Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Movies K - M

  -K-

Kafka (3.5/5)
Kansas City Confidential (3/5)
The Karate Kid (4/5)
The Karate Kid Part II (3/5)

The Karate Kid Part III (2.5/5)

The Karate Kid (2010) (3/5)
Kick-Ass (3.5/5)
Kick-Ass 2 (3/5)
The Kids are All Right (3/5)

Kikujiro (4/5)
Kill Bill (4/5)
Kill List (3.5/5)
Kill the Irishman (3/5)
Kill the Messenger (3/5)
Killer Elite (2/5)
The Killer Inside Me (3/5)

Killer Joe (3/5)
                                   Killer's Kiss (2.5/5)
Killing, The (4/5)

Killing Them Softly (3/5)
                     Kind Hearts and Coronets (4.5/5)
The King of Comedy (3.5/5)

King Kong (3.5/5) 

The King's Speech (4.5/5)

Kingdom of Heaven (DC) (4.5/5) 

Kingsman: The Secret Service (3.5/5)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (4
/5)
The Kite Runner (3.5/5) 
Knife in the Water (5/5)
Knowing  (3/5)
Krull  (3/5)

Kundun  (2.5/5)

Kung Fu Panda 2 (3.5/5)



  -L-

L.A. Confidential (5/5)

La Dolce Vita (4.5/5)
La Strada (5/5)

Labor Day (3/5)
Labyrinth (3.5/5)
The Lady From Shanghai (3/5)
The Lady Vanishes (4.5/5)  

Lady Vengeance (3.5/5)
The Ladykillers (4/5)
The Ladykillers (3/5)

Land of the Dead (3.5/5)
Land of the Lost (2/5) 
The Last Days On Mars (2/5)
The Last House on the Left 2009 (3.5/5)

Last Knights (2/5)
The Last Stand (3.5/5)
                           The Last Station (4/5)  
The Last Temptation of Christ (4/5)  
Law Abiding Citizen (2.5/5) 

Le Samourai (5/5)
Leaves of Grass (3.5/5)
Legend of the Guardians (3/5)
Legion (2/5)

The Lego Movie (3.5/5)
Les Misérables (3.5/5)
Let Me In (3/5)
Let the Right One in (4.5/5) 
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (3/5)
Lethal Weapon (4/5)
Lethal Weapon 2 (4/5)
Lethal Weapon 3 (2.5/5)
Lethal Weapon 4 (3/5) 

Letters From Iwo Jima (4.5/5)

The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (4.5/5)
A Life Less Ordinary (2/5) 
Life of Pi (3.5/5)
                                Lifeboat (4.5/5)
Limitless (3/5)
Lincoln (4/5)
The Lincoln Lawyer (3.5/5)
Live Free or Die Hard (3.5/5)  
The Lives of Others (4.5/5)

Locke (4/5)
Lockout (2.5/5)
Logan's Run (3.5/5)
Lolita  (3/5)
Looper (4.5/5)
The Lone Ranger (2.5/5)
Lone Survivor (3/5)
The Lorax (2/5)
LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring (4.5/5)
LOTR: The Two Towers (4/5)
LOTR: The Return of the King (4.5/5) 

The Lords of Salem (2/5)
                      The Lost Boys (3.5/5)
The Lost Boys: The Tribe (1.5/5)  
Lost Highway (3.5/5)

Lost in Translation (5/5)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (3/5)
Love & Mercy (4/5)
The Lovely Bones (3/5) 
  -M-

Machete (3/5)
Machete Kills (2.5/5)
Mad Max (4/5)  
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (3.5/5)

Mad Max: Fury Road (5/5)
Maggie (2.5/5)
Magic Mike (3.5/5)                                Magic Mike XXL (2.5/5)
The Magician (4.5/5)
The Magnificent Ambersons (4.5/5)  
Maleficent (3.5/5)
The Maltese Falcon (5/5)
Mama (2.5/5)
Man of Steel (3/5)
Man of Tai Chi (3.5/5)
Man on a Ledge (1.5/5)
Man on Fire (3/5)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (4.5/5)                                                     The Man Who Wasn't There (4/5)
Mandela (3/5)
Maniac (2013) 4/5

Maps to the Stars (3/5)    
                       El Mariachi (3.5/5)
Margin Call (3.5/5)
Marnie (3/5)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (4/5)
Masters of Universe (1.5/5)
The Matrix (4/5)
The Matrix Reloaded (4/5)
The Matrix Revolutions (2.5/5)
Me and Orson Welles (4/5)  
Mean Streets (4/5)

The Mechanic (2011) (2.5/5)
Meek's Cutoff (3.5/5)
Megamind (3/5)
Melancholia (3.5/5)
Memento (4.5/5)
The Men Who Stare at Goats (3.5/5)
The Messenger (4/5)  
Metropolis (5/5) 

Midnight in Paris (4/5)
Miller's Crossing (4.5/5) 
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2/5)
Millions (4/5)  
Minority Report (4/5)  
Misery (4/5)
Mission Impossible (3.5/5)
Mission Impossible II (1.5/5)
Mission Impossible III (3/5)

MI: Ghost Protocol (4/5)
MI: Rogue Nation (3.5/5)
Mississippi Burning (4/5)
Moneyball (4/5)
Monsters (2/5)
Monsters Inc. (3.5/5) 
Monsters University (3/5)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (4/5)
The Monuments Men (2.5/5)
Moon (3.5/5)
Moonrise Kingdom (4.5/5)
Mother (4/5)
Mouse Hunt (3/5)
Mr. Hulot's Holiday (5/5)
Mr. Peabody and Sherman (3/5)
Mr. Turner (4/5)
Mud (4.5/5)
Mulholland Dr. (4.5/5)
Munich (4.5/5) 
                                     The Muppets (4/5)
The Muppet Movie (4/5)
Muppets Most Wanted (3/5)
The Muppets Take Manhattan (3.5/5)
The Mutant Chronicles (1/5)  
My Bloody Valentine (3.5/5)

My Name is Nobody (3/5)
My Week With Marilyn (4/5)


Kafka

Existential writer Franz Kafka works during the day at an insurance company where events lead him to discover a mysterious underground society with strange suppressive goals.

The Good: Kafka may not be Steven Soderbegh's best film, not by a mile really, but it's arguably one of his most intriguing. For a second film by a director coming off of huge success, it's interesting that he decides to not play it safe in the slightest and dive head-first into a thriller that harkens back to David Lynch's Eraserhead, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Orson Welles' own adaptation of The Trial, written of course by Franz Kafka. Kafka is not a biopic, but more a combination of mood and idea that Franz Kafka explored, creating a new story and world that pushes all that together then makes Franz Kafka the main character who's trying to unravel it all (and trying to figure out his own mind in the process).

Like many a Soderbergh movie, Kafka is beautifully shot. In no way meant to sound hyperbolic, it really is one of the best black and white (mostly) films I've seen and has some fantastic shots from beginning to end. Some very straightforward, others that dive into the odd world that's created that walks a line of reality with fantasy. It's real...but not too real, and it's a world that becomes more and more odder as we progress.

Kafka also happens to be one of those atmospheric movies that I truly enjoy. I'm a fan of this type of surrealist/fantasy genre where you aren't entirely sure what is real and actually happening and what isn't.  The play on your perspective and presumptions has always been a favorite of mine and, to be honest, I love being toyed with. Kafka is a series of escalating questions that really aren't ever answered, but you sure do enjoy the trip you've just gone on. Though lacking good structure and memorable characters, the "experience" of the movie, which is essentially a big dose of constant paranoia with an odd journey into psyche, is beautifully rendered by a then young and not-quite-experienced director who's exploring the world of risks when it comes to filmmaking.

The Bad: Kafka runs a little too loose for its own good. There are memorable moments and scenes to be admired, but nothing to really leave an impression in terms of character and story. It's more like a journey down a rabbit-hole where things simply happen for the sake of happening, it's just that we don't particularly care because we really don't know anyone in this world that well nor do we have anything to grasp to figure out what exactly is going on. It's fine to not have a movie explain everything and take you on such a journey, it's difficult to invest yourself into it if you can't latch on to something relatable.

That's probably Kafka's biggest issue. Jeremy Irons is good, but his character is cold. The story is fun and fantastical, but it shifts gears far too often to really become grounded. The supporting characters are distinct with personality, but they're intentionally left detached and unintentionally left pedestrian. A lot happens, but are you able to really understand and become invested in the plight of the people? The short answer is no, the longer answer is a dive into whether or not we're supposed to in the first place (most likely no in that regard, but then is that simply excusing sloppy storytelling?).

