-mminded ghost tales. Certainly helps get rid of "forced plot points like cell phone signal loss" and "googling someone to make sure they're not a psycho."

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Conspirator

Mary Surratt is the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. As the whole nation turns against her, she is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.

The Good: A wonderfully shot, finely acted film doesn't always equate to a great one, but in its most basic sense of class, The Conspirator manages to inform us of a situation that brought the country to its knees. Note that I said "inform" as the film is hardly entertaining, however it IS intriguing which is better than nothing. It tells us facts, gives us information and it's all presented well enough to keep you watching.

That doesn't sound like high praise and it's not, but what I can praise is a fantastic cast of characters and an amazing sense of place and time thanks to great set design, costumes and the directorial eye of Redford to set and stage each shot as though it's a pose for a photograph of the period. McAvoy's boyish lawyer is a great, audience-placing lead and Robin Wright takes a complex character to which we get few answers about and makes her sympathetic as a mother who loves her son.

However, she and McAvoy aren't the point of the film. Nor is the trial itself. It's about rights more than anything, and The Conspirator does a terrific job noting that Surratt should be tried...but not like that. There's a difference between rightfully following the law and respecting the rights of others than simply nailing someone to the cross. Perhaps she was guilty, but nobody has the right to claim her guilty before the word of her trial was even spoken. It's in this clash of ideas and themes that carries The Conspirator, even if everything else falls a bit flat.

The Bad: The Conspirator can't quite decide if it would like to be a legal, courtroom drama with development and reveals or simply a look into the story of Mary Surratt and how the government more or less set her up to be executed. The thing is, you can't quite have it both ways. You can't have a compelling drama in a courtroom if the reveals are already known, and the bureaucratic powerplays and underhanded conspiracy to execute Suratt is already known, making the entire story seemingly pointless. It lays far too many cards on the table far too early in the story.

So what do we end up with? Well, it still tells a story of intrigue, but it's more a one-act play of dialogue and nice staging than it is a well-crafted film of dramatic and historical significance. It's a great looking film, sets and costumes nicely realized, but it never utilizes the abilities of film to be much more than a stage play shot at a theatre. It lacks creativity and character in the long run.

The Ugly: The Conspirator seems destined to achieve only one thing: simply inform us of the trial of the men and woman that conspired to kill the President, Vice President and Secretary or State. It's an educational film more than anything and if you're a fan of history, you'll likely find that aspect its greatest quality.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Contagion

A thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak. 

The Good: What would happen if one of those many "outbreaks" we hear about actually posed a significant threat to a large population of people? After a few hours with Steven Soderbergh's latest, you will absolutely get the idea. Contagion is a very real depiction of a viral outbreak that shows humanity at its best but also its worst. The masses of people are, mostly, ignorant of what is going on and can only defend themselves by rash actions and avoiding others. As the film shows: we only know what the higher-ups really tells us...and they probably wouldn't be telling us everything.

Shots of the flocks of people to camps, the lack of authority showcasing how even our usual law enforcement and infrastructure would likely put their lives first before any "job" that tells them what to do, the sick and dying and mass graves where there aren't enough body bags...yeah, it's going to be like that. And that realism is what makes Contagion so damn scary. That and the use of the camera and how well the entire film is shot, but that's to be expected in a Soderbergh film.

Full of a multitude of "smaller stories" that run the gamut of an epidemic tale, Contagion is able to weave many angles from small-scale, personal turmoil to large-scale conspiracy theories. It balances these well to give us a full depiction of a very believable situation.

The Bad: Contagion is a well done film, but it's not one that's going to emotionally grip you or make you find some profound story involving the human condition. It is a rather cold depiction that's more semblance to a documentation of a "what if" scenario than something that will showcase a humanistic resonance. It involves tracking the strain, the elements in finding the cure and tells this through various perspectives and smaller stories.

Most characters you won't even recall the names of, only what they do or are involved with...and even then you're not entirely sure what the connection is as some plot lines don't seem to have much of reason or purpose. Considering the approach of this plot, I suppose that's to be expected. It's about the outbreak itself, not necessarily the people around it as much as depicting the mass hysteria and fear something like this would cause.

The Ugly: An unnecessary film for the most part, Contagion is still probably the best viral-outbreak movie I've seen, not that there's many quite this comprehensive and realistic in the first place. While it doesn't hook emotionally, it manages to give us a full-scale depiction of how something like this would occur.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Contraband

To protect his brother-in-law from a drug lord, a former smuggler heads to Panama to score millions of dollars in counterfeit bills.

The Good: It's gritty. Damn gritty. And incredibly violent at times, which is overall used smartly throughout the film and handled well by director Baltasar Kormakur, who has great visual approach but with very little to work with on the script level. The actors, in what's a damn good cast, give some outstanding performances. Foster is, though predictably, the most interesting character, Ribisi is full-on bad-guy mode and Wahlberg in a role that fits perfectly with his personality and ability, which I sometimes wish and do more of rather than trying to "be" someone else. Action is handled sparingly, but it hits the right beats and moments when necessary and there's a great "clock ticking" shootout that really raises the excitement level - and coincidentally is when the movie actually starts getting interesting. Unfortunately there's just not enough to make Contraband much more than a mediocre film is above-mediocre clothing.

