Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Movies G - J

-G-

G.I.Joe (2/5)

G.I. Joe Retaliation (2/5)
Galaxy Quest (4/5)
The Gambler (2/5)
The Game (3.5/5)  
Gamer (2/5)

Gandhi(4/5)

Gangs of New York (4/5)  

Gattaca (4/5)  

The General (5/5)

Get the Gringo (3/5)
Get Hard (1.5/5)
Get Low (4/5)
Ghost in the Shell (4.5/5)
Ghost Rider 2 (1.5/5)
The Ghost Writer (3.5/5)
Ghostbusters (4.5/5)
Ghostbusters II (3.5/5)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (4.5/5)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (4.5/5)
The Girl Who Played with Fire (3.5/5)

The Girl that Kicked the Hornet's Nest (3/5)

Gladiator (4/5) 
God Bless America (3.5/5)
The Godfather (5/5)
The Godfather Part II (4/5)

The Godfather Part III (3/5)

Godzilla (2/5)
Gone Baby Gone (4/5)
Gone Girl (4.5/5)
A Good Day to Die Hard (1.5/5)
Good Kill (3.5/5)
                                  
Good Morning (4.5/5)
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (5/5)
The Good, The Bad and the Werid (4.5/5)
 
Good Will Hunting (4.5/5)

The Goodbye Girl (4/5)
Goodfellas (5/5) 
Grabbers (2.5/5)

The Grandmaster (3/5)
                    
  Gran Torino (4/5)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (4/5)
Grand Illusion (5/5)
Grand Piano (3/5)
Grave of the Fireflies (5/5) 
Gravity (4.5/5)
The Great Gatsby (2.5/5)
The Great Muppet Caper (3/5)
The Green Hornet (1.5/5)
Green Lantern (2/5)
Green Zone (3/5)
Greenberg (3/5)
 
Gremlins (4/5)

The Grey (4/5)
Groundhog Day (4.5/5)
Grudge Match (2/5)
The Guard (4/5)
Guardians of the Galaxy (4.5/5)
The Guest (4/5)
The Gunman (1.5/5)






-H-

The Hangover (4/5)

The Hangover Part II (1.5/5)
Hanna (3.5/5)

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (1.5/5)
  Happy Feet 2 (2.5/5)
A Hard Day's Night (5/5) 
Harakiri (5/5)
Harry Brown (3/5)
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (3.5)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (4/5) 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (4/5)

Haywire (3.5/5)
Heat (4.5/5)
The Heat (3.5/5)
Heavenly Creatures (4/5)

The Help (3.5/5)
Her (5/5)
Hercules (3/5)
Hereafter (3.5/5)
Hesher (3.5/5)
The Hidden Fortress (4.5/5)
High Fidelity (4.5/5)
A History of Violence (4.5/5) 

Hitchcock (3/5)
                                      The Hitcher (4/5) 
Hollywoodland (3.5/5)
The Hobbit Pt 1 (4/5)
The Hobbit 2 (4.5/5)
Hobo with a Shotgun (3.5/5)
Home (2/5)
Homefront (2/5)
Hook (2.5/5)
Horns (2.5/5)
The Horror of Dracula (4.5/5)
The Horseman (3/5)
The Horsemen (1/5) 
Hot Fuzz (4.5/5)
Hot Tub Time Machine (3.5/5)
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (0/5)
The House of the Devil (4/5)

Housebound (3/5)
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (3/5)
How to Train Your Dragon (4/5)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (4/5)
Howl (3/5)

The Hudsucker Proxy (3.5/5) 

The Hunger Games (3/5)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (3/5)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1 (2.5/5)
The Hunt (4/5)
The Hunter (3/5)
The Hurt Locker (4/5)
The Hustler (5/5)

Hyde Park on Hudson (2.5/5)          Hysteria (3/5)

  -I-

I Love You, Man (4/5)

I Love You Phillip Morris (2.5/5)

I Saw the Devil (4.5/5)
I Sell the Dead (3.5/5) 
The Iceman (3.5/5)
Identity (3.5/5)
Identity Thief (1.5/5)

The Ides of March (4/5)
Idiocracy (3.5/5)
Ikiru (5/5)
The Illusionist (4.5/5)
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (4/5)
The Imitation Game (3/5)
The Immigrant (3/5)
Immortals (2.5/5)
The Impossible (4/5)
In a World (3.5/5)
In Fear (3.5/5)
In the Land of Blood and Honey (2.5/5)
In the Loop (4/5)
In the Mouth of Madness (4/5)
             In Time (3/5)
Inception (4.5/5)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (1.5/5)
The Incredible Hulk (3/5)  
The Incredibles (5/5)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (3.5/5)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (4.5/5)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (3.5/5)

Indie Game: The Movie (4/5)
The Informers (2/5)
The Informant! (3/5)  
Inglorious Basterds (4.5/5) 
Inherent Vice (3/5)
Inland Empire (3/5)  
Innerspace (3/5) 

The Innkeepers (3.5/5)
Inside (3/5)
Inside Llewyn Davis (4/5)
Inside Out (4/5)

Insidious (3.5/5)
Insidious: Chapter 2 (2.5/5)
Insomnia (3.5/5)
The International (3.5/5) 
Interstellar (3.5/5)
The Interview (2.5/5)
Into the Wild (5/5) 
Into the Woods (2.5/5)
Intolerable Cruelty (3/5)  
Invictus (3/5)  
The Invisible Man (4/5) 

The Iron Giant (4.5/5)
Iron Man (4/5)  
Iron Man 2 (3.5/5) 

Iron Man 3 (4/5)
The Iron Lady (3/5)
Iron Sky (3/5)
Ironclad (2.5/5)
It Follows (4/5)
It's Complicated (3.5/5)

-J-


J. Edgar (2/5)
Jack the Giant Slayer (2.5/5)
Jack Reacher (3/5)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2.5/5)
Jackie Brown (3.5/5)  
James and the Giant Peach (3.5/5)
Jason X (0.5/5)
Jason and the Argonauts (4.5/5)
Jaws (5/5)

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (3/5)
Jennifer's Body (1/5)  
Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade (3/5)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Joe (3/5)
John Carter (3/5)
John Dies at the End (2.5/5)
John Wick (3.5/5)
The Judge (2.5/5)
Juno (3.5/5)
Jupiter Ascending (1.5/5)
Jurassic Park (4.5/5)
Jurassic World (2.5/5)


G.I. Joe

An elite military unit comprised of special operatives known as G.I. Joe, operating out of The Pit, takes on an evil organization led by a notorious arms dealer.

The Good: A good, or at least passable, effort to blend nostalgic principles of a beloved toy line and cartoon series to an updated experience. This should have probably been called GI Joe: The Next Generation with it being set in the future (a good decision, as far as I'm concerned as it allows for the comical attributes and technology to be at least acceptable). Despite the glitz and action pieces, which are finely done with a frantic pace, the characters, story and awful script bring down a film that could have been, at least, better than its parts. Many compare it to a James Bond film, and it has that similarity to the Moore era of Bond goofiness...but many, I think, forget that the Moore era wasn't that good to begin with and its still only marginally better than GI Joe. Strangely, though, the tone and feel of the movie is exactly what I was hoping it would be, even if it overdoes the so-called "story."

The Bad: Despite its best efforts to at least be fun and entertaining, the melodrama and complete dead-pan seriousness of the film overshadows any effort at being fun and entertaining. It should have downplayed its own story more, actually. It doesn't quite reach that perfect balance of drama and comedy and only hopes the action can at least carry it seeing as how the story, plot and characters can not. The action is fun, at least better organized than the likes of a Michael Bay appraoch, and the special effects may be solid in that "slight fantasy" sense, but the film misfires more than connects on its hits. Of course, what I find incredibly amusing in movies like this is the complete disregard our heroes have for civilians. The amount of destruction caused and people killed during a chase sequence probably exceeded whatever plot our little terrorists would have began. Not that their plot makes much sense to begin with, the rules of our warheads were stated in the beginning that the controlled destruction would continue forever until told otherwise (nanotechnology so precise, it seems) yet they so specifically have to get to one exact target. Sure, it's neat to see our heroes flying around, yet they're running into cars, jumping through them in some cases, as missiles and bullets fly towards them. Sure, they can dodge, but nobody in that corner cafe or near those cars could. Then again, the film also sets the rules regarding Cobra's soldiers that have no pain, fear or emotion, yet we see them show emotions, screaming and showing pain ten minutes later. Consistency is all I think we can ask for in cartoon-flavored action movies like this, but when it fails to even do that, it stops being "dumb fun" (which this should have been, ala those old Roger Moore Bond films) and merely ends up being "dumb."

The Ugly: That's right, a Brendan Frasier cameo. If that doesn't seal the deal of quality, I don't know what does. Speaking of which, I feel that the fun quality of the Mummy films, of which Steven Summers directed the first solid two, is still found in GI Joe, but it still mismanges things that even the Mummy films got right.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The G.I. Joes are not only fighting their mortal enemy Cobra; they are forced to contend with threats from within the government that jeopardize their very existence.

The Good: A lean action movie that may never find its plot but never loses its desire to just be an entertaining action movie. It's as basic as basic can get, easy to digest but unavoidably unfilling, but there's some boldness here and there to keep the machine running and, at the very least, Dwayne Johnson carries the entire thing very well.

Byung-hun Lee is probably the only other standout, even though you'll only remember his name because there was a toy named after him and he's pretty much "the asian guy" in this ensemble. His action scenes are solid, they play to his strengths as a martial artist, but the character has noting else going for it despite the film's strange concentration on his backstory.

The Bad: Maybe not so "unavoidably unfilling" as much as it might just leave a bad taste in your mouth. It's bland. Uninspired. Too reliant on its already-lackluster predecessor to mean anything and too unpolished to admire its attempt at being creative.

While Johnson is certainly the standout (he so often is in sup-par cinema), the rest of the cast is asleep, notably Bruce Willis who is in more of a glorified-cameo role than his presence in the trailers might lend you to believe. At the very least, one would hope a film with a vapid and completely nonsensical plot could be carried by its characters and their personalities, most good action movies are, but there's not enough of this cast to push it through. One would also hope that if the story and the characters are both unmemorable or unengaged, that the action would carry it - that doesn't happen here either. For the life of me, I can't recall a single action scene, which means there's just a lack of care to even bother engaging an audience.

The Ugly: The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, really commits to this movie. He does that a lot in whatever he is, he’s just a natural star and seems to always give 100%. But the movies he’s in just aren’t up to standard and though this one isn’t abysmal, it’s only not abysmal thanks to him. Just imagine a good script and good director utilizing Johnson, then we might just have something special.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Galaxy Quest

The alumni cast of a cult space TV show have to play their roles as the real thing when an alien race needs their help. 

The Good: In a mixture of clever nostalgia loving mixed with with intelligent broadness, Galaxy Quest hits every angle and beat a comedic satire should hit. It parodies when it needs to be, self-aware when it wants to be and brilliant in all the right places along the way. Nods and tongue-in-cheek humor, notably in its relationship to Star Trek, hysterical fans and fantasy/science fiction b-movie quality productions, we're left a film that pokes fun at its source material as much as it does in creating a smart, hilarious adventure all its own.

As for the parody and satire itself, Galaxy Quest manages to reach the easy target but able to throw in a load of  subtleties along the way to not be so obvious. It's a smart blend of broad reaching with niche appeal, though it hits its stride and smartest when it's directly acknowledging the Galaxy Quest television show.

It's a brisk film, settling in firmly with all the classic troupes of the genre it homages. It's a fun adventure with appealing and incredibly memorable characters, notably Alan Rickman who seems so out-of-place yet simultaneous perfectly-in-place. We commit to this story and this comedy because of characters like Rickman's Alexander Dane or Tim Allen's Jason Nesmith that, themselves, are committed. These actors are having fun, know exactly the point of the film, and when everyone is in on the joke, you just have to sit back, have fun with the absurdities and laugh...a lot.

The Bad: Galaxy Quest isn't quite known for its depth, that's for sure. It's light, fun and simple.  Yet, it makes you wonder if we got to really know these characters, I mean really know them, we might get an extra insight into their emotive state and how they might have come to be so perturbed over time. This would relate to the process of acting, and its relationship to fandom as a whole. As it is, they're all pretty one-dimensional. Fun and full of personality, but we really don't know a thing about them. Then again, maybe asking for specifics on them, or the story trying to spend time beyond that one-dimensional narrowness, would simply take away from the broad appeal of the film, and the fun, as a whole.

The Ugly: Not to sound bold or hyperbolic here, but I've always felt that Galaxy Quest should be considered one of the better satires out there. It's the film that nobody realized they wanted, or needed, until they actually see it. Then they wonder why it took so long to get it right. It's for science fiction fans, certainly for Star Trek fans yet is broad enough to appeal to a wide audience. It's done so well, that it makes any other attempt to take on this subject matter again futile.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Gambler

Lit professor and gambler Jim Bennett's debt causes him to borrow money from his mother and a loan shark. Further complicating his situation is his relationship with one of his students. Will Bennett risk his life for a second chance?

The Good: The Gambler is one of those really cool looking, well shot and directed films that you wish just had better content held within. It knows its world, its sense of atmosphere, its ideas to run through the story regarding addictive people and cycle of gambling debts that puts someone in over their head...yet it's also uninspired as its often not working with anything particularly new nor is our lead actor up to the task to really make it all work.

I know, this is supposed to be the section of these quick reviews I discuss the good of something, but other than its atmosphere and consistent tone, The Gambler is a rather shallow, uninteresting flick. It has an ok script, but it doesn't really do anything with it. It has a great director, but a good or even great director can't overcome just an "ok" script, nor can they overcome a mediocre actor. The Gambler has the pieces. It really does. The way the city is shot, the music, the character actors at work and so on. It seems, on paper, it should be a movie that absolutely works, but it absolutely does not.

The Bad: Despite all the good story elements at play, not to mention a solid atmosphere reminiscent of a neo-noir, The Gambler suffers from simply not having a character we can really care about. Now when I say "care" I don't mean he has to be a good person or anything like that, I say "care" in that is he at least interesting? Do we want to watch a two hour movie about him?

The answer is no. We don't.  Jim Bennett is not a character you can care about, which is frustrating considering that it's obvious Wahlberg is doing his best with so little he has to make the character interesting on paper, and the actors around him are trying as well, but the fact is Bennett is a bore. He's a turnoff. The journey we go with him isn't worth it if we have to spend the entire time with him.

We're left a movie that really has little else to say and do. It kind of hinges on Bennett, so if he doesn't work then the rest of the movie doesn't either. Its messages become cluttered and lost, its points merely footnotes, its themes of "taking control" in terms of addiction and clawing your way out pointless if the character that's to represent all that just a nice ball of blandness that does nothing to inspire the ideas or entice its audience.

The Ugly: John Goodman should thank his agent. He's second billing and on-par with Wahlberg on all marketing material...and he has maybe five minutes of screentime. Good screentime, mind you, but very little.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Game

Nicholas  Van Orton is a very wealthy San Francisco banker, but he is an absolute  loner, even spending his birthday alone. In the year of his 48th  birthday (the age his father committed suicide) his brother Conrad, who  has gone long ago and surrendered to addictions of all kinds, suddenly  returns and gives Nicholas a card giving him entry to unusual  entertainment provided by something called Consumer Recreation Services  (CRS). Giving up to curiosity, Nicholas visits CRS and all kinds of  weird and bad things start to happen to him.

The Good: There is certainly a lot to become captivated with in The  Game. It will draw you in, take you on a ride, and really run around  frantically until it shocks or surprises you again. That's really the  basis of the script. While not as as smart as it thinks it is nor as fun  as it tries to be, it does take you on a ride with a dozen twists, turn  and a few cul-de-sacs in the process. While the script might be sloppy  at times, Michael Douglas really shines here and anything really  glaringly dumb is covered up by his ability to act around it and be  convincing in doing so. Douglas plays slimy jerks better than anyone,  and to see his character (which is an amalgamation of his past  characters) be thrown into the fire is damn near therapeutic, and  entirely enjoyable to see what happens to him next.
 
The Bad: But those twists and turns can actually start wearing thin.  Douglas's frustration is only a small percentage of the frustration and  annoyance a viewer can get a good half-way through the film until you  have one final "yeah right" coming at the end. Does it try too hard?  Certainly, but only noticeably because for the first half or so,  everything seems to move so smoothly and nothing is ever too outlandish  or over-the-top for us to question or suspension of disbelief. Those  moments eventually come, however, and had things not been so lavish with  its desire to "wow" us, it would have resulted in a much better film.  Instead, we have a film that's good, but a long ways to being fantastic.
 
The Ugly: There is no better feeling than when you first watch The Game  for the first time. It plays with you so well, unfortunately it’s not  one you can really watch again and again. The twists and the turns are  what sell it, and that first time is one memorable experience.
 
Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Gamer

Set in a future-world where humans can control other humans in mass-scale, multi-player online gaming environments, a star player (Butler) from a game called "Slayers" looks to regain his independence while taking down the game's mastermind (Hall).

The Good: Well, you get what you pay for, I suppose. Luckily I paid nothing to see this film and trying to find something good to say about it is difficult. Butler fits his role perfectly in both look, attitude and ability. His lines are few, needed range small and physicality high: perfectly cast considering all that is asked from him here is to hold a gun best he can (and act drunk, he does that well also). For mindless (really mindless) action, you probably can’t go wrong with it necessarily, although there are far better action movies in recent years to consider that actually go for the same tone and succeed.

The Bad: I don’t understand the reason of making an action movie so incomprehensible to follow. The scenes are bloody and violent, but only because I think they are. With constant cuts, shaky camera use and odd angles, most of the time you’ll have no clue what is happening. Compare it to the similar film, The Running Man, you find that a slower pace and well-thought out action set pieces can do wonders for a concept that is completely absurd and totally derivative. It’s not a satire like that film either, and in fact comes across as a shallow, ugly movie about human depravity than a comment on social interactions, media conglomerations and violent entertainment. There’s no risk to anything it seems, and little time to take anything in or even think. It moves as quickly in its “serious” scenes as it is in the battle field shots, no thoughts of consequences, mystery, emotional engagement or even an idea of what kind of tone it wishes to take (does it wish to be fun and campy, ala the Crank films, or overly serious?...it never strikes a balance of either if that’s what it’s even looking for). It’s simply a mess of a movie. Throw away characters.  Butler is utterly wasted here and could offer so much more as shown in other films, as does Michael C Hall who could have more fun with his character as well. Both are cast well, but the roles are nothing for them and characters as forgettable as they come. An obvious villain (i.e. Mystery solved) and outcome to everything doesn’t help matters, no matter how much science fiction suspension of disbelief I can muster.

The Ugly: If you were to go by the trailers, you’d think it’s about a kid that controls a guy in a game and maybe becomes attached to him. Turns out the kid is completely unlikable and nearly unneeded to the plot itself. It could just as easily been a gameshow where some strong Austrian guy that gets wrongfully put in and has to fight his way out...oh, that’s right.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Gandhi

Richard Attenborough's award-winning epic recounts the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi. In South Africa, a young Indian lawyer is booted off a train for refusing to ride second-class. Fed up with the unjust political system, he joins the Indian Congress Party, which encourages social change through passive resistance. When his "subversive" activities land him in jail, masses of low-skilled workers strike to support his non-violent yet revolutionary position. Back in India, Gandhi renounces the Western way of life and struggles to organize Indian labor against British colonialism. A strike costs many British soldiers their lives, so the crown responds by slaughtering 1,500 Indians. Enraged, the ascetic, spiritual leader continues to preach pacifism until he has lead India out from under the tyranny of British imperialism.

The Good: To tackle a person’s life is already daunting. At the age of 38, in only his second big-screen appearance (or first film that mattered), Sir Ben Kingsley (then not quite at the “sir” title) offers the world one of the finest performances of one of the most complicated persons to ever live. Calmness and quietness but not without firmness and sincerity, is how we see him. A humble figure surrounded by turmoil, yet he stands proud. Richard Attenborough’s film makes sure we can appreciate him, that much is for certain. By the end of it all, thanks to his solid directing and Kingsley’s legendary performance, you most certainly will.

The Bad:
The one fault of Gandhi, which may be major to some and minor to others, is how conventional it is. At the beginning of the film, even the filmmakers admitted that trying to tell his story is complicated and difficult, that one man’s life can not be summarized in a mere film. As they note, it is the man’s spirity they wish to convey, and for that much they succeed wholeheartedly. As a story to be told, though, it doesn’t offer much outside of that. There are no surprises or illuminations, in terms of Gandhi’s life it’s all by-the-book. I wouldn’t go as so far to say it trivializes Gandhi or his ideologies, which some critics have noted, Kingsley’s Oscar-winning performance won’t let that happen, but it doesn’t fully illuminate us on them or India itself. We come to understand Gandhi as a man but strangely not entirely what he stood for or the difficulties surrounding his country and struggles of its people, only how much of an important figure he was. The film hit’s the marks it needs to tell Gandhi’s story, but that’s about all: it just hit’s the marks it needs. As that opening statement says: we’re here to simply “record the journey.”

The Ugly: Apparently universal praise and 8 Academy Awards isn’t good enough for the American Film Institute, which has continuously left Gandhi off it’s “Top 100 Greatest Films” list every single year it revises it. He was, at the very least, voted onto their “Top 100 Greatest Villains and Heroes” coming in at number 21 on the Heroes list…right behind the bank robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5

Gangs of New York

Having seen his father killed in a major gang fight in New York, young Amsterdam Vallon is spirited away for his own safety. Some years later, he returns to the scene of his father's death, the notorious Five Points district in New York. It's 1863 and lower Manhattan is run by gangs, the most powerful of which is the Natives, headed by Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. He believes that America should belong to native-born Americans and opposes the waves of immigrants, mostly Irish, entering the city. It's also the time of the Civil War and forced conscription leads to the worst riots in US history. Amid the violence and corruption, young Vallon tries to establish himself in the area and also seek revenge over his father's death.

The Good: Daniel Day Lewis. I can think of no better way to start of the good aspects of this film than with his bringing to life one of the great cinematic characters. Lewis overshadows every other actor, which seems to always be the case with him, with his complete change into Bill the Butcher. Every other actor, although solid, seems lacking in comparison. His presence is rare in films and this film would be nothing without him, just another slightly interesting and somewhat haphazard period movie. Gangs of New York is a surmising and culmination of all Scorsese has done to that point. If Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas are his finest albums, Gangs of New York acts like the Greatest Hits compilation. Every theme and idea, weaving crime fables, visual style, great performances, character arcs, revenge tales...it's all right here in a three hour piece of exquisite cinema.

The Bad: Overindulgent and perhaps a tad overzealous, Gangs of New York seems more a celebration of the time and place than trying to tell us its story with its fantastic characters. It's messy, a hodge-podge of set-pieces and scenes focused to give us great dialogue and interactions than an overaching storyline about revenge- something that gets lost in the tale of romance, political manipulation and corruption, gang histories and vendettas outside of Vallon's. It lacks the focus of Scorsese's usually tight-narratives but, thankfully, doesn't lack the conviction

The Ugly: 2002 had a slew of great actor performances. While the Oscar went to Adrian Brody, Nicholas Cage in Adaptation, Daniel Day Lewis here and Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson were brilliant, it makes you wish you could give an Oscar to all of them, it was a tough year (the Best Actress nominations were pretty darn difficult too). Too bad the whole thing was ruined by giving the Best Picture to Chicago, a self-indulgent and uninspired picture, when you have The Pianist winning everything else.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


Gattaca

In the not-too-distant future, a less than perfect man wants to travel to the stars. Society has categorized Vincent Freeman as less than suitable given his genetic make-up and he has become one of the underclass of humans that are only useful for menial jobs. To move ahead, he assumes the identity of Jerome Morrow, a perfect genetic specimen who is a paraplegic as a result of a fall. With some professional advice, Vincent learns to deceive DNA and urine sample testing. When a colleague is killed he is finally scheduled for a space mission, but a colleague suspects his origins and the police begin an investigation.

The Good: Gattaca is, without question, a contemporary classic and is a great example of modern-day science fiction being as reverent and dynamic as it really should be. Andrew Niccol has done little since Gattaca, as far as directing goes, but I would say he was able to bring a new interest to intelligent science fiction as a result of his effort here. All the players give a solid performance, but it’s Niccol’s script and vision of future human perfection that is the selling point (in case you aren’t aware, concept and realization is far more important than anything else in science fiction – you have to sell the vision to draw the audience in). Gattaca does that in spades. When it comes to a sci-fi movie showing us a future setting, it’s all about the possibilities and vision of the time the film is made, perhaps our own hopes and wishes (or fears) than a legitimate prediction of what will come. Gattaca shows us fear on gene therapy, human conditioning and, of course, technology. This is nothing new to science fiction, especially in terms of literature, but is also something that is difficult to execute. Luckily Gattaca, for the most part, is able to and really suck you into its tale and world. Tense, smart, and one of the best films of its decade.

The Bad: There’s nothing necessarily “Bad” about Gattaca, but it is a rather sterile and cold film that, upon watching again recently, makes me wonder if I should be finding these characters appealing or not..or perhaps wish to find them appealing as they have slowly lost a sense of their own humanity due to the desire of perfected humans. The concept draws you in, yes, but perhaps a character to relate to would have given this film a little more emotional resonance.

The Ugly: The movie is over 10 years old, yet Thurman, Law and Hawke look exactly the same. My theory is they did genetically enhance them them during production.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The General

Johnnie loves his train ("The General") and Annabelle Lee. When the Civil War begins he is turned down for service because he's more valuable as an engineer. Annabelle thinks it's because he's a coward. Union spies capture The General with Annabelle on board. Johnny must rescue both his loves.

The Good: You know, if Orson Welles is going to call your film the greatest comedy ever made and “perhaps the greatest film ever made,” then what the Hell else could I possibly add?

Let me first say that I absolutely love Buster Keaton. (both sympathetically as a person, but more as an actor, writer and director). To use the word “genius” doesn’t quite do him justice. So many people use that term to describe great people. In the case of Keaton, he literally was a genius. He simply did so much (and in such a short amount of time) that you can’t help but wonder if the world was a little kinder to him and his personal life a little more stable, how much of that genius would come forth even more. What he did give us, though, was brilliant, influential comedy. His use of the camera, screen space, editing and approach to what can be funny even if you don’t realize it’s funny just yet. His films showed patience, refinement and his on-screen ability of stuntwork and expressions (without being expressive) has few rivals.

Like a lot of masterpieces that aren’t realized as brilliant until after the fact (Citizen Kane etc...), The General was not only badly reviewed when it came out, it was actually hated by both the critics and public and considered Keaton’s worst movie. Why is that? Well, people are afraid of things that are unique. The General has this odd little tone to it, today would be labeled as a “dramedy” and is rather dead-pan in much of its presentation. Dead pan is nothing new for Keaton, he was known as the Great Stone Face after all, but most of his other films had wacky comedy around him and he’d play off of that. That doesn’t quite happen here. The General isn’t a movie that thrusts its comedy directly at you. It naturally comes to the film and sneaks up on you. It comes gradually and develops as it progresses rather than simply throwing in gags, pratfalls and pies. It’s odd that The General would be so loathed at the time despite his previous films being popular, then again The General is like a concentrated dose of Keaton’s comedic approach moreso than his others, brilliant and subtle comedy on numerous levels from physical to situational to spot-on timing (and even dialogue...in the form of title cards, of course). Out of all the great silent era films, and there are a great many, The General could very well be the best. Orson Welles approves of this message.

The Ugly: It makes me happy that, now with the internet and the popularization of DVDs the past 20 years, more and more people are becoming familiar with silent era comedy stars outside of Charlie Chaplin (Harold Lloyd certainly as well...but that another time). Not that I dislike Chaplin, but Keaton appears more timeless for some reason and his comedy a little more complex at least I the silent era side of things. Keaton never made the jump to the talkies as well as Chaplin did. Still, though, the larger masses won’t ever know who he is. They probably barely know who Rudolph Valentino are. These founders of cinema, greats though they are, seem to be lost to those that take the tie to look at them. While I can understand going back to this era isn’t for everyone, the lack of awareness of our roots is disheartening. It would be like forgetting Chuck Berry and Little Richard as the roots of rock and roll, and that’s just a shame.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Get the Gringo

A career criminal nabbed by Mexican authorities is placed in a tough prison where he learns to survive with the help of a 9-year-old boy.

The Good: Despite it being an incredibly unfocused film, Get the Gringo is a solid genre effort by a rookie filmmaker. Action is sharp, methodical even as Gibson-starring action flicks tend to be, this one being a cross between the ridiculousness of Edge of Darkness with the dryness of Payback. As always, he's charismatic almost to a fault. His character, who changes his name throughout but is officially just named "Driver," is a bad-guy, but you just can't help but like him. Not because there are worse guys (there are, but Gibson is still pretty bad) but because you just don't want to not like him despite the body count. As Blake Snyder might say: he has a save the cat moment. You have to like him as a result of that.

Gibson is supported by a good assortment of character actors making for his character to be the crazy, yet oddly appealing "everyman" criminal while having a good variety of bad guys all around. Director Adrian Grunberg (in a script by Gibson, though he's one of three writers) handles the buckets of blood, countless bullets and visceral action well, far better than the script handles its plot, and there's more than enough set-piece scenes to keep you entertained from beginning to end, even if you aren't sure who is always who and why one person might betray another.

The Bad: With a half-dozen plots going on at once, the film never quite gets a good footing under it. It's always moving, shifting, changing its story into something. From a "buddy" movie with Gibson and a boy, to a plot about a liver, to the big plot about stolen money, then another about the Prison itself and the various factions going head to head in it to the quasi-romance with the mother of the boy Gibson's character befriends. It's a big, explosive meal with lots of ingredients but the taste fades after a while before suddenly turning into a new flavor.

I suppose this rolls over to the fact that Get the Gringo also can't decide what kind of film it wants to be. Oh, it's an action film, but it swings from cheesy, over-the-top action one moment then to a really dark, gruesome one the next. A few moments seem to come out of nowhere, only because in the scene before we might have had a silly one-liner and grenades blowing people up and shifting to a rape or torture moment to a comedy voice-over doesn't keep things tonally consistent. It's a film action fans will likely enjoy and not care about the unfocused nature of it, but most should probably just ignore for now.

The Ugly: Get the Gringo is a VOD film is theatrical clothing. Though I'm not surprised it couldn't get national distribution into theaters, I am surprised it's a lot better than one might assume when it comes to action VOD flicks.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Get Hard

When millionaire James King is nailed for fraud and bound for San Quentin, he turns to Darnell Lewis to prep him to go behind bars.

The Good: A few lines here and there will get a smile. Some funny bits between Ferrell and Hart. But let’s face it…this is just bad as Get Hard takes the extreme low-road to try and be funny and can’t even find a proper way to end its contrived-as-hell story in the first place.

Low-road comedy can be funny if done right. I mean, look at Bridesmaids. It has a ton of sex and diarrhea jokes. But it also has a solid hook and story with great characters and comedic actors to play them. You know…how the things you need to make a good fucking movie.

The Bad: Comedy is subjective. Hackney writing and an undercooked idea is not. Get Hard will get some chuckles of varying degrees, certainly. You have funny people in it. But the thing is, that’s ALL you have. The idea and the concept goes nowhere and does little and is saved entirely by Will Ferrel and Kevin Hart simply being Will Ferrel and Kevin Hart.

“Saved” is a little strong. Get Hard isn’t good, but it easily could have been far worse. Its biggest problems is that its one singular joke stretched for a feature length movie. It gets tired quick and the actors wring all they can out of it after the first half-hour. Chemistry is strong, but laughs and constantly thinking up new ways for them to try and be funny is not - notably in the final act where the film really struggles to make its escalation of a series of unfortunate events feel organic and natural (because the story itself is a contrived mess to begin with and it can only skate for so long on that one joke).

Get Hard isn’t a bad idea, it’s just badly implemented. It feels dated. It feels surprisingly restrained for an R-rated comedy. It feels…kind of pointless, I suppose. Even worse is how dated it feels as its comedy  and many of its gags is ripped straight from the stylings of other failed late-90s black man/white man comedies ala Money Talks, Bulletproof or Nothing To Lose. None of those did it particular well either because the concept has never really been done right as movie after movie thinks that what made Lethal Weapon work was the racial relations. It wasn’t: it was good characters and amazing chemistry, race and cultural differences weren't a part of the conversation once. Get Hard is another in a long line of comedies that still can’t figure that out and completely wasted two of the best comedians working today.

The Ugly: I honestly can’t believe this is from Etan Cohen. The man co-wrote Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy, two of the most clever and just outright funny scripts you could ask for. Maybe we’re seeing how little he had to do with those?

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Get Low

A movie spun out of equal parts folk tale, fable and real-life legend about the mysterious, 1930s Tennessee hermit who famously threw his own rollicking funeral party... while he was still alive

The Good: Get Low tells the story of an old man nearing the end of his days and he wants to have a "living" funeral before he dies. The whole town comes to it.
Wait, that's not right. In fact, that sounds rather bland and boring doesn't it? Let me rephrase it:

Get Low is a story about assumptions and perception. The lives of people we think we know versus who they really, truly are. An old hermit wishes to "set the record" straight with everyone, to show he's still a person with heartache and regret, and his funeral is his way to express and thus relieve his torment and, perhaps, seek forgiveness and redemption.

That's better. Get Low takes that and manages to offer a little thing called "insight." It shows life rather than tells it and we explore the makeups of one man's past and all the complications that come with it. It's a character piece and the script is full of them, and all impeccably cast. Murray's turn as an alcoholic funeral parlor owner is surely to be lauded as he delivers his lines with a sense of energy that never sinks to being "comedic relief" which helps balance Duvall's old curmudgeon of a hermit that the period town wishes would hurry up and die already. Of course, it's all on those little assumptions that they have about him and his complete understanding of why they do that. You begin to realize he's so tormented that those stories people tell about him are perfectly fine...the truth was far worse in his mind.

Get Low is an interesting, subtle piece of filmmaking. It restrains its ambitions, perhaps to a fault, but it always manages to grab you with sharp directing, a great visual style and fantastic characters. More importantly, though, is its dialogue and sense of conversation. It's hard to write a script that feels natural where characters don't "act" or simply make statements, rather they flow and wind like real people. That's the heart of Get Low and why it's one of the best films of the year that is probably going to be overshadowed by more high-profile titles.

The Bad: A bit of an uneven tone hinders what could have easily been a Coen-brothers-esque style of film. It doesn't quite hit its dramatic marks as well as you might think, but the light, almost freeing comedic tone it brushes with brings thoughts of O Brother Where Art Thou and Fargo into the mix yet it doesn't quite have the refinement needed to carry that tone consistently either.

The Ugly: It's amazing how Murray can really shine in these little supporting roles. It's also amazing how little work he does, but it's not surprising considering his rather odd way of doing business. If you don't know, Murray has no representation other than a lawyer, but his lawyer is not a talent rep. Instead, Mr. Murray has a 1-800 number that people are given, but you have to know the right people to get it. You then call and leave a message about what your project is and all the deal points, and if it sounds interesting to him (or he knows you) he'll call you back, work out the deal, then show up on the first day of shooting and knock it out for you. He doesn't half-ass it either, as shown here in what is probably his best role since Lost in Translation.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Ghost in the Shell

The year is 2029. The world has become intensively information oriented and humans are well-connected to the network. Crime has developed into a sophisticated stage by hacking into the interactive network. To prevent this, Section 9 is formed. These are cyborgs with incredible strengths and abilities that can access any network on Earth.
 

The Good: If there's one movie I would introduce a person to Japanese animation with, it would no doubt be this. It's not only a great piece of anime, but a great piece of science-fiction. While it may not be the most streamlined story, it offers the solid plot, ideas and quality that people really should expect from their anime. It's action is smartly utilized, often brief and kinetic, and the world is remarkable and captivating in a realistic yet dreamlike way. It's science fiction elements touch the very heart of the genre with the simple, although sometimes overused theme, of human existence versus technology. What really defines us a tangible or real? Does that equate to life? If a machine mathematically equates to it life, is the machine alive? What is a soul? Great science fiction has you asking questions, often rhetorical, but always intriguing. The animation is utterly stunning, possibly one of the most beautifully animated movies to be made. It's as detailed as the story and equally overzealous.

The Bad
: Unlike Akira, the film Ghost in the Shell is often compared to, it isn't quite as over-ambitious and keeps the fact its a detective story grounded while maintaining an intricate plot. Like Akira, though, we have issues with characters that are unlikeable and there are moments when it's simply overwritten. The characters are cold and robotic, intentionally of course but difficult to really connect with in any level or have you caring about what happens to them. Rather, the film (much like 2001: A Space Odyssey only not as sluggish) wants you to focus on the themes. It enjoys being intelligent for intelligence's sake. In that, it completely succeeds however it fails to bring that important human connection that would make those themes even more personal and relevant. That's something films like Blade Runner of the Star Trek series manage to balance incredibly well, in Ghost in the Shell I wonder if humans even exist at all. Then again, maybe that's the point to begin with.

The Ugly: There have been efforts to try and recapture this film in television series and sequels, basing off the expansive universe from the original manga. Simply put, they're mere shadows. It's no surprise the best thing to come from Ghost in the Shell had nothing to do with it other than inspiration was The Matrix. The cycle of film life, ladies in gentlemen. From one brilliant piece to another.
 
Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

As Johnny Blaze hides out in Eastern Europe, he is called upon to stop the devil, who is trying to take human form.

The Good: Zoom! Swish! Bang! Insert maniacal laugh! Heavy metal! Fire! Something about a kid! Motorcycles! Nicolas Cage laugh again! There you go! Have a token black guy for good measure! Crazy Camera! Devil! Decay power! Kabooommmm! White light! Christopher Lambert for some reason! Gadooosh! Vrooom! Slooowwww-motttion! Fire again!

And there you have Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

For a movie that makes absolutely no sense, you can't deny the pure visceral element it provides as complete detachment, therefore complete escapism, for reality. It's stylish and one of the most over-the-top movies I've seen in a while. Seeing  as there's little the Ghost Rider character has going for it, the method of this madness becomes the film's greatest trait.

It's from the same writers/directors of the Crank movies, and those sensibilities are all over the place, only now ten-fold because there's no reason to try and stay "grounded" - not that the Crank films were grounded to begin with, so imagine the escalation. There's fun here. Craziness. Things you won't see anywhere else with some very original and innovative way of shooting this "superhero" flick. Is it a good movie? No. But it's hard to not watch it either.

The Bad: I have absolutely no idea what's going on here. Oh, I know the plot. Sure. It's very simple. Nothing is ever really explained, it simply just happens for the sake of happening.  I think the filmmakers had a "fuck it" attitude and didn't want to be bothered. That fits in with the euphoric visual style they're going for, but it doesn't fit in with the need of the movie to try and tell a story. There isn't one. It's simply a set of scenes thrown together that fall into each other rather than lead into each other. But once you reflect on it, you can't help but ask a hundred different questions about a hundred different things.

Sometimes the film is campy. In those moments, it works wonderfully. Then it tries to be serious and dark, and in those moments it doesn't. The result is a film that can't decide which direction it really wants to go, but at the same time never lifts its foot off the gas pedal to make sense of it all. It just...goes. And goes fast. Hard. Trying to think to much will just make your head hurt. Unfortunately you'll have time to. There's so much crammed into the film that it feels twice as long than it really is and it becomes spent and tired only about an hour in. Everything becomes noise after that.

The Ugly: I still haven't quite figured out what makes the Ghost Rider work. The films haven't done the best of jobs in when and where our hero turns into the "rider." I get he's drawn to evil, but what qualifies as evil?

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


The Ghost Writer

A ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy

The Good: All it takes is a strange man in black inside a bar at night to have you start really second guessing things. That happens about thirty minutes in to The Ghost Writer, which marks the second act and the beginnings of things to start questioning. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Roman Polanski's approach to film. His movies are always progressive, moving forward, and developing within themselves to mark the ever-evolving story and characters. It's consistent, save for the final moments, but otherwise a mark of a patient hand and an intelligent script (also written by Polanski) full of sharp dialogue, often quite humorous with great lines like "Can't talk. Some peace protesters are trying to kill me" very promptly followed up in the next scene with "Are you ill?" "No," replies McGreggor in a fantastic performance. "I'm aging."

Everything about The Ghost Writer shows utter confidence. Seeing as how Polanski has generated some of the best thrillers in film history, it's not surprising. The Ghost Writer isn't up to the levels of a Rosemary's Baby or a Chinatown or A Knife in the Water, but it hearkens back to those sensibilities in a similar way his under-appreciated The Ninth Gate did ten or so years ago. He doesn't ever attempt to be flashy or attempt to do more than what is called upon - an ideology of staying grounded and trusting in your craft which is something quite fleeting for many directors.

The Bad: Working against its sharp dialogue and excellent pace is, ultimately, an underwhelming outcome to it all. As wonderful as the hours of buildup is, the outcome is as disappointing as ordering a 30 dollar entree and sending it back to the chef because it's undercooked.

And that's about it, actually. It's not something I can detail, it's a sensation and comparison of a smart, well plotted first two acts and a final one that doesn't fit the pieces together well. I can point out the plot elements that rush into the story in the final act that spins your head with a "sorry...what?" than a "wow, that's amazing" but that would be a lot of ranting on it when, in actuality, it's still a fine film with some disappointing flaws and fractures in the stone when you look a little closer.

The Ugly: How old is Polanski? Almost 80? The guy can direct, man.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Ghostbusters

Punted from a New York university grant program for their less-than-orthodox approach to research, three scientists decide to go into business for themselves as exterminators. Only it's not cockroaches they plan to wipe out - it's spooks. A derelict firestation, jazzed up ambulance, and some unlicensed nuclear accelerators later and our boys are in business. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are the Ghostbusters.Before long business is booming, but there's some serious nastiness brewing in the Big Apple. Local musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) - an instant love interest for wiseguy Venkman - notices some ever-so-slightly gruesome creatures hiding in her fridge behind the hamburgers and, quite literally, all Hell breaks loose. 

The Good: A timeless comedy and no-doubt Ivan Reitman's best film. You have all the elements of a great action comedy.The special effects still hold up well after all these years, especially the infamous Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. What allows Ghostbusters to rise above its own plot and concept are the characters and specifically Bill Murry as Peter Venkman, who has some of the best lines. All three of the main team (and Winston eventually) feel together like old friend, the actors being friends in real life no doubt had a lot to do with that. New York City itself is a character and there's no denying that there's a love the filmmakers seemed to have with it (which is why it's considered one of the great "New York" movies). Unique, funny and endearing, it's arguably one of the greatest films ever made.

The Bad: The ending feels haphazard and rushes to end itself. Although the ending is satisfactory, it seemed to really force itself to happen.

The Ugly: Walker Peck is one of the best villains in cinema. Here you are, spending time with the characters you love, cheering for them, happy to see them succeed, then up comes Pecker and he throws it all away. Yes, it's true, your honor, this man has no dick.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Ghostbusters II

Five years after the events of the first film, the Ghostbusters have been plagued by lawsuits and court orders, and their once-lucrative business is bankrupt. However, when Dana begins to have ghost problems again, the boys come out of retirement only to be promptly arrested. The Ghostbusters discover that New York is once again headed for supernatural doom, with a river of ectoplasmic slime bubbling beneath the city and an ancient sorcerer attempting to possess Dana's baby and be born anew. Can the Ghostbusters quell the negative emotions feeding the otherworldly threat and stop the world from being slimed? 

The Good: "Suck in the gut guys, we're the ghostbusters." Their better days behind them, we now see an older group of Ghostbusters trying to make ends meet. All four members have taken up odd-jobs and it's interesting to see what they would be doing if they never were Ghostbusters to begin with. We feel as though we didn't miss a beat and fall for these characters all over again, and again that becomes the film's strongpoint.While not as many memorable scenes as the original, it definitely has its moments with the river of slime, subway tunnels and the classic courtroom scene. It's a good followup and an entertaining movie despite the weird story and nonsensical villain.

The Bad: I find it hard to believe the GBs would be a laughing stock to the people in New York, there's a mutual love they have and a sudden turn doesn't fit. It also recycles a lot of the first movie's gags and laughs.

The Ugly: There's a lot of weird things that happen in the movie, and it is polarizing to a lot of people, but one that comes to mind is when Janosz appears to fly across the New York skyline dressed as a nanny and kidnaps Dana Barret's baby. He looks like a ghost, but we know he's not, and he also stretches his arm 20 feet. This is never explained, weird stuff.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for forty years by Lisbeth Salander, a young computer hacker. 

The Good: Innately bleak. Masochistic at times and when needed. Confusing yet satisfactory. A haunting sense of place and unseen evils. David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is as well-crafted of a thriller as you would expect from the master director. Make no mistake, Fincher is a master. He constructs scenes like an artist deciding which colors to blend and sets a stage for his story to be unfolded. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a puzzle that is impeccably paced as it comes together.

The script, with Fincher's direction, takes a rather complicated story, complicated more in small details coming together than depth mind you, and lines it out in a well-paced, coherent way that gives an emotional satisfaction and a sense of completion. It's "crafted," more than told. Fincher brings to the table a sense of texture to the world. You can sense the chill of the cold or the warmth of a fire and when it turns brutally visceral, you feel that even more intensely.

Roony Mara as the title character dedicates herself to the role 100% and without hesitation. She's a star in the making and a role like this, from being unafraid of nudity and committing to the emotional struggle of the character to willingness to getting dozens of piercings and make up styles that change every scene, she's the power behind the story. Her character overshadows every other player, dominates every scene and in an act of fitting poignancy, ends her journey in fitting fashion. Though this may not go down as one of Fincher's most elite films, the quality simply can't be denied.

The Bad: Though Mara is the highlight, the film is balanced between her character and Daniel Craig, and Craig sheepishly plays his character to merely serviceable fashion. Mikael lacks personality, drive, emotion and in a film like this, "serviceable" isn't what is needed because he will only be forgettable in the long run. As a result, the relationship between he and Lisbeth feels cold, forced and overall contrived to a degree of being unnecessary in the first place.

Issues of the story, however, run not through this film or even the previous film. It's found in a convoluted novel that seems more guilty pleasure and wish fulfillment than attempting to construct and methodical thriller. Fincher tries to make it methodical and smart, but that's thanks more to his style (which helps) than in the content itself. Mikael is an underdeveloped character, sub-plots are far too many despite Fincher and the scripts ability to outline it nicely and everything can come across as a bit ridiculous by the end of it all.

The Ugly: I liked both this version and its Swedish counterpart, both well worth seeing. The different takes on Lisbeth are fantastic, I feel the Swedish version had a better Mikael and this one told its tale in better and more stylish fashion. Both well worth seeing.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, ruthless computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from almost forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vanger's are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.

The Good: Foreign thrillers, time and time again, understand two things perfectly: pacing and character. In the past ten years some the best thrillers have come from Europe. The Lives of Others, Cache and Tell No One just to name a few I'm fond of. They're often slow and intelligent, plotting along with perfectly-set reveals, twists and a strong emphasis on the human psyche, ranging from obsession to desires to the mysteries we end up making for ourselves versus the legitimate mystery at hand. They're often thought-provoking and in many cases have a certain theme or message they wish to express.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has all of those sensibilities but it's all layered through a Hollywood-like script that's more focused and refined that what a European thriller is often accustomed to. In other words, it knows its pace, where to go and what to do to always keep you intrigued - a pretty impressive feat seeing as how you never really feel the rather lengthy runtime (especially for a slow brew thriller like this). Nothing feels wasted. It's easily on par with some of the best thrillers in history as it gives as much time to the mystery and the occasional violence as it does it in expressing its characters. The character's aren't your typical archetypal stock characters, but they feel like real human beings. They have a mysterious past, a present dilemma and an uncertain future. It never feels "stock," though. It comes down to the elements of vulnerability which, in turn, creates believability. The human element is never forgotten, and the complexity is found, not in the mystery, but in the persons trying to figure it out. The ending is one of the most beautifully human endings you could ask for that puts all this mystery into perspective.

The film also has this fantastic voyeuristic angle in piecing together the puzzles. Well, that may not be the right word. It's not The Lives of Others as much as it is Blow Up or The Conversation where the images (or audio) are non-direct elements meant to be figured out. This is more a means to the human end, though, and it's as focused and well presented as you could ask a thriller (or a character drama/thriller as this one turns out to be) to ever be. Despite the numerous red-herrings, reveals and a couple of twists thrown in for good measure, the characters are what hold it all together and utterly compel you. It's a film that, between the astounding acting, beautiful cinematography and directing and amazing score (seriously, I love the music here) that leaves you saying "I don't know if I could ask any more of this movie."

The Bad: What's "bad" in a movie like this? Ah, I suppose I better mention something, and it's a fairly big something actually. There's a sub-plot involving our main character, Mikael, and his going to prison for libel. It bookends the film with this sub-plot and pretty much forgets about it through 98% of the rest of it. It feels half-hearted, and simply wishes to put a cute bow on the final moments (a bow that's perhaps a little too well-tied and clean), until you realize all of it was kind of unnecessary in nearly every facet of the film. It wasn't that relevant to the character at all, it certainly wasn't relevant to the plot at hand and could easily have been removed and cut down the runtime for 7 or 8 minutes. I think that, had Mikael or Lisbeth discussed it more during the course of the film, it wouldn't have been so noticeably forced in when it crops back up one more time in the closing segments. It never feels a natural part of the flow of things, especially seeing as how everything else does.

Then you start thinking a little more. While you'll like the character of Mikael, he's smart, caring yet a little dumb at the same time (which is why he and Lisbeth make a great team) you really end up not knowing a lot about him at all. You know far, far more about the Vanger family/group and, naturally, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Lisbeth) but never quite feel Mikael is even in the same ballpark as any of them. A good character, he always feels involved in the resolving the mystery and brings it all together, but we still end up feeling he's almost as mysterious as the mystery he watched him uncover.

The Ugly: I mentioned under the good section that many foreign films, here a thriller, have something else to say beyond just its narrative. Here it's about the role of women in a male-dominated society. The cycles of abuse and violence against them seemingly never ending.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Girl Who Played with Fire

As computer hacker Lisbeth and journalist Mikael investigate a sex-trafficking ring, Lisbeth is accused of three murders, causing her to go on the run while Mikael works to clear her name.

The Good: Continuing the thematic trend of depth and complexity of society and humanity, The Girl Who Played with Fire is every bit as compelling and enthralling as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, our first film, even if it lacks the latter's sense of sharp writing and sophisticated scene progression. The Girl Who Played with Fire's take on suspense is less the slow-brew approach of its predecessor and more a faster, intense experience that still deals with the world of politics, conspiracy and human sexuality.

The film is what many would call "efficient." There's not a lot of time to sit and dawdle, it moves briskly from one point to the next. Had this been a first act film, that would be an issue. You would have a detachment of characters to plot, but that's where The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo comes in. These characters are already established. We know them. Like them and don't need to re-set them up. Instead, we're taken by the hand with these character we know and thrust into the momentum of the story which seems to never let up.  Myqvist and especially the amazing Rapace fit back into their characters as though a day never passed, here we catch up one year later with them, and had they not filled these finely-crafted shoes again so perfectly, The Girl Who Played with Fire simply wouldn't have ended up as engaging as it ultimately is.

The Bad: While it's easy to try and give The Girl Who Played with Fire the benefit of the doubt, it is the second of a trilogy and thus the second act of an overarching story, as a compelling, self-contained film it lacks polish, punch and purpose outside of setting up for the final act. This would be fine had the film not attempt to become so convoluted for mere set up and attempt to tell its own story. Instead it runs through a series of checks and balances, a laundry list of plot points meant to be introduced rather than resolved and only until the final fifteen minutes is there any sense of risk, danger or twist to be had.

It's two hour of unequivocal blandness that's only salvaged by characters we already know from the first film, who go nowhere and achieve nothing or even hint at achieving anything. Whereas the first act, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, had everything from character, script and style, our second act here feels disjointed and only salvaged by characters that the first film managed to make compelling. On their own here, though, they are far from it as even they become lost in the convolution with only their basic personalities coming through.

The Ugly: Is this a James Bond film? I've never seen gadgets on phones with real-time security camera feeds and large superhero-like blond aryans that are immune to pain. There's a suspension of disbelief that needs to be had, but that's not what the film is going for. It's going for realism and for emotion, not cartoony, unbelievability.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Girl that Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Lisbeth is recovering in a hospital and awaiting trial for three murders when she is released. Mikael must prove her innocence, but Lisbeth must be willing to share the details of her sordid experiences with the court.

The Good: A fitting, albeit unsatisfying, conclusion to the stories of The Girl, also known as the Millennium trilogy. Though a bit slow, the story here is well paced and hits the right points to draw you in as the mystery of the past begins to unravel and conspirators get what's coming to them. The final chapter is a courtroom drama at heart as Lisbeth's story comes full circle and is able to end its various plot lines in a well enough fashion...

The Bad: ...But like the previous film, this final chapter is, at best, serviceable. There are some sharp moments and the usual good acting, but there's so little of both, notably our lead "Girl" and the fact she really does nothing at all. Perhaps that's to counter the previous film where Mikael who really did nothing at all, but both show the huge gap in narrative poignancy as one story is very much a progressive traditional plot and the final two are more exposition context.

Sure, the film does what it needs to do...it just doesn't do it in a very compelling way as it is more full of exposition than of interest. Also, like the previous film, everything you know and like about the characters is a carryover from the first film, not necessarily anything they say or do here. Even Mikael, who does his share, is more in the backseat of a car that never quite revs the track and, rather, enjoys a quiet drive through a street and spends an inordinate amount of time trying to parallel park.

The Ugly: Neither better nor worse than the previous film, but not as good as the first that was damn near perfect, the balance of the films is far from consistent with two parts of the overall story feeling far less compelling than the first. It's not the director or actors or even scripts, they're all fine, I think it's more because the first book and therefore film is so drastically different and more self-contained than the two that follow. The first is a mystery movie, the following two are conspiracy thrillers about a young woman that deals more with a backstory than anything occurring here and now.

It's as though the writer wrote one good book then wanted to expand the backstory of one character in that good book across two more. The films follow suit with that approach and results are mixed.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Gladiator

Maximus is a powerful Roman general, loved by the people and the aging Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Before his death, the Emperor chooses Maximus to be his heir over his own son, Commodus, and a power struggle leaves Maximus and his family condemned to death. The powerful general is unable to save his family, and his loss of will allows him to get captured and put into the Gladiator games until he dies. The only desire that fuels him now is the chance to rise to the top so that he will be able to look into the eyes of the man who will feel his revenge.

The Good: I’ve noticed over the past ten years, that the affection people have with Gladiator has grown and grown. Similarly, so ha the affection grown for the spectacle that is Ancient Greece and Rome. Many have noted to me that Gladiator was oddly absent from my Top 25 of the Decade list (though it is in the honorable mentions). To that I say: yes it is, but it’s not a bad film either. It’s just not one of the greatest despite its accolades and the fondness people have with it. In fact, I would say Scott even outdid it with the criminally overlooked Directors Cut of Kingdom of Heaven in both scope, action and especially story.

Gladiator is the “cliff’s notes” of a Roman film. It focuses on the raw and nitty-gritty things that people love about Rome. Its beauty. It’s brutality. It’s blood shed. And the fact is: Gladiator 100% got those elements right. It barely hinges on a story, but it’s lead is strong and the world around him even stronger and that is more than enough to make Gladiator one of the best action movies of all time. Ridley Scott’s directing, the score by Hans Zimmer and the artistic lensing from John Mathieson, who absolutely captures the “feel” to perfection (really, the entire art department deserves credit...oh wait they did with all the noms and wins at Oscar time). You’re not looking for accuracy in a movie like this, nor should you, but you are looking for an experience and on that note Gladiator delivers with few in its league. It’s the Ben-Hur of its generation.

The Bad: Nearly all of Gladiator is utterly brilliant in that pure entertainment kind of way. The action scenes. Crowe. The visuals. Even the villain, for the most part. Yet, it’s the desire for one, singular villain that is its ultimate downfall. He is evil, yes, but the entire plot towards the end with him and Maximus feels so incredibly forced that it belittles all the greatness and grandeur that had been coming up. Phoenix works well with what’s given him, but there’s a certain degree of cheesiness and being overly melodramatic on his character that and older hand probably could have handled more gracefully with less “forced young ruler angst” and more “supreme leader superiority complex.” All this hinges on a script that starts well enough but ends without a strong sense of satisfaction. It’s dialogue ranges from poignant and memorable to just plain awful (the delivery even moreso) and every character outside two, especially those surrounding the political storyline, ends up one-dimensional and completely uninteresting.

The Ugly: Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, though brief in the film, really bring an aura of class to everything. It makes you want more of them, or at least more characters like them, especially Reed who really shone as Proximus.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


God Bless America

On a mission to rid society of its most repellent citizens, terminally ill Frank makes an unlikely accomplice in 16-year-old Roxy.

The Good: We are over saturated and at a constant exposure of pop culture, rudeness and stupidity. It's fed into our minds, into our souls, nearly every waking hour. The idea of someone reading a book, or writing a poem, or painting a picture, or simply having an intelligent debate without sinking to insults and firing lines has given way to celebrity obsession, hyperbolic (or outright lies) rhetoric, talking heads telling us what to say, think and do and the passivity of us being told what is popular, why we should love it and then go out and buy the stuff so we can be just like that. As our "hero" says: "nobody talks about anything anymore, they just regurgitate everything."

God Bless America is pure catharsis, if not outright wish-fulfillment. Plain and simple. It has no other purpose other than to say "fuck all this." The guy that blocks you in every night when you park? Fuck him. Kim Kardashian? Fuck her. Extreme Energy Drinks, bro? Fuck that. Exploiting others and being rude and passing that off as comedy and "cool?" Especially fuck that. Westboro Baptist Church? Fox News? The youth of our society degenerating into spiteful, shallow assholes and the overprotective parents that allow that?

Alright, you get the idea. Truth is, to list all the things that God Bless America spitefully extinguishes in a fury of frustration being let go is pretty much listing the things that are wrong with our society. More specifically, it's about the acknowledgement of these things and the visual, metaphorical destruction of it because, dammit,nobody else is doing it. People think it. People maybe even wish it or daydream about it. But here, we see it. On film. With that "enough is enough" mentality and we blow it all away because, truth be told, it will happen to all those things eventually. What's popular now won't even be remembered in ten years, just like Paris Hilton and Crystal Pepsi.

God Bless America is a release. It's made for the group of people that are tired of it all, but is a reflection of us as well and should be seen, and understood, by that everyone. It's a reactionary film about the state of our culture. One that maybe we didn't realize we needed until someone (being Bobcat Goldthwait of all people) making it for us. Well directed, fun yet sincere performances and darkly humorous from beginning to end, God Bless America is pretty much guaranteed a cult following, and eventually, years from now, will be a window into our era of just being sick of it all.

The Bad: "Turn it off." A phrase that kept creeping into my mind. There's one major hole going through the entirety of the film. Our protagonist notes how despicable everything is, yet he's not really doing anything himself. He still just sits in a comatose state, stares at the television, listens to insipid radio hosts, never engages anyone in any of the meaningful conversations himself. He's a loner, bored and sick of all, but what is he doing other than just complaining about it until it boils over? He's not seeking out a good book to read or going to museums. He's not changing anything or being any different that he judges. I ended up finding this hypocrisy a bit distracting, especially early on as we're building up to the eventual anger-management-issue  of a killing spree.

God Bless America, as cathartic as it might be, also runs its course about half-way or so through its runtime and does begin to wear out its welcome. It becomes a tad tired, certainly redundant, and after a while the comedy just becomes lost. Plus, the film takes a very, very dark turn around this point, shifting from black comedy to just being black and cynical. It also really clouds its message, a loose one though it may be, and turns it from "this is what is wrong with the world" to "who can say what is wrong, let's just kill people."

The Ugly: The violence and overall concept will probably overshadow just how damn good the dialogue is. There's some great turn of phrases and observational lines happening here, but it will probably take a back seat when you're shooting reality stars in the face.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Godfather

The story begins as "Don" Vito Corleone, the head of a New York Mafia "family", oversees his daughter's wedding. His beloved son Michael has just come home from the war, but does not intend to become part of his father's business. Through Michael's life the nature of the family business becomes clear. The business of the family is just like the head of the family, kind and benevolent to those who give respect, but given to ruthless violence whenever anything stands against the good of the family. Don Vito lives his life in the way of the old country, but times are changing and some don't want to follow the old ways and look out for community and "family". An up and coming rival of the Corleone family wants to start selling drugs in New York, and needs the Don's influence to further his plan. The clash of the Don's fading old world values and the new ways will demand a terrible price, especially from Michael, all for the sake of the family.