Kafka is a flawed film that's right for the right people, and likely frustrating for those that aren't.

The Ugly: Perhaps it was the stark change in mood and style from Steven Soderbergh's first film that made people scratch their heads. Soderbergh is diverse, but at this time he wasn't established so shifting from Sex Lies and Videotapes to a piece of German Expressionism theoretically caused a few head scratches. Personally, I think if this was something done by David Lynch of Terry Gilliam, more people would have been open to its oddities of fantasy.

This is one of those films that people look back and admire in hindsight. It seems time has been kinder to it than when it first came out, many using as an example of the "sophomore jinx." Often, people were more critical of what it wasn't when compared to Soderbergh's debut rather than what it is: a far from perfect but ambitious little movie.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Kansas City Confidential

An ex-con trying to go straight is framed for a million dollar armored car robbery and must go to Mexico in order to unmask the real culprits. 

The Good: Director Phil Karlson was one of the most prolific directors of his era. He had a reputation for detail and fast shooting on location, coming out with pictures that looked far better than their b-movie subject matter (and they were b-movies, make no mistake) probably deserved. Kansas City Confidential is such a movie: a rather predictable and bland noir plot, the noir genre already showing at its twilight of popularity in 1953, that’s executed very, very well. It’s dark and gritty as all good noir is as well as uniquely violent rather than smart and sharp.

It’s a quick, entertaining movie, though. Karlson made lean pictures, cutting out the fat and not hanging too long on scenes. There’s not a lot of character development, contemplating themes or background information, it tells its tale and then moves on. Such is the way of many of Karlson’s films. Some might say if you want to get into the man’s b-movie oeuvre, Kansas City Confidential is a hell of a movie to start with. It’s intriguing and violent enough to keep you interested and polished enough to make you not realize it’s an ultra-low budget movie in the first place.

The Bad: Kansas City Confidential has one problem: it reveals everything far, far too early. You don’t have a sense of mystery to be solved or puzzle to put together as you would in great noir. Here it just lays it all out and runs through a cycle like a set of dirty dishes in a dishwasher. It’s people running through, spouting stilted dialogue and then moving on to the next until the climax. The term “jump the shark” is a good description of Kansas City Confidential’s script as a whole.

I think a lot of the fault lies in John Payne. He’s a perfectly fine leading man, just not a convincing “tough guy” leading man which the role calls for. He’s good looking and comes from a musical background, and he’s simply out of his element here. Seeing as he’s in pretty much every scene, he lacks the engagement to carry us through the already-known story and because there’s no character arc, we end up wondering what the point of it all was in the first place. He didn’t necessarily learn or gain anything and even the forced romance angle can’t save it. A well-executed middle-of-the-road picture is still middle-of-the-road.

The Ugly: Gee...you think that guy's a bad guy? Character actors from crime pictures are so damn easy to spot, though I have to give props for KCC’s one smart bit of casting and one small diamond in the rough aspect to the plot – even if it doesn’t have that sense of resolution it probably should have had.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Karate Kid

Daniel is new in town, and is getting picked on by the local bullies, who all are adept in karate. Determined to stick up for himself, Daniel begins to teach himself karate, only to discover that the caretaker at his apartment seems to be a grand master in karate. Agreeing to teach Daniel, Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel that there is more to karate than violence, and perhaps the best way to solve the problem he has with the bullies is in the All Valley Karate Championship.

The Good: When someone calls something “timeless” it has more to do with it getting classic tales and archetypes right than it is feeling undated. The Karate Kid takes its very basic tropes and, simply, does it remarkably well. It’s not flashy, fancy, original and “hip,” it’s just a really well done film that’s a blend of coming-of-age with a sports film structure. It holds on to the ideas of life lessons, honor and maturity for young men who may feel they have no direction in life.

The Karate Kid has never been about the Karate. Truth is, there’s very Karate actually found in it save for three scenes (Miyagi’s saving Russo, the training montages and the final tournament...not much for a two hour film). It’s more a discussion about Karate and how it emulates life than a lot of action scenes. Sure, children and teens will like it because it has that in the title, but really it’s about a mentor relationship that deals with love, trust, coming of age and surrogate fatherhood. Mr. Miyagi replaces Daniel’s father and gives him direction in life, something his mother wasn’t able to fully provide (and she herself pretty directionless in life as well, but thanks to Miyagi too finds a path vicariously through her son). The bullies are bullies and bad guys bad guys, but they could just as easily be zombies because they weren’t the final goal to the story. They were just one of many obstacles, along with regrets and grief, to break through. Together. And thus one of the great screen relationships was born. The film has become a classic for that reason alone...that and an awesome Bill Conti score and Joe Esposito number.

The Bad: Overlong and sometimes a bit too plodding for its own good, The Karate Kid has many extraneous points to it that don’t quite click together as a whole and probably dwelt on too much. The main story here is Miyagi and Russo, which is done well and what most people remember when they leave it. The sub plots of Daniel and his mother or Daniel and his romantic interest clash against it, sometimes overshadowing it to where we lose track of our main plot. Being uneven and unfocused at times doesn’t negate the emotional impact of the two leads, though, and the film never compromises its thematic principles.

The Ugly: If The Karate Kid was just a one-shot film and didn’t have the sequels, I feel the public perception of it might be a little higher. It’s like the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels (that times it by a hundred) where people think of that franchise and just remember the goofiness of it, yet they completely forget the rather dark, threatening and brilliance of the very first one that didn’t do any of that. Two 80s films pretty much ruined publicly because the studios desires more cash.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Karate Kid Part II

Picks up where the first movie (Karate Kid) leaves off. Mr. Miyagi and Daniel take a trip to Okinawa to visit Mr Miyagi's dieing father. After arriving Mr Miyagi finds he still has feelings for an old love. This stirs up trouble with an old rival that he originally left Okinawa to avoid. In the mean time Daniel encounters a new love and also makes some enemies.

The Good: What the original Karate Kid was for the character of Daniel, The Karate Kid Part II is to Mr. Miyagi. Like Daniel confronting his demons and obstacles, Mr. Miyagi now has his to deal with. The sequel is a great continuation of the first film because much of what we see in this sequel is hinted at and foreshadowed in the original classic, however it’s better seen as that than as a standalone movie and story. Continuing the arc of Miyagi (Daniel really not that pertinent here, sadly) was a smart way to approach the story. It stays true to the original but feels different enough to not completely rehash it. It’s a solid, though perhaps unneeded, sequel.

The Bad: The Karate Kid Part II does exactly what a sequel needs to do, as in “grow” and progress our beloved characters, however it doesn’t particularly do it well. Namely, the pacing and plot event structure (as in, there’s really not any). The first film used the classic sports-film structure, and did it incredibly well. Here, it doesn’t really have a structure to follow as much as it is a series of scenes and a character study of Mr. Miyagi, his pasts, his relationship to Daniel and his home as well as his regrets. Part II lines them up without really setting the pace, it just runs through them, throws in Daniel when need be, and only until a literal “act of God” does anyone seem to get anywhere and achieve anything that culminates in an anticlimactic fight at the end.

Truth be told, there's not much to say about The Karate Kid Part II. It's not a great film, but not a horrible one either. It does some things well, others bad, and then it ends. It's a film that's hard to be passionate about one way or the other. As a result, it's pretty forgettable even amongst fans of the franchise where the original is a classic and the third so over-the-top they make themselves far easier to discuss.

The Ugly: When I say “anticlimactic” I really mean it. The weight and value of the fight is pretty small here. Daniel has no more lessons to learn in life, just to become a better fighter. The impact is gone, and even the film for its entire runttime knew this as well as Daniel is Story B to Miyagi’s Story A.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Karate Kid Part III

Kreese, his life in tatters after his karate schools was defeated by Daniel and Mr Miyagi, visits Terry, a friend from Vietnam. Terry is a ruthless business man and a martial arts expert, and he vows to help Kresse take revenge on Daniel and Mr Miyagi.

The Good: Old friends and enemies blend well with new friends and enemies. The Karate Kid III ups the level of campiness but keeps the heart, which is smart considering it really doesn’t quite grow or extend the characters and story of Russo and Miyagi whatsoever. It’s more like a VHS tape that’s been re-recorded onto other VHS tapes, and thus quality is lost.