The Bad: Contraband is slow to start. The gates are open, but the horse kind of just trots for a bit before finally taking off. That trot, though, is so sluggish and boring you might find yourself going out for dinner then come back. Then realize it stopped, ate an apple, and is still running behind. I would call it a "slow brew" film if it was more consistent, but it turns too sharply to justify that. Unfortunately, you can't get up and leave because there's a lot of dimensions to the film, but not in a good way because almost all those turns, twists and levels of reveals is unnecessary convoluted. It's such a giant mixed bag that when the big things actually happen, you can only say "wait, what's happening? How did we get here again?"

Thankfully a few violent shootouts and beatings will distract you from thinking of such questions…I think.

I can see these actors are trying, though. Many are doing a good job and giving it their all, a couple (Foster and Ribisi) really stealing the show with their performances, but it's just they have absolutely nothing to work with and none of these characters go beyond one-dimensional cliches. Contraband is alright fare if you honestly have nothing else to watch, but even then it's a movie that struggles to leave an impression in any form outside of occasional violence and good performances from a cast that's trying their best to make lead into gold.

The Ugly:  Jesus. How many times is this woman going to get the shit kicked out of her?

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Cop Car

A small town sheriff sets out to find the two kids who have taken his car on a joy ride.

The Good: Cop Car is what happens when you have a limited budget but a great voice and vision to it. Led by writer/director Jon Watts total control of tone and pace, Cop Car is a difficult movie to simply explain plot-wise because it’s a constant peeling-back of plot, character and story as things go from bad, to worse, to horrific over a taught hour and a half (barely that, actually).

I’ve always heard that directing children is difficult. It all stemmed from the classic WC Fields quote, but the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Richard Donner have always expressed the difficulty in getting something “Authentic” out of a child’s performance. When you get it, it’s magic. When you don’t, the entire film is brought down from it. With the two kids in this small-cast film, there’s a lot of inevitability that sells the entire plot and story of Cop Car from the beginning. Then you accept all that happens to them and the story as they get in deeper and deeper with a corrupt Sheriff who is after them, played by the always-reliable Kevin Bacon. Cop Car is a thrilling, tense movie with strong directing and performances that help carry it on its way to its eventual bitter end.

The Bad: That total control over pace, though admirable and why Cop Car is able to sustain itself, also works against it. Cop Car is a film that is very thin on a lot of stuff to push its plot forward, so we end up spending more time on moments than what is necessary. The pay off is fantastic, the patience more than worth it, but the film doesn’t quite know the best way to make those reveals so it doesn’t come across as mere stretching over simply being a “lean” script.

Maybe that’s where Cop Car lost me for a bit. The set up is great, the finale suspenseful, but everything in between one long chore of a journey to get from A to C, and mostly forgettable outside of the Kevin Bacon scenes of him hunting for his stolen car. He makes it interesting, and as great as the children are, they don’t have a lot to say and do in the interim.

The Ugly: Kids are dumb. Why are the kids so believable in this movie? Because kids are dumb.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Cop Out

A comedy about a veteran NYPD cop whose rare baseball card is stolen. Since it's his only hope to pay for his daughter's upcoming wedding, he recruits his partner to track down the thief, a memorabilia-obsessed gangster.

The Good: Tracey Morgan if funny. I don't know what Cop Out would be without his energy and banter (other than a worse movie than it already is). There are a few moments that are quite funny, an the homages to old movie-cop-duos is nice, but Cop Out is one of the most disappointing movie going experiences I've had in a some time. It's a "what should have been" film if there ever was one.

The Bad: With a script that feels like a series of sketches thrown together and no sense of consistency in tone or story, characters that are completely irrational and unlikable and directing that is direction-less (especially action sequences), Cop Out is doomed to failure in nearly every aspect. This begins primarily with the script and how the scenes are handled. Not once do you really know how you should be feeling. Is it a funny scene? Is it meant to be serious for a moment? Is it supposed to be witty and light or should I be caring? Why does everything feel so contrived and "written" rather than naturally funny? Why does Willis look absolutely bored? Kevin Smith is half to blame on this matter because nothing is handled nearly as purposefully as he is usually accustomed to and he can't direct an action or chase scene to save his life. The other half is the absolutely awful script he's working with. It's surprising the script was the "talk of the town" a year so ago. This end result shows how word of mouth is often just speculation, not actual fact because this so-called story is pretty much unfilmable.
Some movies take the "try to hard" route (see my recent review of the Blind Side). Cop Out is a movie that just doesn't care at all - not about its stale jokes,its consistent tone and style, its annoying characters or its audience. The script is forced, but it doesn't care that it's forced: it'll just do whatever it wants to do and it'll end up have you scratching your head at the end trying to figure out the point of everything. Trying to answer all these questions, as well as the questions and plot holes in the film itself, leaves me with one final impression: Cop Out is a film with scattered moments of humor but one large mass of mediocrity and painful movie watching.