The Good: Everything about the Godfather is perfect. No questions asked. While some might not like the slower pace, perhaps spoiled by the Mafioso tales of Martin Scorsese in this respect, The Godfather plays out like a classic piece of Greek drama. It takes its time, simmers and occasionally explodes with effectiveness and poignancy. The characters are beautifully rendered, Al Pacino’s subtle and lyrical performance as Michael showing one of the greatest character studies in film history, and Marlon Brando is, well, he’s Brando and creates a character that has become a part of our culture to this day. With a script adapted to every little detail by Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola gives a film that is more than just a “mafia movie” or even a “period film.” It’s simply one of the most beautiful, engaging if not heartbreaking pieces of drama and storytelling to be made. For me to sing praises is almost redundant at this point as it’s one film where pointing out flaws is impossible, and I admit to that not as a critic but as a lover of fantastic cinema. The truth is, if you haven’t seen it, then what good are you? The Godfather is surely fantastic cinema in every aspect and one that any true fan of film not only must see, but must appreciate because it’s impossible to do otherwise.

The Bad: Not applicable, sir. (and I’m not saying that to be facetious, it simply doesn’t have anything wrong with it other than a bad film transfer which, I hear, has been corrected with the new Blu-Ray editions and looks gorgeous. Take care of your films, studios, please.).

The Ugly: The Sonny Corleone “fight” scene is utterly hilarious, and utterly easy to see as badly choreographed and comical. Punches don’t land, the dialogue is it’s all over the place.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


The Godfather part II

The continuing saga of the Corleone crime family tells the story of a young Vito Corleone growing up in Sicily and in 1910s New York; and follows Michael Corleone in the 1950s as he attempts to expand the family business into Las Vegas, Hollywood and Cuba.

The Good: The second part of the epic gangster saga is more reliant on its fantastic performances than it is a quality script, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t interesting (half of it at least). Pacino shows Michael Corleone beginning to dive into a dark place of his life as the head of his family. He’s pressured, even paranoid, and beginnings to make enemies that perhaps he can’t quite control. He’s also become rather arrogant, as anyone would. His story parallels with that of Vito, played brilliantly by Robert DeNiro and got him his first Oscar. It’s a great dynamic, these two stories, to show the beginnings and the fading dream simultaneously in great, understated Francis Ford Coppola fashion. He allows scenes to develop, trust in his actors even moreso than he did in the original film, and brings to life a world that nobody reading this could possibly understand. Most notable, though, is the art direction of this one. The first film gloriously recreated a period so perfectly, you don’t even notice. Here, it goes even further back and gives us an exquisite painting of early 20th century New York. The people, the shops, the growth of New York and the dark alleys that it was built upon.  In that, Coppola matches the detail and atmosphere put into the first film, if not exceed it entirely.

The Bad: Being heavily reliant on flashbacks can often bring down a film, and in The Godfather Part II it doesn’t so much bring it down as much as it causes an unevenness between the present story with Michael and the past story with Vito. Let’s face it, the present story with Michael, despite showing the parallels between he and his father, is pretty much secondary here. This has a lot to do with Michael’s story being written later because the story of Vito was actually written in the original novel and was originally going to be apart of the original film. Taken from the source material, it works. Trying to fill in elements after the fact makes it feel more arbitrary than really something of interest and Micahel’s story is relatively subdued and, simply, not that interesting despite his dealings with his brother (the only main point of it). The primary story is Vito, simple as that, Michael’s is nearly irrelevant.

The Ugly: The entire Senate Committee scene comes across as mere filler and is an utter bore and ultimately pointless other than to show Michael trying desperately to hold on to what is left. The true story here was about his brother, Fredo, not the politics. The film can lose sight of that from time to time.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Godfather part III

In the final installment of the Godfather Trilogy, an aging Don Michael Corleone seeks to legitimize his crime family's interests and remove himself from the violent underworld but is kept back by the ambitions of the young. While he attempts to link the Corleone's finances with the Vatican, Michael must deal with the machinations of a hungrier gangster seeking to upset the existing Mafioso order and a young protoge's love affair with his daughter.

The Good: The black sheep of the Godfather trilogy isn’t as bad as many like to claim it to be, but shows a drop off in style and quality that is difficult to accept. It has some brilliant moments, particularly the ending and very final shot, that are moving and meaningful not to mention poetic. The Godfather Part III might have some elements that are necessary and need to be told for the trilogy and for Michael Corleone’s story, but most is merely there to get to those points.

The Bad: By this point, Al Pacino simply could not do a film without chewing some scenery in the process. Perhaps, as an overall arc for Michael Corleone, he shows how much of Michael he really is and we would expect Michael to follow a similar path as Pacino did: become arrogant, loud, and even a parody of himself. Twenty years can change a man, that much is for certain, but to be dropped in and see how much different causes him to appear unrecognizable. Maybe some like that, I don’t because Michael was pretty well established in the first two films as intelligent, quiet and thoughtful (which is why his father loved him). Now he’s what Pacino wishes him to be, which is pretty much Pacino at this stage in his career. There’s also a drastic change in how the film is presented and the story content expressed. Coppola’s first two films were understated and subtle, being smart with how it uses violence and to be realistic in doing so. There are flashes of it here, but most is outlandish and overly bloody (such as a helicopter scaling a hotel and gunning down everyone in a room). The script also suffers from a serious lack of clarity and simply being told well as an overall pertinent and important story that needs to be told, something the previous two films did incredibly well.


The Ugly:
Part III is exactly what Coppola expresses it as: an epilogue. I say “why bother?” It’s not a horrible film, but it would feel needless and unnecessary even if was a “great” film to create something 20 years after its relevance.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Godzilla (2014)

The world's most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity's scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.

The Good: Amazing special effects and a great sense of scale and atmosphere carry the load of Godzilla, the latest installment (or is it now a reboot?) of the long-running Kaiju series. The sense of dread and tension is palpable and director Gareth Edwards approaches Godzilla less like a giant-lizard and more a natural disaster - not dissimilar to the original Godzilla film which the movie makes sure to reference plenty to draw the lines.

The bittersweet highpoint of that is Bryan Cranston, who gives the best performance in the entire film. Raw, emotional, he’s really the heart of it all. Unfortunately, the film treats this character as no more than a plot device, and really he’s also only as good as the other actors are bad and their respective characters as uninteresting. Then again, starting with him and that gravitas, being thrust into the emotional turmoil of everything, it’s only natural for everything else to have a diminishing return. Well, only natural if you’re incapable of writing good characters to follow that up and…oh, right. never mind.

Of course, great effects, Cranston and atmosphere does not a good movie make, and Godzilla is not a good movie. It is, however, a frustrating and disappointing one because the elements to be good are certainly there yet completely squandered.

The Bad: Godzilla is one of the biggest messes of a movie I have seen in some time. Across the board, it barely manages to be capable, much less interesting or engaging, outside of a great sense of scale. A script that is completely incapable of delivering what the audience wants is the first issue, focusing on uninteresting human characters and leaving most of the action to background fodder is the other.

That action? Aside from the fact there’s actually very little, it’s also dull, uninspired and poorly shot. There’s a few moments with great destruction, but most is seeing background footage of monsters fighting or simply seeing aftermath damage - a good approach for maybe half of a movie to have perspective and a slow-reveal, but the payoff doesn’t justify it in the end. Godzilla attempts to build suspense towards its climax, but it more teases than actually progresses and paces itself, plus it doesn’t have strong enough characters to build up that suspense and carry the film to make us actually care.

If those human characters were a little more interesting, then much can be forgiven with keeping so much of the action hidden in the same way Jaws doesn’t show the shark for an hour. But they’re not. Godzilla is aggressively avoiding what it does best and aggressively delivering its worst qualities: poor characters forced to have “emotions, "extremely poor acting and an uneven tone that can’t quite figure out if it wants to be fun or melodramatic. Either way, it’s a mess across the board. Characters fall in line on two fronts: exposition deliverer or blank slate.

There may be a better movie in Godzilla somewhere, perhaps having Brian Cranston (who’s character actually has a personality, motivation and interest) carry more of the movie and having more shots of monsters, perhaps streamlining its narrative a bit better to provide more scale and significance to its thematic “humans mean little” ideologies, but it’s not focused enough to manage any of that. I mean, there’s an entire second act with nary anything interesting to happen other than exposition and earnest looks. Forced and inconsistent plot events/devices try to extend elements that nobody really cares about. Not because having human drama isn’t interesting, but because it’s done so poorly in this movie yet focused on as its main tentpole.

Godzilla may have done two things right: have scale and approach it as a disaster movie with a suspenseful atmosphere, it certainly has some very well done moments utilizing both those elements, but it fails to rise above any of that genre’s shortcomings in the first place. It’s a film that can’t settle on an identity: too earnest to be “fun,” too expositional to be “dumb,” and too much debating with itself on whether it wishes to be about monsters or people to be good.

The Ugly: There’s a long expose circling stating that Godzilla’s characters were insignificant by design, and that nature seeking balance is the focus. I’m not sure if this is meant to excuse the film or not, but here’s the problems of that statement summed up in one of my own: if the humans are meant to be intentionally insignificant in the movie, then why make them 70% of your movie with melodramatic scenes trying to show how significant they are?

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Gone Baby Gone

Dorchester, one of the toughest neighborhoods in all of Boston, is no place for the weak or innocent. Its a territory defined by hard heads and even harder luck, its streets littered with broken families, hearts, dreams. When one of its own, a 4-year-old girl, goes missing, private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro don't want the case. But after pleas from the child's aunt, they open an investigation that will ultimately risk everything -- their relationship, their sanity, and even their lives -- to find a little girl-lost.

The Good: Moral choices, rights and wrongs and the eternal question "is this what should be done?" Gone Baby Gone is a thematically complex story that doesn't offer answers and leaves us with a bittersweet note at the end that whatever the future holds, it's often determined not by our own choices, but by the choices of others. In fact, it lays that groundwork in the opening credits as the character of Patrick narrates "I always believed it's the things you don't choose that makes you who you are. Your city. Your neighborhood. Your family. People here take pride in those things, like it's something they accomplished. The bodies around their souls. The cities wrapped around those..."

It's funny, because even though he says that, there's a point in everyone's life, perhaps many, where you yourself will make choices, and those choices will affect others. It's a cycle and Gone Baby Gone notes this cycle of family, generations, crime and city neighborhoods in a poetic, meaningful way wrapped up in a thriller. Its script is haunting in its meaning, tight in its execution and Ben Affleck's directing alongside the subtle piano of Gregson-Williams brings a film together that exceeds all expectations and rises above merely being a story about a child's disappearance and morphs it into a story of the human condition wrought with a never-ending conflict of the eternal question: "is this what should be done?"

The Bad: Strong performances by the cast actually accentuates the fact that some characters are not quite as drawn out as others - primarily Michelle Monaghan who's character of Angie is little brought up or discussed other than to be used as a prop of sorts. As things evolve, characters begin to change and alter as well, and many of these alterations are simply not elaborated on and shown off screen. We learn it second hand, if not third. This is most notable during a scene when a character suddenly shows up to kill another.  His reasons for killing seems rather ironic considering a quote from him later on wanting to do the "good thing." The script can be slightly contradictory and sometimes muddled with subplots, though it more than manages to keep its morality play focus in tact regarding our hero and his final goal.

The Ugly: Boston accents. (Sorry for anyone in Boston reading this)

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Gone Girl

With his wife's disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it's suspected that he may not be innocent.

The Good: David Fincher is a name that is, more or less, a seal of quality. More specifically, a seal of quality for something that can be uniquely ambitious yet simulatensouly be comfortably playing with classic stories and tropes. In other words, it’s the journey - his films are beautifully shot, impeccably paced, well acted - than it is what it is “labeled.” Se7en is a serial killer mystery movie. Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the same. The Game is a Hitchcockian “wrong man” - esque thriller. Panic Room a simple contained thriller And Gone Girl is a classic thriller in the vein of a Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct that’s all about men, women and the complex conflict of sex, love and relationships. It’s old school, as are his other films, in its basic concept, yet he approaches it as only Fincher seems to be able to do. There’s no “spin” or some sort of style to draw an identity, it’s simply damn good filmmaking.

But that all comes down to another Fincher staple: the scripts. That’s the basis of any good film, actually, and Gillian Flyn’s adaptation of her novel of the same name is a sharp, clever, surprisingly brisk despite the long running time mystery thriller that is increasingly rare and rarer when it comes to “big” directors and “big” actors. Fincher is perfectly at home in this realm, and he’s not leaving any time soon for some “big budget” waters. He’s as focused and precise as he’s ever been.

To carry all that weight of twists and turns and thrills is an outstanding cast of characters. Distinct. Emotional. They’re all great but the Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck as two sides of the same coin, both obviously broken individuals, give Oscar-worthy performances here. The tones and places they have to go and work with is demanding, needing to affectionate one scene, angry the next, domestic relationships have never looked so cynical. Gone Girl is a complex, though a bit overlong, thriller that is bold enough to go places you don’t want to go. But you’re going to anyways because it’s that good.

The Bad: While the ideas and “gray areas” of Gone Girl offer a complex view of men and women and marriage, media, justice, community, there’s also a bit of one-dimensional nature to a lot of the characters that seem to only serve as those pieces to move around to bring out a poignant themes. That doesn’t mean they’re entire shallow, Nick is flawed, Amy is severely flawed, there’s a whole gross element of unachievable idealism, but we really never quite get to know these people despite us getting into their respective heads. Nick is a cheating, occasionally lazy and often aloof moron, Amy a vindictive, manipulative…there’s a lot on paper for both but not necessarily in the execution as the mystery and suspense is what is center stage. It’s a soap opera done on a meticulously detailed level of social deconstruction.

All this comes to ahead in the third act where we start to realize we don’t particularly know or care about either of them. It was a conflict and the mystery driving the film, then it shifts gears and we just really, really, really want to get out of that house with these awful people that we don’t care about whosoever. It’s a poignant final fifteen or so minutes, don’t get me wrong, but, again, poignant in a thematic sense, not necessarily a character one. There’s moments of emotion, yet nothing emotional, if you get my meaning.

The Ugly: Boy is this going to spark conversation, but it will also spark a lot of assholes about how much of a “good guy” Nick is. Then you have the flip side that claim it's misogynistic. Look..there's no winners in this movie. That's kind of the point. It doesn't "hate" women, it doesn't make men to be "assholes." It's just bad people doing bad things no matter the gender as they feel obligated to "live up" to preconceived standards of marriage and relationships and utterly fail in doing so because people are people and most are asshats.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


A Good Day to Die Hard

John McClane travels to Russia to help out his seemingly wayward son, Jack, only to discover that Jack is a CIA operative working to prevent a nuclear-weapons heist, causing the father and son to team up against underworld forces.

The Good: For a mindless action flick, it's an alright way to waste an amour and a half which thankfully by quickly, but A Good Day to Die Hard shows a franchise undergoing an identity crisis. As much as we all want to see more John McClane and Die Hard, we all really want to see it done right and the franchise deserves far better films than the last two we've received - and Willis deserves better Die Hard movies as well because he's one of a few aging action stars that can still sell it.

As a generic action movie, it's passable at best. As a Die Hard movie, it shows an aging franchise with diminishing returns and that everyone, including us as an audience, should just move on.

The Bad: The first major action scene already had me a bit worried. It was clunky, clumsy, with no sense of space or understanding of who is where and what is going on which gets even worse when it turns in to a 20 minute chase sequence. There's no sense of tension or pace, just scenes and a complete lack of clarity of what's going on, who is who and where everything is. It's a mess, and it's a good preview of what the rest of the film will ultimately be.

Do you know that awful opening action and chase sequence? It's pretty much a live-action cartoon, and I still have serious issues with films like this that take our hero who's out to get the bad guy but just puts more lives in danger while doing so and seems to not care that he may or may not be hurting hundreds of people along the way. How did a pretty grounded, gritty franchise that began with hostages in a building devolve in to chasing after family members in Moscow traffic hopping over buildings in a jeep and not giving a shit if the woman in that car you just crushed is harmed or not.

In other words, A Good Day to Die Hard is the quintessential example of what is wrong with a lot of action movies these days. They try to do too much, as a viewer you can only take your suspension of disbelief so far given the context of each film (this one meant to be in the real world, not some fantasy or superhero genre), and few really understand how to approach these over-stylized and hyper-realistic action scenes in a good manner. You can have lavishness, but you need to buy the notion that it could actually happen. Nothing in this film, especially in that opening action scene, feels like it could actually happen. It's trying too hard to be "cool." I mean, when Willis pulls out a cell phone and has a snarky conversation with his daughter while in the middle of a chase sequence on a highway where he's being shot at and crushing other vehicles while spouting one-liners…well that's called Jumping the Shark if there ever was an example of a shark being jumped.

Of course, we saw that first in the previous film, but this doesn't rectify any of what the film did. It made it worse. Also note, I've only commented on the first action scene of the film, because that's about all this film is: just lavish action scenes, about three of them, and that's it. There's no sense of cohesion, not characters you're trying to care about other than the stock "dad and son come to terms with their pasts and work together" plot, and that's what this is: a loose plot, no story and three major action sequences that go on for far, far too long. There's no investment, even from Willis who just walks through lines, lacking any sense of humor in his delivery, and never tries to even sell us on John McClane anymore. I don't even see that character between the overwrought lines anymore.

The Ugly: You know, for an R-Rated action flick, the movie is very tame. The R is there for the bad words, I suppose, because violence wise (especially for this franchise) it's PG-13 at best.

Also, are Russians the defacto bad guys these days again? Been seeing that a lot lately, this feels like a plot from the 80s which would have been good if it was also approaches stylistically like an 80s action film.

And lastly…there is a huge, gigantic "what the fuck" moment towards the end that makes you question why you're routing for anyone. There are lines that heroes don't cross. And I'm reminded of a phrase from the screenwriting book "Save the Cat" that explains it perfectly: "You must take time to frame the hero's situation in a way that makes us root for him, no matter who he is or what he does." You know what's not going to make me root for you? Callously throwing the main villain off a roof. Villain or not, there's no indication that our "hero" would ever do that, then he just does because "it'll look cool." Hell, at least in the first movie, McClane was forced to drop Hans off the roof because he was holding on to his wife (and he had to detach the watch, which was a gift from her boss and was symbolic when….you know…that was just a damn good script, I think I'm going to go watch that one now, it's an incredibly layered script that seems lost with today's screenwriters).

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Good Kill

A family man begins to question the ethics of his job as a drone pilot.

The Good: It’s easy to simply call Good Kill a commentary about the morality of military force - more specifically drones and the seemingly callous way they are used when striking against enemies. Well, it is that, but that’s really the surface. Yes, it’s heavy on it. Yes, it’s melodramatic about it. Yes, it has soapboxes and yes it is certainly against it as it explores the complexities of killing people.

Yet, it has a throughline that’s more than that - the complexities of a man who has lost his self-respect and own compass. Ethan Hawke gives one of his finest performances as Thomas Egan, our drone pilot that thinks more of the days when he was in a fighter jet more than anything. He wants those days back. He doesn’t say outright why, but it is easy to draw conclusions that being a “good guy” was worn a little more on his sleeve. After all, he still wears a flight uniform despite sitting in a box piloting a drone yet when he goes to the liquor store, nobody believes it’s real. That’s because he doesn’t believe its real.

Director and writer Andrew Niccol, far removed from his sci-fi comfort zone, takes a hard look at, not just military force and moral complexities, but the soul-crushing after effects and variation of PTSD that emerges by simply taking a life with a push of a button. It’s a ground he’s explored before with Lord of War - a good man who became a monster - but here it’s a good man who is scared of becoming one and wants out before it’s too late.

The Bad: Good Kill explores Hawke’s character wonderfully, yet there’s a supporting cast that never quite comes clear. Sometimes they act for the action and feel their kills just yet their quiet silence says otherwise. Sometimes they act against it outright. Sometimes Thomas's wife, played by January Jones, is spiteful one moment then empathetic the next and is constantly going back and forth on her love for him. It wouldn’t be a problem if only her internal conflict was a little more subtle and grounded rather than us not knowing what version of the character will show up in the next scene.

There’s a throughline with Good Kill, settled by Hawke, and it works thanks to that. The stuff around him, from the family to the attraction to his fellow officer, seems underwritten and much of it coming out of left field.

The Ugly: I have to think that this is kind of proof that Niccol needs to get away from the genre stuff. That’s painful to say after Gattaca and writing The Truman Show, but Simone, The Host and In Time come nowhere close to Good Kill and Lord of War.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Good Morning

Two boys go into a silence strike to pressurize their parents into buying them a TV set.

The Good: By 1959, Yasujiro Ozu had more than made a name for himself in the world of cinema. He was regarding as. He's a contemplative filmmaker. Patient. Calm. Never boisterous and often focusing on drama. Here, it isn't drama. Here Ozu decides to take a different path from the lyrical nature of his past and make a comedy. Ozu had often put a bit of humor in even his most serious films, but here it's unabashed. The man is having fun with it all, yet the fun doesn't diminish the grace and purposeful nature of the story - even if it has more than its share of fart jokes.

Good Morning (Ohayo) is a film about culture, in particular the changing values of the Japanese way of life that was becoming more and  more westernized during the reconstruction years and the world of electronics and appliances of the 1950s. It's not a cynical film about it. It's light. Comedic. It doesn't weigh heavily because it doesn't need to. Japanese traditions and values are giving way to something that's neither better nor worse…just different...and we observe this through Ozu's usual casual, meditative eye.  Characters trying to figure that out is where the comedy lies (and probably lies more with a Japanese audience than an American one). The term a "comedy of manners" is a perfect description of what it is. The phrase "exquisitely done" is a perfect description of how it is.

Like most of his movies, Good Morning is about generations. As in: youth and old and the communication between them, in particular in regards to family. With a larger focus on humor, and perhaps this is more due to Ozu's career slowly coming to an end (this would be on of  last films he would make) as well as the declining attendance of movies in Japan due to television (a major point of Good Morning's Story), the film broadens its view and allows us to observe rather than simply tell us. That's something Ozu was always grand at: allowing his audience to simply observe. Good Morning opens the door and lets you in, sit and have a laugh, then think a little harder about exactly what you're laughing at and why. Though it's not regarded as one of Ozu's greatest works, Floating Weeds and Tokyo Story are high-bars indeed, it's uniquely refreshing and sits just apart from the rest of the man's work. That alone is great, to me.

The Bad: Though the humor is fun and unique for Ozu, there's not denying that it's surprisingly low-brow - even a bit insulting of the generational observations he wants to make. It sometimes undermines the brilliance, but who doesn't like laughing at kids and farts once in a while? The argumentative scenes are far more engaging and funny and the decision by the children on how to react to their supposedly-oppressive adults, and the consequences of their actions due to gossip and assumption, far funnier and far smarter.

There's also the convenience of the ending - which seems sudden and without a real explanation. It brings it all full-circle, even feels satisfactory, but there's a plot point missing somewhere. A lack of "B" in the A to B to C transition that might explain it.

The Ugly: It was difficult finding an actual poster from Japan for Good Morning. I finally scrounged one up, but it occurred to me that some of these old posters, especially from foreign lands, are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Truth is, I can't even be 100% sure that's even the correct poster.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Good is Blondie, a wandering gunman with a strong personal sense of honor. The Bad is Angel Eyes, a sadistic hitman who always hits his mark. The Ugly is Tuco, a Mexican bandit who's always only looking out for himself. Against the backdrop of the Civil War, they search for a fortune in gold buried in a graveyard. Each knows only a portion of the gold's exact location, so for the moment they're dependent on each other. However, none are particularly inclined to share...

The Good: I love Spaghetti Westerns, in particular those by master spaghetti-westerner Sergio Leone. My affection for them goes back to their roots, classic Japanese Samurai films (which were rooted in classic westerns - so strange the cycle of life). Out of all of them, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is an epic masterpiece that defines the style. From the scorched earth landscapes to the brooding and tense sense of constant anticipation in every scene. Leon's style and the film's photography is utterly gorgeous, his visual approach to every scene still an influence to this day with the likes of Clint Eastwood, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino inspired by his technique. He had a love of poetry and purpose with his action, knew how to hold you in the palm of his hand as a sweaty finger caressed a trigger and the exact moment to unleash hell upon an audience. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly surmises everything the man was great at, incorporating his best actors (Eastwood and Eli Wallach especially) in their most famous roles. Eastwood as The Man With No Name is that of legend - and you can't imagine a single other person in such an iconic role. He continues his western ideology of "cool" with bravado and natural proficiency that separating the actor and the character is, to this day, still impossible.

What's more is how straight and simple the film's story is, yet it retains an absolute epic, larger-than-life feel to it all. It's a journey through the style of Leone, the trail by Eastwood and everything that is to be adored about the genre.

The Bad: As epic as it is, the film tends to maybe be a little longer than really needed. The nice, tight scripts of the other Man With No Name films films is set aside for plot elements and tense scenes that seem more in place for padding than it is a tight and tone story. It's not nearly as bad some of of Leone's other lengthy films, such as Duck, You Sucker or Once Upon a Time in America where you really feel the length, though.

The Ugly: Leone was able to implement an element that few really do when it comes to westerns: just a dash of comedy. It's almost a self-realization on the part of the master that, sure, he can showcase melodrama and be fully serious (he does do this in other Westerns for instance). But in terms of all the Man With No Name films, there's this quirky, tongue-firmly-in-cheek skew that he loves to throw in just at the right time. This idea of "hey, this is a just a movie...have fun with it" is absolutely admirable and shows that whatever the man wanted to do, he could do as good as anybody. There's another director that also manages to nudge in a few bits of humor in his pictures, only with the genre of thriller and suspense: Alfred Hitchcock. I'd have no problem setting both those directors on the same shelf, that's for sure.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


The Good, The Bad and the Weird

The story of three Korean outlaws in 1940s Manchuria and their rivalry to possess a treasure map while being pursued by the Japanese army and Chinese bandits.

The Good: If you like smart, well done fun in your movies, this is probably one of the single best you could ever hope for. From its opening scenes to its final showdown, it's a love letter to everything that is action and a beautiful homage to classic Spaghetti Western styles combined with contemporary Asian action cinema. The Good, The Bad and the Weird is one of the best action movies of the past ten years and simply can not be missed.

Much of the significance of the film doesn't lie solely in its brilliant action set pieces and gun play choreography, nor in the directing by Ji-woon Kim, who is arguably the best director in Asia today, or the beautiful photography presented by its two cinematographers. It lies in the basic fundamentals of a quality film: a simple story told and great characters to tell it with. All three are completely identifiable and significant with a great twist that emerges to make you either love or loathe them even more. It's a pure, eclectic action movie that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to, and as an action fan you should be thankful a movie like this exists.

The Bad: A few of the sequences tend to wear our their welcome. Much of the film moves rapid fast and times its beats to perfection, but one or two moments just go on a good minute or two longer than they really should and just slows much of the film down. These segments are perfectly set up, mind you, and everything feels natural to the flow of the story, but they seem to just not be doing anything for a good portion of them (such as chase across the desert, though impressive especially on a technical level, takes a good bit of time to finally get going and hit its marks). I think some minutes could have been shaved off the film as a whole, making for a tighter experience.

The (Weird) Ugly: I really hate it when reviewers compare films to another and will lower or raise their review based on those comparisons: such as many have done between the Leone classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and this film. I'm not pointing to internet bloggers and indie websites on this either, but professional reviewers that will say "it lacks the political scope of Leone's masterpiece" or "none of the principals can begin to rival the sacred trio of Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef and the other one [Clint Eastwood].

Yeah, no shit. But why are you holding it against this film? Especially when the aforementioned film is already a cinema masterpiece.  It's a completely different tone and approach, far lighter and more comedic with a stronger emphasis on action.  It's an homage to Leone, nothing more. Let's stop saying "this film did it better" as the finite judgment call and start actually analyzing the movie on its own merits and critique from there.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Good Will Hunting

A janitor at MIT, Will Hunting has a gift for maths that can take him light-years beyond his blue-collar roots, but to achieve his dream he must turn his back on the neighborhood and his best friend. To complicate matters, two strangers enter the equation: a washed-up shrink who starts to coach Will through his transformation, and a med student who shows him that there can be a pretty face along with his life of the mind.

The Good: On paper, it's just a romance story. A lonely and perhaps troubled young genius falling in love and learning the ways of life from his psychologist. In execution, it's about life. It's about moments and those quirky little memories that build up and make us who we are. On one side, we have that lonely young man, genius though he may be, who has no life experience in the process. He's never loved anyone, and he builds a cold shell around him as a result. On the other side, we have his antithesis. A much older man who has seen and done much and has lived that life, felt its hardships and its beauty. Through the moments of their pasts, the moments within the film and the moments yet to come, we come to understand that Good Will Hunting is much smarter, moving and thoughtful than just a simple log-line, one sentence summary could ever do. The story is nothing new, but it shows how everything, as life itself, is founded in the details.

I don't know what this movie would be without the inclusion of Robin Williams. He brings a certain warmth and humanity to it all that shows he richly deserved his support actor Oscar in every way. Could another actor come in and play the same character? Perhaps, but the fact is he did it beautifully here and I can't imagine another actor in the role. Damon is no slouch either, his chemistry with Minnie Driver is utterly fantastic and another element that the film just got right thanks to a careful director and Oscar winning script in its own right. Comparison to Scent of a Woman are certainly justified, the thematic principles are the same, but Scent of a Woman took a far broader approach to its own affect whereas Good Will Hunting lend itself to the subtlety of life and love.

The Bad: I story that could be told in less time, especially considering it's not particularly original and an outcome that's ultimately predictable. A flaw? Not necessarily. It makes up for the generic tale with those moments, great dialogue and genuinely moving,  heartfelt scenes. The open nature of its ending is a welcome addition and happily leaves it open to your own thoughts on what could happen once the credits roll - such as found in Sideways or Before Sunrise. It's a character study, and thus it is a character story, not just a plot on paper.

The Ugly:  Great, now I have to do a Scent of a Woman review.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Goodbye Girl

After being dumped by her live-in boyfriend, an unemployed dancer and her 10-year-old daughter are reluctantly forced to live with a struggling off-Broadway actor.

The Good: From legendary screenwriter Neil Simon, The Goodbye Girl could have had anyone at the helm with Simon as writer and it probably would have worked. As it turns out, the person at the helm was someone quite used to shooting Simon's work: the rather unheralded and overlooked director Herbert Ross. This was a relationship that worked on many levels, one being the two had an extensive history in theatre and Broadway and another being that by the time The Goodbye Girl rolled around, they had already done a number of films together. You get that sense in the Goodbye Girl: it's casually easy and flowing. It never tries too hard and it all just plays out naturally. That calmness and lack of "forcing something to happen" is probably why it holds up so well even today. That and one of the best screen performances of all time by Richard Dreyfuss, at the time the youngest to win an Oscar.

The Goodbye Girl plays out much like a play, . The sets are mostly interior and there's a slight bit of tongue-in-cheek theatre humor on top of that - that humor arguably stealing the show as Richard Dreyfuss's performance in Richard III is probably what got him his Oscar for the role.  Well, that and the amazing chemistry between Dreyfuss and Mason is astounding. They spit dialogue naturally and vividly allowing every scene and exchange to leap off the screen. Quinn Cummings as the daughter is no slouch either as she gets into the thick of the arguing, the comedy, the overall honesty of two people who start annoyed with each other and come to realize they might just have something a little more.

It's not a clear line, of course. There's no massive happy ending, it's more bittersweet, and that's what makes The Goodbye Girl a little different than your typical romantic comedy. Maybe it will work out for the, maybe it won't, but at least there's something there. Even if brief, that's what life is made up of: a series of encounters with others, moving in and out of lives, and hoping that maybe one, whether it be love or friendshp, will stick.

The Bad: Marsha Mason is absolutely fantastic in the film, however her character, Paula, is a hard one to like. She's sympathetic yet at the same time demands too much from those around her. The way the character is written, she never really overcomes her problems on her own, which would have made for a stronger character. Instead she concedes and falls in line with the next man in her life. Though I never doubt the love for her daughter (the two share their strongest scenes with each other), I do doubt that she's really learned anything. In fact, her character goes through a sudden change that apparently happens off screen as she accepts Elliot into her life.

One might say that's getting over the man who left her before (or men, rather, as that's hinted at) but it never quite comes to that. There's no revelation or a moment that one would call "save the cat" where you understand her character is a good, heroic person at heart. It just happens, and that's that. It's the one and really only stain on an otherwise fantastic script and fantastic movie, but it's a stain that you can't quite scrub out.

The Ugly: Again, though, it's hard to dislike the character because Mason does such a wonderful job bringing out her personality. She works well with the material given to her. It's the arc that's a bit fuzzy, not the character herself.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Goodfellas

Henry Hill is a small time gangster, who takes part in a robbery with Jimmy Conway and Tommy De Vito, two other gangsters who have set their sights a bit higher. His two partners kill off everyone else involved in the robbery, and slowly start to climb up through the hierarchy of the Mob. Henry, however, is badly affected by his partners success, but will he stoop low enough to bring about the downfall of Jimmy and Tommy?

The Good: The defining film of Scorsese's career. Does much more need to be said than that statement? It's a hypnotic film, so full of visceral energy and emotion that it demands your attention in the very first scene: three guys driving down a road with some strange noises coming out of the trunk. They pull over to discover that the man they thought they killed and stuffed back there was sadly still alive. A few stabs and gunshots later, we're given to the main character's voiceover: "As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Perfect, almost poetic in a sense, and the rest of the film equally so. Goodfellas is one of the best stories and overall finely crafted pieces of cinema in history and one that reestablished Martin Scorsese as one of the greatest American filmmakers to ever live. It's a film of history, nostalgia, suspense, romance, and good-ole-fashioned "route for the bad guys" stories. You know you shouldn't, and if you met them in real life you'd start walking on the other side of the street, but here we see them and love them. The characters are so well-rounded, intensely and believable friendly to each other and often tragic that we feel as though they're sitting right next to us. It often shares "Greatest gangster movie of all time" with Coppola's The Godfather...and even then it's a bit of a toss-up.

The Bad: If you've read many of my reviews here, especially those I rate highly, you'll notice that some are just hard to say anything bad about. I could nit-pick regarding a few rushed areas of the story and so forth, but sometimes those things just don't really matter. Goodfellas is another example of a film that deserves every bit of the title "masterpiece" or "greatest" and, strangely enough, it's the third film from Scorsese I do it without question. When it comes to the greatest films of all time, the man has three that are casually tossed around as much as the ones from the likes of Billy Wilder and David Lean. As of Goodfellas in 1990, though, Scorsese still had yet to get an Oscar despite the Best Picture wins.

The Ugly: I don't know if Dances with Wolves deserved all the praise it got, but I know that Goodfella's is far more in the hearts and minds of filmgoers and film critics. Scorsese's history teaches us that Oscars, all in all, really don't mean much more than something to put on a poster or DVD cover.

Final Rating:
5 out of 5


Grabbers

When an island off the coast of Ireland is invaded by bloodsucking aliens, the heroes discover that getting drunk is the only way to survive.

The Good: A fun premise that feels like it was thought up one drunken weekend in Dublin. Maybe it was, it seems like something that was conjured up in an inebriated state...and as a result we have a pretty silly and fun little tale about tentacle monsters and alcohol. I'll just leave it at that. Everyone is having a good time, everyone is certainly committed to the ridiculous here, but not everything really clicks the way it should. Despite that, Grabbers still might be up the right alley for genre fans wanting something just a little bit different in their b-grade horror shlock, and to have a good time with it as well.

The Bad: Grabbers is one long joke with a horror movie in it somewhere. Well, not so much "horror" as much just a silly and admitting fun-at-times monster movie. But it's unfocused. It isn't sure how it wants to approach this material. The humor is there, even if it's just one joke. The premise is there, simple but effective. But none of it really comes together.

After a while, that humor starts to wear thin. Especially around the second act when there's less monster, more people and a lot more alcohol. The drunk-schtick could have been funny, but as it is it feels like a bunch of people acting like drunks and just being filmed in the same way teenagers at spring break think going "Whoooo!" at an MTV camera is funny. It just never works and never connects to something that's well done as a comedy, only using the stereotypical "Drunk Irishman" trope and not doing anything with it.

Speaking of that second act, there's a major lull during that entire sequence that amounts to very little. It's an exposition-fest there to explain the grabbers, explore what they are and dive more into the characters…but none of it really works. The grabbers aren't around all that much save for one they're experimenting on, but there's no tension surrounding it. The threat that was established in the first act drops off completely for a series of explanation scenes as our heroes try to find some way to fight them. During that time, we're given far, far too much information on a lot of these characters that, in the end, really isn't that important or even that relevant. It feels like filler because it is filler, as though they has this great short-film but needed to get it to feature length somehow. If you took the great establishing first act, took the fun third act, and cut the second act by two-thirds, you'd still have the same movie…only better.

The Ugly: "We need more alcohol!"   - No, you don't. Because once this line is spurted out in a drungen slur, the joke has worn itself out. It had been worn out for 20 minutes. This a film that's fun for a watch if you have nothing else to watch, genre fans might enjoy but might also be very critical of it (especially the fact it reveals its little uglies too early, then they disappear for way too long). It's worth a try, but if you aren't into it after twenty minutes, you're probably safe to turn it off and move on.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Grandmaster

The story of martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee. 

The Good: The story of Ip man, from man to myth, realism to fantasy, has been done countless times in Chinese cinema. What Zatoichi is to Japan or James Bond to England, Ip Man is to China film and culture. But never has the story, or a story, of Ip Man been done by famed Chinese director Kar wai Wong.

The Oscar-winning auteur has a distinct style that takes this rather classic trope of Chinese entertainment and brings out a side of it that most "action" movies don't bother with. Instead of martial arts solving the problems, here they're more of a meditation on the problem itself; an allegory for what is happening in Ip Man's life and in China in the early 20th century. It's understated and intent on finding a certain mood or "feel" for a scene or plot point than a simple boilerplate chopsockey film. There's no denying there's a master at work here, particularly in the visual department, but there's a lack of focus on his intent.

The Bad: It's a gorgeous film, but at the end of the day it's also Ip Man, a story that has been done a lot in recent years in Chinese cinema, either as both real or myth or somewhere in between. If it's not Wong Fei Hong anymore, might as well do Ip (or Yip) Man. You can't hold that against a film, though. So it's been done, big deal, so what you need to address is how it approaches the material differently. It does, but not to all the greatest of success.

Perhaps it's because the film was "recut" for cinema outside of China, but it comes across as a film without a clear identity, stilted at every turn. At its heart, it wants to explore the philosophy of martial arts more than the martial art itself. It's layered, noting itself as a biopic but understanding the philosophy of ones art evolving over a lifetime, yet then...wham...an action scene that could just as easily be done in any martial arts film, and often not all that great. The drama is there, that's the focus, so it makes one wonder why bother with the action if it's unnecessary in the first place...and vague drama at that which never seems all that clear to begin with. An affair, for example, is simply "there" as a plot point with a sincere atmosphere surround it, not an organic part of Ip Man himself that gives us an understanding of who he is. Instead, we need a fight scene to express it.

A biopic about Ip Man might have been far more unique and interesting without the fantasy fight sequences at all, and I would argue would play more to Kar wai Wong's sensibilities. The Grandmaster seems conflicted in whether or not it wants to present itself as a drama, but obligated to show martial arts at any moment it can. The blend works in some films, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon an obvious one, but here it's too earnest and monotone, wanting to ponder more than reveal. Fight scenes are there to entertain, not give context, and context is seriously lacking throughout this movie.

The Ugly: There's a lot of pretty cinema out there...but Wong Kar Wai is always the prettiest and i'd argue it's wasted here.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski is a widower who holds onto his prejudices despite the changes in his Michigan neighborhood and the world around him. Kowalski is a grumpy, tough-minded, unhappy an old man, who can't get along with either his kids or his neighbors, a Korean War veteran whose prize possession is a 1972 Gran Torino he keeps in mint condition. When his neighbor Thao, a young Hmong teenager under pressure from his gang member cousin, tries to steal his Gran Torino, Kowalski sets out to reform the youth. Drawn against his will into the life of Thao's family, Kowalski is soon taking steps to protect them from the gangs that infest their neighborhood.

The Good: A simple log line doesn't do the story justice. At the surface, it's about an old man who learns a lesson about acceptance. It goes much much deeper than that.  Atonement, redemption, friendship, family...the movie deals with all these themes through the life of the main character, played brilliantly by gravely-voiced Clint Eastwood in, easily, one of his best performances of his long career. The supporting cast is absolutely outstanding, feeling and acting like real people in real situations. I know nothing of Thao and Sue's culture, no more than Walt does, and their life and world is introduced as it would had we been there. We experience it all through the bitter old eyes of Walt and start to understand both sides. While dramatic, it should be noted the movie with make you laugh with its dialouge. Walt receives about as much as he dishes out with the blatant bigotry and racism (or in his case, more ageisim), but you can't ever deny the man's heart and passion, as cold and weathered as his old face, that eventually begins to pump again. Simply put, Clint is a master on and off the screen.

The Bad: There's a sense of emptiness in Walt's life that deals with his family. While Sue and Thao become his family in a sense, his real family wants nothing to do with him. The script has them pop in and out on occasion, but there's never a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction in terms of closure to the story regarding them. They didn't learn anything, never got to understand Walt as we did.Walt is a hard man, but why does his family (especially his grandchildren) treat him like garbage? The story builds to the point where we think they will finally  learn who Walt is and understand, even if they don't embrace or say they love each other, but that never comes.

The Ugly: Some people will hate the ending. In hindsight, I don't think it could have ended any other way. 

Final Score: 4 out of 5


The Grand Budapest Hotel

The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

The Good: For most of The Grand Budapest Hotel, actually the first half or so, it’s running along nicely. It’s a good movie. It has some bits of humor, interesting characters…it’s a Wes Anderson movie so those things are expected. But around half-way through it’s trim and slim hour and forty minutes, it begins to grow, and add more layers, more characters, more interesting thing, more action, more excitement, more plots. It’s around this time the film goes from being good to great: it gives you the set up and the main players, then has a damn good time with all of them for the remainder of the film. The pace is perfect.

From a technical level, and a structural one…ok really just across the board, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most ambitious films. His style and substance is elevated, which would have to happen if you’re going to change the form alongside the material itself. Flashbacks, aspect ratio, style, even a quick stint to black and white to coincide with the various ideas at play: from romance to drama to caper to classic noir. Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is as much a love letter to filmmaking as it is a great film about a flamboyant concierge and a stolen painting.

That concierge is played by Ralph Fiennes, and he is, without question, a great character. No, not rich and deep or meaningful, but a personality that is incredibly hard to forget. Though this isn’t entirely “his” story, he is the best thing it. Around him is an assortment of actors, character actors and even occasional extras that, as so often the cast with Anderson, all feel perfectly in the right place and deliver their lines or mannerisms in a casual real, yet unreal (as in fantasy) manner. It’s a world you want to be a part of, or at least visit: a caricature of period dramas and Hitchcockian thrills that demands you see it again because you damn well know you probably missed something wonderful.

The Bad: Anderson loves to dabble in coincidences, irony and comedy of errors where things just get increasingly worse and worse, and all ends in a way of merging them all together. He’s arguably a master of all that. However, even in the case of Wes Anderson context, some moments in Grand Budapest Hotel feel almost to telegraphed. Too perfect. Too…obviously convenient.

The tone is also never quite as consistent as Anderson works with - moments of drama, or even shock and suspense, feels undercut by the almost forced-necessity to be clever or quirky. Even dramatic moments of emotion and noting death of people fall flat as we’re off to the next callback and quippy dialogue. The Grand Budapest Hotel feel, unfortunately, less organic. Even in the world of Anderson and his films, there’s a context and relativity to everything that happens. That never comes to fruition here as the film is less it’s own Wes Anderson movie and more a film trying desperately to be in a Wes Anderson movie’s world: it’s like a domesticated pet let out in the woods…it just doesn’t quite fit.

The Ugly: Fiennes creates one of the most memorable characters that is simultaneously captivating with his personality yet completely lacking depth.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Grand Illusion

During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.

The Good: The concept of a "prison movie" has been done numerous times over the years. It's strinking that one from the late 1930s is still the film that sets a standard for how those types of films should be done. Humanistic. Emotional. Memorable. Occasionally humorous. Thematically poignant. Never forceful but natural and moving. Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, or La Grande Illusion in its native tongue, manages to be a pinnacle of its genre.

Yet, labeling as a "prison movie" is unjust in many ways. It deals with the horrors of men imprisoned, just as Stalag 17, The Great Escape and The Shawshank Redemption (all films that Grand Illusion would influence greatly) would do for years to come, but with it comes a staunch anti-war message. Its political, almost a discussion of the elements of politics and their role in war, yet never loses sight of its focus on the human condition. It's a film that's observant, not forceful, and exudes a natural quality of storytelling that few films master. This being Jean Renoir, a casual, nochalant approach to story shouldn't be surprising - only the fact its this honest and true.

This is Jean Renoir at his absolute finest. I'd even go as so far to say it's my favorite film of the master's oeuvre. Performances are utterly incredible, in particular Erich von Stroheim as Rauffenstein who is one of the most captivating and intriguing villains, for lack of a better word as he's far more complex than that, in film history. In fact, Grand Illusion is far more complex film than one might even assume. From being anti-war to a view of humanities horrors to a commentary of European establishments. It's a straightforward story, but with a multitude of layers and a sense of nuance that could easily go overlooked. Upon further observation, it's easy to realize it's about as perfect of a film as you could ever see and few films are in its class.

The Bad: Outside of a third act that, honestly, feels like it's trying to wrap itself up, Grand Illusion is a damn flawless film.

The Ugly: How do you know a film is "anti-war?" When the Nazis declare it public enemy number one. Le Grande Illusion holds such a distinction.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Grand Piano

Moments before his comeback performance, a concert pianist who suffers from stage fright discovers a note written on his music sheet.

The Good: You can’t deny a well made thriller. No matter how ridiculous and ludicrous some things might be in a plot, from a scene to scene standpoint, if it’s well paced, well shot and well acted, it’s hard not to be engaged. “What’s going to happen” or “What’s next?” or “How’s he going to get out of this” are the basics of audience manipulating. You get invested not in the story, but in the situation at hand, and I’ll be damned if Grand Piano isn’t just that.

And at only and hour and a half, with about 10 or so of that being opening and ending credits, you have a very tight, contained thriller all handled rather masterfully (from the directing standpoint, maybe not so much the writing). The pacing of Grand Piano is its best highlight, not to mention a good handle on showing restraint in a very old-school kind of way. Nothing fancy, no snappy cuts and montages, just well shot scene after well shot scene.

It’s a B-movie, but a polished B-movie. And those are often the movies you remember most, and Eliah Wood has been in his share of them (see last year’s brilliant Maniac or even Sin City). Though far from perfect, it plays in its space well. Sometimes, being low-budget and “small” makes for the most interesting and intriguing films you could ask to watch. It’s strengths far outweighs those weaknesses making for a solid piece of suspense.

The Bad: As mentioned, when it comes to things like motivations and the plot, Grand Piano kind of falls flat (zing). In this type of story, you kind of need that element: who is doing this? Why is he doing this? Why now? Well, those are explained, actually, just not very convincingly. On top of that, there’s some odd forced plot conveniences that just don’t seem all fitting for an otherwise taut thriller. More specifically the lack of cleverness for the film’s final act.

To be a tad more specific, a final climax that just kind of…well…happens. Then ends. Then has this really strange coda when the story is done. Then you start wondering “well, why didn’t the guy just do the similar thing than the elaborate thing? Yeah, it’s one of those things where there’s a lot of effort put into one thing when there’s a much, much easier way to do it once the full picture is revealed.

While the actors are good in their respective roles, their characters aren’t really all that interesting. You’ll be rooting for Elijah Wood, no doubt, because he naturally has that demeanor. But you never really know him or his backstory or why he’s afraid to perform.  While it’s admirable to say “it simply is” there’s meant to be an arc to his character that never quite feels satisfactory. Then again, you never know why the man with a gun on him wants him to play a perfect piece in the first place.

The Ugly: Cusack is always a treat when he does a villain turn. It’s not often, but he tends to really nail it.

Speaking of that, Alex Winter…good on you. A wonderfully creepy turn by a guy who should act more than he does. But that’s cool. He makes awesome documentaries in the meantime.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Grave of the Fireflies

Setsuko and Seita are brother and sister living in wartime Japan. After their mother is killed in an air raid they find a temporary home with relatives. Having quarreled with their aunt they leave the city and make their home in an abandoned shelter. While their father's destiny who was a soldier is unknown the two must depend on each other to somehow keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. When everything is in short supply, they gradually succumb to hunger and their only entertainment is the light of the fireflies.
 

The Good: If someone were to say to me to find a film that represents poetry, I would quickly throw Grave of the Fireflies across the room and knock them in the head. A majority of casual anime fans really know nothing about this film; far too much focus on the ultra violent and stylish kind, and far too many film fans know about it even less, many tossing aside animated films as having no weight or impact to their emotions - simply cartoons that are either full of action or full of comedy. There is no middle ground. The human condition is a difficult aspect to capture of film, yet here is a film that's fully animated and captures it incredibly well. It's a muted film, focusing on the silence more often than the sound. Film critic Roger Ebert compares it to that of the auteur Yasujiro Ozu in its
tone, and that's pretty accurate considering Ozu's style of simple shots, long takes and profound quietness. I've always thought that, had Ozu made an animated film in the same vein of Good Morning or Tokyo Story, this would surely be it. It's a character drama and beautifully moving in every since of the word. It's also one of the greatest animated films to be made, each cell perfectly thought out, each watercolor-like background beautifully detailed and each step closer to its end making you realize how utterly horrible war truly is.
 
The Bad: As much as I would hate to say that it's hard to believe that people would be so mean towards two orphans, the fact is a lot of it is based on actual occurrences. I'm sure much was done for dramatic effect of the novel and film, but it doesn't change the fact that two children probably could have used the help of the many people around them, no matter how awful one person's own life would be. It's obvious they don't know how to take care of themselves, wasting money and playing house more than having a home, and that's where the truly sad portion kicks in. As much as you route for them, you know they're absolutely doing the wrong thing.
 
The Ugly: The novel was written as an "apology" to the sister? I just got goosebumps.
 
Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Gravity

A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.  

The Good: Gravity isn't so much about story, because it's pretty much "one thing" that happens and dealing with the consequences, as it is about a experience. Of course, you have to still present and tell that experience, and when it comes to doing that I don't know if there's anyone quite as good as Alfonso Cuaron - a master of the moving camera, the long take and patience. Here, it's less about an act or a twist or a reveal or even a plot, it's about forward momentum, inertia if you will, and presenting all that on a technical level that, quite honestly, is unmatched.

Of course we need a guide through all that experience and inertia, to take this "trip" with, and it's safe to say that Sandra Bullock gives the performance of her career in this. She brings in the human element, which you badly need because the risk needs to be there, otherwise it's just puppets in space. She nails it with the emotional ride she takes us on.

You'll absolutely be rooting for her, and yourself to a degree, to make it through to the end. It's hard not to be caught up in it, and that's where the technical aspect and patience of Cuaron comes in: he settles you in, lets you take it in like you would an elegant, wall mural rather than just snippets of clip art and fast explosions. It's a the singular element of the film, not a cut-up series of shots, that allows you to "feel" such a part of it. It shows trust across the board. Trust in the director for his star to carry it, trust for the people in the special effects, trust in the audience to be engaged to become a part of this "event."

The Bad: There's no denying that it borders in ridiculous at time. There are moments when you expect Bullock to look at something and go "really…what next?" Then that "next" happens. As immersive and engaging as it all is, there's just that slight hint of contrivance only in the fact it's driven by plot devices. It's minor, the film more than good enough everywhere else to have that be a detriment, but it's still there.

The humor is another thing that I both welcome yet it seems shoehorned in. Yes, this thriller/drama/amusement ride doesn't take itself too seriously, because that's why George Clooney is there. Then I realize…"that's why George Clooney is there." To add the snark and the one-liners and the silliness at times. While I think he's great at that, again it just has that sense of forcing it in when it really doesn't need to be forced in. And that's probably Gravity's shortcoming: to make it work, it really has to force to make it work. Sure, you won't notice because boy does it suck you in…but step away, look back, and you might see that it's less an experience at times and more a 1970s disaster flick.

The Ugly: Enjoy your second Oscar, Sandy. Not that you don't deserve it, but Cate Blanchett will be sitting there twiddling her thumbs for Best Actress yet again (Seriously, how the hell did she lose to Gwenyth Paltrow…Friggin Shakespeare in Love…Christ).

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Great Gatsby

A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor.

The Good: It's always hard to describe, but you damn sure know a Baz Luhrmann film when you see it. Often times you can't think too hard on a film of his, you simple just need to let it wash over you and become intoxicated by the energy and visual flare of dynamic colors, contrast, music and stilted dialogue. While his adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic is far from a literate one, it entrances you and sucks you in, daring you to look away.

At its heart, it also has a message despite the convoluted mess. Nostalgia is often bad, dreaming isn't and so on. It's less interested in characters as much as it is in themes, which is actually a nice way to approach any book, The Great Gatsby especially which has yet to have a fully realized film adaptation because it often misses the point of the book entirely.

Of course, accuracy to the book isn't important. A good film is. And while you can't deny the hypnotic ability of Luhrmann's visual grasp of cinematic language, running from here to there, place to place, scene to scene as easy as breathing all while composing some of the most lavish and elegant scenes you could ask for, you can deny a script that just can't keep up with it all.

The Bad: Story is secondary. It shouldn't be. But in a Luhrmann film it often is and Gatsby is no exception. It captures a unique essence and atmosphere, yet never is able to connect the dots in the plot. Characters are less names as much as they are "that guy" and "that girl" and you can't exactly remember who they are or why they're remotely important because the film is more interested in visual presentation than context.

More importantly is you have a serious lack of consistency throughout the film. From the characters to the tone to the script itself which runs out of steam half way through and becomes a test of patience on part of the audience having to slog to its remaining dullness in hopes of a satisfaction that never comes. Something to match its first act ambition, but it never does. Moments where we're to understand and believe these are real people turn in to near-comedic hammy acting and pretentiousness.

Characters are cold, callous, unmoving in a story that's meant to move us. DiCaprio would be perfectly cast, as would everyone here, had more effort been put in to giving them real human connections instead of caricatures. Carey Mulligan is a fine actress, but the way her character is written and treated and eventually acts in Gatsby makes me wonder why anyone would want to be in a room with her for more than ten minutes due to her utter dullness. Maguire does his best, and certainly has the most to work with, but even he never shows anything beyond an occasional smile. With everyone acting in this same way, it's certainly not on them, that's just the point of the film, and that's where it misses the mark entirely.

The Ugly: I wish we could have this visual flare with a more consistent script. The actors are there, but they're just being dull with nothing to do...but hey...look at those pretty fireworks.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Great Muppet Caper

Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzie are reporters who travel to Britain to interview a rich victim of jewel thieves and help her along with her secretary, Miss Piggy.

The Good: It's the Muppets, and even though the vehicle they're placed in doesn't always give them something to really do, it's still the Muppets and that comedic style and timing is often better than any human cast can probably throw out there. The Great Muppet Caper may lack polish, but it makes up for it with ambition. There's a lot it wishes to put out there for our little felt and cotton friends to see an do and their usual action and reaction in-over-their-heads formula is still strong.

With some memorable musical numbers and some damn impressive acts of puppetry and tricks (the classic Muppet bicycle sequence is found here, one of their most memorable moments in film), The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, though I would say unremarkable, Muppet film. In other words, if you like Muppets, there's no reason you won't enjoy this either, though we have seen them in better form.

The Bad: Out of all the early Muppet films, The Great Muppet Caper is easily the weakest. Of course, this being all relative, in the grand scheme it's still an incredibly entertaining film. Yet, it lacks the quality of Henson's other efforts, notably a stronger focus on the overall plot (a mystery) rather than character interaction and humor. Instead of some natural growth of character and story, we have something that unfortunately feels far more contrived and convoluted causing the jokes to lack their punch and dialogue doubly so.

The Great Muppet Caper wants to be a film that's a farce, similar to something like The Pink Panther or Our Man Flint, but what doesn't quite mesh is that the Muppets themselves are the gag and the farce - putting them into another element of farceness not only puts them more in the background, but ends up being a cluttered, uneven mess of a film. The first film was a send-up of the road trip movie, but it stayed in the confines of just being a road trip movie and having the Muppets be the Muppets causing the comedy to flow from their interaction naturally. When you have the Muppets being the Muppets in a movie that wants to have a plot that's a parody as well, it's simply overkill. After a while, it all just crumples together into a monotone hum.

The Ugly: The Great Muppet Caper is more conceptual than something that works when it's finally done. Think about it: the Muppets get caught up in a heist plot. That sounds like it should be funny and endearing, but it's not. Well, not entirely. Too much focus on the heist and human characters leave The Great Muppet Caper as simply a failed experiment rather than something worth remembering. Fun, yes, but not nearly as sharp, funny and witty or even as cohesive as any of the others...or even other films for that matter.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Green Hornet

Following the death of his father, Britt Reid, heir to his father's large company, teams up with his late dad's assistant Kato to become a masked crime fighting team.

The Good: Brief moments of comedy, decent-enough action and good chemistry between Seth Rogen and Jay Chou offers up decent energy, but far from a competent film. I will say that Michel Gondry does show some flashes of being a decent action director, with creative use of camera and a decent understanding of space in some fun fight scenes, but the material is well beneath the Eternal Sunshine and brilliant music video director.

The Bad: Have you ever watched a movie and asked yourself "what is happening?" or "What am I watching?" In its series of loud noises, annoying banters and desires to constantly have someone rambling and blabber-mouthing in failed attempts of assuming "constantly talking equates to being funny," the Green Hornet is simply a movie of annoyance. If that was its purpose, to be utterly annoying with uninspired action sequences and pointless, banal characters, than it most certainly succeeded ten-fold.

There's an idea rattling around the film's overlong two hour run time. You can see flashes of it like a distant memory you're attempting to recall. There's a few bits of humor, a nice hero/sidekick relationship and a fun performance by Christoph Waltz. It even seems well-intended to be just a fun, popcorn flick of a stupid action film, which is fine and has its place, however it feels like this was a hodgepodge of ideas written aimlessly, however, and nothing ever comes together.

Ever.

This wasn't just a "take" of the Green Hornet that they questionably went with, but it's just an odd take of a supposed "superhero" film (though that term isn't quite accurate, I can't think of another term to describe it) and unfulfilling film entirely. There's no sense of needing to "live up" to the Green Hornet standards because most people couldn't care less, but there is a need to live up to that stupid action movie quality I mentioned earlier, and it fails to even do that. Despite those flashes and the occasional sense of humor it manages to muster, The Green Hornet is just a pandering, off balanced, uncertain, tossed together flick that is barely watchable.

The Ugly: For a light, action movie, there sure are a lot of deaths...deaths by The Green Hornet and Kato, I might add. Yeah, I'm still trying to figure out that one, this isn't supposed to be Kick-Ass and the killing of people sticks out like a sore thumb.

That and a weird epilogue that's oddly out of place and just as annoying as the rest of the film with Rogen, Diaz (who's character serves no purpose in this film) and Chou all yelling and acting stupid then coming up with an even stupider plan that has no relevance.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Green Lantern

A test pilot is granted a mystical green ring that bestows him with otherworldly powers, as well as membership into an intergalactic squadron tasked with keeping peace within the universe.

The Good: Maybe the producers thought this: if we throw a bunch of stuff on screen, surely something will come of it. It's worked for movies in the past. Mind you those movies are also not particularly good but they'll at least make money. If The Green Lantern has shown us anything it's that are expectations of what these types of movies need to bring to the table is far greater than what they were ten years ago. Ten years ago, this film might have actually bee good. Now all it manages to do is re-tread tired old ideas with no characteristics it can truly call its own.

What does it manage to do right? Nothing that is broad enough to have it resemble a good movie, that's for sure. At best, you might get a nice action set piece and good special effects sprinkled between the clunky dialogue and shallow plot. In that respect, Green Lantern can at least muster a little bit of entertainment, but all that is few and far between.

The Bad: It's odd that the least interesting and least appealing character is actually our lead. I don't necessarily blame Ryan Reynolds entirely for that as much as I do in how the hero, Hal Jordan, was written by the screenwriters. He's just bland on paper and Reynolds can proably only do so much with such a blandly realized character in the first place. What I can look at Reynolds for a fault, however, is the delivery of a lot of his lines where we can't quite tell if he's sincere or just being nieve. There's one moment where he's giving, what I have to assume, is an inspired speech that really only manages to bring cliched exposition and comes off as cocky and unconvincing. There's a lot of flashes and plot threads to his character, yet none really ever go anywhere and the film feels it necessary to beat you over the head with them at the same time.

What hurts Green Lantern more is the supporting characters, all of which are shallow and therefore all of which have no chemistry or impact into our story. They're there. We see them. They speak and I can get a sense of a personality. Yet there's no sense of belonging in them, in some cases the characters seem more like expository plot tools than actual people-like puppets yapping at a puppet show, but I don't want to insult the puppets. Tim Robbins, for example, plays what seems to be a rather important character and has a big connection to the quasi-plot (I say quasi because there's three or four plot threads and none really have an impact and that doesn't include the ones that are dropped...such as the government super planes, or Hal's family and nephew situation, or Hal making enemies at his job and not suffering any consequences when he nearly kills them, and this is in the first twenty minutes) regarding his son and Hal Jordan, yet he is treated about on the level of a talking animal in a Disney film.

