Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Movies D - F

  -D-

Dallas Buyers Club (4/5)
A Dangerous Method (3.5/5)
Dark City (4/5)
The Dark Crystal (4/5) 
Dark Knight, The (4.5/5)

The Dark Knight Returns (4/5) 
             The Dark Knight Rises (4/5)
               Dark Shadows (2.5/5)
Dawn of the Dead (4.5/5) 
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (4/5)
Day of the Dead (3.5/5)
Day the Earth Stood Still, The (1/5)
Daybreakers  (3.5/5) 

Days of Heaven (4.5/5)
Dead Snow (2.5/5)
The Dead Zone (3.5/5)

Death Proof (3/5)
Death Rides a Horse (3.5/5)

The Debt (4/5)
Deep Red (4.5/5)
Deliver Us From Evil (2/5)
Demolition Man (3/5)
The Departed (4.5/5) 
Le Dernier Combat (4/5)

The Descendants (4.5/5)
The Descent (3.5/5)
Desperado (3.5/5)

Despicable Me (2.5/5)

Despicable Me 2 (2/5)
Devil (2.5/5)
The Devil's Backbone (4/5)
The Devil's Double (3/5)
The Devil Rides Out (4/5)
Dial M for Murder (3.5/5) 
Die Hard (4.5/5)
Die Hard 2: Die Harder (3/5)
Die Hard with a Vengeance (3/5)

The Dictator (2.5/5)
District 9 (4/5)
Django (4.5/5)
Django Unchained (4.5/5)
Do the Right Thing (4.5/5)
Dolls (3/5)
Donnie Darko (3.5/5)
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (3/5)
The Double (3.5/5)
Dr. Strangelove (5/5)
Dracula (1931) (4.5/5)
 
Drag Me To Hell (4/5) 

Dreamchild (4.5/5)
Dreamscape  (2.5/5)
Dredd (3.5/5)
Drive (4.5/5)
Drive Angry (2.5/5)
Due Date (2.5/5)
Duel (3.5/5)
Dune (3/5)
  -E-

ET (5/5)

Eagle Eye (1.5/5)
Earth to Echo (3/5)
The East (4/5)
Ed Wood (5/5) 
Edge of Darkness (3.5/5) 
Edge of Tomorrow (4/5)
The Elephantman (4/5) 
Elevator to the Gallows (4/5)

Elite Squad 2 (4/5)
Elysium (3/5)
Empire of the Sun (4/5)
End of Watch (3.5/5)
Enemy (3.5/5)
                             Enemy at the Gates (3.5/5)
Enough Said (4/5)
Enter the Void (3.5/5)

Envy (0/5)
Eraserhead (4.5/5) 
Escape From New York (4/5)

Escape Plan (2.5/5)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (5/5)
Europa Report (3/5)
Event Horizon (3/5)
Everly (3.5/5)

Everything Must Go (4/5)
The Evil Dead (4/5)
Evil Dead 2013 (3.5/5)
Evil Dead II (4.5/5) 
Ex Machina (3.5/5)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2.5/5)
The Exorcist (5/5) 

The Exorcist III (4/5)
The Expendables (2.5/5)
The Expendables 2 (2.5/5)
The Expendables 3 (3/5)
Explorers (3/5)
The Extra Man (3/5)
Extract (3.5/5) 
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (3.5/5)
Eyes Wide Shut (3.5/5)
 -F-  

F for Fake (3.5/5)

Fair Game (3/5)
The Fall of the House of Usher (3.5/5)
The Fallen Idol (4.5/5)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (4/5)
Fargo (5/5)

Fast & Furious 6 (3/5)

The Favour, The Watch and the Very Big Fish (3.5/5)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (4/5)
Fiend Without a Face (3/5)
The Fifth Element (4/5)
50/50 (4.5/5)
Fight Club (4.5/5)
The Fighter (3.5/5)
Final Destination 5 (2.5/5)
Finding Nemo (4.5/5)
First Blood (4/5)
(500) Days of Summer (4.5/5)
The Five-Year Engagement (3.5/5)
Flash Gordon (3.5/5)
Fletch (3/5)

Flight (4/5)    
                                      The Fly (4.5/5)
Focus (2.5/5)
Following (3/5) 
The Fountain (3.5/5)

For Ellen (3.5/5
)
Forbidden Games (5/5)
Force Majeure (3.5/5)
Foreign Correspondent (4.5/5)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (4/5)

4:44 Last Day on Earth (2/5)
1408 (3.5/5)
Four Lions (3.5/5)

47 Ronin (1.5/5)
The Fourth Kind (1.5/5)
Foxcatcher (3.5/5)
Frailty (3.5/5)
Frances Ha (4/5)
Frank (4/5)
Frankenstein  (4.5/5)
Frankenweenie (3.5/5)    
              Frankie and Alice (2/5)
The French Connection (4.5/5)
Frenzy (4/5)
Friday the 13th (2009) (2/5)
Fright Night (4/5) 

Fright Night 2011 (3.5/5)
The Frighteners (3/5)
From Dusk 'til Dawn (4/5)
From Paris with Love (3/5)
Frozen (4/5)
The Frozen Ground (3/5)
Fruitvale Station (5/5)
Full Metal Jacket (4/5)
Funny People
 (3/5)
Furious 7 (3.5/5)
Fury (3.5/5)


Dallas Buyers Club

In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is himself diagnosed with the disease.

The Good: A story like the one found in Dallas Buyer’s Club easily could have been a sappy, sincere and over-dramatized affair. Emotions run high, people see the good or bad and everybody good wins in the end. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here as writers Melisa Wallick and Craig Borten do an astounding job of keeping a film with a powerful story squarely grounded.

Much of that settled on the two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Leto as Rayon could have easily gone overboard with his performance of a transsexual, but not once does he do it. Rayon is a real person, and that respect is shown there as she never falls in to what many transgender personas in film and television fall in to: flamboyance. But it’s McConaughey as Ron Woodroof that carries it, and it’s by far his best performance of his career.

Here we have a complex man who’s life if changed, for both good and bad, making the whole process of going through this biopic a bittersweet endeavor. On one side he learns about accepting those different than him, understands the bureaucracy of the medical profession and wants to bring it down to help people and is able to speak without being nearly as abrasive as he once did. But on the other, he has AIDS (first and foremost, that’s our catalyst) is ostracized by this former friends and beaten down in a broken court system time and time again.

I also like the idea that, though it does make Woodroof a “hero” in the sense of him understanding the situation and those different than him, the guy is a bit of an asshole through and through. There’s only a subtle change, and that is far more real. He still takes on people in arguments, still just doing it for profit (mostly), still probably not entirely comfortable with homosexuals, but at least doesn’t outright hate and despise them or anyone else around him.

There’s really no “come to Jesus” moment with him, which is fantastic because that’s real. He’s still him, but also knows that the long-term benefits of what he’s doing is beneficial and he’s far more open to those different than him as a result. There’s a terrific message here and not once does the film feel obligate to bash it in to your skull to make sure you got it.

The Bad: The important message to Dallas Buyers Club seems to get overshadowed by just about everything else. The entire reason why the Dallas Buyers Club exists at all is because of a broken pharmaceutical business in the united stated, but every time the film tries to bring it up, it feels like a tacked-on moment written to forcefully remind us all about it, then it moves on. How exactly it all fits together, the FDA and the broken bureaucracy of hospital testing, never quite has that punch or purpose to it all making the film, and thus the viewer, feel distant and disinterested.

There’s a bit of that disinterest going on in a lot of the film. Outside of Woodroof and Rayon, and to a lesser extent Eve played by Jennifer Garner, the connections to other characters never comes through. Rayon’s lover, Eve’s boss, the agents and lawyers…they never come across as people, more like props just to push the story forward and that makes them all

The Ugly: Leto barely acts. This past year he was in two films after an absence of years, and though I’ve only seen this one, that’s all I need to see to say he must act more. Period.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


A Dangerous Method

A look at how the intense relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud gives birth to psychoanalysis. 

The Good: A Dangerous Method is a film I liken to a chess game. You have two opposing sides seeking intellectual dominance. It's not done on some grand stage or in a debate, but is more like a slow simmer of underhanded slaps and actions of sought superiority as both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud are certain their respective views are the right ones. It's a smart film in that it takes their respective ideas and presents them, not through exposition, but through the character traits themselves. This may be cause for unclear methodologies, but it does bring out their personalities more pro-actively than simply reading The Undiscovered Self or The Ego and the Id.

The theme here, though, is sexuality versus repression. It's erotic at times, maybe even a bit misogynist more than once, but it explores the characters' traits and how (though we have to assume this) it influenced their work. Jung is repressed, Freud more free and viewing everything as sexual in nature. It's not overly entertaining, but it is most certainly fascinating as an exploration of the human mind, something Cronenberg has always found a muse within, though it pushes the elements of Jungian or Freudian theory aside in the process.

The Bad: If you're looking for insight into the world of psychoanalysis, you won't find it here. There's discussion, yes, but A Dangerous Method is more the soap-opera version of it all. Rather it looks to explore the way of life that men of this field led...and it's unbelievably uninteresting. They talk a lot. Stroke egos. Send back-handed comments in their letters to their peers and toil daily on their methods. It's not compelling. It's more "then this happened" and it move on. Also, while Mortenson and Fasbender are serviceable, though lacking any real "shining" moments in the film, Kiera Knightly seems to be forcing her "insanity" down our throats as the over-the-top patient of Carl Jung's.

The study of Jung's character is the heart of it, and to an extent Freud's, but we still don't quite understand their relationship, their views or if there's any actual commentary being made on the work they dive into. It treats their studies flatly, almost disinterested in the views, and sadly dull in its own method.

The Ugly: Cronenberg is a thoughtful and very smart filmmaker, but this is the first time I've ever felt he was disinterested in his own material. When he's working with the characters and their personalities, it's great. Everything else exudes a sense of apathy.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Dark City

John Murdoch awakens alone in a strange hotel to find that he has lost his memory and is wanted for a series of brutal and bizarre murders. While trying to piece together his past, he stumbles upon a fiendish underworld controlled by a group of beings known as The Strangers who possess the ability to put people to sleep and alter the city and its inhabitants. Now Murdoch must find a way to stop them before they take control of his mind and destroy him.

The Good: A film rich with depth and complexity that if you blink, you'll probably miss something. Drawing from numerous sources ranging from George Orwell and Fritz Lang to Philip K Dick and Dashiell Hammett, writer/director (with a little help from Lem Dobbs and David Goyer) Alex Proyas brings forth one of the more original and visually stunning films in the past twenty years. There's an energy from beginning to end, the film known for its brisk pace and numerous edits and cuts, but it keeps the pace up. While that might be a turn off for some, and for me it sometimes is, but as long as it keeps it up, it feels exactly right and how it should. The jumps and transitions, fast pace are almost a reflection of John Murdoch's state of mind. Everywhere and anywhere.

The Bad: While the story might have a consistent fast pace, it brings with it an unfortunate side effect. The story wants us to have a connection emotionally to the characters, but its barrage of imagery and scene transition never lets us catch our breath, spend time with them, get to know them and perhaps relate to them. We can see the effects emotionally on screen but rarely share it ourselves. Dark City is more concerned about its content and world, the idea of it all, rather than looking to create a connection between the story and its audience.

The Ugly: I have heard, actually from Proyas's own interviews, that he agrees the pace of the theatrical cut is extremely brisk. Thus he released a directors cut last year that makes it more of a "leisurely and thoughtful piece it was meant to be" and that he speeds up the story if something isn't playing right (hence the quickness of the original)...I still have yet to watch it.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


The Dark Crystal

Another planet, another time. 1000 years ago the mysterious Dark Crystal was damaged by one of the Urskeks and an age of chaos has began! The evil race of grotesque birdlike lizards the Skeksis, gnomish dragons who rule their fantastic planet with an iron claw. Meanwhile the orphan Jen, raised in solitude by a race of the peace-loving wizards called the Mystics, embarks on a quest to find the missing shard of the Dark Crystal which gives the Skesis their power and restore the balance of the universe.

The Good: Original. Inventive. Pure fantasy in every sense of the word. It's entire concept is built on a scene-to-scene basis, relishing in its atmosphere, artistry, effects and whimsical design from the valley of the Mystics to the imposing Castle of the Crystal. There's more imagination found in the Dark Crystal than most films even bother do deal with. With this obvious affection comes a good amount a heart with it because in every scene and every moment, you feel as though there's something meaningful behind it all. It shows a company and a genius (Jim Henson) who wanted to share a vision and world with you from its flora to its races to its history and mythology. You are transported there in every facet and in only a matter of time you start forgetting that everything you're seeing is mere fantasy, effects and impressive puppets. It feels grounded. Tangible. Real.

The Dark Crystal's greatest strength lies entire in its vision. It's story is rudimentary, though well told, and its characters pretty one-dimensional, though sympathetic and likable. It's the world brought to life you see the film for and it pays back ten fold with patience and a thematic resonance that isn't obvious and overbearing. A classic for all the right reasons, The Dark Crystal is beloved by many for a reason - and it's not merely just the nostalgia. The film received mixed reviews at the time and did merely "ok" at the box office. But over the past few decades, the appreciation for what it did and the understanding of what it is has grown and matured, making The Dark Crystal one of the best fantasy films of all time. As is the case with many films, passage of time tends to allow for hindsight appreciation for misunderstood movies. The Dark Crystal is surely one of those.

The Bad: The Dark Crystal cares little in terms of telling a story. It's entirely dependent on its characters and the atmosphere itself, all of which plays for the biggest drive as the film churns forward. It's a striking example of how a film, fantasy especially, really only needs a basic plot and compelling characters to present us, because most fantasy usually is about the good side defeating the great, menacing evil (give or take a Hobbit or two). Some are sweeping, some are small. The Dark Crystal is the latter, and because of it being relatively small in nature, you almost wish its story could live up to its set pieces. That's not to say it doesn't tell its story well. It does doubly so especially in comparison to other fantasy film sof the time. It just never seems to grow as large as it seems it wants to. As is, it just makes do, an oddly underdeveloped main character and a plot that is but a footnote to everything else.

The Ugly: It's a Henson movie, and like most Henson movies you have what's called "puppet voices." Usually these are eccentric and over-the-top. This also means that much of the voices can be so over-the-top you have difficulty understanding what they're saying. The actors are so pressed on bringing out the personalities, and they do that incredibly well, it sometimes sacrifices coherency in the process.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Dark Knight (2008)

With just one year having passed after taking out Ra's Al Ghul's plan to have Gotham eliminated and the mysterious disappearance of Dr. Jonathan Crane AKA the Scarecrow, and after the city was nearly plundered with his toxins, Bruce Wayne and his vigilante alter-ego the Batman, continue the seemingly endless effort to bring order to Gotham, with the help of Lt. James Gordon and newly appointed District Attorney Harvey Dent. But a new threat has now emerged into the streets. The Dark Knight faces a rising psychopathic criminal called The Joker, whose eerie grin, laughter, and inhuman morality makes him as dangerous than what he has yet to unleash. It becomes an agenda to Batman to stop the mysterious Joker at all costs, knowing that both of them are in an opposite line. One has no method at all and seeks to see the world plunge into the fire he has yet to light. One represents the symbol of hope and uses his own shadow to bring the peace and order he has yet to accomplish doing.

The Good: A complex, dark crime story about corruption, morality and evil itself. Unlike Batman Begins, the action is shown solidly and methodically done - all really done by pulling back the camera a little and allowing longer takes. Bale is great as always, the entire returning cast, as expected, is solid. Of course, the one that steals the show is Heath Ledger as we see the Joker rise, plot, plan, and emerge as the main villain by the end of the film (Batman brushes him aside early on). He's dark, twisted, ruthless but still has that unmistakable Joker humor - you know, the kind that thinks it's funny to cause mass murder and would probably laugh at a bucket full of burning kittens. The philosophical approach of his character contrasts fantastically with Batman's, allowing for a unique debate on what is right, what is wrong and what really causes evil in the world: the people or the establishment. For the Joker: it's just fun to see it all burn down. A big note on Harvey Dent, who really is the core of the whole thing: issues, theme sand story and played perfectly by Aaron Eckhart - it's too bad Heath Ledger's Joker is so good that is causes Dent/Two Face to play second-fiddle. I honestly think the film would have been just as enjoyable if it didn't even have the Joker and was more about Dent and Two Face, but that's a testament to great writing and directing, if anything.

The Bad: Sometimes the story is a little too complicated for its own good, causing contrivances in the plot to emerge (such as the planning from the Joker, who can come across as invincible at times). The biggest issue, though, is the pacing of the film, which could have used more exposition in scenes and allow things to develop rather than the barrage of scenes thrown at us. It's frantic, a lot happens, but the content would lend itself better if it were reeled back to allow you to take it all in.When watched next to Batman Begins, this shows much much more and it makes me curious on the change by Nolan, running time I'm sure played some factor.

The Ugly: There are really obvious edits and cuts made to get the film's PG-13 rating, in hindsight these can be pretty distracting. I suppose we have to wait for the director's cut/extended edition to see the original vision, if that ever happens. Also, I can't decide if Maggie Gyllenhaal is attractive or not, I think it depends on the lighting.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Dark Knight Returns Pts 1 & 2

Batman has not been seen for ten years. A new breed of criminal ravages Gotham City, forcing 55-year-old Bruce Wayne back into the cape and cowl. But, does he still have what it takes to fight crime in a new era?

The Good: If there's anything that Warner Brothers has sone right, it's how they handle their Batman franchise. Sure, there might be a few bad movies, but those are drops in the bucket when compared to how they've maintained the quality of the character throughout numerous media. The movies are, mostly, fantastic, the television animated series' all pretty acclaimed, the toys desired after the games praised to no end. One part they've really upped the ante on the past decade or so, though, is their animation division and superhero properties. They have a great history of Batman in animated form, starting with the fantastic Animated series and putting out some great animated Batman movies, but The Dark Knight Returns is their best animated film. Period. Batman or otherwise.

What impresses most is the pacing of this film, throughout both parts (totaling over three hours). It has great set up, variety, escalation all leading to a fantastic dual-climax. It never drags or feels boring, maintains a steady focus on character alongside all the action (though Robin could use more screen time) and the complete sense of satisfaction through each scene and line put in to it while never once forgetting the sprawling, epic nature of the story.  Sure, the animation is pretty sharp, and it creates an amazing atmosphere and world for us to sense as an actual living, breathing force, but it handles it all through expertly paced and planned storytelling. This wasn't some tossed-together animation cash-in to capitalize on a brand. This was something that shows attention and focus on part of its producers, directors and animators that cared about what they were creating. It's full of action, believable and well-defined characters (including old staples with new twists) and, best of all, a sense of risk that everything might be lost.

The Bad: There's a lot of "talking heads" on TVs showcased throughout the film. It's to bring out its world, but it's also mind-nummingly expositional and monotone. The film tries to blend it in with elements on-screen, using it as background voiceover and transitional sequences, which can be effective…but for three hours it begins to feel forced and inorganic. Especially considering that, by the third act, you really don't want to hear from any of them. The pace is quickening, climax on the rise, and the last thing we need is a television tellings stuff that we, most likely, know (and probably know more about than those telling us).

Voice work is spotty at times, but notably hit and miss with Peter Weller who can relay great dialogue, but doesn't relay a great sense of "Batman" as a persona. His regular voice is the same across the board and often lacks any sense of emotion while doing it. It's odd because there are times when it's fantastic (conversations with Robin for example) and almost unassuming, but then there are parts where a more hardened, dramatic punch really needed to be felt. Despite the fact you might see Batman in dire straits…he never sounds like he is. The rest of the characters are wonderfully done, making this that much more of a standout (that and he's in nearly ever scene and it needs to be strong).

The Ugly:  Did you ever see the animated series episode that re-created a scene from The Dark Knight Returns? Here it is…it's hard to not compare the two when I was watching. Both did a masterful job of this sequence.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Dark Knight Rises

Eight years on, a new terrorist leader, Bane, overwhelms Gotham's finest, and the Dark Knight resurfaces to protect a city that has branded him an enemy. 

The Good: There's an attribute of The Dark Knight Rises that I haven't seen in "comic movies" or even regular movies in a long while. That attribute is "scope." You know, like the old days of movie making where stories would span months if not years, thrive in the concept of escalation up to a climax and have that old saying "a cast of thousands!" centered on a  quality ensemble to carry it. It's easy to see how the influence of the silent and early "epics" of film inspired director Christopher Nolan who spent years toiling over a fitting way to end his run with Batman.

Batman himself has been imagined and re-imagined countless times and in various ways. Nolan's latest takes cues from a lot of sources with his own thrown in for good measure. That's the thing about superheroes: they are our modern myths, and like myths they are told, retold and redone countless ways. In the grand scheme of trilogies, Nolan's Dark Knight saga will probably go down as one of the best, certainly the best in terms of consistent storytelling, thematic exploration and a plot that stretches three films and does so seamlessly. You may have one you prefer over the other, but thinking back, I don't think anyone can think of a better way to begin a saga, escalate that sage in a second act, then bring it all home with this third film. So intertwined are these films that separating this third one from a critical perspective is easier said than done.

One thing is for certain: The Dark Knight Rises is ambitious in that classical filmmaking type of way. It's compelling and certainly won't make you lose interest with some incredibly memorable moments and scenes. Most of all, is that every single person is giving their all here. Every character has their moments, every scene set up to perfection and planned accordingly, every plot point and development put in with thoughtfulness (whether you liked them or not). The actors, though, are what sell it here. Christian Bale is as most of Batman as we've seen in three films, keeping him real and vulnerable but very much a true hero. Michael Caine doesn't miss a single beat, and every line he delivers is so honest and heartfelt you come to realize he's as much of a driving force as Batman himself, even if it's a lot of exposition. Oldman is, as always, great as Gordon and Morgan Freeman gives us a bit of humor and a good person to connect dots of a complicated plot.

Newcomers Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt fit their roles well, especially Gordon-Levitt who, despite some story issues for him, really plays his character close to the vest and has some of the better lines and moments in the film as our everyman. Tom Hardy as Bane is an absolute presence. He is every bit as captivating as Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning Joker performance, but in a much, much different way. He's smart, intelligent, powerful, but what's amazing is how Hardy is able to convey all this when we pretty much only see his eyes in terms of facial expression. His choice of voice is intriguing as well with an accent that is comforting  and smooth yet off-putting at the same time due to his breathing apparatus as he lays waste to Gotham and test the strengths of its people.

Also, it's nice that there's a little bit of humor happening in this film. It comes and goes, but they're worked into the flow of things nicely - as well as Nolan's deconstructive approach to thematic questions such as "what is a hero?" and "what is worth fighting for?" (Hint: a hero can be anyone and everything right is worth fighting for...this is Batman so you should know that already). A bleak film this is, and those few moments of humor were as inviting as the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer who captures the raw energy of the film nicely.

Christopher Nolan is about "flow" in filmmaking. A stream-of-consciousness approach to having you experience a world and a vision and not necessarily telling a story (more on that later). If there's anything to say about all of Nolan's films, they certainly won't bore you. They hook you on and just go with it. The cathartic nature of The Dark Knight Rises probably isn't his seminal work, but it's a great example of it and his style. Nobody really bothered to approach a story about a man in a costume fighting crime like this, and there's a good chance nobody would again. It's as unconventional of a "superhero" film, all his Batman films actually, as you could ask for. Grounded. Earnest. Dealing with elements on a visceral, almost organically human level beyond just setting up action set pieces and "take out the bad guy."

The Bad:  Christopher Nolan, when it comes to his Batman films, has still never fully grasped two things: action sequences involving fighting or guns and dramatic beats or pacing. I've noted it in every single one of my reviews for the films. They have a lot of great things happening: visually impressive, very earnest, wonderful spectacle, but in terms of "nuts and bolts" filmmaking and getting down to the basics he strives to achieve, he never quite has the feel. Action beats are often too quick, sloppy and never feel organized and dramatic beats are footnotes, often just glossed over when the entire point of his films is to humanize our characters.

Some hit right on the mark, for example Alfred in all the films is the beating heart of just about everything, but moments when major things happen to major characters, we end up feeling nothing because we aren't given enough time to feel anything. Nolan is an idea man, he works as a visceral filmmaker that looks to guide you through an experience…not necessarily tell his story well. For the former, I thank him. For the latter, Batman probably wasn't the best of fits. Despite his vision and ambition, his desire to affix a puzzle to everything and weave a narrative dominates just simply telling a story and working out those moments of feeling and drama. While the Dark Knight Rises manages to always be interesting, always move, never let go and utilizes a vision that's often unseen in films of this nature, it comes at a cost of a filmmaker's conceptual agenda overtaking coherence and emotional resonance.

To relate to Batman and this story, that emotional resonance must be present. It's really not. It's a great story, but it's not one that's going to reach into you and get you feeling something. It's entertain you, you'll appreciate the themes it touches on, but it's not going to get you up and cheering, or feeling anything (outside of one poetic and quite beautiful scene towards the end). It's a flawed film, but a highly enjoyable one as well. By comparison standards, it's better than Batman Begins due to sheer ambition and the villain presence, but not quite as good as The Dark Knight for those exact reasons.

The Ugly: There's a lot to nit-pick when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises, often a result of Nolan's approach to storytelling, but there's really only one major plot point that involving John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, that comes out of left field, takes you out of the movie and has you questioning all the characters from all three films and just how smart they are supposed to be.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Dark Shadows

An imprisoned vampire, Barnabas Collins, is set free and returns to his ancestral home, where his dysfunctional descendants are in need of his protection.

The Good: Spot on atmosphere, incredible set and costume design and a sense of whimsical fun might seem typical for a Tim Burton film, but in Dark Shadows it all seems to come together exactly as you might expect. It's a match made in heaven with campy humor and a story that, at least to a point, never takes itself too seriously. This is a good thing, because we get to go along for the ride of the Gothic atmosphere meets 70s lavish silliness.

Depp is, as usual, fantastic. His Barnabas Collins is a great mix of "honorable gentleman" meets childlike wonder of his new world. It's not just a fish-out-of-water scenario that's for laughs, but it's his dialogue and reaction to his surroundings through the eyes of a man who hasn't seen the world in 200 years that's the laugh (and probably the joke that's stretched the most). From a lava lamp to Alice Cooper...seeing him remark and observe are the best aspects of the entire film - that and sharing the intentional campy dialogue with scenes of other actors having fun with their respective roles as well. It's the characters that make the film fun, because the story can never quite figure itself out.

The Bad: Where the hell did this third act come from? I'll be honest, I was absolutely with this movie for a majority of its two hours. The acting was fun, jokes well played, characters starting to get interesting and going somewhere. Then it just drops it all for one of the most shoe-horned and out-of-left field third acts I've seen in a while that threw out everything in exchange for something predictable and boring.

It's not a sense of disappointment as much as it is a sense of frustration if not anger. It was working with something that was, errr, working, then decided to get rid of it all. This suddenness causes you to really look back at the entire film, though. I realized it never really sets a firm story. In fact, the "suddenness" of the third act isn't so much sudden in terms of story shift, but sudden in that I felt the film was just starting to settle with a plot, then decided to not bother.

The Ugly: There's one scene that could have been so much more fun and interesting. It involves a very classic actor in a fitting cameo, and who looks about as bored and confused with the story as we are.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Dawn of the Dead (1978)

In this sequel to "Night of the Living Dead", it's a few weeks later after the events of "Night". The situation is getting worse, so two reporters, along with two SWAT team members, decide to steal a helicopter to find a place where they can hide from flesh eating zombies. They find a secluded mall and decide to stop there for the night in order to get some sleep. They decide to stay in the mall, and they barricade themselves in a small room while periodically going downstairs to get things they need, while defending themselves against the zombies and a biker gang in the meantime.

The Good: Dawn of the Dead is a mixed bag of many things. It's mixed in its scare tactics, from gory and violent for shock to creepy and moody atmosphere and a jump-out scare thrown in for good measure. It's a mixed bag of storytelling as well, giving as a solid final couple of acts but an utterly sloppy first act. It's also a mixed bag of special effects, some very well-done and others laughably bad (notably some make up and the blood). What it really strengthens itself on, though, are the characters. They're all distinct, believable, and develop throughout the film consistently even when everything else is inconsistent. You become attached, you spend that time (months) with them and feel their struggle for survival. You share their hatred for the threat of it being taken a way, and their joyousness when they take out the zombies and the "bad guys" that eventually show up. Because of their appeal, and of course the fun nature of having a mall to yourself and zombies to maim, the film is full of energy and is overall a great piece of entertainment.

The Bad: Sadly, the movie doesn't start really getting started and feeling "cohesive" until our survivors finally make it to the shopping mall. The events before that are haphazard, inconsistent and overall uninteresting. Only until the mall do we start getting a quality story and really start to know and appreciate the characters and the dire situation they're in. Let's face it, when you watch the movie, you're waiting through the first portions in anticipation of the finales. It stretches, lengthens and extends itself more than have anything relevant to add and it shows; becoming a bore until things begin to pick up. Once things get going though...there's few horror films that can really touch it.

The Ugly: Still not sure what I think of "blue zombies" but zombies were pretty new at the time.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In the wake of a disaster that changed the world, the growing and genetically evolving apes find themselves at a critical point with the human race.

The Good: To anyone who thinks you can’t have a summer blockbuster spectacle AND well written characters and pacing and story, show them this movie. Hell, for that matter show the previous movie as well. The recent “Apes” films have shown that you can have both when done correctly, and this post-apocalyptic tale of survival, war and violence shows that there simply is no longer an excuse for poor characterization and bad pacing and bad storytelling in your summer blockbuster.

In other words, the Godzilla (2014) defenders can sit down and be quiet, because this is how you write human characters against odds that are insanely stacked against them. Here in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you actually care about the characters. Hell, you care about apes that barely talk because, much like its predecessor, this movie takes motion-capture and computer animation to an all new, very personal and intimate, level.

Director Matt Reeves isn’t a flash-in-the-pan director either. He may not have done anything since 2010’s Let Me In, but maybe he’ll be like your Rian Johnson types: taking time and being patient for the right project and making damn sure you get said project the best it can be. This shows how a steady hand with a balanced script can make a wonderful film that also just happens to be a summer big-budget blockbuster. In fact, when I think of these last few Planet of the Apes movies, the fact they’re big-budget and full of amazing special effects is often an afterthought. That’s because they service the story rather than be the lynchpin to the whole film.

That’s because they’re good stories and characters first, incredibly well paced and full of escalating suspense, special effects second. Hell, not even second. I’d put the acting second after a good script - someone like a Gary Oldman and Keri Russell can nail their character even if they aren’t given a ton of screentime. Then probably directing. Then the special effects and art design. That’s…well that’s just good filmmaking where everyone understand the criteria and pecking order of what is needed to make a great movie.

The Bad: It’s great, but not necessarily perfect. Our final act feels rushed despite a wonderful build up. While it’s certainly cool, and very well shot, it also doesn’t quite land on that emotional core. That’s not necessarily it’s fault, mind you. By this point, it already had its very big emotional scene as well as its very big action packed sequence, so that’s two cards already played leaving very little for the finale to really capitalize on. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and fitting in that thematic Shakespearean type of way, but it’s also obvious and almost required.

Our human characters are secondary despite being a major driving force, and while that’s fine it’s never quite shown who these people are or how they live. Outside of the two or three main folks, at least. There’s a lot of grandstanding and crowds either being angry or scared, but never a sense of being a community or living in any way. Now this, too, is both the film’s fault yet it’s strength. The reason is because it shows just “enough” of our human civilization and spends more time with the apes. The fact is, the apes and their community is more interesting than us dumb humans, but when the shit starts hitting the fan, the care you might feel for those humans is cold.

The Ugly: Fact: this should be called “Rise,” they got their titles swapped.  It’s annoying. And I guarantee it will cause confusion down the road as people say “now which one was Rise? Oh, the first one? But wouldn’t that be Dawn? Well now I have to look it up.”

I only say that because I kept writing this review as “Rise” and it’s only been two days since I’ve seen the film.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Day of the Dead

Zombies rule the USA, except for a small group of scientists and military personnel who reside in an underground bunker in Florida. The scientists are using the undead in gruesome experiments; much to the chagrin of the military. Finally the military finds that their men have been used in the scientists' experiments, and banish the scientists to the caves that house the Living Dead. Unfortunately, the zombies from above ground have made their way into the bunker....

The Good: Scaled down from the larger scoped Dawn of the Dead, Romero took an approach that echoes his original in many ways, yet expands on it even further. It’s a small, more confined film that find a great medium between the little house in Night of the Living Dead and the sprawling mall of his masterpiece sequel. Along with that comes a new set of characters to establish Romero’s commentary on humanity: here being the place, purpose and goals of military, science and just a slight nod to evolution as we begin to wonder if, now that zombies are the primary things on the planet, what they are capable and incapable of.

Turns out, they are capable of quite a lot. As a result, Day of the Dead is really Romero’s most ambitious films as he begins to re-write what zombies actually are. He hinted at it in Dawn of the Dead, noting that the dead have some sort of faint memory and impression of who they once were, hence why they all come to the mall, but here it’s done even further as zombies begin to comprehend, think and begin to emulate their past actions, and actions of us as well.

It’s interesting to see the progression of the Dead films by Romero and how they reflect the social issues of the time. In 1985, it was all about the military, superpowers, emerging technology and sciences and the cold war and much of that is reflected well here. Romero’s take is all that...but now with zombies. A solid film in every sense and, especially recently, seems to be garnering more and more acclaim as a unique zombie film probably cast aside too quickly at the time as zombie movies were a dime a dozen in the lucrative horror world of the 1980s when it came out.

The Bad: In Day of the Dead, you have three factions. The military, the scientists and the regular people caught in the middle.

Well, you have zombies also, but believe it or not they’re downplayed in favor of the living and breathing.

Unfortunately, there’s just nobody to really identify with. There’s no “survivor” element and the introduction to these people that allow us to really look at them, relate to them and ultimately care about them. For a zombie movie to really, really work well, you have to make sure your human beings are people we can somehow get behind. Day of the Dead, rather, seems more focused on its thematic elements and satire than attempting to weave any sort of human element in it other than showing the varying extremes of them, from insanity to power to spitefull and hateful to way, way melodramatically heroic. I don’t doubt that when the zombies do come, and they will, that the ugliness in Day of the Dead is probably going to be more accurate than anything, but it doesn’t make for gripping story when so much of it is a bit too theatrical.

The Ugly: Actually, do you know who you end up really identifying with? Well his name is Bub and, in a way, he’s the real “survivor” we can end up relating to. The human beings are the real monsters here. It’s that little twist that really makes Day of the Dead a very unique and memorable flick and probably not as appreciated as much as it should be.

Final Rating:
3.5 out of 5


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

When a sphere from outer space lands in the Central Park in Manhattan, a group of scientists are summoned by the American government under the call of the Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson. The reborn alien form Klaatu is brought to a military facility and Dr. Helen Benson decides to help him to escape and become the only chance to save the mankind from destruction.

The Good: Somewhere, layered beneath the pretentious, self-serving story, bad acting, sub-par special effects and nauseating characters is, at the very least, a good message and theme. Too bad it doesn't matter. Keanu Reeves fits into the role, as it doesn't require emoting, but so little is known of him and there's even less to be able to relate to. Yes, he's an alien, but we still have no idea who he is, where he comes from and, despite all his exposition, no real understanding of why humanity needs to be destroyed without question.

The Bad: There are bad films, then there are insultingly bad films. The Day the Earth Stood Still is the latter. First things first, kids in movies can make or break them. War of the Worlds, similar in many respects, at least had characters with meaning and, more importantly, a child character that was believable and even relateable. This film has a child character you want to smack around and sit in a corner for a time-out. Jayden Smith is a perfectly fine child actor, but his character is unlikeable from the start. By the time he and his step-mother,Jennifer Connely who's character is about the only one worth standing, resolve their issues, it's too little too late. What does it say about your script when your human characters are as unrelatable and uninteresting as the alien that comes to visit them? The main problem is the script, a catch-all philosophical and moral preaching that thinks its smarter than it really is.What actually occurs isn't important because it's too busy on trying to tell us something, yet in the end says nothing. The original was subtle and its message didn't draw attention to its rather ridiculous story, the producers of this remake apparently didn't see that movie.

Character arcs seem to go nowhere (and Smith's character does a sudden turn that makes no sense whatsoever) and in the end, despite the preaching and the exposition, what do we learn? Nothing. Other than that you wasted money on seeing it. 2008 saw some pretty bad films, with so little redeeming values in this one, it is by far the worst.

The Ugly: The special effects are horrible. The CG looks as though it was done by a second-rate team at Masters FX Inc (if this is one of their first films, then it shows). Great special effects on a film, especially one that is supposed to be so rooted in a real world,cant' be so obvious to where it's distracting.Their ugliness is most notable in the large

Final Rating: 1 out of 5


Daybreakers

In the year 2019, a plague has transformed most every human into vampires. Faced with a dwindling blood supply, the fractured dominant race plots their survival; meanwhile, a researcher works with a covert band of vamps on a way to save humankind.

The Good:  A good sense of social satire. Solid, well-rounded characters. An interesting premise. Good gore and special effects. Daybreakers is one of those films that exceeds it's rather tame less-than-thirty million budget and, unlike a film that would be double its budget, uses every ounce of creative juices it can muster and offers more inspired visuals and concepts that the big studio offerings. Ethan Hawke is our lead, and he is good in that not-too-loud subtle way, but the real show stealers are Sam Neil and Willem Dafoe - both of whom seem to be thoroughly enjoying their characters and relish in the scenes given to them. The story, too, is something that's pretty unique, especially in how it balances the classic vampire mythos and still rekindles it a new with interesting theorizes and creating, or at least adding, to the myth genre fans already love. It's made by filmmakers who obviously love their source material but know how to approach it as something fresh without having to throw everything out the window (such as the awful Twilight films tend to do).

The Bad: The story moves briskly and the characters are consistent and relevant, but the film really tries to force itself to a conclusion in the final fifteen or twenty minutes. It no longer takes the satirical parable route and, instead, just wants to end its story and move on to the final image. It utilizes every ounce of its hour and a half runtime and feels fulfilling and complete, but it all tends to break and crumble like a vampire in sunlight in the final act. It leaves you disappointed yet wanting more because so much of Daybreakers is what genre fans love about the idea of vampires.

The Ugly: There's a sense that Daybreakers badly wants to be bigger than it's meager budget will allow. It makes me wonder, with an extra 30 or 40 million (and even then still not half of the budget of I am Legend, which tries a similar theme) what really could have been envisioned.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Days of Heaven

A hot-tempered farm laborer convinces the woman he loves to marry their rich but dying boss so that they can have a claim to his fortune.

The Good: Much like all of Terrence Malick's films, Days of Heaven isn't about a story. It's about contemplation, thoughts, memories, feelings and sensations rather than trying to string together a story. It's more concerned about the ebb and flow of life and emotion than it is stringing together a three act narrative in a brisk 120 minutes for everyone to be entertained by. Malick, typically, brings us shots of nature or intimate dwellings meant to reflect the thoughts and emotions without being sentimental to the period it's portraying. It's bare yet vivacious, minimal yet profound.

Malick paints a picture as such: man and all his dealings and problems, the burdens he lays upon himself, is a miniscule and minor thing in the grand scope of the world around him. Days of Heaven has elements of a tragedy when it comes to its characters, yet it's layed against the backdrop of its time and place and, especially, the position of all their quarrels and issues against nature and the world. This theme is something Malick always addresses in his films and each time he does it with quiet visual poetry, that may not enthrall you, but certainly can impress you.

Days of Heaven isn't there to entertain you. It's there to tell you something. It's an visual expression, not a story to be told - the story of our characters is secondary here. At the same time Malick manages to do all this yet maintain a plot, characters and pacing to it all...it's just that those things are more used to express the metaphorical and symbolic. At only a little over an hour and a half, his refinement of everything makes you feel as though you've spent a lifetime with these people at this place and time. Not a shot wasted. Not a word lost. Everything is with purpose - toiling over a film for two years in an editing room will do that.

The Bad: There's a handful of filmmakers who's oeuvre is difficult to gauge. Luis Bunuel, David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog are examples and Terrence Malick is no exception. When you're not concerned with a story and more the expression, then a review has to change its approach as well. All the film classes in the world can't quite teach you how to approach something like Days of Heaven. You can appreciate its technical merits, sure, but the entire point of the film is untypical of what you're accustomed to.

At the same time, there is a focus on characters in Days of Heaven. Despite the actors' fine performances, I feel comfortable in saying that none of them quite make an impact. Malick's eye and sense of mood is never keener, but his tendency to use characters as merely tools of an ideological expression can lose the human element in the story entirely. Rather than understand and feel for the characters, it all comes across as bullet points as we move on to the more profound expression of time and place, nature and humanity and the numerous other philosophical and intellectual ideas the man presents...the human connection to those elements are certainly there within the film (in that human beings are relatively small in the cope of it all), but the human connection with the audience is left out in the cold.

Still, Days of Heaven is an experience that is hard to describe. It stays with you after it's over, even if you can't recall the specifics you can always recall the sensations it brought. The mood of a locust swarm and the heat of hundreds of acres on fire. It places you firmly into its world like few films can and is a film meant to be watched and contemplated on rather than popping popcorn and sitting back to relax.

The Ugly: The voiceover can irritate at times, only because I don't like the voice itself. Kids voices grate on my ears. Yes, this is 100% subjective on me, but I don't hold it against the film. Besides, it was a last-minute call on Malick to even include it. I can't imagine the film without it...because it would probably not make any sense if it didn't have it.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Dead Snow

A ski vacation turns horrific for a group of medical students, as they find themselves confronted by an unimaginable menace: Nazi zombies.

The Good: Zombie Nazis. Or is it Nazi Zombies? When does one cease being a Nazi and is just a Zombie, or vice versa? It could be just any zombies, really, but this German film made it specifically Nazis, which probably says more about National Socialism than it ever would with merely run-of-the-mill undead devouring people. As much as I'd like to think Dead Snow is that consciously aware, it's far too idiotic of a film to really justify that conclusion. It's a joyful idiocy, however, one that knows its a horror movie (even referencing other movies directly) that does absolutely nothing new, knows this, and now that it acknowledges it we're sent on a ride that is pure fun to watch. They aren't your typical zombies. These are smart ones that plan and think. They'd be regular crazy Nazi killers if it weren't for the undead part. The movie needed them to be this way, most likely, otherwise it would be boring fare with the threat so low. Taking cues from films before it, especially the Evil Dead movies, Dead Snow is worth punching your ticket for, or at the very least renting on DVD.

The Bad: Cheap scares is probably the film's biggest downfall, that and a rather messy script. Nearly everything has been done before and done better, but it feels almost like a copout here because the film tries to set itself up as a nice looking, self-aware (overly so at times) piece of horror that knows it's not reinventing the wheel. However, just because you aren't reinventing the wheel, though, isn't an excuse for obvious retreads and poor storytelling. It wants to be something more but relegates itself to mediocrity in the grand scheme of things. The fun peters out two-thirds into it as the film tries to take a more serious tone and the characters are largely forgettable, but at least are entertaining for the little bit of screen time most of them have.

The Ugly: The gore is insanely over-the-top, even for a zombie movie, and at the same time manages to not be funny as Dead Alive or Evil Dead, which how the film likes to see itself as.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Dead Zone

Teacher Johnny Smith gets in a horrible accident which forces him into a coma for five years. Once Johnny wakes up, he discovers he has the ability to read a person's life just by making physical contact with them. When the local police find out about Johnny's "powers", they bring him in on a murder case. Soon Johnny's abilities gets him into more trouble then he may be able to handle.

The Good: I was reminded by Roger Ebert, of all people, via Twitter, of all things, that The Dead Zone could very well be Christopher Walken's best performance in his career. This random "tweet" by Ebert, who "tweets" quite often, had me thinking about it to really no finite conclusion. So I decided to pop in the copy I had and rewatch it solely based on judging Walken's acting. I already liked the film. The directing, David Cronenberg walking the lines of character study and supernatural thrillers. The story certainly, a tight script that might lose focus towards the end but is nonetheless compelling. The entire concept, really, seems so simple now but took Stephen King to really give it a shape and direction. The acting, though, I never really though hard about.

Sure, Walken was good. I already was fully aware that the film was entirely his shoulders, and he carries it well. But rewatching it now, I have to say Ebert is probably right on his assessment. Walken's performance is not only superb, it's probably his very best. We see various sides of him and his character. The fear inside him, the paranoia but also the calmness and pleasantness there before his accident and at brief times as he tries to find that connection with humanity once more. Walken has always been willing to take on a variety of roles. From fathers to Russian roulette playing friends to numerous evil villains and, here, a regular man who fears what's around the next corner. It's that "regular man" aspect that really brings it home here, I think, and he shows his range and ability from beginning to end as he brings more to his character John Smith (yes, that's his name) than what is merely written on the page.

The Bad: The film succeeds mainly on concept and on Walken alone. Script-wise, it completely falls off in its final third. There's a sense that it is scrapping along knowing that, eventually, it has to have some kind of conclusion (perhaps this is why the TV series did it so much better) and as a result throws in a fast ending to it all. This would be more acceptable, I think, if it didn't come at the cost of the characters. Walken's development stagnates because everything becomes goal-oriented and supporting characters, notably his former lover Sarah played by Brooke Adams, completely drops from the picture entirely then haphazardly shows up at the end. The connection between the two never felt real, only forced and patchy due to the final third dealing more with the final determined goal than trying to resolve what's really important: the characters.

The Ugly: "The ICE...is GONNA BREAK!" Man, I know it's supposed to be a serious line...but now that it's so iconic on its delivery that you can't help but laugh.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Death Proof

Two separate sets of voluptuous women are stalked at different times by a scarred stuntman who uses his "death proof" cars to execute his murderous plans.

The Good: A low-key story that gives focus on its characters. Out of all of them, though, its Kurt Russel that shines. This is his film, don't forget that, even when he's not on screen. Tarantino went out of his way to tailer this specifically for him, and its proof yet again that Tarantino is really an actor's director. He knows them, what they're capable of and ends up getting perfects fits in every one of his films. This is Russel at his best. Of course, the highlight of the film is the car chase, it's the climax of the film (despite the scene taking place before the events leading up to it). It's a classic chase with classic muscle cars and Tarantino ended up giving us exactly what his intentions were, it's just unfortunate he spent the rest of the film giving us filler.
 
The Bad: A self-absorbed mess of movie that wallows in its own desire to be narcissistic. The elements of Kurt Russel's performance and car chases are ruined by useless conversation scenes with characters we simply do not care about at all and, sadly, wish them dead. Stuntman Mike obliges, but that ruins his character because we shouldn't be routing for him...this then ruins the movie. The material is shallow despite Tarantino attempting to give us reverence of grindhouse cinema and relevance of a quality film. Simply put: there are flashes of brilliance, but overall he's better than this.

The Ugly: Again I have to bring up the fact that we find ourselves routing for Mike. He's not a villain, but we have no choice because it's so damn easy to despise all his victims more than him. It tries to make them sympathetic, but Tarantino's dialogue and their delivery has them coming across as pretentious women that feel they're better than everyone.
 
Final Rating: 3 out of 4


Death Rides a Horse

As a child, Bill witnesses the murder of his family by four robbers. Fifteen years later, he embarks on his revenge...

The Good: Death Rides a Horse is an "everything but the kitchen sink" Spaghetti Western. It's two hours of a pretty epic piece of western tropes. It has the revenge angle and the hunting down and tracking of very bad men, the old and young gunmen working together / generation angle, the protecting of a village, one on one shootouts, large-scale shootouts, a prison break, a robbery and double-cross, saloon brawls, a slight nod to humor when appropriate, a very, very intense card game, a final standoff that has you really feeling the weight of it all up to that point, and lots of Italians pretending to be Mexican.

Oh, and Lee van Cleef's fantastic mustache - a trademark of many a Spaghetti Western as much as an Ennio Morricone score, which this has as well and probably one of his best (and probably familiar to anyone that has seen Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill).