Still, though, it’s a feel-good (maybe overly-good) sports movie with a lot of fun characters. Gone is the sincerity of the life lessons and replaced with standard, difficult obstacles that predictably become vanquished. It’s not a horrible film, but one that barely hangs on to its laurels. It’s what can be described as a “guilty pleasure.” Good? Not really. But fun? Yes. The characters make it fun as the hammyness (which isn't a word but should be) and melodrama becomes spoon-fed, and the plot is over-the-top enough that you can’t help but have a good time.

The Bad:
Sadly, nearly beat-for-beat, The Karate Kid Part III is a re-tread of the original film. It throws in some new elements here and there, notably the great character Terry Silver (the fact I know Thomas Ian Griffith has nothing to do with me saying that). It’s structured nearly identically. Not only that, much of it doesn’t feel consistent to what the fist two films established. The relationship with Miyagi and Russo was finalized in the first film. They became mentor and student, if not more father and son. The second film expanded what was achieved. The third film feels more like a second act. Here the relationship is doubted and friendship put into question. That was already done in the first film, but after all they’ve been through by a third film it shouldn’t nearly go to the lengths this one does and Russo outright reject everything Miyagi says and does. That makes everything they’ve done and achieved obsolete and regresses both characters entirely to their original default state.

Sequels can sometimes be tricky to review, but if they are of a continuing arc where the story is linear and always moving forward, rather than say an Indiana Jones film where they’re self-contained or a horror franchise that rarely references itself, you have to look at how it manages the entirety of its narrative. The result? Karate Kid III might be a fun, entertaining film, but it’s also a needless one that doesn’t do anything. It less progresses the story and more stagnates it in some futile attempt to hold on to its own franchise marketing awareness.

The Ugly:
I love Pat (really, who didn't?), and this is the first of the Karate Kid movies we see him take on two adults...but it’s hard to buy it.  You really feel they’re “acting!”

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Karate Kid (2010)

Work causes a single mother to move to China with her young son; in his new home, the boy embraces kung fu, taught to him by a master.

The Good: For what it is, The Karate Kid follows its tropes well. The arcs, though obvious, are well done for all the characters as young Dre hits all the beats to evolve from a quiet, selfish kid to someone who learns his place in life. Yes, this is a sports movie after all, but it's better done than most.

What I applaud The Karate Kid most for, though, is that it doesn’t try to be a comedy which it very easily could have dipped into. It’s a drama, playing everything straight with solid characters and a fantastic, dramatic turn by Jackie Chan. At its heart, the film is about dealing with loss. Sure, it’s a fish-out-of-water tale we’ve seen plenty of times and follows a sports film formula that’s unsurprising, but it hits its desired marks with its characters well, even if they are a tad too heavy-handed for their own good at times (visual cues, callbacks etc).

Fans of the original 1984 classic may not like hearing this, but The Karate Kid is a more than adequate film that pays its homage and doesn’t undermine its thematic principles. The relationship between Chan’s Mr. Han and Smith’s Dre is strong and carries the burden of the film seeing as the story doesn’t quite live up to that. It’s a visual treat as well, putting the beauty of China as a centerpiece showing its cities, its people and especially its stunning countryside all while explaining this world without feeling preachy. It’s a capable movie even if it doesn’t do a lot to really distinguish itself or really hit those emotional walls it attempts to break through - it's is one of the better live-action family films I’ve seen in quite a few years.

The Bad: Knowing it can’t dwell on a backstory or why, The Karate Kid pretty much plops us right into the story of Dre and his mother leaving for China. If you aren’t aware of it, it literally writes it on the wall with “Daddy Died” scribbled on a doorframe and “Moved to China” written just above it. This is a nice way to show the main issue with The Karate Kid, other than the fact it’s not about Karate: It’s very direct and on the nose, so much so that when it attempts its drama you end up rolling your eyes ever so-slightly – not because it’s all expected and predictable, that’s not an issue, but that it doesn’t even attempt to hide the fact everything is expected or predictable. When someone says something obvious, or some visual motif even more obvious, it doesn’t help. Subtlety this film does not have. It tells a standard story with standard characters, but there’s not enough passion of flare going on it. There’s no great character revelation, no great profound moment that didn’t feel “written”, nothing to give it depth or some presence in the world of other sports movies which it follows the footsteps of. It’s just there. Not horrible, not great...an exercise in mediocrity that, thanks to solid acting and a nice cinematic eye, isn’t nearly as bad as it could have ended up.

The Ugly: Jackie Chan beats children. Is a great mentor beating up 12 year olds...a great mentor? Sure, he teaches some life lessons, but he’s slappin’ kids. Does anyone else see the strangeness of this? At least it’s only a one-time thing, and in his defense he was...defending...but it’s so odd to see a bunch of kids take on an adult. They're just so obviously young and don't have a chance. Then again he also tells a kid to “jack-it-off” so....

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Kick-Ass

Dave Lizewski is an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan with a few friends and who lives alone with his father. His life is not very difficult and his personal trials not that overwhelming. However, one day he makes the simple decision to become a super-hero even though he has no powers or training.

The Good: I will say this for Kick-Ass, and it’s more than I can say for a majority of movies: you will stay glued to the screen. The action, the characters and the incredibly smart directing will suck you in and leave you staring blankly for more after the final scenes. That’s because you will want more, and hopefully future installments will emerge from this, though muddy, highly enjoyable, violent and just plain fun action movie.

The strength here, though, isn’t the script (definitely, more to that in a bit) but the directing. Matthew Vaughn absolutely took his career to another level. He’s been pretty absent since 2007 (Kick-Ass took a while to see release) but absolutely explodes here as a young visionary with a lot of potential in just about any drama he probably wishes to take on he’s already done a fantastic Thriller in Layer Cake and a somewhat decent Fantasy Epic in Stardust. Throw in a fantastic action movie in to that mix – shades of another versatile UK director that gave us rage-virus zombies one minute, then a touching family film the next, then one of the best science fiction movies in the past decade (Danny Boyle). He understands that Kick-Ass needs one thing: energy. If you’re going to have a title named “Kick-Ass,” you better bring it.

The Bad: There was this question I started to ask myself about half-way through the film. “What am I watching, here?” It’s got some good action scenes, certainly. Nicely done, shot, choreographed. Alright, that’s good. Characters, too, were pretty appealing though a little shallow. It’s got a decent story that seems to, slowly, be losing focus. Well, that’s not good. It has no idea what it wants to tell me. That’s not good either.

I then asked myself another question that kinda got lost in the whole asking question scenario: “So...who was that guy in the opening scene that never had a name and just killed himself?”

I then realized that, despite the great action and overall fun of the movie, Kick-Ass is a little bit of a jumbled mess in storytelling and themes – it’s not nearly as sharp as it wants to be. After the first third what appeared to be a tight, unique script unravels to just a series of action scenes with no real story pushing forward and as a result, our characters become uninteresting and underdeveloped which, in a movie like this where “reality” is supposed to collide with “fantasy,” probably should have handled it better than it did so we might find the human side of these characters first, then the collision course

Kick Ass is a movie that isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be or do with itself. As fun as the action is and as great as the personalities are, it is as confused with itself as we are of it. It wants to show how real-life superheroes would probably work, but these aren’t real-life people or situations. It’s still over the top action and crazy characters, not some Alan Moore-esque commentary on the problems that real people who want to be superheroes have. It’s just a comic book movie with a lot of blood and gore and not nearly as big a social commentary as it likes to think it is. It’s more film-school juvenile approach to the idea of a “gory comic movie” than some sort of commentary on the mindset of these people should they actually be real. It’s also confused on whatever it wants its message to be. It tells us that it wants the idea of “getting up and doing something for once” to be its central point, yet it essentially ends up saying “the only way to get what you want is to kill and murder people.”

The film lacks cohesion, consistency and focus – this all stems more from the script than the very capable directing by Matthew Vahn (who presents this material probably better than it deserves). The bookending segments are wonderfully visceral and exciting, but the central third is a jumbled mess of faux drama and comedy that has little direction and even little development when a second act should really show the exact opposite. It certainly lacks consistency with an odd pace as a result and, without question, it lacks focus as we veer away from Kick-Ass and more towards the story of Big Daddy and Hit Girl (which, like Kick-Ass is relatively shallow but a hell of a lot more fun). It essentially becomes their story because they are essentially the best characters in it. We quickly become aware of this in their introductory scene where we learn more about them than the fifteen minutes or so we’ve spent with Dave at that point. Considering Dave is our main character, that’s not a good sign. His take to become what he is, is to “help people.” Good at heart, his observation of people not helping each other is legitimate motivation. But it’s not helping people that he ends up doing. Truthfully, he helps hardly anyone and the only “helping” he does is to extract revenge and kill people. That is the exact opposite of what his arc should end up as.