The Ugly:  I wanted to like Cop Out. With the buzz on its script, Kevin Smith attached and two good leads, this is a movie that absolutely should be much better than it ended up. Instead, it's problematic at every level even basic comedy with jokes falling completely flat left and right. Easily Smith's worst film and one we'll hopefully forget about over time.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Coraline

A young girl walks through a secret door in her new home and discovers an alternate version of her life. On the surface, this parallel reality is eerily similar to her real life - only much better. But when her adventure turns dangerous, and her counterfeit parents (including Other Mother) try to keep her forever, Coraline must count on her resourcefulness, determination, and bravery to get back home - and save her family.

The Good: Gorgeous stop motion, a beautiful aesthetic style and fantastic voicework make Caroline, easily, one of the best animated films of 2009. Simply put, it's a classic fairy tale but with a dark and menacing tone to it. This tone is fantastic because once you reach the end, and I don't think it's a spoiler if I say it ends on a good note, it's that much better of a payoff. The stop motion animation is utterly superb and beautifully artistic with Coraline a fantastic character herself. Sure, she is your typical bored girl stuck in a house she doesn't want to be in (very Beetlejuice-esque in this regard) but she has a fun demeanor as a kid with an imagination waiting to escape. Boy does it ever. Noted, this film is dark, maybe even frightening for children, but it never stop being fun at least.

The Bad: Henry Selick is arguably the finest stop-motion film director out there, but there's a lifeless quality in Coraline that I am not accustomed to with him. Sure there's the appealing characters and dreamy atmosphere, but there's little heart in it like we had seen in James and the Gian Piece and especially A NIghtmare Before Christmas. Perhaps this is noticeable because, unlike those two films, the story itself is ground that has been treaded often (even recently, such as Pan's Labryinth and so on) so we look for something a little more and little deeper. Coraline really doesn't have that element to offer.

The Ugly: It's unfortunate 3D has yet to make the transition to the home market. The film shows segments that I'm sure would have been gorgeous, more than it already is, in 3D had I seen it in a theater.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Coriolanus

A banished hero of Rome allies with a sworn enemy to take his revenge on the city. 

The Good: I am always impressed when someone does a "new" take on Shakespeare. The stories the bard wrote still resonate to day. From political discourse to moral questions, classic tragedy and backstabbings, senses of honor and characters that represent something larger than their given personalities. Ralph Fiennes seems to know this as well, and his take on Shakespeare is not only one of the best updates, resetting into a modern-esque era, but the themes and ideas still have as much of an impact now as they did when first written in the early 1600s.

The dialogue and speech hasn't changed. The plot hasn't changed. It's simply executed in a manner of gritty realism that seems believable. It stays true to itself without getting lost in a desire for flash or trying to impress. It plays it all as straight tragedy with machine guns, tanks, urban warfare and nasty, brutal, blood-soaked fights. Fiennes is powerful in his role, screaming passion and ruthless energy with complete, unabashed conviction. Coriolanus is a magnificent character already, but the way Fiennes furiously presents him is something that has to be seen to be believed.

The supporting cast around him is equally spectacular, though not as unfiltered. Gerard Butler plays his opposing force and soon-to-be brother in arms with a methodically-equal passion while Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain make up the world around Coriolanus.

The Bad: This is a directorial debut for Mr. Fiennes. This film seems to be a passion project and it shows, however the style and approach leaves much to be desired. Perhaps its the gritty urban setting, which is great, but it also appears to limit what can and can't be shown. There's no feel for this world, a somewhat alternate-universe of modern technology meets classical theology and speech. Then again, the film's budget is likely just a few million and it does what it can. Truth is, the story and performances are the drive here, not necessarily the method of their presentation.

The Ugly: Really one of the best movies nobody is talking about. It's also one of the best Shakespeare adaptations I've seen in years.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Counselor

A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.

The Good: I think it’s a good rule of thumb here, in the case of the oddity of a movie that is The Counselor, that if you enjoy and are a fan of anything written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road, Blood Meridian) there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the Counselor. More specifically, you’ll look past its flaws and see and hear that distinct voice sprawled on screen. Sure, Ridley Scott is also the director here, but not once is that very distinct, often bleak and cynical and dark voice of McCarthy, ever lost.

That a lot to applaud here. There was a chance that The Counselor could have just been another tale of bad deals gone wrong, backstabbings, brutal killings, crime and the man caught in the middle Hollywood story. But we get distinct character and personalities, many of which are familiar to anyone who’s read or seen No Country for Old Men, and that very “McCarthy-esque” style of playing cards against fate, toying with expectations and foreshadowing and coincidences. He lives by that. Thrives on it. Though The Counselor also lacks that very “human” element at the same that McCarthy so well defines, the set up, themes, dialogue and tone are very much his.