There are times when Green Lantern can be entertaining, but that's really all it manages to muster. There's no depth or polish to it and everything feels as though the writers, actors and director are just doing the bare minimum to put something on the screen that has an approach more akin to the superhero films of the 1990s than it does in an era when our modern-day mythological Gods are given far more to work. Instead of getting something on the level of an Iron Man or even an X-Men First Class, we get a lazy and uninspired film on the level of Fantastic Four or Batman Forever - simple entertainment and nothing else and even calling it that is a stretch. It feels archaic, convoluted and lacks a true identity that ends up a forgettable mess that has no idea what it's doing or even what it wants to do in the first place.

The Ugly: As much as I don't like directly comparing movies to each other, I can't help but think of Thor in relation to Green Lantern. In that: both are very deeply rooted in a large scope of a universe, take place on two different worlds, very heavy on special effects and have a brash hero. The difference is that Thor had well-written characters and a hero that had a convincing and well-done story arc, not to mention a villain that arguably stole the show entirely. Then you have a very well told story on top of it all that felt as though it was done with care showing the director actually gave a damn about presenting it. The plot isn't that much different than what we see in Green Lantern, it's not huge in depth (it is a comic book movie) but it shows how telling a story well and having fully realized characters is all that a superhero movie really needs and all an audience really asks for. The rest comes naturally. Green Lantern can't even manage to get those basic elements right. The Green Lantern may not be the worst superhero/comic book movie I've seen, but it could very well be the most disappointing in that it had a ton to work with, the same as Thor, you can see the elements that it might have been able to mold and create, but it just falls completely flat. It's like going into a pottery class, getting the finest clay and with the finest teachers, and all you get out of the oven is a half-glazed, lop-sided ashtray.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Green Zone

Discovering covert and faulty intelligence causes a U.S. Army officer to go rogue as he hunts for Weapons of Mass Destruction in an unstable region. 

The Good: It doesn't undercut the complexities of the Iraq War, that much is for certain. Everything is a shade of gray in Green Zone, though it starts to set its white/black balance a little clearer by the end of it. Like Greengrass's Bourne films, the action is superbly set up and presented. Gunfights are intense, even intimate with the documentary style that is a perfect fit for the subject matter and atmosphere the film recreates convincingly. Damon gives an overall good performance as a man stuck between two sides, while at the same time coming across as an "everyman" and a person we might actually know. Green Zone, though technically proficiently made, ends up with little to say and hurting itself by trying too much. 

The Bad: It's difficult for me to go into what doesn't work with the film without giving it away, but I'll say there's a reveal at one point that is absolutely absurd. Simply put, it tries to be "too big" when it would have been far better staying with a smaller scope for its plot (Similar to The Kingdom or The Hurt Locker for example). I look as this reveal as pretty ham-fisted and forced, as though the film badly needs to point a finger at one thing when 90% of the rest of the film is about how difficult war is, how truth and reality aren't always the same thing, how bureaucracy corrupts, how there are real people behind the news headlines and the complexities of culture clash and lack of communications that emerges from war. As a result, despite its best attempt to be relevant, we end up with a contrived climax and, in hindsight, a rather cliche story that nowhere reaches the intelligence of the themes it attempts.

The Ugly: An extremely polarizing film from a political standpoint - so much so that the quality of the film itself is often overlooked. Take the "big scope" out of it, and I think you'll see a lot more people in love with this movie. As is, that one little thing is what divides most, and the fact that its a really well-made thriller/action movie is thrown to the wind.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Greenberg

A New Yorker moves to Los Angeles in order to figure out his life while he housesits for his brother, and he soon sparks with his brother's

The Good: Like his previous film The Squid and the Whale, there’s a certain degree of authenticity and honesty to Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Dealing with regrets and being honest with yourself and the walls that we build up over time, Greenberg is about the illusion of the self. The character thinks he is one thing, always the victim and never at fault as he lives in the past most of the time, but in reality is a self-destructive individual who can’t come to terms with his own mistakes and understand his personality is as off-putting as Cher wearing sexy outfits.

There’s no story here, it’s entirely a character piece which is Baumbach’s strength and is what is often referred to as “slice of life” meaning we take a peek into the life of a very odd man for a few days, then leave. Greenberg himself is completely unlikable, however Stiller’s performance is quite exceptional. It’s as non-Stiller of a role since Permanent Midnight. However it’s really Gret Gerwig that absolutely shines here. She is as real and believable of a person, an actual living and breathing person, that I’ve seen in a film this year. Not once do you feel she “acts” and that’s a testament to Baumbach who has always managed to get very real if not personal performances out of his actors. The strong characters carry it even if it tends to focus on the mundane more than it needs to. Then again, life is full of the mundane, which is what makes Greenberg an honest little movie about a very dis-likable person.

The Bad: There’s a consistent sub plot that creeps up throughout Greenberg. It’s one of those little backstory things that loves to remind us how important it is. Truth is: it’s not. It’s a nice catalyst for things here and there, and makes for some nice yelling scenes of friendships on an edge, but really the story of it just isn’t that relevant. We don’t care. We can’t care. Yet it is constant when the real story is more Greenberg, his eccentricities and the girl he has difficultly admitting he’s falling in love with. The story of present events is fantastic. The story of what someone said or did fifteen years ago shouldn’t be nearly as played up as it is in the film.

All in all, it’s a film that’s to be expected from Baumbach, who’s characters have all the quirks of a Wes Anderson film (his good friend mind you) yet completely lack the heart. In The Squid and the Whale, it worked because those quirks were downplayed and more focused on dramatic dysfunction.

The Ugly: One of Stiller's best performances will probably go completely unnoticed by the average moviegoer.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Gremlins

Minature green monsters tear through the small town of Kingston Falls. Hijinks ensue as a mild-mannered bank teller releases these hideous loonies after gaining a new pet and violating two of three simple rules: No water (violated), no food after midnight (violated), and no bright light. Hilarious mayhem and destruction in a town straight out of Norman Rockwell. So, when your washing machine blows up or your TV goes on the fritz, before you call the repair man, turn on all the lights and look under all the beds. 'Cause you never can tell, there just might be a gremlin in your house.

The Good: If you want to talk about an unheralded horror director, take a good look at Joe Dante. While many will throw out the Cravens and the Raimis and the Carpenters and even the Gordons of the world, Joe seems to be forgotten. He's a hit and miss director at times, so I suppose that's fair, but all of his films have a certain tone to them that is a little hard to explain. I suppose "satirical horror" might be an interesting term to describe it. They were horror movies but with comedic overtones, but the comedy was sort of tongue-in-cheek and seemed to point out the fact it was having fun with the horror genre rather than just trying to get laughs from you. From Pirahna to Howling to The Burbs , his films seem to have this certain edge and tone to them even though he never wrote any of them.

What he did was capture a quality that's hard to describe, that is until you see Gremlins. Gremlins is a horror movie, but it's a horror movie with a comedic, beating heart to it. It doesn't go out of its way to be funny, it just naturally is. It feels ingrained into the story because the concept itself, just as it was with The Howling, The Burbs, Pirahna and more, is already funny. Joe just took a camera to it and let it express itself natural. So, thus, we have one of the best horror movies of the 1980s, but also one of the best comedies of that era as well. It's smart, well paced, wonderfully acted and with incredibly, and still quite impressive, special effects.  In fact, if classic Looney Toons every too the darkly comedic route and done in live-action, and maybe killed a few people, it would probably be a lot like Gremlins.

The Bad: One thing that Gremlins can't quite find is who it's made for. There are some elements that are right up the alley for kids and teenagers, but it's far, far too dark to really be for them at the same time. People are killed, it's actually pretty violent and often scary at times, and some acts of violence are hard to distinguish between over the top comedic or overly sincerely horrific. These moments are few and far between, though, but they still stick out especially during the Gremlins killing montage which are all pretty horrific yet with a fun, whimsical theme song playing in the back ground. Darkly humorous indeed, but some things are a little tough to laugh and perhaps a little mean-spirited, especially considering you tend to like some of the characters and can't really laugh at the bad things happening to them.

The Ugly: I love how Gremlins really was able to have its place in the sun. It's one of the more popular movies of the 1980s. It came, had a tremendous impact, and then left us with fond memories....wait, there was a sequel?

There was a sequel that I actually saw in the theater?

No, you jest. There's no such thing. Nope. Not hearing you. Lalalalaalala.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Grey

In Alaska, an oil drilling team struggle to survive after a plane crash strands them in the wild. Hunting the humans are a pack of wolves who see them as intruders. 

The Good: Ottway is a man without purpose. He's come to a point in his life where, perhaps, nothing else matter. He has no direction. No goals. He contemplates killing himself constantly. In The Grey, you'll soon realize how complex, deep and surprisingly emotional this character is despite his stern, cold facade. The final act will compound that even further, proving yet again that Liam Neeson can lift what is technically a B-movie to heights that you wouldn't expect.

Movies like this can be refreshing. The Grey never tries to be too heavy-handed with his character-centric approach and never falls to action cliche that would undermine the severity of the drama. It's taught, focused and often times poetic without feeling too tired and forceful. It never throws in too much, nor does it ever feel like too little. It hits its mark in everything it sets out to hit. It's a natural film, organic in its execution and memorable long after its over.

The Bad: Despite its often subtle nature, a few instances of "spectacle" seem to slightly diminish an otherwise very realistic "call of the wild" survival tale. Inventions seem a bit much, actual survival skills far too passed over as the film can focus too much on the "man versus wolves" aspect and less about the conditions that feel far more threatening. In other words, though it's fantastic in what it does, it's not qutie as well-rounded as it might have been and leaves you with questions and rhetorical observation of its tale.

The Ugly: It's hard to have expectations on a movie like this. The trailer makes it to be one thing, yet the film itself is far superior than one might expect.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Groundhog Day

A weather man is reluctantly sent to cover a story about a weather forecasting "rat" (as he calls it). This is his fourth year on the story, and he makes no effort to hide his frustration. On awaking the 'following' day he discovers that it's Groundhog Day again, and again, and again. First he uses this to his advantage, then comes the realization that he is doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the same place, seeing the same people do the same thing EVERY day.

The Good: It’s hard to believe the love this film has accumulated over time. When it was first released, response was lukewarm and it wasn’t that big of a hit at the box office. Now, some have gone so far as to say it’s Bill Murray’s best film. It’s everything we love about the guy in every dimension – he can be the pompous ass and complete jerk, show heart and be incredibly charming, certainly act utterly goofy and nuts, but always staying true to himself and to the character. He doesn’t “play the part” so much as he is the part, and he certainly never goes overboard as we honestly believe it’s a real man with real emotions in a very unreal situation.

The concept and comedy could have been completely heavy and over-the-top. It could have been slapstick and a farce with overacting and hijinx. Instead, director/writer Harold Ramis, knowing Murray so well, crafts a dynamic lightness to everything and uses his comedic star as more than merely a platform for jokes or funny situations. He lets Murray be Murray and the conceit of the story grab us, not just the individual laugh scenes or goofiness. It only resorts to that once, when Phil (Murray) is so unbelievably depressed he constantly kills himself in various ways. Those scenes are what most people remember because those are the only parts that really draw attention to themselves. Everything else is a lighter, far more touching if not poetic story about a man trying to figure out how to be a better man. It’s the more lighter and humanist approach to an “act of god” plot that a movie like Bruce/Evan Almighty can’t achieve only a rare Heaven Can Wait or Big actually succeeds at.

The Bad: Two characters drive the movie. Phil and Rita. No others are relevant, and that’s a shame because they seem they are wonderful and enjoyable characters we really want to get to know. It’s odd the film shows us so much yet tells us so little about them. It’s obvious Phil goes out of his way for them, helps them with situations here and there, but there’s a missing human side to them. The town is a plot device, but the people should have been humanized a little more. Maybe the threat of being overly sentimental is what causes that, the scenes of Phil trying to save the life of a homeless man (also someone we barely know) are so unbelievable touching that you can’t help but want to know who the man is to begin with.

The Ugly: As I mentioned, Groundhog Day was only marginally successful when it first came out. It’s amazing how much time influences people and hindsight (and maybe today’s bad comedies) tend to put things into perspective. The film is beloved for all the right reasons.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Grudge Match 

A pair of aging boxing rivals are coaxed out of retirement to fight one final bout -- 30 years after their last match.  

The Good: There’s surprisingly a good story happening in Grudge Match. No, it’s not something you haven’t seen before. No, it’s not going to surprise or wow you in any way. No, the characters are your standard tropes you’ve seen a million times before. However, from a structural, pacing and simple storytelling approach, it utilizes all these old troupes wonderfully.

The characters are what drive it, however, not the story. Though it moves briskly, it doesn’t have a point other than the characters being these standard characters we’ve seen. It tires, perhaps a little too hard, to have a heart and find meaning through these characters. Despite some solid performances from everyone across the board, it’s simply not unique or interesting enough to rise above its own cliches.

The Bad: I like a lot of the actors in the movie. They all do a solid job, but you also can see the boilerplate working its magic here. It’s all characters that you’ll have figured out the moment they appear on screen. You know them, you know their backstory and you know what will happen within five minutes. All you can do is just sit and watch it unfold exactly as you expected.

Grudge Match is really one of those movies that’s hard to come with a lot of desire to talk about. You watch, you move on. That’s it. It’s not a bad movie, per se, just an uninteresting and bland one. Despite some strong actor moments and nice humor at times, it rarely rises above simply being “pleasant” at times and “eye rolling” most others. It’s a movie that has no interest in pushing itself to being anything more.

Normally, I’m fine with that. A story told well is always a nice thing to have, and I have a way to turn off my mind and just enjoy the moment without thinking on it. Sometimes a movie can work with a standard formula, but this is one that’s way overdone and too uninspired to really accept and ignore the overdone elements. Grudge Match is simply an uninspired and forgettable film.

The Ugly: If it weren’t for Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, would this movie even be able to find momentum to move forward? It’s bland as is as it goes form scene to scene, I can’t imagine it without these two at least making it a little more interesting. Those two guys are not only the more interesting characters, with actors given their all, but they’re also always there to make sure we get to the next plot point with at least a little investment.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Guard

An unorthodox Irish policeman with a confrontational personality is teamed up with an uptight FBI agent to investigate an international drug-smuggling ring. 

The Good: The Guard is a sharp, extremely well-acted comedy that blends elements of a buddy cop movie and a bit of fish out of water tale all with British (or Irish, rather) comedic sensibilities: dry, dead pan, dialogue-driven and certainly quirky. It all feels natural, all the more strangely considering it's also a violent mystery movie on top of it all. You will laugh, nod in the moments of sincerity when they appear and certainly love the gunplay and violence when it interjects. Its charm comes from its setting and characters, however, which give a sense of atmosphere: almost a Local Hero flavor by way of Guy Ritchie.  Even the supporting roles of odd townspeople feel alive and vibrant and range from the incredibly silly and goofy (the bad guys a motley crue of dumb, strong and brains) to the sincere and dramatic (Boyle's mother).

The film is driven by a fantastic, I would say perfect, performance by Brendan Gleeson, the verteran character actor that echoes much of his comedic ability here that was first seen in IN Bruges (the man doesn't do comedy nearly as much as his talent seems to suggest). The sense of apathy Boyle has towards everything, until just the right time of course, plays to Gleeson's strengths and the comedy stylings of the film perfectly. Along with him is Don Cheadle, another phenomenal actor, and they have so much to work with in terms of dialogue and their respective characters.

I particularly loved a line towards the end where a character brings up the fact that a book might be written about all this and then made into a movie, "a fish out of water story, lots of action, a bits of humor..." Well, that's The Guard in a nutshell, and the film itself knows it.

The mystery and crime plot isn't important, it's the journey of Gleeson's Boyle mainly and  Cheadle's Everett secondly. They come to understand each other and go through the tribulations that an odd couple goes through to work together. It never feels forced, mainly incidental, but organic as Boyle comes to understand his importance and Everett to accept the oddities and quirkiness of Boyle and the country he's in. The film's arc for both is superb, and you can sense the actors know it as writer/director (first time director, I might add)  John Michael McDonagh shows a sure hand in every facet of his film. Save for one...

The Bad: The film is all about pace. It moves well with conversation and sticks in the plot points at just the right time. It foreshadows well, reflects when needed and bounces well from tone to tone gracefully. But, it all comes to a halt with the finale, which feels sudden, far too quick and not quite as polished as the rest of the film itself. It wants to end. It wants to end badly and it just isn't sure how, so it dips into the simplest way it could do it and it does it far too quickly to feel satisfactory.

The Ugly: Speaking of In Bruges, John Michael is the brother of In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh. If you enjoyed In Bruges, and I'm willing to bet that if you saw it you probably did, this is in the same vein. You can sense the familiarity and the similarities and both films are just wonderfully written and precisely directed.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Guardians of the Galaxy

In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

The Good: Pure joy. That’s how I describe Marvel’s latest comic book movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. Director James Gunn set out to capture the “feel” and “tone” of movies like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Back to the Future, and he did just that. To capture those is no easy feat: audience expectations lend themselves to caring more about spectacle than story and characters and humor. At least good natured humor. Or, I should say rather, studio presumptions of audience expectations lend themselves to that. The truth is, the audience has always wanted those movies, it just took a guy with a clear vision, great script and some producers to take a risk to say “hey, let’s make a movie the way they used to be made.”

All the crazy special effects found in Guardians of the Galaxy, as spectacular as they are, are irrelevant, just as they were in the old Star Wars movies. Sure, they’re nice and cool, but they’re not what you remember. You remember the characters, the bits of humor, the sense of “fun” and adventure, like Indiana Jones taking on a monstrous German mechanic and getting his ass kicked. Guardians isn’t insulting, it’s kind. It’s easy to get into and once you do, you become invested in this world and the things that happen within it. I’d challenge anyone to not have fun at this movie, to not laugh at a Racoon’s dialogue or feel something with a giant living tree hands a little girl a flower.

But I’ll tell you what I particularly love about Guardians of the Galaxy: it has a distinct voice. As great as Marvel movies tend to be, they’re not always distinct from one another in terms of tone and style. Some might be darker than others, others more epic in scope, but they tend to play around in the same realm with the same voice. Guardians manages to play around in those tropes too, but it changes the octave to something higher and more distinct. There’s energy and dynamic world building here, something even the Thor films never really nailed despite also being “alien” in nature.

Subtle yet memorably effective, that’s the way they used to be done by the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Donner or Zemeckis in how they approach character development (less about exposition, more about brief lines and actions). It’s how these movies should be made, and though I know other movies aren’t a right fit for this kind of tone and take on the material…well maybe they should be. Maybe they should understand that drama and care of characters comes from us wanting to like and understand them first. Guardians of the Galaxy may just be the best film Marvel studios has put out.

The Bad: Whenever I write these little reviews, and let's be honest here these reviews that usually take maybe 10 minutes to get down, I often start with the “bad” section. Sure, it’s all perfunctory here, it’s more organization on my part to structure and think quick, as these are “quick reviews.” I start with the “bad” section because, as any reviewer can probably tell you, it’s easier to look at the bad of something than the good. The bad is reactionary and often more emotive, so its easy to get those out quickly (because it’s easier to make fun of or mock something or something quickly).

I do it because I like to just get it out of the way first. Negativity ruins a lot of film criticism, as well as ego and overall cynicism, but there’s a reason: people focus too much on the “bad” of something because it’s so easy to do. For me, getting out of the way first lets me just put it aside and actually analyze something - to help temper the review with the “good” portion above because the “bad” is so easy to get to and so easy to put down on paper or to speak about, that I want to get it out of my head so I don’t keep coming back to it.

Yet, here I am once more doing this section first, but having a damn hard time trying to find anything bad to really say about Guardians of the Galaxy. It is a film so full of life, confidence and clever, never forced, nostalgia of classic space romps of the 1980s post-Star Wars flicks that it doesn’t have a whole lot of bad things to note, but seeing as how I must, I can pretty much list them: a rushed spectacle of a climatic finale, the connection of two characters underwritten and feeling forced, the main villain underdeveloped, Nova not explained all that well…but really these are far from detracting from the movie that puts its eggs all in the character and atmosphere basket and, as a result, it worked to near perfection.

The Ugly: This is the best Star Wars move since Empire.

By the way, a “simple and straightforward plot” isn’t a negative - why some are using that as some critique I don't understand. These are comic book movies, not friggin There Will Be Blood.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Guest

A soldier introduces himself to the Peterson family, claiming to be a friend of their son who died in action. After the young man is welcomed into their home, a series of accidental deaths seem to be connected to his presence.

The Good: Stylish, moody, an overall sense of having fun in the realm of its genre, The Guest is a thriller that continues to surprise, be bold and take risks through its entire runtime.  It's a conventional action thriller that is daring enough to know when it no longer needs to be conventional. Yes, certain beats you will see. You've been with these types of characters before and in this situation.

But The Guest plays a neat little trick and goes steps beyond to give it an identity. What is assumed standard fare soon evolves into something darker and more unique, allowing it to simultaneously play around in its nostalgic (and 80s-influenced) genre roots and put its own spin on things. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barret, who's previous You're Next did a similar spin with the home invasion genre, have a degree of sharpness and confidence with every line of dialogue and every shot set leading to a memorable finale.

The big head turner, though, is Dan Stevens who's had a spotty movie career but settled firmly in his native country's hit series Downton Abbey. He is nearly unrecognizable here, with a pitch-perfect American accent that lingers a slight southern-drawl, utterly pretty-boy hair and piercing blue eyes. There's something underneath all that, though, and the movie is lifted to greater heights with his menacing stares and subversive line delivery that are as much facades as his character is.

The Bad: The Guest hits its notes pitch-perfect, its only downside is when the action hits, it's not nearly as unique when put up against the rest of the movie. By that I mean we have a very stylish look to the whole thing yet the fighting and the shooting ends up fairly uninspired. It gets the job done, yet it never seems to want to deliver that awesome punch of action it needs.

Of course, what's there is solid and perfectly fine to follow, it certainly doesn't detract, but never does it have that one moment or scene that makes you take notice and truly appreciate the effort. Simple and straightforward

The Ugly: The Guest, like John Wick or Blue Ruin or other smaller action movies, are incredibly well done movies yet will get absolutely no praise come awards season despite the fantastic reviews. The double standard of giving it great reviews then turning around and saying "sure, it's good...but it's just an action movie" is disappointing.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Gunman

A sniper on a mercenary assassination team, kills the minister of mines of the Congo. Terrier's successful kill shot forces him into hiding. Returning to the Congo years later, he becomes the target of a hit squad himself.

The Good: There’s an occasional moment of cleverness that occurs in The Gunman. Penn is backed into a corner and has to think fast to get out of it. It happens plenty of times to at least keep moving forward, though it never really comes together consistently enough to call this wet noodle of a movie an action movie. Penn is able to show a character outthinking and outwitting his adversaries and foes, from being stuck in a bathroom with gunmen in the hall waiting for him to fooling people watching and following him to their eventual doom. The movie does that well.

It does little to nothing else well. As much as I like these actors, there’s a constant sense of inconsequential actions and loose plot threads barely strung together to keep The Gunman from being a good movie.

The Bad: There’s something going on in The Gunman that seems to lack a core, emotional arc to its story. There’s things that happen that should get you involved and invested, but The Gunman seems conflicted on whether or not it just wants to be a run of the mill action movie or something with a bit more depth and involvement to its central character. You cast Sean Penn and he’s an actor with a range that can bring some gravitas, yet there’s nothing for his character to do other than outwit badguys and beat people up. When it gets to attempting to be a dramatic character piece, it just falls flat.

I know there’s a theme here, I know there’s a mystery, I know that Penn’s character is dealing with stuff, but it’s handled like someone going to a Supercuts over a professional stylist. In other words, I get no sense of directing from director Pierre Morel. His approach might work for Taken, but the script for The Gunman doesn’t match up to it. There’s not enough interesting action happening to say it’s an action movie and there’s not enough character material to call it a dramatic thriller. It’s too clunky in its pacing and inconsistent in its character arc and journey to call it later and way too uninspired from a shooting and staged action standpoint to call it the former.

So we end up with a movie that simply “exists.” It’s a movie, alright, but I don’t know what kind of movie it is because I don’t think it knows what kind of movie it wants to be. You have good actors that feel flat with stilted dialogue, you have an occasional action beat that works but is rarely original or shot particularly well and you have a script that’s done without any passion or flavor or sense of emotion as we follow Penn on his journey. It’s too violent to be a serious drama and too serious to be a fun action flick. It drags up kicking and screaming through its bitter, uneventful end as we constantly wait for that big turn or emotional reveal that never comes.

The Ugly: How do you have a movie full of great actors doing little to be inspired? Get a mediocre director is how, I guess. At least we get a neat scene of Sean Penn stabbing guys.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


The Hangover

A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures, then must retrace their steps in order to find him.

The Good: If there’s anything that seems to be downplayed by many critics, it’s the comedy genre (the horror genre is up there as well). This has to do with one aspect of comedy: everyone laughs and finds different things funny. So when reviewing a comedy you can objectively discuss its story, characters and script flaws, but as far as what is “funny” depends entirely on the reviewer. A movie like The Hangover is far from a universal comedy. Many people may not find it funny. The characters are pretty one-dimensional if not complete jerks and the various styles of comedy range from dry banter  and quotable lines to raunchy toilet humor and slapstick. It’s all over the place and this is what makes The Hangover so great. I may not have laughed at everything, but it still made me laugh. The characters are hard to like as well but the script is incredibly smart and witty. The Hangover is eclectic and, if anything, reflects the absurdity that is Las Vegas. If it was completely one-note humor while having the setting in Vegas, we’d all be saying how bland it was and how much opportunity was missed. The Hangover does have that issue. Everything you think will happen while a bunch of guys in Vegas would do they probably did.

I say probably because that is what makes The Hangover so smart. Many movies would simply show their night. Instead, we’re trying to piece together what happened that night by following them on the days after. Outrageous doesn’t describe their night, and to have it told to the guys that did those outrageous things yet don’t remember it is something we get to share and enjoy alongside them (or cringe, there’s quite a lot of that). It’s really just a solid comedy and one of the more original and creative ones to come out in some time.

The Bad: It’s unfortunate that a film that prides itself in originality has to end itself so unoriginally. Everything kind of ends up exactly as you’d expect it to, which is the exact opposite of what the film was about. It was about the unexpected, not the conventional. Perhaps it had to, but the change in tone and style is noticeable as it wraps itself up. The characters are outrageous as ewll. We actually develop a bond along with the three guys looking for their friend and trying to figure out all that happened. We share their surprise, their regrets, their humor. The only downside is, outside of Ed Helms character, we really know very little about them and in some cases they come across as complete assholes that are hard to feel sorry for. They have issues as well…but they don’t really resolve them as Helms character does. Then again, those other two didn’t marry a stripper and, while Galifinakis seems to get the most laughs, Helms gets the most story and personality. Either way, they’re all guys you can see yourself hanging out with, maybe sharing a drink or two…just make sure you don’t take the rufees.

The Ugly: Like I can point out one thing from this movie that’s going to qualify? Instead, I’ll take it outside the film on this one: the writers also wrote Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Four Christmases. I have a feeling a lot of that pent-up testosterone was finally unleashed.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


The Hangover Part II

Two years after the bachelor party in Las Vegas, Phil, Stu, Alan, and Doug jet to Thailand for Stu's wedding. Stu's plan for a subdued pre-wedding brunch, however, goes seriously awry.

The Good: Zach Galifianakis,will make anything funny or, at the very least, awkward and therefore funny. The Hangover Part II is already a lesser comedy, not only be comparison by what makes a good comedy film as a whole, but I could only imagine how much worse it would be if it wasn't for Zach.

The Bad: The thing that made the first Hangover film work so well was that it was fresh. For years studios had been looking for a unique take on the Vegas/Bachelor Party trip story and they found it there. It was unique, as in using a "lost blackout weekend" crossed with mystery solving as a structure, and that uniqueness was what made it work. Now that its been done, it is no longer "unique." Now it is a formula. It a marketed concept. It is tired and bland and probably should have stuck with one film and be done with it, or at least leave it be for a few more years before revisiting it. Hangover II has a cobbled together script where nothing really connects all that much. The first film is noteworthy for making the idea of trying to remember a blacked out night interesting and you could piece it together as the characters went along. Hangover II uses those pieces to be convenient to the story.

"Well...we need something here."

"Ok, let's just do this with no explanation or relevance or connection to everything else going on." In fact, you have to watch the end credit picture montage to get answers on a lot of things...but still not everything.

What severely hurts The Hangover II is that it doesn't really have a grasp on the tone. In the first film, there was something at stake, but it was fun while doing it. It's simply finding a groom and getting him to a wedding. Here...someone would very well could be dead. Of course when we seem to appear that it might be otherwise, someone actually does die. That, I'm sorry, isn't something to really make fun of, especially considering Thailand is borderline third-world to begin with. When watching a scene like this, and a few others throughout, you can see the film trying to make it funny. It's grinding the gears, the actors are trying their best to make it work, but it simply does not. It can't. It's not that a dead body or getting shot can't be funny, look at Weekend at Bernie's (and if that's our bar for superior comedy by comparison, that should tell you a lot about The Hangover Part II), it's that there's so much at stake here and is far more serious than finding a tiger in a bathroom and a baby in the cupboard in Vegas.

The Ugly: The film itself as a whole? Yeah, it's ugly. Ugly on a lot of levels. The first film had be laughing throughout. It was an extremely well-done comedy with characters you came to like and see their growth. I think, at best, I laughed maybe a few times in The Hangover II, almost all the times with Galifinakis, and not only does it negate the growth the characters came into in the first film, it half-asses a rehashed version of it. It's trying so hard to be funny, perhaps it expects us just to roll over and accept it all, but nothing in the film works.

On a side note, something I noticed that's really odd with this script, is how it will show something, then just a few minutes later completely make it irrelevant. He's dead. No he's not. You're shot. Nope, just got grazed. No risk here after a while and you eventually just want it over with.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Hanna

A 16-year-old who was raised by her father to be the perfect assassin is dispatched on a mission across Europe, tracked by a ruthless intelligence agent and her operatives.

The Good: Sometimes a great director can elevate any material. In Hanna, Joe Wright, who has rarely dabbled in action sequences across his still-very-young oeuvre shows exactly what a good director can do with even the most basic set up. In one tracking shot, tracking shots something Wright has shown a fondness for in the past, we follow Eric Bana as he departs a bus. He then walks through a terminal and out the front doors. The camera moves to see him look a plane flying overhead and we're now in front of him as he heads to some escalators and into an underground area. Sounds simple, even for a tracking shot, but during this long take we see men hiding behind pillars, moving at just the right moments so Eric doesn't see them (but we do). Then there's a figure behind him and we sense his intentions at the exact moment Eric does. He follows him on to the escalators, pretends his casually walking in the same direction, and we see shadows begin to close in. In the underground area Eric realizes he's being followed and about six or seven men close in. He strikes and in some brilliant action choreography dispatches each one in various ways, from beating to disarming to shooting to knife throwing.

All in one take and it shows that a good director of action understands what action can really be. It's half set up, half pay off. It's not just throwing out explosions, gunshots and fighting. There's a craft to it and Wright, in what is pretty much his first full-on action movie, shows an experienced hand. This one sequence (and it's only one of a good handful I could call upon) is a great example of how an action movie could be done beyond loud noises and special effects.

One of the best things about Hanna, a rather grisly tale of revenge, is the fact that it, at just the right moments, knows how to alleviate itself. I don't know if I would enjoy, or even want to watch, a movie that would only take this plot seriously and dramatically. Here, at just the right moments you'll find yourself smiling and laughing as Hanna, at its heart, is a fish-out-of-water story. Hanna knows what she is taught, and it is a great deal, but she doesn't know the world. Her exposure and trying to understand it shows a lighter, human side to an otherwise dark tale. Those little glimmers of light make for a well-rounded and well-adjusted, not to mention very brisk and surprsingly fun, action movie.

The Bad: If only Hanna had a better script to present itself through. The acting is there. The directing is certainly there. The script has far too many plot points that it can't quite keep track of and many of them fall to the wayside. Characters come and go and as good as Bana and Ronan are in their skins, the characters are still one-dimensional facades that don't quite progress or learn from their respective experiences. The action portions are fantastic, and the comedy hits at the right moments, but the drama simply isn't as interesting because the story and characters themselves simply aren't that interesting.

The Ugly: Wright shows craft in one action sequence that a director like Michael Bay could only wish he could do. Wright's approach, as is the approach of any great action director from John Woo to Luc Besson to James Cameron, understands pace, space and putting the audience into a scene. You get a sense he's thought it out and how it will progress. Bay, however, is entirely about visual passivity and throws in special effects and loud noises when he can. Instead of a smart angle or camera work, his more "put a boom here, cut here, then say 'shit just got real.'" You don't feel a part of Bay's movies - that sense of weight and tension - and are just watching his show.  Wright may or may not do another action movie. I hope he does, a good action director is a rare breed these days.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

In this spin on the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel are now bounty hunters who track and kill witches all over the world. As the fabled Blood Moon approaches, the siblings encounter a new form of evil that might hold a secret to their past.

The Good: A nice world to play around in, some good action on occasion and a lot of cool gore and blood splayed across the screen without a second thought. You have to applaud that willingness of a film, and everyone involved, to not have any reservations on being a hard R-rated gore-filled action movie. It goes all-out in that aspect, it just has no idea what its going all-out for.

The Bad: What a mess. A complete and total mess. Sometimes a mess can be fun, but sometimes it's such a mess you really just don't want to spend the time watching it and probably check out when there's still a half hour left in the runtime. That's where I found myself as the film began to slowly turn in to a chore. No film should be a chore, especially one that tries so desperately to sell itself as a blood-soaked, goofy piece of entertainment. Shallow characters, little motivation, goofy plot, …the truth is all that was expected. You can see the title of the film and expect that, and that's where you think it's just a silly fun movie.

A silly fun movie, though, still needs to be well made. Instead we get a cobbled together awful thing that has no sense of style, pace or even tries to get us to care what happens to who and when. Hell, the most interesting character got squashed by a troll's foot early on, which made me wonder if that was an analogy towards the audience seeing as how I felt that "thud" of a foot as though the film admitted it having no idea what it was doing.  I would wonder more on that, but that would mean the film was clever, and it's anything but clever.  There's a sense that it might have been clever on paper, it's a great concept wasted in to mediocrity by a director that had no sense of direction.

Even a shallow piece of goofy entertainment needs to be engaging, but Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters exudes a sense of just not caring about itself, which translates to the audience not caring about it not caring. It runs through scenes like a laundry list and everyone involved is that bored person doing the laundry. Socks? Check. Wish this Laundromat had an arcade machine, or at least one of those machines where you can by a toy for 50 cents for some mild entertainment as those old socks tumble around in the dryer, get all mixed up and you lose three or four along the way – and that's how I'll think of this film: a bundle of old socks just tumbling around and getting lost.

The Ugly: Awesome gore effects are wasted, which is sad. A good blend of practical and computer generated nastiness, which means this could have been fun in that Army of Darkness kind of way if it at least tired to retain a sense of fun, but instead we get something more akin to <insert some other forgettable movie here, or just wait a few years and plug in this one.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Happy Feet Two

Mumble's son, Erik, is struggling to realize his talents in the Emperor Penguin world. Meanwhile, Mumble and his family and friends discover a new threat their home -- one that will take everyone working together to save them.

The Good: Cute. Sweet. Fun. That was the way of Happy Feet in 2006 and, so, that is the way of its sequel. Though it doesn't advance itself all that much from its predecessor, it is still able to capture those three little elements to make for a charming time at the movies.

Happy Feet Two is beautifully animated, possibly the most gorgeous-looking CG animated film this year. It's lively, consistent, detailed and fluid, especially the numerous dance sequences where you can have thousands of animated characters on screen at once, all thumping and dancing to a syncopated beat like a living pool. It's all interconnected and edited beautifully and you'll certainly be tapping your feet to some catchy pop tunes as it goes along.

The Bad: Happy Feet Two begins well: a journey and return home that might have made for a fantastic story. As it turns out, they all return home about a third or so in and the rest is dealing with a situation in one location. The narrative grinds to a halt as the film tries to fill in as much of the rest of the movie as they can with various solutions to a situation. There's little character arcs, only one case of sincerity and a lot of dancing to pop songs. Unlike its predecessor, it never feels like it's moving forward, it just stagnates and feels content to just throw gorgeous animation and music at us.

There's no feel or understanding for these characters either, save for one surly elephant seal, and never a sense of community and togetherness no matter how hard it tries to force that theme down our collective throats. Sub plots are minimal, but those that are there are either forgettable (a love interest) or not fully developed (the human influence). It's a very jumbled and uneven film that gets by on cuteness, but can't lift itself out of that to be something a little more.

The Ugly: A great voice cast is at work here, but many of the characters are wasting their efforts. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon steal the show as supporting roles in a B story that is probably more interesting and unique than the A Story.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


A Hard Day's Night

The Beatles--the world's most famous rock and roll band--travel from their home town of Liverpool to London to perform in a television broadcast. Along the way they must rescue Paul's unconventional grandfather from various misadventures and drummer Ringo goes missing just before the crucial concert.

The Good: Who would have thought that one of the greatest comedies in the history of cinema started as nothing more than a low budget, promotional film for The Beatles? Before Spinal Tap, believe it or not, you had the Beatles. It wasn't quite entirely mockumentary, but it was certainly satirical and relied on the Beatles playing themselves to a degree of caricaturization and over-the-top playfulness that is hard to not love (yes, they may not be acting...yet they are acting. As a result, they end up as pretty damn good actors, if that makes any sense to you).

With the writing (Oscar nominated writing, I should say), puns and situational hilarity sharp, the pace brisk and lighthearted and a strong sense of friendship and heart, A Hard Day's Night is more than just a celebration of the Beatles. It's about being together, finding friends and people to fall in love with and seeing this god-like rock stars as humble teenagers making their way through life. It doesn't put them on a pedestal, and like the acting by not putting them on a pedestal it, ironically, does just that. These legends with the world in their hand find enjoyment playing in bathtubs, flirting with girls and meeting real fans (not the posh PR and music industry folk). Influential, a landmark movie, and an absolute must see for any fan of comedy...and you don't even need to be a fan of the Beatles if you like.

The Bad: From it's very first day of release, A Hard Day's Night has yet to receive a single dissenting review.  (Of course, Armond White I don't think has gotten to it yet, the man hated Toy Story 3 for crying out loud). Why is that? Well, there's not a whole lot it gets wrong. Maybe, perhaps, you could say the set up for a few of the songs is a little forced, but really that's about it. It's apparent it's a pretty flawless film.

The Ugly: A Hard Day's Night is 100% dry British humor. This is something people either love or they "don't get." Brit humor is a hard appeal for some audiences. It's not bad, but certainly acquired, so make sure you're in the right mindset and, if with others, around those that kind of get that approach to comedy.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Harakiri

Peace in 17th-century Japan causes the Shogunate's breakup of warrior clans, throwing thousands of samurai out of work and into poverty...

The Good: Less a film about samurai and more a commentary, if not outright criticism, of societal class and authority, Harakiri is one of the most intelligent and movingly poetic films from the master, Masaki Kobayashi. In this tale of sadness, anger in revenge lies a veil of disdain. Rather than glamorize the samurai and what they stood for, Kobayashi outright criticizes it with one single line: "...this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade. "

That and an understanding of humanity and justice.

That line was uttered by our central protagonist, Hanshiro Tsugumo- a beaten old samurai with agendas that reveal themselves at just the right time. He is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, a veteran to these types of films and found in an Akira Kurosawa picture or two on top of it all. Here, everything circles around him as he ever so slowly, sitting in a courtyard and contemplating suicide with a number of samurai around him, begins to tell his story. To those samurai, he is simply doing the honorable thing, or meaning to. To Tsugumo, and thus to Kobayashi, there's much more complexity to life than merely codes of conduct, rules and honor. While tradition might look at the Samurai way of life as honorable if not complicated, Kobayashi shows that it wasn't always the case and, in this tale, over-simplifies what it means to live, and what is truly important in life. Those facades he mentions are made of paper and will fall over time. Life, at this moment and at this instant, is all that matters.

Nakadai is the center of the entire film, from how it is shot to the story that spawns from it as we regress into Tsugumo's past to eventual meet the purpose of his tale and of his desire to perform Harakiri. He spins a beautiful yarn of a performance, lashing out one instant, in tears the next and always coming back to that courtyard in stoic fashion of an honorable man and the walls he built (or was forced to build) around himself and his life. Eventually, that wind kicks up.

Harakiri's structure is remarkable. It's impeccably paced and Nakadai take our hand and runs us through the flashbacks, the dialogue and the eventual climax that you know is going to happen but, deep down, you hope doesn't. As we continue onward the visuals, too, become more extravagant if not outright beautiful, such as one famous scene of a samurai duel amongst a field in a windstorm - allegorical as only Kobayashi would do. The film is an expression of frustration, emotion and intensity that is hard to simply explain. It starts slow, and then it builds, hooks and the next thing you know two hours passed and you didn't even realize it. It's as beautiful and flawless storytelling as one could ask for. Kobayashi's directing style is as poetic as ever as he clashes calmness and serenity with brutality - and will do so at the drop of a hat (or top-knot).

Harakiri is one of those films that is required viewing for any course on Japanese cinema. Or, rather, it should be. It wears a unique mask of accessibilty as a samurai picture, and when it comes to swords clashing and bloody battles it certainly delivers, but it has a richness and depth, not to mention insight, into Japanese culture, tradition and norms that has few equals in the same wheelhouse. It's a complex yet completely unassuming film that is regarded as one of the finest in Japan's history and a centerpiece to Kobayashi's fantastic career.

The Bad: You will "get" Tsugumo's purpose and intention and agenda rather early.

You won't "get" how those of the Iyi clan, whom Tsugumo is "visiting," do not "get" anything or catch on.

Harakiri is really about a one-sided argument. It's a mouthpiece about an ideology from one perspective though it never turns (too) preachy. Where Tsugumo is presented as a man in three-dimensions, everyone else he is against are simple one-dimensional evils to be broken down by him. The things of which he speaks, of those facades and life behind them, are apparently not applicacle to those of Iyi. Perhaps they are too stagnant in their ways with Tsugumo being the revelation, but his point is to show something which they deep down know. Then again, they drew swords first...so they had it coming, I guess.

The Ugly: Note to self. Don't take bamboo swords to a ritual suicide.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Harry Brown

An elderly ex-serviceman and widower looks to avenge his best friend's murder by doling out his own form of justice.

The Good: Though not that much different than other revenge/vigilante thrillers, Harry Brown has one major, major thing going for it: Michael Caine. Truth is the acting as a whole is what makes Harry Brown, a standard plot and character, better than one might expect. Caine, though, gives a remarkable performance of a man looking to take back his neighborhood and get back at the gang members that killed his friend.

The thing is, and this is what’s so unique about it, is Harry isn’t angry. In fact, he’s rather a calm, thoughtful man who contemplates doing anything at all. Revenge thrillers automatically has one think about a scowled man with a gun needing retribution. In fact, the entire film has that feel to it: a washed-out, gray, bleak world with a good man, his better years behind him, living out his last days. It’s well worth seeing for the cinematography and Caine’s performance, just don’t expect a huge amount of satisfaction in the end run.

The Bad:  One major plot turn really hinders the entire film. It’s far too out of left field and too forced to feel natural and meaningful. The film, mostly, plays everything pretty straight, if not underplays it all, but this one major beat is the one thing that feels “written.” It goes from a would-be character piece to a strange tale of secrets and family heritage that just doesn’t fit in with what Caine is working with or the tone of the film as a whole.

Speaking of Caine, he certainly brings out Brown incredibly well, but truth be told: the story just doesn’t serve it. The character and performance are great, the story is a sloggy, uninspired piece that obviously isn’t sure where to go or what to do...hence the previous paragraph. Caine lifts the entire film. It’s completely on his shoulders. He does his part...little is there to support him.

The Ugly: While not as thematically complex as Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, I think the two are of similar bondage. Both are about an elderly man debating to do the same thing, both have a similar bleak and tired tone and both aren’t your typical thrillers that you might expect. If you enjoyed Torino I the slightest, this smaller-scale, lower-budget British thriller is something you’ll probably enjoy this one as well.  

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


 

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

In the sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft, and in both wizard and muggle worlds Lord Voldemort and his henchmen are increasingly active. With vacancies to fill at Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore persuades Horace Slughorn, back from retirement to become the potions teacher, while Professor Snape receives long awaited news. Harry Potter, together with Dumbledore, must face treacherous tasks to defeat his evil nemesis.

The Good: Visual and imaginative, as always with the Harry Potter series, Half Blood Prince reunites us with our old friends and Hogwarts as a whole. The film, as always, is about a mystery but this time with a sinister twist that really changes the series as it ends far more on a down note than many will be accustomed to. Having already knowing this twist, I think the film does a good job leaving you in suspense on how it will happen, although it does little else to explain what is going on half the time. Yates brings the world to life, but I'm beginning to think the life was stolen from the characters to make that happen.

The Bad: The problem with Half Blood Prince is the same problem I had with David Yate's last foray into Harry's world with Order of the Phoenix. There's simply no heart in the film. It's cold, distant, and the characters seemingly going through the motions rather than feel like people with weight and purpose to their lives. Even emotional scenes have no weight to them as a result and, again, simply feel as though they were done to mark off the day's shoot. This is even more disappointing when you realize it's two and a half hours long. Entertaining, as the films always are, but soulless if not tedious.

The Ugly: Many common characters of the series are pretty much in the background in this one. Disappointing, after five films I think a lot of people have become invested with them, now they're all but forgotten.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

As Harry races against time and evil to destroy the Horcruxes, he uncovers the existence of three most powerful objects in the wizarding world: the Deathly Hallows.

The Good: I can recall about this time a year or so ago when I wrote my review for the previous Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where I made mention of the film's inability to have a heart. It's also right above this review to see but that's beside the point. It was completely clinical as it went through the motions of its plot and neglecting any sincerity on behalf of the characters. While it was still a well-made and tremendously entertaining film, it skewed towards wanting to just get as much done as possible rather than holding moments and allowing us to breathe.  Now we have the latest in the Harry Potter films...and it rectifies every bit of that. The fact that it has plenty of time across two movies probably has everything to do with that to a point where you wonder why the past few films haven't gone the multiple installment path in the first place.

It all works perfectly here. You know going in it'll all be set up stories before the climactic part two, but I don't think anyone would anticipate just how well-crafted it really is. It focuses completely on the characters, re-establishes their tight friendship and finally finds its soul full of emotion. It's suspenseful, epic in scope and references all the past films in some little way and you can see in the eyes of the actors and in the words they speak that it has, in fact, been a very long journey to this point. It doesn't try to be its own film and understands its serial nature (for better or worse if you haven't seen or read any of the previous Harry Potter stories). It manages to be a full-circle experience and damn fine suspense film in the process.

And it is a suspense film, moreso than the previous Potter films. The way the scenes are outlined, shot and the constant threat that could be hiding around every corner is never lost. There's little light in this dark tale and the bleakness puts that much more weight into the continuing and escalating tale it weaves. It allows us to breathe, it paces itself and as a result of it (combined with the ever-classic Harry Potter artistic vision that has always been constantly endearing), I might go as so far to call this the best Harry Potter film...and seeing as how it's the first part of the last, its' a hell of a way to go out.

The Bad: Sometimes, even the excessive bleakness can truly get to you. Here, though it is absolutely fitting, yet also tends to remind you repeatedly how bleak things are to where your head begins to hurt by the bleakness-bat it likes to bash over your head. But that minor quibble is just that, it's the larger one that might turn off some people: you must be pretty knowledgeable of the books and previous films to really know who is what, what is what, and why people are doing what they're doing. There is an absolute ton in the film and much of it is directly linked to previous stories. It will occasionally have an explanation of things and how they're relevant, but sometimes even simple characters can become lost.

You might recognize them and the actors and their names, but you may have a hard time recalling their individual stories or how they're relevant to everything that's going on. I recognize Lucius...but I can't quite recall how he fell out of graces with He Who WIll Not Be Named. That's just one example, and I think the film not only bears repeated viewing, but you really must have all the films in recent memory to turlky follow and grasp all that is going on. It's far from a standalone film, which is nothing new for this series, but is also far more dependent on combining and referencing the other stories of the Potter-verse more than any other as well.

The Ugly: The film isn't without some other issues, not least of which is a rather rushed final third when the rest is so well-done by comparison, but overall, this is a hell of a set up...and that's something you have to keep in mind. I can review this film as its own, but you really aren't supposed to. It's only the first half. Knowing that, though, you can be fairly forgiving (whether that's right or not is up to you) when things tend to not make sense or feel lacking resolve, for the film and story itself feels as though it doesn't go anywhere or achieve anything. It doesn't...but it's not supposed to. Part two has a lot on its shoulders and only then can we really judge this rather impressive (as of now) Part One.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Pt. 2)

Harry, Ron and Hermione search for Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes in their effort to destroy the Dark Lord once and for all. 

The Good: Looking back to the past ten years, it's almost impossible to separate a review of of the final Harry Potter film with the entirety of the entire franchise. Eight films, a constant and continuing story, the same actors that we've watched grow in front of us. There's probably not going to be anything quite like it again and what the producers, the various directors, the actors that have willing returned over and over again are to be given ovations as they take their bows.

The Deathly Hallows Part 2 reminds us, however, what the story is really about: three friends. Harry, Ron and Hermione who went to school together and found something far grander. It began and, here, ends with them. This finale is not only a concluding, all-encompassing extended climax, but it's also an intensely satisfying emotional release for the years people have come love and know Harry Potter and his friends. It's epic in scope, beautifully realized as we see a war of wizards, yet manages to implement the emotional core of Harry and his friends as the foundation of what sets Harry Potter apart from your numerous other "magical/messiah kid" stories and movies. It's both a fitting finale and an emotional acknowledgement of ten years with characters you'll never forget.

The Bad: A continuing issue with much of the Harry Potter films is the element of plot convenience. Seeing as how they can't spout narration and exposition to explain many things, give insight or backstory and simply make it seem less random than it is, we end up with only the event itself and not the story behind the event. Seeing as how I determine the quality of  a film only by the film's standards, not whether or not a book explains it as though it assumes I've read the book (even if I have read the book) or if it's changed or does something different, many sudden happenings seem to simply randomly happen. This is a result of needing the exposition done in the earlier films to foreshadow events to happen later, but the later books weren't yet written and therefore the filmmakers simply didn't know what would be important and what would not.

Though I love the ambition, and there's no doubt something of the this nature, the undertaking of adapting all the Harry Potter books with the same cast over the series of years, will likely not happen again, there isn't a sense of unity. There's quality, there's entertainment, there's a story being told, but much of it seems to happen by random happenstance, not because there's a finely polished narrative thread through this film or the series as a whole. It, thankfully, is able to draw out memorable and wonderful characters to hide most of this, as well as a spectacular and wonderous world, and we mostly don't notice. However, if you look a little closer, the entire series, and even this film, feels like three or four puzzles thrown onto the same table and only sections are done, but nothing fully completed. Things happen out of left field, often without explanation, and it moves on to the next. I counted about six or seven instances in this film alone where I was confused due to the loose threads and lack of explanation...and "read the book" is not a way to excuse it.

The Ugly: What will Radcliffe do now? I can see his co-stars going on with their careers, but he will always be Harry Potter. A blessing and a curse to say the least.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Haywire

A black ops super soldier seeks payback after she is betrayed and set up during a mission.

The Good: There a lot to be said about approaching action movies with realism in mind. Well, as realistic as movies can be, I suppose. Instead of lavishing set pieces with glorified martial arts, sharp angles, loud and booming gunshots and explosions, Haywire takes the approach of being true to actual real-life sensibilities. Sure, it's all choreographed and planned, but nobody is superhuman. People go down quick with gunshots, are hard to take down in fights which are a combination of planned actions and fleeting inhibitions where you get a sense of anger, frustration and emotion that rise - usually resulting in the demolition of a hotel room or an accidental knockout when a head hits a stool in a diner with a cringe-worth "clunk."

Haywire takes pride in it. More importantly, is it does it all with simple action approaches: have a straightforward and non-so-special story, a convincing lead and good framing. The story we've seen before, even the cinematography (though becoming rarer these days), but what's great is the lead. Gina Carano isn't a great actress, but she's a convincing lead. If that makes any sense. She's got enough to work with physically for us to not really notice her lack of presence in dialogue-drive scenes. She makes an impact in the points the film wishes to make impacts in: stunts, fighting, chases and brutal takedowns. It's her specialty and unlike a lot of female action stars, she looks the part. She's pretty, but not gorgeous. She's strong and intimidating, but feminine in style. The fact there aren't "money shots" or ways to simply show off her sexuality in the film makes Haywire unique in that regard. It's straight-up a punch in the gut.

Though it may not go down as one of Steven Soderbergh's greatest films, it's a unique experiment on his behalf. Soderbergh loves to jump genres, alter his styles and tackle new ideas. He'll do a documentary style one moment, an experimental style the next, a 40s noir, a meditative piece of science fiction then throw in a comedy just for good measure. It's interesting that he simply knows what needs to be done given the particular script, does it, and usually gets it right. Haywire, despite some pacing issues and chunkiness in the lead's acting, gets pretty much everything right that you want in a heavy action flick.

The Bad: When the action is your greatest strength, it's odd the film slowly fizzles that aspect of its being out as we go further. There's some decent moments in the final thirty minutes, but there's no big "push" at the end to really bring it home and especially no action scene better than the three or four major scenes that came earlier. The entire film begins as an escalation, then plateaus and seems to be uncaring about going further with it. Though the execution of the action is great, the vehicle to get us through it, from brutal punch to breath-taking chase, just feels lackluster.

Given that Carano isn't an actress, but a presence, really makes it hard to criticize her as well. She demands the screen in most of the film, which is the focus, but her character comes off as flat and generic given her acting itself. There's a lack of care or emotion towards her on our part. We can't tell if she's intelligent, or just instinctual, or if she has a relationship to certain characters beyond just "blank stare."

The Ugly: You'll know the bad guys before they even speak a word. The predictability of the script is unfortunate, thankfully the unpredictability of the action makes up for most of it.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Heat

In Los Angeles, a gang of armed thieves is hitting serious targets - major banks, vaults, and armored cars. These thieves are led by arch-criminal Neal MacAuley. One of their operations, an armored-car robbery, goes bad and the armored-car guards are murdered by the gunmen - putting LAPD homicide detective Vince Hanna on the trail of the thieves. Hanna knows it will take a lot to bring these dangerous, armed thieves down, and it will end in a horrifying gun battle when the thieves try to rob a major federal bank...

The Good: One of the finest suspense and action movies you can think of. The cast if fantastic, Pacino with the quotable lines, DeNiro with the scenes, Kilmer....being Kilmer. Throw in the supports Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner and even a young Natalie Portman, you can bet the acting will be up to the fantastic and interweaving story felt with human drama, politcal beuracrats and bank robbers. Then you have the visceral action and some of the best shot sequences to grace film, the bank heist being the main treasure. There are many others to name on top of it. It's smart, playing into everyting from its themes of good and evil, and that maybe it's just a big game, to musical cues and poetic imagry with foreshadowing and intelligent dialogue. No question is this Michael Mann's crowning achievement.If you don't like this movie, you simply don' t like movies.

 The Bad: Too long for its own good? That can be argued. There's a lull in the film at a few points where you await for something to happen. Mann likes to have the camera linger, and maybe show people just not doing anything, but sometimes this lingers a little too long.

The Ugly: Pacino's wife is a bitch, a major one. Why would he even consider getting back with her? That whole story was a bit of a mess, and I was hoping DeNiro would show up and shoot her. Maybe the theme of forgiveness and redemption shouldn't have applied to her, I wanted to push the murder button.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Heat

An uptight FBI Special Agent is paired with a foul-mouthed Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord.

The Good: It has to be a sign of a good director. The Heat shares a lot of similarities to Paul Feig's previous film, in that on paper it's pretty straightforward, basic and nothing special. It's a familiar plot, actors we kind of know what to expect with comedy-wise, been there done that.

Then you see it. And somehow you forget that you've seen a lot of movies like this, because it's now suddenly fresh and fun and the energy of the actors and filmmaker and everyone else involved just oozes in to you. You begin to really like. Laugh. Maybe cringe when things get a little too sappy, but overall solid comedy. Feig knows what he's doing. It's well beyond just gender-swapping roles, there's been plenty of female buddy-cop movies and TV shows before The Heat just as there had been plenty of female-driven wedding-comedies before Bridesmaids. But Feig makes it all work. The casting is always spot on. The performances are memorable and fun with a hell of a lot of heart.

The Heat is a fun movie. Original and fresh and new? No. But that's not the point. The point is when a movie is done so well, you tend to not notice that you've seen movies like it before. You especially don't notice when you have great on-screen chemistry between the actors, here Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock - both of whom you truly feel a sense of loathing, conflict and eventual sincere friendship. The Heat isn't re-inventing the wheel, but if it's a nice wheel then why complain? Get some mileage out of that thing and have fun at the movies for once. Feig and company want you to.

The Bad: Yes, it has a formula, and most of the time that formula works and is funny when it's focused on our two leads. But for the life of me I can't remember the story, supporting characters or anything else that happens outside of those individual scenes with those two leads that I can recall. The Heat is a film that is good as vignettes: you'll remember scenes and dialogue and situations, but you probably can't really recall what the story was much less the context of what's happening.  The characters are strong enough for you to not mind, but to sit and review makes it hard to overlook that shortcoming.

A lot of comedies have this problem these days. There's not one all-encompassing film and more a series of funny moments that loosely tie in with each other. As funny as scenes are, it's hard to give credit to a script: a script that can't give us a story or plot that's interesting. You have to just give credit to Feig and the leads who are just having a good time and want you to have a good time. It worked in Bridesmaids, though that script was far better, and it works here.

The Ugly: Misogynist? That's a word some critics are throwing out. I sometimes feel people just want to tear stuff down for the sake of it. Some people just don't want to have a good time at the movies. Some people just want to watch the world burn.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Heavenly Creatures

Based on the true story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two close friends who share a love of fantasy and literature, who conspire to kill Pauline's mother when she tries to end the girls' intense and obsessive relationship.
 

The Good: There is no question here that Heavenly Creatures, from beginning to end, is Peter Jackson's very best and most consistently gratifying film. The relationship between Juliet and Pauline is so bizarre you can't help but be compelled. There's a bit of happiness to be found in seeing it, two like-souls that appear so different finding friendship...the the darkness of it all begins to settle in. The sexual overtones. The loss of the mind. The eventual horrors of two young women who become completely separated from reality. It's nearly  a horror film, something Jackson at this point in his career was notorious for, but is able to showcase drama thanks to the performances (a young Kate Winslet tearing up the screen) that makes it much more, and better, than that. Jackson was an absolute perfect fit and he strikes a remarkable balance between the menacing and the joyous.

The Bad: Jackson really makes no effort to get us to like Juliet and Pauline. Both are ear-gratingly annoying and incredibly off-putting. As a result, we end up feeling the same as those around them rather than them themselves. They become caricatures, simple fleeting girls that enter, then leave and appear like walking, talking dreams than actual human beings. But we shouldn't necessarily be feeling anything for them either. We aren't supposed to understand them, but there are times when we do love them and their utter insanity. At least until a point is reached where they go down paths even we won't be willing to follow.

The Ugly: One thing you can never deny with Jackson, he knows how to cast and has an eye for the right person for the right role. This was Kate Winslet's film debut, and she is utterly fantastic. She hasn't let us down since and shows how all those wannabe young actresses in Hollywood today really have no class or sense of direction. Winslet has always been admiral and is now considered one of the best actresses of her generation. Damn her for being so perfect.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Help

A look at what happens when a southern town's unspoken code of rules and behavior is shattered by three courageous women who strike up an unlikely friendship.

The Good: Great performances can carry a mediocre story. Some of the best film in cinematic history have managed to get by and not fall to overall badness thanks to great acting and characters that leap off the screen. The Help is just a such a movie.

The Help is an easily digestible anti-racism film for a broad audience that is carried wonderfully by its acting, Emma Stone is our (white) window into a time and place: Jackson Mississippi in the 1960s and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer give Oscar-worthy performances as housemaids caught up in an era full of bigotry and ignorance. Its message is clear: racism was a way of life, like breathing, during this era and in the process the fact that these men and women were even human to begin with was cast aside. To people of Jackson, they were still "things" (slavery without saying the word slavery) and not human at all.