The Ugly: I’d hate to bring in another movie into the mix, but much of Kick-Ass had me thinking about 2009’s Zombieland. Kick-Ass wants to be like that movie. It wants to be quirky, have a central character that grows and develops and memorable characters with bits of comedy sprinkled in. On paper, it does  have these things. Look a little deeper, and you’ll find some of the fundamental flaws that just don’t quite work as well. The difference is that Zombieland uses the idea of a zombie apocalypse as a means whereas Kick-Ass uses its comic book violence and action as an end when it really should not. It touches on some elements that, with a better script, would have come across as smarter, more poignant and you’ll end up actually caring about the characters more by focusing on the “human” side of them (which it tries to but cuts this approach off) and less on putting them in costumes and killing. Instead, it’s a violent movie with characters moving through it, rather than characters developing with the comic book violence set more in the background. It’s odd because the first half of the film or so is absolutely not this, but it eventually de-evolves into it.

Don’t let my rather lengthy detraction sway you too much, though. These are merely issues and questions that, had the script been a little sharper and more focused, might not have come up as much. It’s a matter of “will the odd moral confusion and strange thematic motifs detract from you or will what it does well be able to overshadow it?” For some reviewers, it’s “reprehensible.” That’s not really true. I think it’s just a bit “confused.” Still, it does its action and basic characterizations right (and Hit Girl will go down as iconic, trust me), but isn’t nearly as deep and meaningful as some tend to make it out to be. It’s just a really well-done, energetic action movie (similar to another film I love, Crank). If you look a little too harder at it past that, though, you start to see the problems with it. Enjoy it for what it does, don’t expect anything more outside that.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Kick-Ass 2

The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

The Good: As nasty and violent as its predecessor with a  stronger nod, and I would say a more capable nod, to comedic and satirical elements that the original Kick Ass never quite got right. Perhaps having the established world and characters taken care of in the first film helps a writer and director focus on just getting scenes right, even if it comes at the cost of keeping the story interesting.

Kick Ass 2 isn't trying to re-invent the wheel, perhaps that's why it doesn't quite have the "wow" factor of the original, but it continues the trend of the original nicely. You wouldn't think it was a new writer and new director because there really isn't a misstep in how the material is approached. The creative violence is there, the dark humor certainly there, and I would say done better than its predecessor in that regard, and the memorable characters simply continuing their story. Of course the most memorable character of the first film is given even more of a focus in this sequel. Considering that Chloe Grace Moretz has done a tremendous job bringing something as absurd as a young superhero that kills people to life and making her believable and sympathetic all the same, that's a good thing. Like the first film, she's the best thing in it.

The Bad: Though more balanced than its predecessor, meaning the film and therefore you have a better understanding of what is and isn't meant to be comedic - an issue I had with the first film never quite finding its right tone - Kick Ass 2 suffers from one major element that really brings the entire film down that the previous film didn't have as much of a problem with: if Chloe Grace Moretz isn't around, there's nothing interesting happening. She carries the weight of everything in the film, from the themes to the character arc to just having the most conclusive story in a film where our main hero isn't her at all. As much as Kick-Ass is the narrator, he's arguably the least interesting and certainly far from the most important character in his own movie.

That's something the first film at least kept in line: this is Kick Ass's story and we're going along with it. Here,  we hear him progress and narrate, yet the crux of everything falls on Moretz, much of which is just her and her life while the less interesting Kick Ass goes off on his own, continues to narrate, yet really has nothing insightful or meaningful to say. You just wait for Moretz, or to a lesser extent Christopher Mintz-Plasse, to show up and why the film shows such disinterest in its title character is pretty inexplicable.

The Ugly: Simply put, if you liked the first film and what it was working with, you'll like this one. If not, then why would you see a sequel to a movie you didn't like? For me, I had issues with the first film, particular the ending, but still enjoyed it. Kick Ass 2 is a solid continuation of those feelings.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Kids are All Right

In LA, Nic and Jules are a couple with a daughter, Joni, on her way to college and a son, Laser, at 15 a good athlete but maybe hanging out with the wrong pal. Laser wants Joni, who's now 18, to find out who their biological father is - a sperm donor. Without initially telling their moms, they meet him. He's Paul, a cool guy with a motorcycle, a restaurant, and an organic garden. Although Nic doesn't like the idea, the five of them get together a few times and the kids spend time with Paul. He hires Jules, who's had many brief vocations, to landscape his back yard, and Nic, who's an OB/GYN, decides to be a good sport and get to know Paul better. Can a family add a new member?

The Good: A wonderfully acted, smartly paced script is only hindered by poorly-written melodrama. You will love these characters and the ideas it presents, all of which take a "slice of life" approach rather than be on-the-nose or wear its values on its sleeve as they say. It comes across as genuine and real and never tries to overshoot its notion that it's a homosexual relationship between Nic and Jules (Bening and Moore). We learn as we would if we actually met them: at a diner table and with casual conversation, picking up little cues here and there about who these characters are rather than just have exposition explaining everything. It's gradual and believable and writer/director Lisa Cholodenko handles everything with delicate hands.

One strong note here is Mark Ruffalo. The film is full of great performances, but Ruffalo as Paul is just spot-on casting as he plays this rather likable yet somewhat "dim" person who really seems to take everything in stride when discovering he could very well have a family. Maybe it was something he wanted all along but could never figure out how, maybe he could truly love his children...but this is where the film falls a little flat as it seems to want to take us one way, then drops it entirely.

The Bad: Unfortunately I can't say much regarding this without utterly ruining the film for those who haven't seen it, so I'll try my best to keep spoilers out of it. But basically Paul (Ruffalo) is as much a victim as everyone else in the story, but he gets the short end of the stick. Did he not contribute to everyone's lives in some form? Did he not make a certain someone feel loved again? Did he not give Laser and Joni confidence to see things outside their own realm? The film treats him as a lesser character and logic simply doesn't fit into the plot equation.

Fuck it, I'll spoil it:

Jules makes a move on Paul and he goes with it over a period of seemingly weeks. She comes over. They bang. Rinse and repeat until the predictable outcome takes place.  It's interesting because it shows the parallel nature of gay and straight marriage, but let's not mince words: Jules took the first action. The result? Naturally Nic finds out along with the kids and they all shun Paul while Jules and Nic get back together. The end. So long Paul. All the stuff you helped in their lives means nothing now apparently and even though you made the same mistake Jules did, she is forgiven and you are tossed aside and no matter how awful you feel, too bad. That's the message I get and I really doubt that's the film's intention.

The Kids are All Right wants to live in this little bubble of idealism. All it took Jules to do was to say "I'm sorry" and everything was fine ("I'm sorry" delivered in a scene that plays against the entire realistic dialogue approach the film goes for I might add). Paul never even gets the chance and where is his life now? They all made each other better in some way, but while Nic and Jules and kids go on, Paul is forgotten. If he was a complete asshole and moron and non-sympathetic, I'd say let him go, but he wanted to be in their lives and they with him and he went with Jules's lead and his life is now utterly ruined as a result. No consequences to that plot line leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The Ugly:  I just feel that the tossing aside of Paul undermines the entire point of the film, almost to a point of spite. It states that relationships are hard and nothing is every black and white...so why treat this one character as such?

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Kikujiro

Brash, loudmouthed and opportunistic, Kikujiro hardly seems the ideal companion for little Masao who is determined to travel long distances to see the mother he has never met. Their excursion to the cycle races is the first of a series of adventures for the unlikely pair which soon turns out to be a whimsical journey of laughter and tears with a wide array of surprises and odd ball characters to meet along the way.

The Good: A sweet, touching and subtly moving film by someone who we least expect it from. The "road trip" tale is an easy story to accomplish. It helps structure a natural metaphor along the way, but you need the characters and "slice of life" moments along the way to make it a road with traveling down. Kikujiro does just that. It's a solemn film but hides it well with its light touches, a beautiful score by Joe Hisaishi and comedic gracefulness and timeliness. Along the trip as he tries to reunite a young boy with his mother, Kikujiro learns more about himself in the process. That's to be expected, that's the point of the story, but here it's done beautifully and gradually. In other words, it tends to reflect the small subtleties of life that build up to change a man than one major event of a road trip. It's the vignettes along the way of life that create us and the film never forgets that.