Of course, this being a movie, you need actors to fit these roles, and the cast of The Counselor is utterly brilliant. Though our story and plot is a muddled mess, the characters are distinct, memorable and some great moments are to be had, one being Javier Bardem describing a night out on the golf course that, at first, you think “why am I hearing this?” and then realize that it’s actually a poignant moment about something else entirely (again, very "McCarthy-esque.”) Though not without some serious flaws, if you even remotely like the man’s style of writing and stories, The Counselor is made for you ad-nausea.

The Bad: Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors, Cormac McCarthy one of my favorite authors, but there’s nothing here to give The Counselor an identity. The elements are there: visually it’s fantastic, the acting is top-notch, the dialogue, though over-expositional and drawn-out, is always interesting, the themes as classic McCarthy as you can think of and just as cynical. But the plot is where The Counselor gets held up, and because of that everything else suffers. The plot needs to bring all those elements together to work, as the Coens made “man on the run” work for McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men adaptation which brought the themes and other elements together beautifully.

Here, it’s just ideas swirling around but never quite coming together. As a fan of McCarthy’s perspective and tone, I love those ideas, but he’s always managed to surround it with an interesting plot to move things forward. In The Counselor, perhaps he’s hoping the characters will carry it, but they just barely do. The investment isn’t there, the sense of “caring” becomes lost on me as the film becomes soaked in jaded loathing of its own world and characters that inhabit it. As interesting as they are, they’re also ugly with barely any depth as actual human beings.

The Counselor isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it’s also a hard film to not see its obvious flaws when its elements of great acting, dialogue and directing are so top-tier. It’s just slapped together with little care making for a disjointed and awkward viewing experience. It dwells on irrelevance, spends little time in development, but hopes that you get a “message” at the end. But the message is only as strong as the way it’s told to us, and it’s told badly, and all we have is an ugly, dull story wasting its brilliant ideas.

The Ugly: More disappointing than bad, because the elements are certainly there, but The Counselor might make for a better book.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Cowboys and Aliens

A spaceship arrives in Arizona, 1873, to take over the Earth, starting with the Wild West region. A posse of cowboys and natives are all that stand in their way.

The Good: Sometimes, things just look good on paper. "Let's have cowboys and throw in some aliens." Well, it did look good on paper, I suppose. Cowboys and Aliens was a comic book, after all, and though it doesn't quite make a great transition to screen entertainment, it does have a unique concept and a solid cast to help us out through the stilted, sometimes trite storyline.

There's spectacle too, of course. In most films, it wouldn't be all that interesting, but here, set against the backdrop of the Old West, we have something that's unique. It's a b-movie that's played straight (for better or for worse) polished with a fine dose of special effects and some solid acting from Daniel Craig and, especially, Harrison Ford as the grizzled "villain" that comes full circle. Though it tries to run with its campiness, it doesn't quite succeed in being aware it shouldn't be so serious.

The Bad: One thing I would not want to receive from seeing a film entitled Cowboys and Aliens, and starring great actors and having a very good director involved, is utter blandness and complete lack of energy or "fun" in the title. Both narratively and visually, Cowboys and Aliens is just flat. It seems it wants to hook you with the concept, which is great, but the concept alone can't carry the story and the material doesn't make for very good visual entertainment either when there's no flare or awareness that it should try and be more fun beyond putting pressure on the melodrama button. In fact, most of the film is shot in the dark, full of grays and browns and looks more akin to a generic made for TV western than something I would want to see in a feature film. There's occassionally a sweeping vista, but they're few in far between. More is spent at night, in caves or dimly lit interiors that all lack any visual flare. Perhaps this is Favreau's unfamiliarity with shooting a western coming through, then again even the special effects and action set pieces seem stock and aliens uninteresting.

All the actors do well with what's given to them, it's just not a whole lot. The sense of "coming together" works well, but personalities and development are limited at best. They're merely props to get to the spectacle of, well, cowboys fighting aliens. You get what you pay for, I suppose, but with this director and this cast and the idea itself it seemed to lack the energy and desire to be something more.  It's less a sprint to an endzone score and more settling for a field goal.

The Ugly: The best character is actually Harrison Ford's, which has a nice emotional scene that brings his role to a level far higher than the rather stone-faced characters around him. He steals the show, as far as I'm concerned.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Crank

The hit-man Chev Chelios is poisoned by the criminal Verona and his friend and doctor Miles advises him that he must keep his adrenaline in an upper level to stay alive. Chev meets his girlfriend Eve and together he looks for Verona to kill him.

The Good: When a movie is unabashed, knowing what it is and what its audience expects of it, you end up with something that blurs the line between what is "good" and what is a "guilty pleasure." Crank knows it is a ridiculous movie. It plays with this idea through puns, tongue-in-cheek humor and throwing everything action-related onto the screen including the kitchen sink. Crank isn't so much of an action movie, though, as much as it is some raw, visceral explosion of adrenaline and absolutely not caring what it runs over along the way.