This is simply everything a Spaghetti Western is about. There's many familiar tropes, but it's all done very well even if, visually, it's a bit rough and lacks style. It's a hard film to review in that respect. It's familiar on a lot of fronts, so nothing is overly remarkable, but nothing is what I would consider bad either. It's just, simply put, a really, really solid, well-done spaghetti western from beginning to end having every element of the genre that fans love about it. It does a lot in its two-hour runtime, showing a love for the western and all of those tropes yet still impressively maintaining focus, even though it might lack a central identity while doing so.

The Bad: It's solid, but as mentioned there's nothing that's going to appear as a notable stand out aspect, other than the fact it packs a lot into its story. There's no distinct style, or distinct character, or location, or even set-piece that really gives the entire film an identity. Perhaps trying to do so much just ended up diluting it all. When you think of great Spaghetti Westerns, you tend to recall those special moments of humor, "coolness," or one-liners. Death Rides a Horse never really gets there, outside of a nice, albeit quick, final scene. I suppose it just lacks that "punch" that the best in the genre tend to have, even though it certainly has the polish.

The Ugly: As far as I know, this is the only Spaghetti Western John Phillip Law did. That's too bad. Just watching him, you can see he's incredibly comfortable in the role opposite Van Cleef. He's a guy that, like a Terrence Hill or even Cleef himself, probably could have carved out a nice niche as a Spaghetti Western star.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Debt

The espionage thriller begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel and Stefan about their former colleague David. All three have been venerated for decades by their country because of the mission that they undertook back in 1966, when the trio tracked down Nazi war criminal Vogel in East Berlin. At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team's mission was accomplished - or was it? 

The Good: The Debt is smart in more ways than one. Sure, it's a well-acted, intensely directed thriller but it's also a very simple play about morality. A morality play goes back to medieval times: a question is asked that constitutes a dilemma to test the characters in it. In the process, it brings together various arguments and aspects of said moral question. For the debt, hidden behind espionage, murder and shootouts, is the long-standing question: does evil resolve evil? Do two wrongs make a right and if you know you've done something wrong, can you live with it?

The wrongs here are whether or not justice is blind and whether or not a person can live with a lie, hence the title of "the debt." You know: that whole "conscious" thing. The Debt isn't one to provide answers, as a good morality play shouldn't, but it loves the fact it can throw out questions and leave you to determine the angle. For all sakes and purposes, it's a far smarter film than I think it even gives itself credit for.

The Debt is wonderfully shot and directed. It's cuts are sharp and quick, the action flows seamlessly and the building of tension is as good as the genre can get. It's a smart, well-crafted spy thriller through and through - more Alfred Hitchcock than James Bond. Director John Madden, known for historical period pieces like Shakespeare in Love or Mrs. Brown, shows his edge in character as well, giving actors room to breathe and perform, notably Jessica Chastain who's given most of the workload as the younger version of Rachel Singer. She's smart and tough, emotionally naked and often unsure of herself. She's oddly innocent and nieve which is wonderfully juxtaposed against her older self played by Helen Mirren, who is more pragmatic and seemingly tired. Great performances all around with a lingering eye that gives us moments of drama to coincide with the quick pace of gun shots, chases and espionage plans unfolding.

The Bad: An unfortunately contrived and all-too-convenient ending makes for a film spearheading forward with great thrills and action sequences to be remembered as a movie that ends with a "that's it?" The best moments are in 1966, there's no doubt about that, and it carries the film. The 1997 sequences start intense but simmer and that's unfortunately what we're left to remember the entirety of the film with. A sense of unfulfilled ambition like a great meal finishing itself off with some mediocre flan.

Pace is a slight issue as well, the highpoint being the middle portion of 1966 and the low point being the back and forth that tends to bookend the film to a point you forgot you're watching it all unfold in flashback. It handles twists and turns well, but at the cost of starting slow, building fast, then ending slow as well. It feels disjointed, though you'll not notice it through most of the film.

The Ugly: Helen Mirren has top billing which I find a bit odd. She's the older version of our main character, but the meat of the story involves the younger version of her character.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Deep Red (Profondo Rosso)

A musician witnesses the murder of a famous psychic, and then teams up with a fiesty reporter to find the killer while evading attempts on their lives by the unseen killer bent on keeping a dark secret buried.

The Good: "Giallo" a is subdivision of horror from primarily Italy (and some Spain) that is known for its melodrama, excessive violence, lots of blood and often nudity, sex and psychological twists. At their heart, though, they're pretty much thriller/mystery films with a dose of the slasher genre (as it's always a pretty straightforward whodunit to be solved). The master of this style is Dario Argento, no question. He didn't receive the nickname the "Italian Hitchcock" haphazardly, the man was as much a master of suspense as his British counterpart, although due to the "giallo" styling he rarely left much to the imagination. His films were often psychological, if not disturbing, to express the mind as much as the physical reality of a murder, who it reaches and influences and what it can do to the psyche. In other words, the films were often more intelligent than the blood and violence would lead you to believe. Deep Red is Argento at his best with a fantastic mystery story, a script that is a wonderful exercise in foreshadow and suspense. David Hemmings, best known previously from Antonini's Blow Up, is one of the more overlooked British actors I can think of and is fantastic in his ability to have a man full of assurances, yet able to show him out of an element, uncomfortable and always looking for answers.  Argento's directing is in top form, just great compositions and artistry and the oh-so under-appreciated sense of timing and reveals masterfully done. It's often down between this and Suspiria for many on which is his best film.

The Bad: Having an international cast often means you'll have many different styles of acting come through. The rather straight-played Hemmings could be having a scene with a very exuberant Italian actor (such as Gabriele Lavia), which really gives an odd balance that doesn't sit quite right. In a few cases, the tone of a scene can be completely destroyed because of the lack of cohesion and chemistry between the various acting styles. I could, however, justify this as Hemmings really is the only British person in the film and he's in a strange and foreign land, so things are going to seem and appear odd to him.

The Ugly: Depending on what version you have, there are sometimes issues with the audio tracks in many Argento films. Sometimes the audio will suddenly switch to Italian (the film itself is in English) with bad dubs. It's a long story, basically it has to with international casts, overdubbing etc...however it wouldn't be an issue if there were subtitles in these versions. That's why I always recommend the Blue Underground version which you can buy on Amazon. On a side note, I love reading reviews on Amazon, it's hilarious - especially when they type in all-caps.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Deliver Us From Evil

New York police officer Ralph Sarchie investigates a series of crimes. He joins forces with an unconventional priest, schooled in the rites of exorcism, to combat the possessions that are terrorizing their city.

The Good: A well intended but ultimately underwhelming crime thriller meets demonic exorcism film. Hell, that line alone makes Deliver Us From Evil sound pretty awesome, and there’s some moments in it that certainly can be had the plot not been undercut with silliness by the end. For a good portion of the runtime, we’re firmly entrenched in a well paced, deeply atmospheric thriller with a supernatural angle. Gross New York apartments. Dead bodies. Strange people. A mystery to be solved connecting it all with a solid performance by Eric Bana. It certainly has the rails laid down.

But the story that is the train drives right off them, making all that track laying worthless. It’s no fault on the direction side of the cinematography, it’s well shot and paced and framed and all that good stuff. Director Scott Derrickson has shown a consistent ability to deliver that in all his movies, though only a handful, including Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The man knows the genre realm well.

Helping all that along before being undermined by an awful third act are solid actors all around, notably Eric Bana as our lead. Bana never gets enough credit, always underrated as an actor, and he’s got more than enough to work with here to crate a solid, conflicted and maladjusted lead. With him is Edgar Ramirez, equally underrated but always solid. They play off each other well even though the film ultimately has no idea what to do with any of these good elements that should make for a unique genre film.

The Bad:  I can’t recall the last time I came away from a film so utterly disappointed in where it ended up going. For much of Deliver Us From Evil, it is absolutely solid. There’s twists. There’s turns. The mystery, though a little cliche, was a solid driving plot and the characters well rounded. It even managed solid “scary” moments throughout. Then it all began to go in a direction unfitting of all that great set up. It began to become preachy. It began to become more vague. It began to rush to find a way to conclude all these plot lines and character arcs in a bland and uninspired way as you could expect.

Worst of all is it spends a good chunk of what should be an emotional and powerful climax in a room with three guys, one is possessed, and it turns into a dull stereotype of exorcism movies. If there's anything about Deliver Us From Evil that causes it to fail, it is this uneventful and uninspired climax.

The Ugly: A horror movie relies on its third act more than any other genre. It has to sell it, no matter how absurd it might go. Here, it’s as though they just winged it.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Demolition Man

Frozen in 1996, Phoenix, a convicted killer is "thawed" out for parole well into the 21st century. Revived into a crime free society, Phoenix resumes his murderous rampage, and no one can stop him. Spartan, the cop who captured Phoenix in 1996 has also been cryogenically frozen, this time for a crime he didn't commit. In desperation they turn to Spartan to help recapture Phoenix.
 

The Good: Let’s think for a moment. The hero’s name is “John Spartan.” Well that just paints a picture by the name alone, doesn’t it? “John,” the every man, standard clichéd name of a lead. Combine that with “Spartan” and you have a heroic title. Now you have the villain: “Simon” which seems to indicate a sense of intelligence around it, and “Phoenix” which implies he’s a hard bastard to kill. Well, thankfully not all the creativity in Demolition Man was blown on awesome names for its characters – played gleefully by Wesley Snipes and Stallone-like by Sly Stallone who pretty much phones it in.
 
That doesn’t mean our Mr. Spartan sucks to go on this heroic adventure, though. Stallone was cast because he can do the “Stallone” thing. Unlike, say, in Get Carter or Judge Dredd, here it actually works. If it didn’t, then we wouldn’t care about anything in the film. Stallone is a man driven, is able to punch in just enough campy one-liners and comedy bits playing off the fish-out-of-water plot and is a fantastic balance to the utterly off-the-wall insanity of Wesley Snipes (in what I would call his best role because it’s easily the most fun). They have a solid cast around them, all acting and reacting to these two absolute brutes of a bygone era of excessive violence. Conceptually, Demolition Man is absolutely brilliant based off of that. It’s a time-travel plot at heart, but here with the absolute extremes making for some guilty-pleasure fun that itself takes a certain style and approach to get right.
 
The Bad: Demolition is good in that “I want to eat a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream” kind of good. An awesome idea, but it might be a little better if you just have a bowl and fancy it up with whipped cream and sprinkles. It’s a basic story that really could have been much better and exploited much more, especially when it shifts to Phoenix’s character as his particular approach to this “new world” are some of the best moments of the film. Played too few and far between in my eye. The action itself is pretty standard fare too. There’s a lot of it, but it all tends to humm and buzz like an air conditioner on all the time. There’s no character. No style. It’s just a lot of stuff happening and people fighting – a big mess of action that loses interest in itself after the first few minutes.
 
In a movie like this, you simply have to swallow your pride that is your “logic detector” and just go with it. But let’s face it…there’s a glaring friggin hole in the entire plot. The reason our hero, Mr. Spartan, is put away is because he’s accused of manslaughter. Of course, we find out later the people he was accused of causing the deaths of were already dead. Sorry, but in a world (trailer man voice here) where a man can be cryogenically frozen, his mind programmed and given new talents and abilities and then unfrozen without a day of aging, it’s kind of hard to believe a doctor wouldn’t be able to tell if the people were already dead or not and just flat-out send a guy off to his sentence. That is called plot convenience. The writers obviously needed to find a way to have Spartan put away for fifty years yet at the same time not have be guilty of what he’s accused of. Whoops.
 
The Ugly: Oh, and let’s not even begin to think about how, apparently, in less than fifty years nobody knows what “violence” is and Los Angeles has no crime. Human nature, folks.
 
I still love this movie, though, and honestly I’d love to see it remade. Maybe get a capable director who knows action, set it further into the future than just 40 years and just make Spartan a flawed hero who has to live with his mistakes (plothole fixed) and now has a chance to redeem himself. That’s never done in the film and would have done wonders for your typical action-star character and added a sense of depth to him. I think there’s more potential here than what we were given.
 
Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Departed

In South Boston, the state police force is waging war on Irish-American organized crime. Young undercover cop Billy Costigan is assigned to infiltrate the mob syndicate run by gangland chief Frank Costello. While Billy quickly gains Costello's confidence, Colin Sullivan, a hardened young criminal who has infiltrated the state police as an informer for the syndicate, is rising to a position of power in the Special Investigation Unit. Each man becomes deeply consumed by his double life, gathering information about the plans and counter-plans of the operations he has penetrated. But when it becomes clear to both the mob and the police that there's a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin are suddenly in danger of being caught and exposed to the enemy-and each must race to uncover the identity of the other man in time to save himself. But is either willing to turn on the friends and comrades they've made during their long stints undercover?

The Good: Every bit as engrossing as Scorsese's other gangster masterpieces, The Departed is return to form for the master from the subject matter, the characters, the storytelling, the style, the music...it's like visiting an old friend and you can't help but love every minute of it. As someone who enjoys fantastic characters in his films, I couldn't help but revel in the indulgence of every single one in the Departed. The performances and casting is absolutely perfect and the flare Scorsese has with the camera is purely joyful as we watch an old master at work. I wouldn't call it a "return to form," as some have suggested, I don't think his form was ever absent, but I would call it a return to the crime story and nobody does it better. Deserving of his Oscar (finally) and for Best Picture, Scorsese finally comes full-circle with his wins and a film that represents everything he's about.

The Bad: In similar fashion to Casino, the film is fast and frantic and perhaps more complicated narratively than it needs to be. It's not as subtle as Scorsese's best pictures nor is it as streamlined as them either. I have no doubt he was like a kid in a candy store, and his picking and choosing of scenes looks just like that: great scenes that never really seem to blend together, rushing from place to place, plot point to plot point and idea to idea. There's no sense of time passed and you often have no idea the timeframe things happen in or what is or isn't a flashback. In the hands of a lesser director, it would have been ruined, Scorsese doesn't let that happen, but it does hinder the fantastic nature of everything else.

The Ugly: The original Chinese film, Infernal Affairs, is every bit as engaging and well-done as this remake. It's been overshadowed from its deserved glory by Scorsese's mystique, but film fans should give it a look.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Le Dernier Combat

In the post-apocalyptic future, only a few humans are left. No one is able to speak; the film contains no dialogue, and characters communicate non-verbally. A determined loner befriends a reclusive older man and these two battle against vicious thugs for food, shelter and life itself.

The Good: After bringing this movie up in a recent article of mine, I've been asked to go a little deeper into it. That's because it's a rather obscure movie but from one of the more influential directors in history. It's also one of the best debut films I've ever seen. Luc Besson, best known as an action director, offers up one of the most unique and flat-out entertaining movies you'll ever see. It's story is fantastic. It's camerawork and cinematography to notch and it's acting borderline brilliant (with a very young Jean Reno to boot).

And it does all this without saying a single word (ok, a couple of words are spoken but you really have to listen for it...and I don't think the subtitles even came up when they were spoken).
This is visual filmmaking and storytelling at its most pure and simple. Every character, of which there's quite a few, does not say a single word, making this film quite at home circa 1921 or so. There's no title cards either, so I suppose it wouldn't fully fit even back then either. There's also very little music, the wasteland of this post-apocalyptic serving as the soundtrack with a quiet disposition and occasional breezes. It tells its story entirely through the visuals and the body language/expressions of the actors.

The amount of trust Besson has to put in them is outstanding and the work incredibly well with his camera work, which ranges from a very documentary-style to a simple, stagnant shot and let the scene unfold on its own. The world here is familiar, we've seen this post-apocalyptic style before, but it does it well in one simple fact that all movies like this achieves: to find that hint of humanity in a world of desolation. Le  Dernier Combat finds it, and relishes it rather than puts it off. It's an optimistic film to be sure despite the rubble and struggle to survive. It's also darkly comedic, never taking itself too seriously or too lightly, but has a unique balance that Besson has always been able to manage through a lot of his films. It's simply a brilliant little movie that, if you can find it, must be seen.

The Bad: Rolling in at just over an hour and a half, even that running time seems a bit of a stretch. It's an entertaining film, no doubt, but the story wears thin and though it's told well, it drags its pace and culminates in a film that would have been far better if it were 15 minutes shorter and a little tighter. Surprising, considering it's purposefully done,l everything feels relevant, but at the same time some things aren't really needed...even things with purpose can wear out their welcome if things appear stagnant.

The Ugly: Fish? Not everything is supposed to make sense, and little dabs of randomness is kind of funny.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Descendants

A land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a boating accident.

The Good: Alexander Payne understands subtly better than just about any other writer and director working today. By that, I mean the man can create a character, yet the character doesn't feel created at all. He (it's always a male character with Payne) seems real, as though he's always been and we're simply observing him along the way. He's conflicted, emotional and often in a state of distress, but he buries it. His dealing with that and the situations that surround him, often leading him to a breaking point in some way, is where Payne's other artistic achievement arises: comedy. His films aren't comedies, yet they are funny because the comedy stems from the drama of dealing with seemingly normal and ordinary people that are thrown extraordinary hurdles to jump over.

In The Descendents, the hurdle is found in Matt King, played in top-tier fashion full of range and profoundness by George Clooney. He's stuck in a multitude of situations that could have been a misshapen hodge-podge of ideas. But Payne is able bring them together in one common thread, as he always does. Here it is with the theme of merging elements of a mans past and future and, as the title suggests, heritage and genealogy. The Descendents is simultaneous one man's look into his family past and worry of his family future coming together with a present situation that tests his limits of emotional stability.

The Bad: I sat on this review for a good week, attempting to contemplate the various degrees of good and bad it might have. I could think of really nothing bad here. I took it upon myself to read others' reviews, particularly the supposed "bad reviews" of which there were very few. What was "bad" to them: a lot I disagreed with, I can tell you that. Things like "cold" and "too calculated" and "nothing surprising happens."

Yes, it hits the expected beats a movie like this would, but is it "bad" as a result? You can consider those elements things the film might have a fault in, but trust me, they're minor at the most. The Descendents is the perfect example of the journey being more than the destination, and it's one of the best journeys you could go on all year.

The Ugly: Give Clooney an Oscar already. I don't know if he'll ever get a role as honest and with as much depth as the one he's given here.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Descent

After a tragic accident, six friends reunite for a caving expedition. Their adventure soon goes horribly wrong when a collapse traps them deep underground and they find themselves pursued by bloodthirsty creatures. As their friendships deteriorate, they find themselves in a desperate struggle to survive the creatures and each other.

The Good: What it might lack in originality it makes up for in its approach: smart and purposeful directing and cinematography, believable characters (although a somewhat unbelievable situation) and practical effects. It also has a good strength in its layers and the relationship of two the primary girls Sara (our hero) and Juno (our villain). The focus is, of course, the creatures killing off our spelunking ladies one by one, but there's an entire subplot involving Sara, her family, her husband, a car accident and Juno's relationship to it all. You then have the thematic motifs of feminism, masculinity and so forth wrapping it all together in one very tense, claustrophobic nightmare.

The Bad: The Descent has developed quite a following and really put Neil Marshall on the map (although I would say Dog Soldiers probably did that initially). Unfortunately, what the film really has going for it is the individual scenes. there's really no cohesion through the. Those scenes are frightening and intense, but it's not much different than a poorly-lit slasher movie that merely goes from kill to kill, becoming repetitive after the first 20 minutes. I also have a hard time buying that anyone would lead their friends into an unmapped cave without telling them, then give some lame excuse of it being to "re-strengthen friendships." I would think that the choice of cave wouldn't matter, just spending time with each other. Well...now you're dead. So there.

The Ugly: Be warned. The Descent isn't exactly a "feel good" movie. The original version, anyways (The US cut tidies it up, but we will have none of that, now will we?)

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Desperado

After the first movie, El Mariachi isn't doing so good. First off, he was shot in one of his hands. And his girlfriend was murdered. And, once again, El Mariachi is mistaken for a hit man. This now leads to meeting up with a beautiful woman, and another face-to-face bloody gun-shooting action.

The Good: Sunlight cascades through dirty windows of a bar that looks like it's been standing for a hundred years. It's hot, sultry, as it always is in Mexico, and the bar not much better than a sauna as the scattered few banditos quietly drink their warm beer and the bartender pretend his glasses are being cleaned by that dirty rag of his. Places like this don't have air-conditioning. At the best they have a fan that just does little more than blow more hot air into the room. The front door creeks open. In walks a tall man in black, his face partially covered by his greasy dark hair and his tanned skin and dirty boots showing his travels.

That is atmosphere, folks. And boy, does Desperado know how to paint a scene. Like El Mariachi, it's its greatest attribute...but here ten fold. A charismatic star, an gorgeous dame and a guitar case of guns. That's Desperado in a nutshell, tongue-firmly-in-cheek as well, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

The music, Rodriguez always showing a great knack for playfully utilizing it within his scene - even the insane action-filled ones - helps that atmosphere be even more expressive. Simply put: there's not a lot of movies like Desperado anymore; a modern-day western that has me hugging my Leone, Cardone and Petroni films as Desperado is like a love-letter to the bad-assery of them all.

The Bad: El Mariachi may not have been as slick as Desperado, or have as good of action sequences, but it kept everything moving forward at a steady pace. Desperado...not so much. It's action is great, but it becomes repetitive after a while. It stars as well as any action movie I've seen, again harking back to Spaghetti Westerns and those classic B-movie action flicks of a quiet man walking into a bar. It builds and then explodes in just a fantastic hail of gunfire in what is just one of the best action sequences that gets you up out of your chair and pretending to be as cool as Bandaras...but it doesn't really follow that up with any other memorable action set piece. There's a nice chase sequence, but nothing lives up to that opening scene and you just kind of sit back and, though you still enjoy it, you enjoy it just a bit less.

That and the story seems a complete mess that makes you wish you had the shallow El Mariachi story back. Whereas El Mariachi knows it has a thin story and just rolls with it, Desperado tries to do more when it doesn't really need to. When it concentrates on style of substance, it works. When it attempts to round out the characters beyond their one-word descriptions ("Cool," "Sexy," "Vile," "Evil), it falls short - especially at the end where we are meant to care significantly about the relationship between the good guy and the bad guy...but it's never developed or goes anywhere.

The Ugly: Don't let it fool you, this is B-Movie enjoyment all the way.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Despicable Me

When a criminal mastermind uses a trio of orphan girls as pawns for a grand scheme, he finds himself profoundly changed by the growing love between them

The Good: Yes yes yes, you've seen this before and you know how it will end. As always is the case when that happens, you need a good path to get to that end. It's what keeps you coming back afterall. Thankfully, though it may not get everything just right, Despicable Me has a particular approach to its style and story that we can thank them for taking. It's a lot Looney Tunes irreverent style with just a dash of heart for good measure. The timing, the approach and style, and the individual comedic scenes (how they are set up and then knocked down) are all drawn upon the Warner Brothers classics and it stays smartly consistent to those approaches giving the film identity and life.

The art style and animation itself is absolute superb. Characters pop with life, the design of lairs, gadgets and even rudimentary things like houses all have a consistent and particular style - a tad surreal like the classic cartoons it draws from. There's no big message or meaning going on here, just a nicely told story for children. Not so much here for adults as a lot of age-transcendent animated features, but you will stop and grin at times no matter the age.

The Bad: When Despicable Me is working its classic, Looney Tunes angle, it works. Elements of Warner characters like Wile E Coyote, Daffy Duck and Tweety and Sylvester are seen all over the place. When it tries to do things outside that, it falls completely flat. Yes, you need a sentimental angle for a movie like this, it's the entire point of the movie and the arc of the character (played fairly blandly by Steve Carell I might add), but you don't necessarily need it to be this dull and forced with its sentimentality. Montage sequences, overly-cute moments and oft too convenient plot-devices simply aren't handled, especially when put up against the more slapstick, classic animated comedy moments that are nicely done.

The Ugly: The movie isn't trying to be a How to Train your Dragon or Toy Story 3 or Coroline. But you can still see what it wants to be...and it just doesn't quite get that either.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Despicable Me 2

Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

The Good: Superbly animated and lively with a fun world to play around in, Despicable Me 2 continues what the first film did without adding a whole lot of anything new. That's good in the sense that the original had a sense of energy and inertia to it that seemed to never live up, not to mention a great art design, but bad in that the writing ranged from clever to lazy and, here in the sequel, leaning more towards lazy.

However, the characters are nice, the plot good when it's focused on it and voice acting from the main cast drives the entire film with fun and enjoyable personalities. It may not be enough to fix the issues of its story, or take it's thin plot to new heights, but there's a certain charm to it all that's hard to encapsulate in any works.

The Bad: It's a common trait for animated films to have "sidekicks." Usually they're animal-like or non-human creatures that do or say very little and are always there for comic relief. Usually they're used as transitional devices from one scene to another, used in the background to be "funny" with physical comedy or a line or two or used to just be another person in a scene to give an excuse for the main characters to play off of and explain things to.

Despicable Me had these, and they were called minions. Despicable Me 2 also has these, and I like to call them a reliance. The biggest problem is that the film can't go five minutes without spending a good chunk slamming the minions in our faces with quips and sight gags that really don't mean anything to the story or other characters. "Here's one acting like a dancer" or "look, this one almost got caught in the door" or "these two are having a slap-fight for no reason" or "here's a couple dressed as maids and doing chores."

It;s one thing to have a sidekick, it's another to seem so dependent on them because you have such a thin story and no faith in your storytelling. Instead of feeling a part of the world, the minions are distraction to it which results in everything being felt light and with little risk, undermining any sense of emotion or drama that the film might otherwise go for, and you can never take them or the rest of the film seriously. But even then, I have to wonder why SO MUCH is given to them in terms of time. There are long sections of the film that is all minions doing minion things but really don't matter to anything else.  They're no sub-plots or Story B, they're two or three minute looney toon moments that you'll forget about the moment they're over.

Because all this undermines everything else, if not outright overshadows it in some cases (in a bad way) you just start to not care. I want to like the characters, but I have no time to get invested. I love the animation, but can't appreciate that so much of that effort and time is spent on little yellow creatures that are really only there to give the series a face and sell some toys. I love the voice work but half of it is mumbling, screaming and blabbering minions. I stopped caring about anything this film was going for after 30 minutes, then  just sat through the rest utterly disappointed with a checklist on the formula it laid out for itself.

The Ugly: Take out all the minion moments and you'd have a film that's probably under an hour. Also probably better. They add nothing.

Want an example: The middle of the film, about 45 minutes or so, the minions aren't as prevalent…and it's glorious. The characters have time to get you to like them, you're interested, more happens with the plot. Of course they come back in force, those damn minions, but the middle of the film is a great example of what his movie could have been.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Devil

A group of people trapped in an elevator realize that the devil is among them.

The Good: An interesting concept, and certainly something that could make for a compelling film. Think of it as Elevator to the Gallows meets The Exorcist. Devil is a very nice looking and surprisingly well-acted piece of a low-budget thriller. It's not a bad idea and not even a completely bad script, but it's not a particularly great idea or a much-needed sharp and great script to make it completely work.

The Bad: The bad? The fact it looked and seemed so promising and didn't amount to much more than a cheap thriller that's never that thrilling. With the directing as solid as it is and the acting as well, I guess it's more that it needed a lot more to it than a bad twist at the end. It needed to really nail it to get the elusive satisfaction that thrillers either have or don't, as it is it just manages to be passable like a date that you go on that ends with an awkward hug rather than a kiss.

I guess it plays out like this: It starts nicely. It moves at a good pace. There's a few annoying parts but it needs the padding, I suppose, so that's forgivable. Everyone is performing well, it all has a good look, it hits some nice reveals as it goes. Still moving forward, it seems to be getting better. The intensity rises. Further and further....

...Then you fake it and just go home for the night. Here's your cab fare, don't mind the loose ends and lack of closure on a ton of things, you probably already forgot about them because someone went "boo."

The Ugly: It's like blue-balls on celuloid! (now put that on the poster)

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Devil's Backbone

The mournful fable of the Santa Lucia School during the last days of the Spanish Civil War. An imposing stone building set on a desolate plateau, the school shelters the orphans of the Republican militia and politicians, and other abandoned children....

The Good: A impeccably paced and written story with astounding visuals, subtle special effects and creepy atmosphere: of course it's a Guillermo del Toro film. It also happens to be one that many people consider his best.

The Devil's Backbone falls into the "creepy and atmospheric" rather than simple "jump out and say boo" type of horror movie (though it has that once in a while, but used sparingly). In other words, the better kind of horror movie. One that doesn't cop to cheap thrills and scares and utilizes smart camera angles, use of light and shadow and patience to "develop" the horror rather than simple "pug it in." It's all hinged on a script that, honestly, may not have even needed the ghost story to still be a compelling drama and thriller about an orphanage, civil war and one evil prince without a kingdom. Del Toro's use of camera here is in top form, allowing a gorgeous palette of colors combined with smart and subtle camera angles to bring the location of the orphanage, the only place in the film, to a character itself. It's halls are mazelike at times; echoes in the night of small bare feet on tile scampering to get water or enough doors and corners to hide in.

Within its gates are the occupants who you can't help but quickly get attached to. It story is based on, if anything, coming of age stories of orphaned children. It has its share of secrets and that revealing, every so patiently and slowly, of those secrets is what makes The Devil's Backbone one of the best thriller and horror films of the past decade - as winding as the ever progressing plot unfolding like a puzzle box.

The Bad: Our resident villain is almost over-the-top villainous. Ok, he really is over the top, either a) we have to assume he just flicked a switch and loses his mind or b) they really, really, really wanted to force us to not like him. He's one-dimensional, does things for the sake of doing them and we end up with more questions about the guy than answers. The same goes for most of the kids, many of whom we really don't know in the end as much as we know about the adults.

Also, the bomb story, though thematically relevant, feels a bit too shoehorned in and causes some of the tension to be broken in a few scenes here and there. All minor quibbles, really.

The Ugly: A movie like this would never get made in Hollywood. Dead kids? It wouldn't be this severe, that's for sure.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Devil's Double

A chilling vision of the House of Saddam Hussein comes to life through the eyes of the man who was forced to become the double of Hussein's sadistic son.

The Good: A frightening performance by Dominic Cooper brings to life two amazing personas: one a straight-man. The normal, every day guy caught up in a situation that tests his limits and loosens his sanity. The other is a charismatic and despicable villain that is like Scarface's Tony Montoya if he was undeservedly more rich and powerful and had no repercussions to his actions. What's worse, though, is he knows it.

The story of Uday Hussein isn't necessarily the focus here, though. The film smartly shows it through the eyes of a third party observer, Latif, also played by Cooper. This allows us to feel sympathy for Latif, because there is absolutely no way we can route for Hussein. Sociopathic. Masochistic. Flat-out evil. The film is able to stretch his character much further than if it were a simple biopic of the man. Instead, it's a series of events that Latif was witness to. Murders. Rapes. Torture. It's not for the weak, that much if for certain. It has a sharp looks, a very brisk pace and is worth seeing for Cooper's duality alive on screen.

The Bad: Lots of madness, very little method. That is the philosophy, I think, to The Devil's Double. It's rich and full of content, a exuberance of visceral ferociousness and tense situations, but it's all done in a frantic and haphazard way that never fully assembles itself. Coherency is thin, catharsis is king.

It's also hard to fully grasp the society in which it takes place. This is the era of George Bush Sr, Saddam ruling with an iron fist and his family adorned in gold. Yet, what's missing is Iraq itself, especially an understanding of its people. Context is key in a film about such a foreign culture, but there is none to truly find here. There's little to no acknowledgement of its existence other than fleeting words and occasional shots. The story could have easily taken place in Miami as much as it supposedly does in Baghdad (it was actually shot in Malta). The sense of place is sorely lacking, not to mention the scope in understanding this volatile era of a dictator's reign.

The Ugly: The Devil's Double is worth seeing for the astounding performance by Dominic Cooper alone. His dual-role as both masochist and victim-on-the-verge of being a masochist is one of the best of the year, though I'm sure won't get noticed by the Awards people that pull the strings. Just from the looks in his eyes and subtle mannerisms (and not so subtle at times), you have two characters that look exactly alike but are distinctly different all played by one person.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Devil Rides Out

In the countryside of England, the Duc de Richleau a.k.a Nicholas welcomes his old friend Rex Van Ryn that has flown to meet him and Simon Aron, who is the son of an old friend of them that had passed away but charged them the task of watching the youngster. Nicholas and Rex unexpectedly visit Simon that is receiving twelve mysterious friends. Sooner Nicholas, who is proficient in black magic, learns that the guests are member of a satanic cult and Simon and his friend Tanith Carlisle will be baptized by the powerful leader Mocata to serve the devil.

The Good: A wonderful play on paranoia and tension makes The Devil Rides Out one of the most unique films out of the Hammer studio's horror canon. Satanic cults, sacrifices, hypnotism and illusions are tossed in to a bag and shaken to the point where you aren't sure what exactly is going to happen next. Hell, it could be anything. Hell, the thing you just saw might not have been real in the first place. That's what makes The Devil Rides Out a really fun film despite the grave nature it presents itself as. Sure, everyone here is very serious all the time, but it's fun to see them put through the ringer.

This is still, though easily arguable as he's done so much, Christopher Lee's finest role. His character is interesting, energetic, animated and full of personality. Sure, he might be a bit talky, but he's damn sure intriguing with a hint of mystery as well. Classic character actor Charles Gray plays the villain in his usual dry manner, delivering condemnation left and right as he perpetrates evil sacrifices and (rather tame as this was 1968) orgies.

There's a psychological angle is unique amongst a lot of Hammer Horror films, which are often fairly straightforward. Here we have paranoia and hypnosis, people who aren't sure if they are in control of their own existence or through outside, dark forces. You never are quite sure who to trust,

Like many of Hammer's films, and those directed by Terence Fisher especially, the film can sometimes take itself too seriously too a fault, however here it's a far more fitting tone. It's a serious subject matter full of paranoia and dark magic, the sincerity of all involved fits far more than those with walking mummies and blood-sucking vampires seducing women and with the far-darker approach, you really are happy it would take itself as seriously as it does and even more happy when it knows how to be entertaining while doing so - not an easy feat to pull off in the slightest.

The Bad: Though it is a taught, well-polished thriller, it has the unfortunate flaw of succumbing to the "this character knows everything" syndrome. Lee's Duc de Richelieu is an interesting persona, but he's also the source of quite a lot of exposition. He spouts off plot points and explains everything as though we already know it and without giving it a lot of context. It's not in that "Sherlock Holmes knows everything" kind of way, because Holmes as realism and deduction to explain it all to us, and always eplains the mysteries behind it all. Here, Richelieu just spouts "oh...it's the devil" or "stay in the circle, magic will protect us because it's magic" or something of that nature. It's unfortunate to speak ill of the character, because from a performance standpoint Christopher Lee probably has never been better, but when your character is more a mouthpiece than a personality, it can leave you a bit cold.

After a while, he simply begins to feel more of a convenience to explain the story rather than the interesting character he should be. In other words, Richelieu, despite all the effort, ends up nothing more than a writing tool to explain what's happening - telling more than showing - and after a while it wears out its welcome when it begins to become more and more obvious the film is desperately using him as not much else.

The Ugly:  Lee may have done a lot of Hammer flicks, but this is the only one I can honestly say he 100% loved going. Just by watching it, you can sense that.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Dial M for Murder

Tony Wendice learns that his wife, Margo had an affair but even though it's over, he decided to kill her but chose to bide his time. He waited until Mark Halliday, his wife's boyfriend, returned to town. He then placed his plan in order. He summoned a man, whose reputation is a bit shady, and reveals that he knows his secrets but also tells him about his wife and her boyfriend and that they are each the beneficiary of their estates. He gets the man to agree to kill his wife and he has laid out what appears to be perfect plan. Only thing is the man was the one who was killed. Wendice trying to cover everything up, decides then to make it appear that Margo had an ulterior motive for killing the man. And it appears to be working except Halliday doesn't believe she's guilty and the police uncover a few anomalies.

The Good: A small film for Hitchcock, but an interesting one nonetheless. It's an intelligent film and the story here is well told, well performed, and even though a good portion takes place in one location it manages to be engaging thanks to the solid hand of Hitch. His ability to utilize the camera, set up a scene, shoot the events at hand are shown to absolute perfection. This isn't your typical Hitchcock, for better or for worse. This is not him with bravado and large visions with innuendos and comedy bits, nor does it have set-pieces to action or even characters you can find charming and enjoyable. This is pure, minimalist filmmaking that is certainly Hitchcock film without necessarily feeling like a Hitchcock film.

The Bad: Its biggest issue is that it came from a play, and that's exactly how it looks: like a play that just happens to have a camera sitting around. Although the camera retains our interest and the tension is always there, it can turn boring because there's really not much else to do with it and the story really isn't as interesting or compelling as others the master has been associated with. The dialogue isn't as sharp or interesting, feeling forced and perhaps too theatrical, but our tense situations and personalities help cover it. Perhaps he just couldn't focus on it as much as he normally would considering he was shooting another film at the time and ramping up for To Catch a Thief. Still, even half an effort from Hitchcock is better than most.

The Ugly: This movie was originally shot in 3D...and we'll probably never see it as such without a smart re-release. What's odd is that, out of all of the man's films, this one of the last ones I would think would lend itself to a 3D movie.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Die Hard

New York cop John McClane flies to Los Angeles on Christmas eve to spend the holidays with his family. He arrives at the Nakatomi corp. building for his wife's office party. International terrorists take over the building and hold every one as hostage to steel $600 million of bonds from the vaults of the building. Now its up to McCLane to face the terrorists and save his wife and the other hostages.

The Good:  Before nearly aborting his career with Last Action Hero, director John McTiernan had a damn good track record of action movies in his career. Smack between Predator and The Hunt for Red October is, what many consider, the best action movie ever made. While I don't fully agree with that assessment, it's not an easy movie to doubt when someone suggests it as such. It's well-acted, has flawless hero and villain personalities and arcs, great action beats and pacing, terrific stunts and all rather small in scale taking place in an office building.

Well, those people may be on to something, actually.

I suppose for me to not agree with them I can only do so by comparison, but that's unfair really. The entire decade was known for its action movies (and metal) so trying to pick out one to consider the "best" is like trying to figure out which piece of hay in a haystack looks the prettiest. What identifies Die Hard, though, are its leads - Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. If it weren't for those two, you would have nothing, and you couldn't even fathom another person in the roles. Rickman is too spot-on with his delivery and Willis makes McClane incredibly likeable and at the same time an unlikely and unconventional hero. The story doesn't quite make the biggest amount of sense, and there's a few forced issues at the end with the bombs and desire of money, not to mention the "bad guy not fully dead" cliché, but all don't hinder the utter brilliance of the film.

I think what sets Die Hard apart from other action movies, and even other Die Hard movies, is that everything seems to just casually arrive to the party rather than just being forced onto the screen. This probably has more to do with the setting than anything, but a lot of it is downtime and anticipation rather than just explosions and gunfire. It seems those are used eloquently and only when needed, much of the action is more akin to waiting, stalking, tricking (with great humor), hiding and brutally beating up someone and breaking their neck. While it might be classified as "merely" an action movie, there's a certain amount of sophistication behind it all; a thinking-man's action movie if you will and an essence that the Die Hard franchise won't capture in a bottle every again...or in LA Skyrise for that matter.

The Bad: The movie turns a little cheesy, even for 1980s standards, toward the end. This is best noted by Carl Winslow (I know it's not him, but that what I refer to him as) having his whole arc closed with as much finesse as a semi truck rolling off an overpass. His character didn't need it and it felt utterly cheap and pointless, not to mention a complete rehash of the ending of Lethal Weapon which came out a year prior. Some elements of Die Hard are very tongue-in-cheek (the FBI agents or walkie-talkie dialogue, for example) but the final moments, from the showdown with Hans to Das Uber-German trying one last time, just doesn't quite feel right.

The Ugly: Do 911 Operators not know what gunfire sounds like? Talk about completely inept.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Die Hard 2: Die Harder

After the terrifying events in LA, John McClane (Willis) is about to go through it all again. A team of terrorists, led by Col. Stuart (Sadler) is holding the entire airport hostage. The terrorists are planning to rescue a drug lord from justice. In order to do so, they have seized control of all electrical equipment affecting all planes. With no runway lights available, all aircraft have to remain in the air, with fuel running low, McClane will need to be fast.

The Good: Bruce Willis really embodies McClane at his best here and in the original film. If it wasn't for the character of McClane, I don't know if you would have much in terms of Die Hard 2. Like the first, we like him right-off and understand his place in everything. The story is utterly forgettable, as are most of the other characters, but McClane makes it fun and there's always a sense of something at risk (even if there really isn't). The action is well shot and entertaining, also gratuitously brutal but in spurts and not all over the place, despite not having any major defining moment other than an escape from a cockpit full of grenades. Die Hard 2 also does a fantastic job continuing the dark and tongue-in-cheek humor of the first film - a defining trait of the entire series. 

The Bad: "Convenient" doesn't really describe the contrived nature of this film's plot. It's with this movie we figure out what it was that we loved about the original film and realize how badly the sequels failed to capture it. It's not about one-liners and action with incredible stunts, it's about suspense. Plain and simple. It's about the anticipation that McClane may not get out of a situation, or his hiding from bad buys that made it work and really played into the "everyman" motif. Here, and from here on out, he's someone that seems to jump into situations and then pull himself out - situations he only jumps into because nobody will listen to him. That's fine, but it feels unnatural here because it seems little quip after little quip occurs and he's still on the outside looking in at the big picture. It doesn't even find its driving voice, and finally ends itself with a big explosion because the movie needed another one.

I don't dislike any of the Die Hard movies personally. I enjoy all of them, but as a craft, the disparity between the original and every one of its sequels is astounding. Not because Die Hard was so good, but because the sequels are just poorly made films that never quite come together, try to do too much or have bad plots to begin with. Die Hard 2 comes together alright, at least it handles itself better than the films to follow, but none of its scenes are particularly great or memorable action and the plot is convoluted, plodding and trite. You can sometimes tell in films what is written just to push action, and what is written to push good storytelling and utilize action when need be. It's in that aspect we see where Die Hard succeeded, and Die Hard 2 fails and is ultimately completely forgettable.

The Ugly: The redone plot elements of the first were absolutely not needed here and is a major miss in what the film is trying to do (be like Die Hard but not be Die Hard). It seems some of the characters are just flat-out unlikable as well, more to have us like McClane more, but it could also just be overacting that does that.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Die Hard With a Vengeance

John McClane is now almost a full-blown alcoholic and is suspended from the NYPD. But when a bomb goes off in the Bonwit Teller Department Store the police go insane trying to figure out what's going on. Soon, a man named Simon calls and asks for McClane. Simon tells Inspector Walter Cobb that McClane is going to play a game called "Simon Says". He says that McClane is going to do the tasks he assigns him. If not, he'll blow off another bomb. With the help of a Harlem electrician, John McClane must race all over New York trying to figure out the frustrating puzzles that the crafty terrorist gives him. But when a bomb goes off in a subway station right by the Federal Reserve (the biggest gold storage in the world) things start to get heated up.

The Good: After not quite hitting the mark with Die Hard 2, the studio and producers looked to bring back the director of the first film, John McTiernan. The third film implements some creative action scenes, and the utilizing of the entire city of New York works well although a little on the ridiculous side considering the goal of the villain. Speaking of the villain, he is a bit of a rehash of Hans Gruber but he has a much more playful way about him which works well - like if the Joker and Hans had a baby and even though we never see him in a scene with McClane until the very end, he's always a presence which is smart. The best thing Vengeance has going for it is his toying with John McClane, however this is neither a means or an end. It's like a side project that probably could have been the focus of the plot entirely. The script doesn't quite utilize the action as well as it should and really forces them into the plot at times rather than using them creatively, and about two-thirds it just turns into a series of good action scenes with nothing really tying them together. Again, they're good scenes, but there's a disconnect there that doesn't quite tie everything together.

The Bad: While bringing in McTiernan was a smart move, what the producers failed to realize is that McTiernan had the luxury of having a good script to work with and it fit his sensibilities as a director wonderfully. It also had the benefit of being based on a good book (something Die Hard 2 had as well but was ruined in the script process). Now it's not based on anything, the screenwriter had only written one film prior and the director is coming off the disaster that was Last Action Hero. It's no wonder it feels uneven and can't quite figure out what to do with itself. Jackson being added does nothing for the story, he disappears completely by the underwhelming ending anyways and has no real purpose other than to play Amos to McClane's Andy (and yes, the racial approach is just a forced as a minstrel show).  The villain's connection to Hans Gruber is a thinly veiled attempt to cash in on the superior original and, although I love his dialogue and personality, he goes absolutely nowhere and the script wastes Jeremy Irons as much as it wastes Samuel L. Jackson. The story is a mess and needlessly confusing and the film lacks an identity even as a Die Hard sequel. It's a movie with some good, sometimes great, parts that don't fit together for a quality sum.

The Ugly: I think the biggest fault is how oddly unlikable McClane comes across. Sure, he's down-on-his-luck and always a bit of an asshole, but he never really comes across as a guy you can get behind in this third film. Hell, at least Die Hard 2 got his character right. I suppose the second and third films are just polar-opposites. The second one was pure McClane with an awful story and bland action and the third is an unlikable McClane with a bland story and slightly above-average action.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Dictator

The heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed. 

The Good: Often low-brow, occasionally sweet, surprisingly socially relevant, The Dictator may be an unfocused film most of the time, but it's equally as memorable alongside its sloppy handling. Sacha Baron Cohen, a master of comedic timing and bravery, weaves a film that creates a subtle commentary of western life, US politics, universal ignorance and hypocrisy from all viewpoints with a sense of humor that brings us to more a Mel Brooks/Blazing Saddles sense of political incorrectness than simply throwing a character into the fire, as Cohen's last two films thrived on.

Though most jokes are one-off, there are quite a few that really stick with you and individual scenes that really know how to pull the punchlines, have you in wait, then hit you where it makes you laugh the most. It's often crude, which sometimes undermines that rather smart observances the script otherwise has, but it's true to form to what Cohen's sensibilities have become known for: buckle up, get ready to probably be offended, then laugh at what's going on as well as yourselves in the process.

The Bad: Inconsistency is probably the biggest problem going for The Dictator. Some scenes will garner a laugh, others probably rolling at the sheer shock of something (though a cheap way to get laughs, it fits with the tone of the film), then there are moments where none of the jokes click and it just seems everyone is trying too hard. They simply evaporate into the noise of everything else. Some comedic moments really force the comedy to happen whereas others, notably when Cohen is simply speaking in-character as The Dictator, feel organic. The scenes that feel forced feel incredibly forced, and sometimes you can only buy so much of what the salesman has in his store.

The film lacks a big impact by the end as well. It's never quite witty or clever as it seems it wants to be, nor quite as consistently gut-busting hilarious as it probably should be. There's no denying the effort, but when the effort appears so on-the-mark, it makes you wonder how it could have ended up missing it in the process.

The Ugly: The Dictator also has a continuous amount of supporting characters, some by well-known actors even, but few really seem to do anything or go anywhere. They often don't even have a moment to be a part of the film, which is when you realize that there are probably an assortment of scenes left on the cutting room floor. It's distracting because some of these actors are well-regarded in comedic circles yet have absolutely nothing to do.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


District 9

It's been 28 years since the aliens made first contact, but there was never any attack from the skies, nor any profound technological revelation capable of advancing our society. Instead, the aliens were treated as refugees. They were the last of their kind, and in order to accommodate them, the government of South Africa set up a makeshift home in District 9 as politicians and world leaders debated how to handle the situation. When MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe is exposed to biotechnology that causes his DNA to mutate, the tensions between the aliens and the humans intensifies. Wikus is the key to unlocking the alien's technology, and he quickly becomes the most wanted man on the planet.