Kikujiro's strength is entirely thematic if not outright poetic. Two very different personalities that share a common trait: they are both lonly. It's beautiful in how it handles the relationship between Kikujiro and Masao ; it's not father and son or even "friends." It's more like a mutual understanding they have and the path they've chosen helps both learn the same lessons along the way, especially Kikujiro who has years of pent-up cynicism and resentment and, though it doesn't say it outright, looks to shield Masao from taking that same path he's stuck down. But he'll have these moments and the time with him, and the touching ending helps relay that in a "I just got goosebumps" kind of way.

Plus, this is a great look into Japan. The countryside, the home interiors, the entire approach showcases a side of Japan we simply don't see often in film - the everyday side. Kitano's eye is stunning here, both in how he photographs the land and how he utilizes the frame for comedy combined with smart editing. An example is when Kikujiro and the boy approach a van and they're looking to put a nail in the tire to cause a flat and help them get a ride. Kikujiro tells Masao to run off and find a nail. Masao leaves frame and Kikujiro tools around with the tire a bit more. Pull back to reveal that Masao is actually only about two feet away and stopped by the driver. Kitano's directing style is universal and it makes you wish he actually would do more comedy.

The Bad: Kikujiro is director Takeshi Kitano out of his element and is shows on some level, despite his polish as director. Tonally, it's completely uneven.  I found it works, though. Yes, it sometimes is unable to distinguish its dramatic purpose with its comedic take, but I don't think it ever undermines either. The small moments along the way help establish a variety that helps mask its unevenness. You begin to fall into their little life moments as well and succumb to the charm of the characters they meet.
Also, it's easy to share Kikujiro's annoyances with Masao. Masao can be a little grating at times in his downtrodden and overly depressed manner, and the deadpan style of Kitano doesn't quite help humanize a child. Still though, small complaint at best - he's still a lonly and isolated child much can be forgiven.

The Ugly: This is the very first film I saw with a score by Joe Hisaishi. Yes, I never saw all the Studio Gibli movies until well after this one - and I've been obsessed with the man's work ever sense. The main theme is stunning here, particularly in the final scene and shot as we reflect on all that's happened and as Kikujiro realizes he will probably never see Masao again.

Oh, and can anyone explain the very surreal interpretive dance sequence? I know it's the kid's dream and all, but it feels oddly out of place. Even a little frightening.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Kill Bill

The lead character, called 'The Bride,' was a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, lead by her lover 'Bill.' Upon realizing she was pregnant with Bill's child, 'The Bride' decided to escape her life as a killer. She fled to Texas, met a young man, and on the day of their wedding was gunned down by an angry and jealous Bill (with the assistance of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad). Four years later, 'The Bride' wakes from a coma, and discovers her baby is gone. She, then, decides to seek revenge upon the five people who destroyed her life and killed her baby.
 

The Good: High energy keeps the rather simple revenge tale on its toes and us on the edge of our seats. Excessive doesn’t begin to describe the film nor does the word “love” fitting describe the obvious affection Tarantino has for classic exploitation cinema. It’s a throwback in every sense of the word, from music, violence, camera style and acting. We relish in its hours of one-liners by the memorable characters, blood and kinetic free-flowing vigor. Thurman, so undeniable perfect as our heroine, sells it from beginning to end and despite her long history of solid acting, gives a character that feels as though she’d been building up to it. for years. There it was, waiting all along, for some mad scientist named Quentin to unleash it. They work with each other, through each other and for each other, there’s a chemistry here between the director and star that is rarely seen; not really seen, even, since the hey-days of Scorsese and De Niro where the love off screen finds its way on screen, the two daring each other with their own work. The script is probably one of Tarantino’s most simple stories, just laid out over many hours and with many scene changes, and we can appreciate it more in this regard. It uses flashback effectively, voice over only when necessary and the action knows when to be insane and when to be balanced and subdued. It’s smarter than it gets credit for and more fun than I think Tarantino even realizes.

The Bad: Kill Bill is an uneven saga. It lacks the subtle humor Tarantino is known for (and sometimes shoots for here but misses) as well as his usual dialogue approach that, while a shtick, at least felt wonderful and natural. Here if shoehorns it in despite the occasional moments of brilliance (notably the final scenes). It’s been noted Volume 2 is better than Volume 1, this is true because it settles Tarantino more back into his comfort zone of familiarity with better pacing and more suspense. The Saga is comprehensive, however, and what should have been a two part epic ends up how most people look at it now: two completely different, and barely related, films. Tarantino indulges himself in the first volume then shifts gears, yet at the same time he insists it be looked at as one piece. This disparity is jarring, but relatively minor in the grand scheme of the four hours we watch The Bride cut a swathe through everone on her vendetta.
 
The Ugly: It might be disgusting yet it's oh-so poetic. The fight with the Crazy 88 is classic Japanese Chambara at its best, and it wasn't even made by a Japanese filmmaker.
 
Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Kill List

Nearly a year after a botched job, a hitman takes a new assignment with the promise of a big payoff for three killings. What starts off as an easy task soon unravels, sending the killer into the heart of darkness. 

The Good: Just how far will the rabbit hole go? That, in a sense, is how a movie like Kill List works: a protagonist (the word "hero" doesn't quite fit in here) takes up the mantle as a contract killer. Soon, it shifts from a job to help his family's ends meet to a part of the man himself. In fact, you might even say he enjoys it. The people he kills and, in some cases, tortures, aren't good people - though he doesn't really ask too much about who they are in the first place. He kind of just assumes probably because he's become so into his work he'll find any excuse for it. The movie shifts again to a very strange job, the one that'll bring it to its conclusion and certainly have you question everything you had just seen.

Kill List is built about build up and lots of it. It's a psychological journey, but also an unsettling one that, should I go into detail on, would do a disservice to the entirety of all that build up. It's a left-field type of piece, done in chapter by chapter and each having you question everything you're seeing and wondering exactly what the hell is going on. It has an incredible style to it and the acting is utterly spectacular, easily the best thing that carries the heaviness of the script with conviction.

The Bad: If only the pace carried through the third act, you would have what could arguably a masterpiece of horror cinema. Kill List, unfortunately, looks to wrap itself up far too quickly and with little sense of completion - more that it needs to end rather than wants to plan out its ending. As out-of-left-field (and still incredibly good despite the sudden shift) as our final moments with the film are, it's mishandled and rushed. The film also really want's to end itself due to the fact there's a hell of a lot of loose threads, unanswered questions and odd story events that seem to interconnect as you're going along, but they reveal themselves the more you contemplate on the "why" and so forth.

The Ugly: With a bit of a sharper script, I think this one would go down as an absolute classic. It just misses the mark, though, and I think I find myself more disappointed into what it nearly was, because those flashes are damn sure there, rather than really enjoying what it is.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Kill the Irishman

The true story of Danny Greene, a tough Irish thug working for mobsters in Cleveland during the 1970's.

The Good: Cadillacs. Leather coats. Guns. Gangsters. Sideburns. 1970s gangsters had a style, a swagger, a cigarette smoking-shotgun-toting way of life. Kill the Irishman doesn't simply take place in the 1970s, it lives in it and we're transported to this time and place so convincingly you forget that it's a 2011 film. It's gritty and gritty and dirty world, and Kill the Irishman wouldn't have it any other way.

Think of every character actor from a crime/gangster movie and you'll see them in this film. Hell, you'll probably see the actor that comes to mind when you see them as the movie plays out. Truth is, you might have seen this movie a dozen times before on top of that, it's story isn't anything new. But those other gangster movies? They don't have Danny Green, played in impressive form by Ray Stevenson who transforms himself into this larger-than-life character that was both loved and hated in the greater Cleveland area.

Kill the Irishman is a raw movie. It's not rough, though, as in how it's crafted. At least in terms of presentation. It's incredibly well directed and beautifully shot, the sets and costumes are top-notch and you can't help but love the ride you're taking with Danny Green as everyone seems to want the guy dead. It's an efficient and straightforward gangster flick with a hell of a lot of character and charisma.