We've seen this story before, but The Help is able to find a rich emotional and sincere approach with drama and bits of lightheartedness within that is sometimes lost in even other "anti-racism" films. The Help manages to tell a story by telling numerous other stories within it, delivered in a way where you feel as though you're sitting in a room with these maids telling the tales of inequality. It's interesting to note that when The Help is telling the other stories within it, whether it through conversation or flashback, it's at its most interesting and heartfelt. It's also in those moments where it's not as heavy-handed and trite. It's touching in that regard, perhaps knowing the main story at hand isn't nearly as interesting as the stories of each individual maid's past and the road leading up to the early 1960s.

The Bad: The Help has a good message, but it's not entirely sure how it wants to explore it. A warming, gentle drama with some comedic elements it gives us sporadically, even more sporadic is the very sincere and deeply emotional core of humanism found in a world of racism and bigotry. It never strives to choose an identity and the juxtaposition of a profound emotional scene right after or before a laugh-getter is odd and uncomfortable. It ends up a distraction from the message at hand because it's too busy trying to find an identity. As a book, I'm sure the Help was able to spend time in developing both sides.  As a film, with constraints and restriction, it feels more like a melting pot with no real flavor.

What's more is the idea of rewriting history, which I have more of an issue with. The Help is historical fiction, but in the process is an attempt to alter the idea of what happened in Jackson Mississippi. It's not simply "Traveling through" like a Forrest Gump or, more relevant here, Mississippi Burning in a passive, observational approach to show the time and place with outsiders looking in. It pretty much says the the root of bringing racism to light is thanks to a young, ambitious white woman who wrote a book.

Oh, the film tries to tell us it's not her story, it bookends it with Aibileen Clark, the far more interesting character, but it's not her story. The story is with Eugenia and it attempts to tell us it's not but fails miserably in doing so. Then again, even the book itself was written by a young white woman, so it being from a young white woman's perspective is only natural...I'm just not very fond it trying to tell me history that didn't happen, then imply it's thanks to a white woman and not members of the African American community, who are portrayed as ignorant and unwilling until this 23 year old girl shows up. The Civil Rights battle was a long process over decades, not something that happened in a month. It glosses over it for a broad drama and though it's well-intentioned, the more scrutiny you put on it, the less it holds up.

The Ugly: Breaking stereotypes shouldn't involve glorifying them. Though Aibileen is our central core, and unlike most of the other characters we've seen in countless other films of this nature, everyone else is by-the-books - making the fact that Aiblieen not being our central character that much more of a disappointment.

I wasn't expecting to have more bad things to say about The Help than good. It's not a bad film at all, but one that seems to have made compromises to find itself a broader audience. I suppose a broad message isn't a bad thing either, it still manages to get that across at least, but let me put it this way: The Help is an anti-racism movie for white people. It's not subtle, such as Driving Miss Daisy, relevant like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or poignant and profound like Do the Right Thing.  It makes white people feel good about themselves as they stand up and cheer, pat themselves on the back and say "good job." Should that really be the point of this story? I would think not.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Her

A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need.

The Good: I never would have thought that one of the most touching, humanistic and beautiful stories about relationships and love would involve one of the co-stars to never appear on screen, much less be an intangible voice floating in the air, but lo and behold just leave it to Spike Jonze to make something like that happen.

Of course, Jonze being one of the best filmmakers of his generation, that actually shouldn't be a surprise, should it? If I were to describe Her in one word, which is something you should never do by the way, it would be "elegant." Every aspect, from the music to the tone to the characters to a simple shot of a man's face smiling to the strange ability for Jonze to encapsulate a little bit of our own lives in to his film, as he does in the past, that we can identify with...well it's all just elegantly done.

That last bit there might sound a tad odd, but allow to be expound on it. Jonze, somehow, is able to shoot a scene or have characters act in a way where it's less "watching a movie" and more "recalling a moment" or "remembering a feeling." It's as though he creating something that we watch from our own memories. Sure, it's not exact, but we remember something like it.  Perhaps it comes from his ability to convey something short and to the point, to have a "meaning behind the meaning" from his years directing videos and shorts.

It's seen through all of his movies. For me personally: In Being John Malkovich his ability to encapsulate wish-fulfillment through a variety of eyes (literally) is unmatched. For Adaptation, the "stream-of-thought" moments of Nic Cage spouting in to a recorder is one of those things I never through I would see done so effectively on film. In Where the Wild Things Are, it's seeing the world from a child's perspective. No, not "imagination" and "daydreaming" but, literally, dropping the camera perspective about two feet lower and angling everything up.

In Her, it's all about posture, expression and dialogue. There's no "grand" moment because it captures the reality of love and relationships: most moments aren't "Grand." They're just...a regular day, a regular conversation, a laugh, and a smile.

The trust of Spike Jonze in his actors, and the trust they have in him, comes through beautifully. You can see it sprawled throughout, from his willingness to not cut and let them act, and from them to not rely on “fixing it in post.” There’s a communication here that comes from everyone being on the same page. The tone. The characters. The entire atmosphere and world is brought to life through this seemingly-symbiotic relationship. That’s when you start to realize that Her is what happens when great films are made and you sense it immediately.

Dramatic, beautifully, lyrical and even funny when it needs to be, Her manages to be a brilliant look at love and relationships by challenging you. Not because there’s an “artificial” person and only her voice, but because it makes you listen and relate to what they’re saying. There’s no “safety” here, everything you know about these characters aren’t through carefully contrived situations that end in laughs or some kiss in the rain, it’s entirely through dialogue, and that is the most reflective and honest aspect about real relationships you can ask for. It took the boldness of removing the tangible person to do it.

The Bad:  If you aren’t sold on this “future” world of high-waisted pants and other hipster clothing or how everything looks like an Ikea catalog mixed with an Apple store, you might end up being occasionally distracted by the world. It’s an odd one, but only because it’s less “future” and more “enhanced present.” THere’s a familiarity, which allows it to be grounded, but also an oddity to it all that’s something a cross between the fantasy aspect of a Wes Anderson movie and some French New Wave film.

None of that undermines anything the film is intent to do. It’s odd, but it’s not awful. It’s low-key, unassuming, but certainly strange - which fits the tone of the film, actually, because falling in love with someone you can’t even see is equally strange…yet equally real. If that makes sense. It probably doesn’t. In fact, a lot of Her is hard to explain in writing or even discussion. It’s too unique and heartfelt to put in to words, you kind of just need to experience it and soak it all in. Then you’ll realize how brilliant it is, and all those “odd” things aren’t necessarily “odd” and distracting but more a part of the experience that you don’t want to forget.

I wanted to see Her a second time before reviewing, and now that I have I feel more confident in my final determination: there's not a thing wrong with it.

I don't set myself or my reviews up on hyperbole. I have a strong dislike for it, especially with how much people on the internet are so reliant on it as a fail-safe, but here, I am not. This was my favorite film of 2013 for a reason: it has a set of parameters it sets up for itself, it knows exaclty what it is and wants to be and it nails it every step of the way.

The Ugly: Nobody is bringing up the brilliant performance of Joaquin Phoenix. There’s a lot of good performances this year (2013) but this one is shamefully overlooked. I can’t stress this enough: it’s the best acting of his career and one of the best performances of the year and asks a ton of him - from having to have conversations and convey emotions with a person not there to needing to be physical with a person that’s not there. It’s the linchpin of the entire film and also reminds us how damn good of an actor Phoenix really is.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Hercules

Having endured his legendary twelve labors, Hercules, the Greek demigod, has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord.

The Good: In the tradition of old-school swords and sandals b-movies, along comes a more glamorous version with Hercules. Though that polish might work against it in some cases, the tone and approach to this old-school adventure, which is serious yet manages to balance itself to not be too serious, it's a nicely woven, fun piece of entertainment. It's charming, fun and has a great understanding of what it wants to be and how to do it.

What it wants to be, and surprisingly well, is balancing the grandeur of Greek myth with a more grounded approach (ala John Milius with Conan the Barbarian in 1982). Here, it's a lavish production, yes, but Hercules strikes a similar tone of a man simply trying to find his way in life, meeting companions and trying to do what's right.

That man is Dwayne Johnson who is what makes Hercules really work. He's the central pillar holding it all up. Though the plot is minuscule and story forgettable, its Johnson and his companions and that chemistry that allows Hercules to be an enjoyable indulgence and allows for some wonderful violent spectacle all directed and shot nicely…

The Bad: ...though not directed or shot in a memorable way. This is where director Bret Ratner never seems to succeed. His movies aren't  bad movies, but there's nothing visually interesting to them. There's not character, no style, no level of interest other than shooting the scene and just letting it play out. There's decent action here, but even that is treated with as much interest as a dissertation on Greek Myth itself.

Hercules is just on the border of being a really good movie, but it lacks that visual punch as well as something to truly define itself. The pieces are in place to be exploited. The set pieces are there. The action is there on paper and there's some great variety to be had there. The characters most certainly are there. It knows the story it wants to tell. But it's all done so bland and dull, as though you're promised a really good toy judging by the box and you open it and it's some cheap, soulless plastic thing that you get bored with after an hour or so.

Hercules also screams for more violence. While it does quite a lot for its PG-13 rating, there are cuts that seem too quick, scenes that seem too haphazardly hot around to not show too many dead bodies and dismembered limbs, a story that seems to want to take that extra step but can't...Hercules is just a movie too restrained for its own good visually that everything else is brought down as a result.

The Ugly: This might just be the most disappointing movie of the year. It's not a bad movie, but it was so close to being a good memorable one. Instead, we'll have to settle for mediocrity, and that's just sad. At least the Rock is doing awesome Rock things here.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Hereafter

A drama centered on three people -- a blue-collar American, a French journalist and a London school boy -- who are touched by death in different ways.

The Good: Simply being sentimental, hokey or melodramatic is not a fault in a film. It's simply the take. It's entirely on how one handles calling something melodramatic. Being melodramatic isn't a fault if it's done well, maybe the movie is better for it just as a film being pretentious, caught up in reveling in its own smartness, poetry or wit, can be a good thing as well. Truth is, some subject matter lends itself well to being overly sentimental. For example, the classic Italian film Cinema Paradiso (in reality, a LOT of Italian films) thrive in being overdone with melodrama and emotion. The romance film Love Actually has it directly there in the title: it's a movie about love and being a little hokey with it rather than overly-realistic makes for an endearing piece of moviemaking. Hereafter takes this type of approach: it's a drama that loves its own concept and that concept, being life after death, probably couldn't be handled any other way. Sure, it's not as overdone as What Dreams May Come, but merely the idea of it forces it to over sentimentalize itself because if there's one thing that we all never really know it's the afterlife, and if there's anything we all probably fear it's death.

It's interesting to see a film, a seemingly personal one for Eastwood in the twilight of his life, dealing with the idea of spirituality and afterlife on such a downplayed level. Usually this type of subject matter is relegated to thriller and horror tropes where there's mysteries and scares involved, sometimes a twist where things are not quite what we think they are. Here, it's entirely about the conceptual beliefs of life after death than it is anything directly. It's our own though processes and notions of faith Hereafter tackles than trying to answer questions or have any type of reveals. In some circles, this might come across as completely boring. In others, a breath of fresh air and something we haven't quite seen before. I prefer the latter take.

The Bad: I would have to admit, however, that Hereafter oversteps its own bounds. It doesn't try to answer certain things, yet it attempts to reveal things beyond human comprehension. This feels out of place and can overshadow the human drama at Hereafter's core. By attempting to turn spirituality into something paranormal, the story loses its footing and morphs into a film about ghosts and spirits. These are two concepts that feel crammed into one film: the spiritual belief of an afterlife and the soul and the realistic observation of the presence of spirits around us. The first is where Hereafter thrives. It finds that human connection and we see fates intertwined as something greater than us surrounds us at all times. The second, unfortunately, tries to be a ghost story that doesn't work. It's minor in comparison, but because it's there it seems to take precedence because we as people are naturally enthralled by the idea of spirits and souls around us, influencing us and making themselves known, and actual tunnels of white light when we die. But that's not what Hereafter is about...or not what it should be about. One element is where it's remarkably strong. The other is where it is weakest and the slow pace of the film doesn't help to alleviate the unevenness of its motifs.

The Ugly: I really loved Damon in this picture. Sometimes we can forget how good of an actor Mr. Bourne can be, but he's been choosing some superb roles the past few years that showcase his dramatic talents, this one is one of his best...and probably will go as unnoticed as last years The Informant.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Hesher

Hesher is a loner. He hates the world and everyone in it. He has long greasy hair and homemade tattoos... 

The Good: Life needs a good kick in the ass every so often. Sometimes a little chaos can go a long way, such is the ideological approach to life by Hesher. He's reckless, dangerous, speaks in metaphors and tells people what they don't want to hear. He's catharsis in human form. With his antics comes the dark comedy of the film, it's named after him afterall because he is the reason for everything has will happen. It's like it's foretelling us in the title alone all the things that will turn the world upside down within the film. It's not complicated. It's just Hesher.

Hesher arrives, or perhaps is "sent" to a home in turmoil. He's not there to heal anything, he's there to break it even further until it's back to square one. Whether or not Hesher knows this, or those around him realize it, is unclear. Hesher is as Hesher does and if that means getting you into fights, arrested, walking around your house half-nude and smoking weed with your grandmother, then so be it.

Gordon Levitt is obviously having a lot of fun with this character. We find the dark humor through his willingness to simply not care as a core, audacious indulgence of human depravity. But it's depravity with a purpose. He doesn't care what people think of him and that willingness to do and say what we all wish we could be never do is where Hesher is able to carve a niche out for itself in the world of black, indie comedies. It's not hilarious, far from profound, but unique and, at the very least, able to grab our love of driving by car-wrecks and blend it with our desire to say what's on our mind without inhibition. It gets into that root, even if it can't spawn a tree from it.

The Bad: Hesher, I feel, is more of an idea or abstract concept than meant to be a film. I've seen the movie twice now and have been unable to quite grasp what I didn't like about it...I just know that the sensation of satisfaction, being thought-provoking or important or simply being entertaining never quite came. There's certainly things to like, the idea itself for example and, of course, some great performances. Yet, for each of those I mention, I wince and think of things I didn't like that were related. I loved Devin Brochu as TJ, but never really understood his need to do what he does or why he turns at a pivotal moment. I loved Rainn Wilson as Paul, but felt he was less a person and more just an item to be overcome. Portman as Nicole is charming and sweet, but seemingly irrelevant to everything going on with little to no end game to her own purpose if there even was one.

Then you have Gordon-Levitt's Hesher, again. While it's a great performance, you never quite understand the point of his being much less his relevance. The film wants to be smart with him, and sometimes it is, but it never has an impact or any sense of emotion and well-roundedness to his character or purpose or the deeds he does (good or bad). After a while, you become tired of Hesher as a character because you realize he's got little going for him and, as a result, you get a little tired of the film itself. I found myself both appreciating the uniqueness of it yet loathing the nature of it's own desires to be unique all the same. It's like looking down a path and seeing a fork. One way is a regular, old-fashioned way to go down. Hesher goes the other route, but just because it's the "other" route doesn't mean it's the smoothest path in the process. You exchange the pleasantness of that other path for a new perspective, but a far rockier road.

The Ugly: I liked Hesher, but at the same time disliked it. I can think of specific moments, bouts of dialogue and scenes that I loved, then think of something I didn't like as well right next to it. Perhaps, like Hesher himself, it's simply a movie that "is" and doesn't need a lot of questions asked of it in the first place. Perhaps the term "successful failure" is a perfect description of this rather odd but interesting movie.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Hidden Fortress

Lured by gold, two greedy peasants escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess and her general. 

The Good: With movies like The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, we see a rare side of Kurosawa: a lighter, if not outright playful side. His films are often melodramatic and sincere with some comedic moments but are far from being comedies. I would almost consider The Hidden Fortress his comedy film. It’s light. It’s fun. You can see with the situations he presents that he’s going for that, and you can especially see in the performances of its actors (especially the comedic duo of Tahei and Matashichi, played wonderfully and joyously by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara who well hold their own against Kurosawa veteran Toshiro Mifune in an equally light and fun performance) all of whom seem to gleefully run through their lines, their action sequences and their nice, smartly implemented moments of drama, action and character which helps balance it all out.

The characters work beautifully with this rather simple plot. They get into situations and adventures, or misadventures I should say, and play off each other so well it’s not surprising George Lucas lifted the balanced elements for Star Wars. Due to it’s approach to the time and the people, I might say that The Hidden Fortress is probably one of Kurosawa’s most accessible films. It’s simple story but universal comedic appeal and sharp action allows that, I guess.

The Bad: For the life of me, I can’t find something to not like about The Hidden Fortress. I know I don’t like it, personally, as much as Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, but it’s every bit as well crafted and made as those two classics (I will also say it’s not only a film I like more than Sanjuro but a better made film than Sanjuro as well, which can feel uneven at times). Nothing ever feels forced or out of place – a natural, almost instinctual script and wonderful performances make this a must see for anyone who wants to see a rare side of Kurosawa: one to make you laugh.

The Ugly: One thing I don’t like people using this film for is a crutch to disregard or undermine Star Wars. It’s similar in plot and character, yes, but Lucas has never denied that. Star Wars is well enough different and unique in its own for comparisons to not be made as some sort of measuring-stick on which version is better. We have The Magnificent Seven for that.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


High Fidelity

High Fidelity follows the 'mid-life' crisis of Rob, a thirty-something record-store owner who must face the undeniable facts - he's growing up. In a hilarious homage to the music scene, Rob and the wacky, offbeat clerks that inhabit his store expound on the intricacies of life and song all the while trying to succeed in their adult relationships. Are they listening to pop music because they are miserable? Or are they miserable because they listen to pop music? This romantic comedy provides a whimsical glimpse into the male view of the affairs of the heart.

The Good: I suppose it might have to do with an article I'm currently working on that made me start thinking of High Fidelity. It's about the "soundtrack to our lives" if we've ever seen one...which we did...called Almost Famous. But I digress, High Fidelity really takes it to the limit with it pretty much asking the viewer to think about the significant moments in their lives. What songs remind you of those moments? Were they the songs you were listening to during that time? What better vehicle to express this idea than the one of relationships - the classic old love gained and love lost, and all the missed opportunities in between.  It's a little pessimistic but never turns to loathing, which shows restraint and purpose as it, through Rob, tells us the difficulties of life and finding that right person to fall in love with.

High Fidelity may not hit every single bar and octave just right, but it does settle keenly on its idea and really runs with it. Cusack is charming, as par with him, and Black is a fantastic counter to that with him pretty much playing himself. You get the sense they have a great love-hate relationship. Around them is a great supporting cast, from the past loves of Rob to the enemies portrayed by Tim Robbins in a rather funny Steven Segal-esque role. Steven Frears is perfectly suited for such a character-driven film and it has that Nick Hornby touch that walks the line of comedy and understated honesty. I might even call this one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, especially in how it handles men and their view and never undermining the women they loft after. It's smart, sometimes poetic and incredibly charming.

The Bad: Once in a while, though he's bearing his soul to you, you kind of want to punch Rob (Cusack) in the face. If you boil it right down to it, the guy is a bit of an idiot. You know the kind: nothing good ever happens to him so he's cynical towards life and then bitches to us about it when a lot of the reasons why nothing good ever happened is because of him. Now this does allow for an arc for that character, and it works because the point is for him to grow up, and Cusack's charisma helps hide his immaturity, but on paper the guy should be slapped a few times (and that paper, according to the credits, had four writers which might explain some of this unevenness)

The Ugly: Jack Black's entrance into this film is classic...and has made itself a rather popular internet meme on top of it all. It says everything about the character in only three seconds.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


A History of Violence

Tom Stall, a humble family man and owner of a popular neighborhood restaurant, lives a quiet but fulfilling existence in the Midwest. One night Tom foils a crime at his place of business and, to his chagrin, is plastered all over the news for his heroics. Following this, mysterious people follow the Stalls' every move, concerning Tom more than anyone else. As this situation is confronted, more lurks out over where all these occurrences have stemmed from compromising his marriage, family relationship and the main characters' former relations in the process.

The Good: A methodical and incredibly complex film that works on countless levels. It's about the idealism of heroes, the purpose of violence, the influence of fathers and the nature of good and evil. It weaves these principals to a fantastic script with humanistic characters wallowing in shades of gray. More importantly, though, is its beautifully told. Director David Cronenberg not so much makes a movie as he crafts one, a distinction given between those that do it as a job and those that do it with a purpose and point to it all. His mind is working on a different level entirely from beginning to end where a lesser director would have just shot a movie about a father's past coming back to haunt him.

Here, though, it is that and so much more. A modern classic and one of the auteur's very best works.

The Bad: An ending that is almost necessitated ultimately becomes predictable. It feels as though it is some obligatory ending sequence to just bring completion rather than much of anything with weight or passion behind it. I suppose it has to do with it feeling so sudden as Tom puts his past to rest, but I think it has to do with the fact that so much of the script is well thought out, plotted and often relevant. It always moves forward, eventually unfolding and revealing itself more and more. There's a purpose to everything. By comparison, the events towards the end seemingly rush through itself just to say "The End" with not much else behind it. We still know so little, and it all feels a little too "neat."

It makes up for this, though, with one of the most beautifully emotional and poetic scenes afterwards. I think the final few shots, with no words spoken, is one of the finest endings you'll see on film.

The Ugly: The way Crononberg utilizes violent scenarios is masterful, here quick, sharp and incredibly believable...and utterly unforgettable in numerous cases. It doesn't get lost in its own self-worth, something Crononberg can sometimes do...it eases you, comforts you, then shocks you. There's a method to the madness, and the fact he has you so in the palm of his hand is a frightening thought.

Final Rating:  4.5 out of 5


Hitchcock

A love story between influential filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville during the filming of Psycho in 1959.

The Good: Solid directing and great performances carry an otherwise sloppy script, but Hitchcock isn't so much about a story as much as it is about a man. It says it right there in the title: Hitchcock, and we see him as close as you're probably going to see him. A hard thing to pull off considering Hitch was such an identifiable character in his own right. Anthony Hopkins does a damn good job, though it's still not the man - a thought that will be in the back of your mind. Helen Mirren, as always when it comes to her, is fantastic. She plays Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife, with a great sense of determination yet vulnerability. That's because Hitchcock isn't so much about a man directing a film as much as it is about a couple trying to deal with their marriage. It's not always entertaining, but it's no doubt interesting.

Despite the often brooding and melodramatic tone that takes up most of the film, it manages to get in some really smart and sly bit of wit to it all as well. Though used sparingly, Hitchcock manages to handle comedy nicely much in the same way the old master did in his own films: use it to alleviate, not to distract. Alfred and Alma's personal life is more than enough drama, so having situations and encounters outside of that helps immensely, though the darker shifts in to Hitchcock's mind (Ed Gein visits him often) seem a bit out of place.

The Bad: Hitchcock can feel a bit bland and dull at times, but it's not due to lack of trying. The film certainly tries to paint a great picture, the actors are giving it their all, even Anthony Hopkins who is doing his damnest to be Hitchcock rather than just do an impression of him and you can't fault him for that, and it all looks and feels wonderfully of the period. But it's so hum-drum in how it tells its story that you never quite feel in to it as other. It's more of a carefree jaunt than something with power.

As interesting as the making of Psycho is for subject matter, it surprisingly shows little of the actual making of the movie. Instead, we're shown more of Hitchcock's relationship with his wife. This is a great choice to focus on, but it lacks passion and determination. Instead it runs down "then this happened…then this…then this" as we move along and it throws in a few scenes of Psycho development along the way. Perhaps that's where it kind of looses me: does it want to be about Hitchcock the filmmaker determined to make his movie, or Hitchcock the man who's dealing with the complexities of a strained marriage. The film seems unable to decide, so it just moves along and lets happen whatever needs to happen.

The Ugly: It's interesting to see the man's personal life, but the film really wants to show him as a filmmaker and it never quite showcases that. I think the filmmaker Hitchcock would have been far more interesting if given more time.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Hitcher (1985)

A young man transporting a car to another state is stalked along the road by a cunning and relentless serial killer who eventually frames the driver for a string of murders. Chased by police and shadowed by the killer, the driver's only help comes from a truck stop waitress.

The Good: I love movies where there's a case of mistaken identity or there's a character put in a threatening situation but nobody believes him. In fact, he's often the lead suspect. I suppose that's why I love Hitchock so much as many of his films deal with that exact element. The Hitcher isn't quite as well-crafted as Hitchcock, perhaps even a retread of Spielberg's TV Movie, Duel, but it's still a fantastic piece of suspense. Many throw it aside to just another 1980s horror film, but I see hints and glances of North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train where we have a character, here a teen, threatened by a villain that loves to toy and play with him. Of course, this is the 1980s slasher take on those classic formulas and the villain often walking a line between insanely smart and just insanely preposterous. Rutger Hauer is that villain, John Ryder, and he's really one of the great horror characters in history despite his often ridiculous approach at times. He's calm, his eyes always showing his analyzing and thinking, planning and scheming, and his dialogue, what little there actually is, show his as an intelligent killer who is so nonchalant in his demeanor as he explains how he killed a person and dismembered him or when he calmly says "I'm going to sit here...and you're going to drive." If only we understood why.

The Bad: John Ryder is meant to be the devil (and the road symbolically life). However it wants to stay grounded and realistic, which is hard to believe considering the sometimes invincible nature of Ryder. Much of what happens is very thought out and planned, however this goes against the nature of Ryder being a random hitchhiker and much of what happens being spontaneous. It tries to develop a relationship between Ryder and Jim (Howell) but it never quite reaches that mark, and as a result we never really understand what Ryder's deal was. It's assumed he has  a death wish, but how that relates to Jim in some loose connection is never really developed.

The Ugly: The remake of The Hitcher did one thing right: make us realize how good the original was despite its flaws. At least we can "it's not the 2007 version." We also realize by comparison how fantastic Hauer was in the original film. It showed subtlety and restraint. As a result, I'm ending up giving The Hitcher probably a slightly better Final Rating than I would have five years ago.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A younger and more reluctant Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, sets out on a "unexpected journey" to the Lonely Mountain with a spirited group of Dwarves to reclaim a their stolen mountain home from a dragon named Smaug.

The Good: I started thinking while starting this review about whether or not we can really determine how good something is when only seeing a third of it. Sure, we can take this movie on its own merits, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that your typical approach to structure and storytelling is probably going to be off in it. If it's a tale planned for nine hours and we've only seen three, then all those beats are probably going to be off. Characters probably not full realized, many not given much to do because their time hasn't come up yet, but all's fair if you think in relative terms like that.

So, in terms of story, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does what you'd expect a first act to do: establish. It doesn't really detail, it just sets up. That's about all it does. It also doesn't really go anywhere in terms of journey, but it manages to throw in a great character arc to make up for that. Sure, the story beats might be off, but our hero-to-be Bilbo Baggins has a full arc to help alleviate that sensation that something is "missing" in the film (the other two thirds).

It's what you'd expect from a first act, and it manages to pace itself incredibly well with great balance of exposition, action and character. It's three hours that doesn't really make you feel that three hours. It's always moving, always interesting, always with something to say about the quest, the characters or the risk involved. In other words, it's three hours and doesn't ever get dull, managing to have a sense of fun about it while maintaining focus on the main story and the larger picture - something that Jackson has taken liberties in adding and doing it quite effectively to tie in to the Lord of the Rings. It had to have been a pain to implement that while sustaining the tale of The Hobbit, and despite a few obvious shoe-horns, it manages to do it well and stay consistent.

That's actually the best praise I can give the film, other than the usual great art design and wonderful performances (notably Ian McKellen, again as Gandalf and doing it so well again you simply can not imagine anyone else in the role, and Martin Freeman with the entire film on his shoulders and giving a wonderful presence as Bilbo) - but the consistency is just fantastic here. If you like the original Lord of the Rings films, this one is more of the same. It's the same tone, the same style, the same design only a different story and in different parts of Middle Earth. It truly feels like an expansion, and you'll no doubt get a few goosebumps when it settles in that you are, once again, heading back to this land and possibly for the last time.

As mentioned, it's hard to fully assess the Hobbit. It's a continuing tale, not a complete one. I feel this is a review I might re-approach in the year to come once the full picture begins to emerge and many of the complaints, such as many of the dwarves being unmemorable or too much action and too much fat, is more of a result of not seeing that full picture just yet. As sheer entertainment goes, though, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is hard to beat with some of the most engaging action set pieces you'll see in a film. Once this tale if completely told can we really look back and appreciate it or abolish it, I think, and assess just how good it possibly is. For a first film, though, it's a hell of a start. I had a great time with it despite the length and despite the over-indulgence.

The Bad: There are moments that, tonally, just feel out of place and odd. Sometimes The Hobbit is humorous and sweet, certainly playing on nostalgia, which goes well with the seriousness of the dwarves out to reclaim their home as it allows for a good balance. But then it has a few sequences that are, let's just say, probably testing that PG-13 rating (piles of dead bodies and severed limbs and heads will do that, even if there isn't a lot of blood). Not just violent, but emotionally trying. You see the father of Thorin's head being lifted high, it kind of takes away from the rather funny and bumbling nature of the supporting cast of dwarves who's names you likely won't fully recall (at least until the third film).

It's an over-written and self-indulgent film, which may or may not work for some people. Then again, if you're in to Tolkien in the slightest, overwritten and self-indulgent should be right up your alley. But that doesn't always transition to film, even if it's well paced and you don't "feel" that three hours, you do kind of wish it would just get to the point in particular scenes and that, perhaps, some characters omitted due to just not contributing much to the plot (such as Radagast, who is only here to have a Lord of the Rings connection).

The Ugly: The Hobbit is full of great moments, but the Riddles in the Dark sequence it absolutely nailed. Like, perfectly. So much so that it actually diminishes some of the other dialogue-heavy moments which might provide insight, but aren't nearly as entertaining.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug. Bilbo Baggins is in possession of a mysterious and magical ring.

The Good: Fun and adventure, that's the best thing about any of Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth saga films and this latest in the Hobbit trilogy is no exception. Great visuals are to be expected, as is the adventure, but where the Desolation of Smaug succeeds most is its momentum. It always moves forward, turning and twisting like barrels down the river. Speaking of which, who would have thought the most mundane thing from the original story could actually be made in to a major action set piece?

The Desolation of Smaug is very much the second act of three. It has no beginning, it gets right in to the action, and no ending, as it's still setting up the final act. It just flows wonderfully knowing its own place, its own limitations and its own purpose all ending with the confrontation with Smaug, and boy does that not disappoint even slightly. The dwarves and Bilbo with Smaug might be the most memorable scene in all of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth oeuvre.

"Purposeful" is actually a great way to describe the film. Nothing feels tacked on or trivial, everything with a point to it, whether it be to resolve something, express something further or set up and foreshadow something else. To go along with those visuals that Jackson is known for, and these wonderful characters created, we actually have a pretty tight and taught script full of memorable moments, the likes which we haven't really seen since the origianl Lord of the Rings films a decade ago.

The Bad: The story wishes to deviate more than necessary, causing for breaks to happen when it really should focus on the tension at hand. That's not to say those breaks aren't interesting or irrelevant as we see side stories of the elves or Gandalf or Laketown, but they are sometimes misplaced and breaking the momentum of what's being established. An intense moment is suddenly undercut by a different tense moment elsewhere, and so on.

Then you have the odd case of Bilbo Baggins, relevant when necessary, but absent otherwise. With a cast this big you can't focus on every single character and give them their due time, that's why most of the dwarves are background fodder with nary a line, but in the case of Bilbo, large swathes of film have him going unnoticed and speaking nothing, merely tagging along. Odd for your central character, even odder considering how prominent and more defined he was in the first film. Then again, you could also say his arc is complete after that first film, and he's literally just along for the ride like we are.

The Ugly: Though it has no beginning and end, it's the second Act afterall, The Desolation of Smaug isn't just great because it's so well paced, but it's great because it's always pushing forward with story and character and adventure. It's arguably the best Middle Earth movie put out there. Yes, that includes Fellowship of the Ring, though I would still lean to that modern classic. It's fine if a movie is long, as long as it stays interesting. This one succeeds in that department.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Hobo with a Shotgun

A homeless vigilante blows away crooked cops, pedophile Santas, and other scumbags with his trusty pump-action shotgun. 

The Good: Hobo with a Shotgun is a film made for a very specific audience. It’s niche, narrow, focused in its intent. The average moviegoer will likely not enjoy it because the average moviegoer doesn’t gleefully watch “classics” like Street Trash, The Toxic Avenger, Basket Case, The Stuff, Black Rain or any long-out-of-public-view movies that have a cult following. Movies so bad they’re good, if you will, and Hobo with a Shotgun is certainly bad. Oh yes, it’s a bad film, but it’s a highly enjoyable one that knows its a bad film, making reviewing it rather difficult. It’s not well written, the acting is alright in only a few cases, the music is a throwback to John Carpenter-esque 80s synthesizer sounds and the directing is passable though not particularly capable. It’s schlock...but it’s good schlock.

The “average moviegoer” won’t like it, though. I don’t like saying things like “they wouldn’t get it” but that’s pretty much the point of this film – it’s made specifically for people that do “get it.” those people won’t sit around and try and convince to you it’s a good film, not like someone trying to explain Bunuel or Lynch because people don’t “get those” either. That’s art, this isn’t. Even people who love it wouldn’t try and convince you otherwise. They, like the film itself, get the entire point of the absurdity, the blood, the gore, the violence, the intentional 80s throwback and cheesy acting alongside a goofy, inexplicable storyline that really is just about a hobo with a shotgun.

Stepping outside the realm of enjoyable-camp, there are some really good moments in the film given by Rutger Hauer, who is able to deliver dialogue as well as any 67 year old in an ultra-violent b-movie could ever give. Not only can you not imagine any other older actor in such a role, but you wouldn’t want anyone else. He’s convincing, a guide if you will, and gives the role and thus the material some elevation.

For a film with, apparently, no discernible quality, he is somehow able to find it. It's both a love letter to the campy, b-movie genre that flourished in the 1980s (spawned from Grindhouse cinema of the 70s, not coincidentally this movie originally being a "Fake" trailer in Robert Rodriguez's and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse Double Feature) that reveled in ultra-violence, blood and nudity. It's ability to know what it is, though, and recreate the era to a T (only with more style), from music to credits to cheesy acting is what makes it entertaining. It's not a parody, it's just self-aware and loves its source materials. Even casting Rutger Hauer is a self-aware nod as he made his share of movies just like this during the 1980s.

The Bad: You know what you’re getting with this one, and if you know, then you’ll enjoy it. As I said, separating myself from my 80s ultra-violent nostalgia glasses, it’s not a particularly good or well made film outside of Hauer’s performance. But it’s not made for those type of people. It’s made for those that DO have on those glasses and love these types of movies and it’s absolutely a love letter for them. In terms of that whole relative aspect of looking at it as just another grindhouse movie as though someone went back to the 80s and found this, it’s about on par with most of them, but not as memorable as the best of them. It seemingly falls short of its own aspirations, notably a rather boring and uninspired finale that could have done so much more, considering how much it was building it up to it.

The Ugly: Better than Machete, this movie actually gets the point of being a homage.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Hollywoodland

A detective examines the mysterious death of George Reeves, TV's Superman.

The Good: Years directing episodes of The Sopranos served Allen Coulter well for his first feature. How Paul Bernbaum wrote something so deliberate and restrained and intelligent is still up in the air, but he certainly did. Hollywoodland looks great, moves methodically and brings in reveals that make classic noir films what they are. The story of George Reeves is shown in flashback form. This fits in with the mystery aspect, but we never see the full picture of him. And that's the entire point, however. Reeves was obviously a complex and perhaps even disturbed man with his own demons. All we, and Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) ever know about him is through third-party conversations or old faded photographs.

However, it's not fully a murder-mystery. It offers up those scenarios and the potential conclusions but no answers. Rather, it's a study of characters and the life of an era we only see in pictures and read about. Those going into the film looking for answers or wanting to see something "solved" will certainly be disappointed. Hollywoodland plays up those assumptions, and then gets into our heads. The dark shadows, the mysteries and the people that have those mysteries to hide. It's certainly a unique approach to a biodrama - using the mystery of a famous actor's death to look into his life and those around him and peel back the layers as we progress, but make no mistake it's about the period itself and its people. Studios and heads had the power of the world at their fingertips.  Hollywoodland is there to romanticize everything. It's not used as a factual biopic, or attempt to be accurate or even give us answers. It's there to relish in the period, the world of crime, movies and mysteries.

The Bad: With so much happening, it's unfortunate so much of Hollywoodland feels oddly disjointed. The writing of the individual scenes and the directing of them excellent but they feel detached from each other. It's even brought up in the film itself, though more about the mystery itself than the story at hand. "I can see how I want them to fit," says Brody. "But I can't." True, but not with what he's talking about. The unfitting pieces work for mystery, but as a linear story with numerous flashbacks, not quite as much.

Speaking of Brody, while Affleck gives an inspired performance of a demanding  role, Brody's is all over the place. One minute he's the tough, Marlowe-esque detective, the next a reserved or almost shy person and the next a drunken, east-coast sounding greaser that would probably beat his wife he had the chance. It's not bad necessarily as much as it is inconsistent and can sometimes take you out of it, especially when he's attempting to act tough as his physical appearance doesn't quite fit that role.

The Ugly: Though it doesn't offer any answers, the fact that Hollywoodland even brings up the questions is more than enough. The story of Reeves has always been surrounded in mystery and this isn't there to solve it as much as it is to showcase it.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Home

Oh, an alien on the run from his own people, lands on Earth and makes friends with the adventurous Tip, who is on a quest of her own.

The Good: Solid characters make Home watchable, not to mention good voice acting to bring them to life. Rihanna especially seems a good revelation and Parsons as Oh is about as spot-on casting as one could ask for. Then again…I think that might be all Home asked for because just about everything else doesn’t really work.

Well, in fairness the theme of “friendship” is certainly a strong point. It may bash you over the head with it, Home is far from a subtle movie, but the sense of friendship and learning about different people and coming together…yeah there’s nothing wrong with that and Home kind of nails it. Characters have arcs. They learn stuff. Sure you see it coming but it’s all done pretty well even if the plot isn’t and style skewed towards much younger audiences.

The Bad: It’s hard for me to really criticize a movie like Home. It’s obviously  made for a much younger audience that a Pixar flick or something with an emotional resonance like How to Train your Dragon. It’s very formulaic, constantly moving and rarely taking a moment to breathe with large and predictable tropes and plot points all with a bundle of energy to keep children’s short attention spans in check. It’s cute. It’s fine. For me it’s also grating and kind of obnoxious but I expected that and won’t hold it against the movie.

What I don’t quite understand is the use of music in this thing. I can accept it being a Rihanna vehicle in its own way - maybe it was part of her deal to do the voice and have some of her songs in it, but I don’t understand the cutting of action and other scenes to other music, usually something that sounds like trance or dubstep. It feels weird and awkward, especially one chase sequences that never has a good flow to it and feels clunky because it’s going with the beat of a song that some hack DJ would be spinning in a club.

Home also, desperately even, tries to rise above all that - the predictability and formula and bad music, to try and have some sort of emotional connection - and falls completely flat. Due to the film’s erratic pace, it never even gets close to it. An emotional beat gets the same treatment of a pratfall, a character conflicted is rushed through and not really landing its importance with the same approach to a double take or fart joke - just going through the motions and fast because we’re already up against that 90 minute limit and need to move on.

I mean, there’s this moment at the end that, had it been stretched a little longer, could have been beautiful, but nope…gotta get this thing over with, I guess.

The Ugly: Wait…that’s how you have the threat happen? Really? A party invite sounds funny on paper, but how is that even a thing?

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Homefront

A former DEA agent moves his family to a quiet town, where he soon tangles with a local meth druglord.

The Good: I love my action movies. As a result I tend to be a little picky, or maybe just too well seasoned, when it comes to critiquing them. I try to approach an action movie in two ways: one is the filmmaking aspect - "is it well made?” IN other words, are the scenes and editing and pace able to convey what they need to? For an action movie, you can’t underestimate the importance of how a gunfight or hand to hand combat scene is staged as well as how it centers those scenes in the film itself - “Do they have meaning or purpose?” and so on.

The other is entirely emotional. Does it hit that factor where it has those ebbs and flows that only action movies can portray. The best of action movies have these working hand in hand with the quality of the film put together, but I’ve seen plenty of well-shot and acted action movies that have no energy or style and are bland and I’ve seen plenty of badly-done action movies that, miraculously, just hit those emotional and visceral ebbs and flows that get you on the seat of your pants.

Here’s a couple of examples, both starring Jason Statham. The Expendables and its sequel are pretty poorly-made action movies - badly directed, amateur in editing and haphazardly shot for the most part, but they just hit that sweet-spot of excess and silliness just enough to make them fun to watch. The Transporter, on the other hand, doesn’t really have much going for it in terms of story, character or plot but has some incredibly well done action sequences, making that a fun and watchable movie.

Then you have Homefront. A movie that I give a lot of credit to Jason Statham, Izabela Vidovic and James Franco in at least making watchable because there is nothing else for them to go on or to help them through.

The Bad: If it were, say, 1986 and a movie like Homefront came out, it might actually fit. That doesnt mean it’d be any better, but at least it would feel like it had a home. It would be one of those rather mundane action movies from the 80s that you’d see and just forget about. It has the type of plot you’d expect from an older movie like that, not to mention how it handles its action and characters and…well just about everything in the film feels dated.  Now it’s a 2013 movie that you’d see and forget about, and it can’t even live up to a “good” action movie you’d forget about. Even if it were made in 1986.

It’s straightforward, which I actually like in my action movies - those that try to be too clever tend to trip over their own roundhouse kicks and shoot themselves in the foot. But with that comes the need for it to be well executed: well staged action scenes, good stunts, memorable characters even if one dimensions. That’s all. Action criteria is pretty simple when you get down too it - only none of that criteria can be found in Homefront. Bad action staging, bland stunts, uninspired gunplay, then throw in your basic filmmaking: awful editing, awful sequencing, awful pace, awful dialogue…Homefront can’t even be a “dumb action movie” because it takes itself far too earnestly to be dumb enough.

As much as Jason Statham fits the role, and he carries it all well, he can’t fix the problems behind the camera. He has the look, he’s sincere, he’s punching people and shooting people and driving trucks…but there’s nothing here to really say it’s worth your time. Take, for example, is role in the Transporter films. Those too are straightforward, but they have style, they have flow…they have action sequences where you can tell what the hell is going on. They have variety and memorable characters.  Homefront is all that need for style and distinction stripped away to “guy shoots stuff” and “guy does thingy” and “bad guy looks with angst and possible homo-eroticism.” That’s it. Nothing else to remember, because I forgot most of everything else as soon as it ended.

The Ugly: You know, though…the little girl is really good in it. Her performance is way, way to good for what this movie does with it. The movie asks more from her, and she delivers far more than the films leading cast.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Hook

Peter Pan  has grown up to be a cut-throat merger and acquisitions lawyer, and is married to Wendy's granddaughter. Captain Hook kidnaps his children, and Peter returns to Never Land with Tinkerbell. With the help of her and the Lost Boys, he must remember how to be Peter Pan again in order to save his children by battling with Captain Hook once again.

The Good: Imaginative, colorful, a great sense of adventure. Yes, that is what Peter Pan is all about and this “reimaginating” of it stays true to the classic book and even the Disney animated feature from 1953. It’s like going to a high school reunion, and in a way Robin Williams as Peter is doing just that, where everyone is the same as you remembered but you’re the one that has changed. He doesn’t quite recognize his old friends, forgets how to have fun and has to learn his old ways before he can relive them. The film is always moving forward, rarely catching its breath, and in this fast-pace we maybe get a sense of what it’s like to be Peter at his high-school reunion. Of course, his old principal is there too, and he’s just as much of an ass as he was when he was young. Dustin Hoffman as the title character far and away steals the show. His costume is perfect, voice influxes with a sense of empowerment yet naivety, and he is the actual load-carrier of the entire film; its anchor and the best thing about it. The other performances are passable. Williams is childlike as he should be and balances the adult Peter and youthful Peter well. The confrontation between he and hook is a fitting and fulfilling climax, even if we’ve already seen it before.

The Bad: Somewhere between the bland sets (the entire film was shot on a sound stage, sadly this shows) and boring story lies something imaginative and impressive. Or, should I say, that’s what should have come out from the film. The idea is there, the players in play and well cast, the music enjoyable. Somehow, though, it feels off. “Off” isn’t an acceptable critique, afterall I need to give the “why if feels off” not that it simply does feel “off.” Yet that’s where the problem lies. It’s hard to put your finger on it, and all I can say is that it should be a fun movie. There should be a sense of joy and unabashed amazement to its magic. It presents itself as so…but it isn’t there. It’s bogged down by its own exposition and the fun adventure simply doesn’t come across as well as it should. The children are annoying, Williams sleepwalking and the one shining light, Dustin Hoffman as the title character, would do better had the script been more about him. Instead, it’s simply a retelling of Peter Pan and not much else.

The Ugly: Spielberg, Williams and Hoffman weren’t paid a dime for the film. They money they earned would be based on how much money the film made…it’s a good thing those reviews didn’t stop it from earning.

Final Rating:
2.5 out of 5


Horns

In the aftermath of his girlfriend's mysterious death, a young man awakens to strange horns sprouting from his temples.

The Good: The career of Alexandre Aja has always been a little up and down. Whether as director or just producer, he's been involved in some of the very best the horror genre has to offer and some of the worst (or, if anything, very mediocre). Haute Tension and The Hills Have Eyes are brilliant, P2 and Mirrors not so much. His last few efforts, producing the fantastic Maniac in 2012 and knowing the precise tone to allow Piranha 3D to work, seemed to indicate he was on an upswing.

But the downswing had to come, and now we have Horns. That's not to say Horns isn't enjoyable. In fact, it's just the opposite. It's very enjoyable thanks to fantastic cinematography by legendary DP Frederick Elmes and a strong cast led by Daniel Radcliffe who gives a great turn going from aloof moron to sinister to always feeling out of place but having awesome powers (which should come as no surprise he nails).

Horns, when it works, really works. By that I mean when it understands its own premise and never dips too far into the waters of overly-earnest melodrama, it really works and is enjoyable. The best moments come from the dark comedy it weaves early on, but soon all that good effort is put to bed and we're waking up another type of film entirely, and that other type just can't nail it as well.

The Bad: A film that begins with one distinct tone that works then, gradually, becomes a film with a different tone that doesn't. Starting as a dark comedy with a fairy tale twist, Horns sets a magnificent stage of fun, tongue-in-cheek supernatural sensibilities that, eventually, turns into a dead-serious melodrama about a murder. The former is brilliant, the latter is jarring.

That's not to say that Horns couldn't take a serious angle, it's only that it should have set that stage first. Or, perhaps, balance itself better between the dark humor and seriousness of the drama and murder/mystery it wants to play out. Or, even better, have the flashbacks play out with the same type of humor only with a nostalgic bent rather than a romantic melodrama.

Horns attempts to mesh in all these styles, but with all that comes their tones. It clearly works best when it's light and irreverent, having Radcliffe especially play to his strengths of "man with new power" angle that he knows pretty darn well by now. Horns isn't a bad film by any means, but certainly a disappointing one as the premise and set up are strong - and that's also its downfall because when it sets all that aside for an alternate tone and style it never quite lives up to.

The Ugly: Juno Temple is fantastic in this movie but seems to be sadly overlooked as most of her scenes are all flashback.

Final Rating:  2.5 out of 5


The Horror of Dracula

After Jonathan Harker attacks Dracula at his castle, the vampire travels to a nearby city, where he preys on the family of Harker's fiancée. The only one who may be able to protect them is Dr. van Helsing, Harker's friend and fellow-student of vampires, who is determined to destroy Dracula, whatever the cost.

The Good: Much like The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula brings out an opposing view of the classic tale than what was offered up before. Here, rather than spectacle and overacting, we have something far more methodical and subtle and, as Hammer horror films will be known for, very moody and dry. It's really your typical melodrama, it just happens to have Count Dracula in it. The romance, the flowery dialogue, the very "British" feel of it all offers up a take on a classic tale that, despite some changes here and there, is a great adaptation of the story and, tonally, a perfect fit. It's a focused movie, very little fluff and fat happening (for better or worse) and moves along at a fantastic pace that makes the dry melodrama digestible.

It comes with the territory for Hammer horror movies to say "it's chalk full of great performances," but in this case, there's really not a better Van Helsing that Peter Cushing. He absolutely owns the role as the fearless vampire hunter: sophisticate, intelligent, and ready to take down any vampire that he stumbles across. Though the Frankenstein films from Hammer is what Cushing made more of, his best work is really found here as there's really no Van Helsing with as good a screen pretense as he offers up. Especially when put up against Christopher Lee's Count, who says very little (and even less in sequels) yet is an imposing figure. The way he's lit, the way a cape or coat drapes over his large frame, his unassuming dialogue delivery when we first meet him. He may not have the romanticism of a Bela Legosi, but he has a large sensation of a threat, that's for certain.

Lee, actually, disappears from the story for quite some time. Dracula is uses uniquely in this film, where he's very prominent at the beginnings and end, but in between is more of a shadowy whisper and mystery to be unraveled by Van Helsing. This is the film's, and the script's, most potent use of mood and atmosphere. By removing the obvious, you create the mysterious, making this one of the best adaptation of the Stoker classic as a result because, like that book, Dracula is often spoken more as a shadow on the wall than a figure in the room. Despite the many sequels to come, none really reach the refinement of this original.

The Bad: As we weave through our tale, there's one glaring issue: the supporting cast just doesn't cut it. In fairness, you're up against Cushing and Lee, but their characters are so incredibly uninteresting that they might have been written out entirely. You don't really ever feel an emotional connection to them despite what happens, you barely even get to know them. John Van Eyssen as Jonathan Harker is the one prominent one for the first portion of the film and does a fantastic job, but everyone from the second act on is a shell - a cutout of a placeholder character that never has anything interesting to say or worthwhile to do. And here's the thing: there's really one two: Mina and Arthur Holmwood. Just those two characters we really need to be concerned with, and both are so incredibly forgettable I had actually forgotten Arthur was even in it. I remember Mina because she's supposed to be married to Jonathan, not Arthur and as for the one other character I just now recalled, Lucy, she's just a victim and a good plot device for Van Helsing to explain everything to…what's his name again? Oh, Arthur. Yeah, that guy.

The Ugly: The lack of the Renfield is noticeable. Not just through accuracy, truth is I don't care about how "accurate" of an adaptation something is as long as it's a good story and a good film, but this film needs that "spark" of a character to really lift it from the dreariness. IT's a very level and dry movie with a very limited cast for the most part with only Van Helsing having a strong personality (and Lee with the strong pretense). It just needed something a little more.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Horseman

A tender drama unfolds between a grieving father and a troubled teenage girl as they drive northbound along the quiet outback roads of Australia. What she doesn't know is that between stops, he is leaving behind a bloody trail of bodies in a revenge motivated killing spree.

The Good: Tender drama? News to me....I can kind of see that, maybe.

You can tell I don't write those little summaries. Anyways, the entire revenge-thriller genre has been a part of cinema for decades, probably flourished primarily in the 70s with grindhouse cinema and classics like Death Wish. The format is always simple. Someone is murdered or missing and another someone has to extract vengeance by systematically killing or beating people up the ladder until you reach the head honcho. It's easy to write, so what is needed is a good execution of the concept with a fitting and satisfying end as well as characters we care about. A movie like Death Wish, The Virgin Spring or Kill Bill has characters we care about, whereas something like Edge of Darkness or Machete miss the mark.

The Horseman falls in the middle somewhere. It's a low-budget revenge tale that doesn't offer a lot new in that regard, but manages to have compelling characters and understandable motivations, particularly as our two leads, played by Caroline Marohasy and Peter Marshall, have fantastic chemistry and some nice subtle, dramatic moments. It's well written in that regard. It's also well directed when it comes to the action. It's obvious time and effort primarily went into the death scenes that act like breadcrumbs to an ending that, sadly, only leaves the crust.

The Bad: What it lacks is variety. Yes, it's a series of deaths more or less, but most of the scenes where someone is confronted and information extracted ends in a bloody mess, save for one brief bit of mercy. Many scenes are interchangeable and despite the realism and brutality, tend to desire to simply one-up the previous scene. There's little connecting them as well, as half of the deaths are flashbacks so the connection of scene to scene becomes disjointed. The parallel story with the young woman, however, is a great implementation of redemption and finding something worth fighting for.
I mentioned the "crust" of the bread being all that's left. This is mainly with the final ten minutes or so of the movie where people die left and right with little to no understanding as to who they are or were and the final moments feeling stock and cliche in a film that otherwise had done a good job staying away from being stock and cliche.

The Ugly: Australian Horror is still alive and well. This isn't so much "horror" per se but can fall in that category. What it is not, however, is "torture porn" though it's easy to see how some might label it as such. Yes there's torture. Yes there's porn. But the characters come first here, and some damn exciting and visceral fight sequences as well.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Horsemen

Aidan Breslin is a bitter detective emotionally distanced from his two young sons following the untimely death of his devoted wife. While investigating a series of murders of rare violence, he discovers a terrifying link between himself and the suspects in a chain of murders that seem to be based on the Biblical prophecies concerning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death.

The Good: To find Horsemen, you’ll probably have to search hard for it, meaning it likely won’t be something you accident catch. To be fair, though, the directing itself isn’t too bad and Quaid gives one of his better performances (although still very Quaid-esqe, he’s obviously been type-cast), but it can’t save the horrible and abysmal script and supporting cast of characters.

The Bad: Predictable and a film that likes to think it’s smarter than it really is. In fact, it seems to glorify its intelligence so far that it just ends up being dumb. “Look here” it might say “isn’t this cool?” No…I’m afraid it’s just moronic and contrived. Most of the “twists” you’ll see coming. Unlike many films with those, though, you actually find yourself hating the film for the direction it takes you down, one being it thinks its being original and unique and doing so when its not, the other being you just don’t care about people being killed because the convoluted story has you scratching your head more than paying attention and trying to understand it. There’s a sense of self-loathing in it, and as a result it causes you to loathe it as well. I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you, I know you won’t waste your money on this, but basically a bunch of angst-ridden teenagers look to send a “message” to their negligent parents and family by killing them or people they love. Oh, and Dennis Quaid’s son is the apparent ringleader. Why? Because he’s an angry teen, of course…what more motivation do you need? What’s sad is that a) you know from the moment you look at him he’s in on it and b) you don’t like him so you really don’t care what message he wants to send his dad who is not nearly as bad as angry teenage son thinks he is, but in the world of self-importance and teenage angst, who cares, right? This is especially hard to swallow after Quaid (don’t ask me the name of the characters, I had no investment in them) reaches out to his son very sincerely before its even revealed he’s in on the whole thing. Could have ended there, but the story pushes onward to fully achieve, what I can best describe, as a worthy piece of bland mediocre pile of garbage. What more do you want, kid? Then again…what the hell did you want in the first place? I want my money and time back, and a movie has to be pretty insultingly bad for me to demand that.

The Ugly: As you can tell, I really gave no effort in trying to write a nice review or one even particularly well-written. It’s what I call a “driveby review.” So wave goodbye on this one before turning the gun on yourself. I haven’t seen a movie this bad in a while. I’ve read there were problems with the production…and boy does it show. I had to review the thriller masterpiece Se7en to get the bad taste of this one out of my mouth.

Final Rating: 1 out of 5


Hot Fuzz

Jealous colleagues conspire to get a top London cop transferred to a small town and paired with a witless new partner. On the beat, the pair stumble upon a series of suspicious accidents and events.  

The Good: Hot Fuzz does the rare thing, much like Shaun of the Dead. No surprise it's every bit as fun and sincere as Edgar Wright's zombie masterpiece that came before as Hot Fuzz manages to be both a parody and a damn good mystery/action movie at the same time. The parody never overshadows or turns the movie into a farce, it also never cynically turns it into a satire either. Hot Fuzz is everything all at once yet it balances it all perfectly. It has satirical and parody elements, full of homages and references left and right, but blends it seamlessly into its own movie because it doesn't rely on those to be successful. It still manages to tell a fantastic story, a mystery to unravel, and gives us great characters with great chemistry.

Pegg has never been better, in my mind. Sgt. Angel is a fish out of water but in a unique way in that he's the one that's in the right mind, everyone else is completely nuts. His personality is of confidence, even dipping his voice to a frightening "I'm going to shoot everything in sight" and you completely buy it. A confident, super-cop all the way...but we still manage the fish out of water story that brings us awkwardness and comedy that makes you wonder why nobody has done it before (or at least this well). Nick Frost's boyish Danny is equally brilliant...there's no doubt this script was written to play to both actors' strengths and they are completely comfortable in their skin. They are nerds. Oddities. Yet you buy them toting shotguns and leaping fences.

The script, written by Edgar Wright and Pegg, is one of the most brilliant comedies every written...even as brilliant as Shaun of the Dead's though it lacks the metaphorical observations of relationships. Wright's directing, as always, is complete energy. If you blink, you'll miss something. If you don't listen to the dialogue, you'll miss something there to as it moves about as fast. Vibrant. Full of life. Still maintaining focus on story and characters. This is a trademark of his work and he hasn't failed at it and nobody does it better.

The Bad: Outside of a bit of an overlong climax, and a strange epilogue (I'll get to that), there's really not a lot anyone can complain about in this film. It's focused, brisk and every scene feels as though it has a purpose (because it does). It doesn't wander and certainly doesn't go the route of a lot of comedies where puns and gags are done for a scene then it just moves on to some contrived "development." Everything feels organic all while being clever and purposefully overzealous without being pretentious. A standalone genre picture while still being satirical...movies like this are a rare breed.

The Ugly: There's an epilogue, of sorts, that just flat-out feels out of place. It doesn't achieve anything other than to wrap up one final loose end (that I'm surprised nobody noticed). A big thing happens that might bring a good roundabout to the script (something it does often) but it then leaves even more questions. It just feels tacked on rather than organic to the script itself and has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Hot Tub Time Machine

Four guy friends, all of them bored with their adult lives, travel back to their respective 80s heydays thanks to a time-bending hot tub.

The Good: Fact number one: every person who even remotely remembers the 1980s must see this film. It's completely self-aware and is a celebration of everything 1980s, from the plot to the look to Chevy Chase. Fact number two: a person who does remotely remember the 1980s will get much more and appreciate much more of what Hot Tub Time Machine has to offer. It relies solely on nostalgia to work. Luckily, the characters here, though shallow, are great personalities. Cusak is obviously having a time, Craig Robinson is as funny as this really is a great vehicle for him and Rob Cordry shows why he is really on the cusp of being a household name. Their chemistry is solid even if they lack depth, and their play off of each other is superb and comes across as genuine.

The Bad: The first thing you'll notice is that you're have little chance to come up for air once you dive in (hot tub/water joke...I don't think it's as good as I'm thinking it is right now). Basically, it runs rough-shot right to the end with little to really stop and ponder. This is a good thing in that it is just overjoyous in its celebration of everything 80s, and there's just enough there for the characters' personalities and goals to shine, but nothing quite manages to hold itself to relevance for more than ten seconds. It's like a film made for those with ADD. There's little in terms of over-arching plots or stories, just a series of really random, but really funny, events until it ends. There's really no major goal or conflict until the final third and the points of interest seem to be stricken from each other rather than meld and flow seamlessly (you can mark the exact moments the main focus shifts from one thing to another). There's solid directing here, but the editing is all over the place which does nothing in terms of helping  us make heads or tails of what's going on. One second they're talking, the next they're doing something different and a few seconds pass then on to something else. It's a little like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas only not as poignant with its intentions of "insanity" and "mindfuckery" and instead comes across as a large pot with way too many ingredients nonchalantly thrown in.

The Ugly: If the script was a little tighter, this movie could have been an instant classic. As is, it's at least a nice diversion.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Hot Tub Time Machine 2

When Lou finds himself in trouble, Nick and Jacob fire up the hot tub time machine in an attempt to get back to the past. But they inadvertently land in the future with Adam Jr. Now they have to alter the future in order to save the past - which is really the present.

The Good: The best thing about Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is that I paid no money to see it. Thankfully nobody else really went to see it either, which means our world may be vaccinated from ever having to endure another Hot Tub Time Machine movie.

The Bad: It’s difficult to review comedies. A part of me wants to put on the ole film-lover hat and sit back and analyze how a film presents its jokes and gags and dialogue and how it tells its story in an all-around comedic way - pacing, structure, timing etc.... Does it achieve what it sets out to do? The other side simply asks “did it make me laugh?”

The answer to the former is “yes, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 sets out to do what it sets out to do” and for that, you have to give it props. It goes all-in on its ideas and sets out to be the crude, low-brow movie it wants to be. The answer to the latter is “no, it absolutely didn’t make me laugh, in fact I found it aggressively unfunny.”

I don’t know how to approach this movie. All I can say is that it comes across as one joke stretched far too long with no charm or wit or cleverness that made the first film, at the very least, a watchable hour and a half of entertainment. “I didn’t laugh once” isn’t really a critique as much as it is me simply conveying my experience. What I can critique is that the gags go on for far too long, it lacks the hook of the first film (setting itself in the nostalgic 1980s and playing off 1980s rom-com tropes) and has to fall to being as crude and “shocking” as it can be to get by. If Hot Tub Time Machine was made by people who wanted to be nostalgic and a little satirical on 1980s high-concept romantic comedies, its sequel is made by people who watched a lot of Family Guy and probably took the same screenwriting class the writers of the Hangover sequels were in.