T
he Good: It's rare for action movies to rise above the genre they're so rooted in. The great ones usually have a degree of craftsmanship rarely seen: the story might move you, the action and special serves more a purpose than being just action and spectacle and the characters draw you in to where you truly care what happens to them. The great scripts and directors know how to do this - the James Camerons, Steven Spielbergs and Ridley Scotts of the world. Similar to my approach to the film The Hurt Locker from earlier in the year, a great action movie knows how to use action as a means, not an end. District 9 is just that way and showcases a new filmmaker that people need to watch for. In a year already full of blockbusters, it's the $30 million District 9 that has risen above the shallow mediocrity of summer shtick and shows how a film like this should be done. Intelligent, moving and even humble, District 9 is what action films should strive to be. Wonderfully original, compelling and well crafted.

The Bad:
A few odd story holes tend to arise throughout the film. Being "in the moment" with the documentary style is fantastic, but as result we aren't allowed a lot of explaining of many plot points, such as wanting to kill our "hero" one minute then proclaiming they need him alive the next. It feels a little sloppy at times, but is minor. But the film knows it can't stay with the documentary style, it just can't, and instead we have a bit of a melting pot of film styles that jump back and forth between a regularly film structure and a documentary style that sadly does nothing but allow for inconsistencies. There will be numerous times where you'll be wondering if it's part of the documentary and information shared with the world, and everybody knows the truth, or if it's the real story we see with Wikus and his perspective and tribulations. It doesn't make an effort to really separate the two, only jumps from TV cameras, security cameras we have to assume are a part of the documentary (but may not be). The narrative-point of view needs to be as consistent as the story itself. There's also the rather rushed third act, taking the great premise and storytelling set before and, instead, turning it into lots of bullets and people exploding. As kinetic and engaging as this is, the story felt as though it would build up to something better.

The Ugly: Much has been made of Armond White's scathing review, even by those in the reviewing community such as Roger Ebert who, after seeing White's track record of film reviews, labeled him a "troll" of which I'm in complete agreement in. You see, there's no problem in faulting District 9 and criticizing it, but White's history and rather pretentious demeanor, as well as labeling those that like it "fools" is absolutely something that should never been done by a reviewer. The man has no credibility yet is the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. I'll defend any reviewer's right to say what they will, what I won't defend is a reviewer so far removed of what it means to be a "film reviewer" that we can't understand his point because he fails to clearly make one and that shows no respect to his readership yet expect respect back. Arguably the worst reviewer out there today.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Django

A coffin-dragging gunslinger enters a town caught between two feuding factions, the KKK and a gang of Mexican Bandits, and is caught up in a struggle against them.

The Good: Though Sergio Leone often gets the headlines as the most renowned Spaghetti Western director, one other gives him a run for his money in style and entertainment: Sergio Corbucci. Violent, dark, never simply black and white in his western vision, Django is the epitome of not only Corbucci's work, but the entire Spaghetti Western sub-genre where it leans more towards the realm of fantasy than gritty reality.

Django is not a moral man, which is what makes him incredibly interesting. He is only bent on revenge in this film and really doesn't care about anything else. Corbucci's film is uninhibited by trying to "reason" with the morality of its character, Django simply is and does as he hides a massive machine gun in his coffin to mow down a hundred men. That's not to say Django, the film, isn't without purpose. Racism, Sadomasochism, and oppression are all brought into this world for judgement, and the ruling is that it all needs to die in the same fire in which it was born. Django is required viewing for any fan of the western genre as there's really nothing quite like it. It's straightforward, excessively violent, unique and a wonder it isn't a hundred times more popular than it should be.

The Bad: When you character is more or less superhuman, and rarely shows any weaknesses, what risk is there for him?  The mystique of the gunfighter and the old west is something the Spagetti Western carries on its sleeve with pride, but with Django it's even more superhuman than human and an invincible gunfighter doesn't  quite have you the edge of  your seat. Sometimes, if you create a machine, you lose the attachment of the human side of him. Django has thematic depth, certainly, but it says little about humanity other than its all awash.

The Ugly: "Django" is to westerns as "Zatoichi" is to samurai films. Dozens of movie sport the name, though none really have a relationship to each other. Django is the myth, a darker version of The Man With No Name and every bit as cool. Like A Fistful of Dollars, this movie is inspired by Kurosawa's masterpiece, Yojimbo...and I think I prefer this version of the Leone classic quite a bit.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Django Unchained

With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

The Good: It goes like this: take any Spaghetti Western, especially those with a good dose of humor (many had a lot of dark humor) and throw in Quentin Tarantino's panache for dialogue and voila, you have Django Unchained - a film that doesn't need to have a wheel re-invented but has that wry sense of conversation and story structure that Tarantino is just so damn good at. From a stylistic point, Tarantino's not so much restrained as much as he's working in a genre that he already took a lot of cues from. Hand, meet glove.

Without compromising the serious nature of the subject matter, that being slavery and humanity at its most evil, Django Unchanied is incredibly comedic, bloody and full of action while maintaining the Tarantino staples of memorable characters and incredibly tense and taught scene direction. Jamie Foxx is our Django, and the story beings and ends with him as he's a character with a full arc. The Django you meet in the first scene and in the last are completely different. Yet, he's simply the pillar holding up the elements that you'll most take away from the film: the supporting cast.

Again, Chrstoph Waltz is enigmatic in every scene and with every line of dialogue. Tarantino knows how to direct the man, and Waltz knows damn well how to deliver a casual and often funny bit of dialogue that makes his stage presence unmatched. Even Leonardo DiCaprio, in easily one of his best roles in years and every bit a showman here, fails to match it. Though, in fairness, his character is far more subtle: he's an ignorant masquerading as an enlightened, cultured one. You have to catch those bits as they aren't all that direct. Throw in a handful of character actors and you have one of the best groups of casting in a Tarantino film. He's a filmmaker that just knows how to get the right people in the right roles and everyone here is at the top of their game.

That, though, isn't surprising, nor is the blood and violence. What is, though, is the subtle qualities that Tarantino shoots for. If you've ever heard of "show, don't tell" then this film is a masterwork of it. Scene set up and foreshadowing and pacing are visually done perfectly without even needing to explain it all. He sets it up, it unfolds, and the payoff is always justified. Another surprising note is the scope in which Tarantino is working here. He's always had an eye for staging scenes and getting shots, but we have a two hour, forty minute film that covers a year's time, seasons, sweeping vistas and gorgeous cinematography by three-time Oscar Winner, who also did Inglorious Basterds, Robert Richardson.

At its heart, it's action that carries it. We have variety, a visceral nature to just about every single shot or punch and a range of small gunfights to raids with dozens of horsemen (to a Germanic opera score, of course). Tarantino takes all these characters and set pieces and wraps it around something that actually is quite straightforward: the folk story of Sigfried and Broomhilda, again drawing on Spaghetti Western tropes of reworking mythological tales to their advantage.

It all falls in to place, the lines begin to be drawn and we have one of the best Tarantino films not because he makes it all work and does it well, but because it never feels forced to need to. It's natural. Organic. A film with a distinct voice and purpose that simultaneously brings out a cathartic nature of action and emotion with a backdrop of bigotry, ignorance and slavery - slavery being something that is often not found in westerns (or black people, for that matter). This is Tarantino re-affirming himself as one of the most naturally talented and gifted filmmakers working today. I'm more than happy waiting another three or four years for his next film again if it means we'll be getting material like this.

The Bad: There is one critique yet not a critique of Tarantino: that he doesn't always look to create something "new" as much as it is to re-invented older genres. Well, my first view on that is simple: nobody else is really doing it. These are great genres that have been dormant for a long time (nazi-exploitation, blacksploitation, spaghetti westerns, chop-socky, grindhouse cinema) and by being just about the only person really taking them and doing something, he therefore is kind of being "new" in doing so. Plus, they're his "take" on those genres...and his take is still distinct and unique. He's able to pay homage, work in the confines of each genre, but still have his voice clearly heard through it all.

That being said, the man can be over-zealous at times. By choosing to play around in old genres, he does confine himself to only those genres and we really don't know what he's inventing or simply what he's emulating.

Django Unchained is such a satisfying film, and I such a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, that it's difficult for me to really remove myself to be objective. Sure, I can point out the third act is a little long and Django often a spectator in his own movie (Waltz's Dr. Schultz drives the entire plot), but those are pretty minor in the grand scheme of this grand film.

The Ugly: Any Spaghetti Western fan will immediately see a wonderfully done nod and cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero. The scene, handled with class, will get a grin from those fans, but it's going to be lost on the casual film-going audience. Just to see Nero in a Django movie again, even not as Django, was just a beautiful sight. I think Sergio Corbucci would be proud.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Do the Right Thing

On the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, everyone's hate and bigotry smolders and builds until it explodes into violence.

The Good: I don't know if any director, at least in my lifetime, exploded on to the filmmaking scene quite like Spike Lee. His first feature, She's Gotta Have It, showed a visionary and a man who is able to implement commentary as a subtext to his narrative. Every film he does has a core narrative with a point, often dealing with race and the view of African Americans by, not only other races, but from other African Americans themselves. Though sometimes preachy, considering that, to me at least, I view Lee as a visual poet more than anything, the preachiness just comes with the territory.

His second film, Do the Right Thing, is still, without question, his masterpiece. It's everything about Lee all at once as he obtains his poignancy, he has a cast that absolutely gets the point of the film, its visually exciting in its depiction of a Brooklyn neighborhood in the midst of the worst heat wave on record, and the ever-escalating tensions of the peoples that inhabitant boil over to the eventual, and cynical, climax. From the Korean groceries to the old-school drunk, the nieve teens and the thugs stuck in the system, the police who don't care the white people who feel they're outsiders. It's eclectic in more ways than one, forgoing a "story" and more lyrically telling us of a situation - something more Bob Dylan or John Coltrane than John Ford or Truffaut.

With his distinct style he paints a picture. Race relations can be a touchy subject. Here, Lee throws caution to the wind and delivers an intense, candid film that proposes some difficult questions and leaves the answers up to the audience to find. In the process, the audience can often find answers about themselves as well - not to the degree of "picking sides" but to an element of their own character and place in a world full of a multitude of different peoples, whether it be ethnic or otherwise, still struggling to find a way to co-exist. Though over twenty years old, the themes and motifs, the simple honesty the film provides, is still emphatically relevant today.

The Bad: Our main character of Mookie shows two major things: one is that Spike Lee isn't the best of actors and he doesn't have the gravitas to really make this character work, the other is that, as a result of him writing himself into his own movie, shows that Do The Rigth Thing is perhaps too much of a passion project for his own good. Mookie is an observer, but as a character he's rather poor which seems to indicate that he was made on a base assumption by Lee, perhaps less as a written character and more of an extension of his personality traits,  rather than something that can carry the entirety of a film on his shoulders. This is reinforced by the fact that so many of the other actors around Lee are delivering some of the best works of their careers, particularly the legendary Ossie Davis and the ever-reliable Danny Aiello.

Mookie is a guide, and he works well in that position, but he's not much more beyond that and Lee doesn't deliver a memorable character with his rather forgettable performance. Considering this is about him, his neighborhood  and the world as a whole, a strong central character is a must. Rather, we just get someone who was passable and brings us a "what if" scenario: as in...what if Lee had met Denzel Washington just a few years earlier (Denzel would not make his first appearance in a Spike Lee joint until the following year with Mo Better Blues).

The Ugly: It's very odd, especially now with years of enjoying film under my belt, to see the "Love" and "Hate" sequence from Night of the Hunter delivered by a character in Do the Right Thing. It's so oddly out of place, yet so oddly fitting to that character and story.

And why isn't Ossie Davis on that poster? Everyone who sees this film remembers one thing above all else: Da Mayor is one of the best characters in film.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Dolls

 A group of travelers spend the night in the mansion of an elderly couple who are dollmakers. However, one of the travelers' children discovers that the dolls the couple makes are actually humans that the couple has miniaturized and turned into tools for their evil plans.

The Good: Reminiscent of a classic fairy tale, Stuart Gordon (a horror directing legend) offers us a simple film about those little things that go bump inthe night. Legitimate scares and creepiness, more the old house than the dolls themselves. Good timed reveals and pacing gives us a solid thriller. Plus, our two 'heroes' are pretty likable. Works more on the moodiness factor than jump-out scares, which is perfect.

The Bad: Wow, most of the other characters are extremely, extremely unlikeable. Hammy, overacted cliched horror movie archetypes they may be, the absolute black and white of the good people and bad ones is a pretty large gap. When it comes to horror movies, you don't want to make a film where you're routing for your characters to die. Nonetheless, this is a little different than your typical horror movie. The dolls are judges, in a sense, but it's a little hard to route for them also when they kill with brutality and without impunity.

The Ugly: Honestly, this feels like a really good episode of Tales From the Crypt. That's good, yet bad at the same time. A solid film nonetheless. 

Final Rating: 3 out of 5

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko doesn't get along too well with his family, his teachers and his classmates; but he does manage to find a sympathetic friend in Gretchen, who agrees to date him. He has a compassionate psychiatrist, who discovers hypnosis is the means to unlock hidden secrets. His other companion may not be a true ally. Donnie has a friend named Frank - a large bunny which only Donnie can see. When an engine falls off a plane and destroys his bedroom, Donnie is not there. Both the event, and Donnie's escape, seem to have been caused by supernatural events. Donnie's mental illness, if such it is, may never allow him to find out for sure.

The Good:  Moody and atmospheric, Donnie Darko is a movie that encompasses a bit of David Lynch into its supernatural undertones. Supernatural, perhaps, not the right word. In fact, Donnie Darko goes out of its way to try and show that it’s entirely natural, just not natural in the way we perceive things. Perhaps “fantastical” is the right word, though that might lead some to think it’s actually in reference to the film being fantastic. Well, it’s not, but it’s still an interesting film. I would say it’s “smart” but its dramatic reveals and low payoff are often too forced to be smartly done and its plot never really explains anything. It’s a movie that likes to think it’s smarter than it really is.

Rather, Donnie Darko succeeds in the first element I described: being moody and atmospheric. It’s those elements that really draw you into its world. It’s original, certainly, and has some solid acting from its leads and supporting roles. The directing is superb, as is the cinematography as both bring in a tone of darkness even in shots of daylight. Donnie Darko isn’t so much a film or story, which actually might explain a lot, as much as it is a world and tone.

The Bad:  Donnie Darko is a movie that will get you thinking, but it never really wants you to think of answers. It likes to present itself as such: that there’s some great big meaning and answer to it all, but it never sets out to do it. It also doesn’t take the “weird for sake of being weird” approach either, nor does it attempt to really be a metaphor about something outside of itself – it’s far too self involved for such a thing. It will draw you in, yes, but Donnie Darko really ends up being one of the most pretentious films ever made – far too concerned with itself and desire to be smart rather than attempting to get the audience pondering about a greater message with a hint of a answer even slightly erased that might give you way to direct those thoughts. You see, it tries to answer itself, but doesn’t quite hit it right. You start thinking because the payoff wasn’t handled right, not because it’s intentionally ambiguous or attempting to “mean” something.

So when all this buildup starts happening, and it is wonderful buildup, the payoff really needs to hit you. It just doesn’t, and you’re more trying to figure out what happened rather than trying to figure out what it means. Thoughtfulness by means of convolution.

The Ugly: What this film is, is an amateur effort – but this is also a debut film, so that explains it, doesn’t it?  Perhaps that’s more what people love about it – it really came out of nowhere and slapped you across the face. It has a massive cult following and high ratings from the world of the interwebs and film school students.

I think what ultimately gets people to applaud and love it as they do isn’t so much in its craft, but in its ambition. To that, you cannot deny Donnie Darko whatsoever. It has lofty ambitions, and simply just setting those is more than enough to get you notice. However, it’s eventually a film that is a shining example of reach exceeding grasp.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

A young girl sent to live with her father and his new girlfriend discovers creatures in her new home who want to claim her as one of their own.

The Good: I don’t know if you will find a better looking horror movie this year, or the past few years for that matter. The Guillermo del Toro produced, Matthew Robbins written and Troy Nixey directed film is catapulted to distinction thanks to one thing: atmosphere. It’s steeped in an ominous “old creepy house” mood with a classic style of great photography and set design, gorgeously shot and showcasing every angle of the creepy old house. The angles, atmosphere, set design and lighting makes it truly one of the best shot horror films I think I’ve ever seen, so kudos to the artistic process and Troy Nixey’s talent. On top of the atmosphere, Nixey also engages us with his camera, utilizing a lot of first-person and close-quarters shots not only for our protagonists, but for our horde of antagonists as well which makes for a unique look from their perspective as the close in and take charge. It makes for great tension and solid jump-scares at just the right moments, and not too over-used to make you immune to them.

Due to the fact we don’t really see these types of movies that much, one of the best aspects of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is actually its unpredictability. You really can’t predict all that will happen, why it will happen, or set yourself in a mode where you’ve seen a movie like this before or at least in a long while. I suppose that’s what drew Guillermo del Toro to this story, a remake that exceeds the original and recreates it into something even better, and why Matthew Robbins is able to work a straightforward tale into a well-paced horror movie reminiscent of classics such as The Haunting, The Shining or The Amityville Horror. It’s escalation to a perfect degree, though it does make one slight misstep along the way.

The Bad: Atmospheric? Yes. There’s no doubt about that. But lacking is the sense of pure, intense danger and fright at a consistent pace. There’s great buildup and suspense but the jump-scares come at the typical beats and few and far in between. The sense of constant malice and threat becomes gone as well, mostly due to the film jumping the shark in its reveal of our little demons that whisper in the night. Once you're’ seeing them, scattering around like rodents and running around with unknown intentions other than to drive a little girl insane, the movie turns less from a scary, monsters-in-the-basement tale and more in line with that of Gremlins where everything is clearly seen and done and you kind of end up laughing at their antics. The difference is Gremlins knew that from the beginning while Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark takes that sharp turn and molds itself into another film.

As these creatures end up becoming more props than actual antagonists, you simply don’t have the fear that you get the sense that certain scenes were going for. The build up is great, it is well-paced for sure, but it just doesn’t offer the climax that perhaps it needed to fit it. Throw in an apathetic performance by Guy Ritchie whose character has far too little to do to be interesting and an awful performance by Katie Holmes who has way too much to carry in this story with a well written character but does absolutely nothing interesting with it, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ends up only slightly-above average tale that may never lose its atmosphere or gorgeous cinematography, but can lose interest in its creations and sense of urgency fairly quickly with no investment from the leads.

The Ugly: Despite the flaws, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a refreshing film in both style and content. It’s not overly gory or bloody but thick in fantastic atmosphere and style with a classical approach to horror than anything that’s going to turn your squeamish. It knows how to make itself tense by just playing it right with pace, not how many times someone gets stabbed or how bloody a room is. Its R-rating stems more from it being damn intense at certain moments and with a couple of nasty bone-crunching/teeth pulling (literally) scenes, but it’s a tame R rating that really doesn’t matter in the long run.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Double

A clerk in a government agency finds his unenviable life takes a turn for the horrific with the arrival of a new co-worker who is both his exact physical double and his opposite - confident, charismatic and seductive with women.

The Good: How does one describe The Double? I suppose if you imagine David Lynch in Eraserhead mode making Brazil, then you might get an idea. The Double is strange, odd, bizarre…unsettling. Yeah, unsettling because its use of paranoia and “wrong man” elements are done so meticulously, you kind of want to jump out of your seat and say “No, you idiots! Can’t you see he’s lying to you!?”

That kind of reaction tells me that, despite it being hard to follow at times and certainly unsure on what it’s trying to say, The Double is one compelling piece of filmmaking from writer/director Richard Ayoade (who’s Submarine in 2010 was one of my favorites of that year). The strange world he creates, a blend of dark corners and claustrophobic rooms, already unnerves you. Then you have Jesse Eisenberg giving one hell of a performance as Simon James and as James Simon, one a nervous wreck and the other the cool kid you always want to be.

This avant grade, uniquely low-key and minimalist thriller never gets boring, never slows down and always keeps you wondering how it will end up. Just know that it’s also not one destined for answers. By its own design, it simply wants you to ponder those questions in your head, get invested in the characters and feel troubled by the Orwellian/Kafka-esque world. On all those elements, The Double succeeds.

The Bad: It doesn’t succeed, however, in really allowing you to like most of the characters. Many times you will be angry at both James Simon and Simon James, you’ll loathe Hannah, want to punch Mr. Papadopoulos (played wonderfully by Wallace Shawn) and wonder what even happen with Melanie as she kind of just disappears from the story. It becomes exhausting because nobody is someone you can fully get behind and you have to take much of its elements (such as nobody realizing James Simon and Simon James look exactly alike) with a grain of salt.

Surrealism is less about those structures and cinematic presumptions, though, and more about a reaction. Reaction from you, emotions built, connections made, but due to its inability to really ground at least one character and make us actually like them, and care about what’s happening, it becomes a film that can’t quite decide what reaction it wants us to partake in. It comes down to Simon, who should be that likable person, but you begin to slowly loathe him. Eisenberg is great in the role, but where it takes his character makes you wonder how a person like that could even exist.

Then again, maybe that’s the point entirely. Either way, the reactionary element is strong enough to overlook the lack of characters to get behind.

The Ugly: Shot like a one-act play, The Double creates a dark, ugly world that never lets you get your bearings. And I loved it.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper goes completely and utterly mad, and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He suspects that the communists are conspiring to pollute the "precious bodily fluids" of the American people. The U.S. president meets with his advisers, where the Soviet ambassador tells him that if the U.S.S.R. is hit by nuclear weapons, it will trigger a "Doomsday Machine" which will destroy all plant and animal life on Earth. Peter Sellers portrays the three men who might avert this tragedy: British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the only person with access to the demented Gen. Ripper; U.S. President Merkin Muffley, whose best attempts to divert disaster depend on placating a drunken Soviet Premier and the former Nazi genius Dr. Strangelove, who concludes that "such a device would not be a practical deterrent for reasons which at this moment must be all too obvious". Will the bombers be stopped in time, or will General Jack D. Ripper succeed in destroying the world ?

The Good: One of, if not the, greatest political satires in film history. Dr. Strangelove is as relevant today as it was in 1964 with a darkly comic tale of a potential doomsday scenario. At its heart, it’s a classic comedy of errors now punctuated with the end of the world as a potential, and inevitable, outcome. The ineptness, ignorance, or just plain stupidity of the so-called world leaders leaves you wondering who exactly is in control of our fates.

Peter Sellers excels in this film, playing the title character, former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, the incompetent President of the United States and British exchange officer, Captain Mandrake.  All are distinct in personality and appearance showing that Sellers was one of the greatest character actors to ever live. George C. Scott also gives us a great performance, easily one of his best because he's so out of his normal element, as the Gung-ho “only ten to twenty million killed, tops” General Buck Turgidson. Kubrick loved to show incompetence of authority, in one form or another, and his brief dabbling into a dark irreverent comedy makes you wish he had done more.

The Bad: The entire film is paced perfectly, save for once instance: the final few scenes. It lacks the edge and wit of the rest of the film and feels like they just scribbled down an ending for all the characters before giving us the iconic cowboy-riding-bomb finale. The bits before that could have gone longer and bring a little more closure to our “heroes.”

The Ugly: If only Peter Sellers was willing to play the cowboy bomber, as intended. This would then go down as his masterwork. Three great characters out of four isn’t bad. Also…what exactly are “precious bodily fluids?”

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Dracula (1931)

After a harrowing ride through the Carpathian mountains in eastern Europe, Renfield enters castle Dracula to finalize the transferral of Carfax Abbey in London to Count Dracula, who is in actuality a vampire. Renfield is drugged by the eerily hypnotic count, and turned into one of his thralls, protecting him during his sea voyage to London. After sucking the blood and turning the young Lucy Weston into a vampire, Dracula turns his attention to her friend Mina Seward, daughter of Dr. Seward who then calls in a specialist, Dr. Van Helsing, to diagnose the sudden deterioration of Mina's health. Van Helsing, realizing that Dracula is indeed a vampire, tries to prepare Mina's fiance, John Harker, and Dr. Seward for what is to come and the measures that will have to be taken to prevent Mina from becoming one of the undead.

The Good: There's a quiet, dream-like quality to 1931's Dracula. I can only compare it to the dream-like quality of silent cinema where you watch in a dark room, intently, yet feel just removed from reality. The fact that sound in film was still relatively new probably contributed to that, the fact there's no music in the movie at all probably contributed even more. It's in that we come to understand what really makes this version of Dracula so engrossing: Bela Lugosi's screen presence. There is not one piece of dialogue, one shot, one angle or movement that isn't thought out or meant to present Dracula as a truly ominous and mysterious figure. The story is secondary, it's a relatively understated story to begin with in this version, but Dracula...oh Dracula. There's no other figure quite like him that sets such an intense mood in every scene he's in. Lugosi' carries the weight of it as he keenly glides about a room, or gives a nonchalant delivery as he says  "I never drink...wine." Also of great note is Dwight Frye, who you almost wish had a whole film just about him. He's so good that he is only outdone by Lugosi, and unfortunately overshadowed by him as well. A classic for a reason and iconic to the final frame.

The Bad: I could go on a tangent on how inaccurate the film is to the book, but I usually don't do that first off and secondly it's completely pointless here.  Movies during this era weren't about being accurate in adaptations (this was actually based on the play that was based on the book, but the point stands), they were about shaping an idea into a story. The idea is a vampire, and that's really about it. What I can say I've never been hugely fond of is its slow demeanor in comparison to other Universal Monster Pictures of the era, notably Frankenstein which is full of energy and released shortly after. But Dracula was the first, so perhaps it was a slow climb to better understanding of the genre (and of movies as a whole). It  can be a test of patience at times, its story isn't nearly as interesting as Dracula himself, but also allows appreciation of the slow walk through its dark corners and atmosphere.

The Ugly: It amazes me that, after decades and decades later, Lugosi's Dracula is still one of the most recognizable characters and costumes in the world. He actually looks nothing as Dracula was described yet is so ingrained in our culture I don't think we would have it any other way.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: I'm not a fan of revisionist filmmaking, so I have actually never seen the version of Dracula with the Phillip Glass score from 1998 included. I might out of curiosity some day, but I actually like its lack of score.


Drag Me To Hell

Christine Brown is responsible for loans in a bank and expects to be promoted to the open position of assistant manager after dealing a big contract. However, the new hire Stu Rubin is a collusive coworker that scheming against Christine to be selected by the manager Mr. Jacks to the position. When Mrs. Ganush, an old gypsy with appearance of witch that has been evicted by the bank, requests a third extension of her mortgage, Mr. Jacks tells Christine that it is her call. Christine denies the loan to prove her boss that she can take tough decisions. Mrs. Ganush begs for the loan but Christine shames the woman calling the security. In the night, Christine is stalked by Mrs. Ganush in the parking lot and they struggle. Out of the blue, Mrs, Ganush removes a button from Christine's coat, curses it, returns the button to her and vanishes. Later, while going home with her psychologist boy-friend Clay Dalton, they pass by the fortune teller Rham Jas, and Christine decides to consult him. He advises her that Christine has the fiend Lamia, the Black Goat, upon her. When Christine is haunted by the dark spirit during the night, at home, she tries to fix the situation releasing the loan of Mrs. Ganush.

The Good: Leave it to a master to remind us how a horror movie should be: scary, fun, and unpredictable. Drag Me To Hell is, without question, one of the best horror movies to come a out in a long while. It's a simple premise, something a lot of horror films shun in favor of "twists" and false complexities, with some wry humor, gross-out sequences that Raimi is known for and legitimately scary moments (something rare in movies today). How can a handkerchief be scary? See this film and you'll see why. Drag Me To Hell knows its audience, from beginning to end, and instead of pounding it's scares and story into our heads, it simply invites us in and engages us quickly with solid characterization, a fun, well-told story and perfectly timed frights, not to mention a nice bit of cheesy moments thrown in for laughs. You have exactly what the horror genre is supposed to be about - conventional while being unconventional.

The Bad:
Allison Lohman's performance is a tad uneven. She plays the sweet girl well and knows how to look frightened, but trying to show anger or give us depth to her character shows something really forced behind it all. She struggles in those moments, sadly. There's also a perfectly-timed convenient plot string tied up at the end that also forces the issue a bit and really wasn't needed other than to throw us off guard again, something Raimi is a master at doing.

The Ugly: Hi Sam. I'm Jeremy. Big fan. Tell you what, why don't you forget about that Spiderman franchise and give us more movies like this? Please? I'm beggin' here, man.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Dreamchild

Exploring the somewhat darker and more mysterious side of the Lewis Carroll's classic book, the movie follows Alice Liddell (the book's inspiration) as an old woman who is haunted by the characters she was once so amused by. As she thinks back on it, she starts to see her relationship with the shy author/professor in a new way and realizes the vast change between the young Alice and the old.

The Good:  Make no mistake. It may have muppets. It may be about Alice in Wonderland and the real story of Lewis Carroll. But this is absolutely not a film for children. It's a drama through and through and one that fans of Fairy Tales, surrealist cinema, brilliant acting and gorgeous artistic design must see. Oh, and fans of Carroll, even if there is slight controversy surrounding him.

Dreamchild is dark. Damn dark. It's not malicious or dark in that "fantasy" type of way that you might expect visually, but dark in a way that makes you uncomfortable and slightly on-edge. There's everything from hallucinations that can be incredibly unsettling, a surrealist quality and off-putting muppets designed by The Henson Company that bring the film to the level of just being disturbing and then there's just the depth of human emotions, memory and suspicions that are touched on - and even in the slightest can be a tad unnerving. But this is fantastic, you see. These tales and stories of Alice in Wonderland were rather dark and surrealist to begin with so that quality is a great fit - and this brilliant script that infuses the story of the real "Alice" and "Lewis Carroll" and how their relationship came to be, all with a brilliant use of a framing device of an elderly Alice trying to figure out the modernized world of depression-era New York City with Carol Browne playing the elderly "Alice" and giving a tour-de-force performance.

It's dark in another way too, notably Ian Holm's performance as "Lewis Carroll" who, as you probably know, was actually the Reverend Charles Dodgson. The film doesn't shy away from the man's oddities and the various controversies surrounding him. Many put him on a pedestal, some criticize him and even condemn him (though there's never been any actual evidence of misdoings) and the film manages to show both the highs as to why people love him and the lows as to why some have issues. In both cases, people may or may not be off base to assume what they assume - Carroll's reality is just as vague and unanswerable as his stories. The point is: the film touches on this. A lot, actually. The perspectives of Lewis Carroll's legacy is probably the driving force of the film, moreso than Alice's story itself. Dreamchild, indeed, is a bit of nonchalant complexity - dealing with issues and many ideas and having them graciously come and go within the main story itself. It deals with a lot without having to try too hard at all.

The Bad: A sloggy second act causes the film to lose focus of its main stories. A rushed romance story is tossed in and completely underdeveloped  and appears to only be a convenient plot device to give us direction into another flashback - as though they did all they could to tell a story and needed something to push it to another angle. The problem is, we just don't care about the characters involved because they, too, are only there to serve a purpose. The story here is Alice and her relationship to Carroll. Everyone else, no matter how much the film might try and say otherwise, are pretty irrelevant and you're so engrossed in Alice's story that even if they were relevant, you probably wouldn't pay much attention to them. Sometimes, the film can lose track of that. But when it hits its targets, it really hits it home.

The Ugly: This was the last film Carol Browne ever did, and boy is she amazing. She had been in films since the 1930s but this one is easily her finest. It's too bad that her amazing performance actually overshadows Ian Holm's, who is every bit as magnificent as a subtly odd, and often creepy, Lewis Carroll.

Speaking of creepy, there's this very brief moment when Alice is in her hotel room and opens a door to a bedroom. I don't want to spoil it, but I felt exactly what she probably would have felt. It really draws you in to her mind in that moment, the film consistently does a great job of that. It's sometimes amazing how something so brief and subtle can have the most impact.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Dreamscape

A government funded project looks into using psychics to enter people's dreams, with some mechanical help. When a subject dies in his sleep from a heart attack Alex Gardner becomes suspicious that another of the psychics is killing people in the dreams somehow and that is causing them to die in real life. He must find a way to stop the abuse of the power to enter dreams.

The Good: Genre pictures, Dreamscape being of the sci-fi/thriller variety, can often be hit or miss. It's really down to how the concept is handled and, despite a few misfires, Dreamscape handles its concept well enough. Or, should I say, half of it. The science fiction aspect is pretty lukewarm if not amateurish at best, but the thriller side of things, with some great character actors, really flesh it all out. The film takes quite a while to really get going, it seems everything is just a set up for another set up until some solid reveals in the final third really help it rise above absolute mediocrity.

In fact, the whole idea of going into another person's dreams is pretty much underplayed, despite what the title, Indiana-Jones like poster (which is so far removed from what the film is that it makes me think the artist never even saw it) and synopsis of it might tell you. Although I might call it more "underdeveloped" considering it's so integral to the plot. It's salvaged by Quaid and the script working together to really reach a unique style of paranoid delusions and conspiracy theories that, had a better filmmaker been behind it all (especially with this cast, who have little to work with) it might have come across as one of the gems of 1980s. Worth viewing once, but easily forgettable outside of that.

The Bad: I hate using the word "dated" when discussing a movie. At the same time, there are elements some films have that show they were products of their time. In 1984, the way this film was shot, acted and the special effects used were probably pretty good. But for a film to not appear "dated" it needs to transcend its era - usually with characters and story. How is it something like The Godfather or even The Goonies are products of their time, yet timeless simultaneously? How can a movie like Tron, where we obviously see how dated it is, still be looked upon fondly whereas something like Labyrinth really can not? Dreamscape is one of those movies that is distinctly made in the 1980s. That in itself is not a fault...but the fact that it can't transcend that era in its execution due to a lackluster story and character certainly is.

Great movies are timeless. Good movies you can still watch to this day. Bad or average movies are a chore, you begin to realize the flaws as time goes by...and Dreamscape is certainly a chore. It's one of those films you look at far removed from its era and notice its flaws more and more. Its pedestrian pacing and simplistic directing that brings no character or excitement, its shallow and predictable plot. When you see a movie and the best thing about it is Dennis Quaid, you know you have issues - especially when you have Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow in the same movie.
I'll tell you why Quaid is the best aspect, he shows us excitement. The movie is rather dull and bland, a quiet meditation if you will, rather than getting us enthralled by the idea of "going into other people's dreams." In fact, there's little going into dreams at all, and it tries desperately to be a thriller as people wanting that technology and killing those that get in the way. On paper, this sounds pretty interesting.  In presentation, though, it's like drinking a glass of water you know has been sitting for 25 years.

The Ugly: All that being said...this movie would be incredible for a remake. If you get a young, ambitious writer/director on board, you could have something, at the very least, really fun..."fun" being the intention of this original but it ends up a bore.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Dredd

In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, a cop teams with a trainee to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

The Good: This shouldn't be as good as it is. Don't get me wrong, Dredd isn't a masterpiece, but it does make one re-assess what really makes a good action movie. It puts it in perspective. Action movies are mostly known for being loud, large in scope, having an overabundance of explosions and noisy shootouts. Here we have something more narrow. More focused. Just as extreme but with a different purpose. A purpose of pacing, of tension, of making those moments of explosions and shootouts mean something because they don't get lost in the white noise that most action films try to do.

Dredd harkens back to the 80s action tropes with force. With a limited scope and just concerned about making the action itself as good as possible rather than as much as possible, we probably have the best action film of 2012. Yes, that included The Avengers - a better film overall, but in terms of how action is handled, Dredd shows things that big-budget studio special-effects laden movies sometimes forgets: it's not about how much is in it, it's about how what is in it is utilized. Here we have a basic story, basic premise, but an amazing sense of pace that brings out tension and makes the action beats far, far more effective because you can feel the risk and the buildup to our climatic finale. It's a bloody mess, and loves that its a bloody mess.

Carl Urban carries Dredd well as a character. He has one point to his entire purpose, and best of all actually has a small character arc that coincides with his partner, played straight and bringing out the human side of all this madness by Olivia Thrilby. Dredd, at its core, is able to have a nice set of solid, believable characters to keep everything grounded, then just let the action speak for itself. It's amazing how simple and straightforward, keep it stylized but never overdone, is so much more of an effective approach to action than the over-zealous action film.

The Bad: Even though Dredd is pretty much all you would want in an action movie: solid characters, easy plot, lot of smart action beats, but lacking is the rules of this world and the other characters around our duo other than Mama, our nasty antagonist. It tried, sometimes desperately, to throw in individual bad-guys, but it never really sees it through. An early moment of humanity seems like the film might go down that route, but it never does. A character that clings to the duo seems he might have something interesting to say or do, but never does. There's one that's under Mama's boot that has an interesting arc and, eventually, confrontation with Dredd and Anderson that says a lot about all three characters, though.

I suppose I have to put it this way: outside of Mama, there's just a bunch of goons. There's one plot point where it seems it might, again, head somewhere interesting, but it's swept away after ten minutes. You just never, fully, get that "yeah, that that guy out!" moment. You know, like when John McClane beats the shit out of the long-blonde hair guy towards the End of Die Hard, or when Indiana beats up that giant Nazi who gets chopped up in a propeller. There's a lot of action, lots of death and blood and good variety, but it needed more around Dredd and Anderson to bring character to the other side rather than just nameless, inconsequential goons. Making more character out of the bad guys makes it feel like a threat, and Dredd and Anderson rarely feel threatened.

The Ugly: And it all bombed at the box office. Dredd itself isn't a pull. Being in 3D isn't a pull. The actors aren't a pull. Too bad...because this is better than what most people put themselves through at the theater.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Drinking Buddies

Luke and Kate are co-workers at a Chicago brewery, where they spend their days drinking and flirting. They're perfect for each other, except that they're both in relationships. Luke is in the midst of marriage talks with his girlfriend of six years, Kate is playing it cool with her music producer boyfriend Chris. But you know what makes the line between "friends" and "more than friends" really blurry? Beer.

The Good: Drinking Buddies doesn’t necessarily have anything to say, only for you to watch and take note of what its showing you. The casual passiveness gives us a sense of simply observing real people at a specific moment in their connecting lives that changes everything. You know what is going to happen, it’s pretty obvious from the get go, but thanks to great performances, good dialogue and just a casual and inviting demeanor, you’re more than happy to watch it unfold.

What is so great is how real it all seems. That sounds like an awful sentence, but there's honestly no other way to put it: it's a quality that the film thrives on. The way they act, how they speak, reactions to hearing certain things or awkwardly bringing up a discussion. One perfect example is how Luke (Jake Johnson) keeps hanging around the bar waiting for Kate (Olivia Wilde) to come to talk to him because he’s thinking he would drive her home.

But he sees how she’s warming up to Dave (Ti West…yes that Ti West) and he feels uncomfortably out of place because she’s such a lush towards him, and all Luke can do is sip his beer. Or when Kate sees Luke sleeping and takes a minute to debate if she should just lay with him or not. It doesn’t mean anything to her, but it crosses her mind that it might go in a different direction unintentionally or not, and you see it on her face.

Drinking Buddies just captures those types of moments perfectly. Moments of life that I know most have been through. Director/writer Joe Swanberg has shown he has an uncanny ability to relate to an audience the mindset of men and the mindset of women. Most of it is misunderstanding and miscommunication and people end up better or worse as a result. But often things even out and you move on as life continues until the next time you stumble over your words or debate internally if a hug is more than just a hug.

The Bad: As much as I enjoyed Drinking Buddies, particularly because of the acting, it’s not a film that really stayed with me. It’s about casual moments in life, but I suppose it’s just more keen on reflecting the often tedium and minutia of life as well. There’s no moment that will really stick with you, only that the whole is pretty damn good and you’re enjoying it unfolds.

If there’s one knock, it’s that we still don’t know anything about these people. We can put together some idea of who they are in terms of personality, but there’s never a conversation with a lot of depth. Conversations feel reel, but as a result of that they feel shallow and uninteresting and really don’t say anything other than that most real conversations are shallow and uninteresting. I love this, because it’s reflective of reality, but simultaneously don’t love it because there’s nothing to say and we know as much after as we did before, thus there's nothing retained as you watch. Nothing is ever too serious, nothing ever too funny…it’s content with a flatline.

The Ugly: I don’t know a lot about Jake M. Johnson, who plays opposite Olivia Wilde, but he’s fantastic. He hasn’t been acting long, but I feel he’s destined to grow as an actor and one to watch out for.

He also played Jesus in the Harold and Kumar Christmas movie. So he's got that going for him too.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Drive

A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong.

The Good: Thoughtful yet violent. Calm yet intense. Beautiful yet dropping in ugly brutality like a drum beat that’s noticeable in a song yet perfectly in place in the piece. Drive is a dynamic, two-faced film that feels purposeful and calculated in every angle, style, word and shot it puts in. It’s a film that, I have no problem in saying, is the perfect version of what can be considered an “arthouse” action film.

The thing is, it’s not so much an “arthouse” action film as much as it harkens back to a time when action films were less about flash and “big scenes” and more about pace and just being well crafted. In the 1960s and 70s, films like Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Point Blank, Get Carter and The Getaway were grounded, gritty, wonderfully crafted movies that didn’t put action as the forefront but used violence as an aspect of the bigger picture. Drive is a film that is every bit in the same vein, only more refined to a degree of a piece of poetry and less rough-around–the-edges in gritty style.

Drive is one of those films that settles in with you well after you’re done watching it. When you think back to it, it brings a sense of haunting memory from the quiet yet brutal mood it sets, the music and quasi-1980s sounds and violence or just the damn sharp acting thanks to perfectly cast actors, especially Ryan Gosling as the ever-calm Driver and Albert Brooks as an unsympathetic gangster. It’s a film where you think back and say “wow, that one scene was amazing,” or “the shot of such and such had me on the edge of my seat.” Drive is an odd film in that it is more impressive after the fact when you recollect it because it tends to put you into some sort of trance when you actually watch it. It begins as a contemplative character piece and transforms gradually into an intense and violent genre movie that still feels perfectly in place and convincingly set within the same world.

It’s about escalation at a pace that draws you in with stillness juxtaposed with lashing violence. It’s an homage of grounded, classic action and 1980s over-violence but it never feels as though it’s pushing it on you and that homage never overshadows the quality of everything happening on screen. You watch because you can’t help but want to know what will happen next and how it will all play out. It takes time with character, story and uses action sparingly, but memorably with how intense those scenes can be.

The Bad: I can’t be for certain what audience Drive is striving for. Today’s action fans wouldn’t find the action as “souped up” as they would like nor would they have the patience to sit through the quietness of most of the film and the art-house crowd that maybe aren’t sure who Nicolas Winding Refn is probably won’t be accustomed to the violence Drive brings. It’s not that there’s action and driving, it’s that it’s incredibly over-the-top, bloody, nasty action. Even though everything clicked for me, Drive isn’t a film I can wholeheartedly recommend to the average moviegoer. I can easily see people disliking it as much as others like it because it’s a film that seems intent on creating conflict within itself by its own means and style.

Drive is also a film that, though it is thoughtful in execution, it doesn’t really back it up with any sort of depth. Its characters are stereotypes and clichés for the most part and one-dimensional throughout. As good as those characters are, and the actors wonderful in them, for a film that spends an hour and forty minutes with quiet subversives and showing characters in still thought, it doesn’t have a lot to say about them or the situation they find themselves in.

The Ugly: Don’t write this one off. It’s not for everyone, sure, but it’s not deserving of being ignored due to bad trailers either. Though I put it in a category with the likes of Bullitt or The Getaway, it has more elements of Scorsese's Taxi Driver than anything, though not as introspective as that film. 

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Drive Angry

A vengeful father escapes from hell and chases after the men who killed his daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter.

The Good: If you like the excessive violence of the best 80s action movies, then Drive Angry is right up your alley. Despite what many assume about its grindhouse movie roots, it has more in common with the lavish, over-the-top action movies of that decade than it did the gritty, bloody world of b-movie, double-feature midnight cinema. Both are damn bloody, though.

However, it does have a some uniqueness to it that is reminiscent of movies like Race with the Devil, a personal favorite cult thriller about the world of satanic cults, only turned up to eleven with explosions, gun fights, an immortal hero and lots of blood - not so much gore, which is a bit surprising. Nicholas Cage is also a bit surprising. You would expect him to overplay this character, ham it up, but he actually plays it rather straight, though it is still rather hard to buy him as a "badass" with the dialogue he's given. The only "badass" in the film is played by the always under-appreciated William Fichtner, who plays his role perfectly and is arguably given the best material to work with. The story with Cage's Milton is actually straightforward, The Accountant is far more interesting and it's a joy every time he's on screen.

The Bad: Drive Angry is an aggravating film. It's too b-grade to be a good film but too polished to be a b-grade film. It wants to have a grindhouse quality, yet there's too much refinement in the directing and special effects that makes it come across as a misfire. In other words, it looks too good for what it's supposed to be, but the content is too low-grade to be good. So what is this movie wanting, exactly? It misses both the "so bad it's good" (Road House, Commando, Red Dawn, They Live) opportunity as well as the "self-aware absurd" (Piranha 3D, Planet Terror) opportunity. It's stuck in the middle and in the end just comes across as uninspired and, even more, sadly forgettable.

It also has a bad tendency to slow down, as though it's holding back what it really wants to be and wants to do. This causes it to feel far longer than it actually is because it insists its story, a story we honestly couldn't care less about for this type of film, take the occasional soapbox moment and grind it to a halt. Seeing as the story isn't much to begin with, it makes you wonder why we have to take these time-outs for stilted exposition rather than do what Drive Angry feels it badly wants to do: break free and go nuts. It never does and ends up playing it safe with a formulaic story only keeping interest with action moments and The Accountant dominating awesome scenes.

The Ugly: Drive Angry is going to be a love it or hate it film for audiences. I see no middle road. Personally, I enjoyed it in a cathartic way, though I have to say it's not without some major issues. It's a niche genre picture that's made for niche genre fans and those fans, or fans of Nicholas Cage, will revel in it. Everyone else will likely become bored if not annoyed with it all and probably feel they just wasted their hour and 45 minutes.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Due Date

High-strung father-to-be Peter Highman is forced to hitch a ride with aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay on a road trip in order to make it to his child's birth on time.

The Good: After a spotty first thirty minutes full of dislikeable characters, cameos and spotty laughs, Due Date finally finds itself. It takes a while, but when you finally see the moment a film finds an identity, you can truly start enjoying it. At around thirty minutes, Due Date takes an aside away from laughs and gives us a moment of sentimentality that was badly needed. The loud noises of awkward situational comedy and ridiculously unlikely scenes was wearing thin by that point.

Yeah, the road trip concept has been done to death and that pretty much kills Due Date before it really even has a chance. It’s overdone, and if anyone should know this, it’s Todd Phillips himself (the director) who has done his share of road-trip related films. Due Date, two Road Trip movies, Borat...talk about going to a well that was already dry and trying to pour water back into it. Due Date is by the numbers and it shows.

Oh, it’s still not the best of comedies out there, far too derivative for that, but at least it’s not just a constant bombardment of annoyances and shows a little bit of emotion and heart to it. It’s not profound epiphany found in the likes of Planes, Train and Automobiles, still the best “road trip” comedy to date, but it’s not as juvenile as a Road Trip or as obnoxiously annoying as RV or as pandering as Wild Hogs or as Are We There Yet. It’s slightly below Dumb and Dumber but above Rat Race but we all can be thankful it’s not College Road Trip and starring Martin Lawrence.

The Bad: Ever heard of the end not justifying the means? This, I feel, is the opposite. The mans don't justify the end, meaning the road to getting to the conclusion is paved with some funny and occasional emotional moments, but the ending is as stock and trite and as cliche as you might predict.

With these two actors, the film is surprisingly mediocre in laughs on top of it all. The moments of drama actually exceed the comedy which makes me wonder why they didn't attempt to work that angle a little more, thus making the comedy a bit more endearing in the process as we start to look at the two characters as real people. But that's never achieved and the characters end up as nothing more than stock, typical, odd-couple fare that never quite gels in chemistry and never feels natural or organic.