The visual style is to absolutely be applauded here. It's fast, frantic, but easy to follow and considering the rush and pace, it's astounding how well-done and clear all that is. It's a purely fun and exciting film that I have to recommend to any fan of action.

The Bad: There's no way I'm going to hold the story and plot up to the standards of your typical drama, here. It's not the point of the movie. I will say, though, the characters are hard to really get to liking much less actually know anything about. Even the protagonist of it all is hard to like sometimes, though you do route for him because on its basic level he's a guy literally fighting for his life and you want him to get his revenge and Statham is perfectly fit for that personality.

The Ugly: There is always a place for the ridiculous in cinema, as long as it's done well. Crank is not only done well, it stakes the claim as one of the standards of a pretty exclusive genre.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Crazies

As a toxin begins to turn the residents of Ogden Marsh, Iowa into violent psychopaths, sheriff David Dutton (Olyphant) tries to make sense of the situation while he, his wife (Mitchell), and two other unaffected townspeople band together in a fight for survival.

The Good: What is it about Timothy Olyphant that makes you like him so easily? It doesn't even matter if the movie is bad, you always come away liking him, his character and what happens. I think it's the sense that he always gives his all, even in bad movies like Hitman and A Perfect Getaway. He'll always be Seth from Deadwood for me. Here he does it again with giving us a lead as a Sheriff (possibly to coincide with his new show, Justified where he also plays a sheriff), and we immediately get to routing for him. He has this unique way to balance assuredness with the sense of fear and dread that a role like this will demand. Simply put, he carries the film completely on his own and his character makes the entire thing well worth watching.

There's some pretty harrowing things happening in The Crazies. A small town literally ripped to shreds. While there's a lot of violence and gore and watching people kill each other is certainly the selling point of the horror, I found the most frightening things the utter indifference of the "rescue team" that is assigned to "handle" the small town. The scenes with them are a million times more frightening because, truthfully, that is probably how the government and military would act. From their first scenes trying to separate the infected, ripping families apart, to the final climax. A great focus on character, the story is tight (though falters towards the end), the pace is always moving forward for those with short attention spans and the directing capable and not resorting to being flashy or fancy. It's a classic horror film if you think about it, which I think the people involved did because this is one of the better remakes, and better horror movies, to come out in a while.

The Bad:  About two third in, the film suffers from a lot of repetition. It turns into a constant series of hide and seek and with some pretty forced "horror" scenes that really had to shoehorn themselves in towards the final act making everything feel redundant if not tedious. It would have been more effective had they focused on the characters and their survival rather than throwing in a carwash (you'll see) or some other plot device. It just makes everything seem less thoughtful and nearly boring in the grand picture, as though a completely different writer and director handled the second half.

The Ugly:
Maybe horror remakes (that aren't produced by Michael Bay) are the way to go, because between this and last year's Last House on the Left, a lot of the smaller, less prominent remakes have shown themselves to be pretty damn good. This is really one of the better ones, thanks to a great look, pace and lead and it's pure, R-Rated horror drenched in blood. Maybe we need to stop writing remakes off so easily.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Crazy Heart

Bad Blake is a broken-down, hard-living country music singer who's had way too many marriages, far too many years on the road and one too many drinks way too many times. And yet, Bad can’t help but reach for salvation with the help of Jean, a journalist who discovers the real man behind the musician.

The Good: Bad Blake isn't so much bad as he is lost. Alcoholic by day and night, singer when the mood fits him, genius songwriter if he can be sober for five minutes. Jeff Bridges embodies Blake and we soon forget, only after a few minutes, that it's an actor behind it all. Blake is charming, pitiful, endearing, and sometimes annoying. But he has, as the title suggest, a crazy heart that is all over the place, he's just looking for that right direction to take it. Scott Cooper has never directed anything in his life, which is amazing consider the subtlety and craftsmanship, the patience and trust in his actors, that he shows in his debut film. Crazy Heart may be relatively by the numbers in terms of story, but its the storytelling here, and the characters, that draw us in. Stories are stories, and when told right you simply must appreciate them. The film also has a strong focus on music and, surprisingly, some of it us utterly beautiful in their stories (as always) of country tragedy and heartbreak. There have been a lot of surprising films in 2009, some right out of left field. Crazy Heart appears to be typical and run-of-the-mill story of a down on his luck musician. Well, it may be that...but the heart and authenticity in it makes it so much more and Bridges single handedly makes it a heart worth caring about.

The Bad: You've seen this story before, and you will no doubt see the major plot points coming a mile away. Just go with it, I say, but you simply can't have the story any other way. It is what it is. That aside, there are a lot of characters that come and go in Blake's life that we see, fleeting yet we get a sense there's a history there. We never really know this history, however, and in fact we really know very little of Blake himself. Maybe it's meant to be the mystery of life, or in Blake's case just regrets, but some are prominent and a tad more explaining on who they are (especially in the case of apparently close friends, or rivals) would have been nice. I've heard the book details these characters quite a bit, of course I have not read that. It's a minor complaint, Blake is too much a focus to really notice those in the background to begin with.