Yet, both this film and the original have the same director and screenwriter. So what happened? The original film was no masterpiece, but it had a tone and approach that worked. Here, it’s as though nobody cared and they wanted to get by with trying to shock the audience with zingers and sight-gags rather than even bother to tell a story. It’s a chore to even sit through, but maybe the teenage boys who get off on seeing random boobs and dick-jokes times a hundred will enjoy it.

Look, I like some low-brow comedies. Nothing wrong with that. Hell, Dumb and Dumber is one of my favorite comedy movies. But even dumb comedies need to have a point and a direction and at least try to not fall back on cheap jokes and badly written dialogue and characters. Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is what happens when you just make a movie for the money and name recognition and not care about how it gets done.

The Ugly: Proof yet again that sequels to comedy films do not work. There have been, at most, six comedy sequels that have been at least as good as the original film, but most are just abominations.

And if you want to know the five they are: Adams Family Values, Christmas Vacation, A Shot in the Dark, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and the Naked Gun 2 1/2 and Hot Shots Part Deux (and those are kind of debatable).

If you count them, maybe Gremlins 2 and Army of Darkness.

That’s it. People…stop making sequels to comedy films. Not only are they rarely good, they’re mostly offensively bad. The charm is gone. The jokes are spent. Stop it.

Final Rating: 0 out of 5


The House of the Devil

In the 1980s, college student Samantha Hughes takes a strange babysitting job that coincides with a full lunar eclipse. She slowly realizes her clients harbor a terrifying secret; they plan to use her in a satanic ritual.

The Good: Crafted from head to toe with 1980s aesthetic, from the art design, to the music, to the directing and camerawork itself, this has the makings of a cult classic. The story is really nothing new, and you probably have seen a dozen other movies and TV shows with the same concept, but it's never been this well crafted. In a sense, it's an ode or homage to those old films, hence the 1980s setting, and is a slow-burn thriller, full of tense anticipation, by Ti West, a young director making a name for himself in the genre. Despite the slow pace, you never really feel it. It always progresses, moves and hits the right marks as it does so. In a year full of solid horror, the one that might be written off as a regression ends up being one of the most memorable, and thrilling.

The Bad: As noted, it's a slow burn movie with really nothing happening until the final third that would get most to take notice. While it always seems interesting and compelling, the unoriginal nature of most of it might cause some to lose interest. While I personally never did, I did find myself noting other films it reminded me of. Perhaps that's intentional, it wasn't due to boredom, but I'm thinking not and while it understands its own nature and is self-aware, a dose of unpredictability could have gone a long way in making The House of the Devil a modern horror masterpiece (using old horror techniques, at that).

The Ugly: Talk about an awesome Tagline: "Talk on the phone. Finish your homework. Watch TV. DIE." ...hope that wasn't in the babysitter ad.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Housebound

Kylie Bucknell is forced to return to the house she grew up in when the court places her on home detention. However, when she too becomes privy to unsettling whispers & strange bumps in the night, she begins to wonder whether she's inherited her overactive imagination, or if the house is in fact possessed by a hostile spirit who's less than happy about the new living arrangement.              

The Good: A darkly funny film with just enough scares and excess violence to keep things moving, Housebound is a fun little flick that manages to shake up your usual conventions and play with them a bit. It’s a strange movie - it covers many ideas and even genres in one, but it begins to come into its own by the third and toys with the unpredictable aspect that is lacking in most genre pics.

I’m not familiar with Gerard Johnstone, the writer and director out of New Zealand that really hasn’t done a ton. There’s some elements that show he’s young and learning, but then there’s some elements in Housebound that he absolutely nails and just shows that he wants to make an entertaining picture. It certainly is that, even if it is inconsistent at it, and he’s certainly a talent to keep an eye on because if Housebound is just his first picture, his potential based off it is immeasurable.

Another taken to keep an eye on is the driving force of it in actress Morgana O’Reilly. Housebound takes a lot of chances with her character at first, but it turns out it’s that way because Housebound is centered entire on her progression as a character and, hopefully, a hero. She’s strong and makes her character, Kylie, strong and quite relatable as the movie goes on. In fact, I can’t think of many horror-centric characters that do 180s in their arc as much as she manages to do and gives Housebound a memorable element that isn’t just shaking up horror tropes but having a very grounded thing to tie it all together.

The Bad: Housebound suffers from a slight sense of tone deafness. It’s kind of a comedy, but not really. It tries to get some drama in there, but it feels really forced. It drops the idea of being scary pretty damn quickly as well in favor of bloody violence. As a result, nothing really comes together. It’s like a jumbled up movie that is jack of many trades but a master at none.

This might not be such an issue if Housebound managed to trim some fat, not have a slow second act that halts a lot of momentum and maybe introduce some of the comedy elements sooner. It’s a movie that kind of goes to different genre every other scene for whatever suits its purpose. It also relies on a lot of one note plot elements (seriously, how many secret compartments and rooms in the house being discovered do we need to put a pin in?) and really tries to force as many twists as it can in its third act with none really having that “gotcha” moment.

Housebound is at its best when it’s working in suspense and tension buildup early on and when the comedy is consistent. But when it starts to turn in all sorts of directions, it never quite works. Characters get lost in the shuffle of jacknifed tones and repetitive scenes.

The Ugly: This is a movie I badly want to love but it only leaves me to moderately like it. A solid cast and great setting can only take you so far when your script is clunky and tone not consistent.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

Sidney Young is a disillusioned intellectual who both adores and despises the world of celebrity, fame and glamor. His alternative magazine, Post Modern Review, pokes fun at the media obsessed stars and bucks trends, and so when Young is offered a job at the diametrically opposed conservative New York based Sharps magazine its something of a shock! It seems Sharps editor Clayton Harding is amused by Young's disruption of a post-BAFTA party with a pig posing as Babe. Thus begins Sidney's descent into success - his gradual move from derided outsider to confidante of starlet Sophie Maes. Initially helping him out at Sharps is colleague Alison Olsen, who has her own secret. 

The Good: As my roommate said, Megan Fox. But I would throw in a fun story with Simon Pegg, while a little typecast, giving us all a good show and is likable as usual. Jeff Bridges, although hard to get a good feel for on his character, is good as well. The story itself is fun, more of an adult Devil Wears Prada, but while well-told isn't anything new.

The Bad: There's a sudden turn with Pegg's character that seems to just pass by suddenly, blink and you'll be lost. Also Kirsten Dunst who, again,is cast as a romantic lead and is someone who I'm just not convinced can pull that off. Sometimes she's ok looking, other times....The story, as mentioned is well-told, but is also very predictable. Thankfully the characters are enjoyable.

The Ugly: The stripper scene is, well, not for the faint of heart. Oh, and Kirsten Dunst.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


How to Train Your Dragon

A hapless young Viking who aspires to hunt dragons becomes the unlikely owner of a young dragon himself, and learns there may be more to the creatures than he assumed.

The Good: Beautiful animation and great art design can often carry an animated film so far. For the longest of time, Dreamworks Animation had always put out good looking movies but rarely any with substance. Kung Fu Panda was really the first to show the potential the studio might have, and How to Train Your Dragon is the final, amazing end result as they put aside their trends and, finally, make a remarkable film with heart, personality and emotion. The heart is shown with its characters, a simple father and son story. The personality is beautifully rendered in its art design and tone. The emotion is thanks to fantastic visual directing and storytelling combined with some of the finest directed flight sequences you could ask for. There's a degree of care put into this film that is often reserved for Pixar movies and leave it to the long missing-in-action Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois to give us what could very well end up the best animated film of 2010.

What I found incredible is how the film is able to evoke an emotional response with some of its scenes. How to Train Your Dragon relies less on quirky, funny dialogue and low-brow banter and humor  (something Dreamworks had become safe with) and, rather, tells its story primarily visually. This is no better expressed than in the "training" scenes and the eventual, surprisingly moving scenes of flying and the sense of freedom and awe it conveys through its presentation. Because you feel so invested in the strong lead and his new dragon, you are truly along with them on the ride and sense the wonderment it brings forth. It uses these moments sparingly and smartly, the first flying scene not occurring until about half-way, showing how smart and purposeful the film is with moments like this - and its these moments that sets the film away from others as a singular, identifiable piece of work that nobody should miss.

The Bad: I can guarantee, you have seen this exact same story dozens of times before (in fact, you probably just saw it in Dreamwork's last film, Kung-Fu Panda). It hits every beat as expected, every plot device has been seen before and you'll call out the final third of the story long before it actually occurs. While it tells its story well, it doesn't offer anything new to the formula and the sense of possible failure and tension, which is badly relies on, is kind of thrown out the window the moment you realize how conventional it actually is and know how it's going to end.

The Ugly: I swear that one kid looks like Jack Black. I mean, spot-on. You've seen the movie? Yeah, you know who I'm talking about. It's just really distracting.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


How to Train Your Dragon 2

When Hiccup and Toothless discover a secret ice cave full of wild dragons, they face a battle to protect the peace.   

The Good: It can often be hard to a sequel to any movie, much less a movie that is really of its own world, story and arc. In other words, if there never was a sequel to the first, remarkable How to Train Your Dragon, I think most people would be just fine with that. It felt complete, full-circle and had nothing else to say. Well, we were wrong, as it turns out, because this sequel manages to be able to push the story elements and character arcs further where they don’t feel like a rehash, but as though the whole thing is starting new again.

It’s kind of a formula Pixar did with the Toy Story sequels. Each one is really their own thing, starting all anew while certainly giving nods to the past stories for continuity. And like those, How to Train Your Dragon 2 pretty much nails it. Though it may not be as balanced as its predecessor, or as well paced, it manages to still hit those emotional core moments that draw the line between your average, run-of-the-mill computer animated fare shit out for money and something that resonates for years to come - the movies that people bring up when they talk about great animated movies. Up. The Little Mermaid. The Incredibles. How to Train Your Dragon. Nobody is bringing up The Nut Job or Ice Age.

What’s more is that all the world building and expanding feels organic to our main character, Hiccup, who’s older and maybe slightly wiser, as he flies on his dragon to map his new world. Doing so, naturally, brings new elements to the world itself, serious reveals on him as a character and major twists to be had. It’s a balanced, gorgeous and emotionally rich movie every bit as much as its predecessor.

The Bad: If there’s one, and only one, major problem with How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that it isn’t so much a new plot as much as it is a more expansive one. The plot is thin yet it is much more a spectacle where the sense of Hiccup being integral isn’t as important as him simply traveling and observing and having character revelations. Though the character moments far more intimate and focused on here, our final resolution to it all feels more like a whimper (if only because the big climatic scene before it was just…amazing…) than the astoundingly well-structured end to the first film that centered on Hiccup’s character arc rather than spotty events that happen during his adventure.

Of course, that’s incredibly minor and despite it being a marvelous sequel, it suffers from the same things sequels often do. You no longer have the solid introductory element to the world and characters and have to, somehow, make it all interesting and fresh a second time. While the sequel does a great job progressing the characters and the stakes, it doesn’t so much with some of the integral elements that allowed the first one to succeed (world building, as this feels more like a footnote, and a defined character arc that feels natural rather than a little forced as this one does). The thing is: I expected all that. You don’t go into a sequel to a big movie that had all those elements in place and not expect it to suffer from the same thing sequels do. The creators of this knew that, and made it focus on the emotion and have that work to allow the movie to still have a resonance few animated films can match.

The Ugly: Dreamworks can really make something remarkable if they just take the initiative in doing so. Unfortunately they also put out junk at a bit of a 3 to 1 ratio. How many Madagascar movies do you want?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Howl

It's San Francisco in 1957, and an American masterpiece is put on trial. Howl, the film, recounts this dark moment using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg to find his true voice as an artist, society's reaction (the obscenity trial), and mind-expanding animation that echoes the startling originality of the poem itself. All three coalesce in a genre-bending hybrid that brilliantly captures a pivotal moment-the birth of a counterculture.

The Good: Howl is not a biopic, even though it tells in small pieces the life of Allen Gainsberg. Nor is it about the trial of obscenity his poetry was put on, even though it shows small bits of that as well. Howl is more a celebration of poetry, writing and of the poem itself. It's a state of mind than it is a story, just as Gainsberg's approach to writing was as well, and for that matter many writers of his generation. The story of his life is meant to bring more meaning into his work, not his life, and how someone such as him approaches writing and uses his life as another tool to draw upon. The story of the trial is meant to put the world of literature and meaning into perspective in that the writing, poetry and literature are things that can't be put on trial because someone interprets it one way and is thus offended. It's not written for them, and even if it was who's to say their view of it is the correct view?

As the film shows through beautifully animated vignettes corresponding with the poem's words, it's a flurry of thoughts - not a single thread meant to be knitted into a comfortable sweater that fits them perfectly - more like a ball of yarn attempting to be untangled, then re-tangled again. Through the brilliant performance by James Franco as the title character, his eccentricity and complexities readily apparent, we're taken on a journey rather than merely told a story. Thoughts of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will creep up, surely, and like that film we're still able to remain grounded through a fantastic performance as so much of what is seen on screen and how it's all approached is through the imagery and words than a narrative that's simply going to be told. Howl is a movie that will probably not appeal to a vast majority of people because of this.

The Bad: It's lack of form to its function is entirely intentional. However, much of its function is one singular point repeated throughout the film. After twenty minutes, you know what its purpose is. Now one could sit back and still relish in that form: the beautiful animation, the directing and amazing performance by Franco. However, it doesn't go out to engage you as something that's continuously moving forward as a film. There's to be no revelation or twist, no development of a character nor an insight into the work beyond what we're introduced into. This is best showcased by the fact there are only four types of scenes: the trial, the interview, the poetry reading and the animation sequences. There's occasionally a few flashbacks during the interview to bring insight, but insight to poem that's being read for 80 minutes and into the thoughts of Ginsberg's mind of writing, not into much else.

The Ugly: It's a visual interpretation of a process. For writers, poets and the artistic minded, this is something that will most certainly speak to them. Though it's far from profound or with significant point that couldn't have been made as a short. Then again, to do that you'd have to remove the animated sequences of Howl, which makes up about a third or an already short feature. We certainly wouldn't want to that, though as the energy and beauty of those sequences are the best aspect of the film aside from Franco's personifying the poet himself.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Hudsucker Proxy

When Waring Hudsucker, head of hugely successful Hudsucker Industries, commits suicide, his board of directors, led by Sidney Mussberger, comes up with a brilliant plan to make a lot of money: appoint a moron to run the company. When the stock falls low enough, Sidney and friends can buy it up for pennies on the dollar, take over the company, and restore its fortunes. They choose idealistic Norville Barnes, who just started in the mail room. Norville is whacky enough to drive any company to ruin, but soon, tough reporter Amy Archer smells a rat and begins an undercover investigation of Hudsucker Industries.

The Good: I can’t say I know what exactly I should be taking away from Hudscuker Proxy, although I did find the film itself at least entertaining. It’s a technical achievement, beautiful even, with a dreamlike world to play around in. There are times when The Hudsucker Proxy brings out a Terry Gilliam-like whimsy to it seen in the likes of Brazil. It doesn’t sway from the fact it’s a fantasy, from beginning to end. The shots, the effects, the sense of charm with the idea of a circle and Robbins spouting “You know…for kids.” Everyone is fast-talking and complete stereotypes of the time, and that is what actually makes it all so endearing. I also must make a quick mention of Paul Newman, who is utterly fantastic in the film and, in my humble opinion , absolutely steals the show.

The Bad: While the Coen’s vision and technical style of the film is actually one of my favorites, the story is sadly an utter mess. Even an hour into the film, new important characters are introduced and end up coming across as a Deus Ex Machina (or forced plot device for those not sure what that is) than anything. Many reviewers have noted its inability to really find an identity, many elements that are inspired (or lifted) from older films coming across as an overindulgent lampoon. I noted in Barton Fink how it also caresses many genre elements and sometimes doesn’t work, but it’s overall story and characters maintain a steady pace. Here, though, the characters are little more inhuman and more caricatures which puts the lack of identity front and center and incredibly noticeable and the film becomes a shining example of “style over substance.” While I probably enjoyed the film more than most, it’s not without some fairly significant problems.

The Ugly: Bruce Campbell is a pretty underappreciated actor. He shows solid range in this film, although I think the off-beat nature helps. It’s pretty cool to see him in a different kind of role yet one he is so perfect for.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Hunger Games

Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match.

The Good: When it comes to ideas that have been done numerous times and in numerous ways, it all is about the quality of the execution to bring you in to. You've seen the set up for the Hunger Games many times before. You've seen this type of dystopian world many times before. So it comes down entirely to how it presents itself, and surprisingly enough, despite the rushed third act, we have a pretty damn good and competently made, thrilling action film full of emotion.

The emotion is the driving factor here, and to convey that you absolutely need quality actors. I'll say this: Jennifer Lawrence is astounding, and Katniss Everdeen is what a strong female protagonist should absolutely be. Caring. Sincere. Tough yet vulnerable. Attractive yet rough around the edges. Her ability to create such a dynamic force and be such a presence is why she's one of the best young actresses working today, and as a result Katniss Everdeen is a character that appeals to all ages, all races, all sexes. Once Katniss is established, everything else around here falls in to place. The supporting cast plays off her incredibly well, incidentally nearly all of them strong male characters that come to respect and love Everdeen just as we do as an audience.

The film plays with many, many themes and ideas and though it can run uneven at times with them, the sheer ambition of at least touching on them and at least able to use Katniss's character as a quasi "stabilizing rod" at least gets us to appreciate them even if the films isn't  entirely interested in diving in and exploring them. One of the choices I personally loved, though (and this is reflective of the book which is writing from a first-person style) is how rarely it leaves Katniss. It's almost entirely from her perspective, and even though it forces itself to withdraw to the Capital so we can see what's happening behind the scenes with boring expository dialogue, the fact the Games themselves are from her view and focusing on her throughout is what really sales the entire film. As I said, Lawrence is fantastic, and more she's there, the better the film is.

The Bad: What do we achieve in the end? It seems that despite the hardship, despite the struggle and the eventual outcome, nothing quite feels accomplished. A climax that takes the air our of the balloon, combined with a contrived and very forced "happy" ending with a rushed coda that doesn't bother with closure, takes a film that was working with all those great ideas and leaves a few of the pieces still on the table when it decides to walk away and not really put it together. Ideas and themes that were set up aren't ever really resolved, notably the motherly instincts of Katniss which were one of her strongest traits, character arcs seem to stagnate or just jump ahead to bring home a finale: such as the complete ignoring of one character's betrayal along with another character's acceptance of killing. There's a "B" missing in the A to B to C formula in a few of these cases.

I suppose The Hunger Games is just trying to do too much sometimes. From subplots about sponsors to the inner workings of the Games to the bureaucracy and trainers and the world...there's a lot going on and none are really clarified entirely. One of the major issues is the lack of understanding how the world works. Yes, there's a Capital and very rich folk, then there are the districts where people are oppressed, and yes I can buy that this is an allegorical take on a dystopian Rome, but what is the extent of this world? Is it just a country? Is it the entire planet? How is it that "hope"plays in to any of this?

There's an entire monologue by an underused Donald Sutherland describing that The Hunger Games are about "hope." If there's hope there, then I don't see it. Yet...apparently there is because everybody, including those oppressed districts, cheer in the end. Sure, twenty two teenagers just died, but apparently there's something hopeful there. I could, perhaps, see those awful folks in the Capital cheering, but the districts? I find that incredibly tough to accept. Then again, I find it very tough to accept they would all be watching their children die on television in the first place. Seeing as this is the core theme of the entire film, I find its absolute mishandling arguably the film's biggest fault.

Outside of that, on the surface is a plethora of other issues, such as bland and inconsistent cinematography and camera work, characters we are often introduced to yet know very little about (as in, forgetting their names most of the time), uninspired action sequences, costume design all over the place, cheap (very cheap) looking sets and a confusing premise of just how these Games work (rules change, cameras conveniently everywhere, summoning demon dogs and fires at will). Despite the good intentions here, and the ambition to want to do everything, The Hunger Games should have refined itself more before trying to do anything.

The Ugly: Don't mistake this review. The Hunger Games is a good enough movie to want to see, thanks to the good characters and overall interesting view in "let's kill everyone". It just feels a bit cobbled together with its messages and themes making for it all to feel uneven and the very haphazard third act brings the entire film down. That being said, it's not as absolutely amazing as some have suggested (there is a large fanbase going in to this movie) but it's certainly not absolutely horrible as fans of other "fight to the death" movies try to cry foul on. Like the whole "Avatar was just Dances with Wolves" argument, saying "This other thing did it first" isn't an argument or a criticism. There's plenty to be critical of, you don't need to bring up other words...but there's a good handful of things to like here too. It's just too bad that, after all the hype, the fan fanaticism and major marketing campaign, we're left with a pretty forgettable film that really was close to being something better.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

The Good: I can only review The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as it relates (or is relative) to its predecessor. It does everything better, though I don't know how much weight that actually carries with it considering the first film was only slightly above mediocre. The characters are better defined, the acting far better, the pacing spectacular and the inventiveness of the "games" actually an incredibly fun premise.

Visually, the film is absolutely there. It handles its world with a sense of artistic consistency and certainty even when the script can't back it up in exactly explaining it, and the actors help sell it, especially Jennifer Lawrence who is doing a far better job than what the material will allow making everything feel grounded and human as a result. Its action is sparse but overall well done and the pace helps it always have momentum even when it really isn't doing much.

The Bad: While, overall, this sequel is better made than its predecessor, it still suffers from the same problem: the world is bland, uninspired and never feels believable. There's a certain logic that needs to go in to creating a world such as this, and that is absent entirely. This problem sends a ripple-effect through the entire film. If you don't buy the world, then you don't understand it, then you don't care, then all the people and characters become the victims to your uncaring and all that "human" element that would help explore the themes of persecution and revolution is lost - none of it ends up mattering.

There's suspension of disbelief to be had, and I'm more willing than most to set all those thoughts aside in most cases. But here, the central element of the entire story is this world, its Capital and its Districts and the rich and the poor and the haves and havenots. None of it have logic and not once do I buy it. I think the characters are interesting, I love the themes, but that central pillar holding it all up is barely built, much less understood. Class warfare doesn't fit. Slave labor doesn't fit. There's no reasoning to any of it in the world this has created to "sell" us, much less no reasoning to force people to send children to fight one another. Entertainment for the upper-class? I don't buy it and just because a story says we should doesn't mean we should buy it either.

To understand it, you have to see where the writer drew from. Roman gladiator games. Middle-age monarchies and bourgeoisie class structure. Slavery and the all-around abomination of human beings using other human beings for work or entertainment. But all those have a "reasoning" to it, a logic reflective of their times and their societal structures (as much reason as can be had in something so awful). From the perspective of those societies, you can see how the haves destroyed the havenots. Sometimes it was race, religious views, or simply people born in to one class to never rise out of it (there was no "ladder" to riches - if you were born as peasant working fields, like your parents, so too are you as will your children after you).

None of that fits in with the world here. The closest is the class structure, but that only works when the very few (kings and nobles) want to persecute the man to retain power. In this world, there's a ton that have money and power and very few that don't, yet they're still living in poverty and forced to fight in games. How does this work again? To be on TV? Ok, that doesn't work, what about Rome? They too had classes and also had slaves, but that often had to do with religious beliefs, race or simply being from some place other than Rome. No, that doesn't work either, because there is no one race in all these Districts in this world nor any indication of "outsiders" other than the "havenots" nor is there anything to do with classes or ideologies that those in the Capital feel they have to persecute to retain their power.

So...what's the deal again? As I said, if I don't buy the world, then how can I buy anything that happens in it. I care, slightly, for the characters who are the strongest things happening in these films thus far, but I also have a huge amount of disinterest at the same time because I'm not sold on any of it. I want to. I like these types of movies and these themes, but it never once works in, now, two films. Oh, and then you have the technology that comes in to play. I'm fine not having explanation as to the "how" but I kind of need to know the "why." I mean, there's not so much as a fridge in the Districts.

I better stop before I write more, because I could easily, easily, write more, but it all comes down to the lack of understanding of the world and the film's seemingly unwillingness to even try to get us to understand it. Of course I talk about this stuff, then I have to remember who these books and movies are made for, and that makes my complaints more relative.

The Ugly: Besides all that, Catching Fire seems never able to center on an emotional core to its arc. Relationships are meant to be a strong element to this series, but I found them as contrived and unbelievable as the world in which they're set.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One

Katniss Everdeen is in District 13 after she shatters the games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta and a nation moved by her courage.

The Good: I’m not going to lie, when it comes to this series I have a hard to time liking much of anything about it. The acting is always pretty ok, Jennifer Lawrence easily the best thing about them, and the production design seems well done and effects solid. Yet, there’s something about the series that never quite clicked. Perhaps it was the lack of world building despite there being a large world. Perhaps it was the lack of memorable characters despite there being a large cast. Perhaps it’s the lack of willingness to take risks and playing it safe despite plenty of twists and turns in the story the series has built.

So in many respects, all I can say is that if you liked the previous movies, you’ll probably like this one despite, perhaps, being the weakest entry. It’s capably directed and has some solid moments, it tries a little too hard but no more than the past two films and Lawrence is great as always and is the best thing in the entire franchise.

One thing it does manage, though, is present its world in a better fashion and toy around with ideas and messages, perhaps even willing to dip its toes in satire of media just enough to be more interesting than the previous two films, and make use of those ideas to justify the plot. That plot is rather dull, but the ideas swirling around it involving a revelation and a poster child coming into her own, help drive it. Overall, this is just a set up for the certain-to-make-a-billion Part Two and it feels like it.

The Bad: The success of The Hunger Games franchise doesn’t confound me, the the idea that they are good films does. The first part of this two-part finale falls to the same perils that the previous two films: one-dimensional characters, uninspired action sequences, a world with little understanding of how it is worked and organized and clunky dialogue with an even clunkier structure. Being Part One of a story isn’t an excuse, the story still needs to achieve something that can validate its two hour existence.

Thank goodness that Jennifer Lawrence is a captivating actress and is able to pull off some of the utter triteness and blandness that is written for her here, because otherwise the movie would just be one dull two-hour chunk of blandness where little to nothing happens. Nothing significant happens with the plot and there is no climax so we need a strong performance to drag us, kicking and screaming, through the unnecessary dullness of it all. Lawrence manages that, but only barely, plus her character feels more regressive than progressive here: a character that was dolled up for two movies now stuck with nothing to do and, seemingly, uninterested in doing it.

What’s unfortunate is that this movie, unlike the previous two, is working with some really good ideas and conceptually shaking some things up. The idea that Katniss is a “poster child” for a rebellion and she struggles to find that fit, the marketing machine and exploitation of her, the sense that inspiration has to find an intersection between reality and fantasy, all might have made more impact if the story surrounding those ideas didn’t slog through a mediocre plot in doing so. The story isn’t working with anything new, which is fine, but if that’s the case then you better make sure the storytelling is up to par to really bring home character arcs and thematic motifs. This movie can’t handle that.

The Ugly: While better made than the first film, this one doesn’t seem to have anything as interesting to do, and the first film was barely a good movie to begin with. In the grand scheme of things, this movie feels like nothing but set up…because it is. So it’s not as good as either of the previous movies I wasn’t a huge fan of in the first place. I honestly feel like there are better versions of this movie that could be made, as though it’s afraid to really take the plunge and run with its ideas.

Final Rating:  2.5 out of 5


The Hunt

A teacher lives a lonely life, all the while struggling over his son's custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good  news from his son, but his new luck is about to be brutally shattered by an innocent little lie.

The Good:  You will get infuriated at this movie, yet completely understand it. The Hunt settles itself in a strange zone of conflict: nobody here is doing anything "bad" but you know that none of it is true from the very beginning and, what's worse, can see both sides so clearly. It's like watching a train wreck: so uncomfortable and depressing in its account of how one little lie can destroy a life that you shake at the thought of it actually happening. It really would be this easy.

And that level of discomfort and near-anxiety is what makes The Hunt such a marvelous film. It's a drama, a character study and a thriller all wrapped in to one package not because it tells its story so well, but because it touches on a very human element that makes even the simplest of situations unnerving. For example, a simple hug. Mad s Mikkelson, in the past few years, has made a name for himself as one of Denmark, or Europe's, finest actors. His range can be both serious and dramatic, villainous, campy, but above all very human.  His Cannes win for best actor for this film is one of those obvious ones, but only after you've seen it.

Director Thomas Vinterberg has a steady and sure hand at work. Not a moment feels without purpose, and he lingers to the point where you pray there would be a cut or the camera to just move away, but he knows that one or two beats longer is going to make you that much more uncomfortable. It's not violent, or bloody or gory in any way, the discomfort he masters is entirely about little moments in life and conversation.

The Bad: There are some lapses in judgement that happen early, more to get the ball rolling than to really feel like a real situation.  For example an "announcement" at a PTA meeting that "your child might be molested" is far from the appropriate place to say "Check to see if your kids have symptoms of sexual abuse." Then list stuff like bed-wetting and nightmares as a symptom, which is common as all Hell in five-year-olds. Then tell everyone else at the school, in the town, in the family…I mean everyone to the point that nobody even remember who originally said it: just that someone did and eventually it turns in to fact.

While it's easy to point fingers at the instigator here, the truth is it's more how a simple lie can spiral out of control. The problem is that occasionally people just don't act like people in The Hunt.  They're more "written" to act a certain way that just doesn't quite fit in with reality and is more of a "worst case scenario" than anything. For example, the head of a school condemning someone for what she believes, and you want people like her to believe it, but in this case she's wrong, thinks wrong and goes about the worst possible way to do something about it.

The Ugly: The worst line still bothers me, again from that school head: that kids" never lie." What? What world is this happening in? Kids are kids and they lie all the time! I can understand a parent saying that, and they do as well, but they're parents. They're going to view their kids as perfect. A teacher or principal of a school should know kids, they're far from perfect.  Little lapses like that is what keeps The Hunt from being a great film, but "damn good" will have to do.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Hunter

Martin, a mercenary, is sent from Europe by a mysterious biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness on a hunt for the last Tasmanian tiger.

The Good: Willem Defoe is an actor that everyone knows, many love, but we rarely realize just how good he is at his job. His range is wide, his presence enigmatic, the ability to capture subtlety and thought of a character always being one of his finest traits. So what better of a vehicle than a morality tale and character study of a mercenary trying to decide the right course of action? Throughout all of The Hunter, we're treated to quiet, blissful scenes where introspection is the highlight for Defoe's character. We know what he's probably thinking even if it isn't spelled out for us.

Coinciding with our following of Defoe around a small Tasmanian town and large nature expanse are some incredibly beautiful images. The Hunter is not just an exploration of this man, but an exploration of nature itself. From the intimate and views of the cycle of life in nature, a quiet night with friends around a camp fire, or the sweeping vistas of the country itself, everything is beautifully shot and all making a point without beating us over the head about our planet, nature and Eco-awareness. It's a film where the imagery and mood speaks for itself, and Defoe is able to help us get through most of it.

The Bad: An absolute mishandling of the story and plot makes The Hunter far more difficult to watch than it should have been. Defoe's character is strong and we can pinpoint his arc nicely as we enjoy the gorgeous cinematography of the film, but everything else around him, from the sub-plots of loggers to the family that takes him in to Sam Neil who is wasted in his role and given nothing to do, are just a congealed mess of story notes that really never found a place in the script. They were just tossed in and scraped together to put in a semblance of a plot and ended up not thought out in the slightest - the foundations of ideas are there, just not the full realizations of them.

It's not that the plot is secondary due to the fact its a character study with Defoe, which is what one might assume with such as assertion. That fact is obvious. It's that it tries to tell a story and fails miserably ending with a cold sensation at the end when it should be touching and warm. It never hits the right points, it never gives you a sense of coherence or ever truly feeling a part of anything relevant. There's the story of a family's turmoil, ending in a false sense of melodrama at the end, a conspiracy plot involving a large corporation that is constantly unclear and then another sub plot with the town and the loggers where it starts to go one way then, like everything else, gets utterly dropped about a third into the film. Nothing comes together and as good as Defoe is in this film, it's not enough to fix it.

The Ugly: See it for Defoe, but you probably won't help but be forced to forget everything else. It's the nature of the film: keep Defoe strong, nothing else will make an impression.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Hurt Locker

An intense portrayal of elite soldiers who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: disarming bombs in the heat of combat. When a new sergeant, James, takes over a highly trained bomb disposal team amidst violent conflict, he surprises his two subordinates, Sanborn and Eldridge, by recklessly plunging them into a deadly game of urban combat. James behaves as if he's indifferent to death. As the men struggle to control their wild new leader, the city explodes into chaos, and James' true character reveals itself in a way that will change each man forever.

The Good: There are times, numerous times actually, while watching The Hurt Locker where you’re almost convinced it’s not a movie. Rather, it feels more like watching a documentary. It’s gritty, grainy, shaky and unflinching. More importantly, though, is that it’s honest. It doesn’t sugar-coat, the middle east, Iraq or American soldiers. It’s not melodramatic. It’s not even a linear story. It’s scene after scene of everyday life, its victories and its failures, only this it takes place in war-torn Iraq where car bombs and gunfights are always on the daily agenda. What’s great about Kathryn Bigelow’s film is that it captures the feel of it all to a T thanks to the directing and the utterly fantastic acting of its cast (amazingly, the “big names” such as Guy Pearce or Ralph Fiennes aren’t even the leads, which allows for a sense of reality by not having a star-attraction), it’s not preachy or full of ideologies and messages. Its characters are faulty and compelling, situations tense and action fantastic…that’s all a war movie really needs, if you think about it.

The Bad: One thing that Bigelow seems to want to do is stretch things out as long as possible. When things are happening during the period, such as trying to find the parts of a bomb in a car or moving with guns-drawn through an entire building, it’s entertaining. There are other moments when it seemingly wants to elongate the scene for the sake of elongating it. Nothing really happens during these moments, and the point and images it wanted to present was made clearly minutes before. You can sense when the story is moving and you’re captivated by it, then moments occur where the pace changes up. These gradually become more and more noticeable as the film wears on and you begin to notice how it separates the various scenes which causes the entire film to feel episodic rather than cohesive.

The Ugly: Do we have to wait another 6 years for Bigelow to bring us another film?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Hustler

Pool-hall America: a merciless macho world where success demands absolute ruthlessness and coming second means a personal hell of inadequacy and doubt. Fast Eddy is the young hopeful on the way to challenging past master of the green baize Minnesota Fats for his world title.

The Good: The crack of billiard balls, a smoke filled hall, groups of men standing, cues in hand, observing a master clean off the table as he eyes wads of cash in the onlooker’s hands. Side pocket. Corner pocket. It’s a dance montage as he enters a zone of perfect concentration and observation. Corner pocket.  One man shakes his head. Our master grins. That money is his and they all already know it.

Of course he’s not a master of pool, mind you. Oh, he’s good. Damn good. But he’s not great. His greatness comes in the illusion of expectations. All those men and their wads of cash in that musty pool hall had been watching him for an hour play pool like an amateur. The thing is: he wants them to watch. It’s all an act for “fast” Eddie, from the moment he walks in with nothing, puts on a dog-and-pony show of incapability until they lay those bills on the edge of his table, so assuredly, stacking them ever higher, and saying “I have next.”

Yes you do. Say Goodbye to your money.

What The Hustler does better than just about any film about any sport is create atmosphere. It’s tense, it’s patience. Quiet. A clock ticking, a man huffing a cigar in fear. You can practically smell the bourbon and tobacco off the screen – director Robert Rossen’s perfect understanding of space on screen and legendary cinematographer Eugen Schufftan’s attention to detail of every shadow off every angle creates shows him more deserving of his Oscar win for the creation of this seedy, dark world of talent versus greed.

The Hustler is a film that’s more than just about pool, though. It manages to get into the head of every person who wanted to simply win something so bad that it controls their life. Maybe it’s for the recognition, often for the money, but here we have a series of characters and personas that are all looking to win something, anything, even if it’s just to say “I did it.” It’s thematically complex as egos flash across the screen as much as a ball sinking into a pocket. It’s those characters, a strange combination of larger-than-life yet gritty realistic, that really gets you invested into The Hustler. Everyone has an agenda, it’s just interesting seeing what roads all those intangible elements lead them down. Nominated for numerous Oscars, Paul Newman giving one of his finest performances and George C Scott creating one of the most overlooked and understated villains in cinema, The Hustler is one of the best America pictures of its or any era.

The Bad: So intent on providing a realistic depiction, the Hustler can be a painful film sometimes. It’s a movie that demands re-watching...but you don’t know if you can sit through some of the anguish some characters go through. 

The Ugly: And one scene of painful anguish in particular gives me chills merely thinking of it as I write this.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Hyde Park on Hudson

 

The story of the love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, centered around the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of the United Kingdom visited upstate New York. 

The Good: When given the chance, Bill Murray can really wow you as an actor. Some say "well, he's Bill Murray, he doesn't have to really 'act' does he?" True, he's always had a tone or a shtick, but that's when he's not trying. That's just Murray in his natural form. But then you put him in something like Get Low, or something like Lost in Translation, then throw in a Wes Anderson film, all of which have him "similar but subtly different" and you see a guy that could do some range when asked on him. In Hyde Park on Hudson, he's asked to play FDR. Not as a bit, not as a supporting role, but as the male lead. That's a lot to ask, and he pulls it off.

Most likely it will go unnoticed. Hyde Park on Hudson, like a lot of Murray's good roles in movies, is a small feature that will go under seen. He plays FDR not as a man who gives speeches, though he does give a few, but as just a man with a sly grin and a tad aloof as he's incredibly intelligent yet seemingly annoyed by certain situations around him. He smiles at the small things, feels tired at the larger ones. Murray, instead of playing FDR as a president, does the exact opposite: he's subdued rather than grand. The film ends and begins with this and all hinges on this very well-done bit of acting, that is if you can sit through the plodding plot to enjoy it.

For me, it's nice to see a film about a footnote of history. FDR isn't entirely "Presidential" here, we simply see him as a man. Flawed in many ways, great in others, and the story of FDR and his distant cousin is really something you have to go digging in a biography book to really know about, much less see on a screen. It's a small time in one man's life, little posturing and even littler worshipping. Around Murray is a solid cast, mainly of character actors, and Hyde Park on Hudson is a damn good-looking film as its shot by a young up-and-coming cinematographer out of the UK, Lol Crawley, who has a distinct look that captures the texture of the period nicely. Director Roger Michell does his best with a meager script, letting his actors play out the scenes in a natural way, but Hyde Park on Hudson probably isn’t one he'll be putting in the win column. Flawed, but ultimately a film that has great intentions even if it never quite gets its bearings in everything else.

The Bad: Charming, sometimes even sweet (considering the situation, of course), but ultimately forgettable. There's little insight here, you certainly never get to truly know these characters as real people, and considering they were all real people that's a fault that's hard for Murray and the actors to overcome. As fun and charming as the actors can be, Hyde Park on Hudson treats its story with an apathetic tone: best expressed in a rather stilted voiceover from Laura Linney who treats it as just a line read rather than the character she plays as she states facts and describes obvious visual situations over insight in to her thoughts or the emotion and feelings between herself and Roosevelt.

I can best compare it as so: when you read a biography, it's all second-hand accounts. They state facts, do interviews, and express those to you. Here, though, we are supposed to have the first-hand account of Daisy, but it still reads as cold and detached as any thick biography you might pick up and read or documentary you might watch. It lacks the heart and emotion. Sure, it might be a bit whimsy and even fun, but this biopic feels like an alien trying to express humanity than a warm story of love and friendship. This falls and devolves in to a film built on trying to find that situation, neglecting the rest of the plot in the process.

The Ugly: A wasted set of good performances drowned by tedium. Hyde Park on Hudson is worth a watch, but you may struggle to sit through it.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Hysteria

The truth of how Mortimer Granville devised the invention of the first vibrator in the name of medical science.

The Good: Hysteria is a quick film. That meaning it's already short, but it's also easy to digest. Never ponderous. Always moving. Always flowing in to the next scene with a sense of fun and humor about it. The script is sharp, though it might be too streamlined for its own good - pondering can be beneficial from time to time. Gyllenhaal plays her character strong, volatile but incredibly appealing and sympathetic, and Dancy playing his straight, to a dry British "T" of a proper gentlemen who's basically discovered women can have orgasms. A great cast rounds out Hysteria into a film that's not going to be profound or even overly insightful, but is still a lot of fun for an hour and a half.

In hindsight, there's not a whole lot to say. I suppose the never-pondering film makes for a never-pondering review of it. It's very straightforward, and for one I enjoy that approach. The simplicity. The clean-line it makes. True, it's a story that might have been better served in the tone of a Shakespeare in love - keeping the wit and charm and humor but having something to say while doing so - but for what we get it's still incredibly entertaining.

The Bad: Sometimes, a film can try far too hard to be witty and fleetingly droll for its own good. There's a really good movie in Hysteria somewhere, but it gets lost with its self-congradulatory nature and desire to show how jocular it can be over sexual innuendoes and double entendres and a comedy of manners when the theme of sex is involved. Though I enjoy the humorous tone, there's nothing that grounds it or makes the poignant moments feel important and poignant at all: it gets lost in the saturation of witticism and British dialogue and a surprisingly trite end.

The Ugly: How, that end-credit scene is a bit on the nose, isn't it?

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


I Love You, Man

Friendless Peter Klaven goes on a series of man-dates to find a Best Man for his wedding. But when his insta-bond with his new B.F.F. puts a strain on his relationship with his fiancée, can the trio learn to live happily ever after?

The Good: John Hamberg has written some of the best comedies of the past decade. He’s also written some of the worst. So going into his newest comedic bit, it could really go either way. Will get a another Meet the Parents and Zoolander or will we end up with Duplex and Along Came Polly? Thankfully it’s the former, but not entirely because of the script or Hamberg’s directing, but in the characters brought to life by Paul Rudd and Jason Segal. In fact, the script is rather predictable and loose, but Peter is so identifiable (embarrassingly so for most men, I’m sure) and Sydney so likeable, you get caught up in their “bromance” from the very first scene in Lou Ferrigno’s open house. Their chemistry is believable, no doubt reflecting Rudd and Segal’s real life friendship, and the overall story is a refreshing take on the romantic comedy formula. The romance is altered slightly into friendship, and this interplay and parallels between romantic love and friendship love is a slant not often explored in cinema.

The Bad: As mentioned, the entire story is fairly predictable, even ending itself in a far more cliché manner than what the film really needed to. It felt above it, but ends up making compromises with its finale. All the beats and plot points are there and you’ll see them coming, but as they say it’s the journey, not the destination, and the journey with Sydney and Peter is worth taking. They will overshadow the inherent story flaws, but with a better script with those two characters, which they really deserved, it would have ended up great.

The Ugly: I now want to buy Lou Ferrigno’s house, but only if I get to keep all the awesome Hulk memorabilia everywhere.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


I Love You Phillip Morris

Steven Russell is happily married to Debbie, and a member of the local police force when a car accident provokes a dramatic reassessment of his life. Steven realizes he's gay and decides to live life to the fullest - even if it means breaking the law. Steven's new, extravagant lifestyle involves cons and fraud and, eventually, a stay in the State Penitentiary where he meets sensitive, soft-spoken Phillip Morris. His devotion to freeing Phillip from jail and building the perfect life together prompts Steven to attempt and often succeed at one impossible con after another.

The Good: Once a while, a movie leaves you standing (or sitting) without a single clue on how you should be feeling once the credits begin to role. These are films that do have something going for them, this particular one a strong Carey performance and eclectic visual style, but leave you a sense of "what just happened?" question asking once it's all said and done.  Still, it has some genuinely funny moments even if it can't decide entirely what it wants to be funny and what it wants to be dramatic.

The Bad: The first thing you'll notice is that the film and story tries its best to make Jim Carey's character, Steve, a likable one. Well, unlike other "misunderstood criminals" in movies, you simply never will based on the fact he completely abandons his wife and child in the first act and they're barely brought up again through to the end. I couldn't separate myself from that fact, because if I'm supposed to route for someone who is a habitual liar and a con artist, his hurting people is the last thing you want eating away at the back of your mind. He's manipulative and conniving, that we can deal with. But to just wake up one day and decide that you're gay, leave all that behind...and repeatedly do that...then how else do you feel at the end when he gets his "just desserts." You see, those consequences are to come, but you should feel a little sad for Steve. He was confused, in love, and you pity him. That doesn't come here, though. When the consequences come down, though you might pity him a bit because he's obviously mentally troubled, at the same time you celebrate the fact he's been "caught" and living a life sentence in prison.

I shouldn't say "good" when that happens, and seeing as how no other character is developed well at all, including McGregor who is merely a prop for Carey's character to use like all the rest, you're left with a movie that simply has no heart or soul. It's daring at times, even creative, but it's heartless at the same time. Uneven, unsure if it's a comedy or tragedy and an audience unsure if it should laugh or not, and character study that ultimately studies very little about the character.

The Ugly: This film is having trouble distribution. After seeing it, it's easy to see why - and it has nothing to do with the homosexual subject matter.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


I Saw the Devil

A secret agent tracks a serial killer who murdered his fiancée.

The Good: What length will you go for to get revenge? Seeing I Saw the Devil, not only does it show how far someone will go, it can show how too far someone can go. Vengeance becomes something of obsession, if not masochistic, in I Saw the Devil - a film that may be simple on the outside, but contains depth with the additional element of viewing vengeance as more than "man kills other person/persons that wronged him." It's brutal, effective and a film you will certainly remember. Like every other Kim Jee-Woon film, I Saw the Devil is meticulously directed. Scenes will stay with you and you can’t help but admire the obvious thought put into every one, from angles to pace to lighting to the fantastic camerwork.

I Saw the Devil is a very simple story brought to life by a master writer/director who seems to comb over every frame with a magnifier making sure everything is in its right place. His ability to engage you on every single second of every single shot is something I can’t accurately describe. Even the mundane is given interest because you know that mundane if meant to have purpose, all the more apparent as everything in I Saw the Devil works to a full circle. The characters are superb, mainly just two central leads that aren't as different as they think they are in a battle of brutality on physical and emotional levels. The emotional entanglement you'll find yourself in, that little question of your own morality and right and wrongs, is what makes I Saw the Devil more than just a vengeance thriller. Much like Chan Wook Park's vengeance trilogy, another superb South Korean director, nothing is every cut and dry or black and white. I Saw the Devil is methodical, bloody and yet another great movie from an auteur who challenges and re-invents himself with every film.

The Bad: For an incredibly smart central “hero” (for lack of a better word), he is obviously short sighted and, unfortunately, the ending doesn’t quite bang home a sense of satisfaction. This is certainly meant with intention, you’re supposed to pity him not route for him, but many, many bad things happen because of him...and you think he’d get the message after the fiftieth time. There’s certainly some odd deviations in the over-arching scope as well. While Jee-Woon, as usual, makes even these intense and interesting, looking back and reflecting you tend to realize they aren’t quite as relevant or at all important to the plot and could easily be labeled as “padding.”  Nonetheless...it’s damn entertaining padding, certainly.

The Ugly: I Saw the Devil strikes an amazing balance regarding its violence. It’s graphic without being gratuitous. It uses its blood and gore effectively, making it far more unsettling than anything you’ll see in a Saw film or the like. A master understanding what not to show and when not to show it.

Final Rating:
4.5 out of 5


I Sell the Dead

18th century justice catches up with a pair of grave robbers. With only a few hours to go before his date with the guillotine, Arthur Blake tells his life story to Father Francis Duffy. Before long, Arthur spills the beans on how he got started in the grim corpse peddling business with seasoned ghoul Willie Grimes.

The Good: Under any other situation, I Sell the Dead would probably just go unnoticed as some goofy Direct to DVD movie with nary a good quality to it. It shouldn't though, as it's a surprisingly original and fun horror comedy. I'm finding more and more that little independent, quirky horror movies like this are really what the genre needs. You have a solid cast, Dominic Monaghan is a great lead and Larry Fessenden (a staple in the horror movie industry) is really giving his all as someone who loves his character. Throw in a brooding Ron Perlman for some select scenes, and it's all well-rounded and enjoyable. I Sell the Dead is, uniquely, a period piece that is half Hammer Horror film and the other half off-beat Pirates of the Caribbean charm where it's historic, but not exactly accurate (plus, it's a fun movie). A shap script, fun characters and just a great "feel" to everything makes I Sell the Dead a low-budget horror movie made for horror fans. It knows exactly what it is and runs with it in comic-book like fashion.

The Bad:
The look of the film doesn't quite hit the right notes. Sets, mostly, are convincing but bad lighting and rather bland, uninteresting directing itself leaves you wishing the witty material was presented far, far better than how it actually is. It also, badly, hinders its momentum with a third act that feels confusing and less sharp than 90% of the rest of the film.

The Ugly: Fessenden is perfectly cast here....and it's not because he's a good looking fella.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Iceman

The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man. When finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor daughters have any clue about his real profession.

The Good: Michael Shannon is probably one of the best, most committed actors working today. He's a talent that can play anything and, here in The Iceman, he carries a massive burden to take an idea and turn it in to something compelling. The script is a little to thin to carry this story, and characters all pretty two-dimensional, but Shannon's performance makes up for it. Alongside him is another great turn by Chris Evans who, only until about ten minutes in, did I recognize as him. Both are lost in their characters: who are probably some of the more despicable human beings you can think of.

The other element for The Iceman to not fall in to mediocrity is the art design. Covering the decades of the 1960s through the early 80s, it all has a great look to it. City streets, clothes, people, music. Sometimes a period film is superficial, but this one looks real and lived in where even a 1970s suburban home feels less like a set design and more like someone's actual house in a home video. With the strong performances, notably by Evans and Shannon, and some great look and design, The Iceman is an interesting, though not always entertaining, look at one of the most notorious killers in US history.

The Bad: The script can't decide the direction it wants to go, sub-plots feel inconsequential and non-relevant, characters brim with personality but really have little to tell us anything about them beyond a few words: family man slash killer. Psychopath. Douchebag. Some don't even have the courtesy of that. I know Robert Davi had a character, yet I can't recall who he was or what he was doing there. There just was no indication of his importance.

And that's really the film's biggest problem: what is significant and what isn;t? There's a lot of questions that the film brings up yet never answers, notably about our Iceman himself, Kulinski, who we know little about other than his acts. We're never in his head, never really sure what he's thinking and the film never takes us to explore his personality other than just letting Shannon shine. Throw in the numerous other things going on around him that we're not entirely sure are part of his story or not, and if so why they're needed, and we get a very muddy look at an interesting person.

The Ugly: Hi James Franco.

Bye James Franco.

Final Rating:  3.5 out of 5


Identity

Stranded at a desolate Nevada motel during a nasty rainstorm, ten strangers become acquainted with each other when they realize that they're being killed off one by one.

The Good: Warning: Expect spoilers in this review (this is a movie that relies on a twist).

The single best aspect that Identity brings to the table is the directing and cinematography. Make no mistake: Identity is one hell of a good looking film. The lighting, the constant rain, the use of space and angles in confined spaces and constant awareness of small, visual cues and foreshadows to keep an eye on.  Phedon Papamichael's use of light and shadow draws you into this dark, surreal world where the need of reality, but "not-quite" reality correspond with each other perfectly. Not to mention the constant fear and confined space of it all where director Mangold's choice of shots and of his cast are set up flawlessly.

Speaking of, the cast is the second element Identity relies on. It's a classic (sort of) tale of a bunch of strangers put into one small space and one of them isn't who they say they are. That concept has been around since the dawn of cinema, and though it isn't fully realized here or entirely works in the grand scheme of the film's need of a twist to it all, the actors do more than their share of getting it to work when it does. When it's centered on them, relying on individual scenes and you can block the larger-scheme going on out of your head and invest in them, you have yourself one hell of a thriller. It's sharp, clear, moves at a fantastic pace...hell, it's a thriller I would recommend to anybody...but with a fair warning.

The Bad: Sometimes, a movie will try to act itself smart and sharp when, in actuality, it's just convoluted and unclear. This helps mask the fact that it is entirely nonsensical, and the journey through Identity is just that. Shit happens. That's it. One at a time, over and over again, and then it throws out the reveal. The reveal allows for the audience to forget the fact that nothing made sense before, if not is used an an excuse for it, and at the same time completely undermines all that happened before by basically saying the entire journey to that point was meaningless - or, at the very least, not as significant as it makes you think.  Flashbacks within flashbacks within minds of people that are all the same person just starts to unravel completely and the investment you might have had with the individuals stuck in this place tends to waver.

Identity relies on the ride, but at the same time it relies on the twist...but both cancel each other out. The ride is fun until the twist, but the twist is the only thing that can explain the ride...and it's half-hearted at best because you figure everything out about an hour in and everything after that you just don't about care nearly as much. Oh, it's fun and enjoyable with good actors and so forth, but there's no gravity to the situation anymore because, simply, the story at the hotel is a million times more interesting than the "other" story parallel to it (the story where we don't care about a single person in the room) and none of it is real. Perhaps if it were a basic mystery thriller about stranded travelers at a motel, we could have had something great, as it is it's merely good.

A final thought and explanation to this: for us to care about anything in the end,we have to care about the character of Malcolm...but we never get to know him beforehand, only parts of him. And when his birthday is. To know that nothing is "real" and we're supposed to care about a person we know nothing about ends up feeling more a waste with no weight than a taught thriller with psychological aspects and risks involved. "Why should we care about Malcom?" is the question I still ask to this day...and I still have no answer for.

The Ugly: Everyone was surprised by the "killer" ...sorry, but any person even slightly paying attention can probably figure it out in the first hour once what's really going on is revealed. Hint: it's the character that is barely on screen.

I absolutely loved Identity when I first saw it. I think, though, I was more captivated by the paths and roads it went down and the risks it took; that's one thing you can't deny with Identity (other than it's visual aesthetic) is that it took some bold risks to really draw you into its world and succeeded, for the most part. The end and the "take" of it all being inside someone's head will either make or break it for some people - it's a film that divides even the most hardened of horror and thriller fans.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Identity Thief

Mild-mannered businessman Sandy Patterson travels from Denver to Miami to confront the deceptively harmless-looking woman who has been living it up after stealing Sandy's identity.

The Good: Ever have a movie where, as you're watching, see what it's trying to be? You know, as though that, at some point, this probably was a good movie but ended up going off the rails? You see conceptually it could be there, and the actors are certainly committed, but something just isn't working...it's just not funny.

That's Identity Thief, a film that seems polished and has fantastic performances by its leads, Melissa McCarthy and the always-straight-man Jason Bateman, but it's just not working. It tries too hard, tries to be too "edgy' and undercuts itself with too many subplots, too little development and an over-complicated plot with characters you won't even remember. At some point during its production, this was probably a good movie.

The Bad: Ok, it's a road-trip movie. We've seen all those before and this doesn't change up those old boilerplate elements whatsoever. What it does change, though, is how utterly unlikeable our leads are. It's not entirely their fault, Bateman and McCarthy themselves are great, it's just the nature of the entire movie: it's overly mean-spirited at every turn and in every situation that I stopped wishing for the best for the two characters and just wanted them to be killed off to put them and myself out of misery.

Ok, that's a lot of hyperbole there, but the point is  you don't want thoughts like that creeping in to your head during any movie.  Even for a second. It's bad enough Identity Thief uses a horrible excuse and made-up-law and over-written situations to get to a road-trip movie, even worse that the road-trip movie beats are so obvious and overdone because it doesn't really attempt to try anything new (funny diner and motel stops, broken down car, second-act melodrama...it's all here) and even worse that it's trying to be comedic yet ultimately just nihilistic at every turn.

I don't want to sit here and say it's "bad taste." Truth is, Identity Thief has great comedy moments thanks to McCarthy and Bateman. But it's so overwhelmingly negative that there's a bitter-sweetness that comes with those laughs as though you're saying "Ok, that's funny...but I still hate everything that's going on." It's hard to explain, but when a film is so mean-spirited it doesn't matter how many times you laugh, you still have that gnawing in the back of your mind that you don't like this situation and you'll do anything to leave it.

Also...how on earth are the people after McCarthy's character, a should-be minor plot point we really don't need yet is shoved in our face every ten minutes, even tracking her? They kind of just show up where she once was with no explanation on the breadcrumbs they followed to...

...you know what? I could do this all day. I'll just end there.

The Ugly: At this point, I wonder if "reality" even exists in comedies like these. I've been noticing it more and more: things happen that would never happen in real life and people don't act like they do in real life. I'm not talking about plot points necessarily, it's a movie so you have a suspension of disbelief, but stuff like a semi-truck crashing through a car on a highway and not stopping - this after an even bigger crash and not a single car pulls over to see if everyone is alright. It's...weird. There's suspension of disbelief...but then there's removal from reality altogether.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


The Ides of March

An idealistic staffer for a newbie presidential candidate gets a crash course on dirty politics during his stint on the campaign trail. 

The Good: Proficiently directed and wonderfully written, The Ides of March is a thinking-man's political thriller. Though "thriller" is a bit of a loose term here, it has enough suspense and twists to be considered as such, though it purposely underplays it to the point of cynical realism about the world of politics. Sometimes it's not the big-names that control and drive politics, it might just be one guy on a staff that makes a crucial mistake.

Here: it all kicks off with Stephen Meyers, played expertly by Ryan Gosling, simply having a drink with the opposing team's campaign manager played by the always-reliable Paul Giamatti. Like many scenes in the film, their conversation is full of political scope and discussion. The acting is unquestionably top-notch and is full of similar scenes with exchanges that feel authentic, as though we're a fly on the wall and hearing something we shouldn't be hearing.

Though not as smart and sharp as it thinks it is at times, the performances and deliveries offer up some surprisingly, memorable dialogue-driven moments. George Clooney is certainly a director that must direct more. His command of every scene and ability to make discussion engaging is a rarity, not to mention his subjects often being socially relevant and never without a great cast to deliver. Like his superb Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney is also in the writer's chair, making one wonder if he continues to deliver solid, thoughtful material such as this if he might end up an auteur in his own right. Ides of March is a sure, confident film that knows exactly what it's doing at every second.

The Bad: Thin and far from engrossing, The Ides of March has a plot that not only can, at best, be considered serviceable, it almost feels intentionally serviceable to merely allow the actors to flourish. They do, but at a cost of narrative that is a strung-together series of smaller scenes rather than something with a "big picture" in mind, though it's not hard to see what the big picture probably is meant to be: we might cast our votes, but who are these people, really?  

The Ugly: Idealism versus reality is a sad thing indeed. You can run on promises, get elected with speeches, but even the best intentions aren't without conflicts because one person's best intentions is another person's path to blackmail. What's most interesting is that nothing here is necessarily "evil." It all happens by chance, if anything, and that's the most frightening thing of all.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Idiocracy

Private Joe Bauers, the definition of "average American", is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he's easily the most intelligent person alive.

The Good: Idiocracy is not just a movie about a screwed up, idiot-filled future, it's a reflection of our current celebrity-obsessed, junk-food digesting, pop culture consuming, ad brainwashed society. We once had a built-in mechanism that forced our species to have to better itself, but instead we took that intelligence and got greedy with it, started looking for ways to exploit rather than progress and eventually start believing and doing things simply because someone said it on television.

Welcome to the year 2505, which isn't too far off from 2012 it turns out.

Idiocracy is a look at our path of existence. Oh, that sounds a bit preposterous, I'm sure. It's a low-budget movie with a silly idea, and you're probably thinking it's just a series of gags and punchlines as our time traveler tries to re-integrate into unfamiliar human society. A fish out of water tale if there ever was one. Well, if that were the case, then we'd pretty much have Futurama. The difference, though, is that Futurama isn't necessarily saying anything about intelligence and existence, though Idiocracy probably equates it in terms of ridiculousness.  Make no mistake, it has quite a lot to say about what we value in society, ignorance making way for apathy and the easy path of living and how it will make us nearly unrecognizable if we, today, shot into the future. We might as well be shot to a different planet.

But what makes Idiocracy such a unique film is that it's able to have a pretty coherent and overall fun story on top of having quite a lot to say. Even more unique is that it has quite a lot to say without feeling overbearing or preachy. It pretty much sets everything in its place, from what we will find entertaining to our eventual boredom with everything that isn't advertised to be otherwise, and just lets us observe and take it in. A comedy of simple observance would have been fine, but we soon find ourselves routing for our hero, enjoying the company of a eclectic mix of characters (Terry Crews and Dax Shephard stealing the show easily) and maybe thinking a little more about what we value on top of enjoying the memorable scenes of comedy along the way.