There are road trip movies to which all road trip movies are to be judged. In most cases, it's not wise to compare films, but when a genre is so overdone and, previously, done so well, others simply can only steal and take rather than attempt to find some new angle. Due Date doesn't attempt any new angles because the genre itself has been explored and rehashed to death. So you hope the characters can drive the final product and with these actors, that probably should have happened and probably what the producers and director were hoping for. But the script is just so tame and lame and the characters taken from every other road trip movie you've ever seen, most of which Steve Martin and John Candy's characters only lacking the heart and sincerity, that the characters just get lost in the mediocrity of it all and soon succumb themselves to just being average boring cliches.

The Ugly: On paper, Downey Jr and Galafanakis should have made this movie, but the script just screams out its vapidness that both actors can't get out from its sinkhole. They are so much better than this material. So very, very much better.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Duel

David Mann is just what his name suggests: an everyman with a mediocre job who has trouble standing up for himself. While driving through the desert to an important appointment, he passes a slow-moving, rusty tanker truck. The driver proves to have a severe case of road rage and takes offense at this action, devoting the rest of his day purely to killing Mann. The malevolent driver is never seen, giving the impression that it's the truck itself that is the aggressor.

The Good: There’s something about the open road that is strangely frightening. There’s quite a few movies based on exploiting that fear. The Hitcher, Black Dog, Breakdown, Joy Ride, The Vanishing, Jeepers Creepers and of course the Hitcher remake all can be traced back to the idea of Duel. You are alone on a highway (maybe you have a friend with you) and something bad happens. It’s you versus the enemy and all you have is a car, your wits and miles and miles of open road. Duel is this concept in simplest form and as a result, one of the more enjoyable “road thrillers” you could ask for. It borrows heavily from Hitchcock, escalating tension that gradually grows out of hand, all because of happenstance. One driver, a trucker, feels offended and takes out on our protagonist causing him paranoia and fear. There’s very little talking and dialogue in the film, Spielberg keeps you in the moment from the high speed chases to paranoia at a highway restaurant and we simply don’t know who to trust.

The Bad:
It’s hard to be too critical of a made-for-tv movie. Let’s be honest, the standards on those are low to begin with and simply don’t have the budget and box office power theatrical films do. As a thriller, it’s effective. As a piece of entertainment, it’s merely average. The voiceovers are the first thing you will notice and every scene and every thought is fully explained by David Mann in detail. This becomes tiresome and rather boring. Most of the scenes would be perfectly fine without a voiceover at all and are completely self explanatory yet we are constantly reminded of thoughts and emotions the main character is thinking and feeling although his expression says more than enough.

The Ugly:
The film doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s minimalist filmmaking at its finest and due to it so streamlines, it can come across as trying to expand its length with unnecessary shots of highways, cars and lots of driving.

Final Rating:
3.5 out of 5


Dune

Set in a distant future where life in the universe and space travel is dependent upon a spice found only on the planet Dune, this film tracks the rise of young Paul Atreides, son of good Duke Lito, from the time of his father's betrayal and murder by a rival lord, Baron Harkonnen, to his discovery of the great secret behind the planet Dune and his own destiny, which is to free the planet and its denizens of the cruel rule of the Emperor.

A mess? Yes. But damnit is it ever an inspired mess. Dune turned David Lynch off of the typical "hollywood" film for the rest of his career and if you've heard the various stories concerning its production and release, you would understand why. The fact the film came out so strangely, not quite a sci-fi b-movie, not quite a sophisticated thought-provoking a-movie, but lost somewhere in the middle, only shows why Lynch demanded control of all his pictures after this experience. It's a slow movie that takes its time... actually no it's just slow because it pretty much has no idea where it wants to go or what it wants to do. It just sits like a child waiting for the story-bus to pick it up.

I've always wanted to see the full four hour original cut, of course that will probably never happen due to Lynch's disownment of the film and the fact he's fine with the 3 hour version. There's been various cuts, more than even Blade Runner I think, so it's hard to know which is which. What I do know is that the overall problem is still retained in all of them: it's just incomprehensible as a narrative film. It's full of great artistry, solid performances, convincing special effects and some solid action scenes, but molding it all together into one makes a movie that is just all over the map.

Still, though, it's a movie that some do enjoy and for good reason. I think that reason is simple: atmosphere. That's something the movie has perfected. The strange feeling you get when watching it, and seeing this odd world and people, is something that is always prevalent and enjoyable. Sure, I couldn't tell you a thing about the story, but man those sandworms are awesome, architecture impressive and I love those spiffy costumes. While the bad probably outweighs the good, the good is still really good.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


E.T.

While visiting the Earth at Night, a group of alien botanists is discovered and disturbed by an approaching human task force. Because of the more than hasty take-off, one of the visitors is left behind. The little alien finds himself all alone on a very strange planet. Fortunately, the extra-terrestrial soon finds a friend and emotional companion in 10-year-old Elliot, who discovered him looking for food in his family's garden shed. While E.T. slowly gets acquainted with Elliot's brother Michael, his sister Gertie as well as with Earth customs, members of the task force work day and night to track down the whereabouts of Earth's first visitor from Outer Space. The wish to go home again is strong in E.T., and after being able to communicate with Elliot and the others, E.T. starts building an improvised device to send a message home for his folks to come and pick him up. But before long, E.T. gets seriously sick, and because of his special connection to Elliot, the young boy suffers, too. The situation gets critical when the task force finally intervenes. By then, all help may already be too late, and there's no alien spaceship in sight.

The Good: It might be cliché to praise this film now. It’s one of the most beloved family films ever made and known the world over. Does it live up to such lofty heights?

Yes, yes it does.

I’m in the school of thought that when something is praised, loved and renowned, it deserves it for one reason or another. Whether I like it or not, there are others that do. The objective has to take precedence. Luckily, I love ET about as much as anybody and have nostalgic tendencies when it comes to it, should that happen I’ll keep that child to the side at the moment and look at the film solely as a film. There’s a certain amount of love that this film had put into it and that love and affection comes through the screen in every frame. It was nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, and even Richard Attenborough conceded on stage that he was certain E.T. would win it as he accepted the Best Picture Oscar for Gandhi. It was the highest grossing film of its time, brought statesmen (and women) and presidents to tears and was something that captured the hearts and minds of the entire world in its 115 minutes. The story is charming, yes, and even easy to understand from beginning to end. It doesn’t try to be more complex than it needs to be, it knows it doesn’t need to be. When a film knows what it is and enjoys what its giving us, we enjoy it back ten fold.  It’s not without its depth, though, as it’s the themes of tolerance and friendship that it excels at. It’s uplifting, if not bittersweet, and for a few moments, the world was in a collective awe of it all.

The Bad: I dare you to find one.

The Ugly: I know some thought E.T.’s scream was cute…that noise annoyed the hell out of me. It sounded like a lamb being slaughtered.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Eagle Eye

Jerry Shaw is an amiable slacker with an over-achieving twin brother. After his twin dies in an accident, strange things happen to Jerry at a dizzying pace: a fortune shows up in his bank account, weapons are delivered to his flat, and a voice on his cell phone tells him the police are on their way. Jerry follows the voice's instructions, and soon he and a woman he's never met are racing through the city, on to a plane, and eventually to the Pentagon, chased by the FBI. She is Rachel Holloman, a single mom; the voice has threatened her son's death if she doesn't cooperate. The voice seems to know everything. Who is behind it, what is being planned, and why Jerry and Rachel?

The Good: At least it tries. That’s about all I can say. Eagle Eye tries to be a thriller, tries to be a mystery, tries to be intense and engaging…it even tries to be a good movie on numerous occasions. There’s some decent enough set-pieces for action and the directing works, but it’s the script and story that causes the movie to ultimately fail.

The Bad:
There’s only so much a person can sit and say “yes, that’ would happen” in action movies. Most have one or two moments that are implausible, unless they’re campy and just full of them. But that’s he thing with Eagle Eye. It’s not campy, it actually takes itself incredibly seriously. It’s harrowing life and death from beginning to end. Once the reveal is shown, you can’t believe that it took itself so seriously to begin with. I won’t spoil it for you….no…actually I will because I don’t want you to waste your time with the film. As you know, Shia and Michelle (I don’t recall the character names because the movie doesn’t seem to give a shit about them) are being monitored and told what to do by a mysterious voice on the other end of the phone. It’s watching them and guiding them. Guess what…it’s a fucking computer. Yeah, a top-secret government super computer, apparently, that was designed to gather information and intelligence around the world and is hidden away in the depths of the pentagon. Why is she bugging Shia and Michelle? Well, apparently Shia’s twin brother (yes, twin brother, this is like a soap opera here, folks) was a tech guy working on the supercomputer who discovers a conspiracy by the supercomputer to assassinate the president and locks the computer out of her…program, I guess…and the computer gets pissed and kills him. Apparently he didn’t think to lock out its other programs either. This is all revealed in a classic Bond-villain-esque scenario when the supercomputer is about to kill them.

Oh, we’re not done yet….and I’m getting ahead of myself.

The computer is after little Shia because the program it needs was locked by his brother and can only be unlocked by him. Ah, but they are twins, you see, and Shia impersonates his brother to unlock the whole thing. The reason Michelle is there is to kill Shia so he doesn’t relock it. She doesn’t, not that the thing needs help anyway and somehow they escape. Forgive me if I don‘t remember, I‘m sure there was running involved because there seems to be running involved every ten minutes or so right on cue. Then it goes on to begin its assassination attempt and now Shia and Michelle have to stop that. Of course the explanation of why the supercomputer can’t kill the president unless its program is unlocked is never explained, she kills Shia’s brother just fine, nor is it explained why she can’t kill him in the same fashion once she uses him..she already controls all the cameras, phones and electronic equipment…how much goddamn help does she need? Hell…I haven’t’ even scratched the surface, but as you can tell, it’s just a bad film. If you just read that and still think it’s a good movie, then I pity. I just pity you.

The Ugly: If you want to see a movie that does this better, rent 1998’s Enemy of the State. Over ten years old, far more believable and just as relevant today.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Earth to Echo

After receiving a bizarre series of encrypted messages, a group of kids embark on an adventure with an alien who needs their help.

The Good: Taking a page from the world of Amblin films of the 1980s, Earth to Echo is a charming, fun movie about childhood friendships. And there also happens to be a strange little robot alien but, smartly as movies like ET show, that's simply an element of the plot, not the entire point of it. Earth to Echo is really about three young teens scared that they will never see each other again and it's hard not to buy their friendship and concerns as we're thrust directly into the story through the found footage approach.

The plot is nothing particularly special, but the themes are strong and the cast even stronger as we take a fast journey through the suburbs and remote desert on a final night for friends. Echo itself is a cute, and surprisingly underseen, character as Echo itself isn't all that important - it could have been anything that would kickstart an adventure and for these kids to come to terms that their friendship is stronger than they think it is.

The Bad: It's still found footage. It's better than most, mind you. It feels purposeful t the idea of someone taking all this footage and putting it together, but it still can't quite explain how it's all well-shot (by teens) and well framed and the video just happens to be running conveniently at the moments it needs to be running. Considering that none of the teens are "filmmakers" per se, only one knows how to use a camera, it never feel right - contrived and overly intentional to get the right shot all the time. Throw in a constant change of POV and it's borderline disorienting.

The best moments, though, are when you don't realize it. And that's the blessing and curse. The characters and plot are strong enough for you to not care it's all meant to be amateur home video, but after you sit back and start to realize it's really, really odd that so much was so well shot. It's a "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" though - if it's too "professional" looking you don't buy the intent of the found footage, but if it's too shaky-cam "amateur" looking it can be hard to watch.

Either way, there are moments that ask for a strong suspension of disbelief - the plot essentially a fetch-quest of "go here, do this, go to next place" that becomes repetitive. It's, overall, a solid film that doesn't necessarily do anything bad, outside of the found footage aspect, but is simultaneously doesn't have a distinct voice or anything unique about it - as though it wanted the found footage to carry that on its own. Harmless, but forgettable.

The Ugly:  So...seriously...nobody saw that, huh?

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The East

An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

The Good: It's great to see a film that's about political matters not really swing one way or the other all that strongly. Nobody in The East is entirely right and nobody is entirely wrong, and that makes for a though-provoking element that a lot of political thrillers might lack: they want you to think about the moral implications, it's not necessarily trying to tell you. It's still a very liberal-minded film, but it doesn't paint its liberal characters in the nicest of light and begins to conversation if they're as bad as the things they fight against.

Brit Marling is wonderful in this. She's wonderful in a lot of things, but I can't say I've seen her really nail a character that's so empathetic as she is here. Then again, this isn't a very conventional Brit Marling film. It's grander. More ambitious in scope and theme. Sarah as a character is just more interesting and with more purpose than Rhonda (Another Earth) or Maggie (Sound of My Voice), her other two films where she also played writer and producer on as this one. The East is an evolution of a talent both on and off the screen, someone who is so firm and confident in their abilities that you end up with a film that is that much more firm and confident than anything she'd done before.

That carries over to her longtime collaborator, director Zal Matmanglij. Like Marling, there's an assurance here that you just don't get too often and that only comes from someone who's been in the trenches and can slide right in to a film like The East without a hitch.  His camera work is spectacular, setting great scenes with cinematographer Roman Vasyanov that can bring out amazing tones from warm and acceptance to coldness and solitude. The East is a surprisingly sharp thriller with an even more surprising amount of depth and understanding that there's never clear good and evil in the world, or right and wrong, there's just perspectives and views.

The Bad: The East is almost (note: almost) a bit too earnest for its own good. There's a number of times when the melodrama is revved up high. There's a difference between something organically emerging in a script and the script just telling us that it's emerging. In many cases, we can have a film be one or the other, but in The East it's trying to worth both angles and not quite finding stable ground to work its story on.
There are times when it's natural and real, easily the darkest and most human moments in the movie. Then there are times when it all feels a bit convenient or purposeful, which is a stark contrast from what we had been settling in to. For example, in one moment there's a great scene where the characters seem to bare all. Great dialogue. Great pacing. Then a bit later there's a "plot" to kill someone, and it all comes across as feigned emotion and melodrama.

Yet, in contrast, there's another where another character dies and it's heart-wrenching in it's brutal reality, yet then there's a "character development" plot involving a romantic angle that should every bit as real given the nature of the film, but only comes across as forced.

I suppose The East, despite the great things its working with, has an identity crisis.

The Ugly: Still the best thriller you probably didn't see this year, though.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Ed Wood

A biopic of the life and work of the legendary 'worst director of all time', Edward D. Wood Jr., concentrating on the best-known period of his life in the 1950s, when he made Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster   and Plan 9 from Outer Space, and focusing on both his transvestism and his touching friendship with the once great but now aging and unemployed horror star Bela Lugosi.

The Good: There are a good amount of movies about movie making going back decades. Most are often satirical, it is Hollywood looking at Hollywood afterall, and nearly all are comedy because the film industry is one that loves to laugh at itself and remind us that it's all still people creatively getting together to make something happen. Some are dramatic and serious, sure, but most are poking fun at the business that made them. Uniquely, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is an amalgamation of all these approaches and more, that “more” being about the love, heart and imagination that is making movies it is able to render so well and with such a purpose that Billy Wilder himself probably would have been proud. It’s that one element, “passion” and “love” for making movies, that sets Ed Wood above others, even greats like Sunset Boulevard, The Player and Singin' in the Rain. Through the brilliant performance of Depp as Wood, and the story's uncanny ability to be comedic with heart, we almost want to join him in his escapade of making movies and we begin to feel, or at least understand, the passion that drives him to want to share stories and be creative. This little look into his life, even if it tends to push the boundaries of the myth of Ed Wood versus the reality of Ed Wood, is done with such creative juices and wonder that you actually appreciate it - as though the myth and the reality of Ed Wood's life is one in the same. A film that is full of outstanding performances, lively energy, a script that surely should have been more acknowledged at the time and a vision and style by Tim Burton that is spot-on in artistry and tone - it is the man's best film, and once you see it you'll agree that it's a hard one to top.

The Bad: The film is so self-aware and understated, pushing the "go overtop" button only when cued, that you can't really fault it for being dramatic and series one moment and wacky the next. It plays it all very well. The same can be said for the characters, which are more idealized if not cliched version of themselves than really meaning to portray the actual people themselves. Once you fall under the film's tone, you learn to accept all this because it's not trying to be some overly serious biopic, but rather a fun celebration of a very odd little man behind a camera.

The Ugly:
“Do I really have a face that looks like a horse?” - Sarah Jessica Parker.  And thus the jokes begin for decades to come.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Edge of Darkness

Thomas Craven, is a detective who has spent years working the streets of Boston. When his own daughter is killed near the door of his home, Craven realizes that her death is only one piece of an intriguing puzzle filled with corruption and conspiracy, and it falls to him to discover who is behind the crime.

The Good: Hard edged and classic revenge thriller approaches, Edge of Darkness takes a tired formula and, at least, crafts it well enough without needing to result to pandering those that want gratuitous violence, gun fights and lots of people getting killed. It’s a film that, thankfully, shows restraint and is smarter than this oft-used plot really deserves. Gibson is absolutely perfect for this role, although his Bostonian accent is barely passable. He sells it, though, with his eyes and delivery, not to mention the raw emotion he’s always been good at showing in roles. There are certainly surprises, action is used effectively rather than just for a set piece to show people dying, and it is perfect in how it plays with you and your expectations (in that, don’t expect the obvious, but do expect to be surprised from time to time).

The Bad: I love Ray Winstone. He’s a great actor and his performance here is solid and enjoyable. But, and this is a big but, his character could just as easily be removed entirely and you’d end up with the same film (if not a better one). His implementation is lazy and unnecessary, and thus a great actor is wasted in a film that didn’t know what to do with him. Yet, that’s something I can really say about a lot of the characters here - they all feel disconnected and uninteresting, and few really seem to add anything to our story. It’s complicated enough, the script really all over the place and probably exceeding its grasp and undermining the focal point of revenge. Throwing so many elements into one story never works and shows a writer (and obviously producers and directors) trying too hard. The characters don’t reach the depth they should, or get explained, the pace always ends up erratic and you lose focus of what the real story is - not a conspiracy as it likes to force down your throat, but about a father and his daughter. Adding more and more angles does nothing but have you looking in more and more directions until you find yourself square staring at an obtuse corner.

The Ugly: This movie reminds me how much I miss Gibson. He’s pretty under-appreciated as both an actor and director. Also, if a man ever walks up to you and say “could you remove your glasses please, sir?” …don’t.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Edge of Tomorrow

An officer finds himself caught in a time loop in a war with an alien race. His skills increase as he faces the same brutal combat scenarios, and his union with a Special Forces warrior gets him closer and closer to defeating the enemy.

The Good: Doug Liman is one of those directors who probably doesn't get nearly enough credit. He's not a "name" and he doesn't necessarily have a distinct style, but what he does is make sure you have a solid movie, good characters and a well-paced and told story. He doesn't draw attention to himself and lets the movie do the work.

That's why Edge of Tomorrow may just be the best movie of Summer 2014. It's not trying to be overly-cool or draw attention to itself. It's just a damn good time with memorable characters and a fantastic concept that, with a lesser filmmaker, would likely have become a convoluted mess.

Everything in Edge of tomorrow is polished and with a purpose. Bill Paxton and Emily Blunt offer incredibly fun supporting roles and Brendan Gleeson is, well he's Brendan Gleeson he's great in everything. Scenes have a point, dialogue is purposeful and never dawdling, the film takes a lot of risks to play tricks on its audience in a fun way and it has some of the best special effects I've seen in a while.

Best of all, this is a movie that knows how to have a little fun with its concept. While its third act is appropriately dower and serious, up to that it's a fun ride with a generous amount of humor that never undermines the severity of the situation. It's a taught, well -paced, well acted and flat-out fun movie from beginning to end.

All of that I just ran through is spearheaded by Tom Cruise, who never gets enough credit for his commitment to any role. In fact, Cruise is never bad in any of his films (and his films are rarely bad to begin with). This, though, is interesting as it shows Cruise at his best: less superhero and badass and more "guy trying to make it work."  Cruise is having a lot of fun, and he's making damn sure you have fun with him. When he clicks into a role like this, it's impossible to not be entertained.

The Bad: I have little bad to say about Edge of Tomorrow. It's light sci-fi enjoyment with a lot of action and is just polished fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously but seriously enough to where you become invested. It's rewatchable despite being repetitive at times.

The slow-down of its third act and sudden shift in tone is a bit jarring, though. Less organic and natural and more predictably necessary which can kind of undercut all the investment you had earlier because, now, it's "more real" and "riskier." You can only sustain the concept and momentum for so long for a couple of acts before having to write an ending eventually. That's about the only road you can take with something this high-concept. When things get serious, so should the tone of the movie. It does make you beg and wish it would get fun again.

The Ugly: Despite good reviews, the film wasn't tracking all that well. It's no fault of its stars and studio who put a lot of effort in promoting the hell out of it. This is one of those movies that will find its audience eventually and will have those that will continue to love it (see also Pacific Rim).

Final Rating: 4 out of 5

The Elephantman

Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease. With the help of kindly Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick attempts to regain the dignity he lost after years spent as a side-show freak.

One of David Lynch's most celebrated films (earning 8 Oscar Nominations, notably Director, Lead Actor for John Hurt and Best Picture), The Elephant Man is probably the most straightforward and standard film on Lynch's repertoire, showing a man that can do various styles and tackle linear stories should he decide to. In fact, it looked as though Lynch was going to be the next Stanley Kubrick or Scorsese when this came out in 1980 (his next film would alter his entire career path, but more on that later).

The Elephant Man is shot in gorgeous black and white, quite astounding cinematography, and still retains a distinct Lynchian feel despite the rather straightforward story (for Lynch, of course). It's noted for being incredibly accurate, even going so far as to cast the actual prosthetics from the action cast of the real Elephant Man from the London Hospital museum archives. That being said, it also only shallowly touches on things without going in-depth on it; it's a clinical exercise in factual storytelling than anything with a huge amount of substance to it.

Hurt and Hopkins are dynamic in this film and play off each other well amongst many layers thematically, narratively, and character wise. It's a powerful and heartbreaking film that is really one of those you will watch once, appreciate, then probably not watch again.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Elevator to the Gallows

Florence Carala and her lover Julien Tavernier, an ex - paratrooper want to murder her husband by faking a suicide. But after Julien has killed him and he puts his things in his car, he finds he has forgotten the rope outside the window and he returns to the building to remove it...

The Good: After randomly going through my collection, I came upon a film I had
yet to watch. I've had it for years, actually, but was pleasantly surprised to say to myself "how long have I been meaning to watch this?" Well, it was about time, and thankfully I wasn't disappointed in this wonderful thriller by Louis Malle. It's a little more than that, however. It's about right, wrong, redemption and consequence more than anything, the thriller aspect is simply the vehicle to drive those thematic elements. It's jazzy, like a smoke-filled club, as Florence explores Paris at night accompanied by the trumpet of Miles Davis. It's thought-provoking as we see our so-called hero Julien punished. It's utterly depressing as two teenager lovers take the wrong turns in life. The film is complex and unsympathetic towards all these people because, in reality, they all have done something wrong on one level or another. Yet that is where Elevator to the Gallows shines: the fact that humans are flawed, not perfect, make mistakes. Malle shuns traditional storytelling here as we see many elements seemingly not connected, come back full-circle to drive it all home. Many consider this the first New Wave film, and it certainly has some of those elements but only has a few of those elements that movement was known for. It's a crime film, yet not a crime film as far more concentrates on the worry and anxiety of its characters than any crime that was committed (and there were plenty of them), making it one of the more unique crime films to be made.

The Bad:
If only there were characters we could come to like and appreciate, Elevator to the Gallows would go down easily as one of the greatest films of time. Unfortunately, the four primary characters that we follow are unabashedly easy to dislike and, thus, not care about what happens to them. Perhaps it shows that villains, too, have feelings yet unlike those we might find sympathy for in other films, it's hard to feel anything for the ones here. They're either too wayward in life, doing the wrong things but without an explanation as to why, or too uncaring about their own actions. They are mere shells of potentially better characters than real, moving characters at all. Even the climax and ending moments has characters that are as monotone and unmoving as the rest of the film, and with this story and these performances...the film deserved better.

The Ugly: The soundtrack, arguably, has become more infamous that the film itself.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

After a prison riot, former-Captain Nascimento, now a high ranking security officer in Rio de Janeiro, is swept into a bloody political dispute that involves government officials and paramilitary groups. 

The Good: Bleak and harsh are words that barely scratch the surface of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the sequel to the first film in 2008. It is a work full of complexities yet an achievement through clarity, various sub plots and factions and, always, an astute visual style full of energy blended with beauty. Like the remarkable City of God, which Elite Squad is lucky to have one of the writers on board for, it's not just  a tale of crime in Brazil, but it is a powerful commentary about the injustices that occur there. Here, it's about the corruption of police and politicians and, sadly, how they are every bit as evil and malicious as the gang life itself.

It's unique as well in that it doesn't attempt to paint a clear moral picture. That's not entirely the point. It simply tells a story and your judgement will come from it because there's only one conclusion you can make in regards to corruption and evil men. However it's not black and white, noting it's more the situation than it is entirely the people, and there's really no agenda outside of putting it on film and noting the pitiful situation and plays of power that occur - sometimes by those truly evil, sometimes by those that are simply caught in the middle of a broken system.  In a way, all are victims. It's all quick, fast with a sense of urgency mixed with purpose because all that complexity is surprisingly clear - much like Fernando Meirelles' City of God or the first Elite Squad (which this film outclasses at every angle).

The theme of human rights is the singular thread that encases the film. It asks an interesting question and explores it. Do "bad guys" who are bad more to the system than themselves undeserving of rights? Who makes that deacons. Those higher up in the Brazilian bureaucracy throw out the labels of them being horrible people who negate their own rights, yet they are the ones that are corrupt and the cause of there being "bad guys"  in the first place thanks to an inadequate distribution of wealth and an even more inadequate distribution of power or voice.

The Bad: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is an incredibly intelligent, drive and focused film. But this is only in terms of laying out the situation. In terms of character, other than our single lead (and even then only in spurts), little time is given to develop anyone to a point where there are able to be described by more than one word. There's the evil guy, the nieve guy, the puppet, the king, and so forth. We really don't know who any of these players are other than their very basic of roles to bring out the "big picture" of the film.

However, we also know so very little of the victims, or civilians, or other gang members or cops. Everyone is very faceless for the most part and any emotional connection other than the very basic struggle of rich and poor becomes lost as the film is far more concerned in trying to explain how everything runs. For comparison in understanding, Elite Squad has the polish and complexity of City of God, but lacks the resonance that might have put it on a level of the great crime dramas.

The Ugly: For some reason, the line "one less clean cop" is one of the harshest things I've heard another character utter in a film. It's all about the context, and that coming from a fellow police officer is just brutal. It's a line that really stuck out to me…and in a way embodies the entire film as a whole.

Final Rating: 4 out 5


Elysium

Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.  

The Good: Solid performances and a fantastic world-vision, Elysium may not be the most refined but you can't deny that's it is ambitious. Visually, Elysium is a finely crafted piece of dystopian science fiction. It's a living-breathing world that feels natural, organic and convincingly possible seeing as it was actually shot on location in the first place. More importantly is that feels populated. There's a lot of great 'visions' out there of a future, but few really capture the life of it all or even its people. They only care about the vision. With Elysium, it's as real as you're gonna get.

On that basis alone along with some strong action elements, Elysium is never dull. Problematic, sure. But dull? Not in the slightest. It's constantly entertaining and constantly willing to open and walk through the doors it sets up for itself. Matt Damon is a strong lead, even if his character is a bit flat at times, but the show-stealer is Sharlto Copley who is a great antithesis to Damon's hero persona and is near unrecognizable based on how vile he can get sometimes. While the world is large, the people are pretty much grounded. Except for Copley. You need Copley in a movie like this because sometimes the absurd isn't so much absurd as much as it a necessity to really spring this vibrant world to life. Strong on the visuals, strong in personality, Elysium will grab you even if it won't get you thinking much beyond that.

The Bad: Elysium almost wants to be a dumb movie.  It's practically forcing itself to be: You know, the kind where there really isn't anything interesting to say or to make you think about, it just wants to wow you with action and crazy characters and special effects. That's a sign of a director who has a larger budget and, perhaps, isn't as "reigned in" as he would be with a smaller budget. It wants to to do too much and, as a result, the strengths that Blomkamp has shown in terms of theme, allegory and messages gets lost in the noise. It is no longer a balanced experience of smart sci-fi blended with action, it's an action movie with ideas and messages shoehorned.

The result? Good acting lost in one-dimensional characters. Good ideas and plot threads that never really reach a satisfying conclusion, especially the "political" angle that never once feels more than a marginalized footnote. A brilliant idea and built world that we never get a sense of actually existing.  Sporadic action scenes. Forgettable supporting cast outside of the villain (and that's not the actor with second billing, mind you). Forced messages because it can't pace them out well enough alongside the overreach of action elements.

It makes for a strange experience. Elysium isn't bad, not in the slightest, but it's a film that is like a rock tumbler of ideas and elements that just keeps spinning and never really settles. It's enjoyable…but you kinda wish it'd stop tumbling so you could enjoy a polished rock or two.

The Ugly: Ok, bye then, certain actor I have to assume is there for the check. Your character was…there….then wasn't….what was the purpose of you again? At least Fichtner came to play.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Empire of the Sun

Based on J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, tells the story of a boy, James Graham, whose privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a captured Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim attempts to reconstruct his former life, all the while bringing spirit and dignity to those around him.

The
Good: Empire of the Sun is a perfect example of “it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.” So true is this as Spielberg takes us a fantastic journey and tells a fascination story that touches all the senses. It’s emotional, it has a bit of adventure, it even manages fantastic human drama against the backdrop of Shanghai during World War II, and all with the visual splendor a then maturing filmmaker. It’s a story about the gradual loss of innocence, both for our main character, Jim (played marvelously by Christian Bale) and the world as a whole as we see the ravages of the land, the imprisonment of our fellow man and the mistreatment of each other out of fear rather than bravery. We see the struggles and war through the eyes of a child. It doesn’t glorify it or attempt to have us understand it, no more than a boy stranded with no home and family in the middle of World War II would, anyways, through his glossy eyes in a one-of-a-kind coming of age story. It’s a powerful piece of cinema and one of Spielberg’s most underappreciated best pieces of work.

The  Bad:
“Empire of the Sun” is considered Spielberg’s first “epic” film. It’s sweeping, beautiful and rather rich in its story and period presentation. However, Spielberg, at times, struggles to keep up. It loses a bit of focus and pace about two-thirds into it and with it the gripping character development and story.  It’s a very tight script up to that point, with every scene having a purpose, then it halts. The story moves from location to location and settles primarily on a camp for American soldiers. It’s here this odd halt seems to occur as you expect it to move on or for something significant to happen. It never really does and goes for a few beats longer than it needs to before leaving the camp and picking the story back up and to stagger to the emotional ending.

The Ugly: Damn is it hard to separate Christian Bale now from the child in the film. "I'm Batman"or "I'm going to be Batman" will no doubt run through your head while watching.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


End of Watch

Two young officers are marked for death after confiscating a small cache of money and firearms from the members of a notorious cartel, during a routine traffic stop.

The Good: While trying to find a drink in a convenience store, one of our lead characters of End of Watch casually asks "Are we heroes?" His partner has no answer, they aren't sure what heroes are anymore…to them it's just a job.

The drive isn't the plot  or the crimes, but the day-to-day relationship of Taylor and Zavala. Gyllenhaal and Pena play so well off of each other, that the "in your face/real" approach and faux-documentary style is utterly convincing. End of Watch relies heavily on this, and it's what makes it a damn-good film. It's not "buddy cop" but just two regular patrol officers trying to make the right decisions when dealing with everyday situations (to them, of course). We're invited in to a world, an incredibly detailed and convincing world, as we ride along with the, hear their often mundane conversations, see their views when rolling up to a house or chasing a criminal, and feel a part of understanding the difficulties of being a police officer.

Just by sheer directing and camera use, we see this story and what it wants to tell us. It doesn't beat us over the head with it, by simply putting us in a position to see things recreated in a realistic fashion, we come to an understanding of the purpose of the film: they do this every day, and these two hours are just a small glimpse. Just getting up every day and having to drive around and try and help people is more than heroic enough. It's not a film to have a story, but relay a message to an audience. Heroism is often unheralded, overly-glorified and never honest. It's something create a pedestal for, but overlook those that should be placed upon it while building it.

The Bad: Passage of time is, strangely, handled extremely poorly here. There's no "life in a day" approach, but more an extended series of vignettes that cover what appears to be about a year, but all these vignettes are so scattered, short and run in to each other so often, that it almost feels like only a few days, not the period of time the film is intent to cover. All that energy that is given is, also, so constant and never relenting that the entire noting that it's all over a year or so in time feels like a mere dream rather than reality.

There's also a lot of cynicism in this film as well. I mean, a lot. It's police work, it's expected, but there's rarely anything "good" that happens to these cops on the street as the film spends quite a lot of time exploring the depravity of humanity-  the worse of the worse from babies tied up to bodies in a back room. Occasionally there's some humor, maybe some sincerity, when they aren't driving around, but for the most part it's "everyone is awful and we have to take them out." It doesn't play with the notion of gray areas nearly as much as it should, because it seemed like it might go that route which would fit this film so well and that director Ayer has shown an affection for in past films, but it lays it out as simple cops and robbers…or at least cops and Latino gang members.

The Ugly: The film is never fully clear as to what is "found footage" (for lack of a better term) and what is actual film. It jumps freely between our two cops filming things to the actual film itself, so what they know, don't know or what we're following them knowing isn't entirely clear. It especially gets confusing when the bad guys have cameras as well...and also takes you a bit out of the film's reality as a result.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Enemy

A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie.

The Good: Jake Gyllnhaal is not only one of the best actors working today, he’s also one of the most interesting. Here’s a guy that could pretty much pick any project he wants, and lately he’s been doing the bold and daring task of small films with strong characters. His range is incredibly admirable, able to play serious and sincere in a variety of ways, and here he does it in two bold ways: a troubled, disturbed and socially awkward man on one end, and a confident, brash and understated angry one on the other.

In other words, Enemy needs an actor like Gyllenhaal to have any hopes of working on any level. And he delivers. And I’m sure he’ll go overlooked as he so often does. Perhaps it’s because he knows subtlety so well - rarely playing any role “big.” Enemy needs that subtlety to work as well - a minimalist, understated and surreal piece of psychological noir that is confusing for all the right reasons, even if it doesn’t stick the landing all the time.

Enemy is, at the very least, compelling and interesting during its taught and tight hour and a half it gives us. Purposeful, sure handed, even brilliant at the right moments. Director Denis Villeneuve, reunited with Gyllenhaal after the brilliant Prisoners, shoots an urban landscape that’s less a city and more a maze (or, leaning towards the themes of the film, a web of concrete and skyscrapers). The script may be a little too loose, but the sharp directing and brilliant acting by Gyllenhaal makes Enemy a must-see for any fan of psychological thrillers.

The Bad: The elements are there to make sense of what is happening behind it all - a story about regrets and what-ifs and the faces of a person. But then you have things that…well even in the context of the movie are a little hard to see the point of. Perhaps it’s a commentary about relationships or women in general, but the persistent theme of spiders and webs seems to work against the theme of accepting a new life.

There’s a lot in the film that’s all about interpretation, but often the interpretations seem to work against each other rather than for leaving the point muddled and not quite certain of what it wants to say. Though movies like this are all about that vagueness and ambiguity, Enemy doesn’t quite seat itself as firmly as it wants to in presenting those things for you think on. It has the ideas and the set up, but when it comes to the follow-through it becomes scattered, if not a little uncertain, by its own design.

The Ugly: 2014 has been the year for weird movies, and this one is certainly up there. I like weird. Weird is challenging and interesting when done right, and movies like Enemy or The Double or The Zero Theorem have really come to define the indie scene this year.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


 

Enemy at the Gates

During the WWII battle of Stalingrad, two snipers, a Russian, and a German, are locked in a battle of wills and marksmanship, while the Russian is boosted to the status of hero by a political official.

The Good: I don't know if Enemy at the Gates would be much without the directing by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Well, there's the gorgeous photography of Robert Fraisse as well, who probably should have received a nom for the effort. Actually, the set and costume design and overall atmosphere is fantastic as well. Sure, those little cogs in the machine are nice to have, but the driving element, the story, doesn't quite live up to it all.

The performances by Harris and Law as our dueling chessboard Kings, Fiennes and Hoskins and Weisz make up a nice assortment as well. All solid. All enjoyable despite there not being a whole lot for any actor to really work with. The climax is fulfilling and paces out nicely as we see our two leads finally meet - almost to the point where you can see the filmmakers put great emphasis on the opening, on the ending, and then tried to scramble some stuff in between those scenes to make it work. Enemy at the Gates may not have a lot of substance to it, but it does have things that are enjoyable as we are thrust head-first into one of the best scaled action set pieces in war cinema and then put into a methodical tale of snipers conveying patience, drive and intelligence in how the scenes play out. But...

The Bad: That's still not the story, is it? It all boils down to a love story, and that love story is simply far too overplayed for this film. The elements of a great, instant classic war movie is here but it's completely dragged down by less the emphasis on the the concept of a hero and the story of his showdown with the German Konig and more about his love of Chernova which, in reality, it simply isn't important in this story. Yet it's put front in center, the story already more fiction than fact which is fine, so it's not as though the need to focus on her in any way is necessary. If you have a nice house with four walls, three are beautifully made and the fourth a deteriorated mess slightly slouched, saggy and at the wrong angles to the other three, you end up living at 1555 Enemy of the State avenue.

Enemy at the Gates seems a divisive film and certainly one that is the poster child for the phrase "mixed reactions." Either way, it's a fine line and it's hard to fault anyone for liking it or anyone for not liking it. It falls right in the middle - too well made to be bad but too poorly executed to be great.

The Ugly: As I mentioned, Weisz is actually very, very good in the film and her character is actually underused - It's just the love story itself that doesn't work, which is unfortunate because everyone including her really give some solid performances. As it is with everything, the film ends up forgettable and a complete waste of some interesting ideas and concepts.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Enough Said

A divorced woman who decides to pursue the man she's interested in learns he's her new friend's ex-husband.

The Good: Enough Said is the type of comedy that isn’t forcing the comedy to happen. That’s what so impressive because plot-wise, it sounds as gimmicky as a You’ve Got Mail or whatever Sandra Bullock comedy about guys and girls and errors might be. It’s sweet and believable and, best of all, delicate with its subject matter. These aren’t “caricatures” of people like so many romantic comedies might be, but characters that feel like people: middle-aged adults who’ve been through a lot in their lives, have kids, have financial issues and trying to find love in the process.

Julia-Louis Dreyfus shows she can absolutely be a lead in a movie if the material is right. She’s sweet, endearing, a bit manic but a person that I feel like a know. Gandolfini disappears completely as Albert, equally sweet and endearing. But these are nice people with their own lives and their own problems, and they’re hoping that this time around the relationship will work. Supported by a strong cast around them, we see the day in and day out of a developing relationship, and even when it throws in a “plot point” such as Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) having a client that is Albert’s ex-wife, it feels organic.

That could have been a set up for a standard rom-com boilerplate story, fit with wacky scenarios and a licensed musical bit of “getting to the party” or “getting to the airport” just in time...but it actually sells it as real and believable and just awkward coincidence. The “reveal,” which of course you know will happen, doesn’t feel gimmicky or forced. I mean, there’s no “winning him back” montage or something utterly stupid, the film continues on and shows them continuing on with their lives making where it could go completely unpredictable. When it finally gets to where it wants to go, though, it’s beautiful in its own way.

The Bad: It’s a bit bumpy along the way. Sometimes the chemistry between the actors works, somethings it doesn’t. Sometimes the humor is legitimately humorous, other times the film feels uncertain if it was supposed to be humorous to begin with. The acting is consistently great so you tend to not notice because the characters are always great, but scenes can sometimes fall flat, certain “messages” can come across as mixed or unclear (see “Ugly” below). It all makes for a bit of a sloppy, though still endearing, mess.

Then you have a very smart character doing a very dumb thing. Yes, it’s kind of the focal point of the story, but at the same time I simply don’t buy the character doing that. She’s smart. Not stupid. And even though the script gives us a perfectly logical reason on why she would do said dumb thing, it undermines her and doesn’t quite fit in relation to relationship and trust she’s already built.

The Ugly: I’m still trying to figure out what the Toni Collette marriage sub plot is all about. I like the characters, but the relationship with Will (Ben Falcone, who is great) doesn’t ever seem to go anywhere. They fight, argue, get over it. I guess there’s a parallel there but I can’t be for sure.

Still, those are funny scenes even if they feel a bit out of place and occasional too “sitcom” - like. You know what I mean, where the guy says or does something stupid and the girl has to put him in his place like it’s been in every sitcom ever. Rinse-repeat.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Enter the Void

A drug-dealing teen is killed in Japan, after which he reappears as a ghost to watch over his sister.

The errr....wait a minute, that logline sucks. Who wrote that? The distributor? What? So very off the mark. Yes, a teen (actually I don't recall his age) dies and we see the world through his eyes. Some is present, a lot is the past, it's far more complex (and convoluted) than "a ghost that watches over his sister." That makes it sound like like some sort of comedy that should be starring Steve Carrell or something.

How the hell can I review this film? It's a film that is as polarizing as I've seen. You know the kind. You watch it. You're intrigued by it. You even admire its technical proficiency. But you aren't sure if you like it or not. I can objectively say that it's ambitious, unique, beautiful, poetic and the cinematography and directing is utterly superb. Gasper Noe's directorial decisions are astounding as the camera itself acts as a free-flowing thought. It's boundless, ever moving, unblinking (to a point of uncomfortable passiveness).

It's a unique form of storytelling. It's not merely just told through flashbacks, but through interconnected flashbacks, almost a natural way of how people remember things. A certain touch, emotion or moment takes a person back to a previous one, and back further to another and so on, but never in such sequential order. Enter the Void is literally a head trip but in a strange, odd little way that feels believable as though we had died ourselves. We journey, think, feel in a way that is never easy to just write out, so here we have a film that follows an instinct and its senses rather than try to tell us a story. It's a reflection of life. The complexities, the humanity, the goods, evils and regrets that flow through it like a river as we wash ourselves over our own being in our dying moments.

Yet, I can't honestly determine if it's a good film or not. I can applaud it, yes, but I can't say I was particularly entertained by it or that it was somehow profound, revealing or hand a lot to say. It shows us much, but there's a degree of shallowness to it. Yes, we can see these things, we can grasp its thematic presence and certainly its pretentious nature, but should we care? How do we care? It's not our life, afterall.

But I love being able to say that there is literally nothing else like Enter the Void. It's overly long and self-serving for the sake of being self-serving, but I'll be damned if it was a completely fresh and one-of-a-kind experience that touches upon a visceral, human sensation. It's exhausting and haunting and tiring and I would even say tedious, but you can't look away in fear of missing its brilliance. I have to be upfront and say this is one of the hardest films I've ever had to try and review, I'd also say I failed at doing so, but maybe that in itself is saying something.

Final Rating: A hard film to just put a number on. Then again, I use numbers more for cataloging (as most reviewers do) than to actually define impression of the film. I'll just play it safe and say 3.5 out of 5. But truth be told, for some people this is a five out of five, others it'll be a zero. I wouldn't argue with anyone who said either, similar to last year's Antichrist now that I think about it.


Envy


A man becomes increasingly jealous of his friend's newfound success. (and it's about dog poop)

The Good: Errr....

The Bad: I can sometimes look at a film, spot one little thing and say "that's the seed of this entire film." Sometimes it's an action setpiece. Sometimes it's a great gag. Sometimes it's the idea of a spray that gets rid of dog shit. Envy has one of these three things - so that should probably tell you something. Often when someone says something is "bad" it's a knee-jerk reaction. More often than not, the film is just disappointing, not necessarily flat-out bad in the sense of it not having any worth whatsoever. In some cases, it might be that the film, simply, is not made for the person or doesn't appeal to their own tastes (though a review can step outside that box, but we'll leave that for another time). Envy though has no worries in being potentially better than the numerous bad reviews label it. It manages to have, on paper, something that might be funny or relevant or interesting especially with the director and stars on board. Yet it fails to even reach mediocrity and is easily one of the worst comedies, not on taste but in mere craft, in the past ten years.

I've never, in my life, seen two obviously talented comedic actors try so hard (forcefully so) and end up with so little. The disconnect between their own characters, the sense of their paint-by-numbers scene placements and stilted comedic timing shows two things: the script was worthless in the first place and the director a bad fit, potentially very strict, in the process in allowing his actors freedom. Both Stiller and Black thrive on freedom, and if they don't have the director that can work with them on that approach, then this is probably what you'll end up with. Then again, what drew Barry Levinson to the script in the first place? Was it attempting to be a dark comedy? You can potentially see that it might have been. I have this strange sense that he viewed an over-the-top gag-riddled script and vehicle for the likes of Black and Stiller as something completely different, and that clashed with everything else.

Either way, it's never funny, often mean-sprited actually, and not once gets you excited or showcase any energy with its humor. They knew this early, too. This pretty well-budgeted, full of capable people left and right film was five seconds away from getting a direct to DVD release because early screenings went horribly. The biggest comedy with no comedy, no energy, no story, barely a plot of any sort as it strains to stretch itself to 99 minutes alone and a film I'm surprised hasn't yet been lambasted by a two hundred internet bloggers and video reviewers yet.

The Ugly: As much as people might want to blame the various elements such as the actors, script and director, this film is solely rooted as a failure thanks to its producers. The elements here simply do not work together, and the job of a producer is to ensure that they do. The failure here is entirely on Paula Weinstein. She's worked with Levinson many times in the past and, most likely, thought of him first for the film.  I don't know if that was before or after it changed studios, but seeing as how it cost a pretty good penny for a comedy, had a half-dozen companies that I'm sure various script drafts went through and used a quarter of its budget just to get Stiller to "do this thing"...this is one of the biggest failures of filmmaking in cinema history. This is one of those films you wish someone would write a book covering its story and production...I would buy that in an instant.

Final Rating: 0 out of 5


Eraserhead

Is it a nightmare or an actual view of a post-apocalyptic world? Set in an industrial town in which giant machines are constantly working, spewing smoke, and making noise that is inescapable, Henry Spencer lives in a building that, like all the others, appears to be abandoned. The lights flicker on and off, he has bowls of water in his dresser drawers, and for his only diversion he watches and listens to the Lady in the Radiator sing about finding happiness in heaven. Henry has a girlfriend, Mary X, who has frequent spastic fits. Mary gives birth to Henry's child, a frightening looking mutant, which leads to the injection of all sorts of sexual imagery into the depressive and chaotic mix.

Eraserhead blew up the movie world back in 1977. When I say "Blew Up" I mean it literally. Eraserhead is probably one of the greatest debut films to ever come from a newcomer garnering praises from critics but, more importantly, peers in the likes of Mel Brooks, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and the like. It's a nightmare, plain and simple, full of the notion of adultery, repression, sexuality, parenthood and various other themes as interpreted by a subconscious mind as things that are feared. It's a grainy film, independent, but this quality, to me, is like playing back a dream itself. It's not quite right and there's something a little off, and the visual aesthetic contributes to this enormously.

Jack Nance plays our title character, Henry, and gives an outstanding performance as a quiet man. He tells us a lot with just his eyes and expression and our reaction to the events that are unfold are pretty much identical to his. He's out outlet into this world and our experience is all the better for that, otherwise we wouldn't find any appeal (nearly all of  Lynch's films have central characters that are all in this same mold, but some aren't quite as appealing and thus the film suffers)

A significant and important entry into the history of cinema that should certainly be watched by any fan of film.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Escape from New York

In the future, crime is out of control and New York City is a maximum security prison. Grabbing a bargaining chip right out of the air, convicts bring down the President's plane in bad old Gotham. Gruff Snake Plissken, a one-eyed lone warrior new to prison life, is coerced into bringing the President, and his cargo, out of this land of undesirables.