The Ugly: Although he has the voice and the talent, I simply can't buy Colin Ferrel as a country singer. Also, do you know I can't stand country music? Well...I loved this music, maybe because for once I actually understood the story behind it all.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Creation

What happens when a world-renowned scientist, crushed by the loss of his eldest daughter, formulates a theory in conflict with religious dogma? This is the story of Charles Darwin and his master-work "The Origin of Species". It tells of a global revolution played out the confines of a small English village; a passionate marriage torn apart by the most dangerous idea in history; and a theory saved from extinction by the logic of a child.

The Good: If I could simply give a movie an "A" for effort, Creation would surely fit the bill. There's a lot of good intentions here. It looks gorgeous, the story, at its core, is interesting and both Paul Bettany and Jennifer Conley are fantastic with Bettany in particular showing just how good of an actor he really can be because the role asks and demands a great deal from him. It's raw, it's irreproachable and it's certainly the single best performance of the man's career. Secured by this is the visual stimulation of Jon Amiel and his cinematographer Jess Hall. It's hard to believe the director of mediocre films such as The Core and Copycat had the visual aptitude to bring to the screen a film that combines the surrealist and psychological nature of Buñuel and the restraint and lyricism of Ozu. While he doesn't match either of those masters, it's a major leap for someone who was pretty one-note for most of his career. Creation is not a movie that is meant to entertain but, rather, enlighten you. It throws out presumption for what boils down to a character study of a simple and conflicted man rather than just a theorist, writer and scientist. It's in that element that makes Creation worth seeing.

The Bad: All that, and it's wasted on a sloggy, fractured script that has absolutely no idea what it wants to do with itself.  Everyone and everything seemingly knows exactly what they're doing, it's all practically systematic, yet when you boil it down to basic narrative storytelling, you start to piece together the fact that either very little actually happens and what does happen is stretched out and, sadly, muted and unengaging despite presenting the conflicted nature of Darwin so well. His thoughts and processes are intriguing, but what happens within the plot and story itself certainly is not. In a way, Creation is like the scientific process itself. It's clinical and soulless but in the end will at least offer something that might interest you.

The Ugly: Oh man, how many bad puns can reviewers make with the whole "survival of the fittest" commentary in their reviews. Come on, guys. That aside, I wonder if this material would have been more suited as a parable instead of a melodramatic biopic. Perhaps another script will emerge that is better, and if that happens I wouldn't mind having the rest of the talent from here involved. It's unfortunate it has such good intentions and solid things going for it but ultimately never quite comes together.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Creep

When a videographer answers a Craigslist ad for a one-day job in a remote mountain town, he finds his client is not at all what he initially seems.

The Good: Creep isn't a movie you should dismiss simply because it's "found footage." I know I did but I'm such a big fan of thrillers and horror that even when I say "Ungh...another found footage flick" I'll still see the damn thing probably. Creep is not only clever in how it uses the hook of found footage, I'd argue it shows that it's not the style that's the problem but the approach that a lot of filmmakers take towards it. In other words, "Does being found footage add anything to the story that couldn't be done conventionally?" For Creep, it requires it.

Everything feels natural and real, which is odd because a majority of found footage movies don't feel that. The set up in those are usually too convoluted and "buying" someone constantly filming all the time is one of the suspension of disbeliefs that I never quite got. Here, it's part of the story. Not just the set up, which is great and completely grounded beyond "dudes, there's a cave let's grab some cameras" that found footage set ups can sink to, but in how it's layered throughout it. To explain here would be unfair, it's counting on twists and turns all centered around people recording other people that makes it interesting - it's less just a style to be used and more a tool to be woven into the fabric of Creep as a whole.

Hell, not only is the movie clever enough to do that, it's also clever enough to know that found footage 90% of the time relies completely on jump scares and they even make THAT part of a character trait.

Here's the most impressive thing - yes even more impressive beyond the clever use of being a found footage movie and fantastic performance by Duplass who has to really get you invested, it's how simple it is. I don't know when horror and thriller movies decided that constant exposition and backstory has to be hammered into them, probably somewhere around the time The Ring became popular, but all Creep is is this: "Guy is hired to film other guy, other guy is acting weird, first guy starts to figure things out and needs to bail ASAP."

That's it. And for just over an hour, a perfect runtime for something like this because it never feels like it's wasting your time, the notion we need a two hour horror movie full of mythos and backstory seems to fade. I mean, right now Insidious 3 is the "biggest" horror movie of 2015 and it has more people explaining stuff than actually doing stuff...and I liked that movie.

Creep is just creepy. It's not a big-scare type of movie. It's a brew of discomfort stewing on a stove and waiting for the lid to pop off. It's a movie that actually made me come around on found footage style - thinking it was played out and nothing left to do with it yet a smart director, writer and actor gets together with another smart, writer and director and shows you can make great tense and creepy flicks with a simple idea with a twist of cleverness. It can go a long way. I watch this and I see two creative people wanting to do something interesting and creative and the inspiration shows.