The Bad: At only an hour and twenty minutes, Idiocracy feels incredibly rushed, restricted and almost not completing its full task before we are thrust into the credits. Perhaps through either budget or actor concerns, the film pretty much pushes the "go" button, throws everything into the mix and hopes it all works out in the end. For the most part, it does and there's a lot that happens in that hour and twenty minutes. However that sense of pace causes the thoughtfulness of the comedy, and there are some incredibly poignant observations going on here, to simply evaporate into shallow puns and gags with goofy characters. Rather than an unquestionably hilarious satire, we get an often funny but only occasionally thoughtful diversion. One of Idiocracy's points is its commentary about aiming for the lowest common denominator, how we override nature's "thinning the herd" rule and all wound up morons as a result , but it nearly aimed for that itself by relegating what could have been intelligence into sight gags and goofiness. Thankfully, it's saved by those blips of genius and great performances that raise the level from not being completely idiotic, but being idiotic for idiotic's sake to show how idiotic we all are.

The Ugly: Idiocracy is a good six years old now, yet there are still people discovering it and realizing its content is still very much relevant. I would go as so far to say it was a film a bit ahead of its time.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Ikiru

Kanji Watanabe is a longtime bureaucrat in a city office who, along with the rest of the office, spends his entire working life doing nothing. He learns he is dying of cancer and wants to find some meaning in his life. He finds himself unable to talk with his family, and spends a night on the town with a novelist, but that leaves him unfulfilled. He next spends time with a young woman from his office, but finally decides he can make a difference through his job... After Watanabe's death, co-workers at his funeral discuss his behavior over the last several months and debate why he suddenly became assertive in his job to promote a city park, and resolve to be more like Watanabe.

The Good: Akira Kurosawa was a director of many hats. While he may be known best for his samurai films, of which there were plenty, he covered other genres from crime and mystery, romance, surrealism, and Shakespearean tragedy, the human condition found his dramas are often his most effective if not all-around moving. The drama is often similar in tone, focusing on one character, understated and incredibly sincere if not personal. Ikiru is the epitome of his dramas, a simple story about a simple man trying to find out how to do something meaningful before he eventually dies. It's a passionate film about compassion and tackles a subject that can be difficult to wrap a narrative around - and especially do it with a focused scrutiny and touching melodrama. It takes a few cues from Citizen Kane with that determined Kurosawa approach (one of perfectionism and astuteness). What appears as a pointless scene or encounter is never the case, there's always a meaning to everything Kurosawa puts on screen even if you don't realize it (Kubrick had a similar approach). It tells us that trying to figure out life is hard to understand, that taking pleasure in small things often overlooked, and that being determined to bring meaning to yourself is never easy and often misunderstood by those around you. Ikiru is Kurosawa's most heartfelt piece of work and arguably the legend's best.


The Bad: How many people can watch Ikiru and really "get it." Younger generations, at least those not astute to film, would never be able to comprehend it. It's boring, it's foreign, it's slow, it's in the black and white. It's sad that there's a whole period of film that will go unseen by a majority of people, even classics like Casablanca or, here, Ikiru. Sure, more people may go to theaters today and buy more DVDs and Blu-Rays, but are those films really worth anything? Rarely, if at all, and especially in comparison to films like Ikiru that transcends being a mere movie and actually has something to say with how we live our lives with regrets in hindsight.

The Ugly: Supposedly this movie is going to be remade (under the English translated title "To Live," I'm sure) with Tom Hanks. That's....actually that's something I could get behind. If any actor can pull it off, it's one of the greatest living actors today.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


The Illusionist

A French illusionist finds himself out of work and travels to Scotland, where he meets a young woman. Their ensuing adventure changes both their lives forever.

The Good: While audiences will flock to the next computer generated 3D spectacle, meanwhile a subtle and small little animated film from Sylvain Chomet will make its way to US shores and probably completely ignored. This short feature brings ideas of classic, silent-era comedies, but more specifically the classic films of auteur Jacques Tati of which the film is based on (the main character is modeled after Tati and the script comes from an old draft the master wrote that was never produced). Anyone who has seen a Hulot film from him can get a basic notion of how The Illusionist works, it's Tati reborn in animated form, from the simple scene progression, story and how the comedy is handled (letting the characters do the work with saying few words). That makes sense considering it's based on a script by the late master, but even I, quite the Tati fan, wasn't expecting it to get it so spot-on. Body language, expressions and watching a long take of a single shot with characters moving and understanding everything that is happening is a feat that you just don't see that much anymore.

The film has an appeal to everyone, however it's not something you could see children enjoying. There's not enough there to stimulate them and you must pay attention due to there being no dialogue other than few words spoken here and there. For adults who love simple charm and beautiful little stories, it's for them, and that's something I can truly get behind in that it doesn't feel the need to pander.

The Bad: The Illusionist badly needed to figure out how to end itself. Maybe it ended too early, or at least too quickly, but either way it doesn't quite bring it home as much as the film felt it was going to (and certainly deserved to). I also think that, and perhaps this is due to a western perspective that something animated is required to be "funny," the lack of laugh out loud moments and things to make us giggle simply won't appeal to many, especially today's audiences who probably have never even seen a Chaplin movie much less a Tati one. It's about the small, bittersweet things that make us smile, not merely laugh, in life. It's finding those elements, you know - those observational things that can be humorous rather than hilarious. I think as the years go by, The Illusionist is one that will age gracefully whereas another Shrek movie will be forgotten in six months.

The Ugly: I don't care about intentions or give a damn about the made up "controversy" regarding the film. I watch. I judge. Period. What I find most interesting is that those that attempt to criticize the film, don't....the criticize it due to the story behind the film, not the film itself. The much referred to letter by Tati's grandchild, saying that everyone should stand against it, is a brash and undeniable self-serving letter by someone who assumes he knows what Tati would want as it relishes in its own hypocrisy not to mention it's utterly pretentious desire to be condensing rather than reflective, bitter rather than enlightening. Whilst the family could bring about the insight they say the film and filmmakers do not acknowledge about The Illusionist, they are instead spiteful and are no better than those they demonize.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

A traveling theater company gives its audience much more than they were expecting.

The Good: As imaginative and enchanting as some of Gilliam’s best and probably his best film since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Then again, he only managed two films since then, so that’s not a surprise. Many elements of his classic films, such as Brazil, Time Bandits and the Baron Munchausen can be found throughout the film. It’s whimsical yet maintains a serious tone, if not heartbreaking at times, and is as one of a kind type of film as any of those. It’s a classic tale of deals made with the devil, the story of Faust an obvious inspiration, yet taken to a new level with the concept of the imaginarium and what it does to people: give them a choice between the high road or the low road. Every actor does an amazing job here, Gilliam always able to somehow cast roles perfectly ranging from unknowns (Lily Cole) to the thespians (Christopher Plummer, who keeps everything grounded) to the surprising (Verne Troyer and Tom Waits are fantastic). Of course, you also have the personas of Tony played by Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Ferrel. As Gilliam said in his introduction to the film, the cast to his side, that while a film being completed after a death is a rarity, it’s hard to imagine it now in any other way.

The Bad: Nonsensical comes with the territory with Gilliam. It’s imaginative, yes, but not particularly told well. Simply put, if you like Gilliam, you will absolutely love this film. If not, you probably won’t get it. I would be remiss if I said that, despite my efforts to be as objective as possible in reviews, my own personal affection to Gilliam’s work does have a strong influence here- but at least I’m willing to say that it won’t be for everyone.

The Ugly: Reality hits home towards the end of the film, and things not only turn ugly but incredibly uncomfortable. This is intentional, it all deals with the Tony character, and also very, very gutsy on part of the filmmaker. There’s another uncomfortable moment due to the untimely passing of Ledger and the fact that his character is first found hanging by a noose.


Final Rating:
4 out of 5


The Imitation Game

During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing tries to crack the enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians.

The Good: The Imitation Game is a solid historical drama.

Yep...

Seriously, it’s solid. At the same time it’s not overly distinguished. It doesn’t offer a ton of surprises, is capably made and well acted. It’s not going to wow you nor will it turn you off. It’s just…fine.

That sounds dismissive, sure, though that’s not the intention. I liked it well enough but couldn’t offer up enough energy or passion about it to really want to write about it. I do that with a lot of movies, but along came Oscar nominations so I felt a bit obligated even if I wasn’t enthralled. It’s still a great story being told and thanks to the great performance by Benedict Cumberbatch it also manages to be fairly entertaining and interesting all the same. It’s not necessarily dull though it easily could have been. Thankfully Cumberbatch raises it a notch.

The Imitation Game is an important story that also does a great turn in its third act. It begins as a simple “here’s what happens” tale and turns into a morality play about right and wrong and the greater good. While I think more of that latter-half debate would have been more welcome, at least its there and give you pause and to think about the power that these people ended up wielding. A good chunk of the movie is a bit of a slog, simply going through the motions and being held up by solid acting, but the turn towards the end is when it got interesting…but it just came a little too late.

The Bad: The method of figuring it all out, putting together a machine and getting along with co-workers is a bit of a bore, as mentioned, but it gets by thanks to Cumberbatch. The problem is, though, is we really don’t learn a whole lot along the way. I think we get to know Alan Turning fairly well, we sense his brilliance and passion, but everything around him is much more shallower. I suppose my problem is that, outside of Cumberbatch, there’s just not a lot of passion. It gets by on being solid, sure, but nothing with tension or intrigue. The movie had to make up an entire plot in Turning’s ordeal to put a lot of drama into it.

I feel the movie is hinged on two major elements. One is Turning’s sexuality, the other one specific scene and montage of whether or not the machine will work. Truth is, after all that is done, the movie feels invigorated as though somebody finally woke it up. Then we have the morality play come in. Then we have Turning’s character at a crossroads. Then we have serious drama rather than sitting and waiting for something to happen. It’s interesting that I both enjoyed The Imitation Game yet feel no passion for it because it seems to feel so little passion for itself…as though itself is dismissive outside of those two elements and it just wants to go through the bore of motions to get to them.

The Ugly: Cumberbatch is getting typecast and its worrying me.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Immigrant

In 1921, unfortunate circumstances drive newly arrived immigrant Ewa into a life of prostitution, and a complex, volatile relationship with two men - her conflicted pimp and his romantic cousin.

The Good: With two of the best actors working today in Mario Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant paints a portrait. A seedy, nasty portrait of immigrating to New York in the early 20th century. It’s gritty, dirty, ugly..and people have to do what they have to do to simply live day to day, foregoing their own morality in the process. The Immigrant is a patient film as we explore the various sides of our own character. Sure, you may be appalled at doing something…but when the chips are down and you need to eat, would you do it?

Bruno (Phonenix) has gamed that system. He not only understands desperation, because he himself is, but knows how to exploit the desperation of others. He’s a fascinating character that you never fully understand (because you aren’t supposed to, he’s the broken compass). Less intentionally vague is Ewa (Cotillard) who we follow and see the desperation overcome her. She’s slowly begins to understand this new world, and we along with her, making for a beautifully rendered character with some deep empathy on our part for her.

Director James Gray is still seeking that one great film. He’s always been solid, but still seems to shoot just below the bullseye. This one is certainly his most realized, however, gorgeously photographed and acted and patient enough to tell its understated story. As polished and well acted as The Immigrant is, though, it ends up flat and he misses, though only slightly, to nail that center circle.

The Bad: This is where things get a little strange. You see, The Immigrant is a well made film. It’s well acted, well shot, well written…yet there’s one element that it lacks that, it seems, it need very badly. There’s simply no attachment here. There’s nothing to really get you to care about these characters and what happens to them. It’s odd to say that, there’s plenty of emotion and crying and hardships to overcome, yet it’s all done methodically with a complete lack of intimacy and, for us an audience, an attachment to everything that happens - especially with Ewa who you can’t help but feel for.

Is it the lack of really defined characters despite great performances such as Bruno or Orlando (played, again, wonderfully by Jeremy Renner)? Yeah, that might be one element that works against it. Is it the lack of a defined plot and that we have no clear goal, or that Ewa seems to go back and forth on her own goals? Well, I that speaks of itself, so yes that also. Is it the stiff, proper nature of the film’s approach to the material? Probably even moreso. While that might work for some films (Merchant Ivory a perfect example) here we have something that’s meant to be powerful and emotional yet treated callously and coldly. Yes, I see the powerful acting, but it never reaches into your soul and makes you truly care. It goes down a checklist of “bad things happen” without caring if you feel the intangible of those things actually happening. We must relate to them, and in a way we can, but not in how the material is presented here.

What’s even odder is that James Gray isn’t really that type of director. His We Own the Night was a surprisingly emotional, hardboiled thriller that rose above the mediocre script because of the exact same things this film has: solid directing and good acting. His “take” is what saved it, even if it wasn’t a great film, I still remember it quite well. The “take” and approach to The Immigrant never reaches its potential despite the polish it has across the board and I struggle to retain any connection to it on the personal level it desperately strives to make.

The Ugly: I mean, there’s a major thing that happens yet I felt nothing. Nothing. And I really liked the character that it happened to.  This is

Final Rating: 3 out of 5

Immortals

Theseus is a mortal man chosen by Zeus to lead the fight against the ruthless King Hyperion, who is on a rampage across Greece to obtain a weapon that can destroy humanity. 

The Good: Tarsem Singh is one of the most visually compelling filmmakers working today. It was destined for him to take a leap into a world of fantasy and heroes, myths, legend and action. Though Immortals doesn't have the weight and heft that he could probably handle and given a ton to work with, he does get a serviceable "idea" here and just runs with it, making for a visually compelling and often-beautiful and unique film. Immortals may not have a lot of depth, but it does have character in its own design.

Though given very little to work with, the actors here are nicely cast into their roles. Henry Cavill is every bit a hero, Mickey Rourke chewing the scenery as the even King Hyperion and supports from the like of Stephen Dorff, Luke Evans and John Hurt doing well with what's given to them.  The comparisons to 300 is unjust (as most film comparisons are when it comes to bad reviewing trying to determine which is "better"): Immortals outshines it visually and artistically, though it doesn't live up to the passion and overall fun that, perhaps, its material would be better acquainted with had a sharper and weightier narrative been offered up.

The Bad: Immortals falls within the strictest definition of "style over substance." The film paints a beautiful, though rather inorganic in its method, world but never truly grips you. It's one-dimensional across the board, from its style to the acting to, most especially, the plot that can't ever seem to get going on its singular-track to inevitable mediocrity. There's nothing to sustain the visuals, making for a film that seems to rock you to sleep because it puts no emphasis or purpose or passion behind it all.

There's little story to really follow with Immortals. It's pretty much a series of pretty images and scenes strung together into a semblance of a narrative, but it's really just one-note. There's one person chosen and he's going to fight this other guy. Yeah, that's about it.

The Ugly: It's odd. The film is one of the more distinct titles of the year yet I will guarantee won't be remembered in the slightest. It didn't have the intangible "IT" factor to truly distinguish itself despite the visual splendor.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Impossible

An account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time. 

The Good: A sincere, respectful and visually striking film that manipulates you from beginning to end, strikes those right emotional chords while maintaining an understanding of what the film is about: not just about a family separated during a disaster, but our changing planet that we are so small in.

Let's talk about director Juan Antonio Bayona for a moment, because as great as Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and the children are in this film, the real story is Bayona's handling of this rather difficult material to make a film on (difficult in execution and just putting up on screen while telling a story in the process, that is, but probably difficult from an emotional standpoint considering many of the extras were people that lived through the actual tragedy and helped recreate it).

Here's a young guy who has only one directing credit for a feature, the fantastic The Orphanage from 2007. He's done a few other shorts, some documentary material here and there, but pretty much The Orphanage is all he has as a credit...and to see him put this entire film on his shoulders and make it as good as he does is incredibly impressive. There's some absolutely amazing shots here, the re-creation of this tragedy intimate and real, a sturdy-hand from beginning to end to tell this story that had to be tough to tackle for equally-green screenwriter Sergio Sanchez (who has worked with Bayona many times before and wrote The Orphanage).

These two jumped from a haunted house tale to a sprawling, special-effects heavy melodrama based on a true story. And best of all is that they did it well. You would think some older filmmaker was here toying with your emotions, because your emotions will be toyed with I guarantee, yet it's just two young guys with their second major feature and they nail it. The pacing, the editing, the astounding shots of this tsunami's destruction, both in action and in aftermath, puts this small story of a family into a broader spectrum of understanding other cultures, our planet and our fragility.

The Bad: It's emotional, but it's also exploitative emotion, so let's not make this out for more than it is: melodrama. There's your typical themes: power of family, of fate, of never giving up. Typical melodrama stuff, but it could have been any story told in this tragic event, because the event itself is where the emotional resonance resides. Yes, this family and our wanting the to find each other is a great way to present that story, but the film doesn't quite relate the people that live with this threat every day. I suppose that's where a documentary is most befitting, because here we just have white English speaking people on vacation, and there's little to be seen of the indigenous people other than the backdrop.

It doesn't take away from the impact, or the realism, but is a thought in the back of your mind: "Wow, there are a lot of white people that were hurt while on vacation in Thailand, wasn't there?" when we should be saying "Wow, the Thai people were devastated by this."

The Ugly: It's been noted that this has a very "Spielberg" quality to it. It's pretty classical in that sense, but I think a bit more daring in terms of how this story is told. It's not entirely linear, certainly has strange moments of dreams/visions, but the way it sets itself up for that big payoff does have a very classic "Empire of the Sun" type of feel to it. Which I'm all for.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


In a World

An underachieving voice coach finds herself competing in the movie trailer voice-over profession against her arrogant father and his protégé.    

The Good: Though she has done little in terms of writing and directing, Lake Bell has shown that she is a unique, inspired, clever and ranged filmmaker just by her debut feature, In a World, alone. Funny, sentimental, real in a lot of ways, In a World is how a smart, clever comedy should be done. Sure, it’s about voice actors and movie trailers, but like a good Harold Ramis script or a movie by Woody Allen or John Landis, that is just the means to the end: wonderfully realized characters and a story that has some emotional truths to it all.

This isn’t playing for laughs, like any good comedy, In a World is great because it doesn’t ever have to force the issue. It’s smart writing and smart acting put on by a great ensemble including many in the circle that Bell resides in: Rob Corddry, Ken Marino, Nick Offermn and Michaela Watkins with a great performance from long-time character actor and long-time Woody Allen movie appear (fitting) Fred Melamed who plays incredibly well against Bell’s more loose style.

Funny, charming and with a lot of heart about family, friendship and doing the right thing, In a World is one of the more overlooked movies from 2013 that people should check out.

The Bad: The people found in In a World are realistic…to a fault. In other words, it’s hard to really route or flat-out like anybody. That doesn’t mean they’re bad characters, that’s just how they are. They’re real. But sometimes you just want to strangle the. As lovely as Carol (Bell) is and as someone I can relate to, you also want to shake her and say “get over it!”  She’s a strong woman, yet juvenile and immature in other ways that don’t seem to fully mesh with her. Inconsistent, but then again people are inconsistent, aren’t they?

In a World’s biggest issue is focus, which is often the telling point for a first-time writer and director. The characters are so realized, and script funny, that it’s easy to just give is a pass, but In a World wants to do a lot about a lot of things yet can never fully focus on its main one. An emotional beat towards the end, in particular, falls a little flat because it wasn’t something that was built up to or properly given the focus it needed. Like a lot of the ideas and plots and scenes, it all is just kind of “there” as you go through it all and ultimately end up on the other side.

The Ugly: I’m not sure why, but the film decides to become preachy at the end. It’s pretty subdued for the most part, but the final ten minutes or so felt like it wanted to shoehorn a message in at the last minute - a message they already were working with well but felt obligated to make sure we knew it and that brilliant subtlety suddenly turns in to a heavy hand.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


In Fear

Driving to a music festival in Ireland, a new couple become lost and are then set upon by a tormentor with an unknown motive.

The Good: Despite the occasional cheap jump scare + orchestral hits early on, In Fear eventually evolves in to an intensely satisfying slow-brew thriller. Director Jeremy Lovering comes from the BBC world of filmmaking: making small scale interesting and unique. That style and approach is spot-on for a low-budget thriller like In Fear, which is able to have a great style and polish thanks to his experience on television shows such as Sherlock and MI-5.

It’s hard to detail the difficulties of putting elements like anxiety or nerves on screen. You can write it, sure, but the director has to allow for it to unfold just as an actor has to have the chops to pull it off. All In Fear is, is a movie about driving around and getting lost with a couple and one guy who may or may not be who he says he is. It’s an element we’ve seen before, but when it’s done right, it’s as effective as any suspenseful “bigger” movie you can create.

That’s thanks to a great set of young actors pulling it off on top of a director fit for the assignment. There’s not a lot to their characters, this is absolutely an “in the moment” film that isn’t trying to be more than that. No backstory. No trying to pull a twist where it’s all a dream or something. Just a car. A couple. And darkness without GPS. That scenario is ripe for a solid thriller, and In Fear nails that scenario to a T. Sure, there might be some contrivances throughout, but that’s just part of moviemaking. It’s expected. But its pace is so spot-on, tension built wonderfully, characters acting believably and just enough violence to keep it all interesting.

The Bad: Music cues in thrillers and horror movies are usually plotted out precisely. There’s a sense of dread sound, an intense “hit” for a quick scare, a sudden shift on an emotional note. In Fear has these as well, yet there’s something not quite right about it. Perhaps they’re too obvious, or maybe just too sudden and loud. Maybe the “metal grind” noise is overused. Perhaps it’s because it all feels so stock in a movie that isn’t. Whatever it might be, In Fear’s audio serves more as a distraction than it is to emphasize the moment at hand.

In Fear works best when it centers on the moment visually and lets the ambient sound and actors do the work. This is a small movie that has a  soundtrack that feels out of place. When it’s quiet, when its suspenseful utilizing that silence, it’s incredibly effective. When you have the all-too-obvious musical cues that feel as though they’re from different movie entirely, it really takes away from the strengths of the rest of the piece.

Naturally, though, this is a minor complaint in a taught, well done low-budget thriller that, despite having a rough start, begins to turn into a solid film by the end. While it may not have rich characters to care about, they still feel real enough, and the scenario well-presented enough, to grip you.

The Ugly: Lovering is currently unattached to any project now that Sherlock is done with its latest trio of episodes (he directed The Empty Hearse). I don’t know what his next plans are, but I sincerely hope he stays in the mystery/suspense/thriller realm. He has a brilliant knack for it.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


In the Land of Blood and Honey

During the Bosnian War, Danijel, a soldier fighting for the Serbs, re-encounters Ajla, a Bosnian who's now a captive in his camp he oversees. Their once promising connection has become ambiguous as their motives have changed.

The Good:  In the Land of Blood and Honey is a candid, upfront look at a predicament that really has been touched upon very little in film: The Bosnian War. There are various films that chronicle the war itself. The fighting. The violence. But there's not a lot that touch on this particular point of the war: the ethnic (Bosniak) women. What happens to these women during the war that tore the country apart is not only hard to believe, but difficult to watch or even hear about. A film about it, and its desire to be completely upfront with it, isn't going to make it any easier. With an unblinking eye, we're forced to witness it.

The film has an interesting story to relay this larger-picture, even if you probably won't recall it all that well. It's a Romeo and Juliet, only in a prison camp and with a lot of raping. Keep in mind, I don't say that lightly. It's been noted the rape that occurred during this war has been classified as a crime against humanity. It was used as a weapon of war, the reasoning being "ethnic cleansing" and that only occurs when there's a hell of a lot of it going on. Let me be completely clear on one thing: as a film, The Land of Blood and Honey doesn't always work (we'll get to that below). As a chronicle, however - as something that details explicitly the situations and evils that occurred, it's no wonder that journalists who were there, various International organizations and the actual women who were witness to the atrocities applaud it.

The Bad: The problem is this: Rape. Well, rape is a problem in general and a major contributor to the plot of In the Land of Blood and Honey, but for this film, it significantly hurts the broader spectrum of the film. Yes, it's about violence against women, but that ends up being all you remember from the film. The Land of Blood and Honey lacks context to the violence and to the situation. It wants to simply create a false sense of feeling and emotion, pity and empathy, by constantly showing this brutality. I saw the film twice, and there's nothing I take away from it other than saying "wow, that's a lot of raping." Sometimes your desire to be candid and poignant can completely overshadow something that might have needed a less-heavy hand to bring out the message.

To this, you have a series of rather one-dimensional characters that you never truly feel connected to. They are there for a purpose, but not to flesh out this story of give insight into the situations, the people or the war itself. It's not a film to tell a story as much as it is to be earnest about the awful things that occurred during the conflict. The result is a rather muddled, disjointed affair that stays with you but for all the wrong reasons. I would call it misguided as a film, but not necessarily misguided for a purpose.

The Ugly: I dislike taking quotes from other reviewers. In fact, you shouldn't do it all and I'm completely going to be a hypocrite here, but Roger Moore (no not the actor) at the Dallas Morning News really said it perfectly: "It's a good movie on a great subject, even if its well short of a great film." I might take it one step further and call it a mediocre movie on a great subject, but that's just my take.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


In the Loop

The US President and UK Prime Minister fancy a war. But not everyone agrees that war is a good thing. The US General Miller doesn't think so and neither does the British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster. But, after Simon accidentally backs military action on TV, he suddenly has a lot of friends in Washington, DC. If Simon can get in with the right DC people, if his entourage of one can sleep with the right intern, and if they can both stop the Prime Minister's chief spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker rigging the vote at the UN, they can halt the war. If they don't... well, they can always sack their Director of Communications Judy, who they never liked anyway and who's back home dealing with voters with blocked drains and a man who's angry about a collapsing wall.

The Good: Sharp, witty, distinctly British. In the Loop combines elements of The Office, Spinal Tap and Dr. Strangelove with a script full of some of the most memorable, intelligent and utterly hilarious dialogue and banter (thanks to improvising by a cast who knows their material) you will ever witness. Insanely quotable, In the Loop is the small picture that nobody talks about, but once you see you can't stop talking about. The running gag is a small quote Tom Hollander's character, Simon, gives that keeps growing, growing, escalating and escalating. While to crawl out of the hole, he just keeps digging himself and everyone else deeper and deeper. You pity him yet laugh at the absurdity of the situation, absurdity being something British satire has always excelled at and In the Loop, full of energy and sarcasm, is true to form.

The Bad: There is a lot of energy in In the Loop. It only knows one gear and sticks with it, there's little to go into regarding story, because there really isn't one - more a series of scenes with great characters...but as the tone and the characters are only in one gear, you find yourself becoming tired of them relatively quickly - maybe even annoyed by them.

The Ugly: Sadly, this movie has a major point that people forget - in the end everyone is human. They make mistakes, sometimes on accident, and probably have more power than they should and less power than they are aware.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


In the Mouth of Madness

With the disappearance of hack horror writer Sutter Cane, all Hell is breaking loose...literally! Author Cane, it seems, has a knack for description that really brings his evil creepy-crawlies to life. Insurance investigator John Trent is sent to investigate Cane's mysterious vanishing act and ends up in the sleepy little East Coast town of Hobb's End. The fact that this town exists as a figment of Cane's twisted imagination is only the beginning of Trent's problems....

The Good: The third in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” may not have as much notoriety as the first installment, The Thing, but takes many of that classic’s elements and reshapes them into a different type of thriller full a constant sense of dread and uneasiness. If you recall in The Thing (and if you’ve seen The Prince of darkness it’s in there as well) the running theme is paranoia and not knowing who to trust. In both those previous films, the threat seeks out the protagonists and they deal with it as it appears. In the Mouth of Madness slightly flips that where our protagonist, John Trent, played by Sam Neill is probably his best non-Jurassic Park role, sets out to investigate of the disappearance of horror novelist Sutter Cane, an obvious Stephen King-inspired writer, and to bring back his final manuscript.

From that point on, as he investigates and reads Cane’s novels and eventually hunts for Cane, the plot unfolds, evolves and twists into a brilliant array of frightening imagery, psychological horror and constant sense of dread and fear around every corner. In the Mouth of Madness doesn’t try to “scare” you. It’s like the Exorcist or Eraserhead where it creates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that stays with you once it’s all over, perhaps as a result of its almost passive nature, it can come across as non-engaging. Yet, there are certain moments, memories and feelings transfer from the screen to you as we slowly see everyone and everything be flipped, turned and probably made insane as a result.

The Bad: Neill is fantastic. If put in a main role, he can always carry it. Every other character? Forgettable if not outright bad. The best example of this is Julie Carmen, who plays the Watson to Neill’s Holmes. She has as much screen presence as a houseplant and when you think of the film, it’s easy to forget her character was even in it. The character plays a major part too, which makes saying that even stranger, but she feels so out of her element and merely running through the motions to be at all compelling or even remotely interesting. It’s a major character that needed a better actress to play her considering that, at times, In the Mouth of Madness can be so damn confusing at time and Neill can only do so much. Another strong lead might have helped engage and to explain rather than just be used as another prop in a damsel-in-distress scenario.

Then there’s the issue of the ending. Not the “ending ending” which is classic, but how it gets to the “ending ending.” The scenes leading up to there jump around quite a bit, almost defaulting to the type of horror movie In the Mouth of Madness tries so hard to not be in the first place.

The Ugly: As close to an HP Lovecraft inspired movie as we’re going to get (until Guillermo Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness is made, and going by the script it’s going to be amazing), In the Mouth of Madness is a movie you see and say “why can’t more horror movies be like this?” Its actually a great blend of King and Lovecraft, and if you love horror in the slightest, how is my saying “it’s like a blend of King and Lovecraft” not something to get excited over?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


In Time

In a future where people stop aging at 25, but are engineered to live only one more year, having the means to buy your way out of the situation is a shot at immortal youth. Here, Will Salas finds himself accused of murder and on the run with a hostage - a connection that becomes an important part of the way against the system. 

The Good: It can be difficult to pull of a high-concept piece of science fiction. It's even more difficult to do that in a film all while staying smart, relevant and perhaps provide a bit of commentary on our own society in the process in an alternate universe or in a far future.  Full of lots of chase scenes and intense moments, In Time is an entertaining sci-fi action flick that plays out like a crime thriller, full of conspiracy, gangsters and lots of young, beautiful people.

In Time certainly has to be applauded in the way its shot. There's no major special effects shot or "futuristic" city to be seen: it's all done practically around actual structures in Los Angeles. Director Andrew Niccol and long-time, Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (often found in a Coen Brothers's film or two) keep it all grounded and believable. It's less a "future" and more an alternate reality that gives off a sense of futurism. It's smart both for the state of this film, but also practical in terms of filmmaking to be able to bring a high-concept idea to the screen and not throw 100 Million dollars around while doing it.

The Bad: In Time gains steam, but slows down significantly mid-way. It's as though the script wasn't quite sure where to go or what to do in its second act and can't quite figure out how to develop that into a third. It wants to be a futuristic Robin Hood, only here with time rather than gold coin, but never really makes those intentions clear or feel organic. Our heroes just kind of decide that's what they should less because it's just and has a purpose to their characters and more because they didn't have any other good plan in the bag and were bored. The sense of heroism never occurs, and truth is even if it did, it would probably feel as unnatural as the "stealing time" plot device that we end up getting.

In Time is a conceptually interesting film, but it never dives head-first into its own ideas. It uses them more for background fodder for an action movie than really touching on the hows and whys or even giving a good science fiction approach the exploration it deserves. There's a  ton that it could do here, just thinking about it brings up a plethora of questions and ideas to get into, but it never really does. It's far too intent on forcing a heavy-handed and contrived story on us whilst throwing in action sequences to make sure we don't notice.

The Ugly: In Time utilizes its "running out of time" element a bit too much to the point of contrivance. It creates a false sense of urgency that is good for the moment, but doesn't hold up under scrutiny as it seems to purposely set itself up for those urgent moments. The risk just isn't there for our heroes because we know they're our heroes and that nothing bad is probably going to happen with thirty or forty minutes still left in the film.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Inception

In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a single idea within one's mind can be the most dangerous weapon or the most valuable asset.

The Good: Take a piece of paper and a nice ball point pen - one that produces a smooth line and even ink flow. Set the paper on a hard, flat surface, then take the pen and begin drawing one singular line that is to cover every inch of paper. The lines cannot touch one another and you must always, always be moving at the same rate and pace. When you feel there is no more paper to draw this line on, every turn, curve and angle returned, re-curved and re-angled, take your final few inches and draw it right off the page.

That's Inception. An ever moving, ever evolving masterwork of a great director who expresses his love of noir and science fiction the way Monet expressed his love of lilies (or, at the very least, his fascination with them). It's complex without being confusing, multi-leveled (figuratively and literally) without being convoluted and humanistic without feeling too human. Ok, that last one may or may not be a flaw for some, but seeing as how its the concept working first, I think the lack of raw emotion is somewhat expected. Plus, this is a Nolan film and he's never been one to deal with that in the first place. Human fascination and mystery, sure, but he's not a drama storyteller. His forward pace and constant momentum would never allow that.

That's not to say Inception is lacking in its characters. Every character is distinct and full of personality. An implied sincerity here, an off the cuff joke there, and you have, at least, some compelling individuals to take this rather bizarre, psychological and breathtaking journey with. There's no point in me attempting to describe this story, other than that it starts with a lot of exposition you need to pay attention to, then uses the other two acts to unleash its fury and wonder. It's not overly deep, but is overly compelling. You will become enthralled and in awe with admiration for what Nolan has been able to do - take a very, very original and complex idea and express it as clear as day to you. You'll admire the passion he shows, the utter originality he's able to implement from the plot itself to individual scenes that will leave you saying "I've never seeing that before...I've never even thought of that before." The moments and intensity are some of the most compelling things you could ever want to see. You'll say that about six or seven times as the film goes on. Then you're left wanting more even in the final seconds of an absolutely perfect shot.

That's another thing you'll notice with Inception. Everything feels natural, practical and real despite all the science fiction and fantasy happening around it. Real camera use, real stunts, perfect use of music in unison, real explosions and CGI used smartly with only one moment showing it off. This could have easily have been a computer effect extravaganza. But it's not. It hearkens back to a time when films were made with reality put first, computer elements implemented when needed. I'm thinking classic James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, if you're looking for a comparison.

I have complaints that are minor and praise that is great. To take something so utterly complex and weave it so flawlessly to actually have you understand it - then take that knowledge and bring tension to it because we already understand it - is just utter genius. He puts a lot of faith in both his ability to express his ideas to an audience and puts a lot of faith in his audience to understand it.

The Bad: Cold and calculating has always been Nolan's angle. This can make for some compelling storytelling, but sometimes the emotion becomes lost in the process. There's emotion in Inception, but it's not particularly moving - at least not as I think Nolan wants us to think.  It's compelling and has an arc, or a point to get across, and DiCaprio makes it shine, but it never necessarily moves you. This is the one aspect I think Nolan still hasn't quite grasped in his films and is the one element missing in all of his movies. Still, though, Inception is probably the most emotional movie he has done.

Yet, I can't help but be reminded that all of his movies, even the ones I'm not overly fond of, still know how to compel an audience like no other. He plays them like a fiddle, as some might say, and has every single element under his complete control. I suppose I'm waiting to be moved by his work, for it to capture the human condition beyond merely telling me what the human condition is.

The Ugly: I'm also waiting for Nolan to do a really great action scene. Actually, that's unfair. He has great action moments, and damn if Inception doesn't have some utterly brilliant ones, but it's sometimes hard to determine what is going on. This is just a minor complaint, I was on the edge of my seat either way.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

When a street magician's stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act - and their friendship - by staging their own daring stunt.

The Good: Well, at least it's not some mean-spirited tripe that passes for comedy these days. It, at least, has that going for it - yes its best quality is that it's not something else, but what it is isn't particularly great either. There are also some genuinely funny moments, whether it be good lines, a few sight gags or just smart editing. Yes, a few…though for the life of me I can't really remember any of them.

The Bad: Question: what happens when you have a movie with no character to route for? Maybe it was an assumption on part of the writer(s) - that Steve Carell will be likable no matter what. He's hard not to like, right? So, I assume, they felt they had some freedom to make his character a "pompous ass," as noted in the film by the only likable character played by Steve Buscemi, and despite that we'll all route for him. Right?

No. 

Now throw in another pompous ass and unlikeable character played by Jim Carrey. Carrey's character is supposed to be our antagonist, but his dislike ability is constantly upstaged by the dislikability of Carell's character, and that's all we're kind of left with. Two unlikeable character for a good chunk of the movie until it does a 180 and, magically (pardon the pun), Carell's character is a good guy and tries to redeem himself. Why do I feel like Carell thinks he's in a completely different movie than the one he's in? He's playing such an over-the-top, unlikeable character that I think he forgets we're actually supposed to like this guy.

Even if he's a pompous ass, we still need to route for him and relate to him- and if you can't relate to anyone and get behind their plight, then why am I even watching the movie? This becomes all the more apparent in the second act where, I think, we're supposed to pity him. If he wasn't already established as a complete asshole, then maybe we would have.

The movie tries to juggle these two plots and incredibly poorly, a sign of numerous re-writes and too many producers giving notes. One story is Burt trying to redeem himself for being an asshole and finding the inspiration he had when he was younger. That would have been a decent movie and establish a character arc. The other being two aging magicians dealing with the new kid on the block. That, too, would have been a decent movie because it's the most simplest and probably easiest way to approach this world. But mix them together and what do we get? Just a mess and a movie that so obviously has no idea what to do with itself  - jumping from scene to scene with no emphasis on any type of character arc or sustaining focus on any type of plot (Carrey's character shows up sporadically as though it's saying "oh yeah, we need to deal with this guy also").

The Ugly: Just look at the credits, folks. 12 producers on one film. That says it all right there. At some point, it might have been a nice little script, but producers love to think they're "fixing" problems in a script, giving notes and asking for changes, and that never translates well to the screen. Everyone wants to add something, then remove something, then switch something around and put a pin in it…The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a great example of an overproduced modern comedy, and ultimately unfunny as a result.

But at least the post movie/pre credits sequence is funny. Seriously, that was the funniest moment of the entire film, which is sad.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


The Incredible Hulk

Depicting the events after the Gamma Bomb. 'The Incredible Hulk' tells the story of Dr Bruce Banner, who seeks a cure to his unique condition, which causes him to turn into a giant green monster under emotional stress. Whilst on the run from military which seeks his capture, Banner comes close to a cure. But all is lost when a new creature emerges; The Abomination.

The Good: Solid acting from Edward Norton and Tim Roth lift the film up from being too much of “Hulk smash stuff” and allows for a better told story as a result. We enjoy the two characters and the subdued performance from Norton balanced against the comic-book like performance of Roth allows for a great dynamic. It’s a special effects driven piece and has some solid action sequences thanks to a solid action director, Louis Leterrier, in only his third film and who shows a definite love of the material (no doubt influenced by Norton’s own love for the Hulk mythology, who tried to get his name on the script – getting involved in the production is something he often does, sometimes for the worse). His inexperience with so many special effects shows at times, they’re obviously the focus of the film, but the story and characters are what really shine through and, at the very least, help the film overcome its shortcomings.

The Bad: Sometimes in action movies, there are long, extended sequences of a lot of flash and noise that I can best compare to static on a television set that was left on. Like that static, it eventually becomes background noise and sleep-inducing, almost calming when there are no breaks and it just repeats itself for minutes on end. While The Incredible Hulk doesn’t suffer from this as bad as the Transformers movies do, it still suffers from it because, sadly, that is all the Hulk really can do: make a lot of noise and show a lot of action. There’s really no thought process to it, no action development or sense of pace, just a series of set pieces that roll over into another series of set pieces and as a result we end up with it being boring rather than intriguing. This is why the sequences without the Hulk are the most interesting and enjoyable in the whole film and also shows why a film about the Incredible Hulk will never get beyond just being a lot of noise.

The Ugly: Only a hair better than Ang Lee’s film before it, which I have to say was a least a little more inspired in its story direction and in its action as well, even if the execution wasn’t quite up to par.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Incredibles

Mr. Incredible (A.K.A. Bob Parr), and his wife Helen (A.K.A. Elastigirl), are the world's greatest famous crime-fighting superheroes in Metroville. Always saving lives and battling evil on a daily basis. But fifteen years later, they have been forced to adopt civilian identities and retreat to the suburbs where they have no choice but to retire of being a superhero and force to live a "normal life" with their three children Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack (who were secretly born with superpowers). Itching to get back into action, Bob gets his chance when a mysterious communication summons him to a remote island for a top secret assignment. He soon discovers that it will take a super family effort to rescue the world from total destruction.

The Good: I saw a piece online that considered The Incredibles the best superhero movie ever made. I thought about that for a bit: it certainly has a superhero story, the “family of heroes” take really hadn’t been done before and it somehow exudes originality while, at the same time, retaining itself as a homage to comics and classic superhero/sci-fi serials. Well, I don’t know if anyone can claim a film as the “best” but it’s damn sure a good one. It has thematic elements well beyond merely an “animated film” (as Brad Bird’s films often do) and is such a visual accomplishment that I can’t sing it’s praises enough.

Naturally, what sells this is the world created. Everything else just falls into place thanks to that realization and mood set of classic superhero myth of the golden age mixed with the satirical perspectives of s. Pixar and Bird know this better than anyone (or usually do, I should say). The atmosphere has this classic, deco-style to it but with human caricatures that fit seamlessly into it. The animation is, still, unmatched to this day to this viewer. The way they handle the action, the pacing and the perfect beats those set pieces hit, are spot-on in every scene. It’s dialogue is sharp, fast and witty and the comedy is never slap-stick or scratching for gags and punchlines. It just happens, like an accident or a man accidentally being thrown through a half-dozen walls in a quiet office.

This is the film a lot of animated films strive to be (most noted by any film that tries to put as much action into their stories as this one). It has the action, the heart, the natural flow and the charisma as an automatic classic. Easily one of Pixar’s crowning achievements.
 
The Bad: The Incredibles is so impeccably plotted from beginning to end, that you wouldn’t even notice problems if there were any. So, instead of really picking it apart, you just go with it and just enjoy the ride. When you try and think of things bad to say, it just comes off as nit-picky, irrelevant things like “that character’s voice was annoying” or “too much action.” Yeah, this is one of those movies that, if you ever meet someone who says they didn’t like it, usually they can’t offer up a good reason. The only good reason I heard, though I’m not convinced at all, on someone not liking is the mixed message of “violence bringing a family together.” It’s really about being yourself and coming together as a result of that, seeing as how that’s the theme from the opening scenes to the very end, but I can see how someone might misconstrue violence being the answer.

The Ugly: I want a Frozone spinoff. Who’s with me?

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

During the Cold War, Soviet agents watch Professor Henry Jones when a young man brings him a coded message from an aged, demented colleague, Henry Oxley. Led by the brilliant Irina Spalko, the Soviets tail Jones and the young man, Mutt, to Peru. With Oxley's code, they find a legendary skull made of a single piece of quartz. If Jones can deliver the skull to its rightful place, all may be well; but if Irina takes it to its origin, she'll gain powers that could endanger the West. Aging professor and young buck join forces with a woman from Jones's past to face the dangers of the jungle, Russia, and the supernatural. 

The Good: He's a little older, okay a lot older, the Nazi's are replaced with Russians and his dad long passed, but, yes, that's still Indiana Jones doing what Indiana Jones does best: take us on adventures. The hat still fits and Spielberg and Lucas take us on a ride through areas Indiana hadn't really been in since the first film: South America. The ancient Mayans and other cultures are ripe for Indiana's picking and the change in scenery shows again how our globetrotting hero is still doing what he's always done. The humor is still there, and the large set-pieces, and Ford feels like he never missed a beat putting on that fedora. It also takes a new mythological route and giving us something non-biblical, however religious which is why many compare this one to Temple of Doom. In that sense, it could be better or worse. The homages to the past films and Indiana lore are a welcome touch that only a master like Spielberg can give us. Don't blink, or you'll miss them.All in all, Crystal Skull is still Indiana Jones, still ridiculous, still Ford entertaining us as onlly he can and still a better adventure than what most movies take us on these days.

The Bad: There's a serious lack of characterization in the film. The characters of the past three, new or old, were all well done and became beloved - those films follow the same format, so there's no excuse for Crystal Skull to not maintain form. The villain is uninspired, Mutt Williams is one-note and Oxley is shoe-horned in at the last minute. Even Marion, who is a welcome sight, seems to have lost her edge that she had in Raiders, and everything ends far too neatly, even for Jones (and considering the last film ended with everyone alive and riding into the sunset, that's saying a lot).

Overall, the ridiculous nature of the film feels a lot like Temple of Doom. Some things it does better, some things Temple does better (nothing in Kingdom comes close to the Rope Bridge or Mine Cart sequences, however). It tests us, but it really shouldn't have to. There are lines and although every Indiana Jones film crosses them, Crystal Skull doesn't have the memorable ones to make up for it. Yes, Temple had hearts being ripped out and people still alive, magical rocks and voodoo, but it still had that final showdown which made up for all that. But even an average Indy adventure is better than most films today, people just set bars too high without recalling what we love about Indiana Jones to begin with: to just have fun. It does just that, even though I think we all would have liked more.

The Ugly: You know what's funny? Many people say the idea and concept of the Crystal Skull is ridiculous (this is Indy, yet they still say it). However, this is the only film where you can actually see the artifact that the story is based on. The Crystal Skull can be found at the British Museum, and its history (and crazy theories of origin) are exactly as described in the film, notably the mythical 13.

Other than that...yeah, nuke...fridge...definitely insane, even in the Indy world our suspension of disbelief was stretched thin on that one (you can read about some of the most ridiculous Indy moments in my blog).

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Three years after he recovered The Ark of the Covenant. Jones recovered an artifact that he found as a kid, the Cross of Francisco De Coronado from treasure hunters. Now, Jones discovers the history of another biblical artifact called "The Holy Grail". He was also informed that his father, Henry Jones is missing. Jones has to find his father who is looking for the Grail. However, Jones will become involved in the search of the Holy Grail along with his father, as well as fighting the Nazis to reach it.

The Good: The obvious answer here is: Sean Connery. The non-obvious answer is: a return to the Raiders of the Lost Ark style and structure. Back are the globe-trotting hunts, the mysteries and the Nazis. Added is the one thing that sells it all: Sean Connery. More specifically, the chemistry of Connery and Ford. The two of them literally feel like father and son in the movie, and every scene they're in together is the highlight of the film. Yes, it still has those set-pieces, but nothing beats moments when Indy and his dad are just talking (or attempting to talk, both have been estranged and the awkwardness shows).

Other than that, there's so much put into Last Crusade, you really don't know where to begin. You have Venice, which is perfect to set the story, going through the European Countrysides and culminating in the east at the birth of civilization. Although "light" in comparison to Raiders and especially Temple (light meaning it's not overly serious or melodramatic and dark) it's by far the most adventurous. For all its faults, it's just too fun and enjoyable to complain about and the addition of Sean Connery brings it all home.

The Bad: The film does retool/reuse things from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and some of the characterizations we knew in Raiders seem to be, shall we say, revised (Brody and Sallah, while still enjoyable, seemingly parodies of their Raider counterparts).  Although it was great to see them, and be involved in everything, they were almost not needed other than to push the story because time definitely wasn't given to them as characters. I couldn't help but wonder how Sallah's family and business, and his children, were doing that we saw in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Ugly: One thing that never fit was the fact that Donovan himself is a collector and has fondness of archeology...yet he doesn't know enough to realize the Grail isn't the one handed to him? I guess we wouldn't get his cool death scene if he did.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Set in 1935, a professor, archaeologist, and legendary hero by the name of Indiana Jones is back in action in his newest adventure. But this time he teams up with a night club singer named Wilhelmina "Willie" Scott and a twelve-year-old boy named Short Round. They end up in an Indian small distressed village, where the people believe that evil spirits have taken all their children away after a sacred precious stone was stolen! They also discovered the great mysterious terror surrounding a booby-trapped temple known as the Temple of Doom! Thuggee is beginning to attempt to rise once more, believing that with the power of all five Sankara stones they can rule the world! Now, it's all up to Indiana to put an end to the Thuggee campaign, rescue the lost children, win the girl and conquer the Temple of Doom.

The Good: Showcasing some of the best set pieces in the franchise, Temple of Doom follows the formula set by Raiders and just build and builds its story, this time putting in a little more humor and funny bits. Behind that, though, is a very dark and serious story regarding children and is probably the most graphic of the Indiana films (this can be good or bad, depending on your tastes).  The film also changed Dr. Jones up a bit. He's not as witty or funny as Raiders, but is very subtle and serious. To see a sincere side of Jones is good and really molds him into a hero that will do what is right no matter the cost. 

The Bad: First, let's just say that Short Round can't even make up for the character of Willie, who is really, really annoying, aggravating and intrusive. She just doesn't fit in with, well, anything and seems only added to allow a more humorous side of Indiana to occasionally emerge (as mentioned, he's a little more serious this time around) The story could have been done without her. Now that that's out of the way, there are some Indiana elements that aren't in this film. First, despite the light scenes, the film is very dark in content dealing with slaves, human sacrifice and evil cults. Neither of these, on their own, would be a problem, but put against each other, it feels like a battle for the film to find an identity. It also restructures it, having it take place primarily in one location and not moving from it.  Temple of Doom also tests your ability to suspend your disbelief, it's easily the most ludicrous and over-the-top film in the series. It's still fun, it's still Indiana Jones, but it's the black sheep of the franchise. 

The Ugly: You might say: the ripping out of hearts, but this isn't about gory stuff in the "ugly" category, although that did give me nightmares as a kid. It applies to all, and let's face it: Willie gets pretty annoying after, well, the first five minutes of the film. Then you have to sit there and put up with her for the rest of movie . It's a good thing she at least has some funny scenes and some good banter with Indy, otherwise I say throw her to the crocs.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Indie Game: The Movie

A documentary that follows the journeys of indie game developers as they create games and release those works, and themselves, to the world.

The Good: Whether or not some might admit it, the fact is videogames are one of the biggest and transparent forms of creative expression in the world today. An artist working in an interactive medium, and make no mistake these are art-forms, considers not only what to relay to another person through visual and auditory stimulation, like a film director or musician, but how to "invite them in" to a world they've created and show it to them. From that invitation, they explore and discover what has been given to them. Indie Game: The Movie focuses on a collection of small developers, their passions, their dreams and their desires to share their creativity to the world.

Indie Game: The Movie has a few goals it sets out for itself. One is to show the people and their lives and philosophies behind the development of games. The time they put into it, the effort and the passion behind numerous aspects from where a person can walk, what they can do, what they'll hear and see and "Why" is to be applauded. Which leads me to its second goal: as a champion for games as an art form. Despite the detractors, anything that takes years to think of and create with a desire to share with other people is art. Even if you don't like it and scoff when you see it, it's art. Perhaps it's a generational thing. After all, film wasn't considered art when it first was put out to the world. Videogames aren't that much different, only now it's with programming and planning rather than a shooting script and 35mm camera.

Now here we are. 2012. The desire for creative expression across various forms has probably never been higher. Some of it is grand and beautiful, some we'll forget about over time. The point is, the drive and ambition is there and videogames are a part of that. Indie Game: The Movie may undermine the broader spectrum of games as art at times, but it focuses enough on the dreams and desires of its selected subjects to more than make the point. If someone still has an argument against it after seeing this film, I'd love to hear it.

The Bad: I wonder, though, does the film enforce that second goal enough? To many, it might just appear that these are odd individuals tinkering in a basement or office putting things together, in the same way someone might refurbish an old computer or television. As much as I like the insight into the worlds of these creators, the balance of understanding games as an artform (really a crucial foundation for this entire documentary) feels glossed over and as much as I'd like to think the creators would be the mouthpiece, their interviews come across as just weird guys doing weird things. Some even come across as pretentious which hurts the argument. Saying "you just don't get it" is no way to go about proving anything other than stroking your own self-importance. Plus, the fact they look down on games that aren't "indie" enough has the same effect as a hipster saying you're an idiot for liking a band that's played on the radio and hurts the broader spectrum of videogames as creative expression, no matter how many people are involved or whether or not the goal is to make money.

In a way, they all come across as men that seek validation from everyone and if you don't give it to them they spit on the floor and call you names...you know..."gamers"...and trying to separate the argument from the stereotypical, man-child gamer is something this documentary just doesn't do enough of. Can the outsider looking in with his or her presumptions about the culture and world of videogames look at it differently if their presumptions are reinforced? Probably not. Considering that the film is trying to showcase the creativity and artistry found in this new medium, it takes two steps forward and one back with each self-gratifying word spoken by its subjects.

The Ugly: Again, it's 2012. What's the argument that games aren't art again? I'm sure some will find a way, ignorance often does.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Informers

A multi-strand narrative set in early 1980's Los Angeles, centered on an array of characters who represent both the top of the heap (a Hollywood dream merchant, a dissolute rock star, an aging newscaster) and the bottom (a voyeuristic doorman, an amoral ex-con). Connecting the intertwining strands are a group of beautiful, blonde young men and women who sleep all day and party all night, doing drugs -- and one another --with abandon, never realizing that they are dancing on the edge of a volcano.

The Good: Perfectly toned atmosphere, although the 80s culture references wear thin,  of the early 1980s and solid performances are a high note of an otherwise bleak and boring film.

The Bad:
Much of Bret Easton Ellis's work constitutes the following: young, attractive, pretentious men and women often woe-is-meeing about how horrible the minutia of their lives is and their rebellious attitude to escape it. They're often cold, detached and emotionless settling for decadence and self-gratifying pleasure rather than trying to understand the root of their angst and problems. The Informers is absolutely in line with this, hell it could be the poster child, and while some of Ellis's other stories will have an element of uniqueness, all The Informers wishes to have us do is listen to constant complaining and characters that have the appeal of a 14 year old kid who shuts himself into a room and listens to The Cure. This tone simply becomes tiresome in this film, similar to The Rules of Attraction, another Ellis adaptation, and you keep asking yourself "why should I care?" I suppose the film's nihilistic tendencies just rub off on you and you'll be struggling to sit through it.

The Ugly: Since the success of American Psyho, studios have been scrambling to adapt Ellis's other works. What they fail to realize is that maybe some of them don't need to be adapted, or even should be.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5   


The Informant!

Mark Whitacre has worked for lysine developing company ADM for many years and has even found his way into upper management. But nothing has prepared him for the job he is about to undertake - being a spy for the FBI. Unwillingly pressured into working as an informant against the illegal price-fixing activities of his company, Whitacre gradually adopts the idea that he's a true secret agent. But as his incessant lies keep piling up, his world begins crashing down around him. Soderbergh's directing, as is always the case with him, really lets his actors work with a scene and he smartly captures the time period convincingly with great costume and set decoration. It's distinctly late 1980s/early 1990s and, in some cases, feels as though it was a movie made those years as well.

The Good: A quirky, likable turn for Matt Damon, who put on a good amount of weight to portray Whitacre, is the selling point of the movie. That, and the fact that it's based on a true story. The idea that a habitual liar keeps digging himself into a whole has never quite been so realistically portrayed. Whitacre doesn't mean any harm and doesn't want anyone to get hurt, yet he keeps doing what he's doing because lying, for him, is a defense mechanism. It's natural, like breathing, and half the time he probably doesn't even realize he's doing it. Great turns by Bakula, who doesn't work nearly enough, and Joel McHale (of all people) as they seem to strangely be fooled yet at the same time playing along with Whitacre's antics. It's the absurdity of the whole situation that is the selling point, even if it lacks a good, defining approach to the whole thing.

The Bad: The film can make you love Whitacre one minute yet loathe him the next. This kind of goes for a good portion of the characters as well and so we're left with an odd tone that isn't quite a comedy (ala the Ocean's films) but not quite a drama either (ala Traffic). In hindsight, I really don't know what Soderbergh was going for in terms of that. At times I think the movie wants to be in the same light as Catch Me If You Can yet completely misses the mark and whimsy of that film, other times it wants you to feel pity and show a dysfunctional character with issues. You don't laugh, yet don't quite feel anything, and sometimes you aren't even that entertained.

The Ugly: You'll hit a wall about two hours in but then realize the movie isn't even two hours long. It feels long, for some odd reason, perhaps this is the fact it does cram a lot into its runtime, perhaps it's because outside of the character of Whitacre I found the story itself fairly boring.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Inglorious Basterds

Nazi occupied France, and a young Jewish refugee Shosanna Dreyfus witnesses the slaughter of her family by Colonel Hans Landa. Narrowly escaping with her life, she plots her revenge several years later when German war hero Fredrick Zoller quickly takes an interest in her and arranges an illustrious movie premiere at the theater she now runs. With the promise of every major Nazi officer in attendance, the event catches the attention of the "Basterds", a group of Jewish-American guerrilla soldiers led by the ruthless Lt. Aldo Raine. As the relentless executioners advance and the conspiring young girl's plans are set in motion, their paths will cross for a fateful evening that will shake the very annals of history.

The Good: "I think this might just be my masterpiece," states Aldo Raine, the southern Lieutenant and head of the Basterds. Inglourious Basterds is distinctly Tarantino, more specifically the Tarantino most come to expect in terms of drama, although the film has its share of brutal and violent action which it uses sparingly but effectively. It's filled with tension and scene directing so precise you would think Hitchcock was behind the camera. Whether it's his masterpiece is to be debated, as I'm sure it will, but it's a damn good contender for Tarantino. Like many of Tarantino's films, it's episodic. Here, though, it's told with suck fluidity that you'd hardly notice the long droughts of the Basterds not even seen on screen, or the star power of Brad Pitt, or even the long droughts of english-speaking dialogue. Even when you think you know what will happen, the film still will surprise you and you finally understand exactly what it is by the very end (of which I would dare not spoil here). It's not so much a history or period piece as much as it is a commentary, arguably one of Tarantino's best at that in how effective his delivery is (it's also about film and influence of cinema, but I'll leave that for another time). The dialogue flows better than any other film he's done, much of it either French or German, and the main character, of which arguably isn't even Brad Pitt, is really one of the best to ever grace the screen and portrayed flawlessly by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. The story is entirely about suspense, it will grab you like no other, and Waltz's scenes in particular will show why he probably deserves accolades come awards season, and why Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's best since Pulp Fiction.

The Bad: This could easily be a film that many will either love or hate, and it comes down the base idea of morality. Some might understand what Tarantino is getting at when the credits role, it's not revisionist history nor is it a period piece, but many will find themselves unsympathetic to the basterds. Well, I don't think we are to be sympathetic to them as much as we are other characters in the film caught between the German Nazi's the unconcerned Basterds who will do anything to get the job done (and then relish in doing it). It's about indulgence, as Tarantino so often is, and I think it's more fans of his style and films enjoying this more than those who weren't hugely fans of the man's work to begin with. "Audacious" has been a word thrown around my most critics, for better or for worse, but is about the perfect word to describe it as some may enjoy something audacious, others might just get annoyed or bored and walk out.

The Ugly: There is a moment when you actually feel bad for the Nazis. Legitimately so, because the Baseterds are simply hard men to like. They are there to be cruel and give the Nazi's a dose of their own medicine, but at the same time they can alienate us by more or less turning into Nazi's themselves. Tarantino really doesn't address this issue of moral questioning, nor should he because that's not what the film is about, but it will seriously bother some and undermine the entire point of the film before it even begins.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Inherent Vice

In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry "Doc" Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

The Good: In a recent interview, PT Anderson discussed how he wanted to capture the 1970s. It was more than just getting together some wild hairdos and period clothing. He talked about film stock, certain types of grain, editing techniques and hunting down old camera lenses to give Inherent Vice it’s look. It wasn’t just a film about the 1970s, it was to feel and be of the time on a visual and auditory level as well.

He’s not the only director to do that. Robert Rodriguez famously did it for his grandhouse-inspired Planet Terror, and Spielberg approaches hid underrated Munich with the same approach. But with Anderson it seems to go above and beyond: every frame a painting, every bit of dialogue and speck on the film meant to have a purpose, every thematic element of Thomas Pynchon's novel represented in some way, no matter how bit or small. He wanted you to feel the 1970s as much as watch a movie that’s about it.

From a sheer craft standpoint, not necessarily a storytelling one, Inherent Vice is pretty standard Anderson stuff: in other words damn magnificent. His ability to capture a mood or a texture of someone’s dingy apartment, or edit in a hazy drug-induced thought that might or might not be relevant, or simply cut in a Neil Young song during the more coherent days before things start taking their toll…gives everything weight and substance. So much so that the whole movie asks a lot of the viewer - you have to take it all in, you have to listen to the words, you have to think beyond what it is and more about what something represents.

Thankfully, with Anderson’s directing, Robert Elswit’s photography and a great cast really giving their all in very demanding, extended, long, dialogue-heavy scenes, Inherent Vice is really unlike about any other movie out there. Though I wish it set out to make our little mystery have as much weight as commenting on hidden meanings that may or may no exist, class structure and paranoia and the 1970s and counterculture as a whole.

The Bad: Here’s an interesting thing I have towards Inherent Vice: I appreciate it more than I actually enjoyed it. In terms of a story, it doesn’t have a ton going on and characters are, mostly, less actually people are more a representation of a “thing” or an “idea” - not much to get drawn into. What you get drawn into are far more beneath the surface: this is “hippie conspiracy” stuff as it was intended, after all.  Trying to make sense of it all defeats the purpose.