The Good: Ambitious. Original. Visionary. Just plain enjoyable. Escape From New York is simple, pure entertainment from beginning to end. Its script is tight, its hero perfectly cast and likable and its politically-minded and socially-aware story allows the film to work on a level that is more than just a good guy having a bad day.  It's an exciting movie, though a rough one, that is sold on its rather brutal violence and bleak atmosphere. Like many of Carpenter's movies, it's all about the concept than it is the execution. You can mark its flaws and faults, but at the same time you simply bust applaud its originality and visual touch as Carpenter has always been known for.

The Bad: Easily it's worst aspect at to be the jumbled pacing. Escape From New York starts strong, has a lengthy time in the middle where it seems to not quite know what it wants to do or where it wants to go, then finally decides to mish-mash an ending that probably should have been more climatic and exciting than how it ultimately ended up. While there are a lot of great set pieces, much of it is treading water that seems to not go anywhere and the supporting characters alongside Russel's Plisskin make the journey not nearly as enjoyable as we would hope.

The Ugly: Carpenter has never really had a panache for dialogue - he's more a scene/setting guy that does more in quiet moments than talkative one. Some movies allow such campiness to work (They Live) but when it calls time for a "serious" turn (even in an action movie) it falls unfortunately flat. Luckily, here, there's the charisma of Russel to punch through most of it.

Oh, and 1997 looks like a shithole. I hope when that year comes we....oh.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Escape Plan

When a structural-security authority finds himself set up and incarcerated in the world's most secret and secure prison, he has to use his skills to escape with help from the inside.

The Good: Harkening back to the old-school, contained action thrillers, Escape Plan reminds us that there is probably a better version of Escape Plan that could have been made a few decades ago. Though it feels less authentic and more imitation, and its faults less forgiving, Escape Plan is able to meet some criteria: the characters are memorable, the directing solid, the villain interesting and motivated, the setting unique, the pacing tight and it even manages to have a bit of humor along the way.

Note: all that in the first two-thirds at least.

Director Mikael Hafstrom does wonders with a relatively thin script. His setting of scenes and understanding of pace in each gives Escape Plan a consistent sense of tension from beginning to lackluster end. Not only that, he shoots it all with a very stylized sense of knowing exactly what it’s going for: a movie made in the 1980s or early 90s. It works, as do leads Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who slide seamlessly in to their characters and offer up great chemistry, humor, one-liners and all the other stuff you’d expect from a movie starring them both.

The Bad: Escape Plan is two solid first acts and a third act that takes all the wind out of the sails. It’s all set up, it’s all a really good second act, then a third act that either a) had the writer scratching his head how to finish it (likely) or b) the money ran out (also likely). It’s a movie that knows its world and is actually a lot of fun for a good chunk of it, but as it struggles and scrambles to find some way, any way, to end itself, it goes with the road traveled and plays it all safe. Predictably and overwhelmingly safe.

I suppose the biggest problem is how much potential is absolutely wasted here. The inability of the script to take some risks is what keeps Escape Plan an absolute forgettable piece of filmmaking. The strong first two acts bring that notion home even further, and yes the third act is that safe and bland and dull and uninspired that it weighs the entirety of the rest of the film down. The strong presence of Schwarzenegger is undercut, the humor means nothing, the “rooting for the good guy” (Stallone) doesn’t matter because you’ll soon realize it wants to take the strong first half and just throw it out the window for a safe conclusion. No twist. Nothing interesting. Ultimately pointless.

And that is the disappointment factor. Because at the heart of it, from the characters to the directing, it’s a solid action thriller…but it’s also one that cuts its own legs out from under itself.

The Ugly: Mikael Hafstrom: the really good director that deserves better screenplays. All of his movies are well directed, most are well acted on top of that because he knows how to approach the material with his actors, but nearly all of them are incredibly poorly written.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.

The Good: Every week I try and do one review that is a focus on a great movie. Not merely good or entertaining, but something that is considered remarkable. That's not something you say often in film. "Remarkable." Often, I take a look back to decades past, foreign cinema or classics that shape and mold the Durkheim collective consciousness of cinema lovers everywhere. Very few, though, I can say are "recent" films. That's not to say there aren't great movies released the past, say, twenty years or so. Believe me, there are a ton of great ones. Very few, though, I would put in the league of remarkable, that ever-lofty term.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is considered the best screenwriter of the past ten years. His scripts are as complex, layered and allegorical/metaphorical/philosophical as any book you might read or poem you might recite. It's not a cold analysis, though. Despite the clinical depth, it is balanced by emotional depth as well. The human side of his stories are never lost, and I would have to say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is every bit as human and emotional as much as it is thematically complex as it deals with the simply-glossed over but never-simply explained concept of memories. Here, the memory is of a person. More specifically, a person our lead character, Joel, is in love with. Note "is" in love with. Not "was." With a new procedure, he can rid himself of those memories of the person. Those nights in agony thinking of her? Those memories of her perfume or a photograph that transports him to a specific sunny day? That time he first met her...or was it the first time?

Gone, in just a few blips of a computer. That and a surreal exploration of Joel's mind as the memories begin to strip away, and thus his world around him.

Memories, and the human mind, though, aren't a computer. Here the story takes an interesting turn - it looks into the emotional attachment of a memory rather than just some "moment." It says there's something greater than just a recall and that life, and especially something as strong as love, might not be as so simply controlled like data in a computer. Eventually he starts to piece things together, to have regrets and it's then Eternal Sunshine really begins to take off. Kaufman's scenarios become more elaborate, sometimes painful as we whisk ourselves through Joel's memories - and like real memories they're never linear, never quite clear, but have a certain emotional attachment. It turns out Joel, as this person, this love, is being taken away, begins to realize who he really is, who she really is, and why he might just regret what he's doing.

We're then thrown another curveball, another theme, that we're left to ponder by Kaufman and director Michel Gondry (who's visual aesthetic is astounding as it blends reality, fantasy, illusion, memories and dreams). Perhaps, in the grand scheme of the cosmos of the universe, we aren't exactly in control. Joel is strangely drawn to his love, and she to him. Her name is Clementine. Clementine made the decision to. Yet they seem to continually stumble across each other. They're drawn to the same places for no reason they can think of. They recognize each other in that "you look like..." type of way, even though they, in their computer-processed memories, have never met. Perhaps fate has a stake in the whole thing and the universe calls to them both. It wouldn't be the first time Kaufman would bring existential ideologies into his films.

I tend to think it's love. Call me a hopeless romantic, but the love Joel and Clementine had were so strong it ingrained into their souls, not merely their minds. It makes me see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as not merely a story about two people in love, but about love as a whole. There's a difference. One is a simle story, the other is a complicated commentary that is both general and intricate all at once - kind of like the way we romp through Joel's mind where we can relate to both the intricacies of those moments, those little perfume smells and sunny days, and the general broader sense of love itself. We cling to both all at once because, in a sense, we are what our memories make us. Our past defines us, and Joel's past with Clementine defined him. Even the most powerful brain-microwaving computer in the world can't erase that. It's been written, the universe and Joel's heart said so.

The Bad: I could write about this film for days, I barely touched on Gondry's incredible directing of such a difficult story and I didn't mention the fantastic performances at all, but alas I must show restraint. Possibly the best film of the past ten years, and one of the best love stories ever made. Painfully bittersweet, yes...but painfully honest too.

The Ugly: Note to self: if I ever go about erasing my memories, do a background check of the team pushing the buttons.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Europa Report

An international crew of astronauts undertakes a privately funded mission to search for life on Jupiter's fourth largest moon.

The Good: Take a small group of people, put them in a small location far from the norm (oh, let's just say space) and just let things happen where they start to die. That's Europa Report, a no-frills thriller about the mysteries of space and the possibilities we're not alone. Europa Report plays with the classic motif of science fiction and suspense where it's not what you see or what is revealed that is scary, but simply asking the question and trying to find the answers. In other words, it's a film that relishes in succeeds with the means, even if it falls short with its ends.

Found footage films are often miss than hit, but Europa Report manages to tie it all together and bring it out thanks to great use of those "found" cameras and footage as well as solid, believable acting that's half tech-babble and half-mumblecore nuanced. In other words, these feel like real people put in a really bad situation to which they struggle to find a way out of. This low-budget flick is well worth the look and outdoes many films with ten-times its budget in atmosphere, character, pacing and story.

The Bad: For this film, it's far more effective with what you don't see than what you do see. Eventually, it shows too much, explains to much with exposition and simply goes a step too far when it should have cut-to-black fifteen minutes earlier. In particular, it tries to over-explain things with its framing device of a documentary where...well, sometimes you just need to shut up and know when to end it. A beat too long and completely out of character for an otherwise marvelous, taught thriller, Europa Report lays down six cards when it's only supposed to have five.

I have to assume it's a last-ditch effort for a "wow" moment. There are a lot of things that happen on the trip and on Europa itself, and it's all interesting, but none of it is too compelling to shock and amaze you. You just soak it all in, the beauty and haunting silence of space and another planet's moon, and the film was working fine with that. This just brings the whole film down, and the beats and pace are thrown completely off as a result.

The Ugly: I haven't liked a found-footage movie in a long while. This shows that if it's done right, and trying something new instead of trying to find contrived excuses to be filming all the time, it can be very, very effective.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Event Horizon

In the year 2047 a group of astronauts are sent to investigate and salvage the long lost starship "Event Horizon". The ship disappeared mysteriously 7 years before on its maiden voyage and with its return comes even more mystery as the crew of the "Lewis and Clark" discover the real truth behind its disappearance and something even more terrifying.

The Good: We really don’t see anything new with Event Horizon. It takes elements of many other films ranging from 2010: The Year We Make Contact to Jacob’s Ladder but thanks to solid acting and production values, a solid sense of pace and building, this B-Movie at least rises to be give us a sense of something A-quality. It’s scares are intense, with both types done well: the moody and atmospheric tension scares, that ominous sense of isolation and claustrophobia, and the jump-out and scare you kind. Horror-movie icon Sam Neil’s performance is also one of his best as a man haunted by his wife’s suicide. Again, this is slightly derivative of Solaris but having it all mesh fairly well into one experience doesn’t diminish its enjoyment.

The Bad: It’s unfortunate that such a great buildup turns into nothing but a series of gore and disturbing images. The moody atmosphere and sense of dread, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is completely shunned for lots of blood and killing-more than is necessary. It starts with class and style and special effect, and it ends with gore, style and special effects. It tries to be smart, and for the first half or so it is, but overall it fails. It tries to be philosophical, spouting the right of man to break God’s laws and our innate fears coming to life, it fails. It tries to be consistent, building up with great pace and anticipation, but it fails. Instead of playing of the “madness,” as it appears to want to do, it simply turns it into disgust and cheap thrills. A little over half of this movie is fantastic, the rest pretty awful. The final rating reflects that.

The Ugly: I’m sorry, but are engine cores meant to have large black spikes and look like something out of H.R. Geiger’s imagination? I can understand the odd design of the ship as far as its practicality, the movie does a good job explaining it, but the core itself is just the opposite and the characters‘ reactions to it are the same as ours “what…the hell?”

Final Rating:
3 out of 5


Everly

An action/thriller centered on a woman who faces down assassins sent by her ex, a mob boss, while holed up in her apartment.

The Good: At this point, being 2015 and all, trying to “wow” someone with an action movie can be tough. Kind of like how a horror movie might have some trouble coming up with new ways to scare someone. So I’ve noticed the past few years that the strongest in these genres, here talking about action, are the ones that understand that wheels aren’t re-invented and the best thing you can do is take those old established tropes and just do them well. Get the audience excited. Respect them. Understand what your movie is and just try to make it competently.

Everly does that. In fact, it not only does that, it also gives a nod to classic, gory, grind house thrillers from the 1970s along the way. Everly is more than just “hot woman kicking ass.” It’s also a bloody, nasty, gory affair that unabashedly revels in it. So while it doesn’t do anything new in many respects, it’s also willing to push those old boundaries a little further than the norm.

What I love about Everly is how it intentionally goes against the grain of audience presumptions of action movie tropes: Can’t be too bloody or gory else that turn people off? Too bad, lots of blood and over the top gore. Can’t keep things interesting and moving with variety of action unless it covers days and multiple locations? Too bad, 90 minutes one apartment. Can’t have an emotional arc while playing in action tropes of guns, knives and blood? Too bad, there’s some strong emotional resonance happening here. Can’t have a strong female action lead kicking absolute ass and being completely convincing while doing so? Too bad, Hayak kills it here and balances vulnerable with absolute bad-ass.

The Bad: Are you going to accept the craziness that happens come the middle of the movie (maybe closer to the end)? To be honest, I still don’t know if I do. Some things happen that are seemingly out of place, yet at the same time I can’t fault the movie for going-for-broke in taking really strange and kinda-creepy routes. The excess blood and gore is one thing, but the sudden turn in pace (it slows down tremendously) and going for shock over action is as left of a left turn a movie can make.

So while I can say I like it, at the same time I can see that it causes a bit of a lack of balance as far as pacing goes for the movie. The tone, too, kind of shifts from action thriller to creepy torture movie then a Miike-esque Yakuza flick. In fact, it starts out very dramatic before even turning into almost a dark comedy, then back to some pretty serious shit. It’s weird and makes you a little uncomfortable with those tonal shifts, but that’s why I kind of dug the whole thing too, so it’s weird in that good way. Everly is flawed yet kind of endearing in its willingness to just shake things up, play around in its elements and keep you guessing on where it will go.

The Ugly: Gimmie more Hayak kicking ass movies, please.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Everything Must Go

When an alcoholic relapses, causing him to lose his wife and his job, he holds a yard sale on his front lawn in an attempt to start over. A new neighbor might be the key to his return to form.

The Good: Charmingly and subtly humorous and still deeply emotional and sincere, Everything Must Go shows the worst of one man and how the worst can sometimes bring out the best. Nick is self-destructive yet sympathetic, selfish yet unassumingly caring, bitter but yearning to do the right thing. Nick is like a lot of people: unsure of what to do when fully tested and having just one bad day as his biggest test. Everything Must Go doesn't gloss over this, though, in some shallow attempt to make a broad comedy. It's intimate, small, restrained yet will find an appeal to a wide audience that can understand it's very simple message - it's play on words in it's own title: Everything must (be let) go.

As a comedy, Everything Must Go works well with its conventions of dry humor rather than a situational comedy. It's not there to set up gags and deliver jokes. You find humor in it rather naturally as a scene develops and moves into the next that might recall back to that humor or might make you ponder it in a more dramatic fashion.  Often comedies, though this is also very much a drama, simply set up a scene and just want to deliver awkward situations and punchlines. There's something comforting and refreshing in a film's ability to just be patient and let the material speak for itself and the actors resourcefully work within it.

The drama here helps balance it as Nick is a rather despicable (in a good way) character, played wonderfully straight by Will Ferrel in what could be his best role to date (though his equally deadpan Stranger than Fiction role is a personal favorite of mine). You pity him and, simultaneously, loathe him. It's obvious he has done regretful things in the past, the film never having to detail it because this situation speaks for itself, and you can see it etched in his face or in his eyes of a far-off stare. You get the sensation of his own disease by his uncontrollable urge to find the next drink or a sudden burst of anger that comes from nowhere. He's troubled and to see a film not try and tell us "why" but let us understand and see it for ourselves is a marvelous practice of restraint in the writing, trust in the acting and respect for an audience that doesn't need to be beaten over the head with it.

Truth is, if it did that, try and tell us all the "whys" directly and be on the nose with everything, we would lose the point of the story. It's amazing that just implying things and letting the audience know through brief conversation rather than constantly aimlessly talking on and on about it makes for such effective (and far more realistic) storytelling. It's about the here and now, moving on and accepting certain things about life. Hell, the wife that has dumped him, left all his stuff on the lawn and he leaves constant messages for never even appears. Why? Because it's not important. The job he's lost was everything to him, but he doesn't need to tell us that. Why? Because we see it once it's taken from him and how he tries to make sense of it. We can his past and who this man is as it naturally evolves within his current predicament (living on his front lawn and locked out of his house) and he slumps lower and lower. It's the situation he's put himself in that matters, not the details of everything around him. It's his evolving to finally "let go" of everything, to befriend a neighborhood kid, to understand the root of your sadness and problems, to help a new neighbor in her time of need or simply bury the hatchet with another and to understand what road you should head down next.

At it's heart, Everything Must Go is a surprisingly touching and purposefully told film. It's about pasts and our accumulation of all the good and all the bad when, if you really wan to move on, you just have to get rid of all of it. The film, though, doesn't tell us that or gives us answers. It's an answer you'll have to find for yourself.

The Bad: Nick is down and out, but the film oddly kicks him while he's still down. It really didn't need to do that seeing as how most of everything was well behind him by that point. It's a situation that creeps up right before the end that involves his sponsor, Frank, and it feels so haphazard and out of place I wonder why it really needed to be there. Is it a stinger? Is it there to say "one more punch in the guy for Nick?" He's come to accept certain things by this point in the story and throwing another onto the heap was a bit unneeded, if not complete overkill.

The Ugly: This is the Will Ferrel I prefer. I always have. It's comedy but not over-the-top comedy that he's known for. It's subtler, smaller, more real and Ferrel plays the "regular guy" about as well as anyone. It's too bad he just never does it that often because little character studies like these he could absolutely flourish in.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Evil Dead

Five friends go up to a cabin in the woods where they find unspeakable evil lurking in the forest. They find the Necronomicon and the taped translation of the text. Once the tape is played, the evil is released. One by one, the teens become deadly zombies. With only one remaining, it is up to him to survive the night and battle the evil dead.

The Good: As one of the first, great low-budget independent horror films, The Evil Dead has been often imitated but rarely duplicated (at least, unless it’s another Sam Raimi film). The thing that makes The Evil Dead work, and really all of Raimi’s films for that matter, is the absolute enthusiasm you sense when watching it. The story is simple, and it’s structured as such that event after increasingly "evil" event happens until it explodes, but in reality there’s really no story to be found- just this series of every increasing bloody, gross, humorous and violent scenes done tongue-in-cheek.  What The Evil Dead did was usher in the idea of over-the-top horror/comedy that is still influential to this day. On another level, it also influenced the world of low-budget horror and independent production which, too, is seen through to this day. It also influenced the Coen Brothers, but that’s a whole other story.

All of this “influence” tells you one thing: it has to be doing something right. The story is straightforward, characters memorably cheesy and with the energy of an eight year old with ADD in art class, Raimi paints us a fantastic classic and this, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are absolute must-sees for any person who claims to be a horror fan. Fun, delightful and nice and bloody.

The Bad: As memorable as those characters were, it’s hard to know how much is intentionally cheesy and how much is just flat-out bad acting. These aren’t exactly “professionals” and it shows, the one highlight being Bruce Campbell who would reprise his character for two more films. Lines are delivered poorly, the screaming is like nails on chalkboards and in some instances you really want them to die (which, I don’t think, is the film’s intention). The film also attempts to be a little dramatic at times which makes for an uneven tone (Raimi would throw that out almost entirely in the next two films) and showcases the bad acting even more. Everyone appears far more comfortable in the over-the-top antics than they do trying to be serious.

The Ugly: I saw a “making of “ a long time ago on Evil Dead, I think it was on the DVD but I can’t quite recall. There’s this funny scene showing Raimi’s camera trickery where he wanted to shoot the camera from the “evil’s” point of view. Or was that Evil Dead II?

Ah, anyways, this would likely have been higher but is given a 4 only because Evil Dead II took the top slot. In reality, all the Evil Dead movies are fantastic and this only a “4” by comparison to another installment of the franchise.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Evil Dead (2013)

Five friends head to a remote cabin, where the discovery of a Book of the Dead leads them to unwittingly summon up demons living in the nearby woods. The evil presence possesses them until only one is left to fight for survival.

The Good: Even for a remake, or sequel, or just another in a long line, Evil Dead is probably more derivative than most. Unlike those "mosts" though, it has a certain degree of charisma about it. There's an energy here; a sense that the people not only appreciated the original Evil Dead films, but that they were creative and bold enough to try and make this "teenagers in a cabin" flick unique and to its own. It looks great. It has memorable moments and is as hard of an "R" rated horror flick that you could ask for, especially in this day and age of fairly-safe, PG-13 fare. It's gratuitous, but a polished kind of nastiness done with care.

All that being said, Evil Dead was still wading in stagnant, old water. It looked great, but overall wasn’t really doing anything to truly define itself. But then along comes the final act which is probably one of the most over-the-top, bloody, borderline troubling final acts where it throws all preconceptions out the window. It finds itself, perhaps a bit too late, but it does making for one of those types of finales in a horror movie where you say “oh shit, did I just see that?” For what it was up to that point, it was fine, but stick with it. It takes that left-turn and you'll be glad it does with enough surprises to shock you.

The Bad:  Evil Dead is never once fun. Tense, pretty crazy towards the end certainly, but never really “fun” in that “I can’t wait to see what happens next” type of way, but it can be a slog - way too much melodrama, way too much buildup, way too much waiting for a payoff. I suppose because we already know what will happen next, that is until that ending again, that you’re less watching with intrigue and interest and more with a passing observation – kind of like how you’ll have a sports game on in the background but not really pay attention until the final quarter.

It's entertaining when it needs to be, it's just not consistent in doing so. Evil Dead's best parts are sporadic, and the characters are too flat to make waiting around for those best parts not cringe-inducing. Motivations are lax. Characterizations are solid, as are the performances, but int he end we really know nothing about them whose only names you’ll ever remember are best defined by “blonde girl” and “guy with glasses” descriptors. There’s a plot, but little momentum or even clarity in what its about, other than demon possession which is fine, but more importantly who any of these people are and why we should care.

The Ugly: For a darker, grittier and far more serious reboot (than it probably needed to be), Evil Dead nails it. It takes the idea and makes it its own, but it misses some of the other marks to not just make this a good interpretation of a familiar plot, but to make it a really memorable and stand-out horror movie as a whole.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Evil Dead II

A sequel/remake of the film The Evil Dead. A young man named Ash takes his girlfriend Linda to a secluded cabin, and plays back a professor's tape recorded recitation of passages from the Book of the Dead. The spell calls up an evil force from the woods which turns Linda into a monstrous Deadite, and threatens to do the same to Ash. When the professor's daughter and her entourage show up at the cabin, the night turns into a non-stop, grotesquely comic battle with chainsaw and shotgun on one side, demon horde and flying eyeball on the other.

The Good: By upping the dark humor, centering on one character (with an actor willing to go the distance) and just having a slightly larger budget with more to play around with, Sam Raimi found horror/comedy gold in 1987. It’s inventive more than anything, however. The cheap yet effective effects, the camera and it’s entire tone really hadn’t been done to that extent, even in the original Evil Dead (which Evil Dead II is more or less a re-envisioning of). It runs through its story, if there is one as it’s really just a series of scenes over the course of the night, like kinetic lightening. The energy Raimi and star Bruce Campbell bring is what makes the movie work, Campbell in particular seems to be summoning the spirits (pardon the pun) of classic vaudeville stage shows, classic B-Movie heroes and silent movie starts as he puts his body and sanity on the line. They’re having fun and, somehow, it transcends the film itself and transfers it to our own joy, excitement and moments of wincing at a gross-out here and there. It’s a B-movie that absolutely knows it’s a B-Movie, loves it in fact, and it’s star knows he’s a B-Star and thrives on it. Then you have its director playing with all that comes into the picture and all at his disposal like a child in a toystore with all the toys out of their boxes and no adults around, which would explain the Warner Brothers cartoon tone much of the film has...only drenched in gallons of blood. Few films can match that energy, many have tried but fallen short that is certain, but even fewer go out of their way to actually make their films as “fun” as this one which is why Evil Dead II is really one of the universal favorites of moviegoers and horror fans.

The Bad: How can you label something “bad” when it kinda already knows its bad? That’s sort of the point, isn’t it?  Ah, although that’s a good point, I think if there’s one problem with Evil Dead II is its opening. The film throws you right into the middle of when everything starts getting bad rather than having a buildup to it. Instead, it runs quickly through a setup and recap to a story that has yet to be told, at least that's how it feels. I always found this a weird way to start a film - it really just runs right into things without barely mentioning our characters' names. In fact, I only recall Ash's name being spoken. Maybe I just didn't catch it. Even if it gets people out to find the original Evil Dead, with out it really rushes through it's opening sequences and has everything set up in about 7 minutes, it’s not a recap of Evil Dead and it feels as though there should have been a good 15 minute buildup before the events begin rather than a quick summarization of events that apparently already happened.

The Ugly: The Evil Dead series has always had an odd canon. What’s weird about this one is that it more or less negates the first one, but also does this “recap” at the beginning that acts as though the first did take place...only it’s also re-envisioned. Then you have the ending which foreshadows the third film, Army of Darkness, which has a pretty nifty scene that isn’t even used in the third film and, in fact, the third film starts out completely differently and even it’s recap of the second film is slightly off. Fans usually look at the first as it’s own, self-contained entry just with an open ending, whereas the second becomes our first movie and the third is the second half of that same story because they’re the only ones that kind of flow into each other.

Got all that?

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Ex Machina

A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.

The Good: Half drama, half thriller, often pretty creepy, Ex Machina is a movie that asks big questions but does so in a restrained manner. Good sci-fi usually does that. You don’t always need large scope. Ex Machina has four characters and one location. It brings out its ideas through dialogue, its tension through its small venue and a constant fear of dread and paranoia.

Ex Machina is entirely driven by conversation, that is until the shoes start to drop and it begins to take some turns to be entertaining on top of that. It is, certainly, but there has to be a road to an endgame somehow. It’s a smart enough script to know when that is - it feels natural and organic as our story slowly unfolds, characters progress and intentions become apparent.

With only four characters and one location, you need good actors and a director to pull that off. Ex Machina has that. Writer and director Alex Garland knows how to capture the claustrophobia of what is essentially a bunker - isolated and often cold and sterile despite trying to be home - and our actors all are all fantastic,  with Alica Vikander absolutely owning her role as Ava, our sentient (maybe) robot.

What is more striking is the design of everything. Not just that weird bunker, but in Ava, and how the robots work and look and the artistic attention to detail. Ex Machina is beautiful in that respect, and never forgets to keep the big questions of its themes and story at the forefront even when characters begin to take turns for the worse and the situation escalates.

The Bad: From the very beginning, you are expecting the worse. You may not be entirely sure what it is, but you know it will happen. The sudden reveal of things not being what they are won’t come as any surprise because the film has a constant undercurrent of dread from its very first frame. It’s simultaneously enthralling but also tiring and exhausting because it doesn’t really attempt to go beyond those borders and maybe explore other attributes of its story and, more relevant, the human condition.

That is the point of the story, after all, yet Ava only knows fear and we get that right away. There’s little discussion or understanding beyond that, and we end up not really getting or understanding her worldview because she has no world view. Then you start to realize that it’s less about understanding and more just making a statement, and it all leaves you a little cold in the end. Ex Machina is a good movie that is nearly great, but for a movie about who we are, in its own way, it seems to not explore it as extensively, and maybe even poetically, as it should.

The Ugly: There’s some “twists” that happen, but anyone who knows even a bit of science fiction involving AI and robots will see them coming. Thankfully, it’s still a well crafted enough film where the journey is worth going on even if you know the destination.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Exodus: Gods and Kings

The defiant leader Moses rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.

The Good: If there's one thing you can never deny about a Ridley Scott film, it damn sure looks good. There's not a movie the man has made that hasn't been visually impressive to one degree or another and, let's face it, if you're going to do a classic story with thousands of people on screen fighting, Scott's kind of the go-to. He manages practical with computer effects incredibly well.

And he does that here in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a story that requires great in-camera style, set design, props and makeup but also needs a ton of computer generated people, plagues and locations to pull it off. It does, and on a sheer spectacle tier, it's mighty impressive.

Exodus also manages to get some solid performances out of its leads as well. As aimless as the story can be sometimes, the performances by Bale and Edgerton are rich and just human enough to pull off the believability that's caught in the midst of all the fantastical going on around them though, it must be said, that no other character in the movie is really memorable or interesting or really has anything to do.

In the film's defense, it kind of notes that from the beginning - that this is between these two men with their conflicting Gods battling it out vicariously through them. Unfortunately, it starts to film like it just goes through the motions and checking things off rather than find the heart of the humanity behind it all - something it started so well with but soon became lost on.

The Bad: If you were just going to redo Exodus on film, show some plagues, get the base story down and all that, then this movie pretty much achieves that. It has the burning bush and the conflicted Moses and all the plagues in some form that, thanks to modern technology, look visually fantastic.

Yet, that's not what we're really looking for in Exodus and I would argue that's probably not what the filmmakers originally were looking for either. Exodus starts out with a very grounded, human story of man's beliefs and assumptions being challenged. Two men, actually, as Ramses soon feels the threat that Moses might bring to him. Exiled, Moses is tested and eventually finds a life worth living but is haunted by what he knows is going on back in Egypt.

See...that's interesting. That's a personal, introspective character study of two men, but Exodus casts it all aside and just says "Ok..plagues, anger, chariots, Red Sea...ok we're good. Call it a day." It doesn't come to that satisfying conclusion other than the conclusion we already know about (Moses grows old and travels around with the Commandments). The film wants to be big and boisterous, but it comes at the cost of the personal story it started with and was doing particularly well.

The result is an uneven and ultimately unsatisfying movie. Had it just played up itself being about the plagues and escaping Egypt, that might have worked better, or just stay completely introspective and tell a personal story, then that also would have played better. To try to cram both into the movie makes it all feel wasted (and it was already wasting a lot of potential to begin with, notably sub-plots and supporting characters that add nothing because it's never expanded on in that personal level. Hell, the entire story about Moses and his son is entirely lost here yet we're supposed to feel something in the end about it all).

The Ugly: Here's the saddest part of it. Exodus isn't a bad movie at all, but it's so uneven that it forces you to say "well, this is dull." I guess it's just a dull movie, which in something as spectacular as the tale of Exodus is itself kind of a bad thing to have.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Exorcist

A movie actress taking up temporary residence in Washington D.C. has her troubles. The script for the movie she's filming seems inadequate. Her ex, who is also the father of her adolescent daughter, Regan, neglects to call the girl on her birthday. And the attic has rats. Meanwhile, Father Karras, a priest and a psychiatrist, is losing his faith; and he's dealing with a sick mother who needs medical care he hasn't the money to provide. Another priest, the old and ailing Father Merrin, has just returned from Iraq with forebodings of evil. These three persons meet when the sweet and cheerful Regan turns foul-mouthed and violent. But her sickness is beyond the reach of a medical doctor or a psychiatrist. What Regan needs is an exorcist.

The Good: I've always loved The Exorcist. Not because of what most people love it for (and deservedly so). Most love the in-your-face nature of it, the possessed girl, the evil voice, the vomiting, the crucifix, the legitimately scary moments and those moments that haunt you after the credits are done and you're home alone when you hear a bump in the night. It also haunts on and preys on our vulnerability as human beings and that some things may someday happen we can't control. Yes, all that is great and fantastic, but what I love is the acting by Max Von Sydow and especially Jason Miller who was nominated for his subtly wonderful performance as a Priest in doubt of his own faith, even when the devil himself is right across the room. That dynamic and layer is what really lifts The Exorcist above a majority of other horror films and shows a dramatic and meaningful meat behind an otherwise standard story of a devil possessing a little girl. "Standard" isn't the right word, actually. I suppose I should just call it the "surface narrative" because it too is rather brilliant, but the "core narrative" the real purpose to the whole thing. That real purpose is what gives the Exorcist its legacy even if the utterly demanding possessed girl gets all the headlines.

The Bad: Many have noted the serious lack of a "happy ending" in the film. Not happy in the sense that it's a downer, it's easy to say it was and you can see that's probably what will happen, but in that it never feels fulfilling for the characters even if redemption is finally found. Perhaps the brutality of good and evil, though. I've noticed over the years that those with such issues of the movie are often those that have such problems with the ideas and themes in their real lives (perhaps they find it vile and unnerving to their own faith when, to me, I feel it would reinforce it). There are those that love the film as a great piece of unnerving horror and storytelling and others that find it exploitative and awful. I see both sides on this, because really both sides are right, but find myself far more compelled by that unnerving idea that the one side enjoys by utilizing the exploitation the other side criticizes rather than be compelled in spite of it. The film shows the best and worst of humanity and spirituality. You can't have one extreme and not show the other.

The Good: To this day, that crucifix scene still makes me uneasy. Uneasy in that Linda Blair had to do it even when she didn't know exactly what she was doing on camera. What's funny is that I don't even consider The Exorcist really all that scary, not the "scariest movie of all time" as it's often called. Disturbing and troubling perhaps, but not scary. I simply find it a great piece of dramatic filmmaking.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


The Exorcist III

Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer cheer each other up on the anniversary of the death of their mutual friend, Father Damien Karras, by going to see "It's a Wonderful Life" at the local theater in Georgetown, near Washington D.C. But there's no cheering Kinderman while a particularly cruel and gruesome serial killer is at large. His murders, which involve torture, decapitation and the desecration of religious icons, is bad enough; but they also resemble those of the Gemini Killer, who has been dead for fifteen years.

The Good: Visually stunning, director and writer (and novelist of the Exorcist books) William Peter Blatty’s command of the camera in the often overlooked Exorcist III is a school of suspense. Lingering moments, sharp angles, letting the scene develop naturally rather than becoming reliant on fast edits and jump scares, The Exorcist III has much in common with its predecessor (That would be the original Exorcist, most don’t acknowledge the existence of The Exorcist II: The Heretic) only without the shock value. Blatty utilizes his approach to accommodate some fantastic acting by the likes of George C. Scott, who is always a presence, Jason Miller and the always-reliant character actor Brad Douriff who is utterly chilling.

Though it’s far from perfect on a storytelling level, the thematic elements, character depth and vignettes of suspense is some of the finest you could ask for in a film.  It’s a movie that will suck you in, even if you aren’t sure what’s going on or why it’s all happening, and knows its elements and how to evolve and progress a suspenseful moment perfectly. For example, there’s one scene of a nurse locking up for the night. In the background are a few other characters as they lights begin to be shut down and lights turn off during this long take. The nurse checks some doors, then goes off camera. The people in the background pack up their things and go. The camera still rolls. The sound of a quiet hospital is all you hear. The nurse re-enters...and...

That’s how you know suspense, that play and patience that holds you in in wait. The Exorcist III is full of scenes and sequences just like that, all memorable and fantastically crafted.

The Bad: There’s a story in The Exorcist III...somewhere. There’s a lot of layers to the film, more than one would care to list off, ranging from faith versus reality, interpretations of sanity, the eternal struggle of good within evil (and vice-versa), but the plot and progress is all over the place. There are certainly strong moments, especially in one particularly centerpiece of a scene where Scott, Miller and Douriff school everyone on acting and tension all in a 10 x 10 cell, but a strung narrative across two hours? It barely manages to hang on to it with characters that come and go, some barely introduced and simply just appearing, and a plot that really isn’t entirely sure what it wants to do with all those great little moments the film is full of.

The Ugly:  This came out at a time when the horror genre was really on a downswing in the US. It was after the rush of great films during the 80s and before the mid 90s when it started to re-emerge with the likes of In the Mouth of Madness, From Dusk Til Dawn and, obviously, Scream which really revved things back up. Before all that, we only had the likes of Candyman, Army of Darkness and Dead-Alive which was relegated to VHS with no theatrical release if I recall, for the early 90s. I would not consider The Exorcist III right up there with them and is a film that, if you’ve been avoiding, should maybe see or give a second chance.

Well...there was that Silence of the Lambs movie as well...you know forget everything I just wrote.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 (+.5 for Douriff’s utterly amazing and very scary performance alone if you're one of those that put stake in decimal points at all)


The Expendables

Barney Ross leads the "Expendables", a band of highly skilled mercenaries including knife enthusiast Lee Christmas, martial arts expert Yin Yang, heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar, demolitionist Toll Road and loose-cannon sniper Gunner Jensen. When the group is commissioned by the mysterious Mr. Church to assassinate the merciless dictator of a small South American island, Barney and Lee head to the remote locale to scout out their opposition. Once there, they meet with local rebel Sandra and discover the true nature of the conflict engulfing the city. When they escape the island and Sandra stays behind, Ross must choose to either walk away and save his own life - or attempt a suicidal rescue mission that might just save his soul.

The Good: Explosions! Car chases! Martial Arts! Guns! Booms! Ka-pow! and MIckey Rourke! Dolph! It's the 1980s all over again, and though it's not a perfect piece of cinematic filmmaking, it's a well enough entertaining action romp for an hour and 45 minutes. The plot is your typical cross/double cross/do the right thing for some fleeting sense of honor story we've seen countless times, and the characters are likable enough and its easy to believe they are all friends at some level. The action is raw and hectic, which sometimes works often doesn't, and...

....you know, you know what to expect with this film. You probably have some idea even if you've never even seen an action movie before. It doesn't do anything "great" and in most cases it does it "good enough." Is it the best action movie in a while? No, far from it. It's not even near the best action movie of this year. But it's worth at least seeing even if the execution is a bit mishandled.

The Bad: The Expendables would be a brilliant homage to overly violent 1980s action flicks if it wasn't so desperately trying to not be. There's no humor, really; certainly nothing even tongue-in-cheek to find a bit of joy while watching it. The Expendables plays itself straight to a fault and takes itself far too seriously to be something you'd want to see again much less remember once its over. The characters are less fun than the films it attempts to emulate, though the effort is at least noted, and the inability to really define them shows that the writing is far less interested in them than getting to the next action scene.

What hurts The Expendables the most, though, is how everything feels haphazardly thrown together. There's a few nicely choreographed fight scenes and some action moments that are well shot, but for the most part it feels rushed and the complete lack of understanding how to really make a great action scene is wasted opportunities. You can see a few flashes here and there, but often its a jumbled series of gunshots, stabbings and explosions. There's little to no progression or sense of style to it save for a few instances - and no surprisingly those are the instances you cheer and will probably remember (anytime Statham has a knife is wonderfully done)  - but there could have been so much more.

The Ugly: Despite its problems, there's no denying I would love to see a sequel. It's still action done well enough and knows what to offer up to be mindless entertainment. At least it doesn't utterly insult you to where you despise it in the end (I'm looking at you Michael Bay).

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Expendables 2

Mr. Church reunites the Expendables for what should be an easy paycheck, but when one of their men is murdered on the job, their quest for revenge puts them deep in enemy territory and up against an unexpected threat.

The Good: A breezy, and overall fun action flick that has you flying through its hour and 45 minutes, a stark contrast to the original which was the same length yet felt twice as long. That shows a little more refinement and focus, and a better director at the help even if the novelty has more than worn out its welcome. It has a good approach to tongue in cheek humor and the action beats and overall structure feels more focused and purposeful this time around, even though it dips to shallow sincerity far too often. When it's having fun, knows what it wants to have fun with, it can be an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Actors ham it up, chew the scenery as expected, and, try to do the best with what's given to them.

Simon West is the director this time around, and that's already a vast improvement over the rather frantic and cluttered style Stallone gave us in the first film. Action scenes play out well, never feel too long or too short and give us great variety even if there's not as much. A "quality over quantity" approach, I suppose, best shown in the hand-to-hand fight sequences that West seems to handle with ease and that are choreographed remarkably well amidst all the chaos. It certainly feels like it's going out of its way to be more of a spectacle, at least, though it does fall into a mess in the final giant-size-shootout where I have no idea who is where or what is going on. At least it's a bit of fun and a visceral release despite the cloudiness. Even though there are forces moments on occasion, overall it flows very well action-wise with good set ups, beats and deliveries. If only it had a better script to fill in those gaps, because trying to make us care about these characters and failing is probably worse than not trying at all.

The Bad: I believe in my original review of the The Expendables, I noted how it was a better idea on paper and in theory than what we ultimately ended up with. Still, for what it was, it was fine. Nothing spectacular, but if anything it worked as a novelty. Now that the novelty of a bunch of action stars in one movie is gone, and it's now trying to be franchised, what we are left with is a soulless shell of a movie. The Expendables 2 ups the humor, which is a plus because it was too far and few in the original film, but still is unable to string together a cohesive whole and still tries to be too serious for its own good on too many occasions. So much so that you know when someone starts spouting dialogue about their background and "loves" that they probably aren't going to be around for much longer. It just never gets the balance right.

Truth is, The Expendables 2 isn't much better or worse than the first film, which is where the problem really lies. The first film has a slew of issues that just weren't addressed very well with this sequel. It had the opportunity, did some things better, some things worse, but it never supersedes it which is really what a sequel should be looking to do especially with a more-capable director at the helm. It got the homage-thing out of the way the first go-around…but it just wants to do that all over again and not interested in much else as we're dragged through a film that's more focused on referencing the past rather than crafting itself in a manner that emulates it.

Yes, some characters are given more to do, the humor is up and the action directing is improved, but the dialogue still awful, story predictable, and there's actually fewer action sequences here than in the first and a hell of a lot more posing and looking cool at the camera (in particular with characters that really don't amount to much more than extended cameos). There's also a good number of eye-rolling self-referencing bits of things that are, I suppose, meant to be humorous, but how many previous films do we need to reference in this thing? Can't it just be it's own fun-loving old-school action flick? Being reminded of the 80s height of movies like this every ten minutes with some reference just reminds me I would rather be watching those movies when a lot of these actors were in their prime.

The Ugly: You know what would be really cool? Stallone and Statham in a movie together away from this. They have such great chemistry, really the driving force of the film, but are held back by this film's desire for a huge cast, cameo and convoluted story.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Expendables 3

Barney augments his team with new blood for a personal battle: to take down Conrad Stonebanks, the Expendables co-founder and notorious arms trader who is hell bent on wiping out Barney and every single one of his associates.

The Good: What hurt the previous two Expendables movies was that both were less concerned about getting into action and moving along and more concerned about shoehorning in cameos. They were all over the map in tone, structurally an absolute mess and, for the most part, poorly written and uninteresting other than seeing familiar action stars doing familiar action star things.

But then you have this third one, and somehow, by some miracle I would venture to guess, it works. Oh, it’s still an utterly dumb movie and not particularly well made, but at least it’s not a mess of one like the first films (especially the second). Here we have action scenes that make sense, most being pretty well shot despite not sticking with it very long, and a variety of moments and scenarios for the stars to shine despite introducing new characters. It manages to find a time and place for it all to happen and, more importantly, make sense in service of the story rather than having vignettes of seemingly different films strung together.

This is the dumb movie the Expendables series has been trying to do: recapturing the style of the old action genre and tropes and just having fun rather than focus on the “hey look at me” element of countless cameos and in-jokes. It often came at the cost of making a capable film (and I would say watchable film as well) but it seems, thanks to everyone sliding into their roles, toning down the self-referential humor and just having fun with those overused tropes, incorporating a great villain and well done action beats, it’s easily the best of the three movies. Though that still doesn’t quite make it a great action flick.

The Bad: The Expendable movies have always been a victim to their insanity. They movie quickly and frantically, as though the actors, director and probably the audience all suffer from ADD. Though it’s all put together far better in this one, it still never quite gets to that place of a well paced and put together action movie. It just rolls over you like a freight train, often forgetting plot threads to the point where an “arc” is suddenly an afterthought rather than a structural spine. There’s a threshold of mindlessness that’s perfectly fine, but it doesn’t always mesh well with a memorable and well done action experience in this film mainly because we never seem to really plant our feet on the ground.

The Expendables 3 also suffers from the third act hail-storm of craziness that it, almost naturally, has to end on. While this is probably better played out than the previous two movies, it still doesn’t seem to have much going for it and ends on an uninspired fight scene that lasts all but thirty seconds. As is typical, this Expendables flick has a lot of build up but can’t quite capitalize on the payoff.

A more glaring element that seems out of character is how cheap it all looks. The Expendables films have never been big-budget, but even here the effects feel lazy. Bad green screens, bad compositions, even basic effects like explosions, a good chunk also computer generated for some reason, feel more cartoony than real. It all makes for, as fun as it could be at times, a lazy and uninspired movie. It hits the points it needs to hit, I would say better than the previous two films, but seems to just not care about anything else as it never bothers to see the whole thing through.

The Ugly: Antonio Banderas steals the show here, and I really want to see him in more action movies. This movie is going to make you remember how utterly amazing of an action star he can be when he wants to be.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Explorers

Ben Crandall, an alien-obsessed kid, dreams one night of a circuit board. Drawing out the circuit, he and his friends Wolfgang and Darren set it up, and discover they have been given the basis for a starship. Setting off in the ThunderRoad, as they... Ben Crandall, an alien-obsessed kid, dreams one night of a circuit board. Drawing out the circuit, he and his friends Wolfgang and Darren set it up, and discover they have been given the basis for a starship. Setting off in the ThunderRoad, as they name their ship, they find the aliens Ben hopes they would find... but are they what they seem?

The Good: Great characters help even the most mediocre script. Explorers has a vague idea, often helped by solid directing by Joe Dante, but overall it’s the characters that hold the entire thing together. It meanders, it doesn’t quite hit the emotional beats and the supporting characters are in one minute, disappeared the next, but out three strong leads are what make Explorers a solid 1980s classic family film – back in the time when family films weren’t afraid to show kids doing kids things. Here they get in fights, fall asleep in class and steal beer from their parents.

Explorers taps into that part of childhood that every boy (and I’m sure some girls as well) had where you would sit in your homemade fort in your bedroom or a large box in your backyard and pretend it was a spaceship. Explorers, very simply, asks “what if it really was?” The kids here, Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jaosn Presson, whose character probably gets more development than any other and he’s arguably the odd man out, act pretty much the way any kid would: a combination of excitement, fear and wonder. Each is your standard all-American boy: the geeky nerd, the somewhat-lesser geeky regular guy and the loner from a single-parent home. Covering the bases of basic child-hero tropes and off to adventure! What could go wrong?


The Bad: Always the ending with this one. Even huge fans of Explorers will often admit...the big “showstopper” towards the end goes on for far too long and also isn’t particular entertaining or funny or interesting. There’s two things going against it: the reveal being more annoying and obnoxious and really not going anywhere and the other being the open-ended final shots that have no closure to anything or explanation. In fact, the lack of explanation on some major things within the plot come and go as easily as some of the characters that you’ll forget about or not understand or serve no purpose to the story (such as Dick Miller). What Explorers ultimately lacks is cohesiveness. It is far from polished or consistent and probably sets its expectations and buildup a bit too high to have met them: hence the ultimately disappointing reveals and lack of answers.


The characters are identifiable and have good personality, but overall you have to ask yourself: what did they really learn? Honestly, they didn’t learn much of anything outside of the “we can do it” motif that is pretty standard to begin with (though Preson’s Darren has much more going for him to overcome). There’s no goal to their exploring other than exploring and to figure out what the maguffin is, which in the end we get no answer what it really is. But in the end, well...they return to their regular lives until a stone starts glowing.


The Ugly: A sharper script with a little more depth and, perhaps, a lot more heart would have made Explorers one of the films people would remember more fondly. Instead, it is, maybe outside the top ten of nostalgic movies people have (obviously subjective, but rarely do I hear bring it up over The Goonies, ET or even Monster Squad.


Final Rating: 3 out of 5


 

The Extra Man

A man who escorts wealthy widows in New York's Upper East Side takes a young aspiring playwright under his wing.

The Good: If you want to see a singular, incredible actor command a screen and give us one amazing, quirky and honestly funny performance, look no further than Kevin Kline in The Extra Man.

Ok, that sounds like some hack giving a quote for a poster, but for The Extra Man, it's absolutely true.

The truth is, though, it's not just Kline as all the actors in The Extra Man are fantastic. Great chemistry. Great dialogue. Memorable moments. Paul Dano plays his "looking for himself" persona well and a hilarious bit with John C Reilly will constantly keep you grinning when he's on screen…and especially when he opens his mouth and considers using a vibrator to relieve some lower back pain.