The Bad: I watched Creep two days in a row (it's not even 90 minutes so that's easy) and other than a cheap jump scare that feels out of place, I got nothing. It's a simple movie, as discussed, so the typical "picking part" stuff that you can do with something that is constantly trying to explain itself or build some backstory is out the window. We get character motivations easily. We get backstory at the right moments. You can nitpick here and there on some plot points (sure, your keys are missing but you do have a phone to call a taxi or friend), but nitpicking isn't constructive criticism at this stage so doing so is pointless.

The Ugly: This sets a new bar, but I can guarantee no studio or whoever is trying to churn out horror these days (ahem...Poltergeist remake) will bother to follow suit.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Cropsey

Realizing the urban legend of their youth has actually come true; two filmmakers delve into the mystery surrounding five missing children and the real-life boogeyman linked to their disappearances.

The Good: An interesting and overall creepy subject of an urban legend killer that, somewhere and in someplace, has a very real history. Cropsey doesn't seek out the answers, but showcases the cycle of human wrongdoings and how decades can make people forget the sins of their fathers. It might lose a bit of leverage by focusing on a killer (in particular one man), but when this documentary puts the world and history and stories long forgotten in the spotlight, it's a riveting piece. At its core, the film is just smart investigative journalism. Yes, it is amateur, they are amateur filmmakers, and on more than one occasion you'll question the validity or credibility, but it lays it out and overall manages to go through a history of an urban legend and a community as best a one can expect.

The Bad: Cropsey is interesting, as a good documentary should be, but at the same time it's very unfocused despite some high points of clinical evidence submissions. Perhaps this is the inexperience of the filmmakers coming through, but ultimately it never hits the beats it so desperately seeks. The community is never brought into view as it should (though its strongest moments are when it focuses on it), there is no emotional core really and the sense of dread it might attempt to showcase never feels engaging as the only points that might bring out that fear is pointless walks through abandon buildings at night (which serve no purpose to the story and you think back and say "why did they do that?" - it's a cheap thrill). It could have drawn out the idea of every urban legend having a strand of truth, but it hit and misses that as well. Cropsey is just too unfocused for a subject matter that could have made for a far more compelling documentary. In the end, we only get an interesting one.

The Ugly: In the end, it reveals just enough to keep you intrigued but never brings out the sense of satisfaction and completeness it really needed.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

As she lay dying in a hospital bed on the eve of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, an elderly woman asks her daughter Caroline to read from a diary left to her by a man named Benjamin. Born on the same day World War I ended, Benjamin Button's mother died giving birth to him. As a newborn, he was old and wrinkled and his horrified father Thomas Button leaves him on the doorstep of an old folk's home. Benjamin fits in well for, despite his young age, he looked as old as most of the residents. Benjamin soon realizes that he is growing younger, not older however. Early on, he meets the love of his life, Daisy, a beautiful red-haired, green-eyed child who grows into a beautiful woman while Benjamin grows into a handsome young man. Their lives take many different turns and making a life together is long in coming. It also is of limited duration given their ultimately different fates.

The Good: I'll tell you what The Curious Case of Benjamin Button reminds me of: a classic, epic fable. That's what is is, obviously, but it is able to move us, intrigue us, have us in the palm of its hand like a story told to children as they drift to sleep. It's saddening, with a hint of melancholic cynicism underneath it's borders, and is by far David Fincher's most moving and beautiful piece he's delivered (probably because he's never done a moving/beautiful piece...not in the lyrical nature of Benjamin Button at least). Fincher has always been a technically profound director, his sense of perfectionism notorious and, no doubt, influenced by his love of Stanley Kubrick, but here he changes everything. It still has his distinct look an lensing, but the story, what he asks of his actors (all of whom deliver), the concept, the tone, the music and everything in between is something we've never seen from him before and he absolutely slips on the new pair of gloves as though he's been  master at these things all along. It's always daring to see something new form a director, for better or worse, and something resonant about life itself. Here, Fincher is surely the better in one of his reflective and intimate film.

The Bad: As finely crafted as the film is, and beautiful and poetic as it can be and as gorgeous the cinematography may be, at the same time it all feels all rather clinical. It's a film whose parts are greater than its sum, but at the same time it's film that's intentionally meant to be about parts (as in, parts of our life, those moments we take for granted etc...). While these individual parts and scenarios might move you, it's not on a level provided by the characters as much as it is the situation or the thematic ideals it brings up combined with the look of the scene and the music score. The truth is, we know little about the characters, including Benjamin himself, and never quite connect with them on as an emotional a level as the film likes to think we should. Sure, we care for them, but not as deeply as one might think. I think this has more to with the approach by the actors, more subdued or seemingly relaxed than as powerful, emotive persons. Any actor will tell you it's subtle, and subtlety is hard to act. At the same time, though, it's hard to be compelled as well.

The Ugly: Benjamin Button became awash in 2008, a year dominated by countless other great films and, at least from my perspective, seemingly quickly forgotten.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Curse of Chucky

After her mother's mysterious death, Nica begins to suspect that the talking, red-haired doll her visiting niece has been playing with may be the key to recent bloodshed and chaos.