The Bad: Despite it's engrossing lead and enjoyable sense of atmosphere, Kill the Irishman is more expository than fluid. It stalls, turns, then stalls again with its plot and story. It's disjointed and sometimes hard to follow with characters that come and go so often that you rarely get a handle of who they are and why you should care. Greene is the centerpiece to this turmoil, but much of the uninspired nature of the plot points and forgettable characters around him reflect on him, causing for us to realize that he's about the only "great" thing in the film with everything else merely passable and straightforward. For fans of the genre, though, this is one that will probably appeal to them.

The Ugly:  I know Val is getting up there in age, but he's looked better these days.  Hell, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang had him looking trim and fit and that wasn't too long ago. Still, he's a damn good actor no matter his weight status. It's just that he looks so unnatural to a degree where it's almost distracting. He'll always be my Huckleberry, though.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Kill the Messenger

A reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA's role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California. Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb.              

The Good: Jeremy Renner is a good actor. In fact, I'd go as so far that he might have some greatness in him. He's versatile enough that he can do drama, comedy and big-budget action and isn't afraid to try new things and in the case of this latest, he arguably carries the entire movie on his shoulders. Kill the Messenger is a straight-up drama in the vein of The Conversation or All the President's Men - all about shadows and secrets and a man trying to do the right thing but having his life torn apart as a result. It may not be as polished as those, but it's desire for "truth seeking" and obsession and having a strong lead character that you feel some great empathy for makes up for that.

Also paranoia. A lot of paranoia. The movie intentionally plays around in ambiguities - we never quite get the full picture and that actually works to the story's strengths in not knowing all the details (and, in a way, a reflection of the actual real life story). The fact it kind of leaves you wanting more answers, or maybe have more people held accountable and give us answers, makes it all bitter and that feels like the intention. It’s a forgotten moment in US Political History that all started on one man, and whether or not you are for or against him or believe his tale, he’s still a tragic character you want to see win.

The Bad: Kill the Messenger has a manner of wanting to be passionate about its story but it does a pretty poor job in giving the audience that passion. It gets you interested well enough, it's an interesting story, but it doesn't land that final note on the thing and bring it all home. The “thing” in question is a resonance. Something to take away from it. Because the true life element itself has a lot of questions and holes and uncertainties, the story can’t do a whole lot to give you that sensation that it feels complete or final.

It all kind of ended with more questions than answers, so the movie has to go out on an emotional beat and just can't manage it. It's trying. Renner is trying. The emotional anger is there, just not the full picture or why I should be angry or upset or sad...

...and I think it comes down to not quite having a villain here. I want to be angry at the media, but I can't. I want to be angry at the government and all the secrets. But I can't. The only thing that I can feel is a bit sad that a father of three had his entire life destroyed by simply writing one article and chasing a story that nobody else would. Whether it was accurate or not isn't important, so maybe that's where my problems arose: it focused on that "interesting" stuff and not enough of the emotional impact to fill that full circle earned.

The Ugly: I really, really wanted this movie to go after how media treats their own - now a bit more relevant than ever with people being thrown under busses or making shit up. Kill the Messenger could have ended up much more clever and smarter than what it is.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Killer Elite

When his mentor is taken captive, a retired member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service is forced into action. His mission: kill three assassins dispatched by their cunning leader.

The Good: Intense action, fighting and gunfire. If that's all you want in your action movie, and there's nothing wrong with that, then you'll get just that. Sure the story is a mess and the characters forgettable, but you have solid stunt work and well directed fight and chase sequences. For a first time director to wrangle all that in and make it look good, it's pretty impressive. The actors play their parts well enough, though given incredibly little to work with even for action movie standards, and there's some great action sequences paced out nicely from beginning to end to sustain your interest for the duration of the movie. It's a period flick and has great atmosphere as its set in a time when movies like this were a bit more common and a, sadly, far better made.

The Bad: Killer Elite has one of the most confusing plots and stories I think I've ever seen in an action thriller. Perhaps it tries to be more than it is, reaching well beyond its means with sub plots, twists and character allegiances all over the place, but in reality it's just sloppy.

There's really no other complaint other than that, however it's a significant one. Killer Elite is structurally all over the place, it's paced well in action but not in terms of character or story progression and it treats its plot as an afterthought more than something natural where action sequences will organically develop from it. It always has gears working but nothing ever connecting the cogs to build to some. It's a film with some nice action moments, but it's easily forgettable once it's over.

The Ugly: There are far worse action movies out there, but far better ones as well. Though Killer Elite isn't a horrible way to spend your time, it's unfortunately it ends up so blandly by the end. Good stunts and set pieces, nice staging, but the path to get to all those is flat and damn uninspired.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Killer Inside Me

Sadism and masochism beneath a veneer of revenge. Lou Ford is a mild-mannered sheriff's deputy in an Oklahoma oil town in the late 1940s. His boss sends him to roust a prostitute living in a rural house. She slaps him; he hits her, then, after daily sex for the next few weeks, he decides it's love. She's devoted to him and becomes his pawn in a revenge plot she thinks is to shakedown the son of Chester Conway, the town's wealthy king of construction. Lou has a different plan, and bodies pile up as murder leads to murder. The district attorney suspects Lou, and Conway may have an inkling, but Lou stays cool. Is love, or at least peace, in the cards?

The Good: In the mind of insanity, everything is logical. It’s all relative, you see. We might look at someone like Lou Ford, Casey Affleck’s character, as despicable, disgusting and a monster. To Ford, though, everything makes complete sense. His loneliness (and boredom in life) is spawned by visceral violence and sex. His logic sensors in his own, lonely world thinks everything makes perfect sense. It’s interesting because, through Affleck’s brilliant and calculated performance, we see a man that KNOWS what he is doing is wrong...but he’s so detached and in his own world he looks at it more as an experiment of curiosity than something that is absolutely wrong and horrific. The Killer Inside Me is an intriguing and rather smart study of one man completely stoic in ever facet of his life and unrecognizable as a human being.

He wears a mask, hiding behind a pretty face and a badge. Behind that, he has urges that must go fulfilled. It’s not done in glory or in a beautiful splendor of red. The Killer Inside Me is rather upfront and honest when it comes to violence. It’s not sensationalized or over done with dramatic orchestral hits. It’s done in a quiet home on a summer’s evening when something simply “snaps” and punches are thrown with a stone-face and no words uttered other than “why?” It’s saddening, often difficult, to sit and watch. Director Michael Winterbottom puts it front and center, not taking us away or to leave anything to the imagination. His camera literally says “this is a horrible man, now watch him do these horrible things.”

But, again, to that man he’s not necessarily horrible. He’s just...interested. He uses it as a release of calculated violence as though he were writing a term paper. In many respects, The Killer Inside Me is a success of a character study and an intriguing analysis of the origins of the mental state of murderers. However, outside of Affleck’s superb acting, The Killer Inside Me fails to make a complete impression.

The Bad: The worst thing about The Killer Inside Me is that it can be an utter bore sometimes. While the dynamic and often brutal look into a man’s mind of cold, emotionless violence can be intriguing, that cold and emotionless “feeling” is running through the film as a whole. Its commentary on “logical violence in the mind of insanity” is more intriguing than it is profoundly revealing of the human condition. Finely crafted, acted (again, especially a very sincere performance by Affleck) and directed, yes. Something that will make an impression beyond the brutal violence and sadist way of thinking? No. It’s American Psycho without the satire and it plays itself completely straight and honest. That’s admirable, but forgettable and detached nonetheless.

I’d like to think that detachment of the audience is meant to reflect, if not transcend from the screen, the detachment of humanity that Casey Affleck’s character has to the world. However, I feel that’s giving the writer and director too much credit. The brutality, front and center, and the cold stares are far too serious and difficult to think that anything beyond showing brutality was all that was on their mind. There’s elements to admire here, but nothing to take with you other than a bad taste in your mouth.

The Ugly: Do not watch this with women. Just...don't.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Killer Joe

When a debt puts a young man's life in danger, he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance. 

The Good: Killer Joe is about what you would expect from a William Friedkin film. It's bold. A little daring. Certainly odd. And certainly not for everyone. Often the "it's not for everyone" is a bit of a cop-out for critics. You can say that for anything, so I don't use it as loosely as most tend to. But the fact is, this is a film that's appropriate for that particular phrase. It's geared towards a certain aesthetic that I can see, quite easily, being appealing to one group, and very, very offensive to another. Either way, it's something that can be a bit admired in it's wiliness to just push the envelope. I mean, the opening scene we're greeted by a woman's vagina, and that kind of sets the bar for the rest of the film.
Well, whatever the point of Killer Joe is, it's hard to figure out. Nobody is particularly likeable, you don't route for a single character, you kind of wish the whole trailer they're in would just catch fire and burn down.