The Extra Man is a large, tasty stew with a lot of characters thrown in. Each distinct and with the secret ingredient being the fantastic Kevin Kline in, what is really, a role absolutely tailored to his abilities.

The Bad: I can't say I quite have a grasp on what the story is here, as it tends to want to be everything and do everything, and after a while I started to absolutely not care. Not in "the rest is so great I don't care" but more in line with "is this over with yet?" Memorable characters this movie has in spades, but in terms of plot, it's hard to really nail down. It's about a young man finding himself, but then you throw in writing, transsexuals, gigolos, socialites and a love interest, it just starts to become a bit of a jumbled mess. Every scene is impeccably acted and Kline an absolute charmer, but there's no story here to live up to those actors and their characters. It's like a great meal, maybe the best you've ever eaten, but the restaurant is falling down around you with leaky roofs and clumsy waiters.

I suppose you feel nobody really learned anything and the story didn't quite go anywhere in the end of it all. This is even backed up with the film's ending itself: it's as though it, too, knows it didn't have much to work with in terms of story so it comes to an abrupt end that makes it all feel utterly meaningless. There's no sense of completion or even a build up to the end. It's as though it stops right in the middle of a random scene, one of many in this film that seem rather nonsensical now that I think about it. It starts incredibly strong, but the further you watch, the more you realize this unfortunate flaw to an otherwise charming little movie.

The Ugly: I still don't quite grasp the world that The Extra Man is trying to create. This trickles down from the lack of story element, but exactly who are these people? It's never really explained and the film assumes the audience knows already.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Extract

Joel, the owner of an Extract plant, tries to contend with myriad personal and professional problems, such as his potentially unfaithful wife and employees who want to take advantage of him.

The Good:  Do you like Mike Judge? Did you laugh as much at Office Space and Idiocracy as much as I did? Then there is no reason at all why you shouldn't see this film. It's 100% Mike Judge humor. Judge has excelled at one particular thing in his films: his characters. He knows how to observe people, and creates humor as a result from their quirks and interactions. This film has some fantastic characters, which is why it works so well, and I think in time will gain popularity via home video just as Office Space and Idiocracy did. It's all there, the dialogue, the wit, the smart timing with joke after joke and the punchlines that come. This is an absolute solid comedy, and there's really not much else to say about it.

The Bad: However, and this really is only slight, it is nowhere as good as his previous works. Yes, all the Judge-takes are here, but nothing is quite as memorable or unique as Office Space or Idiocracy. If feels as though it reels back on the humor rather than go head-on. It won't make nearly as much of an impact as those films, and I think that comes in from the story itself. The characters are there, but the plot isn't quite something that comes together. It moves well, yet is uneven and a little inconsistent in how it does so...but it is still worthy of anyone who did like those.

The Ugly: Ben Affleck...actually good. Who'd of thought?

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

A nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The Good: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems focused on one thing. No, not being an entertaining movie, though it is very well-crafted and acted. Rather it's focus is on being a sympathy card to the city of New York. Its people. Its past and future. If there's anything the film does well, it's be a great "New York" movie. In other words, the city itself is the character. Great New York movies include Spike Lee's 25th Hour, Woody Allen's Manhatten and even the comedy classic Ghostbusters. These movies love this city, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close loves it just as much - it's just not quite as well done as those aforementioned titles.

It's a movie driven by emotion more than story. This cathartic experience plays out nicely as go through the journey of young Oskar as he tries to solve the mystery of the strange key he found in his deceased father's closet. It's a mystery you find yourself gripped by and even enjoy the travels through the city, from the Upper West Side to the docks to central park and midtown. Director Stephen Daltry really brings it to life and the photography is gorgeous. If you love New York, feel a soft-spot for 9-11 and can look past the sappiness of it all, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a good two hours to spend.

The Bad: I want to make something fully clear before continuing: Thomas Horn is incredible in the film. The kid can flat-out act and carries a hell of a lot on his shoulders for the entirety of the picture. That being said, the character of Oskar is one of the least appealing and difficult-to-like leads I've been witness to for such an emotionally-driven film. It's even more oddly blended with the film's sentiment, as good as that might be, comes across as this mixture of an unappealing personality with contrived sentimentality.

There's a wall that's built in the plot, and that wall is meant to be broken by Oskar who is introverted and shy and likely a germaphobe of some sort. Unfortunately that wall is also built around us and Oskar and while we might feel the poignancy of his situation through the film's craft, the relationship between us and him, our guide through all this, is never established. The minute you start to feel something for the kid, the minute he flips the switch. We feel more for those that aren't such an enigma and puzzle to be solved. The real people with real stories that surround him. The heart is there, it's simply not found in Oskar himself. Considering the entire film is about him, it makes you wish for a differently written character where the emotion doesn't need to be so forced and our liking him not as far-fetched.

The Ugly: Max von Sydow gives the best performance in the movie, and he doesn't say a single word. Though his plot is a bit underdeveloped, as many of the supporting character plots are in this movie, it certainly has the most heart to it.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Eyes Wide Shut

A doctor becomes obsessed with having a sexual encounter after his wife admits to having sexual fantasies about a man she met and chastising him for dishonesty in not admitting to his own fantasies. This sets him off into unfulfilled encounters with a dead patient's daughter and a hooker. But when he visits a nightclub, where a pianist friend Nick Nightingale is playing, he learns about a secret sexual group and decides to attend one of their congregations. However, he quickly learns he is in well over his head and finds he and his family are threatened.

The Good: As is the case with most of Kubrick’s films, especially his later ones, only in hindsight does it seem we can be more appreciative of them. Upon release, Eyes Wide Shut received mixed reviews, as most of his films do, yet, now years later, it’s often praised for it’s uniqueness and, again, a fantastic film. One such unique thing is the city of New York, where Kubrick shot much of it sound stage, building blocks of the city to shoot on. This was an artistic decision, as everything in the film is, and gives everything a dream-like quality as though reality for these people is just slightly out of touch. As one of Kubrick’s more complex movies, it’s hard to fully get a grasp or even describe, but at it’s raw core, it’s about ambiguous ideas, such as jealously, temptation, lust, frustration, sexual insecurities that, somehow, are able to manifest themselves visually. At the same time, we have an intriguing, almost Hitchcock-like (if he wanted to make a movie about sex) story about a man teetering on the edges of repression and liberation, unsure of which way he‘ll fall when he wishes to express them. It’s a movie that grows on you over time.

The Bad: Kubrick is known for his slow and painstaking pace, as I’ve noted in most of the reviews on his films. For his last film here, though, it seems it’s the first time it’s a serious problem. Once the scenes themselves get going, they’re interesting and enthralling, but it just needs to get them going first; as though it’s pulling a few times on the cord of the boat engine before it can take off. Then you have the many moments when that boat is just adrift, looking for the next dock. The long runtime doesn’t help matters and much of the movie could have been told or made it’s point within the first hour and a half or two ours rather than nearly three.

The Ugly: That is one weird orgy...but when are orgies not weird?

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


F for Fake

Orson Welles' free-form documentary about fakery focuses on the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and Elmyr's biographer, Clifford Irving, who also wrote the celebrated fraudulent Howard Hughes autobiography, then touches on the reclusive Hughes and Welles' own career (which started with a faked resume and a phony Martian invasion). On the way, Welles plays a few tricks of his own on the audience.

The Good: If you’re read any of my past Welles reviews, you know that Welles, often, likes to play with his audience. He loves misdirection and manipulation, sleight of hand, fraud and trickery on screen and behind the camera. F for Fake is all that coming to a head because there is no other documentary I can think of that utterly manipulates, teases, cons and tricks its audience quite like F for Fake. It’s about conmen but it’s as though it’s done by conmen making for an exhilarating, fresh and original experience. The four people he focuses on (including himself) are all treated with intrigue and mystery and the film has this tongue-in-cheek mentality to it all as though you aren’t sure if you should buy what it’s selling as well. That element is an absolute brilliant approach to the subjects, and the defining element of a unique documentary.

Welles brings in a varied and inventive approach to its content. It rarely lets you breathe, it jumps around a lot, fast shots and quick cuts abound and there’s this playful music and Welles voiceover behind it all. It’s a fun documentary, enlightening enough to be interesting and energetic enough to be entertaining. It’s sold, primarily, though it incredible use of narration and voice over with Welles as that centerpiece – his legendary voice playing with you just as much as his fast edits and boyish presence. F for Fake is a love or hate type of movie. It's more a collected series of thoughts and images than anything with a particular  structure that may invite you in but you aren't sure if you can fully follow and want to stay. If you accept this unique style, get into its flow and become captivated by Orson Welles' narration, you'll find yourself, at the very least, having a rather enjoyable time with everything.

The Bad: Welles’s movie polarized people, but mainly because of its final parts. I won’t spoil that here, but while I like the intention, I didn’t like the execution. That energy we’ve been enjoying and fascinating and enthusiastic approach to it all, like a wondrous child in a toy store, suddenly screeches to a halt. It becomes boring, uninteresting, uninspired and entirely out of the element of the film had been doing so well for so long to that point. It’s disappointing, if no yawn-inducing, then there’s a reveal and you thank Welles for wasting your time on that whole segment.

The Ugly: Gotta love that costume he’s wearing. Wait...that’s his actual clothes. Still awesome...people should wear more capes

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Fair Game

Plame's status as a CIA agent was revealed by White House officials allegedly out to discredit her husband after he wrote a 2003 New York Times op-ed piece saying that the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The Good: We all have this assumption, some might call delusion, of how the world of CIA, spies and "information gathering" works. We like to think of spies dressed in tuxedos, shooting guns and maybe learning parkor. In reality, it's all just paperwork and phonecalls. That's something that Fair Game, above all else, really sheds light on. It's like reading the fine print on a paper about politics and the film is a solid political drama. Not "thriller" mind you. There's nothing thrilling, just revealing, with just enough human drama to keep your interest.

The strongest aspect, though, is the film doesn't sway from its center of putting a face on the people, well Valerie and Joe at least (everyone else are merely chess pieces, but it works). The problems of bureaucracy and politics spread like a cancer as it soon effects their marriage and relationship on a more personal level beyond paperwork, pundits and politicians. The way the system works

The Bad: It's strange that the film's message is that every story has two sides. Yet, the film, as expected, only has one side itself: Valerie is in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. That explains the lack of development beyond her in terms of character, I suppose. It doesn't necessarily come across as having an agenda, but it does tend to have a soapbox neatly fitted for itself and demonizes characters not named Joe and Valerie to a degree that it is 100% them versus the world. So why have the mixed message if you're just going to have mouthpiece exposition points?

Because of this, much of it can't be taken too seriously. It's less wanting to give us facts and more wanting to give us perspective which by definition is something that simply can't be utilized to "set the record straight." It struggles with this from beginning to end and it never finds a satisfactory end on top of that.

The Ugly: Speaking of soapboxes, there's a nice one planted right underneath Sean Penn. The role is tailor made for him. He wears it well. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Fall of the House of Usher

After a long journey, Philip arrives at the Usher mansion seeking his loved one, Madeline. Upon arriving, however, he discovers that Madeline and her brother Roderick Usher have been afflicted with a mysterious malady: Roderick's senses have become painfully acute, while Madeline has become catatonic. That evening, Roderick tells his guest of an old Usher family curse: any time there has been more than one Usher child, all of the siblings have gone insane and died horrible deaths. As the days wear on, the effects of the curse reach their terrifying climax.

The Good: Thanks to a well-written script by novelist Richard Matheson (yes, that Richard Matheson who collaborated with Roger Corman a number of Poe-adaptation, no doubt the best films of Corman's career) The Fall of the House of Usher is a restrained piece of classic horror cinema that relies more of mood and mystery than scares, shock and blood. The film takes a more psychological approach, relying on tense scenes of unsettling overtones (literally, as the the house creaks and groans) and conversation with Roderick Usher, played sinisterly, yet oddly sympathetically, by Vincent Price. It's a complex film thematically, diving into things such as incest, the destruction of old generations and codas and showing the crumbling foundations that will soon be supplanted by a new generation (a popular theme in the 1960s)

The Bad: The plodding pace is noted solely for the reason that the film tries to stretch itself out as much as possible. This is due to the original story merely being roughly 20 pages in length and the previous popular film adaptation in 1928 barely running 13 minutes. In other words, there was a lot of filler and lengthening that had to take place. It sadly never comes across as natural, though, and you can tell which parts are important and worthy of your attention and which are there merely for padding. Also, is Roderick's affliction ever explained? I won't spoil it, but it feels weird and needlessly added to just give the characters something to talk about. However, I can't recall if this was in Poe's story or not. I suppose I just didn't understand the need for it.

The Ugly: The palette of the film comes a cross as a dull technicolor, which isn't intentional yet completely fitting.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Fallen Idol

Philippe, a diplomat's son and good friend of Baines the butler, is confused by the complexities and evasions of adult life. He tries to keep secrets but ends up telling them. He lies to protect his friends, even though he knows he should tell the truth. He resolves not to listen to adults' stories any more when Baines is suspected of murdering his wife and no-one will listen to Philippe's vital information.

The Good: A child attempting to contemplate or even remotely grasp the ambiguity of morality, understand adult situations and fathom consequences is a difficult aspect to illustrate, much less center an entire film around. The idealistic view of life and the complete innocence and naivety that comes with childhood is the lyrical foundation of The Fallen Idol - a film that, at its core, is a simple tale of morality from the perspective a child. I say “simple” rather loosely here because that’s more in terms of how the story is told, certainly not in relation to the subject at hand because if The Fallen Idol teaches us anything, just as it teaches the character of Philippe, is that morality (if not reality) is never simple or quite how we view it. All is viewed from Philippe's angle. He is our window and through him we see the world as he sees it, and pity the fact he cannot interpret it as we do. We, now as adults, can understand what is going on around him because we read between the lines, know that people are often not who they say they are or are doing what they say they are doing, and certainly know that because we don’t “see” something doesn’t mean it isn’t there or didn’t happen.

It’s a film that isn’t so much about “innocence lost” as much as it is about the assumptions of a child in how he or she might view everything as simple and innocent and how those particular views are lost – young Philippe is still very much innocent, although his views and understanding of the world around him are altered forever. At some point in every person’s life, they will learn such a lesson and from that point on wish back to a time before those doubts and truths came into their life. The Fallen Idol centers on a time in one particular boy’s life where those lessons come crashing into his life and he can’t fathom the severity of reality. What is utterly brilliant, however, is how, not once, does Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene attempt to bring sympathy and comfort into the child’s life; a sit-down and a speech of how everything will “be fine” never comes into play and would compromise and undermine the very fabric of what the story is about. We already pity Philippe, and to have him be consoled would do nothing but detach us from what he represent (that would be us, if you're keeping track). They treat it with respect and understand that to show the realities of human nature, you have to approach it in a realistic fashion. Things aren’t going to “be fine” ever again for young Philippe, and he’ll live out his days in understanding and remembrance of the events and he, like us from time to time, will think back to the time before the truths of the world opened their doors to him...and how badly he didn’t want to walk through them.

The Bad: It’s easy to categorize The Fallen Idol as a “thriller” or a piece of suspense. It is not, though, and I think anyone who simply throws it out there in a feeble attempt to categorize it is missing the point entirely (though, in fairness, it was marketed as a thriller). I don’t think The Fallen Idol is something that is easily categorized. It’s a drama if anything, but more a “study” if anything else. It’s also not a film that is for everyone, although most certainly a classic and deservedly so. Philippe isn’t entirely a likable kid. Even though we find ourselves appreciating the childhood he represents, he is also very much a spoiled brat who we can enjoy one minute and really dislike the next. As he is in nearly every scene, and I wouldn't dare say the performance by Bobby Henrey is in anyway bad, it’s more what the character “does” more than how he is expressed in doing them that can often turn you away from him

The Ugly: “Baines!”

Get to know that little bit of dialogue because it is spoken and screamed out by little Phillippe every five minutes and is ear-gratingly awful.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Fantastic Mr. Fox

It is the story of one Mr. Fox and his wild-ways of hen heckling, turkey taking and cider sipping, nocturnal, instinctive adventures. He has to put his wild days behind him and do what fathers do best: be responsible. He is too rebellious. He is too wild. He is going to try "just one more raid" on the three nastiest, meanest farmers that are Boggis, Bunce and Bean. It is a tale of crossing the line of family responsibilities and midnight adventure and the friendships and awakenings of this country life that is inhabited by Fantastic Mr. Fox and his friends.

The Good: Distinctly Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't so much for family or kids, although it tries to be, as much as it is a labor of love and a film for Wes Anderson fans. It's a typical tale of Anderson, only now with stop motion animation. The dialogue, characters, themes, detail, music and style are all his and it's, without question, his most fresh, unique and overall entertaining piece of cinema from the auteur. Sometimes to grow as a filmmaker, you have to take risks. He takes one here, while still keeping his sensibilities, and ends up with something quite magical. The voicework is all pitch-perfect in the deadpan Anderson style, George Clooney, Michael Gambon and Bill Murray two standouts, and the characters themselves are like any written by him (and Noah Baumbach) and to see those personalities in animation is utterly unique and downright fun.  I have no problem in stating this is one of Anderson's best movies.

The Bad: Coming off the lukewarm reception of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson's overhaul may be refreshing but at the same time not without its own problems. While all the characters are distinct and enjoyable, there's a rush of new ones towards the end that we never really know or even knew about. While I personally like the darker tone of things, this is a kids movie for adults and there are echoes of those classic dark Grimm fairy tales, it's a film that simply won't appeal to a mass audience. Then again, Anderson's movies rarely do.

The Ugly: Not necessarily ugly, but there's a rough-around-the-edges aspect to the animation...and I wouldn't have it any other way. Sometimes to step forward, you have to take a step or two back.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Fargo

Jerry Lundegaard is in a financial jam and, out of desperation, comes up with a plan to hire someone to kidnap his wife and demand ransom from her wealthy father, to be secretly split between Jerry and the perpetrators. Jerry, who is not the most astute of individuals, hires a couple of real losers from the frozen northern reaches of Fargo, North Dakota for the job. Then things begin to slip from bad to worse as Jerry helplessly watches on.

The Good: Considered one of the great modern thrillers of film, Fargo seems to be the Coens universally accepted masterpiece for good reason. The story has many merging paths and styles, from mystery to caper to comedy to slight satire. The Coens have been here before and their ability to juggle multiple plots, styles, characters and stories finally amounted to a film that feels like they’ve been trying to make for over a decade. It shows their experience, control and restraint as well their trust in actors and understanding of scene directing, use of space and smart dialogue. We feel the frustration of these characters, the imminent danger around the corner and the holes that some people, here Jerry, tend to constantly be digging themselves deeper into. You hope he gets out, you wish he would, but at the same time hope he gets caught which is a unique look inside a character that’s full of regrets. There’s a great sense of his isolation, as Fargo itself is isolated, as well as claustrophobia of his world and the rising paranoia.

The Bad:
While I can’t say that any of the characters are inherently likable, I can say that they are all at least interesting. McDormand’s character is probably to be our outlet of having someone to like, however her blandness (the character’s, not McDormand’s performance) is as distant from us as Jerry or the kidnappers. In fact, Jerry is the one we actually like yet know we shouldn’t.  

The Ugly: Who in their right mind would live in such a place? I’ve lived in places where it ices and snows, but North Dakota is just ridiculous.


Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Fast & Furious 6

Hobbs has Dom and Brian reassemble their crew in order to take down a mastermind who commands an organization of mercenary drivers across 12 countries. Payment? Full pardons for them all.

The Good: You can't deny that the Fast and Furious series is inventive. Over the top and ridiculous? Yes. But inventive while doing so making all that insanity kind of welcome. This sixth installment, though, seems to just own up to it. It knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to be. What’s better is that everyone knows they’re in on this joke, and because of that, the fun and quick pace and sense of absurd “let’s just roll with it” attitude, we end up with a fun and surprisingly clever and humorous piece of action filmmaking.

At the center of it all is cars, but it’s much more than that. Cars are the tools used to make the absurd happen, and the characters, all with great chemistry, are the instigators. Cars + Instigators + sense of craziness makes for a hell of an entertaining ride. The plot? Secondary. The point and motivations? Footnotes. Fast and Furious 6 lives in the here and now and makes sure you don’t think too hard on it all.

The Bad: Fast and Furious 6 doesn’t have a lot of weight to it. It’s a thin script built on set pieces, and any sense of gravitas and risk is pretty much off the table because there’s almost too much levity happening. You won’t remember names, everyone is a caricature and even when bad things happen to lead actors, you’ll have the same reaction as you would seeing a puppy fall down a step and land on its butt.

To a degree, the shamelessness is welcome, but when the film tries to hit the melodrama angle, there’s no denying it is at its absolute weakest. This is notable at the end of the film when there’s just one too many beats trying to “bring it all home” and mean something, but that’s just not the kind of film it is nor is it the kind of series of films this should be. Hopefully the sequel will just understand this: it’s a playground and nothing more. Melodrama can stay away.

The Ugly: Tyrese steals the show in the humor department. Too bad he’s so underused, but the cast chemistry makes up for it.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Favour, The Watch and the Very Big Fish

A photographer who specializes in religious pictures (and does voice over for pornos) searches for a model for Jesus... 

The Good: I'm not entirely sure why, but when it comes to an irreverent comedy of errors, it seems the British just know how to handle it. It's the dryness of their sensibilties that seem to fit in line with it than the more visually-important, bombastic US comedy. I suppose it goes back to the theatre, Shakespeare, after all, was a master of the craft and the centuries have seemed to refined the very character of British comedy itself. So when a film

What delivers this comedy, as is the case with most comedy so pardon the redundancy, is the cast in absolute top form. Specifically, Bob Hoskins again shows his fantastic range as an actor. He's great in dramas, but in comedy he is a rare treat. Someone who is so in character, so dedicated, taht you begin to think that his odd little man who takes photographs of religious scenes is a real person - all eccentricities and quirky personality faults included. He's incredibly natural in his role, and that sense of casualness is what makes him character so believable and, thus, the comedy so convincing and enjoyable. Investment in the plight of a character like Louis is the same type of emotional attraction we have to likes of Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton. We love him and laugh at him despite the fact we are simultaneously routing for him.

Balancing out Hoskins is another odd character played by another actor who doesn't do comedy nearly enough: Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum, however, plays it straight. His character has those personality flaws, but for the most part is a soft-spoken man. It's just that his character of "Pianist" and Hoskins' Louie aren't entirely sure who the other is - the cornerstone of every comedy of errors.

The heart of this film is beating thanks to two things: a very clever, irreverent script and the performance of Bob Hoskins, who is one of the most diverse and ranged actors of his generation. It's not a film that's going to cause you to laugh unstoppably, it's dry British humor as I said, but it's a film that's going to make you smile, chuckle, and enjoy the complete oddity as you try to figure out what the the favor, the watch and the very big fish have to do with each other in the first place.

The Bad: The Favour, The Watch and the Very Big Fish is such a quaint, almost humble little comedy, it's hard for me to really pick at it. It's one of those films that has a goal and sees it through. The fact is, without sounding too vague (mostly because I have no other term to describe it) is that the film is very, very British. It has all the sensibilities but not quite enough of the class, though. It moves and feels like you expect, but you aren't going to come away with a huge impression. Perhaps why it's a film that's not even remembered all that well, it has some funny parts but none of them strike you spot-on with comedy or poignancy to leave you with something you'll carry with you.

It's almost too dry and deadpan for its own good, and despite the fact that those attributes are what drew me to it (and following up with this review) it's also the same attributes that I could easily see turning some away due to its lack of broadness or willingness to really strike when the iron is hot. Lots of set up, not enough payoff, but I still had some consistent chuckles along the way.

The Ugly: This is one of Jeff Goldblum's best performances and one not nearly enough had seen. The same could be said for Hoskins, but Goldblum is a household name at this point and fans of his might enjoy going back. I've always wondered if he's actually playing the piano here. Goldblum is a pianist in real life, so it wouldn't surprise me.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The big-screen version of Hunter S. Thompson's seminal psychedelic classic about his road trip across Western America as he and his large Samoan lawyer searched desperately for the "American dream"... they were helped in large part by the huge amount of drugs and alcohol kept in their convertible, The Red Shark.

The Good: Some marriages were just always meant to be. Terry Gilliam was always meant to direct a film adaptation of the rambling and often nonsensical Hunter S. Thompson classic Gonzo book, and Johnny Depp was always meant to play Thompson himself, or at least the Raul Duke version of him - that is our assumed caricature of a crazy, hallucinating journalist's experiences in Las Vegas in the 1970s.

I don't know if any of this would have worked if Gilliam's visual flare wasn't so ingrained into the atmosphere and purpose. All the strange angles, fish-eye lenses and close ups serve and highlights the experience rather than distract it. We are seeing all what is happening from Thompson's perspective, and like him we aren't sure entirely what is happening. Depp utterly embodies the gonzo journalist with absolute shamelessness, in a way Thompson really is I suppose, and his energy and dedication leaps from the screen and takes us on our little journey through a world of drugs, frightening moments, strange characters and cannibalistic lizards. Well, it is bat country afterall.

The Bad: If you aren't in the right mindset, and understand that the film is pretty much a visual representation of a "trip," then it's hard to really get into it.  The narrative is always moving forward and changing, dipping from reality to surrealism on the fly, and with no clear point to anything happening. Welcome to the world of a drug user.  If you can't have that in mind, then Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will be an unappealing mess of film, just as if you don't have that in mind when reading the book and its stream-of-consciousness ramblings, it too will be unappealing.

In a way, perhaps in my own mind, I think that proves that, if anything, the film is a hell fo an accurate adaptation.

That being said, like the book, it begins to peter out and the entire...well it's not a story, I suppose, more of an experience...begins to feel redundant and tiresome as if it's holding on to the few threads it can still manage to weave or bind together to bring a sense of closure and end to it all.

The Ugly: I know Del Toro is a fine actor, has been in fantastic movies and better roles. But I can no longer watch a single film without thinking of his large belly sticking out of a tub and contemplating suicide, high on God knows what.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Fiend Without a Face

An American military base in Canada is developing a missile control system based on nuclear energy and is facing problem with the people from the nearby town. When four locals, including the Mayor, are killed, Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) is in charge of the investigation. When the coroner examines the one of the corpse, he finds that the brain and spinal chord was sucked out and Major Cummings defines the creature as a mental vampire. He looks for Prof. R. E. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), a retired scientist that lives in town, and he discloses the scary secret.

The Good: Red scare, science fiction and atomic radiation. That pretty much defines the 1950s, especially the science fiction part. Fiend Without a Face is considered a classic by many due to its rather solid special effects and the idea of being "gory." Of course, it's really not that gory by today's standards, but at the time it was considered "revolting." Like a lot of horror and science fiction films of the era, it concentrates greatly on military and insane theories, only this has invisible creatures that run around and suck out brains; invisible creatures that are later visible and you see they're actually brains themselves, pushing along on spinal columns with little eye antennae searching for their next victim. The stop-motion effects are solid and the various exploding "fiends" in bloody pools are what really set the film apart from other films of the era. Good directing (especially in coordination with the effect) and a pretty good cast of characters (acting aside) make the film a fun piece of entertainment.

The Bad: Story elements simply don't quite come together as well as the script wants them to, namely the romance plot which is shoehorned in and a climatic finale that is both repetivitve (just brains being shot, obviously the focus of the entire film) and obsurd (shutting down a nuclear reactor by blowing it up). It's well paced but not balanced very well; the early scenes moving along almost like a slasher movie with people turning up dead then halting for exposition and explanation of everything that's going on, then cramming in the finale. Luckily it's short enough to where it doesn't dwell too long in the middle portion and you can get to the fun brain-destructions at the end.

The Ugly:
Fiend Without a Face isn't bad enough to be on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 chopping block, but I couldn't help but think of the show when watching it and how many comedic opportunities they would have.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Fifth Element

Two hundred and fifty years in the future, life as we know it is threatened by the arrival of Evil. Only the fifth element can stop the Evil from extinguishing life, as it tries to do every five thousand years. She is helped by ex-soldier, current-cab-driver, Korben Dallas, who is, in turn, helped by Prince/Arsenio clone, Ruby Rhod. Unfortunately, Evil is being assisted by Mr. Zorg, who seeks to profit from the chaos that Evil will bring, and his alien mercenaries.

The Good: Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is nearly 15 years old. Yet, I still have to say it’s one of the best looking and visually striking films in cinema. That’s not necessarily because it’s well-directed, though. It’s “capably directed” if anything. But because the artistic style and vision of this world, the atmosphere that seems to hit all the senses and never forgets to be fun while doing so and the design down to detail from small apartments to retro1950s flying cabs. It’s not a film you really watch for the story, it uses the story to thrust you into its world – and you should be perfectly fine with that. The plot is ridiculous, but the world and our characters are things to be cherished and love. Well, except for Chris Tucker. I could have done without him. I would have to think that Willis, Jovovich and Holm more than make up for that.

Oh, and of course there’s Gary Oldman...but I don’t think I have to say much more than that. You say “Gary Oldman” and that should get you to see any film, I’d think. (Hint...he’s awesome).

Still, though, The Fifth Element is less science-fiction and more a campy, fun version of Star Wars. You have your reluctant hero, your wise sage, your powerful yet naive plot device. And you join them on an adventure with a huge smile and a lot of tongue-in-cheek. It’s not trying to be serious, or thought-provoking or parallel our world with its own (again, this isn’t science fiction, it’s pure fantasy – there’s a difference), it’s there to simply be richly entertaining. Luc Besson wrote this originally when he was a teenager and, for better or worse, it shows. It has that sense of eccentric wish-fulfillment like a boy in a room with friends making up stories – all the nonsense and unevenness along with it. It’s not a rainstorm enveloping your body, it;’s like a bucket of water dropped on you quickly and promptly with its enthusiasm, vision and sense of fulfillment.

The Bad: The Fifth Element tries to be serious on occasion. There are moments of emotion that work, but the “serious” situation and gravity of the potential end of the universe just doesn’t quite hit its mark. In fact, Besson often treats it as goofily as he does Chris Tucker’s hairstyle. Nothing ever quite feels as stake. Sure, it tells you there’s a lot at stake between the camera-winks, villains poetically choking on fruit and funny banter you have to listen to repeatedly to understand, but you never quite get the sense things might end badly. For the most part, the film gets that and knows how to play off it. When it tries to be dark and serious, you just aren’t sure if you should be laughing or feeling a sense of dread (ripping Elements out of an opera singer, people dying trying to stop a great evil or our villain Zorg being controlled by said great evil (which is never quite explained or expanded on). It just doesn’t quite see these elements through and rather throw Chris Tucker into the story.

Oh, and I’m not trying to be down on Chris Tucker here. His character is funny at first and turns annoying after thirty second. By the end, you realize he’s pretty irrelevant to everything. Not his fault, just some mishandling of his character via the script, I think. He’s still the most quotable character in the movie.

The Ugly: I want a Zorg spin off, a prequel of sorts. We never quite get to understand who he is or what he does. Yet, it’s hard not to love the character Oldman brings to life. Seems lost potential to me.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


50/50

Inspired by a true story, a comedy centered on a 27-year-old guy who learns of his cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease. 

The Good: 50/50 is a film that hits the right balance of being funny without neglecting the serious nature of its story. It would be difficult to find a balance of humor and drama considering the subject matter about a young man diagnosed with terminal cancer. Too far in one way it would have belittled the character's conflict, not to mention those around them and undermine the severity of the situation. Too far another way, it would have been a melodramatic and far too serious of a movie that would have overwhelmed you with emotion.

50/50 gets it just right, making for a dramatic movie with a classy touch of comedy in the process. It's emotionally honest and sincere and find the humor in life, friends and family. Joseph Gordon Levitt reminds us that he is one of the best actors of his young generation and his comrade, who also spearheaded this movie being made, Seth Rogen is able to have his comedic flare as a loveable goofball while maintaining a dramatic touch. Both compliment each other incredibly well: Gordon Levitt gives us emotional rawness while Rogen shows the walls and passive aggressiveness someone might have when their best friend tells him he has cancer.

This is Jonathan Levin's follow up to his very under-appreciated The Wackness from 2008. All the sincerity and truth that stemmed from that indie feature translates well, giving his actors plenty of room to maneuver and work around a solid script by Will Reiser, who based much of it on his own experienced when he was diagnosed with cancer. What's great is the severity of the situation is never put on the backburner in lieu of comedy. It works hand-in-hand wonderfully, thoughtful emotions and believable relationships stemming from comedy and truth about life.  It  reminds us that even though you may not have a lot of time, you still have life.

The Bad: I can't do much here without giving away some crucial reveals, but I'll say that some things tend to occur far too conveniently. It's made up for with great acting, but things involving romance shouldn't be as simple as the movie makes it out to be. Almost all other aspects of Adam's life is given depth and realism, but when it comes to love it feels shallow and half-hearted in terms of writing.

The Ugly: Budget for this movie: 8 million bucks. Budget for Jack and Jill: 80 million (and in a thousand more theaters). Think about that. Here you have a sweet movie that, I think, could be an inspiration to people and made on 10% of the budget of a movie that will cause people to ponder suicide after seeing it.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Fight Club

A lonely, isolated thirty-something young professional seeks an escape from his mundane existence with the help of a devious soap salesman. They find their release from the prison of reality through underground fight clubs, where men can be what the world now denies them. Their boxing matches and harmless pranks soon lead to an out-of-control spiral towards oblivion.

The Good: While I could dissect the numerous layers of Fincher's complex, postermodernist masterpiece (with thanks to Chuck Palahnuik of course) I will reserve that and direct you to my lengthy look at in here. What I don't cover there, surely must be addressed here, and that is the fundamentals of what makes a quality film: a solid script, directing and acting. Fight Club has these in spades. It's script somehow manages to tell a thrilling, psychological story on top of its thematic principles, narrative observations and dark humor. It moves in a stream-of-consciousness way of kinetic thoughts and ideas, not to mentions cynical narrations, to address not only the visuals (of which are often symbolic and metaphorical themselves) or to explain what is happening, but to give us insight into the protagonist's own thoughts as well. All this and it's only in script form. You then take those and have them play off of the director's ability and style. Fincher is at the absolute top of his game in how he handles scenes, but more importantly how he is able to transition form scene to scene. Within just a few minutes, you'll be in an office building, transition to a daydream, transition to a voice over and then transition to flashback then back again. It's sharp, to say the least. Lastly, the performances are only as good as the casting, and let me just ask this: you've probably seen this movie. Can you think of any other actor in the roles? I doubt it...and that's how you determine how defining and great a performance is. When an actor becomes so absorbed by the role and the story works so well, you have magic. Fight Club came out in 1999, in a way it was like a mirror back on our society for the 100 years before it. It's a critique, but manages a compelling story on top of it all. It's a masterpiece of an era's end, a bible made for new beginnings even if it doesn't get all the passages right.

The Bad: As many layers the film has, and many issues it addresses, it's not as utterly profound in these elements as it likes to think it is. It merely does a good job bringing them up and presenting them, but it never really dives head-first into any one element in search of an answer. In a way, it's a shallow college course of philosophical ideologies and societal problems and really nothing more. It brings up great themes and questions, but doesn't ever bother to really move past the first stage in doing so (the book also took this route, so a critique of this here is also a critique of the book). In fairness, though...it never really tries to.

I won't deny, however, that it's rather juvenile approach and cynical nature can be a turn off for a lot of people. Yet, I feel that if it is a turn off, it wasn't made for those people to begin with and they tend to be missing the point (see below).

The Ugly: This is one of only a few times I absolutely disagreed with Roger Ebert on, who, in his review, shows someone who really misses the point of the film. For a smart man, who can analyze film to no end, it's surprising he not only missed the mark, but seems so adamant in his review in how much he did not enjoy this movie.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Fighter

A look at the early years of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his brother who helped train him before going pro in the mid 1980s

The Good: The Fighter is full of love and affection, not towards boxing, but towards the real-life characters of Micky and Dicky. The dedication from Wahlberg and Bale to put so much into these two and bring them to life is most reflective when you see the actual men they portray during the candid ending credits. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo also become utterly absorbed in their roles, damn near unrecognizable in The Fighter's ptich-perfect sense of realism and authenticity.

It's all fairly basic and simple in terms of plot. You know the beats and how a lot will play out, but The Fighter isn't really there for plot, it's an actor's piece and to see all the actors really thrive (this is just spot-on casting) is worth seeing the film - Bale in particular carries a large load and once again transforms himself physically and mentally for the role. Directing and the visuals are also of note as they re-create a docu-style feel but set it period (the 1980s) so perfectly you would swear you were transported back to the time. David O Russell certainly came into his own here and it shows that the man should work a hell of a lot more (The Fighter only his third film in the past eleven years.)

The Bad: The Fighter tries hard to not just be a "sports movie" that you sincerely hope it stays with what it does best: focus on the brothers, the relationship and the community they come from. So when it does dip into the sports movie tropes, it brings with it a sense of disappointment in how it really doesn't try to shake it or even try to hide it. It never quite finds the balance (the small stable of writers and producers the script went through might have had something to do with that) and the strong moments that are focused on the characters are insanely strong whereas the moments focusing on the boxing comes across as stilted and trite and used superfluously. While the writing is superb on the characters with fantastic dialogue and emotion, it has this almost "oh and it's about boxing so here's some of that" way to it as it throws in a training montage and rather uneventful matches where the character development and real meat of the story is put aside rather than ingrained into it (other than the final match, where it all finally seems to merge even if for a few seconds).

The Ugly: If there’s anything that The Departed showed me, Wahlberg is great in small, little roles that play off his east coast style. This plays off the style, but its far too big a role and, while it’s good and he’s fine, he’s probably the fourth or fifth best performance in the film.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Final Destination 5

Survivors of a suspension-bridge collapse learn there's no way you can cheat Death.

The Good: After an impressive and exciting opening action sequence, Final Destination 5 is not only about to maintain its enjoyable foundation of popcorn entertainment from beginning to almost the end, but almost is still better than a lot of genre pictures like this that can't even get their foot in the door of being fun and entertaining.

What this film does is give an audience a sense of active participation. Things appear to be set up to go wrong in numerous scenes and you wonder to yourself "is that what's going to do them in" and "oh...here it comes....maybe." It's fun, silly, gory and an enjoyable hour and a half for a Saturday night. It's not an amazing horror film, as a sequel it lacks originality though it manages to throw in a new twist to spice it up (and a good sense of character and drama without overshadowing the fun campiness of the plot, notably the character of Pete). It manages to be all it wants to be, just not more than it could be. Clever ideas simply not fully realized.

The Bad: It's a bit odd of me to say "that doesn't make any sense" in a film about accidents and elaborate killing because death has to right the universe's balance, but there are things that just don't make a lot of sense. Everything is a means to the ends of various killings, but the means still needs to work and, at least, not make you scratch your head. The "rules" of how all this works is pretty unclear, the investigator seems to think the wrong things for the sake of thinking the wrong things, the ending is a "no shit" scenario where you wonder why the characters, who've been spouting the rules left and right, don't look at achieving their goals a little clearer. After all, they had two weeks according to the title cards, in that situation I'd rather be safe than sorry.

It is splitting hairs, I suppose. You know exactly what kind of film Final Destination 5 is supposed to be and that's what it delivers, better than most of its kin, but not entirely great in the process. Many of the deaths are too convenient and repetitive (someone leaves a room for a moment and then something bad happens) and the idea of killing another person to get their lives seems underutilized and ending up being a plot point that could have given this installment a much-needed identity.

The Ugly: Though it throws in the new take of "killing someone else to get their lives," Final Destination is pretty tired. It's simple, fun and entertaining, but it's also the same thing in every one. Final Destination 5 is better than most of its own series, but it still isn't enough to be a memorable film and you'll probably forget about it in a week or two (maybe longer, considering the impressive spectacle of the bridge collapse in the opening moments, which is one of the best moments of the entire franchise).

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Finding Nemo

A father-son underwater adventure featuring Nemo, a boy clownfish, stolen from his coral reef home. His timid father must then travel to Sydney and search Sydney Harbour to find Nemo.

The Good: I might go out on a short and fragile limb here, but I consider Finding Nemo one of Pixar’s most visually beautiful films, if not the most. Its palette of colors, moments of mystery or tranquility, those soft breathes of beauty before big waves of action are what really set it apart for me. It’s not just a beautiful setting, it’s a beautiful setting exploited. From jellyfish to coral to the vast emptiness of the ocean and all that’s heard is a distant whale-song. The “feeling” that Finding Nemo presents well exceeds it’s rather standard story and characters. None of those are bad, mind you, but it exceeds thanks to its visuals and music more than it does a narrative, though it does a great job bringing out some characters that are really hard to not like, even brief ones like the “ninja crab,” and the Nigel the Pelican, and each gives a fair shake in the development department.

The tone of the film is set early. Very early, in fact, as in the opening scene of the film. It pretty much tells you that anything could happen, and this dark, mysterious world of the ocean will have you guessing on whether or not anyone will come out unscathed. By setting that up, the outcome to everything is uncertain from that point on allowing for a bigger sensation that there’s serious risk and that it’s not going to go entirely by the books. Well, it does end up going by the books after the opening, but it’s a well written book, I think. A father learns how to let go...and it’s really sweet in how it handles that even though you know that’s how it will end up.

The
Bad: Though, like Monsters Inc, they are able to find a pretty good emotional core to the story, arguably the story elements took a step backwards for Pixar as its built around a “journey” and “meeting characters” and “close calls” formula they seemed to really be stuck in at the time. Monsters Inc stepped away from that formula a bit, but Nemo seemed to step right back into it. Not fully, though. It incorporates a Story A – the classic “have to get here in time” story we’ve seen a ton already with Pixar, full of those close calls and chase moments. But then you have Story B, the distraction, which helps alleviate from it all as we spend time with Nemo and his newfound friends.

The Ugly: The final climactic sequence is just a bit too melodramatic and mushy for its own good. Finding Nemo walks the fine line for the most part, but it can turn really, really sappy after the big final sequence. It feels really forced, yet at the same time I’m unsure of how else the film would end itself. It has the callbacks, one in particular a quite beautiful visual callback, the brief “is he ok?” moment and the slow heart-tugging score, but the moments right before that to get to that moment feel so...artificial. Take the good with the bad, I suppose.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


First Blood

Wandering into a small town in Oregon, Vietnam veteran John Rambo is arrested for vagrancy by corrupt, abusive Sheriff Will Teasle. When Rambo can't stand anymore abuse at the hands of Teasle and his deputies, Rambo goes crazy, killing a deputy and escaping into the surrounding hills, massively armed with every weapon he needs. The local authorities bring in Rambo's former commanding officer, colonel Samuel Trautman, and all Trautman does is tell the locals that they had better get a lot of body bags ready.

The Good: An intelligent script and strong, very strong actually, characters and performances results in a film that, quite honestly, should be looked at and applauded more in film schools and in film scholar circles than it is. It’s an action movie, but an action movie that does more in it’s rather brief runtime than most action movies could ever dream of. Perhaps its the low-budget nature of the film, but all in all, it’s a movie about character and story first, guns and explosions second making for a formula that is rare in action movies; one where the action isn’t forced into the story or the story forced into the action. It’s all with a point and purpose with very few people actually dying. In fact, only one person is killed and its arguably a complete accident.

First Blood isn’t about a man fighting against a police force as much it is fighting against unexplained hatred and ignorance.  It is, just as its novel was, a commentary on the Vietnam war and the psychological impact war has on men. Here you have a young, full trained solider who, for years, knew only how to fight, kill and take his orders. Now those orders are gone and all he has left is his training, but to what end? How does one direct himself and use that ability in a world that has no need for it...and how does one react when all that he knows is questioned and condemned by protesters and those that weren’t there? First Blood might be sold to most as merely an action film, but it’s a terrific and surprisingly moving tale about a generation abused and spit on.

The Bad: There’s no denying that the film, though itself having a good message, really paints everyone other than John Rambo as complete assholes. Everyone comes across as self-righteous, ignorant people who, because of their ignorance and unexplained dislike for “drifters” (even when it’s revealed he’s a war veteran) takes it out on a young man simply passing by. Compared to John Rambo himself, they’re all just shallow demons to be dealt with and vanquished, not well-rounded characters on the side against him (which is unfortunate because Dennehy really gives in a great performance as the Sheriff, his character just has little else going for him and ends up flat). There’s really no middle ground, but I suppose that’s where the character of Trammel comes in to help be the devils advocate for both sides.

The Ugly: It’s hard to believe that, out of all the Rambo films, the one that has aged the best (and considerably the best at that) is the very first one from 1982. Part II is distinctly 1980s action schlock, the third a forgettable late 80s action pic that’s lost in the late 80s action world and the fourth a basic contemporary action movie that feels dated already. I think it’s because First Blood a has little more going for it in terms of character and story and themes than the three sequels combined.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


(500) Days of Summer

After it looks as if she's left his life for good this time, Tom Hansen reflects back on the just over one year that he knew Summer Finn. Despite being physically average in almost every respect, Summer had always attracted the attention of men, Tom included. For Tom, it was love at first sight when she walked into the greeting card company where he worked, she the new administrative assistant. Soon, Tom knew that Summer was the woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Although Summer did not believe in relationships or boyfriends - in her assertion, real life will always ultimately get in the way - Tom and Summer became more than just friends. Through the trials and tribulations of Tom and Summer's so-called relationship, Tom could always count on the advice of his two best friends, McKenzie and Paul. However, it is Tom's adolescent sister, Rachel, who is his voice of reason. After all is said and done, Tom is the one who ultimately has to make the choice to listen or not.


The Good: "This is not a love story...this is a story about love." If there's a genre of film that I often have a love/hate relationship with, it is the romance movie. Often I find myself disliking the typical romantic comedy: the formula, the predictability, the shallowness and the generic simplicity of its take on that silly thing called "love." (500) Days of Summer doesn't fall in line with that more akin to Linklater or even Wilder in its approach, and instead treats love as it should be treated: complex. It's something we never can explain yet we know, and what this film does is not try to explain it, focus on the context of love - those fleeting moments and disjointed memories and emotions - rather than do a simple "boy meets girl" story. It tells you in the first scene "This is not a boy meets girl story" and I knew right then, despite that pretentiousness, that this would be a film that would try to show the complexities of love rather than use love and romance as a vehicle to comedic effect. The film's humor comes from those fleeting moments and emotions, not in mere set ups and punchlines best suited for sitcom writing, and through those fleets we find our connection. It's approach, its characters' thoughts and emotions are our own as though we're looking in a mirror and causes us to conjure up our own memories. Sometimes we don't like what we see, but that's love and (500) Days of Summer is, if anything, honest in the reflection it shows us. Gordon-Levitt it a delight as always, truly one of the best young actors today, and Deschanel is utterly enchanting, if not outright hypnotic as we, somehow, fully understand Gordon-Levitt's character as she merely gives a soft glance or smile. Marc Webb's approach, a directoral debut mind you, and a brilliant screenplay Scott Neustander and Michael H. Weber show a degree of sophistication, charm, respect of the audience and the characters and appreciation of those fleeting things in life called love that is lacking in a lot of romance movies.

The Bad: Sloppy voiceover and a bit of a convoluted plot (likely due to its nonlinear approach) can take a person out of the story's real focus which is Tom, and Tom alone although some critics are upset that Summer doesn't get enough backstory yet fail to realize she gets a lot more than Tom does. People drift in and out of lives, sometimes what we think we know isn't entirely the truth and in the end, Summer merely is there to show how we can strong feelings for people who maybe don't have those feelings back. Nonetheless, despite the fact we share those feelings of Tom's, Summer makes it difficult to like her at times and we're as confused as her potential beau in her approach to their relationship. If anything, this shows the complexities of human relationships and interaction and not putting Summer on a mantle with the title "flawless" makes her that much more real, just as it does for Tom.