Yet sitting at a (very) dense two and a half hours, Inherent Vice slowly begins to wear out its welcome. It sustains its momentum, but it doesn’t offer enough as it goes along to keep interest. It begins to collapse in on itself a little over halfway through where it causes you to just lose interest in anything it has to say. Stay for the gorgeous cinematography (shot on old film), great set and costume design and solid acting with that twist of dark humor thrown in, but it tests you to stay through its rambling and disorganization. Plus, its main story and mystery at the center simply doesn’t have all that much meat, or risk, to be drawn into the drug-fueled world of Doc and the 1970s.

Despite the point, much like the source material, being to not really have a point and to just be as unconventional as possible, it doesn’t exactly translate well to film, much less justify two and a half hours that turn exhausting rather than weaving a tale and diving deeper. As said, there’s a ton to love here, it’s a craft certainly with memorable characters, great atmosphere and sharp dialogue, but there’s a ton to be turned off as well it tests your patience not to mention how much you really want to invest in something that has little to invest itself in.

The Ugly: Demands rewatching…but boy do I not have the investment to really do that right now.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Inland Empire

A blonde actress is preparing for her biggest role yet, but when she finds herself falling for her co-star, she realizes that her life is beginning to mimic the fictional film that they're shooting. Adding to her confusion is the revelation that the current film is a remake of a doomed Polish production, 47, which was never finished due to an unspeakable tragedy.

Now this is a difficult movie to review. Three hour of pretty much nonsensical scenes slapped together with old Lynch veterans including Larua Dern, Harry Dean Stanton and Justin Theroux. Certain elements are definite retreads on Lynch's part, many of his past film ideas can be seen coming through on this, a hodgepodge of ideas and storytelling that would engage had it not been so uneasily long. The story simply doesn't compel you enough to realy sit through it all in one sitting. The characters aren't that interesting and there seem to be little risk going on, especially in comparison to other Lynch nightmare fables of the same idea (Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway in particular).

My biggest complaint isn't those elements, though, but in the picture quality itself. Lynch decided to not shoot this on film, and that lackluster, grainy and low quality look is simply ugly to look at. David Lynch's films are always incredibly well-shot, sometimes beautiful and have a certain artistry to them. I would be lying if I said that element isn't a major factor for me in liking his films. The video that is Inland Empire simply doesn't express that. Perhaps Lynch didn't want to, if that's the case then I could only hope that the story and characters good enough to get through. They simply are not. This is a film that is good for Lynch aficionados, it's still well done and well made (and Dern is fantastic) and really die-hard ones at that. Otherwise, it's both a "been there, done that" film for casual Lynch fans and too much of a bore for the average moviegoer.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Innerspace

Lt. Tuck Pendelton, an American pilot, takes part in an experiment where he is miniaturized inside a submarine-like craft and is to be injected into a rabbit. The bad guys try to steal him, and the machine, while he is miniaturized, and eventually he ends up inside Jack Putter, a hypochondriac. This film borrows ideas from the classic "Fantastic Voyage" and Steve Martins "All of Me".

The Good: Proof that characters make the story, Innerspace makes little sense 90% of the time, but the characters more than make up for it. In fact, this may want to be a fun, sci-fi romp from director Joe Dante, but thankfully we end up with a screwball/slapstick comedy with just enough dose of action and enjoyable personalities (especially Martin Short, where the movie would not work at all without him)  to not have us look too hard at its nonsensical, often contrived story.

Actually, I'll tell you exactly what it reminds me of: the later Pink Panther movies. Those often made little sense but simply had a good time with themselves and with characters we enjoyed (Return, Strikes Again, Revenge....Hmmmm...George Lucas must have been a fan). That's not entirely a bad thing, now is it?

The Bad: I suppose it might seem unfair to say things happen and don't make any sense in a movie where a man is shrunken to microscopic size and injected into another man, but good lord does nothing make any sense here. Things just happen for the sake of happening, logic not only knows no bounds in sci-fi mumbo jumbo but apparently in basic film narrative either. The movie constantly, and I mean constantly, makes things happen for convenience then with a convenient solution to it all.  I had thought about making a list of things that made no sense, but I decided to not waste my time because the movie is something you will probably go out to watch once, and probably move on.

What's more, though, is that it tries to be "fun." By that I mean fun in that campy, goofy fun that Spielberg produced films often have even when they're dealing with serious matters (Poltergeist or The Goonies comes to mind). Innerspace wants to be like those, to have that "feel" that those have, but it simply tires too damn hard.

The Ugly: Easy pay day for Dennis Quaid? You betcha.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Innkeepers

During the final days at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, two employees determined to reveal the hotel's haunted past begin to experience disturbing events as old guests check in for a stay.

The Good: The Innkeepers is as "old school" of a ghost tale as you could ask for. Not merely in execution but in the overall tone and sense of style, not to mention the very, very smart way director Ti West approaches being "scary." Much like his slow-brew previous film, House of the Devil, The Innkeepers is a movie that takes its time, knows what it is and uses the strength of the genre formula to its advantage. In House of the Devil, it was all about patience and then payoff. The Innkeepers, more supernatural, grounds its scares and uses camera angles, lingering shots and incredible use of audio as the basis of building tension.

Above all, though, are characters that feel real with just enough sense of humor to get you through it. These aren't teens on a trip doing stupid and convenient things. They're young adults in a dead-end job that take interest in the idea that their Inn is haunted. They have a vested and almost childlike love affair with the idea, as many "ghost hunters" often do and both Sara Paxton and Pat Healy play their roles well, as does the small (only around ten or so) rest of the cast. . The Innkeepers knows the formula well but crafts it to a degree of newness and getting you involved and invested in the situation at hand.

You want our characters to find those spirits, to get that evidence, but also to find a purpose in their lives and maybe tell the other they kind of like them. The humor is what helps in fleshing that out and there's a natural lightness when they aren't doing anything but having a conversation. While the ghostly atmosphere is done nicely, it's really the characters that you remember the most. Though it won't have broad appeal, there's too few "scares" and "jumps" for most audiences, genre fans will no-doubt appreciate the craft going on here.

The Bad: The Innkeepers is a patient type of ghost story that spends more time with its characters than it does scaring you. To make up for this, you would think it would have that one "big" moment that will grab you. Despite a few moments of frightening imagery, it never really gets to that one moment. If there was such a thing as a scare-o-meter, The Innkeepers seems perfectly fine around the 6 or 7 setting. With a bit of a rushed third act, which really does a sharp shift in tone that's a bit distracting, and some sloppy handling of the climax, it really just goes out with more a sense of "spookiness" than anything particularly frightening. It's a film that you truly wished pushed the envelope a little bit more because so much of it is damn-near perfect.

The Ugly: You simply must either have a great home sound system or see this movie in a theater with a good one. The use of audio is some of the best I've seen in a film. I can't imagine watching this movie otherwise.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Inside (À l'intérieur)

Four months before Christmas, Sarah and Matthieu Scarangelo were in a car crash, of which Sarah and her unborn baby were the only survivors. On Christmas Eve, Sarah stays home alone, where she grieves her husband and prepares to go to the hospital the next morning for the delivery. As night falls, a woman knocks on Sarah's door asking to use the phone. When she refuses, the woman reveals that she knows Sarah and tries to force her way in. Sarah calls the police; they inspect the home and determine the woman has left, but promise to keep watch over Sarah through the night. The woman returns and tries to take Sarah's unborn child, but Sarah locks herself in the bathroom. The strange woman torments Sarah through the night and kills all who try help her.

The Good: Wonderful pacing and an always tense air makes Inside one heck of a solid horror film, although it is far from perfect. It's a small film, and in such a small space we find ourselves peeking around corners and truly frightened of what might happen next. The acting is superb if not outright guy-wrenching and the gore, of the mighty gore that French horror has become known for, is damn-near beautiful like a Jackson Pollock painting as it sprays upon walls and floors. Inside is known for this gore factor, but also the uneasy final moments that will, certainly, stay with you. It is not an easy film to watch nor should it be. The subject matter is difficult to "lighten" in this sense, and once the reveal and climax ensues, you'll actually appreciate it being so forthright with you. It is not a pleasant film, flashes of Miike's Audition or, lord help us, Aja's Haute Tension will make their way into your head, and this actually ups those in terms of uneasy and graphic detail - the film is brutal and tense from beginning to end with imagery that will certainly haunt you. Oh, and the villain... what a mesmerizing and utterly sick human being. She will haunt you just as much if not more.

The Bad: In horror films, you often have to severly suspend your disbelief. Just sit and enjoy the ride, try not to think too much or take everything overly seriously. Unless, of course, the film itself takes itself overly seriously. When that occurs, it's begging to be scrutinized. Inside is such a film and because it demands us to appreciate the intense realism and tension, we end up picking it apart and notice more and more flaws. This occurred a number of times as I watched this film, rolling my eyes at the absurdity or lack of realism because the film demands it all seem real and earth-shattering in the first place. It's not. Rather you become angry at a character for not doing something that would seem common sense, or even small things such as a woman, apparently, not recognizing a voice right outside the door (or any noise for that matter being heard which makes no sense when all a character needs to do is say something loudly), or police not checking the interior of a house or holding a suspect a gunpoint, radioing for backup, getting out of the house, frisking...honestly I could go on. The film feels like some friends got together at a house and decided to make a movie.

The Ugly: Inside has been utterly praised by genre fans. The appeal is certainly there, and there's no denying the tension and intelligent camera use. On paper, it very much appears to be a solid idea and it's uncompromising nature certainly is an appeal, but certain sequences and plot points simply don't make a lot of sense in a movie that wants me to believe it all as real. There are other horror films that deserve praise more than Inside, which oddly received a perfect score at BloodyDisgusting.com and that's a site I often look to for solid horror reviews (my disagreement here will not change that, of course, it's merely a disagreement). While Inside is worth a watch, I'm a bit dumbfounded by the love some joyously give it and feel there is far better and noteworthy French horror films that should be assessed more.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Inside Llewyn Davis

A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

The Good: It hides it well, but make no mistake, Inside Llewyn Davis is very much a musical. It taking place in the world of folk music with musicians and so on allow it to be masked and fit, but when our main character and others sit down to sing at a microphone, it’s the full song in its entirety, often reflective of the emotions and state of mind or situation currently going on.

As an expression of those emotions and feelings, and hearing the familiar sound of cycling disappointment and heartbreak in our lead, Llewyn played immaculately by Oscar Isaac, it’s a touching and emotional tale of the “other side” of talent and creativity. For every Bob Dylan that might make it big, there were hundreds of Llewyn Davis’s. They were talented, even popular in their own circles, but that’s all they ever had. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t the story of some musician finding his way or making it big, it’s about that musician, and thus the many like them, that will always be just a step away from that great success that they seem to always strive for.

It’s a bleak film, make no mistake. It’s reflective of the Coen Brothers who make it, two men who understand that creative process and know how easily it could have simply not have happened for them. Through their script and the texture and feel of the film, as though there’s  a constant chill in the air and your socks are wet, we take that journey with Llewyn to find great talent but mediocre success and the constant repeat of it every night of his life. On paper, it’s hard to imagine, but through this film, you see it clear as day.

The Bad: Llewyn Davis is a person, and the film does a great job as a character study to make him as real of a person as possible. Put Oscar Isaac’s performance in a bubble, because he’s brilliant, however Llewyn is a hard character to want to sit and follow for nearly two hours. He’s jaded, cynical, self-loathing, sometimes spiteful. He’s a good person, but he has the worst way of expressing that outside of his music, which shows that sometimes you just want the music, not the person.

Here, you’re forced to follow the person. He’s interesting, sure, but he’s not someone you’re wanting to be around either. Not only hard to route, it’s hard to invest. After some time, you almost want something horrible to happen to him just to shut him up. How does that become “bad?” Excessiveness has a lot to do with it. He’s stuck in a self-destructive cycle and you would think he’s smart enough to figure that out, but he doesn’t. He keeps making the same mistakes, saying the same wrong things, insulting others, and as a result the message of the film becomes a bit murkier than “there were a ton of guys like these that struggled.” Now it turns in to “There were a ton of guys like these that struggled but who cares they’re assholes.”

He doesn’t realize it. He doesn’t change. The film becomes a painful watch because half-way you realize he need will, and then even more painful because you realize that he doesn’t deserve it either. Often with a chilly disposition, joyless and unmoving outside of its music, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fantastic character study about a character that you never, ever want to meet again in a world and situation that the film does little to make you care about.

The Ugly: Make no mistake, just because the character is unlikeable isn’t a bad thing, it’s that we have nobody to care about for two hours.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Inside Out

After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions - Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness - conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school.

The Good: Even a mediocre Pixar movie is a better movie than most animated films out there. Studios like to churn out stuff as fast and quick as they can and hope they can sell toys and franchise the hell out of it. Pixar is kind of the opposite: just make a good movie and if you can make a toy, then great. Well, not all the time. I mean, they did make Cars 2 and planning a third.

Inside Out isn’t a mediocre Pixar movie, though. More interestingly is that it’s a movie rich with depth yet also very much a franchise-maker, toy-seller type of movie all the same. It is, quite possibly, the most layered and nuanced film Pixar has produced because there’s a lot being said at once. We have likable characters and a great sense of adventure, and kids will love that, but that’s not what is amazing about Inside Out.

What amazes me about Inside Out is that it’s completely abstract yet not - a movie that is completely comfortable taking something that’s entirely intangible and turning it into an adventure story while still retaining that intangibility through allegory and metaphor. Things like emotions and memories and how we perceive the world are the entire spine of the narrative and makes it one of the most complex and emotional journeys that Pixar has put to screen - and considering they’ve become known for emotional journeys, it’s high praise.

Inside Out is not a safe movie. Not in the slightest. It’s a bold approach to a concept rather than a “land of princesses” or “toys that talk.” It’s an introspective film figuratively and literally as we journey through the mind of a young girl who’s life is changing around her and isn’t sure how she should feel about it all. The line “I’m not sure how I should feel” is empathy in spades as there’s not one person, young or old, that hasn’t thought that. No wonder it’s so easy to relate to every character and every emotion in the movie.

A fantastic voice cast with Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith doing most of the legwork and absolutely nailing it. I mean, I think Joy and Sadness quickly became two of my favorite Pixar characters in a matter of minutes entirely because the voices of these two actresses are so spot-on. Smarter casting with the likes of Lewis Black as Anger, Bill Hader as Fear and Mindy Kaling as Disgust shows that Pixar isn’t merely going for names, none of them except Poehler are “names” but they’re going with the right sound for the right journey they want to take us on.

The Bad: Repetition in story does slow down the points Inside Out is trying to make. We all know what’s happening, but our little emotions don’t and they keep not knowing even when things keep crumbling around them. While the revelation that Joy has at the end is utterly beautiful and poetic, how many times did she need to go through the same motions to get to that revelation?

Inside Out ends up feeling stretched - as though it was an idea for a short that was retooled for a feature length movie. There’s no point that isn’t made in the first 45 minutes that couldn’t have been wrapped up, instead it goes onwards to a similar point and does the same plot tactic again (essentially Joy dragging Sadness through the crumbling psyche of a little girl). While the movie is smart and breaks up this with bits back in “HQ” with the additional emotions as well as the real-life outside of the girl’s head, it all just feels like it’s trying to slog through it to reach that 90 minute sweetspot.

Then again, who cares? The characters are likable and the animation gorgeous. If they have to beat you over the head with the message and the points being made, then so be it.

The Ugly: I hope that doesn’t go over kids heads. It’s there to send a great message, but young kids won’t get it I think even though it’s a message totally geared towards them in saying “It’s ok to feel sadness.”

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Insidious

A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.

The Good: Ask any horror movie fan and they'll tell you a few things of what makes a good horror movie. Get into the heads of the characters, make them sympathetic, keep things practical (especially special effects), don't cut away from moments meant to create dread, understand the "pace" of a scary scene and don't try to complicate everything with exposition, sometimes the simplest plot is the most effective. A horror movie is entirely about the execution. It's how scenes are lit and shot and we place ourselves into them. It's how a camera can linger just long enough to make you frightened over what could be coming around the corner. It's how a moment of silence can be used every bit as effectively as a jump-out, orchestral hit. Those are just some elements that can make a really good scary movie, and Insidious hits damn near all of them.
It certainly won't re-invent anything, but if a horror film is executed well, that really won't matter all that much.

Here we have a director, James Wan, who understands everything that is needed to make a frightening movie- more specifically a classic ghost story/haunted house tale (though neither of those terms are quite accurate here). Atmosphere of a large house, dim lights, shadows on the wall and footsteps in the attic is its strength, and in an era of splatter, blood and gore, this is a nice change of pace. Wan's camera is used remarkably well, making Insidious pretty much a textbook lesson in how to construct a scary scene. It wanders through the home(s) - these rather quiet and ominous places that should be warm and inviting, and knows exactly when to cut to get that one unsettling shot. This is even done during a daytime conversation at a dinner table. Blink and you'll miss it...and it would be your loss because those little, sharp scares that get those goosebumps going is what Insidious is masterful at.

The Bad: It's easy to look at Insidious as a more refined version of Paranormal Activity, in that it keeps a very documentary style but gets rid of the bad acting, with Poltergeist, in that it's pretty much structured identically to it and you can't help but think of what Poltergeist did at those exact moments. Like those two films, Insidious is entirely about the escalation, so you know things are going to get worse before they get better. Yet, because we're pretty much prone to know beforehand this outcome (which is in no way the fault of this film), we need something to truly surprise us to get us to take notice. Insidious really doesn't have a lot of surprises and its slow reveals tend to take more away and distract than really draw you deeper into it. It's directed well, it's paced nicely and has some great moments of creepiness and uncomfortable scares, as mentioned Insidious is fantastic in its execution. The story and desire for twists and reveals, however, doesn't offer much in addition to that. In fact, it gets downright silly in some areas, but then again Poltergeist had a tree eating a child so silly, too, is a bit expected.

It's characters are believable and sympathetic but far from having chemistry or depth or even a sense of "togetherness" for the family. That is probably my biggest complaint of the film in that it doesn't strengthen the characters, it merely uses them as tools to get more scares. In fact, half the family is sent away and the husband and wife never have a sincere, touching moment of being in a loving relationship outside of one very nice moment towards the end of the film when the husband realizes what needs to be done. Outside of that, it's exposition, simple and effective, but far from emotional. If you're looking for a great ghost tale, Insidious won't offer that.  If you're looking for a very creepy and sometimes unsettling experience, this might be for you.

The Ugly: Insidious has one major "take you out of the movie" moment that involves some computer generated special effects. I applauded in the Good section the practical and simple approach to scaring and creeping you out...but one moment is a complete 180 and is unfortunately too obvious to not hold it against the film. What's disappointing, though, is it could have been done easily in a practical manner with some basic composite shots. Why they didn't, I don't know. Maybe it was a late decision...because the entire CGI shot looks rushed and sloppy.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Insidious: Chapter 2

The haunted Lambert family seeks to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.

The Good: The best thing with Insidious Chapter 2, outside of the brilliant directing (again) by James Wan, is how clever it can be. While its story and plot isn’t anything particularly great, or its “scares” all that scary, it does manage to be less a “sequel” and more of a peeled-back-layer of the first film. This is new. This is interesting. Much of what we see in Insidious 2 is something we saw in the first film, only now we see a different perspective and now know the explanations and story behind it.

Does that cleverness make it a great film? No. Not really. Not even for genre standards, particularly when put up against Wan’s own first Insidious film and especially against The Conjuring, which came out the same year and also directed by Wan. It’s a step back

The Bad: I was thinking back to James Wan’s previous movies and how we’ve seen such a great evolution of one talented genre filmmaker. Saw was him coming to the fold as a horror director, Dead Silence and Death Sentence, though not particularity well-reviewed by mainstream outlets, do have a nice cult following by genre fans such as myself. Then along comes Insidious and The Conjuring, and those are not only popular amongst genre fans, but found mainstream success as well because they were incredibly well made.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is a step back across the entire spectrum of his work, not just as a sequel to the first film. While his camera and scene setting is still top notch, there’s nothing scary happening here, there’s nothing really interesting for the characters to do other than play off of the original film, it has an awful stinger at the end, it…well it feels less like a movie Wan would make today and more like something that was stuck in time right between Dead Silence and Death Sentence in terms of his career.

A lackluster plot, a remedial grasp on tension and atmosphere and a hokey twist makes for a mediocre genre picture that feels ten six or seven years too late, not after the bar by the very director that set it has been set much higher.

The Ugly: I don’t like to use the term “phoning it in” but Insidious: Chapter 2 phones it in more than Vin Diesel in any performance other than The Iron Giant. It gets by on the bare minimum.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Insidious: Chapter 3

A prequel set before the haunting of the Lambert family that reveals how gifted psychic Elise Rainier reluctantly agrees to use her ability to contact the dead in order to help a teenage girl who has been targeted by a dangerous supernatural entity.

The Good: It occurred me while Insidious Chapter 3 was wrapping up its story what Insidious Chapter 2 lacked and what it was that didn't work for me: it had no emotion. It was a rather cold and shallow sequel only made to tie in with the first and having those same characters kind of "redo" what the first movie already did feel redundant if not outright unnecessary. I felt as though I didn’t learn anything new or went any place that the first film hadn’t already covered.

Insidious Chapter 3 doesn't have that hangup, thankfully. We have some characters returning but it's a prequel with an all-new problem. Well, you still have ghosts and demons and stuff, but we have a family and a situation that is specific and not just rehashing something from before. Though I can't say whether or not it's "scarier" what I can say is that on a pure character basis and us going on an emotional journey, caring about what happens and feeling satisfied when it comes around to its climax, it totally works. It plays on classic tropes and scares but it does it well, utilizing simple lighting and smart editing to toy with your expectations.

So yes, it manages to be pretty well done and well written, but so are a lot of horror movies actually. What makes Chapter 3 stand out is Lin Shayne, reprising her role from the previous movies. In a film that already has a richness to its characters and ideas, surprisingly so, it all orbits around her. She elevates the entire material. That's not to say the rest of the cast is bad, they're all actually quite good, but man...Shayne just owns it and the film is that much better for it. With a well told story and an actual arc, Insidious 3 manages to be a sequel with just enough newness and polish to make it not be “just another sequel."

The Bad: While the last thing I want any horror movie to do is to constantly "explain" things, Insidious Chapter 3 does have some plot elements that are really undercooked. Some are just dropped entirely, whether it's the "boy next door" that we never see again, a woman who recently passed that somehow has a connection to the family that we really never see or learn about it or the husband of Shayne's character whom we have no context for and don't quite understand his sudden appearance. There's surprising depth on the story at hand in the film revolving a family and a lost mother, the other stuff seems to appear then disappear, or just randomly show up then fall to the wayside, then it's over and we're left kind of empty about it all.

The film, instead of trying to bring all that together, feels more inclined to remind us this is a prequel to the other two movies and glosses over it all. For example: The final five minutes or so, instead of having Shayne’s character be reflective of her past or what she just went to, is just a cheap "gotcha" moment that undermines the rest of the film entirely - just a bonk-bonk over your head of “remember the other movies!?" It didn't need that. We know what this is. Could we not have been appreciated as an audience a little more and not have it bashed over our heads? Could the movie simply just be it's own thing and stand on its own, which it was doing damn fine up to that point?

With the lack of resolution on many threads and that in-your-face final moments, Insidious Chapter 3 is simply one of those movies that was showing so much potential for much of its run but can't do the follow-through where it counts and what sets great horror movies apart from all the rest. When it works, on that emotional arc of our main character, it’s great. Then you have all the rest that seemed to just clutter it all up.

The Ugly: So just telling that one girl "she's free now" means she's free right? Right? Because...I kinda hope she is considering we never really see it. By the way, who was she?

Also, shouldn't this technically be "Chapter 0" or "Preface?"

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Insomnia

Sent from the city to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in a small Alaska town, a police detective (Pacino) accidentally shoots his own partner while trying to apprehend a suspect. Instead of admitting his guilt, the detective is given an unexpected alibi, but this "solution" only multiplies the emotional complexity and guilt over his partner's death. He's also still got a murder to solve, in addition to the blackmail and framing of an innocent bystander being orchestrated by the man they were chasing. There's also a local detective (Swank) who is conducting her own personal investigation... of his partner's death. Will it all come crashing down on him?

The Good: A solid script and fantastic actors are just two elements that Christopher Nolan’s films seem synonymous with. A good film noir knows how to bring out characters. Nolan knows this, and this, only his third film, has the sense of an old-school veteran suspense filmmaker. The mood is absolutely perfect. The visuals elegant and enthralling and what’s left is not so much a compelling narrative as it is a compelling atmosphere and situation we find our characters in.

The setting of Alaska is hauntingly beautiful, especially during the period it takes place on, and Nolan’s visuals showing fog and sunlight – a hazy dream you beg to wake up from – not only make for a great setting but transcends the main character’s plight. Soon, you too start feeling his situation and this dream-like quality that his world seems to be succumbing to. Williams is a great match up for Pacino, both of whom have some superb scenes with one another, and it’s easy to see both really in the heads of their characters. Williams isn’t as frightening as his turn in One Hour Photo, but his character, Walter, seems to be as spooky and haunting as the world that surrounds him. That’s completely intentional – because from Pacino’s Dromer’s perspective...it’s all just one, big, atmospheric, red-eye scratching, insomniac mess. A solid psychological thriller and just one in a series of fantastic films from Chris Nolan.

The Bad: After some time, the world and plot Nolan sets before us starts to become a bit dull. In a way, we feel the opposite of what Pacino is feeling in the film, making for this weird disconnect where you want to fall asleep watching a movie about a guy that can’t fall asleep. I suppose Insomnia’s biggest issue is how rudimentary and clinical it all is. Other than a unique atmosphere, there’s not a lot the film has to really grab you and be memorable years and years down the line. I wouldn’t so much as call it “forgettable,” the performances and aforementioned moody atmosphere is distinct enough for it to have an identity, but it’s not exactly a movie that comes to mind when you start recollecting about great crime thrillers. Those moments of those distinctions and identity are too few and far between.

The Ugly: Insomnia is one of those odd remakes that neither exceeds or fails in comparison to the original. Both are good but so distinctly different that watching them is like watching the same story told

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The International

Interpol Agent Louis Salinger and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman are determined to bring to justice one of the world's most powerful banks. Uncovering illegal activities including money laundering, arms trading, and the destabilization of governments, Salinger and Whitman's investigation takes them from Berlin to Milan to New York and to Istanbul. Finding themselves in a high-stakes chase across the globe, their relentless tenacity puts their own lives at risk as the bank will stop at nothing - even murder - to continue financing terror and war.

The Good: An international (no pun intended, believe me) thriller that takes you around the world and back as the mystery and conspiracy of the sinister bank, the IBCC, begins to come to light. It’s smart, maybe too smart, and has enough suspense and action to keep you on your toes. I first have to applaud the directing, which is stylish yet has a classic, thriller feel that reminded me of Coppola’s The Conversation” or Friedkin’s “The French Connection.” When it’s hitting its mark, it’s fantastic. Clive Owen is our hero and he does a fantastic job showing someone who isn’t perfect, maybe even a little scared, but has the guts to push forward. Naomi Watts, gorgeous as ever, isn’t nearly as prominent but suits her role well. Importantly, though, is their relationship and how they work together which feels natural and gives you the sense they’ve been partners for years.

The Bad: Colin Covert of the Star Tribune, I think, put it best. “The International is a film that I liked enough that I wish I liked it better.” There’s not a whole lot inherently wrong with the movie. It’s simply overwritten, giving the impression its much longer than it really is, and oddly paced. The climax occurs about half way in the film and everything after that feels like an epilogue…but it’s not an epilogue, it’s the other half of the movie. It’s also a movie that says a lot, yet has little to say and leaves you rather empty despite the earlier senses of fulfillment.

The Ugly: One character gets hit by a car out of nowhere, I actually laughed which I don’t think was the intention.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Interstellar

A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in an attempt to find a potentially habitable planet that will sustain humanity.

The Good: Beautiful though lacking poetry, poignant though lacking emotional resonance, Interstellar is a mixed offering. But boy…is it compelling. Frustrating, but compelling.

Christopher Nolan has always been daring and bold in making movies. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but he takes risk and Interstellar had more risks than most. Visually, it’s his most gorgeous, patient and weighty film he’s done - allowing the visuals to create an atmosphere of awe, isolation and even fear at something greater than what we can comprehend. Through his desire for IMAX and creating an immersive experience, Interstellar is less about story (and it shows) and more about presenting scenarios by which we become enthralled at every moment.

2001: A Space Odyssey, which Interstellar is often compared to, took that same approach: a movie dealing more with themes and ideas against the backdrop of space exploration that consumes the entire screen. That’s also where Interstellar fails as it has a narrative that is treated with a cold distain rather than simply saying “let’s forget about the story and concentrate on the ideas” that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke went for (more Kubrick than Clarke in terms of the film, mind you). In other words, if Interstellar didn’t attempt to be this emotive piece, just ignore it and play to the other strengths, it might have benefited the film as a whole.

Interstellar was to be a big, melodramatic spectacle done by Spielberg and it shows.

That’s not saying it’s bad or “it could have been better” of course. It’s a damn good movie that is wonderfully “hard” science fiction full of theories and equations along an adventure into the stars with some damn good actors. It still manages to create that “humans against the universe” scenario that makes all great space operas like this so engaging and memorable, not to mention the cinematography that draws you in like few movies can. Even if it won’t move you like it desperately is hoping it can, you won’t take your eyes from the screen at the cinematic craft at work.

The Bad: Interstellar, like all good science fiction, wants to have something to say about the human condition. In some form, great sci-fi stories are about us existing - our small and pretty insignificant species against the vastness of all space and time is barely a blip. We try to find reasons to put ourselves on a pedestal and that we’re important in some way, but in all honesty we’re pretty much hanging by a thread and we weave stories of science fiction to say that we are who we are; that, yes, we’re small and tiny but we have elements that define who we are.

Interstellar puts that element and says it is “love.” Now this is neither the best nor worst thing to stake your claim on in a science fiction movie, but it is if it’s not handled correctly. Interstellar doesn’t handle it correctly. It treats its emotional core no differently than it treats its scientific exposition and we’re left with a very technical film: wonderfully technically made, but over-technically written as though discovering your past mistakes and love of your children holds the same weight and emotional importance as solving an equation or discussing how wormholes work. In other words, all the heart in Interstellar just doesn’t have heart.

I don’t think it’s the scripts fault. In fact I think the script itself is damn good. It’s entirely on how its handled by director Christopher Nolan - a bit lifeless, a bit sterile, a bit dull. The imagery is there, the actors are there, but there’s nothing to really wrangle it in and make it land with a powerful tear-jerking thud because it’s put up against so much lifeless exposition, so much overwrought music and space porn, that it is simply handled as another card in the deck rather than the one card that would give the movie a royal flush.

It should be important because it’s the entire center of the film, but it is not, and that’s where it never quite understands its own purpose and, instead, is only liked to be remembered as that movie that’s gorgeous and visually stunning with some compelling, tense and urgent scenes that spends a lot of extra time on trying to make us feel something but it never does.

The Ugly: Make no mistake, Interstellar is a good movie. It just rests on the cusp of being great but its conflicting nature and Nolan’s refusal to even approach anything with any sentimentality just makes it fall short and does make you wonder how Spielberg, the original director, would have done it and maybe bring out that soul it struggles for.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Interview

Dave Skylark and producer Aaron Rapoport run the celebrity tabloid show "Skylark Tonight." When they land an interview with a surprise fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, they are recruited by the CIA to turn their trip to Pyongyang into an assassination mission.

The Good: Seth Rogen follows up his surprisingly solid and dumb but well-directed directorial debut (say that three times fast) This is the End alongside his longtime creative partner Evan Goldberg with something a little more daring and more challenging: mocking an entire country and their “supreme leader.” It’s not so much satire as much as it is throwing in dumb, shallow Americans into a volatile political situation and just seeing what happens.

While it is certainly one-note in that regard, the comedy ends up working. Yes, it’s a lot of simple “pointing and laughing” but there’s still a lot of fun involved along the way thanks to some rather enjoyable characters and some very memorable setpieces including the best use of a Katy Perry song ever in film (and something I’ll probably never say again).

As good as the chemistry of Rogen and Franco is, which is kind of surprising considering neither character is all that interesting or memorable, the show-stealers (and therefore memorable aspects of the movie) are the two supporting leads of Diana Bang as a North Korean love interest and, certainly, Randall Park as “President Kim.” Park absolutely owns the role and gets lost in the character and he has numerous times to shine once the character shows up mid-way through the movie. It was well worth the wait. The Interview isn’t interested in making a statement, it’s only interested in being dumb…and that’s just fine actually.

The Bad: Look. Ok…here’s the thing. If you’re looking for some cheap, dumb laughs, The Interview is for you. It manages some goofy chuckles that is broad and, in some cases, actually a little endearing considering Franco and Rogen have such good chemistry.

But you know, there’s something to be said in that it is also a missed opportunity. The Interview isn’t satire, it’s not trying to be which is fine, but it’s also not particularly smart either. I mean just on a basic storytelling level. In fact, it’s a rather limited comedy with one gag stretched far too long. Now they get a lot out of that gag, far more than you would think, but it’s also just one gag: let’s make fun of the politics of North Korea and their leader.

I think the problem comes from the fact that the writers didn’t have a whole lot of material to work with because we as a culture really don’t know a whole lot about North Korea to begin with. So they take the basic western assumptions, which is only about two or three things, and stretch it out to a far-too-long two hour feature. Eventually, the joke just tires itself out, those three gags or so just can’t carry the comedy and we have Rogen and Franco kind of just wandering through the rest of the movie trying to find something to do. The Interview hits some nice highs when it works with the material, and it arguably should have spent far more time on the “training” plot in the first Act (taking a more Spies Like Us route) than the eventually North Korea material, but either way the gag just wears thin.

The Ugly: All this being said, I would love a more intelligent minded dark comedy this side of Dr. Strangelove to take on the whole North Korean angle. As long as you cast Park again.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Into the Wild

Based on a true story. After graduating from Emory University, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters who shape his life.

The Good: Into the Wild is a story about self discovery and trying to understand life’s purpose.  Mostly, though, this is strongly appealing to young men, fresh out of college, with no direction and a purpose they have yet to discover. That group can easily see themselves doing the same, which also might explain why the film doesn’t go into too much detail on McCandless’s reasons for doing so. He just does. The film, though, is also life-affirming. During his travels, McCandless takes in various philosophies and points of views of the people he meets. He doesn’t judge them, he simply comes to understand them and maybe they too come to understand him, as odd as he is, and that rare human connection and sentiment can be found on its purest level. It also shows how alone we are, and how appreciative we should be of our family and friends and how dying alone is the universal fear that we can’t avoid. The film is directed beautifully by Sean Penn with a perfect and fitting soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. It’s a reflective film that doesn’t try to build up some sense of “perfection” as though it or McCandless had it right and all the answers were found. It’s about a young man that could have taken the easy path, the obvious one that was set for him, but knew he could only find himself and understand life by taking the harder one. In fact, despite all the life affirmations and touching moments, it’s rather cynical in how it all ends and shows how wrong our “hero” was…only he realized it far too late. It’s a beautiful and lyrical story with stunning visual splendor.

The Bad: Some critics have stated that Into the Wild “celebrates” its tragic protagonist. It’s too melodramatic, too agenda-based and cheap.  It romanticizes everything and takes us too far out of reality to appreciate it. To that I say: you’re wrong. It’s meant to take us far away from our comfort zone into the zone of strangers and strange worlds to understand them as best as McCandless’s journals, of which the book and film are based on, can take it from his point of view. It’s melodramatic, yes, but so are most films – they always put human emotions and tragedies on that level; at least Into the Wild manages to be subtler in other areas thematically and in terms of acting and small cues. I personally think “poetic” is a better moniker. It doesn’t celebrate anything. The kid still died and only until his finally days did he realize he was naive and stupid. He might have experienced freedom, but it burns out quickly. Incidentally, I found it interesting that many of the “bad” reviews for the film tend to always mention their distaste for Sean Penn.  

The Ugly: Hirsch gave his all for this film, and his performance, what he puts his body through and dedication is amazing. Notably, though, is when he is near death and skinny as all-hell.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Into the Woods

A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.

The Good: Great productions values and a strong sense of style help string along the loose narrative of Into the Woods into something at least watchable. Well, that and an overall solid cast though their characters, often, have little of interest to say and do outside of the two leads.

Into the Woods does a fantastic job reworking a classic tale, just as the book did, and manages to be creative in that despite the tale often drying up and becoming dull half-way through it all. It's a world of giants and magic beans, witches and princes, and classic tropes reshaped to bring us something new. It's not something that's particularly good. At least this version, anyway.

The Bad: Into the Woods is a theme made into a musical rather than a compelling story to be told to music. It simultaneously has a lot going for it, mostly on the surface, but doesn't manage to pull together a narrative to make you feel what it desperatly is trying to make you feel. There's decent enough characters, mainly thanks to the performances, but that's about it. They too have little depth despite the earnestness of the tone that wants you to think that they do.

But above all else, the musical just doesn't have very good music. Story I can forgive in a movie like this - the music comes first and everything else is usually layered around that along with the central idea. The music is a constant but never manages to evoke anything powerful - a constant drum beat with a few ebs and flows off its central motif.

To be upfront, I'm not a fan of this type of musical. Synocopated speech takes me out of it and though I love the themes of this story, it never feels as though it's telling one, simply stating that things are happening with some occassional musical bits thrown in. The central story of the baker and his wife is strong, but everything about it, from the princes to the giant to the witch (though Streep is certainy having the most fun) falls flat.

The Ugly: Other than te Baker and his wife, I have a hard time remembering any of the other characters' purpose to the story other than to have everyone meet up in the woods. Also, the Cinderella sub plot is utterly obnoxious.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Intolerable Cruelty

Divorce attorney Miles Massey has everything, a jet, a jet washer, three gardeners (or "those little lawn people" as he puts it), and even a marriage contract (The Massey Prenup) named after him. He seems to be unstoppable and completely invincible. That is, until he meets the beautiful, dangerous Marylin Rexroth. After being completely destroyed in court, Marylin formulates a plan that puts Miles in a position where he doesn't know what to do. For the first time in his life, he doesn't have what he wants the most.

The Good: Out of all the Coen brothers movies, Intolerable Cruelty is as far from their normalcy as you they get. In that respect, the film is admirable and shows the brothers‘ willingness to explore new territory, even if it doesn’t always work. It holds our attention through witty dialogue and well-acted scenes, comedy being something George Clooney has become more and more comfortable in as time has gone on, and we see a glint of humanity behind the walls that people tend to build around one another as a result. It’s not so much as it is a romance film as it is a film about infatuation. The Coens make sure we know the difference and they present desire well, even if it’s a bit cold and calculated at times.

The Bad: Despite its best efforts to attempt humor or the Coen brothers trademark irony and satire, much of the film feels forced rather than natural; as though the filmmakers themselves were struggling to get things to work. This probably lies within the characters themselves. Clooney and Zeta-Jones are perfectly capable actors who do a fine job here, but neither character is quite as appealing as they probably should have been. We come to understand them but really never get around to appreciating them; like cars on a highway we only notice the pretty ones but never know how good it is to drive.

The Ugly: Its inability to fully “click” together. Intolerable Cruelty had begun to show an odd turn for the Coens where they put their ability to direct a scene above their ability to be such fantastic writers.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Invictus

The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa's rugby team to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's rugby team as they make their historic run to the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship match.

The Good: Precise directing and methodical pacing bring to light the situation of South Africa and its new leader, Nelson Mandella, played capably, although not significantly, by Morgan Freeman. It's a strong-willed film, pushing forward despite the missteps, and does do a wonderful job offering notions of freedom, forgiveness, acceptance and unity. Yes, it has those thematically rich overtones, although it may sacrifice the artistic value of its story, surprisingly because this is Clint Eastwood, and we're left a movie that's merely about Rugby and Mandella an eventual footnote when it the movie's strongest areas were when he was speaking and shaking hands. It's an interesting story despite all that, if only it had a sense of personality, and identity I suppose, to it all.

The Bad: Invictus us an exercise in mediocrity. This is disappointing for two major reasons: The directing itself is actually quite good and the story itself is inspirational. The movie, though, whether it be the performances or the pacing, or maybe the tone of everything so straight-line if not predictable and on the nose. It seemingly is fine merely going through the motions of telling its story rather than try to be the inspirational movie it strives to be. There's a battle with it as well. It tries desperately hard to not be a sports movie, vying for a political/race angle that really isn't much different than the likes of The Junction Boys or Remember the Titans, and eventually turns into the conventions of a sports movie by the end. It's a movie that you anticipate to turn a corner and pick up, but it never does and by the time you reach the final game, you simply are apathetic to everything rather than feel the powerful inspiration the movie wants to bring forth.

The Ugly: Sadly, there's a chance this will still get a lot of nominations merely because the pedigree is there. There's nothing "bad" about the movie other than it tries a little too hard, but nothing particularly great about it either. It's simply there, and that's the mood the entire film seems to present. Should this win a ton of awards, it will be a disappointment that such blasé would be so celebrated (ala Shakespeare in Love or The English Patient all over again).

Final Rating:
3 out of 5


The Invisible Man (1933)

A mysterious man, whose head is completely covered in bandages, wants a room. The proprietors of the pub aren't used to making their house an inn during the winter months, but the man insists. They soon come to regret their decision. The man quickly runs out of money, and he has a violent temper besides. Worse still, he seems to be some kind of chemist and has filled his room with messy chemicals, test tubes, beakers and the like. When they try to throw him out, they make a ghastly discovery. Meanwhile, Flora Cranley appeals to her father to do something about the mysterious disappearance of Dr. Griffin, his assistant and her sweetheart. Her father's other assistant, the cowardly Dr. Kemp, is no help. He wants her for himself. Little does Flora guess that the wild tales, from newspapers and radio broadcasts, of an invisible homicidal maniac are stories of Dr. Griffin himself, who has discovered the secret of invisibility and gone mad in the process.

The Good: Master horror director James Whale had the world in the palm of his hand. He's given some of the best classic horror movies of all time including Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, yet our of all his films, the Invisible Man is surely his most fun and joyous. It's whimsical, not particularly frightening at all, and even a tad fun despite our villain being utterly disciple. That villain, our title character, is played by Claude Rains. I'll admit, I absolutely love Rains in just about everything he does. He was always an actor that, perhaps, never go the credit he deserved but was always consistent, delivered with every line and really ran the gamut of film genres. Often put into supporting roles (many of which he was Oscar-nominated on), here he is front and center giving one of his best...and we never see his face. To do an entire performance either entirely behind bandages or just a voice was daring especially for an actor in only his second (note, his second) film. Not as dark and menacing as other Universal horror classic, and definitely not the darkest of Whale's filmography, but still one of the more enjoyable ones you could ask for.

The Bad: While I love Rains in this role, there's no denying that his sudden insanity is never really explained. He starts bitter, then utterly flips out. We can chalk it up to a "man with the power in his hands" but to know where he is going, it would have been great to know where he had been. We get bits and pieces, such as his career, his romance with Flora and that he wasn't always boiling over with madness. But once the killing rampage begins, hundreds dying at his hands, one can't help but wonder who this man really is.

The Ugly
: Maybe my standards are low, but I still think much of the special effects are still incredibly effective and  convincing.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Iron Giant

This is the story a nine-year-old boy named Hogarth Hughes who makes friends with an innocent alien giant robot that came from outer space. Meanwhile, a paranoid U.S. Government agent named Kent Mansley arrives in town, determined to destroy the giant at all costs. It's up to Hogarth to protect
him by keeping him at Dean McCoppin's place in the junkyard.


The Good: Quite possibly the greatest animated debut for any writer/director, Brad Bird crafts on the finest animated films in the past 20 years. Well outdoing a lot of Disney and Pixar in many respects, and in classic hand-drawn form to boot. You've seen this story before. Ok, you've seen this story a good dozen times before in film alone. Yet, there's something quite poetic about Brad Bird's take on the old "boy and his secret pet" tale. It's this blend of 1950s nostalgia and love of the period and its fondness for over-the-top, campy science fiction. Simply put, it hits the tone exactly right. Yeah, you've seen this story plenty of times but they don't all hit the beats as sharply as The Iron Giant, a tale of warmth and friendship and some pretty damn fun action and smart comedy as Bird is often known for balancing exquisitely. It's sharp, refined, plotted perfectly and a must-see for any fan of animation.

The Bad: With the retro and 1950s sci-fi setting comes some a hell of a lot of melodrama. While it balances most of this with some light, comedic touches, there are moments when it really piles it on when it comes to the various human-related sub plots. This is to be expected though. The entire film is about death and mortality and it runs through it at every level. It never belittles it, thankfully, but it can pile it on at the same time. I personally think the honesty of it all far outweighs any heavy-handedness it might have.

The Ugly: Iron Giant 2...when, Brad, when? Don't leave it for a DVD release either, let's do it some justice.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Iron Man

The playboy wolf and genius Tony Stark is the successful CIO of the Stark Industries, a weapon company founded by his father. His second in command is Obadiah Stane, who worked with his father, and his loyal and professional secretary is Pepper Potts, who has a crush on Tony. While in Afghanistan to demonstrate the ultimate Jericho missile developed by his company, his military convoy is attacked and Tony is seriously wounded on his chest and kidnapped by a group of rebels that wants him to assemble a missile for their use. Tony stays with his abductors for three months and develops a powerful metallic armor to escape from the cave where he is arrested. He decides to stop manufacturing weapons in his company under the protest of Obadiah, and dedicates his time to improve the armor, manufacturing it with gold and titanium and installing a propulsion system to fly. However, Pepper discovers that Tony was betrayed by Obadiah, who is using Tony's data to build prototype armor for him, transforming it in the ultimate weapon.

The Good: Many comparisons can be made between Iron Man and Batman. Both have billionaires at their helm, masquerading as superheroes and using their disposal wealth to fight crime. While the hero, Batman, I might prefer, I far more enjoy Tony Stark when it comes to the alter-egos- who is every bit an alcoholic asshole that most rich dicks should be. His faults are why we love him yet hate him and Robert Downey Jr., an actor who knows the heights and lows personally, is able to bring that to a fictional character that is seemingly molded after Downy Jr than springing solely from the imagination of Stan Lee. To see such an embodiment is both a testament to a fantastic actor and perfect casting. The fact is, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man would be nothing without Robert Downey Jr. It would still look sleek, have the great supporting cast including Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow, and tell a compelling story; yes, it would have all the elements, but it would lack the core that is Tony Stark. This isn’t a movie just about Iron Man, it’s about him as a person. We’re drawn to him and his energy, more than his superhero persona, and nobody else could have pulled it off as well as Downey Jr.

The Bad: There’s a lot of strong elements in the movie. It hits all the right marks and takes all the correct paths. Yet in that is where it has a relative fault: predictability. While it throws out many things a superhero movie falls victim to, a romance plot being the most common, it doesn’t alter the fact that we know, in the first 30 minutes, who the main bad guy is, what he plans to do, and how it will all eventually end. In a way, despite how entertaining and fun the movie is, it really plays it safe.

The Ugly: I think it’s important for a superhero film to have an instantly identifiable theme.  Iron Man does not have it, in fact I can’t hum any song other than AC/DC’s Back in Black. The score is good, don’t get me wrong, but far from memorable. It’s probably the biggest aspect the film is lacking.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Iron Man 2

With the world now aware of his dual life as the armored superhero Iron Man, billionaire inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) faces pressure from the government, the press, and the public to share his technology with the military. Unwilling to let go of his invention, Stark, along with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) at his side, must forge new alliances -- and confront powerful enemies.

The Good: I don't know how, but the Iron Man movies absolutely exude "fun." They aren't overly complex or deep or thought provoking, they just know how to have a good enjoyable time and maybe put a dash of machismo into the whole redemption angle of a protagonist. It's characters are memorable, Stark especially, and everything is done with a dash of brashness without seeming arrogant. Like the first, it continues the approach of "person" first and "superhero" second, though much more to this extent and becoming far far more focused on Stark to the point where we barely see his alter-ego at all. Then again, with Downy Jr. in this role, it retains a huge amount of enjoyable and energetic fun that this series has staked it's claim in doing. That can be said with all the characters, though some are less to serve the plot and more to serve the fans, with Sam Rockwell particularly noteworthy with a character that, I'm sure, will come in the future films.

Unlike the original, where a villain seems rudimentary and the climax a little pale, this film has some fantastic action set pieces. Though there's really only a handful, they're exquisitely executed and tense, with one being one of the best villain introductions you could ask for in the genre. Mickey Rourke, with what little he's given, is absolutely menacing and memorable. So much so that you wish there were more of him....  

The Bad: Iron Man 2's biggest problem is how it handles its villains - in that it shows a constant inability to establish any sort of presence. Sure, our resident crazy villain has a great introduction and one scene with our resident womanizing alcoholic hero, but after that he's off somewhere else. He's scheming, but his importance is downplayed so much that when he finally re-emerges you're reminded and go "oh, right, back to this." It might seem a catch 22 because the reason this happens is that the story veers off to develop the characters, which is Iron Man 2's greatest attribute. In reality, though, it just needed a better script. There's no dynamic between the hero and villain here which is all the more disappointing considering how they come to know each other in a great action scene and have a tense bit of dialogue and back-and-forth to establish their grounds. The story then shifts focus entirely, the villain is no longer important and when our climax appears, and it's a great climax it is, the villain's presence feels arbitrary.

This also could have been avoided had the script been more focused on the tasks at hand rather than the desire to set up a potential (note, potential at this point) Avengers movie. If it wanted to do a bit after the credits (it does) then that's fine, but don't sacrifice a nice, tight narrative and great story just to shoehorn in Black Widow (who is unnecessary here) and Nick Fury (who is even more unnecessary). That time could have been spent elsewhere, perhaps making a more dynamic relationship with Rhodes and Stark (which is downplayed after one scene as though nobody even cares) and especially Stark and Potts (which comes out of nowhere and is paced horribly). A movie should be an entity in and of itself, not with some fleeting hope that something else may or may not happen in the future and introducing plotlines that aren't important to the plot at hand. Iron Man 2 ends up an unfocused movie with a ton of potential absolutely lost that, rather than expanding and growing from the first film, seems to just settle for where it is.

The Ugly: Black Widow may be pointless to the story and unneeded, but I can't complain about the addition of Johansson, certainly.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Iron Man 3

When Tony Stark's world is torn apart by a formidable terrorist called the Mandarin, he starts an odyssey of rebuilding and retribution.

The Good: They needed to change things up, and boy did they. I think what's best about Iron Man 3 is how little of Iron Man is actually in it or even shades of previous Iron Man movies. It's violent, darker, and does what the only thing left that it could be about a man not made of iron. Iron Man 3 should be called "Tony Stark" because the film is less about a big idea and more about a man struggling to find himself in a world being bombarded with "big ideas."  It's the least "comic book" comic book movie you could ask to see from Marvel, taking more of a grounded approach to a character study that also happens to have awesome action set pieces along the way.

Iron Man 3 isn't slick or polished or even all that fancy. In fact, it's almost not an Iron Man movie considering that Iron Man, as a hero, really isn't all that in it. It's a thriller, a mystery to be solved, a gritty character study of a man suffering from post traumatic stress and finding new reasons and ways to fight for what he believe in. It's at its strength when its focused on Stark and unraveling the mystery, and actually at its weakest when it tries to conform to comic-book movie tropes such as big battle and action sequences and villainous monologues.

Through all that, the left and right turns, the fantastic twists and new takes on ideas, it never forgets to be entertaining. Shane Black wrote the book on this type of film and tone of action comedy and Iron Man 3 plays to his strengths, even if it has to deal with a few of his weaknesses in handling large-scale action.

The greatest thing about Iron Man 3, though, is that it doesn't play it safe. Marvel and Disney could have. It could have just been a conventional superhero film, hit those beats you expect it to be and entertain you for a couple of hours. It does that, sure, but it takes risks, and not many superhero films are willing to take risks with tone, character and plot like Iron Man 3 does. It may be the third film in a franchise, fourth if you want to consider The Avengers Iron Man 2.5, but it still takes time to re-invent itself and not fall in to a safe-zone like many superhero franchises have in the past. It always keeps you guessing and keeps you engaged, making this third film feel just as exciting and fresh as the first one. It’s a genre in danger of just running in to a degree of sameness that won’t benefit anyone, and Iron Man 3 shows us that won’t happen on Tony Stark’s watch.

The Bad: While updating a universe for modern times, and certainly putting in villain motivations that fit in with the real world, Iron Man 3 still has moments of triteness and outright silliness that just doesn't fit in. No, not the comedy. The comedy is great. I'm talking about moments that stick out as eye-rolling endeavors. "Oh, you breathe fire" says one character after another character breathes fire and never does it again in the film, and then scampers away to conveniently meet up with another character who just happened to be there. It wasn't funny, it was just stilted, and Iron Man 3 has some sporadic moments like that - moments that make it feel like a completely different movie than what the other 90% of the film is in both style, tone and story.

There's also a lot of convolution, or at least sloppiness and lack of polish in storytelling. Iron Man 3 has a pretty straightforward plot, but it really crams a lot in there with little explanation as to the hows and whys and connecting all the pieces. Some we can simply overlook, but there's a few moments in the second act that are fully there for exposition which slows the whole film down and that never quite fits in with what's going on. Like the stilted moments of "comic book logic," there's moments where there's a lot happening but with little explanation and fitting puzzle pieces that we assume are going to fit together tightly but then we realize that the puzzle pieces are from different puzzles and they have to be hammered in to make it work.

Thankfully, Downey Jr guides us wonderfully through it all, as wonderfully charming as he always is. He's the staple to this rather crumpled magazine and keeping it all together, allowing us to overlook the faults and just enjoy what's happening and appreciate the daringness that, if you think about it, is the only time in this Marvel series of movies where I can honestly say risks were taken. There's no denying the ambition here, it's a bold script, but almost too bold. The parts that are daring and the plot points that are ballsy are fantastic, yet there's still a restriction put on it all because, in the end, it is a Superhero movie, and as great as those can be, you can never deviate too far from that formula. Iron Man 3 attempts to with mixed results, but the bad parts are only slightly bad the good parts memorable and enticing and the ambition a breath of fresh air, that’s a combination I’m willing to pay for.

The Ugly: I don't care about comic book faithfulness, I care about a good, entertaining movie. It begins and ends with that.

Some people, though, just can't see it that way. There’s a threshold of what people are willing to accept and not accept, and it’s subjective, but for me as long as the movie works, then I couldn’t care less about accuracy.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Iron Lady

A look at the life of Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, with a focus on the price she paid for power. 

The Good: Meryl Streep is truly one of the best, some might say the best, actress of her generation. To take on a role of a prominent figure of this nature would be intimidating for most. Her role shows many sides of Margaret Thatcher, from powerful and determined, to completely sympathetic as dementia sets in and she has lengthy conversation with her dead husband about the cost of milk.

Thatcher certainly had odds to overcome, and those series of obstacles are the root of the story. Political discourse, terrorist bombing and, of course, the simple fact she is a woman in a "man's world" that is trying to change preconceptions. She succeeds. She fails. She lives on. Streep is powerful and commanding throughout. At its heart, though, it's about Thatcher overcoming one final obstacle: the grief of having lost her husband. The singular thread from beginning to end is her love of him and how she desperately is trying to hold on to his memory as she slowly loses her own.

The Bad: Though it tries, it's a bit hard to really humanize Margaret Thatcher. The entire film plays off her character in a dry fashion and though we gain insight into her personality and certainly her drive in life, we still feel a distance from simply not understanding her at all.

The film attempt to enlighten and illuminate us on the person, but we still can't understand her. Little is given to show what she stands for or why she does, only that she does. With so little put into the why and only the how, The Iron Lady comes across as disingenuous. It's fairly straight-forward with no depth to its story, and for this biopic I feel depth would have been a prerequisite.

The Ugly: The film wants to build empathy for Thatcher. Badly so. It glosses over the criticisms of her policies when it really shouldn't have. It only, in passing, calls her "the most hated Prime Minister" yet we never see any context behind those words.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Iron Sky

The Nazis set up a secret base on the moon in 1945 where they hide out and plan to return to power in 2018.

The Good: It's Space Nazis. What else can you say…and for a pulp piece of filmmaking involving a contemporary Nazi-sploitation, it's about what you'd expect. Sure, it lacks the craft, but it has the clever behind it. In fact, it's far, far more clever than you might assume it to be, with references to pop culture politics and Nazi-themed movies not to mention the pure imaginative expression of how Nazis, secluded on the moon for decades, would view our world today and how they would live and create their own technology separately. Spaceships that look like Zeppelins? You better believe it…and they look awesome.

In a film like this, noting the story or characters is pretty irrelevant. They're there to do a service. To be the means to the end - the end being the presentation of Space Nazis attacking our world. In the filmmakers mind, it was probably just the idea itself they wanted and how they got to that…well…it would just have to do. However, it still manages to poke fun at our society, our politicians, our world leaders and, really, the entire machine that is just as broken and awful as anything from the era the Nazis hailed from. In a way, you end up a bit sympathetic for them - secluded ideologists that have no clue what National Socialism ended up being, only what it was meant to be, and how corrupt and disillusioned our own governments are. To these Space Nazis, pretty ignorant on the atrocities actual Nazis did (the word Holocaust isn't brought up once), it's interesting how we end up feeling for them and how we end up viewing our own world as a result. In a way, we end up with a film that's less a farce or even a satire (though it is both) and more a deconstruction of our own political establishments.

Like I said…far clever than you might expect. It's just really silly when doing so. Plus, it's fun. A lot of fun, especially with a group of people who are there to have fun with it. A great cult film certainly, it's staying power might be short lived, but it managed to make this cynical critic have a good time with the absurdity of Nazis from space while reflecting on the absurdity of our own society while doing so.

The Bad: Let's face it, the film isn't going to win any awards. It manages to be fun, certainly imaginative, but it's not the best put together piece of cinema you're going to see. While it works well as a satire, when it's putting out jokes it sometimes falls flat or beats in scenes just go on a bit too long or hold for an extra two or three seconds that causes you to feel more uncomfortable than actually find it funny. The plot is all over the place, it certainly wants to do too much. The characters are equally all over the place, though we are given a couple of grounded "leads" to help alleviate that. And, lastly, the action is just chaos. Fun chaos, but chaos and sometimes hard to follow. Space battles are underwhelming, reveals funny at first but then given nothing to do as the action tries to work itself out and everyone is apparently doing their respective stage theatrical action course dissertations as stage fighting is at an all time high. Don't expect choreography, or well done shots or even something to get you into an action scene involving people. It's really just a point of a camera and the actors trying their best to sell it.

It's a film that ebbs and flows from beginning to end. Sometimes the jokes work, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the characters are interesting, sometimes they are just annoying. Sometimes the action is creative, other (most) times it's just a mess. At it's core, though, the film is meant to be a comedy so in terms of that, I have to be the most critical. Perhaps it's due to the inexperience of the writers and the director, or the massive number of people involved with the production behind the camera, or the actors very, very, very inexperienced, but it's completely disorienting in how it works so strongly one moment, then so awful the next. When it hits that satirical sweet spot, such as poking fun at North Korea or a brief nod toe Dr. Strangelove, it's wonderful. When it involves character dialogue and interacting, it's usually pretty bad - as though the scene was playing well as they shot it, but then something just didn't work once they started putting it together.

The Ugly: This is a movie that knows what it is, and tries to just make it all work. It's admirable in that respect. In fact, I'd say, despite the many flaws, there's more creativity and affection for the material going on in this schlocky, satirical b-movie than most of what comes out of Hollywood these days.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Ironclad

In 13th-century England, a small group of Knights Templar fight to defend Rochester Castle against the tyrannical King John.

The Good: Bloody and brutal and a bit haphazard is the way Ironclad approaches its content. It's a violent period piece but doesn't try to pretend to be more than that. In a way, it's a bit refreshing in how unassuming it really is. The sets are stark, violence fast and characters shallow but distinct. Though this guerrilla-style battle epic brings many problems with it, it's still well made enough and with just enough good performances alongside its series of action set pieces to be a fun, entertaining picture. Is it as well crafted as a Kingdom of Heaven or as memorable as the recent 13 Assassins? No. Truth is, it's a film that will likely be quickly forgotten, but it's a tight, brisk and knowingly shallow action flick that will find its value in that regard.

The Bad: At the same time, Ironclad is a movie that really could have been so much more. It could have been better shot, put more emphasis in character and have a story more than "this is a castle, we must defend it." It's bare-bones in many regards, my saying it could have been "so much more" a reaction to the quality of the foundation yet with no building built upon it. Even though that will make for some light (though very bloody) entertainment, it's not a film that's going to leave an impression when it's all said and done. It's staged well enough, but it's rough in nearly every aspect. It has personality galore, but it has a hollow soul.