Yet, there's a catharsis here spearheaded by Matthew McConaughey's Joe, easily the man's best acting in years, probably ever. You hate Joe, yet you route for him. Just like about every other character in the film in that respect. McConaughey is enigmatic in the role, though the cynicism of the film probably overshadows the subtle qualities he brings to the character. It never swings one way or the other, it just sets it all on the table and then beats them to a pulp. Literally and figuratively.

The Bad: Nobody here is a person, necessarily, as much as they are stereotyped personalities that we never really know a single thing about. We don't learn anything about them, they have nothing to really tell us, there's no message here. It's really just a very nasty, bleak movie glorifying dysfunctional depravity with violence, sex and Matthew McConaughey's penis.

It is, most certainly, a film you might just walk out of and, or the very least, never see again if you can sit through the very rough final fifteen minutes. It's a very cruel, mean-spirited film that, if it had something worthwhile to say, might make the whole thing worthwhile. But it doesn't, and you start wondering why you bothered to see it as the credits roll. Assuming you made it that far.

The Ugly: Some have Killer Joe listed this as a dark comedy. I really don't see that. There are a few funny moments, more like drive-by bits of puns dropped in to the film, but it's a pretty weird flick, and the weirdness is more awkward than comedic.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Killer's Kiss

Prize-fighter Davy Gordon intervenes when private dancer Gloria Price is being attacked by her employer and lover Vincent Raphello. This brings the two together and they get involved with each other, which displeases Raphello. He sends men out to kill Davy, but they instead kill his friend. Gloria is soon kidnapped by Raphello and his men, and it is up to Davy to save her.

The Good: Beautifully shot by Stanley Kubrick, who’s eye is daring even in this, one of his first films. His years as a photographer are showcased, giving us fantastic shots and contrasts in gorgeous black and white. While it can be said he takes a minimalist and simplistic approach, offering flashes of surrealism, it works with the story and draws you in.

The Bad: Kubrick had yet to master storytelling, as this film indicates. It’s a fairly simple film-noir but offers nothing new to that genre, outside some fairly creative directing at times, for the viewer.  The acting is well below standard, pacing sluggish (sometimes just static, like a photograph) and a repetitive soundtrack. It’s a B-movie that just happens to look nice. There were better noir thrillers even years before this one.

The Ugly: Unlike many reviewers, I’m not going to review this in hindsight as an example of future brilliance from a great director. I judge it on the film alone, low-budget and all, and this is far from Kubrick’s best work.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Killing

Ex-convict Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) tells his girl friend, Fay (Coleen Gray), he has plans for making money, and indeed he has. He rounds up a gang and brings them in on a seemingly fool-proof scheme to rob a race track of $200,000. The first thread unravels when Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor), wife of gang-member George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), tells her boyfriend Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) about the plan, and he cuts himself in on that action also. The robbery is completed and the gang goes to the hideout where Johnny will join them later. Val sticks up the robbers, a shot is fired, and all hands are soon dispatched. Johnny, with the money in a suitcase, joins Fay at the airport. And the fat lady still hasn't sung.

The Good: Kubrick came into his own with The Killing. While it doesn’t quite have his signature style just yet, it offers a suspenseful thriller, great shots of beautiful black and white and intriguing characters that rope you into their world. Kubrick was even able to acquire a well-respected actor in Sterling Hayden. While it takes a little bit to get the story going, the plot and suspense begins to take shape and you’re given a remarkable noir heist movie. What’s more remarkable is the entire film was shot in less than a month. It’s a B-Movie polished up to A status thanks to its director and very smart script.

The Bad: Due to the non-linear structure, and audiences at the time not quite accepting of that style (even after Citizen Kane), a narrator was put in to explain things. This disembodied voice, mainly put in at the beginning of scenes, is like a bland newscaster, noticeably reading off of a card and dates the movie badly. Not only that, this was entirely insisted by the studio and Kubrick set out to more or less ruin the narration (and thus the film) by feeding in lines that were wrong or made no sense.

The Ugly: The fight scene. You can't miss it, it just keeps going and going. It ends up more comedic than I think was intended and I expected someone to say “Oh no…my shirt ripped off...silly me, now I have to show off my muscles.”

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Killing Them Softly

 

Jackie Cogan is an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys rob a Mob protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse.

The Good: Full of great character actors and a solid, dark turn by Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly may not go down as a "great" crime flick about gangsters, the mob and "hits" but it is one that that fans of the genre will probably enjoy. It's stylish, gritty, incredibly well-directed and maintains a great atmosphere - a sense of dreariness, poverty and darkness of an underworld hidden from the view of our supposed "upstanding" society.

Killing The Softly is smart. The script flows well thanks to interesting characters giving out very interesting and intelligent dialogue. Natural. Easy to follow. Not overly-complicated with twists and turns: it's a pretty straightforward mob movie with a lot of style and a good dose of killing (them softly). Brad Pitt as Jackie is a compelling lead, though he's really just a cog in a wheel. Exchanges and scenes vary from darkly violent to surprisingly darkly comedic without sacrificing a consistent tone, though the themes and "message" of the film undermines all that.

The Bad: Killing Them Softly, unfortunately, can't go five minutes without some voice over, a paper or billboard, television in the background or radio on with a politician or pundit discussing the economic collapse. The film is attempting to draw a parallel between organized crime, the government and the economy's impact of it all. It does, but it overkills it. After a while, you say "thanks, we get it, you don't need to remind us every other scene." It eventually becomes so distracting that you begin to ignore the story and try to pick out those parts on their own - like trying to pick out cameos in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World or making a drinking game for a Twilight film.

This, and really this alone, hinders the entire film. It's full of great style, performances and a solid script…but this one thing that extends throughout the film from the first scene to the last turns in to an annoyance like a fly who keeps buzzing at a window trying to get out and you can't find it. It's all the more surprising consider the command of subtlety and reservation that director Andrew Dominik had over his previous film.

The Ugly: This also would have been better if was a period piece, as the source material was.  But that's preference, not a fault like what is mentioned in the "bad" section above. Seriously…this would have been one of my favorites of the year had it not beaten the political and sociological metaphor in to the ground.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Kind Hearts and Coronets

A distant poor relative of the Duke of D'Ascoyne plots to inherit the title by murdering the eight other heirs who stand ahead of him in the line of succession.

The Good: If we were to list the great comedies, you’d probably see all sorts of familiars. Your Blazing Saddles and your Duck Soups, Dr. Strangeloves and Spinal Taps, but one that probably won’t be lauded is Kind Hearts and Coronets. Perhaps it’s because it’s a British film and, more often than not, only the Hollywood movies with Hollywood stars seem to get recognition when it comes to comedies. It’s like the film Peeping Tom, every bit a masterpiece of a suspense cinema but pretty stuck in the region until the likes of home video and, now, DVD. I compare it because, like Peeing Tom for suspense, Kind Hearts and Coronets is an absolute masterpiece of comedy. It’s dark, well ahead of its time and something t

Ealing Studios during this period had this little fella named Alec Guinness. Guinness made Ealing, and Ealing made Guinness. They produced about five comedies together, I would look that up but it won’t make a difference – either way it was a very fruitful relationship. The best, though, was still the first thanks to Ealing producing something pretty dark and daring for a comedy, a story of a serial killer killing off heirs of a wealthy family isn’t exactly “funny” on paper, and Guinness portraying eight different characters from said family that’s to be killed. Various ages, sexes, sizes and mannerisms and all being killed of in just as various of ways. It’s all rather simple if you think about it, and the structure is naturally there for the story to be told. It’s in the execution where it all works and the dark and dry, almost matter-of-fact British humor that makes it comedic.

The Bad: Other than a few pacing elements that seem to go too fast or too slow, and those are just minor, there’s not a lot of fault to be had with Kind Hearts and Coronets. In fact, those that tend to see it usually end up loving it and it’s held in pretty damn high regard in film circles. You can’t say there’s no “hero” here or that the protagonist is reprehensible because he’s meant to be. That’s the point. You route for him yet don’t want to route for him. Maybe that element might cause some feeling uncertain on whether or not they can even like our main character to begin with.