The Ugly:
The film could have easily been about obsession or even lust, but its light charm keeps it from doing that and ends up being about moments, the good and bad everyone goes through when it comes to these things. If this is lost on someone, then they simply haven't had those moments yet, or perhaps more bad and good and think the film ends too neatly (which it does to an extent). I think that, due to the popularity of the film that we'll maybe (maybe) see a new approach to the romantic comedy. Lord knows it needs it, but I thought that after seeing Before Sunrise and look how that turned out. A gem, a rarity, and a brilliant film that hopefully won't be soon forgotten.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Five-Year Engagement

One year after meeting, Tom proposes to his girlfriend, Violet, but unexpected events keep tripping them up as they look to walk down the aisle together.

The Good: Romantic comedies often come in two fashions: the smart ones, and the marketable ones. There are exceptions, of course. Some blend the two elements nicely, and they're usually the ones everyone of any gender and age tend to like if not love (your John Hughes movies, for example). But most are generated from the ground up to be one or the other, the first usually being relegated to an indie feature and the latter probably having a big name female star and a somewhat-big-name male star (it doesn't matter, as long as he's cute, I guess). The Five-Year Engagement, as you might expect, is the former. A smart, effective film that blends the elements of a romantic comedy with an appealing look at everyday situations involving relationships and life. Perhaps a bit of jealousy, perhaps just frustration trying to scrape ice off a windshield - a feat Tom, played by Jason Segel in usual appealing and quirky Jason Segel fashion, finds out the hard way. Well, in both cases, actually.

One thing that's immediately noticeable is how witty and smart the film is just put together. It's a tightly done film, with scenes that fall into each other naturally allowing for this wonderful sense of continuity as we progress over a five-year period (though not always a wonderful sense of flow). It's not just a series of funny/awkward scenes about a relationship, it's about a timeline of a relationship from beginning to end and you have to commit to the film at times to appreciate that - even though sometimes you won't want to. We see how things evolve. Develop. How the characters change. How some come in. How some leave (or unfortunately). All held together with great performances by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as well as a damn fine Van Morrison soundtrack.

Movies like this...well let me rephrase that. There are movies like this because the writer and director is the same from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. So when I say "movies like this" and bring that up, you probably get the tone and idea of it all: it's not a "situational comedy" as most romantic comedies are. It's a look at relationships, and it feels as though it's coming from an honest place. A place that the writer and director (Nicholas Stoller and co-writer Jason Segal) have real life experience with in terms of falling in love, building a life, having a girlfriend and the struggles that go along with it. It's that struggle that the comedy stems from - we find the humor in that. Not some contrived scenario that might involved switching sperm, pretending to be someone's husband/wife or having amnesia. Or, even worse, supposedly being written to appeal to a female demographic and really not being more than a shallow stereotypes of "what women want" that most women probably find more insulting than entertaining.

Even though this comes from the Apatow camp, and the comedies out of that group are usually pretty good to begin with, Stoller and Segel just seem to capture an element about relationships and men/women interaction that is lost on a lot of other Apatow films, including the ones written and directed by Apatow himself. Their collaboration on this film, The Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have shown they don't "write down" to their characters - there's just something very natural and organic about them. It's a great blend of comedy, honest drama and chemistry that just works.

The Bad: I'm still trying to figure out why or how or what made the filmmakers make the film over two hours long. This isn't a movie that's comfortable with that length - having a lot of filler and subplots that come and go and you forget about quickly, and by the second act it just starts to drag. It's always moving forward, always doing something, but it's a long movie that feels even longer.

That length feels awkward after a while. The Five-Year Engagement isn't a laugh-out-loud type of movie. It hits then moves along, the might hit again, but most you'll just be smiling a chuckling. It often feels like it's going to develop to a laugh, but then never quite does. Some scenes are just full of exposition, or just unneeded entirely other than to be a transitional method to set up another set up. This lack of consistency makes a long film feel like it could have easily been trimmed down.  Just a bit too long, a bit dragging out scenes that don't need dragging out and a smart movie undermined by an overwritten script.

Also, in this era of "marriage" is really getting married such a big deal? I know they jumped the gun in our little story here, but neither character strikes me as a part of a generation that must get married and then get increasingly upset/frustrated as life intervenes. They have each other...and the way both come across, that feels as though it should be more than enough.

The Ugly: It's disappointing that this romantic comedy (with a large dose of drama, mind you) came and went. There's so many bad romantic comedies out there, often degrading to women, to men or both simultaneously, that something this sweet and nice and with a lot of heart can get lost in all the bigger-star-vehicles or more-heavily-marketed romantic comedies out there. This is one of those that both men and women will enjoy. The characters aren't insulting, the story and situation relateable and believable and there's just chemistry all around.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Flash Gordon

In this update of the 1930's comic strip, Flash is a football hero who is skyjacked aboard Dr. Zarkov's rocketship along with beautiful Dale Arden. The threesome are drawn into the influence of the planet Mongo, controlled by Ming the Merciless. Ming has been testing the Earth with unnatural disasters, and deeming it a threat to his rule, he plans to destroy it. He also intends to take Dale as his concubine. Flash must avoid the amorous attentions of Ming's daughter and unite the warring kingdoms of Mongo to rescue Dale and save our world.

The Good: Alright, if you just read the above summary you should know exactly what to expect with this movie. Certainly a deserving entry on my Top 25 Guilty Pleasures article, Flash Gordon is not a good film. Ah, but why have it here under "good" you might ask? Because it knows it's not a good film. Flash Gordon is a movie that isn't trying to take itself seriously, it knows exactly what it is: dumb, absurd, stupid, cheesy as hell, and a lot, a lot of fun to sit and watch. Trying to create "fun" in a film is difficult, Flash has it in spades. Sam Jones, who despite working in dozens of other films seemed to disappear completely from pop culture radars, is actually perfectly cast in this role and director Mike Hodges (who directed the recent respectable I'll Sleep When I'm Dead noir film) captures the tone needed to make it all work. Hodges did pretty serious films before, and the stark change in tone shows someone who was probably more talented than his filmography and lack of credits, only about a dozen films and a handful of TV movies since the 60s, would lead you to believe.

It's campy, it's charming, I know I don't need to mention the Queen soundtrack because you should know it's epic quality already. Flash Gordon is a lot of fun and oddly very rewatchable because of that. Everyone should see it in their lifetime, right up there with The Godfather and Citizen Kane in the "you gotta see this" category. Ok, a bit of a stretch there, but you get the idea.

The Bad:
Just because it knows it's bad and stupid doesn't prevent it from having those things pointed out, but we'll need to look at the "bad" on a different level. We know it's cheesy, but much of what hurts Flash is the pacing, which isn't intentional at all. There's a lack of direction and movement in the final third of the film that takes a lot of the air out of it. This happen for no reason, other than show that the writers really had no idea what to do or where to go with the script as they tried wrapping it all up. It's romanticized action serial in movie form. There's no real weight to characters or emotions, nor should there be...but you do have to admit that it would have been nice to know some of these characters a little better (especially Prince "James Bond" Barin and Prince "FLY!" Vultan, two shallow characters that steal the show). They tease us by making both interesting, but only there to serve the plot with little else to their makeup.

The Ugly: I would love to see a remake of Flash Gordon, no question. Much of what the film wants to do is really limited by the technology available at the time. My only concern is that if a remake does end up happening, it has been "in development" for years at Sony, that it might lose the intentional cheesy edge and, rather, make it take itself seriously. If that happens, then the people involved missed the point of Flash Gordon in the first place.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Fletch

Irwin "Fletch" Fletcher, Los Angeles journalist, really lives for his profession. As Jane Doe, he publishes articles that have caused several heads to roll in the past. Now, Fletch is at it again: In disguise as a bum, he lives at the beach, researching drugs and their dealing. One day, Fletch is addressed by Alan Stanwyk, a rich man, who asks him, the bum, a favour. For the sum of $50,000, Fletch should kill poor cancer-ridden Mr. Stanwyk with a gun, so that his wife will get the insurance money. What the guy didn't think of was Fletch's real profession. Returning into normal life, Fletch instantly takes up research not only to find out that Mr. Stanwyk is healthy as life itself but he also runs into certain connections between drug dealing at the beach, Alan Stanwyk, his private jet, the police and a very expensive piece of Land in Utah.

The Good: A film vehicle for a comedian can either be hit or miss. On one spectrum, you might have something brilliant that plays off of a comedian’s ability, such as Steve Martin in The Jerk or Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. The other end would either be something less natural yet funny  or something completely natural and not funny at all (such as Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop). It’s rare to find the happy medium, luckily Fletch does for the most part and keeps the gags and one-liners Chase is known for coming. In fact, much of the film is ad-libbed (and this shows both good and bad qualities) and you get the sense that it’s a bunch of people, obviously familiar with each other (they were) and shooting Chase doing his thing.

The Bad: Fletch isn’t for everyone. In fact, I would say it’s not for most. It’s deadpan comedy that made Chevy Chase a legend at Saturday Night Live as well as the Lampoon Vacation movies. The difference between Fletch and those, though, is that Fletch simply isn’t a likeable person. He’s too cynical, too deadpan  and mundane and tries to be too witty for his own good. You like the guy, but really don’t want to spend any more time than necessary with him. It’s a rather basic, vanilla comedy that works because it plays to Chase’s strenghts, there’s little in terms of puns and gags outside of his comedic ability and even less in terms of story. The story, really, makes no sense and the film is more or less a series of gags and funny one-liners that can wear thin after the first hour.

The Ugly: This was Chevy Chase’s first film after getting “cleaned up” from drugs and was supposed to be his “bounce back” film. I think it was his next film, European Vacation, that really bounced him back and reminded us more of why we liked Chevy than Fletch ever did or could.

Also Joe Don Baker. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 probably know him well.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Flight

An airline pilot saves a flight from crashing, but an investigation into the malfunctions reveals something troubling. 

The Good: Flight reminds just how good of a visual storyteller Robert Zemeckis is. The impressive centerpiece of an aircrash aside and the "wow, I haven't seen anything quite like that in a film" before, he arranges scenes as good as any filmmaker working today. It's rare to truly feel in the head of a complicated, conflicted character played with terrific balance by Denzel Washington in one of the finest performances he has given in his career. Sure, he plays Whip Whitaker with candidness and a sense of truth to a man struggling with substance abuse, but Zemeckis' ability to portray that with impressive shots, editing and knowing when to let Washington breathe in a scene and just act shows a director still understanding the core of what any given film is meant to portray.

Flight is a compelling drama that can take you by surprise. It's emotional. It's heartbreaking. It's ambitious in that it keeps the focus simple and lets the director and actors just present it to you to the best of their abilities. Conversation feels real. Whitaker feels real. His conflict feels real. The people around him feel real. We route for Whitaker yet pity him every step of the way, and that's just good solid filmmaking and damn good acting to evoke that type of response from an audience.  To have you love him, yet despise him, yet route his redemption isn't complicated, it's simply portraying a real sense of being human: warts and all. Flight won't "wow" you, truth is that it's a relatively small film that simply sets out to tell its story and tells it incredibly well, and there's a damn good, thrilling set-piece to build it around as a catalyst to it all that will have you on the edge of your seat.

The Bad: Flight begins as a daring exploration of a man's personal demons brought to the forefront after notoriety and fame. And it's a damn good exploration of that character and Washington plays it well. Then it begins to conform. Turn. Be safe. Without spoiling, the beginning of the film and the end of the film feels like two different films: one bold and taking chances, the other staying by the books.

For such a small film, it does tend to dwell and plod. It demands your attention, but it does so through an over-reliance on repetition. Many scenes, points and themes are more than used up a good ways through and it goes through those motions repeatedly. It may showcase a nice understanding of addiction and the easy pitfalls in to it, but after a while you might just say "we get the point, can we move on?"

The Ugly: Zemeckis really knows how to get great performances out of actors, and to really push them yet having them feel natural in doing so. He might be one of the best "actors' directors" working today...it's too bad he doesn't work that much.

It's also unfortunate that in a year full of really good movies and outstanding performances, this one is flying under the radar in awards conversation. And yes, that's a bad pun.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Fly

Seth Brundle is a scientist working on teleportation. Just when he thinks he's ironed out the last bug in his system, the intervention of a common house fly turns Seth into a 6 foot insect. The transformation from man to fly is gradual but horrific, and is witnessed by Veronica; a reporter documenting Seth's story. Seth has some time to try to find a cure, but is there enough time...?

The Good: "Progression" is a word I would use to describe Cronenberg's The Fly. It's slow, it's patient but is perfectly plotted and always moving forward. Crononberg is always able to get a great performance out of an actor, and here we find Jeff Goldblum in what is easily his most daring, career-defining role. It is structured around "stages" as we watch the dive from human to monster, from sanity to insanity, from love to loathing. It's interesting to see the absolute control over the story and these various plot points that a great director and smart scriptwriter have in nearly every aspect. Throw in Goldblum's excellent performance you have what is easily one of the best horror movies (or science fiction movies) in the history of cinema...and it's a remake (or should I say re-imagining) on top of it all.

I kind of look at The Fly as the same way I look at The Thing. The originals were great, sure, but the "remakes" completely took the element and turned it on its head and creating something completely new. Now it's those newer versions that people refer to, not the originals. Quite the accomplishment.

And that's what The Fly is. An accomplishment. This is a demanding film that had a lot going against it. It was a remake. Cronenberg far from a commercially accepted director. Goldblum not your typical leading man (certainly in both career and in the looks department...got those bug-eyes...which is kind of funny now that I think about it). It rises above its roots, excels in them and surpasses even its own ambitious now making The Fly essential viewing and one of the most popular films from its era.

The Bad: I think, though I can't be sure, that movie tries to be funny at times. Jeff might make you chuckle with his personality, but some of the other dark humor falls really flat...if it was supposed to be humorous in the first place. The tone of some scenes is hard to really get a grasp on, which might have you scratching your head and not really sure what you should be "feeling." You'll know the parts that are meant to make you cringe, though, that's for sure. In a way, though, I think the uncertainty is a bit intentional. Geena Davis is our "everyman" as we watch things unfold...and she's just as unsure as we are.

The Ugly: The "dream" sequence Geena Davis has. Man, did not need that and it still bugs me (get it...bugs...nevermind) to this day.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Focus

In the midst of veteran con man Nicky's latest scheme, a woman from his past - now an accomplished femme fatale - shows up and throws his plans for a loop.

The Good: Though it tries a bit too hard to be “cool” and hip, there’s no denying that Focus has a consistent and solid sense of style to it. It’s a flowing movie utilizing sound, music and dialogue to always have momentum. Even when the story itself slows and feels like it has nowhere to really go, the sense of momentum is still there thanks to sharp directing and solid performances.

Smith is great here. The whole cast is, actually. We buy his character, not as suave as a Danny Ocean but not low-rent either and Smith handles dialogue and lines in convincing fashion. We don’t need to know about his past, we get who he is right away. He’s a con artist who plays the game with just enough stakes to get by, and he makes that perfectly clear early on as the whole “make enough to retire” schtick isn’t his bag.

Margot Robbie plays off of Smith well. Though her character doesn’t have a whole lot going for her, their chemistry is always apparent which only benefits her greatly. That’s the other selling point other than the style: Robbie and Smith work really well off of each other. It’s sexual, it’s kinda hot, but it also feels organic and natural. Thanks to Smith giving a restrained performance, it also feels more intimate and more than a simple con-man flick. It’s too bad that it ends with a mixed message and a whole lot of contrivance rather than seeing it through with its solid characters.

The Bad: Focus tries really hard to be clever, and for a good chunk of the movie it plays that card well. When it’s working the con scenes, it really works them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have as good of a story to correspond with those scenes. In other words, it’s parts are far greater than its sum. Scenes of playing the con, Will Smith in a solid role, use of music, solid cinematography…you would think it would all come together but it just never does.

That’s because the through line of it all, the string that should be holding all those parts together, never quite catches up. The impact isn’t there. The payoff feels forced. The arc never feel complete, as though the crew started on the framework but couldn’t put the whole thing together and you’re left with 2/3 of something constructed. The predictability of it all is fine, decades of con and heist movies makes that happen. But the execution and sense of completion, as though you took a journey worth taking, doesn’t ever emerge.

The Ugly: This is one of those movies you really want to like. The pieces are so there…yet it’s really hard to enjoy as a whole.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Following

An older man listens to Bill's story about being a callow writer who likes to follow strangers around around London, observing them. One day, a glib and self-confident man whom Bill has been following confronts him. He's Cobb, a burglar who takes Bill under his wing and shows him how to break and enter. They burgle a woman's flat; Bill gets intrigued with her (photographs are everywhere in her flat). He follows her and chats her up at a bar owned by her ex-boyfriend, a nasty piece of work who killed someone in her living room with a hammer. Soon Bill is volunteering to do her a favor, which involves a break-in. What does the older man know that Bill doesn't?

The Good: At just a little over an hour in length, Following is the type of film a film grad student would set out to make. Well, that’s essentially what it is. Nolan was just out of college and made the thing on weekends and days off with friends in and around London for a modest sum of money. Following isn't a great movie, but it's a good movie. It's compelling, well shot, and though a bit slow and sometimes dull, is at least worth seeing if you're a fan Christopher Nolan in any way.

The Bad: Following is more an experiment than it is a film – a practice run, if you will, of playing around with ideas and film concepts before really refining those elements as Nolan would later do. While he certainly is able to bring out the atmosphere and shows a unique visual aesthetic even this early on, the film is neither entertaining or even really that interesting (other than watching him play with ideas or observing the early makings of one of the great directors today). It lacks the character to draw you in and the ability to both confuse and complicate matters with its disjointed structure. Had the characters been good or more fleshed out, I think I and others would be more inclined to go along for the ride. As it is, it’s an hour of watching uninteresting people try to do interesting things, everything becoming jumbled and confusing, then thirty minutes goes by and you realize you don’t care and feel like watching Memento instead, which got all the elements Following attempts actually right.

If I were to recommend the Following, it would for those interested in the filmmaking process than it would be someone seeking a compelling work of fiction or mystery.

The Ugly: As a standalone movie, the Following just doesn’t grab you. The only two reasons why a person would really pick this up is because they like Nolan and want to see all he’s done or they walk by a shelf and see “From the director of Memento” scrolled across the top (and Memento came out three years later).

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Fountain

Spanning over one thousand years, and three parallel stories, The Fountain is a story of love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of our existence in this world.

The Good: Some films are difficult to write about. A reviewer can easily take any film and write out their knee-jerk reactions and quick-to-conclude points. But a reviewer also has to back up those points with poignancy and constructivism, lest it all just be opinions tossed out with no credence whatsoever. For The Fountain, it was an interesting situation. My initial instinct was that it was poetic, visually beautiful, well acted, but a complete mess that made no sense. However, once I began writing it out, I realized it did something few films actually do: strike a chord.

That chord is completely subjective and, to be honest, a bit out of the bounds of film criticism for the most part. It's one of those emotional intangibles; the same reason you might prefer Mexican food of Indian or the color blue over green. I, quite honestly, have no film-school/constructive reasoning as to why I ended up liking the fountain. On paper, it's a film to be picked apart left and right. But actually sitting down and contemplating it is a horse of a different color. It's a film that left an impression in mood and style. The visuals of intergalactic man traversing the depths of space to find the secrets of life blended with a symphonic melody of beauty and lyricism was, in a way, listing to your favorite poet passionately recite your very favorite poem. You become lost in the moment, almost as though you're in witness of something grand and beautiful.

The Fountain may not quite come to that, as it doesn't fully come together, but it's by every means a flawed masterpiece of cathartic and emotion-driven cinema - focused more on hitting the cores of tragedy and feelings rather than string it together in a three-act structure of predictability. Seeing as how the content of a cross-time love story about a mysterious tree and shambhala in the stars is radically different and unique, I suppose drastic changes in the form is only fit to follow.

It is a film that is incredibly dependent on the person watching to determine its message and, therefore, its value. It's a flawed film, certainly, but it's one that is going to have every person have an interpretation of it and be draw to it in their own way. It doesn't reach the lofts of, say, a Terrene Malick film which takes the same route, but it's still in that same vein. Jackson is incredibly dynamic in it, really one of his more raw and emotional performances, and Weisz is hauntingly tragic as, for lack of a better word, Jackson's muse to all that happens within the film, from era to era, dimension to dimension, his affection for her and what she represents, whether you want to see it as eternity, love, tragedy or life itself, is beautiful.

The Bad: It's hard to know what to question and what not to question in The Fountain. Its lofty concepts and ambitions, dabbling of metaphysics and mythology, all in a non-linear story jumping across dimensions and time can make it hard to nail down. Then it occurred to me: the fact it does all that and makes it so difficult to comprehend isn't an excuse for the sense of incoherence and convolution it presents itself as. At least not all of it. It starts and stops over and over again, it can't quite grasp the tone it's going for (somewhere between harmony and chaos in theory, but for a dramatic film it doesn't play out entirely well) and if it weren't for the single thread of one titular emotional motif compounded by a fantastic performance by Hugh Jackman, it would be an even worse mess than it already is.

The Ugly: Yet, despite that, it's a film you are left thinking about. It's odd, but the faults in it are actually what will get you thinking the most about it. It may be all over the place in execution, but it strikes just right a certain moments to make an incredible impression. It's a film I recommend, but at the same time wouldn't be surprised if someone absolutely hated it. Live and let live...which, I suppose, is one line that the film teaches us itself.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


For Ellen

A struggling musician takes an overnight long-distance drive in order to fight his estranged wife for custody of their young daughter.

The Good: It kind of comes with the territory: if you have Paul Dano in a movie, you're going to get a great performance out of him and, usually, from those around him. It seems he's able to make people in a scene just appear better and play off him, and he's a hard one to nail down. His characters are often similar in delivery, but never similar in personality. I suppose it's his consistent voice, an often mumbly, soft spoken kind of way of speaking, that he somehow is able to make work across any character he's put in. It's odd to say, but when he speaks like this, it just feels normal and natural and you end up being convinced that this character you're seeing is a real person.

For a movie like For Ellen, you really need that. It's a film with no plot and moves along with too little purpose and not enough pace. It's a character piece. A natural one. Some cal it mumble core, I don't know what that is because I'm probably not hip enough, but it's a very natural way to show situations and characters dealing with them but not have a plot, necessarily. I guess I'm old fashioned and call it a "slice of life" movies, only much more dreary and probably a bit depressing. It's a film made for the fans of this style and with Dano really shining, creating a character you feel empathy for yet can absolutely understand the other side of the fence he's not on when it comes to how people view him, it might be enough for the regular audience to enjoy as well.

The Bad: If you want to see a movie with a guy talking in to a phone. A lot. This is for you. I really couldn't quite understand it, but most of this movie is Paul Dano talking, mumbling or yelling in to phones. Its like one of those acting improv classes where they have you act out a fake conversation on the phone. In fact, it's exactly like that because you only know what's going on through Dano talking because you have no idea who he is talking to on the other side. The film consists, primarily, of long takes of Dano thinking and looking somber, contemplating God knows what, and then scenes of him on the phone. Back to a scene of thought, then to the phone, and so on. Then, eventually, you'll get a good scene where he interacts with other people. Those are the best scenes and is where the natural feel of the whole film really comes off well. It captures particular situations and emotions well, but with no plot to really hold it together we're just stuck watching a really good actor act his ass off.

Anyways, that's just an odd thing, and it doesn't become that bad once the daughter enters the picture. The real issue is the sluggish pace of the entire film and how long it takes to get to that (a good hour in and if feels like two) because once the film takes that new route, almost becoming a sweet comedy about a father trying desperately to connect to his child, it becomes good. Damn good, in fact. Hell, you'll probably get damn teary-eyed in a few scenes. You just wonder why it took so long to get there and have to go through the chore of an hour to really start enjoying it.

The Ugly: Hey, want a nice long scene of dry-heave vomiting in to a toilet? This movie is for you.

The funny thing is, it's relatable. I think we've all been there. Cuddling with a toilet…enjoying the coolness of the hard floor…then deciding to call someone when we shouldn't. What's funny is after that, the film changes itself up and really starts getting good.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits)

A small girl fleeing the Nazi conquest of Paris in 1940 with her family loses both of her parents and her dog to a strafing attack. She is taken in by a nearby peasant family and quickly develops a close friendship with their son. When she buries the dog, the two of them decide to create an entire animal cemetery and then go to great lengths to obtain crosses for the graves.

The Good: Oh dear. I've come across another movie where I don't know where to begin on how brilliant it is. I suppose to tell you what Forbidden Games is, I have to tell you what it is not. That little two sentence line above here tells you what happens, sure. But it doesn't tell you what it's about. It's not about two children and their cemetery during Nazi Occupied France. It's not about the crosses they steal and the burial mounds they create. It's also not about Nazi's or even World War II, that's merely the setting, and it's not as easy to say it's about "lost innocence" or "how war affects children." These things are all present, yes, but are just a cog in a clock of what it's really about.

What it is, is about the comprehension of death. War is just a backdrop and yes, how it manipulates and takes away from those that it surrounds is a point, as is family and friendship and what it does to children. It's a film about how we both perceive death throughout our lives. As children, it's something that is just a word. They have no attachment or bearings on it. As adults, it's about the fear and anxiety of it - sometimes causing hysteria, occasionally laughter to cover up our fear and, obviously, eventual sadness in the struggle to accept it all. What Forbidden Games shows is how, as children, we are strangely much more accepting to death. The fear of it is something we learn and grow into as we approach our own realization of mortality.

Children have no comprehension of "loss" in the way we assess it, the are completely ignorant of its impact to themselves and to others.  Paulette, for example, has no reaction to the death of her parents and spends much of the time carrying around a dead puppy because she doesn't even realize it's dead. Only until she is told its dead does show look to bury it - bury it not out of grief or sadness, but in a matter-of-fact way because that's just what you do with dead things. She has no attachment to its death whatsoever. The movie showcases this numerous, causing us to not pity them, but, rather envy them. The ability of Rene Clement to completely manipulate you is astounding, especially visually from the bleak farmland with little growth to the overflowing cemetery wiht no room for any more holes to the decision to shoot it entirely from the children's point of view (both narratively and literally). Only until the final moments does our envy shed away to pity and the realization that our children will eventually learn about death and loss, loneliness and pain, and we strangely wish we had our envy returned to us - and their ignorance along with it.

The Bad: The movie is an absolute masterpiece of post-war French cinema. Though heavy-handed at times, it's far to great of a picture to hold that against it.

The Ugly: For a dead dog, it looks pretty convincing in some scenes. I really, really hope that's fake.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Force Majeure

A family on a ski holiday in the French Alps find themselves staring down an avalanche during lunch one day; in the aftermath, their dynamic has been shaken to its core, with a question mark hanging over their patriarch in particular.

The Good: There's a constant sense of uneasiness and discomfort throughout Force Majeure and, dare I say, it's a thing of beauty.  As we pull back layers of the people in the story, exposing and commenting on hypothetical situations that involve sexuality, adulthood, gender roles and interpersonal relationships, we begin to ask the same of ourselves just as though in the movie do. You want to take "sides" but the movie and its unrelenting scenes of making you uncomfortable as you play "fly on the wall" actually just makes you want to quietly back away and step out of the room.

Force Majeure thrusts you into situations you really don't want to be in all while having something interesting to say along the way. With its visual style (long takes, lots of stillness) and musical soundtrack (strings, symphony, but only parts and often smash cut to silence), Force Majeure doesn't just tell its story, it embodies it on every creative level to bring the experience to you.

The Bad: There is not a single likable person in this movie. The husband, Thomas, is a completely selfish asshole who can't admit when he's wrong. The wife, Ebba, is so in the wrong in dragging other people into a private situation and more or less ruining their relationship in the process. The kids are awful. The friends that arrive start well but end up horrible people too. The free-love woman is so pretentious as she puts herself on a pedestal I want to slap her in the face and knock her off it...yeah, it's a movie full of people that you end up not liking. You may still care about them, but you damn sure won't like them.

As much as I want to say that's a good thing, the movie being about the fragility of relationships and people constantly on edge when exposed, I really didn't want to spend two hours with any of them. At all. The arguments. The thousand-yard-stare of Thomas who had plenty of opportunities to fix it. Ebba's drinking and telling everyone to force it out of Thomas...sheesh it just gets worse and worse, more and more uncomfortable and, eventually, ending the way these always end.

The Ugly: Of course, that's why it's kinda cool. The way this movie ends is very true to life.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Foreign Correspondent

Johnny Jones is an action reporter on a New York newspaper. The editor appoints him European correspondent because he is fed up with the dry, reports he currently gets. Jones' first assignment is to get the inside story on a secret treaty agreed between two European countries by the famous diplomat, Mr. Van Meer. However things don't go to plan and Jones enlists the help of a young woman to help track down a group of spies.

The Good: I'll say there's one thing that is brilliant about Foreign Correspondent. No, not the great espionage, or Joel McCrea in one of his best roles, or the fantastic set pieces, such as the legendary rain assignation and following chase sequence through crowds, traffic and trolly cars, and action scene combined with some astounding visuals. Oh yes, Foreign Correspondent has all this and more. But what I loved is the comedy. Example: McCrea's Jones develops a crush on Day's Carol when first meeting, and slips in various love notes into her regular notes completely throwing her off as many are rather, shall we say, straight to the point and not subtle at all. Or even finding comedy through witty dialogue and banter during the chase sequence I mentioned as Jones is introduced to ffollliott and he explains the uniqueness of his name (including the lower case "f") while being shot at. "How do you say it...like a stutter?" asks Jones. "No, just straight 'fuh'" It's that unique balance that Hitchcock also brilliantly found in The Lady Vanishes and adds such fantastic chemistry and dimensions to character relationships. Foreign Correspondent is always moving, almost to where you can't catch your breath, and never turns you away.

The Bad: The mystery is revealed early on, and a majority of the film is our lead trying to prove it. What's odd is that there's really no legitimate reason for people not to believe him. They might scoff to him as some lowly journalist, but with so many strange things happening, there's no reason to simply throw out the improbable or even impossible because there are no clear answers otherwise. Luckily, they don't really dwell on this element too long and once Day is on board, the rest soon follow. It's not the most suspenseful or twisting of Hitchcock films, and there's one major reveal that is a bit forced, but it's easily one of his most entertaining.

The Ugly: For some reason, I always tend to get Joel McCrea and Joseph Cotton mixed up. It's the hair combined with similar voices, I think.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Peter is a composer and a likable sad guy who's devastated when his girlfriend of five years, Sarah Marshall, the star of a cheesy CSI-style crime show, dumps him. He weeps, he rails, he mopes. Finally, his step-brother Brian suggests Hawaii, so Peter heads for a resort on Oahu where, as he's checking in, he sees Sarah and her new beau, Aldous, a polymorphously perverse English rocker. The weeping and moping starts again, until Peter is rescued by Rachel, a thoughtful hotel clerk who invites him to a luau and to hang out. Although he constantly runs into Sarah and Aldous, Peter starts to come alive again. Will Sarah realize what she's lost, and what about Rachel?

The Good: For a while we were undergoing a major comedy drought. Outside of one or two gems, comedies in the late 90s to about 2005 were bad. So when Judd Apatow came on to the scene, bringing with him the John Hughes style of heart, character and laughs, the floodgates opened. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a perfect example of that, showing realistic characters in scenarios most people can relate to, no matter how extreme or subtle they may be-the film covers them all. Because of this relatable aspect to the situations and the characters, this film shines better than most that would strip it down to merely set ups and punchlines. It's a slow brew of a film, getting better on repeated viewing, but pays off in the end. It's a romance move made for guys, but women will fall for the film as well due to its charm. Smart dialogue punctuates the script and the directing by Nicholas Stoller, his first effort, shows potential for a future director to watch.

The Bad: I mentioned that this is Stoller's first time directing, and it shows at times. While the performances and scenes are well done and carry the bulk of the film, there's a sense of it stumbling over itself as though it has trouble finding its footing. Scene transition through the film is choppy and never fully comes together as a continuous feel, characters come and go and the main characters of Peter and Rachel are the only with any type of focus-everything else is secondary and as a result feels crammed into the story haphazardly.

The Ugly: Penis.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


4:44 Last Day on Earth

A look at how a painter and a successful actor spend their last day together before the world comes to an end. 

The Good: How that painter (Skye) and successful actor (Cisco) spend their last day together is pretty much like any other day. If you think about it, most people will probably spend their last day in similar fashion. Few times do we think or worry about tomorrow, we usually live here and now in the moment. Any notion of long-term plans taken away would actually reinforce that. Take away those goals and dreams, and most likely we'll just be spending time with our friends and family, do a few things we love doing like read a book, have sex, watch television or play the guitar and then in our final moments of mortality hold each other and whisper gently.

4:44 comes from a filmmaker that has been fairly dormant, or at least working very selectively, and is significantly different than any film he's done in the past. Writer/director Abel Ferrara gave us Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, so it's an interesting twist to have 4:44 still readily involved into the grain of the human mind, but more in an intimate (as in one singular location) and experimental (as in many cross-fades, montages and moments of absolutely silence) methodology. Though it may not make you think, or grab you in some profound way, 4:44 manages to reinforce a reflection of humanity: In the end, we'll only have each other.

The Bad: 4:44 has a couple of problems that are hard to overlook. One is that there's been quite a few end-of-the-world films that reach the same conclusion. There's nothing inherently wrong with that whole "just another day of apathy" result despite the salutation. But 4:44 simply does little else to separate its own, tired point from the pack. They hang out, have dull conversation and that's about it. There's nary a conversation or discussion of dreams, regrets -pretty much any type of dialogue that bring out emotion or passion. It's straight-laced and to the point showing it's just another day, only that there's no tomorrow.

The other issue is the excessive, and I mean excessive, use of "talking heads" - especially early in the film that can be quite the turn off. If we're not watching some meditative dream sequence akin to a college-student's experimental film, we're watching a fake news cast saying the exact, predictable things we've seen plenty of other fake news casts about the end of the world say. Whether it's an asteroid, zombies or nuclear war, they all play out the same and they're all as matter-of-fact and lacking poignancy as our main characters. Nothing really interesting or thought-provoking occurs for at least 50 minutes into the film when we finally leave our little apartment and see more first-hand accounts (and then only short lived).

The Ugly: 4:44 is only about an hour and 20 minutes long…it feels twice that.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


1408

Based on the short Stephen King horror story of the same name, 1408 is about supernatural writer Mike Enslin, an author of two successful books on supernatural phenomena. As research for his latest book, Enslin is determined to check out the notorious room 1408 in a New York City hotel by personally staying as a guest in the fabled room. He believes that 1408 is just a myth perpetuated by stories and rumors that Enslin has collected for his past works. However, hotel manager Mr. Olin has strong objections to Enslin's stay and only warns him of possible danger to come. Enslin is determined to go anyway. But what Mike Enslin is about to experience is no myth, as 1408 truly is a room where the guests don't check out by noon.

The Good: You have to admire any story or film that can make a compelling piece of drama or tension with only one major setting to its name. Some great thrillers have emerged from this notion: Rope. Rear Window. Et al... To be able to utilize a hotel room and little else so effectively in 1408 is easier said than done. A haunted hotel? Sure. We've seen it before (another King film, in fact) but just one room? You need to be a bit smart, and 1408, mostly, is just that. It turns supernatural, it turns psychological and it turns frightening claustrophobic with the fear of never being able to escape and end up dead just like all the past residents of that evil room.

But all that claustrophobia wouldn't be any fun if it wasn't for a good lead, and thankfully John Cusack delivers. Cusack is hard to not like in any films, even the ones where he plays assholes, and here we have him really giving his all and with a complete, fully three-dimensional and developed character on top of it all. Fact: 1408 wouldn't be as good as it it ends up being if it wasn't for how this character is written and especially in how Cusack portrays him - strong and a bit cynical but very exposed and vulnerable by the end. Cusack has to carry this plot as pretty much the only actor on screen through much of it, and a majority in just a hotel room as the set.

I wouldn't call 1408 a great horror film, or a thriller, but it's a solid one. It hits all the right marks that it needs too, though with some hiccups here and there, and the directing and Cusack's performance helps elevate above mediocrity. Conceptually, there's nothing here we haven't seen before...but in the execution...it's a pretty damn fine piece of work.

The Bad: I almost think that 1408 oversteps its bounds at times. It's at its most effective as a thriller. The mystery of what's going on and the unsettling moments at the end are certainly its high points. When it dips to being a supernatural-exploitation movie with ghosts left and right is when it's at its worst. This element is called "jumping the shark" in the narrative sense.  The mystery doesn't slowly unravel as much as it follows this rather jumbled structure:

Starts great, builds to a mystery. Then exposes everything through action (this is the jump). Then it becomes an escape film purely reactionary to those actions. Then it tricks you a couple of times (where it gets back on track) as you aren't sure what's happening again and then you end up with a decent ending. It's just a bit, I don't...."sloppy" might be the word I'm thinking of. The truth is, if it wasn't for John Cusack, all that messiness and poor plotting would have been even more noticeable, but Cusack's character helps hide a lot of it.

The Ugly: Sam Jackson's character and presence is wasted, if not utterly pointless. It's fine to have a small bit part for him, but the way he's so prominently on the poster and shoehorned into the story is just a waste. It's not about him. It's not even about the room, if you think about it. It's about Cusack....and if you're like me you'll probably forget that Jackson is even in the damn thin.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Four Lions

Four Lions tells the story of a group of British jihadists who push their abstract dreams of glory to the breaking point. As the wheels fly off, and their competing ideologies clash, what emerges is an emotionally engaging (and entirely plausible) farce. In a storm of razor-sharp verbal jousting and large-scale set pieces, Four Lions is a comic tour de force; it shows that-while terrorism is about ideology-it can also be about idiots.

The Good: A movie like Four Lions takes balls to make. It has the potential to offend every person out there, from Muslims to Pakistanis to British and American western cultures. To be honest, that alone gives the movie a plus in my book. Like the classic Brooks film, Blazing Saddles, by being so politically incorrect, not to mention damn smart (far smarter than you might anticipate), you bring out the dumbness and ignorance of everyone. It sets it out there, prods it with a stick until the bomb goes off, possibly killing a crow or sheep in the process.

Whereas Blazing Saddles exposed racism, Four Lions does so with something a little less tangible: fear.  Many like to bring up Dr. Strangelove, but Four Lions's humor is more akin to the farce western parody while Dr. Strangelove is more comparable to 2009s In the Loop.
It's a dark film too. The humor is found when a bombs accidentally go off or our characters joke about killing their neighbor with a eating utensils or debating over blowing up a mosque because that just might anger their own people more and they might join them. It doesn't get too political but still prods religious beliefs with that stick. One scene has a very western Muslim couple at a table and a more traditional Muslim man stands in the doorway. He won't enter because there's a woman in the room and he can't look at her because she's too exposed. This is the start of a great banter between the woman and her husband with the man that ultimately ends up in a fight with water pistols. Between the lines, though, the scene says a lot more than maybe it even realizes.

The Bad: Four Lions only lacks one thing: focus. It wanders and meanders through its story and never seems to know exactly what it wants to do or say. Character motivations are a bit hard to follow and it's easy to see the sketch/short form comedy writing and directing that satirist Christopher Morris is probably more comfortable in. It's about vignettes and smaller ideas strung together with little in terms of over-arching messages or plots, not to mention character development.

The Ugly: Idiots seek out other idiots, I suppose. Such is the world.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


47 Ronin

A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

Wait…that’s not it at all. That logline actually makes it sound good.

The Good: Gorgeous production design, beautiful cinematography and shiny swords. Boy are they shiny. 47 Ronin was shot by John Mathieson, who doesn’t have a long career in film but is a perfect fit for a movie like this. He knows “epic” thanks to his work with Ridley Scott over the years. First with Gladiator (though he worked with Ridley’s brother years earlier on Enemy of the State) then on to stuff like Kingdom Of Heaven and Robin Hood. Other films he shot: Matchstick Men, The Phantom of the Opera, X-Men First Class, the underrated August Rush and the “better than expected” Red Dragon. If there’s anything that can’t be denied about 47 Ronin, it’s that it’s a damn good looking movie.

The other half of of what makes it look gorgeous is its set and costume design. The costumes were put together by Penny Rose, who’s no rookie when it comes to epics. She did all the Pirates of the Caribbean films, The Lone Ranger, King Arthur, Evita, Shadowlands and still did a few smaller films, such as The Good Thief and The Weather Man. Now about the prop makers, 47 Ronin is gorgeous in terms of sets, props, scenic art and it blends an old and new style, similar to those Pirates movies I just mentioned. It’s not “authentic’ but it has traces of it, but this being a fantasy movie the traces are more than enough. It’s not meant to be real.

Now, you just read two paragraphs of the only good things found in 47 Ronin. If not great things. Seriously, it’s  one good looking flick. But you don’t go to movies to just see costumes and mise-en-scene, do you?

The Bad: I can’t recall a movie that seems so…well…hmmmm….Let me put it this way: the movie is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Whatever that means to begin with - if you know your history you know that’s actuality taken out of context. But I digress. Probably because I really don’t want to talk much about 47 Ronin because it's one of the most uninspired, lazy bland movies that had a gret concept and wasted it away with inept filmmaking. It’s a movie that is trying to tell two stories at the same time, each with two different main characters and two different arcs and even two different styles (one fantasy and the other more grounded). The result?

A mess. A complete and utter mess.

On one hand, you have the story Oishi, played wonderfully by Hiroyuki Sanada (one of the few other good things in the movie), and through him we have the story of the 47 Ronin. You know: the name of the movie. It’s, overall, a grounded depiction of shamed samurai seeking revenge with an elaborate assassination. If the movie was this, and only this, not only would you have a more focused film with a strong lead, you would have a shorter and more interesting one with great characters.

But Sanada can’t open a movie, so along comes the other side of this movie: the story of Kai. Kai is played by Keanu Reeves, and you can pretty much remove his character and arc entirely and it wouldn’t interfere with a damn thing. Kai’s story is more fantasy, involving monsters and “half-breeds” and giant orcs, magic, witches and mediocre special-effects. His arc is about getting the girl and proving himself as a samurai - as trite and true as ever for a Hollywood film.

On their own, I think each of those might have made for a solid movie: one a classic samurai tale and the other a fantasy epic. 47 Ronin attempts to blend them together and it ends up a clash of styles and ideas and plots that never gel and the mess turns to dullness if not outright boredom as you watch the film stumble to try and center itself. It’s off-putting and disorienting. All the beautiful cinematography and solid action in the world isn’t going to help overcome the utter perfect-storm of ineptitude that is 47 Ronin.

The Ugly: This could halt Carl Rinsch potential directing career before it even begins. He got this job because of the popularity of his commercials and short movies, in particular “The Gift.” But you take this concept and tell an inexperienced director “direct this constantly re-written script please” and you’re asking for this type of mess.

This isn’t some small movie for him to cut his teeth on, this is a giant, massive, expensive 3D epic movie. And it’s awful. And now, a good year removed, he isn’t even in the discussion for another movie. Universal made the mistake of going to someone they thought they could get cheap to make up for the cost or a near 200 million dollar movie, and Rinsch made the mistake of saying “yes."

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


The Fourth Kind

A thriller involving an ongoing unsolved mystery in Alaska, where one town has seen an extraordinary number of unexplained disappearances during the past 40 years and there are accusations of a federal cover up.

The Good: Whether you believe in aliens or not, you can't deny one central aspect found in the Fourth Kind: some weird things are certainly happening.  Perhaps it's paranormal, extraterrestrial, psychological or physiological. What this film manages to do is look at the aspect of "hysteria" better than we realize. Even if everything is fabricated, it's interesting to note that it manages to look at it within the film narrative and simultaneously cause it outside the film with the notion of "viral marketing" and "Blair-Witch syndrome" taking effect. It's a difficult film to review, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have more bad to say than good with about the only highlights being a) it's quite convincing with it's made-up documentary footage, news-pieces, interviews and voiceover and b) Milla Jovavich is actually quite good in it. A forgettable film that tries to hard.

The Bad: Let's face it, although the film claims you can "decide for yourself" it certainly has it's own agenda and perspective. It's already made up its mind, ergo it expects you to follow its view because the so-called objectivity is as transparent as a windowpane. It's certainly sympathetic towards one angle over the other: all those that were against one certain view were caricatures of cliche horror movie "cops" and "parents" than actually plausible people.  It's material is made up for you to already believe in some sort of alien abduction and the whole notion of it being smart and "looking into" the minds and thoughts of people afflicted by it, whether it be real or merely mental, is thrown out the door. In fact, it completely undermines whatever point it wanted to have with its approach that's best fitting for an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Actually, I take that back. Unsolved Mysteries at least had a basis in actual occurrences, though unexplained (that is the title), that helped it become more engaging and entertaining.

The Ugly: Obviously, knowing well by now that everything was made up, you approach the film in a different manner. For the life of me, I tried. I searched. I eventually found nothing worth the time of any viewer.  I don't hold it's marketing to the public as "real stories" against it, but I do hold a bad story and boring events against it as well as whatever it is that it wants to tell me. The truth is, the entire documentary approach is really just there to cover up the fact that the film has absolutely nothing original to really give us, and all those creative juices flowing with the fake interviews, audio recordings and viral marketing is utterly wasted on pedestrian trash.

But hey, it all worked, didn't it? The film made itself a good profit....good job, idiots.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Foxcatcher

The greatest Olympic Wrestling Champion brother team joins Team Foxcatcher lead by multimillionaire sponsor John E. du Pont as they train for the 1988 games in Seoul - a union that leads to unlikely circumstances.

The Good: With three particularly strong performances and a difficult tale to tell, Foxcatcher is constantly engaging. There’s never a dull moment, even when it feels as though its worn out its welcome and getting a bit too long (and it does), it is highlighted be some of the year’s best directing and some of the best performances delivered.

This isn’t as easy story to tell. Not the subject matter, necessarily, but the exploration elements of psychology and mental health with the running center of “living up to expectations” being the thing that strings it all together. Mark wants to be the best athlete, Dupont wants to be the best son and philanthropist, and nobody is particularly level-headed and mentally stable enough to meet those lofty expectations. It’s interesting to see the way the film tackles these ideas, never forcing them too much but never being too subtle to not make an impact.

Foxcatcher is a brilliant Shakespearean tragedy. Though sometimes a little too slow and maybe more focused on the mentality of the characters rather than their personalities or what makes them who they are beyond the central theme, it’s incredibly compelling thanks to Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo's brilliant presence and beautifully shot by DP Greg Fraser. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch because you know what happens and you watch the buildup unfold, and even if the payoff up to that feels a little haphazard, it still punches you in the gut.

The Bad: Foxcatcher doesn’t quite get into the head of its characters as much as it wants to. There’s a lot we can assume, and some just done wonderfully, but there’s a critical point on one that is never really fully developed and even the things alluded to never seem to land in a meaningful manner. Foxcatcher is great at handling facts and showcasing moments of brilliance, but a character study it is not though it tries to be. It’s as though it put one foot into the water of exploring mental health but left the other foot that would have made for interesting and believable characters on the sand.

We can pull a lot from what’s there, however. There’s no hand-holding, which is nice, but there's’ also not a final nail in the coffin, so to speak, to bring its final moments and, especially, its overarching themes home. It peters out, as though it ran out of gas and just wanted to have a final shot here and there. Being over two hours long, often doling out a repetitive element to its plot with few twists, leaves Foxcatcher kind of cold and distant much like Mr. Dupont himself.

The Ugly: Sure, Carrell is getting all the highlights these days, but Tatum is amazing in this film. He won’t get it, but an Oscar nom should at least be considered for the man.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Frailty

Fenton Meeks, comes forth to tell the FBI that his brother Adam may be the serial killer who calls himself God's Hands, who the FBI has been searching for. The film uses flashbacks to show Meeks' childhood with a father who believed he was on a mission from God to destroy demons that inhabit human bodies. Fenton saw his dad as evil, while Adam saw him as a hero.

The Good: A fantastic directorial debut and approach to a solid, though predictable, concept and plot. A thriller that is able to inject just enough of the slasher, supernatural and psychological horror genres yet always maintain its focus of character.