The Good: A throwback movie if there ever was one, Curse of Chucky returns to its roots, for better or worse, of 80s low-budget shlock-horror making for an incredibly entertaining, though not particularly scary, horror film. Gone is the sense of "goofy comedy" that the later Chucky-franchise films staked their claim on and now we have a simple setting, one stormy night, lots of dark corners and hallways, a small cast and one little doll that really likes knives.

It manages to show restraint, not merely because it's low-budget, but because it wants to handle pacing and suspense in a way that allows for you to lean-in to your screen and not want to look away. Sure, you know Chucky is alive and is going to kill, but it's all about the journey, not the destination, in this sixth installment of the franchise. In a way, by going back to what the Child's Play movies originally were, the franchise reinvents and reinvigorates itself.

Curse of Chucky won't win any awards for originality, at this point the "evil doll" aspect isn't unique or a twist or even unpredictable, but it can be well-made and, outside of a rushed ending and forced exposition, constantly engaging. At it's heart, it wants to return to 1980s roots, from the style of directing to the characters, all of which are pretty well-done by the actors (including Brad Doriff's daughter who plays the lead), the practical effects to the soundtrack, Curse of Chucky is like a movie time forgot, but it still reminds us that there's some gas left in this dated tank if the talent behind the camera understands what kind of movie they really want to make.

The Bad: A lackluster script keeps Curse of Chucky from becoming a really, really good horror movie.  It has a great set up, it begins well and even up to the third act it all moves at a pitch-perfect pace. Then along comes the twists, and the reveals, and the extended ending that can't quite seem to settle on actually ending as though it still wants to grasp wildly in the air for a firm ledge to grab.

The film desperately wants to acknowledge all the previous Child's Play/Chucky films before it, which is admirable, but the final ten or fifteen minutes is nothing but fan-service and exposition, making for an ending that ends with a whimper more than a bang. It kind of just calmly fades away rather than really bringing itself home full-circle making for a bit of a third act that is drawn-out and unfortunately unsatisfying.

The Ugly: Chucky has some of the best dialogue I've heard him have in a while. Very menacing, very quotable, and the doll itself has never looked better.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Curse of Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein builds a creature and brings it to life. But his creature behaves not as he intended.

The Good: The Curse of Frankenstein is interesting in that it more plays out like a period thriller that just happens to have a monster in it. The monster, much like the more-famous Universal version, isn't a reckless beast killing people left and right. He's actually confused, maybe even a bit scared, and certainly frightened. The imposing Christopher Lee plays the monster, staggers much like Karloff's version, even has that "sadness" to his face, but he's not the centerpiece. The center is Victor Frankenstein, as it should be, played impeccably by Peter Cushing who would reprise his role a number of times. He's sophisticated, well-intended in the long run but short sighted in the path to get there. He's never yelling to heavens, but, much like all of Hammer's films, as a sense of refinement and intellect as he announces he's playing in God's domain. Curse of Frankenstein wouldn't be much of anything if it weren't for Cushing. Hell, Hammer Horror wouldn't be much of anything if it weren't for he and Christopher Lee.

Terence Fisher's directing is always solid, never flashy. Though not quite as ambitious as he would later carve out for himself, it gets the job done and lets the performances speak for themselves while still using the sets and angles as best as one can. Even great supporting roles, such as Robert Urquhart (who holds his own well against the two leads in my view, and steals the show in some cases) and Melvyn Hayes, briefly, as the young Baron Frankenstein, really shine. It's the "stage" mentality of all the actors, and for a melodrama like Frankenstein it's very, very effective. It's a sign of a director who, I think, knows his limits and the limits of what his film is and isn't capable of achieving. It stems from his history in genre filmmaking and probably used by shoe-string budgets.

The Bad: As this was Hammer Studio's first jump in to these color horror pics, the limited budget is noticeable. Nearly the entire film takes place in Victor's home, which is certainly a set, the matte paintings don't' fully appear real or are set right and the lighting is all over the place, sometimes gorgeously moody, sometimes revealing the fakeness of it all (by comparison, later Hammer films like The Gorgon or even the follow up, The Horror of Dracula, show improvements in all areas). Still for 65,000 pounds and a cobbled-together script that probably has too many lulls and uninteresting dialogue exchanges than is comfortable, The Curse of Frankenstein still holds up thanks to its superior acting and costuming. It may not be the first Frankenstein movie you'll go for, even from the Hammer group, but it's a solid thriller from beginning to end.

The Ugly: The Frankenstein films from Fisher will continue to improve. Bigger budgets, great actors, better plots. Even though this is the "adaptation" of the source material, the series grows incredibly well as it goes on: ranging from just as good as to a few better (the final two with Cushing being surprisingly impressive for sequels, the series always managed to stay with the same ideas yet reinvent itself enough to stay fresh...unlike the Dracula series from Hammer)

Also, please pardon that "fresh" pun, this being about Frankenstein and all.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


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