I've noted many times it's a bloody film. It's damn bloody, and it's almost too bloody because the thing seems so focused on merely focusing on the violence and not much else. Especially in the downtime between raids and fights with rather forced "character development" that doesn't add much to any of the characters. They're one-dimensional personalities, and when the film takes them on like that, they're much better for it. It begins to wear itself thin at the half-way point when you realize it's not going to offer much else, and it's already feeling a tad long for what it wants to be.

The Ugly: There's so little meat to Ironclad, that there's really very little to write about it. It's popcorn entertainment for fans of the genre, has a little more going for it than the likes of King Arthur or The Eagle, but far less impressive than other low-budget entertainment like Black Death or even Neil Marshall's Centurion. It's a middle-of-the-road film if I've ever seen one, good for a Saturday Matinee but not much else.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


It Follows

A young woman is followed by an unknown supernatural force after getting involved in a sexual encounter.

The Good: Don't assume It Follows is some weird creature-feature about a strange demon-type-thing that follows a person who gets the curse after having sex with someone with the curse. That's kind of the plot, yes, but that's not the method of It Follows as it is far smarter, patient and minimalist than a simple "scary creature" story would have you believe.

It Follows takes a lot of cues from horror and genre films, notably of the 1980s with teen-groups fighting monsters and the straightforward and beautifully lit/shot/set up style of a John Carpenter film - playing with corners and dark shadows more than trying to send out some evil thing to jump out and scare you. It Follows is psychological and willing to respect its audience by not having it all spelled out and explained past its setup.

It's a film that's in the present and in the now, meaning it could easily have become something where more is explained and detailed about a backstory or trying to figure out what it is rather than just getting on with it. It's a thing. It's going to follow you. If it touches you, you die. Simple. Lovely. Beautiful. All presented with a restrained approach that is probably going to be lost on many mainstream audiences (see also: last year's Babadook).

The Bad: It Follows is a moody and atmospheric film more than it is frightening. I personally love a sense of dread and constant tension more than I do a guy with a machete or a vampire jumping out at you. It Follows is about a group of kids and its entire concept feels incredibly earned as its incredibly clever in presenting it. However...

...it can't entirely find its footing on the one thing it absolutely needs: characters. While we certainly get to know at least a couple of them, none feel particularly interesting or people that we really want to spend quality time with. It feels sloppy and kind of restrained for its own good: it's great for tense moments, not particular great when the characters are just sitting/laying around not doing anything (which happens quite a lot) and we never once get a feel for who they are.

Perhaps more was put into the style of the movie more than trying to develop its story further, because it feels like it deserves to have more explored about the characters. But other than "he actually likes her and they used to be friends" there's not a line I can write that could tell you who any of them actually are.

The Ugly: The movie is set in the 80s...or is it? There is one little thing in the movie that doesn't fit and it becomes incredibly distracting. If it were just in one scene it would be easy to ignore, but it's not only prominent in the movie but becomes synonymous with a character. It also adds nothing, so why put it in there? It easily takes you out of the movie as you sit there and constantly wonder what that device is, how it works and where it all fits in not to mention the larger questions of "ok...when is all this taking place?"

Final Rating: 4 out of 5

It's Complicated

During his son's college graduation, Jane hooks up with her ex-husband, Jake, who's married to a younger woman. As if being your ex's mistress isn't tough enough, Jane also finds herself drawn to Adam, a smitten architect.

The Good: Genuinely, if not heartwarmingly, funny with a significant reminder on three things: Meryl Streep will always be fantastic, Alec Baldwin is an incredibly charming actor and Steve Martin has a vivid range (here showing significant restraint and class). Nancy Meyer’s films (either written or directed by) always have a certain quality to them that sets them apart from your typical romantic comedy schlock so often seen yet still retains the broad-comedy sensibilities in that a good amount of people will like them. The characters feel genuine, notably the male leads aren’t belittled despite these being “chick flicks” and they’re always honest when it comes to relationships. A perfect example is the ending of this film, don’t worry I won’t spoil it, that ends as classy and down to earth as you can expect from her. This is the film that Something’s Gotta Give strived to be, and I think she perfected it with a better script and characters.

The Bad: There's no denying this is very much a "fantasy" for women. A big, beautiful home, lots of girl talk and the characters are overall pretty shallow despite being entertaining. It doesn't fall into the conventions of romantic comedy begrudging, but it still doesn't feel quite like a dose or reality that people can fully relate to. While I applaud the ending itself, there are moments in the final third of the film that are eye-rollingly awful if not annoying. It tosses various scenes into a pot and hopes something comes out on the other end. I also get the impression that more could have been done with the kids, notably John Krazinsky who is so good with comedic timing and it's wasted in only a few brief scenes and his character as underused as they come.

The Ugly:
At least he’s self-deprecating about it in this movie, but still....Alec sure is fat.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


J. Edgar

As the face of law enforcement in America for almost 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover was feared and admired, reviled and revered. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life. 

The Good: It looks good, has a great sense of place and is no doubt intriguing, but J. Edgar is a film that was probably better on paper than it is in execution. There's a lot of good in the film, but some excruciatingly bad elements as well that overshadow everything and is a misfire in every sense of the word.

J. Edgar is able to not sensationalize the man, though, and that's certainly to its credit. It plays it pretty straight and balanced as we trace his life, as shallow of a trace it may be. It plays well to the myth of J. Edgar too, the myth being as integral to the story in this film as the actual facts themselves. It attempts to blur the lines and build up the idea of us not always getting the clear picture, but even J. Edgar himself falling into his delusions of his own self-importance. This is probably the film's greatest attribute, but the list of negative points can't be overlooked.

The Bad: The life is interesting, but J. Edgar isn't necessarily entertaining thanks to an unfocused script that wanders and lacks poignancy. There's no denying that it's an intriguing life to put on film, but it's so matter-of-fact and uninspired about it; as though it's simply reading from a history book (a book actually being the framing device in the film) rather than trying to humanize or bring any sense of emotion and passion to it all. The acting is often over the top if not outright hammy, the dialogue stilted and far too theatrical and the narrative seemingly doesn't have a point that it wishes to express or a message to deliver. J. Edgar is a well directed laundry list biopic that has to be seen as one of Clint Eastwood's weaker efforts.

The Ugly: J. Edgar has some of the worst make up effects I've seen in a major studio production in a long while. The issue was not only needing to age Leonardo DiCaprio, but also to make him look like the older J. Edgar Hoover at the same time (and the same goes for other characters that age as well). You end up looking at a man wearing a cheap mask and something that draws attention to itself - a major flaw for any make up in any film. If you notice it, then it didn't do a very good job.

An audience shouldn't have to say "well, if the lighting is right it looks pretty good, but in that other scene it looks awful." The makeup draws far too much attention to itself, taking any person out of the movie entirely as probably the singular worst thing about the film as a whole.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Jack the Giant Slayer

The ancient war between humans and a race of giants is reignited when Jack, a young farmhand fighting for a kingdom and the love of a princess, opens a gateway between the two worlds.

The Good: Momentum. If there's anything that Jack the Giant Slayer gets right, and that's very little, it's that it never really "drags." It has some slow parts, but they're overall nice little character moments, but the majority is a constant desire to be full of adventure and tense situations. LIke being wrapped in dough and about to be baked by a giant. That's silly, but it's not boring.

Jack the Giant Slayer isn't boring. That's another good thing you can say about it. Not being boring itself is a good thing, even though the reason behind you not being bored can be either good or bad (mostly bad). It carries that sense of energy and always-moving-on well. That's probably there to hide the bad parts…bad parts become all the more apparent if you're bored.

The Bad: Tone. What is that, you may ask? "Tone" is the attitude towards the content of the film. Most are very straightforward, usually comedies, dramas and horror movies are pretty much as you expect them. For larger films, especially action, tone can go all over the place and in any direction. It's up to the script and a good director to keep it consistent. Jack the Giant Slayer is not consistent.

Sometimes the film is light, fun if not sweet and full of classic sense of "adventure." It's at its best when it's trying to be like a Robin Hood or a Treasure Island, with just enough bits of humor to not be boring along the way. Then it puts those against people left and right getting crushed, ripped in half and have their heads chewed off. In fact, one main character is eaten alive by our giants and its done in such a matter-of-fact way that the shock isn't so much that he's eaten, it's that the film doesn't seem to really care. Off screen or not, it's little bits just like that spotted throughout the film that never seems to really mesh with the classic fairy-tale adventure it's otherwise trying to tell. Sometimes a one-liner of sight-gag will follow something rather brutal and that brings out this lack of consistency even more.

Jack the Giant Slayer really has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be and the tone reflects that. It might have some inventive adventurous moments, it might even do a decent enough job of meshing the classic Jack and the Beanstalk tale with Jack the Giant Killer, a completely different fairy tale. It even has some good little performances, yet there's a strange sense of misdirection throughout it. It never settles on one thing, and you never settle in as a viewer. The detachment of the characters, the sense of just going through the motions of a plot and the complete lack of consistent tone just adds to the sensation that you really don't want to be there watching it.

The Ugly: The film went through numerous rewrites, has so many writers attached and so many producers on the thing, that it coming out a sloppy mess of a film is no surprise. It's also no surprise that Bryan Singer couldn't reign all that in as most of the issues were probably out of his hands resulting in a completely mediocre mess. Kind of like a bad basket of

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Jack Reacher

A homicide investigator digs deeper into a case involving a trained military sniper who shot five random victims.

The Good: Though it takes few risks, Jack Reacher is a nice throwback thriller with a slight touch of solid action along the way to keep your blood pumping. It's a solid, well made and, most surprsiginlgy, very grounded piece of filmmaking with practical stunts and a strong emphasis on realism. Fights are fast, to the point, far from elaborate but intense, car chases are brisk and well paced with an intentional nod to classic car chases from the 60s and 70s (he is driving a classic muscle car, after all).

Cruise, as always, is 100% committed to his role and his character. This is a guy who never "sleepwalks" through a role. Considering the rather basic and unimaginative script, he easily could have here. But he gives it all energy and effort, as does director Christopher McQuarrie, show showcased much of this energy-meet-grounded realism approach in his previous, cult-followed film The Way of the Gun. Though it's not as too-the-point in terms of its intentions like that film, Jack Reacher is a solid little flick that's a good way to pass a couple of hours with an ever-dedicated Tom Cruise.

The Bad: A bland and uninspired story drags the entire film down to the depths of near-mediocrity. It has some bits and pieces that might make up for a good plot, but it never really makes an impact. Certain characters seem shoehorned in, others simply aren't explained all that well, much less the motivation behind everything and everyone (including Reacher himself). It never tries to bring all that together and it just settles for a very basic, not-all-taht-well-explained story that I had to read a summarization on afterwards because a lot of it was unclear. Turns out I didn't get a lot of answers because I don't think anyone really knows - especially by the film's end when we keep yearning for answers but the film never gives any. It's not that it isn't entertaining, but I think it just doesn't want you to ask too many  questions and tends to think it's a bit smarter than it is.

I suppose having a near-dozen producers on the film might have had something to do that. All with their own input, own script notes, own "take" on what the film and story should be. Then it just never came together and probably too much for McQuarrie to take on. I know I'm completely speculating, but there's too many cooks and the chef can't wrangle them all in - a common practice with a movie like this. Hell, I bet there's a better version of this movie floating around out there somewhere. Speaking of which...

This movie needed, and I'd say deserved, a harder-edge to it. It's a solid, gritty PG-13 flick, but everything about it screams out the desire to take that extra step.  Like it wants to, but then someone hits the "cut" button on the AVID machine and lets a few scenes get shorter and a few words get dropped. I has the sense that it wishes to be a bit more violent and show a bit more violence, have more bite to the dialogue (especially when Cruise is being snarky, he just never goes that extra bit). Despite it being well-done visually and at least keeps the muddled plot moving forward, the film lacks that punch that it seems constantly trying to swing for. Insetad, it settles for being conventional. If it wanted to stay basic and straightforward, a lll the more reason to have that extra push in violence and style. But it doesn't bother - staying content with being just a straightforward action thriller: entertaining in spurts, but far from something that sets out to make a name for itself.

The Ugly: I suppose with a title like "Jack Reacher" and all the basic/generalness it brings with it, the fact the film settles for being conventional shouldn't be all that surpassing. Why they nixed the title of the book, "One Shot," confounds me a bit. Not that it's a great title either, but at least it doesn't have sound of just settling with a generic name.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

The Good: Solid acting and cinematography, not to mention a great sense of pace, make Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit an entertaining, though ultimately shallow, thriller.

When Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit plays itself as a thriller, it is strong. It has great pace in those scenes, it has solid acting and a villain that can compel you with just a look. The problem is, there’s not a whole lot of scenes like that. There’s just exposition, random action and stern looks. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit spends more time establishing than actually doing, but when it is actually doing something it is kind of entertaining.

Actors play their roles well, though given very little to actually do outside of Kenneth Branagh, who also handles the directing well despite a haphazard script. Well shot and well paced, the film moves nicely through its plot points and backstory but unfortunately by the time it actually gets going anywhere, it’s already over.

The Bad: There's a chunk of something missing in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, one of the worst titles for a movie I’ve seen in a long while from a studio. I'm not sure where, but either they bypassed a second act or just decided to end it all before a third act appeared. The movie is moving along until you realize that...well that was it. It's as though it's building to something with all that groundwork and exposition but that something ends up already happening and you didn't even notice. It's over. Done. You double check your watch...yeah, that's it.

To its credit, the two hours flew by. That's usually a sign of good pacing, but once its done and you look back in hindsight, it's as though the entire film is incomplete. Loose plot threads feel unresolved, characters feel completely underdeveloped because you're waiting for something more to happen with them - fully expecting it - then it never occurs. Roll credits.

That's when you realize that it was all just a tepid attempt of a thriller. As good as it could be at times, the feeling of being underdeveloped and unresolved brings out the other flaws and you begin asking questions in logic. A supposedly intense break-in to a building feels odd considering Jack is the least important person in it, forced "cell phone outtage" ends up just forced action sequences to have Jack do something relevant, another forced scene of Jack actually doing what he does best: analyzing stuff because, believe it or not, he's not supposed to be an operative and the biggest of all is the shoehorning of Keira Knightley into relevancy until the film drops her completely.

Yes, and that last bit is what intrigues me. Jack Ryan's character in the movie isn't really meant to be a spy and is also trying to balance things with his fiancé, but the film never settles on any of this. It all just kind of “happens” and suddenly Ryan is the best at what he does and any issues with his significant other is resolved. We assume, at least. And for a movie like this, we really shouldn’t be assuming anything, but a jumbled script leaves us scratching our heads and eventually disappointed in how underachieving the entire thing is.

The Ugly: There are scenes here that work, and that are better than the movie they end up being in. A very uncomfortable dinner and conversation is more intense than the "A" story that's we're supposed to be excited about.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is the name of a flight attendant who gets caught smuggling her boss' gun money on the airline she works for. Luckily for her, the Fed Ray Nicolet and the LA Cop Mark Dargus decide to team up in order to arrest the arms dealer she works for, whose name they don't even know. Here's when she has to choose one way: tell Nicolet and Dargus about Ordell Robbie (the arms dealer) and get her freedom -except that if Ordell suspects you're talking about him, you're dead- or keep her mouth shut and do some time. That's when she meets Max Cherry -her bail bondsman-, a late fifties, recently separated, burnt-out man, who falls in love with her. Then Jackie comes up with a plan to play the Feds off against Ordell and the guys he works with -Louis Gara and Melanie Ralston, among others- and walk off with their money. But she needs Max's help. No one is going to stand in the way of his million dollar payoff...

The Good: A refined and subdued sense of directing shows a maturity of a young and ambitious filmmaker, even if it costs the film his usual sense of energy and ambition. Pam Grier is fantastic and strong and head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, which are sadly rather forgettable. It's a fantastic script, albeit it a slow-moving one, with the trademarked wit and pinache of Tarantino's ability to make anything sound interesting and bring flare to mundane dialogue.

The Bad: One thing we’ve seen from his previous two films from Tarantino is that he really knows how to create great characters. They’re usually fun and we end up liking them despite their profession of choice. In Jackie Brown, however, we’re given an interesting group, but none that we can really fall in love with, appreciate, understand, and really want to spend any more time with than the film’s runtime. In other words, you just don’t really care. Despite the fantastic script, really one of Tarantino’s best, the characters simply don’t shine through, despite their well-defined personalities and casting, as he’s been able to do in every one of his other films. Perhaps it’s more due to the sluggish story which takes so much energy out of the entire film, and therefore characters, that contributed to the overall underwhelming end product.

The Ugly: Jackie Brown reminds us that Michael Keaton needs to do more work. The man is a fantastic actor and even at this film's release was barely in anything.
 
Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


James and the Giant Peach

James' happy life at the English seaside is rudely ended when his parents are killed by a rhinoceros and he goes to live with his two horrid aunts. Daringly saving the life of a spider he comes into possession of magic boiled crocodile tongues, after which an enormous peach starts to grow in the garden. Venturing inside he meets not only the spider but a number of new friends including a ladybug and a centipede who help him with his plan to try and get to New York.

The Good: Imaginative and original, if not outright beautiful down to the fine details, James and the Giant Peach is a wondrous visual experience. It's personalities leap by both written design and astounding animated vivaciousness. It was animator/director Henry Selick’s follow up to his astounding A Nightmare Before Christmas, and though it doesn’t quite reach the polish and heights of that masterpiece, it certainly is every bit as fresh and unique, not to mention a faithful adaptation of a story that is certainly hard to faithfully adapt into any format.

There’s not so much character “development” or arcs here as much as it is character “interaction.” The plot is simple and that’s all that it needs, but the characters allow the journey to be worth the trip with some distinct and wonderful personalities and dialogue banter along the way. Thanks to that, while some elements may be forgettable our “friends” on this giant flying peach certainly are not.

The Bad: James and the Giant Peach is a film full of issues. While many are easy to simply cast off thanks to the beautiful animation and fantastic artistic design, some tend to stay with it more than they are welcome. At its heart it's a musical however the musical numbers just don't quite have an interesting arrangement to them. The scenes themselves look marvelous, even borderline surreal and certainly fantastical as they should be, but the songs themselves? It's a combination of rather generic form and function combined with a complete lack of flow with the story. They often state the obvious, this is Randy Newman so that's no surprise, and often will work against the enjoyment of the film than for it. You can sense the buildup to a song as the story will sometimes go out of its way to ensure there's one implemented, far from the seamless and relevant/poignant tunes Selick was able to implement in A Nightmare Before Christmas.

The Ugly: I absolutely love the live action pieces of  the film, but they seem to go on a bit too long and end up taking up a good portion of an already short film. In a way, James and the Giant Peach is a short animated film padded with bookend live action sequences to try and get it to a reasonable length. It gives this impression of a thrown-together effort, though that was certainly not the intention.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Jason X

Jason Voorhees returns with a new look, a new machete, and his same murderous attitude as he is awakened on a spaceship in the 25th century.

The Good: Nothing. I mean absolutely nothing.

Ok, the very infamous death that involves a lot of cold. But that’s it.

And sleeping bags. Nice homage at least.

The Bad: That’s saying something, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like the Friday the 13th films are setting a high bar or some wonderfully made pieces of filmmaking. But even for a Friday the 13th film, Jason X is appallingly bad. It makes the previous film look genius by comparison (hell, at least the previous film had a slight ounce of originality and creativity to it and really one you can say was what it was). Jason X is the lowest point of a storied film franchise and pretty much killed that series (to only be failed again by being poorly rebooted a few years later).

It’s a film where you are at a loss for words on how to describe how bad it is. Even on a conceptual form it makes you wonder who thought putting Jason Voorhees in space was a good idea. Yet, you can still give something that goofy the benefit of the doubt if it’s at least done well....here it is absolutely not. In some cases of this franchise, you can even get into it if it’s a little funny or goofy or, maybe, doesn’t look to take itself too seriously. Jason X manages to burn that bridge at well. It’s a stupid concept poorly done that takes itself way, way too seriously. Of course the irony is you can actually laugh during those overdone moments where it takes itself way, way too seriously. That wasn’t intentional, of course.

Now when I say poorly done, I don’t mean that by horror movie standards. I mean that by basic filmmaking standards. You honestly can’t follow a single thing that is happening, especially during an overly long point of the film where soldiers are being picked off one by one in, what I guess, is a ship’s bowels but looks more like a basement of some office building. You have no sense of place or a line to follow: scenes just randomly happen as people are killed one by one. Still, even that is something to sit and say “well, that’s what a slasher movie is.” But you can’t see what’s happening half the time and the other half you’re scratching your head trying to get your bearings in the aforementioned random-scene generator.

For a series of films that have always been cheesy and pretty dumb, for me to sit and say “Christ...this is just bad” means it just didn’t get it. And this flick just didn’t get it. It’s really the only Friday the 13th series (ok, Part Nine perhaps as well) that I can say I honestly hated. I know what this series is about and enjoy the movies what they are...but this thing just doesn’t know what it is.

The Ugly: A movie that seemed to actually “get” what it was wanting to do was Jason versus Freddy, but that, sadly, didn’t included Kane Hodder who is probably the most popular “Jason” of the Friday the 13th series. Instead, he goes out with Jason X. Sorry, Kane. But at least you did Hatchet to make up for it.

Final Rating: 0.5 out of 5


Jason and the Argonauts

Jason has been prophesied to take the throne of Thessaly. When he saves Pelias from drowning, but does not recognize him as the man who had earlier killed his father, Pelias tells Jason to travel to Colchis to find the Golden Fleece. Jason follows his advice and assembles a sailing crew of the finest men in Greece, including Hercules. They are under the protection of Hera, queen of the gods. Their voyage is replete with battles against harpies, a giant bronze Talos, a hydra, and an animated skeleton army, all brought to life by the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen.

The Good: Jason and the Argonauts is a near masterpiece. I only say "near" because it has a few elements that don't quite work, but I wouldn't argue with someone if they called it a perfect film at the same time. I want it to be a perfect film more than I want to explain why it's not. While I probably don't need to say much more than that, I suppose I need to force myself to despite the fact that more has been said about Jason and the Argonauts than just about most other movies from Citizen Kane to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story is a fable, as most Harryhausen films tend to be, and is structured so there are two things we get out of it (and, really, the same structure man special-effects and adventure movies are today). Have interesting characters that are likable and set up your story to take in the awe and wonder of the effects. The depth and breadth of the story isn't as important as simply telling it and keeping the characters enjoyable, which it always does, but it manages to always be moving forward and staying interesting. From set piece to set piece and effect to effect. More importantly, though, because this isn't always the case with Harryhausen pictures, is that Jason and the other characters are people you want to go on this journey with. There are moments of comedy, drama and, naturally, action and it all works because we find ourselves really liking the people we're on the journey with in the first place.

The Bad: As is often the case with a movie like this, the acting isn't quite up to par to the on-screen enjoyment of the action and effects. It is what it is, but it could always be much more (and for a Harryhausen film, wouldn't be until Clash of the Titans in terms of casting). These types of films were often relegated to needing to use relative unknowns because most people viewed these movies merely as Saturday matinée flicks for teenagers and not much else. Their inexperienced shows, though you can't deny there's at least a charismatic effort this time around as Jason is far more enjoyable a character than Sinbad or Gulliver (both played by Kerwin Matthews). Only until well after their time was what they brought appreciated: groundbreaking effects, streamlined storytelling and just a lot of fun.

The Ugly: I still laugh at the Poseidon scene. There's just something about a half-naked old man slowly emerging from the waters and flexing his muscles that gets me.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Jaws

In the beautiful quaint beach resort of Amity Island, something hideous, something so deliciously evil has vanquished the tranquility and shattered the peace. First, it violently took the life of a young girl, leaving her mangled remains rotting on the beach, her echoed screams cursing the night skies. Next, it moved its attention to the children, ripping and tearing as blood turned the calm waters red. Then, just when they thought it was safe to go back in the water, it struck again, mercilessly rampaging in the estuary and attacking the piers where the fisherman unknowingly sat waiting for a catch. Now, something must be done, before it returns to feed. With the Amity tourist board and town Mayor Larry Vaugn determined to keep the beaches open for the Summer Season, its up to Police Chief Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper and colorful fisherman Quint to hunt down the 200 Pound White Death and put an end to the bloodshed.

The Good: Who doesn’t like Jaws? It’s a movie that stimulates every sense you have. It has you jumping out of your seat, when you’re not on the edge of it, and thoroughly enjoying the subtle humor and sense of adventure it has on top of it. The characters, though, are what make the film, even more than the shark itself.  Roy Scheider perfectly portrays the family man/police chief, Brody, of our adventure. He’s purely likable. Richard Dreyfuss, too, plays the sometimes annoying but always interesting Brody-his nasally voice still imitated to this day. It’s Robert Shaw’s Quint that steals the show, though. Shaw was already considered one of the finest characters actors to live and Quint, one of his final roles before his untimely death, is probably his most infamous. So lost in his role, and so captivated are we by it, we can never imagine it as a rather depressed British man who nearly turned down the role because he didn’t like the title. (Shaw’s life is actually rather tragic I would suggest looking him up when you get the chance). Overtime our heroes, as the story is more about them than just being about a shark, build a camaraderie. They are three different men with the same goal and that brings them together to where they sing, compare scars and tell stories of their lives. It’s almost as though they are stuck in a foxhole in World War II, only it’s a boat alone at sea. Jaws is impeccably paced, flawless in that regard, and it's tension at its best with perfectly designed shots and the infamous John Williams score. It’s build up and reveal after build up and reveal showcasing mass paranoia and fear and never becomes unreal in doing so. In fact, it all appears very real: the people, the place, even the whispers of shark which you never see until the very end. That is how you make a movie….and maybe have people “afraid to go in the water” as well….or at the very least buy bigger boats.

The Bad:
How can anyone be critical of Jaws? It’s a timeless classic that’s still effective today across the board. Only until we see other films try to copy Jaws (it’s sequels most notably) do we finally see how perfect of a film Jaws is. Jaws is simply one of the greatest thrillers ever made. It’s as suspenseful and wonderfully (even gleefully) paced as a Hitchcock film,  as scary as anything John Carpenter dishes out, as universally appealing as a Pixar movie and has as much depth, that even Kubrick would be fond of (which I won’t get into here, but keep in mind that the shark isn’t a monster, it’s just a shark which brings up numerous ideas of man v. nature)

The Ugly: The only complaint any have had, other than some douche bag for the LA Times back in 1975, is the reveal of the shark towards the in, notably when it “jumps” onto the ship. Yeah….it’s not the most convincing thing.

Final Rating:
5 out of 5


Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Dispatched from his basement room on an errand for his mother, slacker Jeff might discover his destiny (finally) when he spends the day with his brother as he tracks his possibly adulterous wife. 

The Good: What drives Jeff, Who Lives at Home is dialogue. More specifically, conversation. That's something the filmmakers, the Duplass brothers, have shown a affection for for the past few films. It's interactions and subtlety of discussion and talking that feels honest and true and, as a result of all that, brings comedy outward. Especially if it's handled by capable comedic actors in Ed Helms and Jason Siegel.

Helms plays a man on an edge, not sure where he should jump off from only that he needs to jump off. Siegel is the Lebowski of it all, the antithesis of everything Helms is in attitude, expression, dialogue and purpose in life. It's a simple plot not told completely simply, and plays with the idea of purposes in life, and whether or not there should be a life purpose in the first place. It's small, but can be profound at times in how it details a bigger picture through the smaller stories and in a world that feels honest and real. Like the dialogue and conversation, everything and everyone feels set and comfortable as though it's been there for decades and will be there for decades after we stop viewing them for the few hours we do. With a sense of being poignant without being pretentious, and having a great cast including Helms and Siegel, Susan Sarandon and a small but very important character played by Judy Greer, we have a film that knows how to put the right pieces in the right place and get the most out of its humble roots.

The Bad: For some reason, and for the life of me I can't figure out why, the director decided to take a kind-of documentary approach to the style. Handheld, lots of "fixing" shots and fast zooms. Think The Office, only this isn't The Office which has a reason to do that (as in, it's meant to be a documentary about an office). Here, all those same techniques are chosen from the beginning and it's immediately off putting. It screams "trying too hard" because it will quickly zoom in to a face to get a reaction after somebody says something odd or awkward. It doesn't do this once in a while…it does it constantly in every single scene. In one scene, I counted these "quick shifts" numbered up to twelve. It was just a simple dialogue scene between two characters, but the camera wouldn't stand still for more than five seconds. Shaky cam I could handle, some guy pressing "zoom" every ten seconds I can't. Jeff, Who Lives at Home might have a good story and funny jokes, but it's hard to really notice when you're distracted by an obnoxious camera from the very first frame all the way to the end.

I can't recall the last time I became so annoyed by the use of the camera in a film. It's not about preference, it's simply about the odd choice to do it in a film that doesn't require it. Most films that utilize fit the film and style of the story. A shaky-cam is perfect for movies that call for it, like an action film and for mockumentaries to use pans and zooms all over the place as though someone is shooting and trying to capture the situation. For a 90 minute movie that just does it for the sake of doing it, it becomes its own villain -- drawing attention to itself as though to say "look! Look at this! It's funny!"

But, if you're looking for something a bit more constructive than merely the aesthetic choice of a film, I would have to argue that I had a hard time liking any character in this film. Well, Jeff is cool, if anything because he's a laid-back kind of guy that fits Jason Segal perfectly, but the screechy annoyances of every other character involved, the completely lack of relevance of Susan Sarandon to even be in the film, the argumentative nature of seemingly every scene just wears thin after an hour, if not sooner.

Of course, that is until it reaches a wonderful third act and makes up for it all. It's just the path there is so dull.

The Ugly: Actually, I take that back, I can recall the last movie that did that. Cyrus. Which just happens to be written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass as well. It's unfortunate, these filmmakers are solid writers and get some great performances out of their actors. Unfortunately their style of directing simply doesn't make sense to the film.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Jennfier's Body

Nerdy, reserved bookworm Needy and arrogant, conceited cheerleader Jennifer are best friends, though they share little in common. They share even less in common when Jennifer mysteriously gains an appetite for human blood after a disastrous fire at a local bar. As Needy's male classmates are steadily killed off in gruesome attacks, the young girl must uncover the truth behind her friend's transformation and find a way to stop the bloodthirsty rampage before it reaches her own boyfriend Chip.

The Good: Nice and bloody, good gore effects. Nifty death scenes.

Oh, and the fact it ended.

The Bad: I asked myself about ten or fifteen minutes into Jennifer's Body whether or not I'm actually supposed to loathe every character in the film or if someone is going to swoop in and really make me like and care for another person. Well, Amanda Seyfried tries and at least gives an effort, but I simply can't get over the fact that there's no arc here to any characters yet, oddly, it likes to present itself as there is.  Megan Fox's Jennifer is a horrible person, so I found myself completely uncaring as she goes through her "changes" and utterly aghast at the decision of the director to treat every scene like it's a music video as though it's trying to tell me how cool it is by throwing in some nifty indie chart toppers. Everything is disconnected here. There's this self-assuring belief the film presents that everyone is "together" because the script likes to use the word "we" every five minutes with Seyfried's voiceover narrating everything. I never quite understood this considering nobody is really shown as a unit of friends, barely acquaintances actually, and are completely dispassionate and oblivious to each other even when they're in the same room. There's no connection between this so called close town, not even a close connection to any characters in the same room makes me wonder why the narration has to say it every five minutes as though there is - maybe the narration was made for a completely different film and the accidentally put it in this one. Then you have the fact it can't even tell a story, has completely pointless scenes and nothing, and I mean nothing, makes any sense at all...including the big "why" as it related to everything that is happening.

I couldn't help but think of the fantastic film Ginger Snaps, which Jennifer's Body shares many plot elements and themes from, and what it was about that movie that made it all work. Answer: it didn't try and shove its self-importance down our throats. In other words, it didn't have a script by Diablo Cody.  Cody's utterly pretentious, so-called witty dialogue, which might have worked in Juno, does nothing but come across as trite garbage with no purpose other than to try and outwit itself. If you know you're attempting to sound "smart," you probably aren't doing it as well as you think you are. It's not scary. It's not funny. It's not intelligent. It's not satirical. It tries to do these things but absolutely fails completely. Jennifer's Body is not only a bad film, it's an insultingly bad film that has you begging to the demons that created it to take it back to the ninth circle of hell and cast it into the lake of fire.

The Ugly: Is it worth sitting through the awfulness that is Jennifer's Body to see Megan Fox mug and pose for the camera in various skimpy outfits? .... Yes.

Final Rating: 1 out of 5


Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Ten years after the end of World War II; anti-terror policeman Fuse gets suspended from service after the suicide by self-detonation of a young terrorist girl during an operation, as he failed to shoot her in time. When he tries to gather some information about her, he meets her sister and
befriends with her. Both get dragged into the rivalries between the administration of the police and the counter terrorism commando unit 'Jin Roh' (human wolves).
 

The Good: A unique take on a classic fairy tale. It has its moments of grim beauty, with gorgeous animation (from the animator to Ghost in the Shell) bringing to life a dystopian world where political strife is the norm. Then again, what dystopian would doesn't have that issue? It's story is intended to parallel that of Little Red Riding Hood and it sees it through to the end. While it might try a little too hard to showcase that parallel, the quiet tone and relaxed, natural nature of its storytelling allows us to become quickly involved in its world and characters, occasionally broken up by an action sequence but not dependent on it.  
 
The Bad: Despite the film's best efforts to give us some compelling characters to feel for, there's little in terms of it. Nobody is particulary appealing, although some are interesting you won't "feel" what you probably should be feeling for them. The film is wanting to sell it to you, but it's simply hard to buy despite a few solid moments towards the end. There's alsoone other major factor that is hard for me to describe without giving the film away. I'll simply say that for most of it, we "see" what a character is, yet apparently it's not entirely the truth and it's all tossed aside as though it didn't happen and without explanation. I'll leave it at that, but this is a film that is better if you don't think too much on it. Unfortunately, it's also a movie that implies it wants you to think on it which is why some problems eventually arise, that quiet tone being the reason.

The Ugly: This movie loves its guns, what's interesting is that they spend quite a lot of time showing bullets just ripping people to shreds. I guess the Jin Roh want to be better safe than sorry. 100 bullets per body should do it.
 
Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Jiro Dreams of Sushi

A documentary on 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, his business in the basement of a Tokyo office building, and his relationship with his son and eventual heir, Yoshikazu.

The Film: I hate reviewing documentaries. There's really no good or bad documentaries, it's kind of dependent on whether or not you find the subject interesting enough to want to learn about it and explore aspects of it through film. Here it's about a Sushi chef master. There's no big revelations here, nothing that will be completely unexpected. It's there to inform you and have you learn about this man and this aspect of cuisine in Japan. As long as a documentary keeps you informed without boring you, then it pretty much does its job.

There are some documentaries that might surprise you. For example, Winnebago Man was about the angry Winnebago salesman that had a viral video. It did manage to really capture the fact he's a man that shuns others, and kind of has a temper.  It's not surprising it went that direction, but is surprising in that it made you feel a little connected to him. Jiro Dreams of Sushi does the same by taking a very unassuming man and just letting us get to know him. Again, not surprising because his name is right there in the title, but you feel connected tot him, his past and the journey he's gone on.

So how do you score this? Well, any critic will tell you numbers are trivial. So I'm not going to. Not on a documentary, because trying to put a number next to something that's entirely dependent on whether for not you as an audience find the subject it's dealing with and exploring interesting is pointless.

Well, it's well made. Well shot. Interesting. But above all else, I personally love sushi. I love eating it, and learning about it was that much more fascinating to me than a documentary about the burrito (and I love burritos too…but sushi is an art). With Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you get exactly what you want. We learn about what sushi means to Japan. We learn about Jiro and his life and family. We learn about work ethic. Dedication. Craft. We learn about the process of making great sushi. That's it: all pretty straightforward stuff, and I personally find it all incredibly interesting therefore I find the film incredibly good. If you aren't interested in Sushi or Japan, this probably won't change that and you'll probably be apathetic to it.

The Ugly: I think I've done a few documentaries in the past. Now that I think back, I scored those…but because I loved them. I sought out those docs because I found the subject interesting…so of course I'm going to give it a good score. I would do the same for Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but at the end of the day, if you're interested in Sushi…you'll love this movie.

Final Rating: If you like sushi, see it. If you like Japan and that culture, see it. If you're not interested, then you're probably not interested in this documentary.


Joe

An ex-con, who is the unlikeliest of role models, meets a 15-year-old boy and is faced with the choice of redemption or ruin.

The Good: Nicolas Cage is an enigma. He’s a guy that can deliver in one movie, then be completely over-the-top and weird the next go around. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all dependent on the director who can or can’t wrangle him in, because when he can deliver, he really does. Thankfully, Joe is just that and director David Gordon Green knows how to approach giving us restrained, vulnerable and flawed characters by directing the hell out of his actors. Sure, he may be spotty at times, but when it’s a story like this with characters like these, the man knows what he’s doing.

Cage gives one of his finest performances in years as Joe, a man haunted by past regrets and has a chip on his shoulder. There’s something underneath Joe that Cage brings out, yet doesn’t bring out: as though it’s a pot just waiting to boil over. You sense it, you see flashed of it, and when it does Joe seems almost another man - less caring, more callous, certainly calculating. In a film about fathers and sons, his performance feels perfectly tailored as both the dominant and the dominated - a man conflicted with his past and hoping to better the future for a younger generation.

However, Joe isn’t our main character. He’s integral, but this isn’t really his much his story as it is Gary’s, played by equal-amazing The Sheridan who was sensation in a very similar film in concept from last year, Mud (directed by Gordon-Green’s college friend Jeff Nichols). Sometimes I’m amazed how many good children actors there are out there, but when you have a director that obviously knows how to get the best out of actors, it comes as no surprise just how fantastic Sheridan is. Gary is a kid with some serious problem and finds a mentor-like figure in Joe, and both benefit as a result from it.

The Bad: There’s nothing revealing about Joe (the movie, not the character). It’s seemingly a very basic story told fairly well and reliant on two solid performances to carry it. As a story and plot, it’s a wayward mess of comings and goings, plots and subplots and various vignettes that just, every slightly, connect to each other but really have no major connection. Even the final few scenes seem disjointed as though the movie had the ideas but couldn’t really find the pacing to make it all work together.

Those ideas are wonderful, as are the performances, but there’s nothing to fully engage you on a consistent level of storytelling. It’s choppy, rough, with flashes of brilliant writing and acting and directing, but it never manages to feel as a whole even when you get a satisfactory ending to the rough tale attempting to be told or clear messages meant to be sent or to have something interesting to say.

The Ugly: If you don’t know the story of Gary Poulter, who is fantastic in this movie as well, go and search it. It makes sense of his performance, but also is utterly tragic.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


John Carter

Transplanted to Mars, a Civil War vet discovers a lush planet inhabited by 12-foot tall barbarians. Finding himself a prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter a princess who is in desperate need of a savior.

The Good: Big. Loud. Boisterous. A bit reckless and certainly over-ambitious, John Carter is a fun and energetic film that simply feels too little too late. It's a film that is there to have fun, a good time and be adventurous, and in that it succeeds. John Carter, or John Carter of Mars as it should be known and is even referenced in the film making the title change that much stranger, is pure spectacle. In the sense of "spectacle" films, it manages to hit the right marks as an enjoyable piece of pulp, popcorn entertainment even if it doesn't really attempt to distinguish itself from the pack.

It's a film about grandeur and breadth. The hero's journey is firmly in place and it gets those beats right in John Carter's predictable arc. It also gets the action right with very clear acts defined, the set-pieces coming at just the right moments and with good variety at that. Characters are memorable, even if one-dimensional, and special effects are utterly glorious in this beautifully rendered world full of fantasy, wonder and green warrior men voiced by Willem Dafoe. Taylor Kitsch is a convincing heroic John Carter, giving just the right amount of cheese mixed with an emotional drive to his character. Carter is likable. We understand him. Get him. His cynicism, again in a predictable arc, works well with this story and even though I don't think Kitsch is going to become a massive leading man as a result of John Carter, he works incredibly well with what he's given and absolutely dedicates himself physically and mentally to the role.

Despite the one-dimensional nature of the supporting cast, they are very memorable and distinct. Villains are villains, heroes are heroes, conflicted princesses are conflicted…it all is standard fare, but it's done well. There's no emotional resonance in them or their stories, but you at least care and route for or against them. For this story, I think that's about all you can expect.

The Bad: The worst part about John Carter is that we've seen John Carter a million times before. It's sad, considering it really was the story that inspired so much to come after. It simply got left behind, didn't evolve and all those stories that took from its coda have surpassed it. You know from the trailer exactly what will happen. Factions fighting, allies made, rivals beaten and heroes emerge. If it weren't for the visual flare, and I would say Kitsch's performance to really humanize Carter as best as he can, there would be little of interest in the film. It's fine to do it all right, but it rarely attempts to overstep the lines that past stories of this nature clearly defined. There's no broader scope, or message, or even continuous attempts to just try something really new.

The moments that do try something new are memorable, however. There's a great chase sequence at the end of the second act that was astounding. This is unfortunately cut short and it leads to probably my biggest issue of the film: its ending. The notion of escalation seems to just drop off on the third act, and our final confrontation and "big scene" really comes across as underwhelming. In fact the entire third act is a bit of a mess as the filmmakers seemed to suddenly become aware the previous two acts are slow going, full of tedium and exposition, and wanted to cram as much action into a third act they could making for a very uneven and oddly paced film towards the end. An overlong Epilogue and ham-fisted framing device doesn't help in that regard and was arguably unneeded entirely.

The Ugly: Isn't in odd that many of the negative reviews tend to bring up the $250 million dollar budget? The reasoning, at least from my understanding, is in their minds 250 million spent should practically guarantee a quality film. When the film doesn't meet that strange expectation, an extremely unprofessional approach because the amount of money shouldn't reflect in a review at all, it's naturally going to be seen as "unsatisfactory." Someone, please explain this.  There's a lot of things to be critical of here, the price spent isn't one of them and doesn't say anything about the film itself.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


John Dies at the End

A new street drug that sends its users across time and dimensions has one drawback: some people return as no longer human. Can two college dropouts save humankind from this silent, otherworldly invasion?

The Good: Director Don Coscarelli isn't a stranger to the odd and the weird. He's not a stranger to "directors with a spotty track record." He made himself known initially with cult films, namely Phantasm, which was and still is pretty well regarded, and Beastmaster, which was and still is a movie that somehow got made. He then followed that up with mediocre sequels and one more-mediocre action thriller, Survival Quest. His greatest film is still Bubba Ho-Tep: a strange, fantasy/horror/comedy where Elvis is still alive, as is JFK who is now black and ha a brain of sand, and they team up in a retirement home to fight a mummy that sucks people's souls out of their assholes.

It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. And because the director is on on this joke, it works. It's odd it took nearly three decades for him to make a movie that was distinctly him and re-captured what people saw from his talent in the original Phantasm in 1979. With John Dies at the End, he looks to repeat that. It's the same dose of absurdity, same dark humor, same cheesy style. It has that enthusiasm, even if it lacks the polish, and there's no denying there's a large dose of originality coursing through the thing.

There's also no denying the commitment of the actors to their roles. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes, David and John respectively, are young unknowns that absolutely own their characters. Paul Giamatti, who is also executive producer as he's a fan of the book and looked to get this movie made, has a nice meaty supporting part as well. It has a kinetic visual style and a ton of desires to be fun and absurd, even if it can't quite meet the demands it puts before itself.

The Bad: A story everywhere and willing to go anywhere. There's a lot that happens in the modest runtime of John Dies at the End. Almost too much. Certainly too much to bring it all together to a cohesive narrative. What it lacks is focus. Yes, there's a lot that happens, but you can see the small pieces that are unfortunately glossed over that, should a little more time been put in to fitting them together, would have allowed for a far better film. It needed one thread to weave, and maybe let smaller ones come in. Instead it tries to take a bunch of smaller threads in a poor attempt to make one...and it just unravels.

Actually, it doesn't so much unravel as it just never ties itself together. Some of those are obviously more important than others, but we never spend time with them and nothing ever looks to be explained or make a lot of sense. It's all the more disappointing when the film starts so well and then decides to shift gears. It really comes down to a completely lackluster script that needed something more, needed a better thread to sew with, and certainly needed to decide what it wanted to focus on rather than trying to focus on everything at once.

The Ugly: The special effects are a bout what you expect for such a low-budget film, but there's a case to be made in that the practical effects look a million times better than the computer-generated ones. Cheap practical effects can still be effective, cheap computer ones still look like cheap computer effects.

On a similar note, there's one scene (just one, which is why it stuck out) that's shot entirely on a green screen. An obvious green screen. It's weird because it's just a cave. That's it. A basic, generic cave. Later on we see an actual cave too, which makes it even more stranger. It makes me wonder if it's a pick-up shot or if an actor refused to act in an actual set or what. A cheap looking moment that really takes away from the movie, especially considering it's a cheap, cheesy movie to begin with.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


John Wick

An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him.

The Good: A no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point action movie is, really, how action movies should be. Most try to do too much, perhaps bloating the movie with too much plot, too much exposition or too many characters to keep track of, that you sometimes lose the thread of what it should be. In this era where superhero movies and Michael Bay have taken over the genre, the rare mid-budget action thriller is a dying breed - even moreso because they aren't always done right.

John Wick is done right. It has the set up, the characters and the point made then it just plays out its action beats one by one with precision. This is a movie 100% comfortable in its shoes and when you have that confidence, you have a great action movie. Staging is fantastic, choreography and the shots give the fighting and gunplay a visceral, intimate feel, stunts and effects hit the right mark and it never gets boring.

But John Wick goes above and beyond just being that: a solid action romp. Thanks to a slew of character actors and Keanu Reeves so convincing in this type of role, we also have a world created that is just outside of reality. Hitmen know other hitmen. There are "ground rules." There's a "code" to be had, and a realm just below the surface of our own that is completely unbelievable yet, thanks to the casting, you buy it. John Wick plays a fantastic trick as a movie: putting on the face of a basic action movie but, upon further inspection, manages to create something all its own and doesn't bash you over the head with that fact. That's the confidence, again, coming into play and we have one of the best action movies of the year as a result.

The Bad: John Wick plays with the notion of escalation. For a movie like this, it's a pretty standard structure. Unfortunately, it pretty much reaches that high-point just before its finale, ending with a bit of a whimper than a bang. In other words, John Wick starts strong, gets stronger, then seems to corner itself and isn't entire sure where to go with it.

The result is that of dissatisfaction, but with a caveat. The movie itself is satisfying but the arc and progress and the way the ending is nonchalantly tossed out there as though "it'll have to do" feels underwhelming and undermines the great stuff that happened beforehand. Perhaps its the result of the movie being much stronger with its stunts and gunplay than it is with its hand-to-hand fighting sequences, or perhaps it realized it pretty much told its story and didn't have much else to do with itself.

The Ugly: Don't worry, the puppy death noted in the trailer isn't shown directly if that's keeping you from seeing one of the best action pics of the year.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Judge

Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town's judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

The Good: Half courtroom drama, half family melodrama, The Judge really wants to do both and, mostly, succeeds in doing so. Sure, the courtroom stuff is passable and basic as is the family drama of sons and fathers and family memories, so it never outright is "great" in either, but The Judge manages to work with limits it sets for itself. It's compelling enough to become invested even if it's not quite enough to become memorable.

The reason it's not an awful movie, well worth watching, is Robert Downey Jr. He single-handedly lifts the entire picture. If another actor were in the role, had less a presence even slightly, it would be a movie worth skipping. Yet, he makes it, showing charm and wit and able to play the emotional melodrama angle well as he makes every scene worth watching and every person in the scene better.

The Judge is a solid movie, just not a significant enough one to really note. Acting is fine. Directing is solid. It has a great look to it...but it seems perfectly content in just being average.

The Bad: The Judge works best when it’s working off of Robert Downey Jr’s relationship with his father and family. It all swirls around him, as is want to do in any film he’s in. He’s enigmatic and thankfully in every scene for the most part so the film is watchable as a result. Yet, there’s something that’s just not clicking here. Everything feels dull or simply not developed enough - the family drama is as basic of one as you can create, though I would certainly say that’s the film’s strengths. The courtroom drama is dull, as is anything to do with the town and Downey Jr’s character reconnecting with his roots.

It doesn’t really do any of its elements bad, it’s that it wants to do them all and from that we get the most basic, simple and straightforward approach of it. The family drama is typical. The courtroom drama is dull and typical. The arc for Downey Jr is also very typical and extremely predictable. The Judge, with this cast, seems like it wants to be remarkable but it settles for just the basic premises across the board.

And basic is fine. Basic is good. The story just needs to be told well, right? Well The Judge kind of missteps there too as it’s a two and a half hour film that never quite seems to get going or have a consistent pace or really deliver anything that will make you want to actually sit there for two and a half hours to tell such a basic story. Had it settled to make one the primary center, the courtroom element would have been the best bet here, then it would likely have succeeded because then it would have a central focus and then work off that. But it never gets there, it just deals with the basics of everything and tries to keep treat them all as important when, as the way it comes across in the film, none of it is interesting enough to be important at all.

The Ugly: The Judge also desperately wants to make the town itself a character, but it never gets there. There's a backstory to everything that's happening but it's never quite made clear and often muddied with sub-plots and throwaway characters that should have been given a little more to say and do (Vera Farmiga and Vincent D'Onofrio come to mind - lots implied, little said to actually round them out)

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Juno

A tale told over four seasons, starting in autumn when Juno, a 16-year-old high-school junior in Minnesota, discovers she's pregnant after one event in a chair with her best friend, Bleeker. In the waiting room of an abortion clinic, the quirky and whip-sharp Juno decides to give birth and to place the child with an adoptive couple. She finds one in the PennySaver personals, contacts them, tells her dad and step-mother, and carries on with school. The chosen parents, upscale yuppies (one of whom is cool and laid back, the other meticulous and uptight), meet Juno, sign papers, and the year unfolds. Will Juno's plan work, can she improvise, and what about Bleeker? 

The Good: There's a certain honesty in Juno. She's cocky, strong willed and sharp witted. It's hard not to like her and even harder not to wish her the best in whatever she decides to do with her child and her life. There's a sense of true emotion with her and the people she encounters (especially with the family she is considering giving her baby to). It's not melodramatic, It's dry and because of it, and its sense of being rooted in reality and our own awkward situations and idiosyncrasies, we laugh at the build up, the execution and the payoff. The film never tries to do too much, it simply tells its story and, despite the rather, let's say "unique" form of speaking of the characters, comes across as something we see seemingly everyday: a little slice of life with a charming and fulfilling ending.

The Bad: Juno wants to be Little Miss Sunshine or Garden State. It wants to be that quirky little indie movie that is cute, smart and maybe slightly pretentious. Juno gets the first two somewhat and overkills the third. It's one of those movies that people watch and think they are smarter for doing so, and it's also one of those movies that just tries too hard. Oh no, it's far from a bad film. But there will be more than one occasion where you'll roll your eyes at the dialogue, the sense of "look at me, I'm smart" attitude of Ellen Page (despite Juno being likeable and Page's performance excellent) and the rest of the cast that comes across as more forced than something we can really get drawn into. In fact, it can wear thin which is what the movie gets to by its end and it's own desire to become unique ends up becoming banal.

The Ugly: Ellen Page and Michael Cera together? Something isn't right here...

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Jupiter Ascending

A young woman discovers her destiny as an heiress of intergalactic nobility and must fight to protect the inhabitants of Earth from an ancient and destructive industry.

The Good: There's certainly some visual flare here and wonderful art design happening.  But it's a Wachowski film so that's expected. I'll also have to admit that Mila Kunis is able to be a strong lead despite having absolutely nothing to work with and the script all over the place with her character. It's not a good character, no, but she at least has a presence and can sell the scenes she's in. Well, better than Channing Tatum at least, though not as much as Sean Bean.

As for Oscar-winner Eddy Redmayne...I don't know what movie he's even in. I want to say he's the only one that just takes his character and turns it up to 11, and I don't know if that's good or bad. Either way, he's damn memorable. Too bad it's a memorable role in an awful movie.

The Bad: The Wachowski's have created a world and universe with nothing to do. One thing they have always been good at is a clear vision and intent in their films - usually centered on a theme or, at the very least, a fondness of something. While I know the fondness for a space opera is here... somewhere...the vision and intent is all over the place. It's as though they got excited and spent all their time developing a universe full of alien races and gadgets and ships and royal family members fighting each other instead of figuring out how to tell a story to make all of that worth our time.

There might have been  good movie with Jupiter Ascending at some point. As mentioned, there are elements that were obviously toiled over, but none of that feels a part of the present. It often spends more time explaining itself and going into its backstory of damn near everything rather than push a story along. It's a lot of exposition but, unlike some of the Wachowski's previous films full of that, it's just vomited out. It's not interesting. It's just spoken rather than have it feel organic to a scene of conversation or relevant to a character to even bring up.

Most surprisingly, though, is how bland it all is. Visually, Jupiter Ascending is one of the most dull, uninspired and uninteresting fantasy/sci-fi things out there, especially considering who it comes from. Don't get me wrong, there's great artistic design here, but action is often hard to follow or feel any risk with, dialogue and any sense of emotion stilted and nobody seems to know what kind of movie they're in making it all seem kind of trite and without any weight behind it. Should I care about Jupiter? The movie says I should, it keeps telling me I should...but I don't know...I really don't know enough about her to care which then ripples to me not even caring that the Earth is going to be destroyed.

There's a lot wrong with Jupiter Ascending, far too much to really dive into. Personally, I'm surprised a movie was even able to come out of this. I, for whatever reason, never felt invested into anything going on and the cause of that is just a combination of a lot of things. Casting is one. Dull action another. Exposition is up there. Awful pacing. Characters that just come and go. An unclear villain or even understanding of "who" Jupiter really is or why we should give a shit.

It's awful. And that's a damn shame considering the obvious investment from so many people to actually make it. You see it right there on the screen. This thing took a lot of years to get done and it's just trite rubbish.

The Ugly: I've liked every movie the Wachowskis have done. Loved a few of them too. From the Matrix redefining action to the love-letter to anime that was Speed Racer to the pure boldness and ambition of the melodramatic Cloud Atlas.

This...this is just one of the worst action/fantasy/sci-fi flicks I've seen and it's disappointing it comes from them. Disappointing that they are often good, if not great, but also disappointing in that it's a new idea not based on a book or comic or old TV show or a remake and it falls so flat on its face. Hollywood is going to look at it and say "well there you go...no original ideas, guys, go find me some old IP from the 80s so we can redo it and actually make money.”

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Jurassic Park

On a remote island, a wealthy entrepreneur secretly creates a theme park featuring living dinosaurs drawn from prehistoric DNA. Before opening the attraction to the public, he invites a top paleontologist, a paleobotanist, a mathematician/theorist, and his two eager grandchildren to experience the park -- and help calm anxious investors. However, their park visit is anything but tranquil as the park's security system breaks down, the prehistoric creatures break out, and the excitement builds to surprising results. Based on Michael Crichton's best-selling novel.

The Good: As one of the most satisfying film experiences in history, it’s hard to know where to begin in terms of Jurassic Park. I suppose I’ll start with the one thing it does best: entertain the hell out you. Now that’s not something you can say for many movies. Some films, simply, don’t quite make for good entertainment. Not since the Indiana Jones films had Spielberg made a movie that exudes fun, smarts and just great adventure entertainment. It’s a progressive film on many levels. Yes, the special effects notably which still look astounding even today. It’s story, too, is progressive and seems like its not full of fluff and unneeded plotlines. It moves beautifully from beginning to end and brings us bits of comedy, drama, scares and heroics in the process. It’s also progressive for Spielberg who badly needed to bounce back from Hook and there really couldn’t have been a better fit than Michael Crichton’s fantastic novel. In a way, Jurassic Park reminded us who Spielberg is and what it means to make a blockbuster.

The Bad: The conveniences of the ending has always been something that has been frowned upon. When seeing the film, it just seems too neat for it all as though it just wanted to end it all and be done with it. It’s a little too grand for it, apparently a script trying to find another big “bang” to go out on, and doesn’t make sense logically on top of it. Seeing as the rest of the film is so wonderful, this is a huge disappointment to throw in some plot device just to wrap it all. The characters, also, while fun are rather one-dimensional. They server their purposes, however, and I’m less critical on them than some others.

The Ugly: You never know, in today’s world Jurassic Park seems pretty believable in the end. It was already based on theory

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Jurassic World

Twenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond. After 10 years of operation and visitor rates declining, in order to fulfill a corporate mandate, a new attraction is created to re-spark visitors' interest, which backfires horribly.

The Good: You want dumb dinos going after human action, you got it. Jurassic World doesn't seek to really go above that, and that's just fine. If the goal of a movie like this is to deliver one singular experience, then it does so pretty damn well. You got the big action pieces, you got the special effects and you got a great place to have it all take in.

As thin as the characters are, you kind of care about them. I suppose that's just good casting because though I couldn’t tell you all their names, I could still tell you who they were and what they did. Jurassic World, by this observation, simply works best in broad strokes. It loses a lot in the details, tries to do too much that gets lost, but the broad strokes are still incredibly sharp, fun and, best of all, pretty memorable with great highlights brought to the forefront at a consistent pace even when the pace of the story itself is a bit all over the map.

Jurassic World delivers where it needs to. It doesn't seek to rise above it, which is fine. It doesn't need to for a franchise we haven't seen in 15 years. It delivers what it sets out to deliver and seems perfectly content on that. Depending on what you might want out of a movie of this nature, you may or may not be content on it as well, but either way about your contention on the film’s quality, I can’t deny it’s damn entertaining.

The Bad: You want dumb dinos going after human action, you got it. You want something you haven't seen already from this franchise, you kind of don't. That's where Jurassic World fall really short - it tries to recreate what has already been done, and that's understandable, but it doesn't do it particularly well and only strives to make it “bigger." I don't expect it to do it better, you'll never recapture that magic no matter how much you try to play off it, but I think we can expect some better characters than what we're getting and better writing at the very least.

We know what to expect here plot-wise. That's not going to change nor should it, but what makes or breaks these movies, especially sequels, are the characters and as badly as Jurassic World wants to have characters with resonance and relationships with meaning, it never gets there. Oh, it tries in that hamfisted kind of way after a while, but you’ll remember them by the actors’ names or what they were wearing and maybe what they did (though I’m having a hard time remembering what the two brothers did once they were found…I think they were in a van) more than who they really were.

Jurassic World is one of those movies that is entertaining but totally full of little issues that just start to pile up. A lot of times, small things you can just write off especially in a big movie like this, but Jurassic World is often contradictory to its own story. For example, we’re told people are bored with the park yet see thousands of happy attendees. Why is the park in financial ruin when the rich billionaire owner says money isn’t a problem? We’re told there’s strife between characters but they’re pretty much resolved in a matter of minutes yet is brought up again as though it wasn’t resolved. Why set it during Christmas, is it to force home a “family” theme that’s undercooked and that you keep trying to bring up? In relation to that, why the divorce sub-plot that doesn’t hold relevance and is barely brought up too? Why are you calling back to the original Jurassic Park left and right? Don’t you know better than to bring up a great movie in your movie? You’re automatically forcing comparisons and you aren’t able to have fun with it. Why is nobody arrested? Why are you training raptors? I know why the military folks want it though that too is undercooked, but why you Mr. Owen Pratt somebody? What are you getting out of it?

So that’s some things, not all of them because I’d be here all day if I went on about other stuff like the awful design flaws of this park I’d be here all day and, truthfully, I can just chalk that up to silly writing to make things happen in a big movie. I have to look at it like this: they had big ideas and broad strokes and pretty much tied it all together loosely with whatever scraps they could. Most of those don’t go anywhere, they’re just filler to get to the dinos taking on people who use dinos to take on dinos. It’s really, really, really lazy writing that’s completely inconsistent because, surprise surprise, there’s seven writers that did passes on this. No wonder so many things didn’t go anywhere, became quickly dropped or resolved and didn’t amount to anything. Jurassic Park: three screenwriters, one of which was the author of the book. Jurassic World: seven screenwriters working over a decade in a struggle to make sense of it all.

What I leave you with is this after all that: we have an immensely entertaining movie with no story and it’s not light and dumb enough to be able to write it off as “dumb popcorn schlock” like a Fast and Furious flick nor is it dramatic and serious enough to get any sense of “awe” it desperately tries to find. There are things that happen and some characters that it happens to, but it’s not a story. It’s ideas that don’t work and end up not mattering in a movie where we care little about the people and barely get inspired by the spectacle. 

It’s not the writers’ fault either, by the way. There’s some damn good screenwriters here, it’s the fact that the studio kept working on it and working on it and working on it with seven writers over so many years that nobody could make heads or tails on it, so we’re left with a movie that has some nice moments and a great set up but don’t care what happens along the way - we just want to see what happens.

The Ugly: One character dies an unnecessarily cruel death. I kind of had to shake my head at that one - what purpose did it serve? What was her name? She seemed like a nice person in what little we saw of her

I use that as an example: Jurassic World gets misguided. A bit too much. It has the right intent, because the formula is already established, but it seems to hit just left of the target every time in its story and tone with the larger set pieces there to try and overshadow it.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


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