Bill Paxton reminds us why he's really one of the best character actors in cinema. He's been doing it for decades, but playing the father here is a role he absolutely becomes lost in. He makes this work as a man obsessed, frightening, intimidating yet "fatherly" in every way. McConaughey, too, gives a heck of a performance as well. His is far more restrained, thought provoking, subtle (often something you don't associate with the man, making me think this is probably the best performance of his career by a mile). The script is character driven, and the actors really help bring in that character and make it work. It's tightly written, but their performances add a great amount a depth and say something when there isn't something being said on paper.

The Bad: Sometimes, a film will build and build and then just leave you completely underwhelmed in its final moments. The twist, I'm sorry to say, just doesn't work. It feels forced in. It's not "meaningless" and makes things obsolete when revealed, unlike Identity, a film I recently reviewed, but it feels anti-climatic. At the same time, I liked how the story wrapped itself up, even if it didn't hit the right beats to really make it a powerful end. Like many reviewers, I am in agreement that 90% of Frailty is spectacular. Well-paced, wonderfully acted with a fantastic script and sense of tension. Then there's that 10% that completely does a 180. You can see some of it coming, but it does another turn you don't see at all and you aren't entirely sure how you feel about it. Still, a solid thriller even if it might leave you conflicted on what you should be feeling at the end.

The Ugly: Bill Paxton did a superb job directing the film. Great use of space and light, he really brings it out well. Yet, he's only directed one film since and now not directing anything. This was his first official feature at that...and it was superb. I would love to see him take a hand at thrillers again.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Frances Ha

A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn't really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she's not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

The Good: Frances Ha, the latest from writer/director Noah Baumbach, has that Noah Baumbach style down to perfection. What is that style? Well, it’s not exactly easy to describe, but know it focuses on relationships and people with often misunderstood characters. The Squid & the Whale had Walt and Frank, kids on the outside witnessing the problems of love and marriage, Greenberg had roger, a New Yorker moving to LA and just not understanding life here (and everywhere.

Frances Ha is about Frances, a young woman trying to find direction in life and meaning in her relationships with others. She is given the nickname “undatable.” It’s with affection…but you see that slight slimmer of “truth” as she thinks to herself “yeah…you’re probably right” before forcing a smile and pretending it never happened.

Greta Gerwig is truly amazing in this role as Frances. I feel as though I know her and it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. I certainly know people like Frances, but I feel as though I know Frances herself: a stunted, misunderstood but all-around good person. She loves life, sometimes dismisses the facts and truths about it, but is still the sweet and gentle soul you can truly get behind despite her rose-tinted glasses and fits of awkward misunderstandings. There’s an arc for her here, though the way the script presents it might seem a bit aloof like Frances herself, but it comes around and you begin to understand her and the film as a whole once it becomes clear.

This is Baumbach at his finest. Subtle and nuanced. Never forcing the issue as he sometimes did with Greenberg. He lets the acting and the characters speak for themselves, and with a performance and presence like Gerwig, it all feels so easy. The man is best as a minimalist, and Gerwig best left to her own devices to truly shine.

The Bad: Frances Ha doesn’t quite clarify its basic structure. That sounds odd, but it transitions from scene to scene and moment to moment without really drawing you in. It kind of just slams you from one to the other and there’s a sense of something missing in between. One moment you’re in one apartment, then another, then Paris, then at a college for some reason…it just flows through it. Thankfully Gerwig is in every scene and carries it wonderfully, but it feels more like vignettes rather than a continual story, and the tone never quite finds a consistency to wrangle it all in.

The Ugly: You’re not undatable, Frances. I’d date you.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Frank

Jon, a young wanna-be musician, discovers he's bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank.

The Good: Frank is a far more complex and inspired movie than its simple plot line would allow you to believe. As far as stories go, it’s “new guy joins a group with an eccentric leader, they struggle and record in a cabin, then go to a music festival.” That’s about all that happens, but it’s all the subversive stuff that makes Frank a unique and compelling journey. It’s a movie about interpersonal relationships at its heart, but also a movie that boldly says “we really don’t know anybody, much less ourselves.”

All this is framed within a small musical group full of odd members and strange histories that we only get slight glimpses of. We see it all through Jon, the newest member, and realize it’s not a story about a struggling musician trying to become famous, but it’s about art as a whole, it’s about the effect the artists have on each other, and on those around them that wish to listen or see the art, and we realize it’s less about your typical “plot” and more a dissection and analysis of the creative mind, the conflicts, the drive, the love-hate relationship of fame and, above all, the connections made with others.

Frank is not a movie that’s easy to watch in one go. Truth is, I watched it three times to gather all that in. Of course, you can still enjoy the odd and strange world of Frank without diving into the messages and meanings it wishes to convey, it certainly is an odd enough movie full of great performances to get that, but it’s one that begs for you to take something more away form it. I happily did.

The Bad: Frank is a film that struggles to find a tone. It’s sometimes dramatic, heartbreakingly so, sometimes very humorous, most times just weird and strange. It’s never without being interesting, but there’s a consistent tone of unnerving that goes throughout as it never allows you to settle in. Had it simply been “odd for odds sake” like some surrealist piece of cinema, that would be fine, but Frank is about people and characters and emotion. It never full finds that one small element to grab on to and merely grazes a half-dozen as it goes along. It settles on one element towards the end, and it just feels strange and awkward.

The Ugly: A great movie that will most likely be overlooked come awards season. Then again, most great movies are.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Frankenstein (1931)

Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster from various posthumous 'donors' and combines them into a massive creature, to whom he wishes to bestow life. The movie centers on this monster and his struggle in this 'life after death'.

The Good: I would be lying if I said this wasn't a personal favorite of mine. Sure, it is completely inaccurate to the book, but as mentioned in the Dracula (1931) review, films of this period were simply more about shaping an idea to entertainment, like revising a myth, rather than being accurate. I know most attribute the success to Boris Karloff as the iconic Monster, and rightfully so really, however I think the driving and epic force of the film is through the title character, Dr. Frankenstein. He's perhaps not as imposing as his creation, but he demands as much screen presence at the lumbering oaf. Colin Clive may not have ended up being the star here, but he is so gleefully mad and absolutely self-righteous that you can't but absolutely adore him. His approach to morality and ethics is really no different than a child with a new toy to play with...and we enjoy watching him play.

The Bad: Many would laud the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, as a superior film in nearly every aspect. I can't say I agree with that, perhaps a review of the film is in order, but it is surely on par but for different reasons. I feel the only way to see flaws in something as iconic as Frankenstein is when it's compared to Bride of Frankenstein, which had a better script, better acting, better directing (from the same director mind you) and more risks taken all around. Frankenstein was where director James Whale began as a horror/thriller director, a couple of masterpieces later, he probably achieved near-perfection with Bride of Frankenstein (and had complete freedom in doing so, which he richly deserved). On its own merits, however, it's hard to find major faults other than obvious sets and some poor lighting at times. It's a simple film, it doesn't try to muck it up nor does it try to glorify itself. It gives it to you straight up, no frills but a lot of meat to savor.

The Ugly: I love the utter genius found in Young Frankenstein. It is, without question, one of the most brilliant comedies in history. Yet it comes at a price because no longer can you simply watch Frankenstein, now you watch and are often taken out of it by thinking of Young Frankenstein. It's hard to not watch one and automatically think and reminisce of the other. Thanks to Mel Brooks.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Frankenweenie

Young Victor conducts a science experiment to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life, only to face unintended, sometimes monstrous, consequences.

The Good: Built more as an homage to classic horror, Frankenweenie manages to muster a pretty sweet and endearing story in the process (even if it takes a back seat to all those horror references and nods). It's kind of strange, but there's a really, really sweet little story happening in Frankenweenie. All our lead wants to do is have his best friend back. Naturally, things begin to spiral out of control, but the heartwarming nature of a rather cold and emotionless world is sweet, not to mention simple and just hard to not really enjoy. Frankenweenie never tries to one-up itself or do too much. It has its premise, which is all the original and unconventional idea it needs, and just lets it go from there.

There's a great balance between the darkness and the comedy. Though it probably won't do much but make you chuckle, there's enough light flair and charm around to never make you feel like it's getting too dark and dreary, even when Victor (that's Victor Frankenstein, by the way) goes to a pet cemetery at night to dig up the body of his dog, then drag it like sack of potatoes. That part is dark, but him sneaking by his parents and trying maintain a bit of secrecy from his neighbors keeps it light.

Some of the best moments, though, are entirely about our little dog, Sparky. There's a very classic, cartoon feel of Sparky where nobody really needs to say or do anything, it's just really good visual storytelling and cartoon comedy (such as his crush on the very cute poodle next door). While a lot of the characters might come off as a bit cold, and in some cases stone-faced and lifeless, Sparky is energetic and full of expression and life...not bad for a dead dog. As the story escalates, we begin to realize that, even though the plot is about a boy and his dog, the drive and progress and what keeps us watching is Sparky himself.

The Bad: As gorgeous as the film can look at times, there's a very strange detachment to the human characters. They all have the same look and style, and rarely show a glimmer of shock, awe, fright, sadness, happiness...it all kind of runs together. Sometimes the animation of fluid and gorgeous, notably our climax near the end, but other times its stiff and not nearly as convincing: usually the more subtle moments that aren't quite as in need of the broad, swooping excess of action and slap-stick comedy.

After a while, that detachment begins to grow on you, and the charm and playfulness (other than Sparky, of course) begins to feel forced and sometimes superficial, as though it's saying "Here! You're going to watch this and like it!" The story can sometimes turn redundant and repetitive, and many of the characters aren't memorable whatsoever, but with Sparky and the homages, I think there's still a big audience for a movie like this, even if it is a little stale at times.

The Ugly: Again, those horror homages...horror fans will love them and, thus, love this movie. But I feel that's such an integral part to the film's enjoyment that much of that will be lost on those who don't know. Burton made this for a very specific market, which might explain why it didn't do so well in the box office.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Frankie and Alice

A drama centered on a young woman with multiple personality disorder who struggles to remain her true self and not give in to her racist alter-personality.

The Good: A period drama carried by a couple of strong performances a great sense of place and time. Frankie and Alice both looks and sounds of the 1970s and Halle Berry and Stellan Skarsgård .. Berry in particular gives a raw and powerful performance that will certainly get the critics noticing, but Skarsgård is no slouch with a nuanced and quieter role to help balance it. If both were "acting!" then it would have ended up unwatchable. Berry's character needs to be melodramatic. It's the entire point so her angle is both understanding and, as a result, quite effective. The calmness that weathers that storm is Skarsgård , and the film wouldn't have worth without his strong stability.

Despite the story issues, which we'll get to in the next section, director Geoffrey Sax, who really isn't an overly-experienced director, does a great job visually approaching it. His use of tones and angles combined with the fantastic art and costume design for the period. Had the script been stronger, the film would have been more worthy of his efforts.

The Bad: With eight writers on the slate, it goes without saying the script went through the ringer quite a few times. In its defense, it ended up better than it could have considering the number of hands that it went through, but it's still rather of an ill-paced mess that feigns its "mystery" with a convoluted backstory and melodramatic expressiveness that undermines the solid acting by Berry and Skarsgard. It really wants to do everything and be everything, from a mysterious therapy plot of multiple personality disorder to racial bigotry and secret family pasts to the trust issues that all culminates...in watching a video. The revelation of the character seem half-hearted, maybe that's why there were so many writers because the final half or so of the film seems disingenuous at best. The acting may be superb, but the plot is all over the place and the characters are simply shells that mean nothing in the end. The way the film handles its ending seems to reflect the filmmakers and writers agreed with that approach: Montage sequence. Title cards. Fade to black. The audience looks pissed.

The Ugly: Oscar bait if there ever was one. I hate that term, but the film isn't due for release for months yet the studio has taken it upon themselves to shovel it out into the world just in time for voting selections. It was meant to be a vehicle for Berry, but I actually think Skarsgård outshines her here because he practices one thing Berry and the attention-getting-MPD doesn't do: show subtlety. It's too bad his effort will probably go unnoticed, much like this film will be in about six months.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The French Connection

William Friedkin's gritty police drama portrays two tough New York City cops trying to intercept a huge heroin shipment coming from France. An interesting contrast is established between 'Popeye' Doyle, a short-tempered alcoholic bigot who is nevertheless a hard-working and dedicated police officer, and his nemesis Alain Charnier, a suave and urbane gentleman who is nevertheless a criminal and one of the largest drug suppliers of pure heroin to North America. During the surveillance and eventual bust, Friedkin provides one of the most gripping and memorable car chase sequences ever filmed.

The Good: If you want to see how to make a crime drama you have to look no further than this Friedkin masterpiece. There are no absolutes in this world. You have the law and you have the criminals, but as far as moral upholding and seeing the world in black and white, you can throw it all out. It’s gritty, its hard edged and, above all, it’s realistic. There are no major shootouts, no unrealistic chase sequences, no hero we can even fully get behind (although we do route for him).  Gene Hackman, who won an Oscar for his performance, embodies everything we love yet hate about cops. They may enforce the law but they’re always upstanding citizens themselves. Doyle is a cop that will get it done no matter the cost and the movie relishes in his obsession, its central theme. The French Connection is one of the most important films made. It throws out the melodrama and perfect heroes and cops and brings it all to a gritty and bleak reality, giving way to future films such as Serpico, the Seven Ups and Dirty Harry.

The Bad: While it is a point that Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle is amoral as they come, as a result it’s sometimes hard to appreciate him. One minute he’ll be a guy you want to hang out with, he’s smart, funny at times…then comes the other side of him. He obsesses, womanizes, is a bigot. Instead we find ourselves liking his partner, Buddy, played by Roy Scheider. In fact, we end up liking him more because we see Doyle through his eyes more often than not and can simply appreciate all the bullshit his partner producers on a daily basis. Doyle is a character that’s hard to put a finger on. He’s complex and difficult to understand…as a result that’s why we love him but hate him at the same time.

The Ugly: The ending might turn some people off. It’s sudden and never fully seems to bring a climax for the viewer While I can understand that, I don’t think it could have ended any better.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Frenzy

London is terrorized by a vicious sex killer known as the neck tie murderer. Following the brutal slaying of his ex-wife, down-on-his-luck Richard Blaney is suspected by the police of being the killer. He goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence.

The Good: With his career, and sadly his life, winding down, Hitch went all-for-broke with one of the most insanely bizarre, funny, bloody, somewhat disturbing yet oddly brilliant film he's ever made. This was 1972, by this time violence in cinema had become notoriously explicit (with a thanks to Pyscho) but here the director doesn‘t sway from understanding that, and makes one of his most explicit and perverse with one scene in particular shocking if not unsettling completely. Hitchcock had never really dealt with a serial killer picture, other than his silent film The Lodger and the other closest really being Psycho, but that was a man insane and killing, not really planning and stalking victims to kill. Many people write-off Hitch's later movies, but Frenzy is really one of his best and probably his most overlooked because of the assumption that everything past 1963 was rubbish. If anything, Frenzy shows a director gone full circle as much of what made the man's work so great and distinct in the 1940s only with a dash of more violence and sex (as all the kids loved those things during the 70s). It's rather straight-forward, sure, but it's all done with a tongue-in-cheek approach that we've come to love and appreciate.

The Bad: The film’s biggest downfall is that Richard Blaney, our main hero, is a pretty unlikeable fellow. It suits his arc, in that nobody believes him because he’s such an asshole, but he never really makes us want to route for him or warm up to him in any way. He’s shallow, doesn’t think past what’s in front of him (until the very end) and not once is convincing emotionally to those around him. Speaking of the end, the film tidies itself up far too nicely by suddenly having one character have a realization when he, in reality, would have had this realization months earlier (yes, I said months). It seemed a bit deus ex machina, although that’s not a huge change for Hitchcock.

The Ugly: Man, those 1970s haircuts. Wow.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Friday the 13th (2009)

Welcome back to Crystal Lake in a chilling re-imagining of the classic horror film. Searching for his missing sister, Clay Miller heads up to the eerie woods of legendary Crystal Lake. Against the advice of police and cautions from the locals, Clay pursues what few leads he has in the search for his missing sister, Whitney, with the help of Jenna, a young woman he meets among a group of college kids up for an all-thrills weekend. But they are all about to find much more than they bargained for. Little do they know, they've entered the domain of Jason Voorhees.

The Good: It all looks nice on the outside, much like Crystal Lake itself, and the film moves briskly through its story, or the series of death scenes I should say. Director Marcus Nispel seems to capture the world of Crystal Lake wonderfully - it's a place that can be beautiful one minute, and vulgar and horrible the next, again much like the film itself. All the old elements are here that make slasher films popular: gratuitous violence and nudity, smart camera and lighting usage and a few humorous moments even. The best part of the entire film is the "new" Jason, one that rekindles the first four movies with a killer that is a man, not a monster. He's smart, fast, and apparently quite the hunter. He's convincing, which is good, and feels like a threat once more. The first 20 minutes or so are brilliant done. Well-paced, the characters likable for the most part during this Act, and Jason is incredibly frightening. Then it changes to a new group of kids and a brother looking for his lost sister (from the first act). It's downhill from there.

The Bad: There is nothing we haven't already seen here, in fact you'll probably see what's going to happen before it actually happens. The characters are laughably cliche, the story nonexistent and confusing and the violence, the whole purpose of these types of films, unoriginal and boring. Some things are just absurd, such as Jason apparently moving at the speed of light to get from one point to the next (such as the roof of a two story house) and the characters are more dumb that the typical horror film and you almost hope they get killed rather than route for them to escape. For a "reinvention" of the franchise, it seems to be more regressive than progressive. The Halloween remake by Rob Zombie, despite all its flaws, at least got that right.

The Ugly: Simply put, Jason goes out pretty weakly here. He's a legitimate threat through most of the film and, sadly, is put down in the dumbest way possible.

Final Rating:
2 out of 5


Fright Night

For young Charlie Brewster, nothing could be better than an old horror movie late at night. Two men move in next door, and for Charlie with his horror movie experience, there can be no doubt that their strange behavior is explained by the fact that they are a vampire and his undead day guardian. The only one who can help him hunt them down is a washed-up actor, Peter Vincent, who hosts Charlie's favorite TV show, Fright Night. Vincent doesn't really believe that vampires exist, but does it for the money...

The Good: Have you ever had a creepy neighbor you just weren't too sure of? Maybe an old spooky house down the block that he might have lived in (or, god forbid, right next door)? Did he stay in a lot, especially during the day? Did he ever threaten to kill you if you divulge to everyone that he is a vampire? Well, Charlie Brewster has such a house in his neighborhood and such a neighbor. What's great about Charlie is that he really is the all-american teen. He does alright in school, loves old horror movies and has a girlfriend. He's about as vanilla as ice cream, but that's why we end up finding him so appealing. He's a regular guy thrust into a crazy situation, dragging his friends and family along with him and stalking his idol for help because there's simply no other person to turn to. Often, a vampire movie only focuses on the blood sucking and not much else. Fright Night is interesting because it focuses on one of the Vampire's classic powers: hypnotism (or entrancement). He's masculine, debonair as they say, and Chris Sarandon plays that villain role to utter perfection. To his villain we have, not Charlie, but rather Van-Helsing wannabe Roddy McDowall's Peter Vincent. There's great chemistry of all the characters in the film, actually, and we see them all grow, learn and sometimes not come out on the best end of things. That development is rare for a horror film and thanks to a focus on the small cast, Fright Night exceeds its relative rudimentary foundations of a simple vampire story and turns into something rather charming, sometimes funny and always engaging horror classic that noticeably influenced another vampire 1980s classic, The Lost Boys.

The Bad: There's nothing profoundly scary about Fright Night. It's sometimes more a satire than it is a scary movie and often more gory than it is frightening. It tries to achieve a balance that was probably perfected with An American Werewolf in London, combining a tale of horror but balanced with comedic overtones and situations. It does better when it doesn't try to be scary but also when it doesn't try to be comedic. Rather it succeeds as a succession of well-done scenes, some are bloody and perhaps moody with a fantastic sense of dread, and others oddly funny and humorous. Once those are combined into the overall package, though, it just doesn't quite work. Thankfully its consistent characters keep it all grounded so when it does switch from ominous to funny, rather than combine the two, it's not quite as noticeable.

The Ugly: Fun fact, actually. Did you know Chris Sarandon is the voice of Jack Skellington in the brilliant A Nightmare Before Christmas? Yeah, pretty neat. He was also Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride...I swear, the man is one of those weird childhood personas that you don't even realize until you write a review.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Fright Night (2011)

A teenager suspects that his new neighbor is a vampire.

The Good: Take a wacky neighbor, move him next door to a single-parent suburban home and what do you get?  A bad sitcom.

Make that neighbor a vampire? Horror gold. They knew it in the original Fright NIght film from 1985 and the creators of the remake know it just as much, not only appreciating the concept but utterly thriving in the enjoyment of it. Solid cast performances lift the material even higher without losing its sense of humor and tongue-in-cheek take on old, classic-horror troupes.

The show stealer here, though, is Colin Farrell who is able to make a modern-day vampire a combination of old-school charm with contemporary douchebag. He's obviously having fun, with a sexy smile one minute and then a "hey, guy" the next like he's just got back from the gym and read to eat some protein bars. Or, I should say, drink some blood and eat an apple. He'd then sit around and watch bad reality television, which is hilarious and at the same time spot-on.

During the 80s, there were a number of vampire movies with vampires adapting to a modern-day setting. It was a joking, fun tone that doesn't discard its scares and gore in the process. There really hasn't been one like that recently that manages such a tone and Fright Night captures that feel perfectly, keeping a very old-school take to the vampire mythology and plopping him into a world of HDTV and cellphones. It absolutely works and Fright Night, as a remake, is as relevant and rooted into its era as the original was and, as a result, might just become one people will think back fondly and say "there's a movie that did it right."

The Bad: A disjointed, if not rushed, ending doesn't really ruin the film, but it feels as though it simply wants to hurry up and end itself, that's for sure. Its' as though there's only two and a half acts rather than three, making the ending feel unfulfilled as it's nowhere near as good as the path leading up to it. It's a brisk film, only clocking in at an hour and a half which is the best length for it, but it lacks the finale punch and gives off a sense that it was redone and reworked but never quite finding the foothold it desperately seeks. Especially after a great scene taking place in Las Vegas, the final fifteen or twenty minutes needed something done to top it, and it doesn't quite find it.

Worse though is the film jumps the shark at a pivotal moment. The sense of paranoia and people not believing our lead, integral for a film like this, is absolutely lost at a crucial point, making the final third, already in turmoil due to a lackluster climax, aimless and without purpose. It needed its reveal much, much later: finding a more fitting and satisfying end for all the characters rather than find an end half way through and hope some action scenes will make up for it. As a result, we get something good, but not great and underusing its potential (especially considering the solid cast here that could have been so much more).

The Ugly: Proof again that just because something is being remade doesn't mean it should be written off. For every "bad" remake of a horror classic, there's at least a "good" one as well. It's all about execution - in the right hands anything can work. It's not amazing, far from the iconic and trend-setting distinctions of its predecessor, but it's far from bad either and a fun time at the movies.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Frighteners

After a car accident in which his wife, Debra, was killed and he was injured, Frank Bannister develops psychic abilities allowing him to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts. After losing his wife, he then gave up his job as an architect, letting his unfinished "dream house" sit incomplete for years, and put these skills to use by befriending a few ghosts and getting them to haunt houses in the area to drum up work for his ghostbusting business; Then Frank proceeds to "exorcise" the houses for a fee. But when he discovers that an entity resembling the Grim Reaper is killing people, marking numbers on their forehead beforehand, Frank tries to help the people whom the Reaper is after!
 

The Good: Michael J. Fox is fantastic in this lead role, playing horror-comedy in the same vein of a Bruce Campbell might have in the Evil Dead series. It doesn't quite have that presence, but his banter and overall sense of "fun" prevails and allows The Frighteners to actually be better than it probably should or even deserves to be. It's no doubt an off-beat, entertaining picture that, as strange as this may sound, is fun to watch repeatedly when the time is right (ala Halloween). It has a lot of character and uniqueness and the special effects, even after all these years, are used smartly and in way that, even stranger for me to say here, reminds me of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Of course, this fails in other categories that doesn't lift it up to that level, but you can see what Jackson was going for. It simply misses the mark.
 
The Bad: The Frighteners suffers from one thing that Peter Jackson will become notorious for: trying too much. Notably here in the ending that is too long, too neat and too forced. The concept is very much there, but it just ends up in one big, self-gratifying mess that lacks the personality of an Evil Dead (or Brain Dead, for that matter) and the sense of fun Jackson tries so hardily to invoke. Ebert likens it to a demo reel of ideas and concepts, not a cohesive  hole. I couldn't agree more in that and god bless Michael J. Fox for at least trying to hold it all together with his character because Jackson simply keeps feeding us way, way too much.
 
The Ugly: I hate to say it, but a similar film that came out a few years before did the concept better (although not by much): Heart and Souls. Yeah...I just said that. At least that film had some characters you could actually care about, not that I would rate it any higher.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


From Dusk 'til Dawn

Seth Gecko and his younger brother Richard are on the lam after a bloody bank robbery in Texas. They escape across the border into Mexico and will be home-free the next morning, when they pay off the local kingpin. They just have to survive 'from dusk till dawn' at the rendezvous point, which turns out to be a Hell of a strip joint.

The Good: Pretty much an instant classic upon its release, From Dusk 'til Dawn brings out the pulpy nature of grindhouse classics and polishes it up to what is essentially an overly-gory, overly-violent character study. Somehow...that works. I don't know how, but it does.

I think it has to do with the elements that director Robert Rodriguez is always able to inject into his films: energy and enthusiasm. He's having such a good time, that we pretty much buy whatever it is he's selling here including Cheech Marin as an evil vampire doorman. Throw in an absolutely charismatic lead in George Clooney and some surprisingly well-rounded and developed characters alongside him, and you'll buy anything if those fundamentals are at least established. If you're going to go all-out gory and violent, you better have some good characters along for the ride. Rodriguez and writer Quentin Tarantino certainly do.

I think I actually enjoy the lead up to the vampire introductions more than the vampires themselves. Oh these are classic creatures of the night, violent and vile (and sexy if they are named Salma) but the characters that are introduced and the trip itself to the final location I was far more interested in. It has that Tarantino wind up and Rodriguez pitch that is just a perfect match.

The Bad: From Dusk 'til Dawn acts itself out like two different films. It starts as a thriller, almost an exploitation movie about two insane criminals on the run, murdering, raping et al...then it shifts to the vampire tale. While I think it does this transition well enough, once the vampires show up you end up thinking about the first half of the film. It's tightly written, the characters are interesting, the tension mounting and it has a great sense of style and smartness to it all.

That doesn't continue as much into the vampire portion of the film where it turns campy, goofy and over the top as Rodriguez is known for. Now keep in mind, I like both parts here. I think the fun nature of the survival at the Titty Twister is as compelling as the taught moments of the first half, just in a different manner. The thing is, it sacrifices all that momentum for just a shootout and survival horror take with lots of gore. Thankfully, that first half did allow for us to give a damn about these characters and what eventually happens, but it ceases everything else.

I'm torn in this regard. From Dusk 'til Dawn uses the vampire portion as a kind of Deus Ex Machina to show different people coming together to overcome odds and that, despite the Gecko Brothers' criminal activities, that there is far more eviler things out there. At the same time, halting the character development was just a little too sharp of a turn. What we essentially end up with is a movie about a vampire bar with an hour-long prelude that actually surpasses it.

The Ugly: Maybe it's just me, but I would love to see Clooney doing more roles like this. I know this was early in his career, but damn if he's not great as a villain. True, he's more anti-hero here than outright evil, but he plays a completely overconfident unpredictable asshole about as good as I've seen anyone do.  I wish he took the risk to do a few more roles like this.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


From Paris With Love

In Paris, a young employee in the office of the US Ambassador hooks up with an American spy looking to stop a terrorist attack in the city.

The Good: You have to admit, a bald John Travolta hanging out of the side of a car going a hundred miles an hor with a Bazooka strapped to his shoulders is pretty damn funny and entertaining. Pierre Morel has quickly made a name for himself as one hell of an action director.  His ability to create and structure an action scene has skyrocketed him to fame and Hollywood calling to be the "go to" guy for action movies. He makes it look easy, the way he utilizes space in a room or the camera with the perfect moments of real-speed action and slow motion. It's majestic in the same vein that John Woo would create something majestic in his action sequences (although Morel isn't quite to that level, although I won't count him out). The story and characters are utterly forgettable here, but if you go in with the idea of a straightforward piece of action, you'll at least me entertained. It's always moving forward, always setting up the next sequence and always having just enough bit of humor to give you a chuckle on top of it. Far from great and just barely good, it at least knows what it wants to do in terms of action and is utterly entertaining as a result.

The Bad: I'll tell you what From Paris with Love wants to be and at the same time what it is not. It badly wants to a film in similar tone to classic Luc Besson French action movies from the early 1990s. While I think it's certainly similar in terms of the action sequences, it fails in the department where Luc Besson (and, similarly, John Woo which many have also compared the film to) thrived in: having a great story and characters we care about. This is more amazing considering it was Luc Besson that wrote the damn screenplay, therefore I think much of what doesn't come across well is more in the hands of the actors and the director than it is what was on paper (which, at its heart, seemed like good intentions).

The film has a frantic tone to it, which more or less makes it perfect for the action it wishes to present but when the film attempt to be dramatic or tell a plot, it falls pretty flat and you wish it would just keep the drama out of it. What's more is the characters, none of which are that likable mind you,  in particular John Travolta's character (who does so well with the cheesiness of it all) ends up coming across as some invincible superman that knows things without telling people and can plan ten minutes ahead of everyone and everything else. He's always right, and as a result that "supremeness" of everything he does and the precision in which he does it with, as fun as it may be to watch, does not make him an appealing character whatsoever when he also acts superior on top of it all. 

This is even more apparent when, naturally, he does screw up at one point and then you wonder what the hell happened to Mr. Perfect and why something so obvious slipped by him (and why it eventually doesn't matter because he still needs to do it). All this forced characterization in From Paris With Love is pretty disappointing considering Morel's last couple of movies have made a determined effort to get us to like the characters involved and appreciate their successes and failures. I wonder if he sacrificed that element to bring in more action set pieces, or if it's just the way the actors come across in the film itself. Either way, this is largely a disappointment from him.

The Ugly: Royal with Cheese? Really? You know Travolta pushed for that line in the movie.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Frozen

Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna's sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.

The Good: Like Tangled before it, Frozen is a fairy tale that takes classic fairy tale tropes and plays around with them for a bit. Yes, there’s a kingdom, yes there’s princesses and charming men with comic-relief animals…but it’s so much more than that. Like Tangled, there’s a huge dose of heart and meaningful emotion throughout the classical fairy-tale structure that still stays true to those roots but pushes the world and characters forward to new ideas.

There’s a subtlety and beautiful minutiae to how Frozen handles itself. The characters are distinct not through their obvious personalities, but in their dialogue, humorous quirks and mannerisms. These aren’t just “princesses” and “heroes” but feel more like real people dealing with real problems, not least of which is acceptance. There’s only one character I would call an a-typical animated film caricature, and that’s only because of a twist, to which there are many great ones throughout Frozen, which never gets dull or boring as result.

Energetic as the best of animated films, Frozen wrings it all in with a story of two sisters and the wall built between them, both literally and figuratively, of coldness and callousness. Elsa will easily go down as one of Disney’s best characters, princess or otherwise, because her being a princess doesn’t matter…she’s a young girl with a lot on her hands. Literally. Great directing, a beautiful art style, a nice self-aware script and memorable characters, Frozen, like screenwriter Jennifer Lee’s previous script Wreck-it Ralph, is a surprisingly beautiful and nuanced Disney musical that is hard to shake off afterwards and you want to see it again immediately.

The Bad: Frozen hits the beats it needs to, boy does it hit them, but it also has a lot of meandering in between that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the script. In some cases, let’s say a film (especially animated) has some odd inconsistencies or throw-away parts. Frozen had an entire sub-plot about trolls that feels awfully tacked on, a question about the girls’ parents is never quite explained or expanded upon and classic and convenient amnesia angle.

We can, maybe, draw some assumptions and confusions on things like these, and truthfully they’re all minor in comparison to the great story, but they kept cropping up sporadically. It was time that probably should have been focused more on the sisters and maybe developing them, especially Elsa (who is great, but you just want more of) than another dance number in a forest with characters that we won’t remember.

The Ugly: There’s some good songs in Frozen, but there’s one absolutely amazing one that is also the best scene in the film, from directing to character to emotion to animation…it’s stunning and is one of those 3-4 minutes of a film that so overshadows everything else about it. I couldn’t even remember any of the other songs before or after it. You just sit in awe and if it doesn’t win this year’s Oscar for best song, then it’s a crime.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Frozen Ground

An Alaska State Trooper partners with a young woman who escaped the clutches of serial killer Robert Hansen to bring the murderer to justice. Based on actual events.

The Good: At atmospheric and bleakly depressing thriller about how easy it can be to get away with murder. Well, nearly easy. This true-crime, period flick is full of solid performances, a great degree of tension and a fantastic setting even if it offers no-thrills and no-frills in doing so. The Frozen Ground is a capable, solid thriller, but one that doesn't do enough to make an impression. It simply arrives, does it's job, and moves on. Memorable for a great turn by John Cusack and a surprising performance from Vanessa Hudgens, showing she has acting chops past her High School Musical roots, but the star of our little endeavor is Nicholas Cage.

You never know what you're going to get from Nicolas Cage. Sometimes he'll be great, other times horrible, sometimes just serviceable. He's probably the third out that scenario in The Frozen Ground, but thankfully it's less about the characters and more about the manhunt. It's a cat-and-mouse story, even able to throw in a ticking-clock scenario near the end to up the tension, and even thought THe Frozen Ground is fairly by-the-numbers, it handles those elements to its structure and plot nicely. You're rarely bored or not interested because the film is always moving along, setting the scene, showing the bodies, getting to the story and the elements that need to miraculously work to bring on of the Alaska's most notorious serial murderers to justice.

The Bad:  Bland. At the end of the day, that's what the Frozen Ground is. It's well intended, it wants to put this story out there because it is horrific, but it's not powerful. It's simply interesting. For that, it does its job well. You'll always be interested because these are interesting people in a horrible situation. But it lacks that moment that really draws it in to a dramatic light, it simply tells the story of the motions and events not much differently than a documentary might do. Flat. Straightforward. Interesting but not necessarily entertaining.

Another issue is the focus. As much as the film wants to say "this is Cindy's (Hudgens) story," it really isn't. She's just a player in a set of players with Cage taking the reigns. She's caught in the middle, but it puts far too much focus on her when we really know so little about her to begin with. Cage is the one that drives it all, Hudgens is just in the middle and often doing stupid things that either annoys you or angers you, rarely finding the human quality that the movie is desperately trying to seek on her behalf. That human quality is found more in Cage, because he cares about her, but the film doesn't focus nearly enough on him and far too much on the smaller player in the game.

The Ugly: Nobody will say it or even consider it. But Cusack is pretty darn good in this. He plays creepy well. Not enough people will see it, probably.

Final Rating:  3 out of 5


Fruitvale Station

The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008

The Good: A debut film to end all debut films, if you ask me. Which you kind of are, dear reader, as you sit down and click on a link to bring you here. Fruitvale Station is a masterful film from beginning to end and upon every facet to which we determine the quality of the cinematic arts.

That sounds over zealous, I know. I often stay grounded in these things and enjoy taking such an approach to not fall into hyperbole, but in the case of Fruitvale Station, I say it less with hyperbole and more with excitement to have sat and enjoyed and be moved by such a film. It's a small story, but with a large heart, carried by a wonderfully paced script, never without a purpose to a line or a scene, and by Michael B. Jordan who brings us Oscar Grant, a young man taken from this Earth far too early.

Of course, Oscar was a real person, which is where Fruitvale Station's heart lies. It's well intended, but it never seems to come across as having an agenda. Yes, it's there to move you, and it likely will, but it's also there to make you appreciate life. You know how Oscar's story is going to end, and in a way it's an affirmation of our own mortality to see how fragile and easy it is to have just a regular day turn in to your last. It moves you in not only feeling for Oscar and those close to him, both in the film and in our reality to which it is based, but to maybe hold your family and friends a little closer, hug them a little tighter and say "I love you" a little more.

The Bad: Nothing. I honestly have nothing bad to say about this film, which is rare. I can always find something to note, maybe some dialogue or a structure issue. Sure I can nitpick, but nitpicking isn't critiquing, it's just trying desperately to cherry pick elements to support the conclusion you already have in mind.

From the first frame to the last, you are compelled by Oscar and this story. If there's anything bad about it, it's the fact it's true. Fictionalized moments aside, who cares? That wasn't the point and if saying "the likelihood of the woman in the store being on the train platform is nill" is something you're bringing up to justify it, then you're missing the point of the film and seem to just be seeking a reason to dislike it. The point is Oscar, and that's that.

The Ugly: I honestly don't know how anyone could give the film a poor review. I've read the reviews out there (there's only a handful) that are negative, and I just don't know what film they watched. One consensus they all share is that they "wanted something more." What does that even mean?

I don't give a lot of perfect scores out there, 2013 is a year I've only (or will only) give a perfect score to two films.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Full Metal Jacket

A two-segment story that follows young men from the start of recruit training in the Marine Corps to the lethal cauldron known as Vietnam. The first segment follows Joker, Pyle and others as they progress through the hell of USMC boot-camp at the hands of the colorful, foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The second begins in Vietnam, near Hue, at the time of the Tet Offensive. Joker, along with Animal Mother, Rafterman and others, face threats such as ambush, booby traps, and Viet Cong snipers as they move through the city.

The Good: One of Kubrick’s most memorable, quotable, sometimes unintentionally funny films is a look not so much at war, but the human psyche as a result of it. In a departure for Kubrick, well, sort of, he says a lot yet in the end says nothing. The whole film is one big observation in war: a lot goes on but by the end everything is meaningless. The auteur thinks on numerous levels when making a film. It’s not merely telling a story (and in some cases, that lack of focus shows) but it’s about how to tell the story behind the camera as well, off to the side, with the music or supply the core narrative without needing to say a word. I sometimes wonder if that’s a little game he liked to play. “I’m making a movie about war. War is meaningless, therefore I need to make a movie that is meaningless.” The structure, the design, the outcome itself: all this reflects the primary purpose of the story. For example: duality of man- two distinct styles of film, two different stories, two personifications of the main character, two outcomes that still showcase the notion of it all being pointless. That’s just one example. Nonetheless, it moves stinkingly well through both stories, this being one of Kubricks more tightly-made films (and, again, the film showcases his technical craftsmanship trough the camera lens), as we see the rise of these young men from normality to abnormality through war, brain-washing, violence and selfishness as they follow orders from superiors.

The Bad: People have now, more or less, defined Full Metal Jacket as not a two-act film, but two small films into one. Whether or not the disparity in style between the first half and the second half is a fault is up to the viewer, the themes still connect the two. What I would consider a fault, though, is the completely unlikeable nature of nearly every character in it, even those that are well-acted. There’s really nobody to relate to or even distinguish apart from the next, even the main character Joker comes off as though his personality was omitted from the draft. Kubrick made everyone “shells” and empty, but that doesn’t mean we have to hate them, do we? There’s also a sense of misdirection and sometimes aimlessness, perhaps, again, Kubrick thinking on a different level, but also making it hard to follow or understand where the story is heading. This can be up to the viewer, as Kubrick intentionally escaped convention on the narrative, so others may rate it lower, others higher, either way, while faulty, it's still a fantastic film.

The Ugly: Many people quote this movie and sometimes doesn’t even know where the quote originated. Hits like “Me so horny.” “Me Sucky Sucky.” “Me love you long time.” “This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is fighting, this is for fun.” “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?” and the ever so popular chart-topping hit “Only steers and queers come from Texas.” Sadly, while they might be able to quote it, most couldn’t tell you what happens in the movie…even if they did see it.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Funny People

When seasoned comedian George Simmons learns of his terminal, inoperable health condition, his desire to form a genuine friendship cause him to take a relatively green performer under his wing as his opening act

The Good: Seeing this movie reminds me of one thing: Adam Sandler wasted much of his acting ability in bad movies. I was reminded as I watched him the best performance he's ever done, but also reminded because of the self-aware nature of the movie whose main character is, pretty much, Adam Sandler under a different name who did those bad movies and sometimes hates his fame while doing it. The cast is incredibly strong here, so it's not just Sandler, and all are comfortable and natural in their roles (likely because their roles aren't too different than who they are in real life). It's a very adult film, rarely dipping to toilet humor (in fact that is often reserved for the on-stage personas, and the movie is aware of this also) and brings up notions Apatow has always been honest to us with: love, life and, here, death. The emotional impact might not be as strong as it should, but the meaning is still very much there and the comedy and message still works when it needs to. The dialogue is smart, the drama segments balanced well against the moments of comedy and the individual character issues all brought out nicely, in particular George's loneliness and lack of social connections (as in friends).

The Bad: Funny People is a film whose intentions I think are great. It shows the disparity between the funny side of people, comedians notably, and their real life issues that aren't quite as funny but unfortunately a lot of these characters are very difficult to like. Every one is flawed, from a guy sleeping with a girl another likes, to another cheating on his wife, to that wife being an utter bitch and arguably the worst, most aggravating character in the entire film (and a catalyst for a lot of people hating one another). I know what Apatow is trying to do here, but he really forces the issue at times to where the only person we can remotely like is Seth Rogan's character but even he is hard to get behind because he keeps important information from his best friend and shows how selfish he is as well. At nearly three hours, I honestly didn't want to spend another moment with any of these characters. I find this most disheartening because both of Apatow's previous films has wonderful characters I truly wanted to see more of. I'd rather see a lot of the ones here be packed in a bus and driven off a cliff. The script turns sloppy, the ending becomes predictable and, still, I wanted that damn bus. This film simply didn't set out what I think it was trying to do as a complete package in terms of its story, pace, and likeable people. The parts are far better than the sum here.

The Ugly: I don't know what Apatow was trying to accomplish with the Sandler-Mann relationship. It comes far too late, is far too drawn out and feels completely separated from the rest of the film. Sandler's George comes off as a complete asshole home-wrecker and Mann's Laura comes off as an actual villain and manipulator that, I'm sorry, I ended up utterly loathing. My words cannot stress my utter disdain to her character and, what's more, the fact that Apatow presents her as a victim and that I should feel sorry for her. Should I be as so lucky to have a bus to drive these people off a cliff (even Schwartzman, who I usually always love) she would be tied and restrained on the front grill with plastic explosives and I'd make damn sure the bus landed front-first. I utterly abhorred this awful portion of the movie for a number of reasons, notably the fact it brings down the entirity of the rest.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Furious Seven

Deckard Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his family for his comatose brother.

The Good: I don’t know if there’s a franchise or series of films right now that does what it sets out to do better than the Fast and Furious series. For over a decade, it’s quietly become, not just successful, but setting high bars in how it handles action sequences, notably starting with 2011’s Fast Five which jumped the shark, in a good way, in action presentation and directing.

Furious 7 is about that escalation, now pretty much putting any semblance of plot and story far into the background, and simply seeing how big it can take this stuff. Furious 7 has every type of action sequence you can think of. Shootouts? Check. Marital arts? Check. Cars? Of course. Car chases? Naturally. Car chases against armed cars with lots of gunmen? Naturally. Helicopters? Why not. Hell, let’s put a missile-firing drone chasing cars around LA while we’re at it. Let’s have those cars leap from giant skyscraper to giant skyscraper too because, dammit, we’re going all-in.

And all-in it does go because Furious 7 is like a two hour piece of meditative action cinema. You don’t realize how it draws you in until it’s over and you finally take a breath. Director James Wan sets a new bar and shows that he might be the next big thing when it comes to action (making nearly 150 million opening weekend probably helps on that as well). Furious 7 may not be able to put a full package together in terms of making a film, but it sets out to do action and more than hits that mark.

The Bad: There is no story here. Now you’re probably thinking “well yeah…it’s an action movie” and I would say you’d be right, except both the fifth and sixth films that kinda started this whole new approach to the Fast and Furious franchise at least put together a plot and story. They were ridiculous and dumb plots and stories, but a plot and story all the same. Furious 7 doesn’t even bother making for a film that doesn’t feel as fluid and streamlined as its predecessors (which were clunky in the story and plot department to begin with) to get us invested in its plot and characters so we actually care what’s going on not to mention have something outside of Vin Diesel bad one-liners and monologues to track and carry us through it.

Seriously, the whole “family” lines and stuff about fathers and sons were played out ages ago and feel like the one archaic thing the franchise inexplicably still tries to hold on to.

Furious 7 is a series of wonderfully shot and presented action scenes with a ton of variety and that’s it. There’s a loose “idea” stringing them together, but nothing that ever really lands or, honestly, feels risky and with a lot of weight to it. As glorious as the film can be in terms of scale  in regards to its action, once you’re out of those moments and the exposition starts rolling in, then the convolution that comes with it, you tune out and pretty much say “let’s just get on with it, guys.”

From this, the film also takes a hit in the humor department, something it did extremely well in the previous two films. If you aren’t going to spend as much time with story and characters, you give them less time to shine with funny dialogue and banter that played to the series’ absurd strengths so well.

The Ugly: Needs more Rock. Seriously, what made the fifth and sixth films so great is that Dwayne Johnson is in most of their runtimes and Vin is put more in the background. Still, the action included here manages to make up for it, but I’d still love (and certainly be more convinced) to see The Rock pulling it off more than Vin Diesel.

Final Rating:  3.5 out of 5


Fury

April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and his five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Out-numbered, out-gunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

The Good: Fury is easily one of the most intense war movies you’ll see. Violent. Bloody. Raw. It shows little to no good coming from the battlefield, whether it be visually with the destruction of lives, or from the men who participate in it - no matter what side they’re on - it’s ugly. Very ugly. War not only changes the land, but the minds of people in it.

Fury makes no compromises with that fact, which is unique to it. There is no “white knight” here. There’s not even a “shade of grey” for the most part. It’s all dark and the worst that humanity can offer. Once you start killing, it becomes second nature. And that in itself is the scariest aspect of war the scariest aspect of Fury. While it’s story is rather straightforward and simple, the approach to the psychological aspect of “transformation” is what it hangs its hat on and done well.

Through that we get one of David Ayer’s best film. Ayer has always been able to approach violence with the gritty, visceral nature of reality and brutality and exploring the elements of “manhood” through the structure of police, SWAT and, here, military personnel. We meet awful people doing awful things and though we may never relate to them, we see the world around them that makes them who they are - sometimes willingly and most times unwillingly. Solid performances from Pitt as a man who’s fully changed, and Logan Lerman as our conscious, Fury has a lot to say about the nature of war and violence as much as it does showing great action and tank sequences.

The Bad: Fury reaches a high point then begins to skid downhill for the remainder of the film. There’s a lot being said about the awfulness of war and what it does to people, but in terms of interesting things happening or characters going places, the tracks literally fall off this tank and it has nowhere else to go.

That’s where Fury falls short: so good in most aspects except the crucial one of weaving an interesting story. The characters are there, the setting, the look and style and the themes…but there’s no story and no place for it to go. It still has interesting things to say and do, at least, thanks to the character, but it literally gets stuck in the mud and concludes with a rather banal finish that doesn’t quite bring the punch that so much of the rest of the movie does.

Fury manages to get a lot right but loosely tosses its story into the mix. The movie is a character piece but there’s simply not enough there to be interesting outside of Lerman and, occasionally, Pitt. The flashes of great moments from the supporting cast only shows that had the movie spent more time with them as well, we might have had something that really brought it all home.

The Ugly: This type of role is pretty much going to skyrocket Logan Lerman. He’s always been good, but I have a feeling we’ll be seeing him in everything coming up.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


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