The Ugly: Guinness in drag still looks like Guinness in drag.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The King of Comedy

Rupert Pupkin is obsessed with becoming a comedy great. However, when he confronts his idol, talk show host Jerry Langford, with a plea to perform on Jerry's show, he is only given the run-around. He does not give up, however, but persists in stalking Jerry until he gets what he wants. Eventually he must team up with his psychotic Langford-obsessed friend Masha to kidnap the talk show host in hopes of finally getting to perform his stand-up routine.

The Good: If the likes of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver didn't tell people how amazing of an actor Robert DeNiro was, the King of Comedy surely did. Out of all his roles, this one was the most difficult and one of his best (including Scorsese's personal favorite). The performances carry the entire film through the jumbled amalgamation of scenes and thematic melange and are the foundation of the entire film. The story is dark but intriguing.

The Bad: The King of Comedy is known as a bit of Black Sheep in Scorsese's filmography (although Temptation of Christ is there as well, but at least people know about that one). it's a comedy, although a dark one at times, and its in this that I think explains why Scorsese isn't known as a "comedic" director as it shows in this film. He hinges on DeNiro to carry it, which he does, but the tone is either oddly funny or oddly dark. There's really no clear definition of what type of movie it is and, occasionally, you aren't sure if you should be laughing or cringing knowing how bizarre a character Rupert is and that what he is doing is inherently wrong. It's a frustrating film, like an artist trying to find the right color to paint his masterpiece ...sometimes the colors are vivid and perfect, other times they blend into an ugly brownish tint. I also find it a rather difficult one to review. It's not necessarily "bad" but is one of those films you see once and probably won't mind if you don't see it again.

The Ugly: There's no question this is Scorsese's most overlooked film. It's well made, but the content may not sit right with some people and that is reflected in the reviews at the time which ranged from high praise to harsh bitterness.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


King Kong

Carl Denham needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location; Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This 'soon-to-be-unfortunate' soul is Ann Darrow. No one knows what they will encounter on this island and why it is so mysterious, but once they reach it, they will soon find out. Living on this hidden island is a giant gorilla and this beast now has Ann is its grasps. Carl and Ann's new love, Jack Driscoll must travel through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of creatures and beasts. But Carl has another plan in mind.
 

The Good: King Kong isn't a bad film. In fact, it's incredibly entertaining as it throws in many elements people love about movies while still retaining the nostalgic tendencies of the original classic. It has romance, adventure, special effects, fun characters and so on...but perhaps it has too much of all those elements. There are good things within the 3+ hours of special-effects laden film, notably great characters with a wonderful turn by Jack Black, Naomi Watts as a fantastic damsel in distress (yet strong willed), Adrien Brody with a strong lead and an underrated Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter: an actor who will never live up to the heroes he portrays. They are all, surprisingly, well developed and enjoyable, even the ones we aren't supposed to like.
 
The Bad: How in the Hell do you take a movie that's only a little over an hour and half and transform it into 200 minutes of sloggy, self-serving pretension? Give it to Peter Jackson, apparently. He wanted to make it an epic, what he fails to realize is that an epic doesn't automatically mean you have to wade through three hours and a half hours of a film. King Kong is simply too damn long for its own good. The solid performances and classic story are lost in the nature of Jackson's directing and computer effects.

The Ugly: You can see the A and B team differences when it comes to special effects. Some are fantastic, others are laughably obvious.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The King's Speech

Tells the story of the man who became King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II. After his brother abdicates, George ('Bertie') reluctantly assumes the throne. Plagued by a dreaded stutter and considered unfit to be king, Bertie engages the help of an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Through a set of unexpected techniques, and as a result of an unlikely friendship, Bertie is able to find his voice and boldly lead the country through war.

The Good: A perfect and spot-on cast can truly enrich a film. The King's Speech, though, goes one step further with a superb script for them to flourish in and, even further, be stunningly shot on top of it all. It's a film that has all the stars in alignment and really doesn't miss a single beat in grace, humor and drama. Larger in scope than its humble plotline might indicate, The King's Speech goes beyond merely a story of a man-to-be-king and into the importance of leadership and the emotions and reactions of the people of an entire nation in a time of turmoil.

There's one scene in particular, though, that showcases all the film is and the great heart beating within it. After a difficult revelation, Bertie (Firth) sits down with the one friend he feels he has in the world, Lionel (Rush). It's in this scene where we see both Firth and Rush shine, and the dialogue just flow as he casually and eloquently (as a man with a speech impediment can) tell us the worries of his life. His father's failures. His nanny's abuse. His brother's lack of love towards him. It's the tentpole of the entire film and is its defining trait: it's about a man with a burden and his wonderful friend, a completely opposite in class and style, that helps him through it. This is compounded in a reflective scene towards the end that is utterly powerful in its handling.

The rest of the film could have faltered and still it would have been a good movie based on this one rather moving and heartfelt scene. But obviously it's not. It's a damn flawless piece of filmmaking that shows richness and depth that peeks beyond the curtain of crowns and public images. It follows a formula but never feels like it is. It somehow hides it and engages it as the "underdog" story it really is. It's a remarkable script and handles itself lightly and never over-bearing with drama except at pinpoint moments that really hit the mark. It has humor as all great friendships will have that keeps us in line to its message of life and friendship. It's in that where Bertie beats the odds and finds his true calling even after he places that crown on his head.

The Bad: The movie received an R for words. There's nothing violent or sexual or disgusting. Just those darn big-boy words that MPAA has to check off their list. "Oh, he said 'fuck' more than once. R Rating everyone!" Give me a break.

Outside of that debacle, the love element between Firth and Helena Bonham Carter can come across a little stiff at times. They both must act a certain way and that doesn't necessarily translate well to the expression of emotive love between the two, only a matter-of-fact and expected relationship. I have no doubt they do love each other, Elizabeth goes beyond the call of duty to support George (aka Bertie) but their "love" is never really strong despite taking up a good portion of time. It's still an engaging relationship, just not quite as moving as the firenship between Bertie and Lionel.

The Ugly: Might as well give Firth the Oscar now. An unbelievable performance and there's no doubt he should win it.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut)

Balian of Ibelin travels to Jerusalem during the crusades of the 12th century, and there he finds himself as the defender of the city and its people.

The Good: One of the finest production and artistic achievements of the past ten years, Kingdom of Heave is ambitious, complex and daring to go against the belief that it's just a "war action movie" and instead takes the "thinking man's epic" route. It's one of the most beautifully shot, framed and staged films as well, never trying to do too much and letting the images do most of the talking.

The acting, the score, the imagery - this is simply one of the most remarkable movies and simply must be seen. It's not a simple film as other epics of its kind might be (Braveheart for example) but has a great deal to say that has nothing to do with battles and swords clanking together. It's about religion, the blurred and often misunderstood lines of faith and belief and man's own will and desire to shape it as he sees fit as well as the cycle of endless conceptual ideologies that guide men to goals they may or may not even desire. It's more a study than it is a simple action movie and one of numerous layers that evolve, alter and shape a narrative that acts more like a poem than merely a story about the siege of Jerusalem.  

The Bad: If this were the theatrical version, I would give it a 3 out of 5 thanks to large set pieces and lavish visuals. But this cut fixes in the problems the original  theatrical release had. The characters have depth, the plot makes more sense, the lyrical beauty of many elements is given far, far more weight and it has more to say about religion than you could ever imagine. Even Orlando Bloom's performance is validated in a more meaningful way, though he still doesn't quite strike you as the hero with sword-in-hand type as he should - nonetheless his arc feels more satisfactory and complete.

Really, the only significant flaw is the sudden disappearance of Jeremy Iron's character from everything and a very forced conclusion to have a swordfight to really bring down the true bad guy of the story.  Perhaps I missed Iron's departure, but I've seen the film a good three or four times and I think he just vanishes outright despite discussing prepping defenses of Jerusalem.

The Ugly: It's unfortunate that this version, the director's original cut, is the one most won't go and see. Look on Rotten Tomatoes or other review sites for Kingdom of Heaven, and the panned original theatrical cut (45 minutes shorter) has the reviews low. Ask any person who has seen the director's cut, though, and they will probably tell you it's one of the most brilliant sweeping epics to ever be made.

Entire plots are reinserted, not just extra content but significant character arcs (and characters entirely). The original release is an abomination - made to appear more an action movie rather than the rather classical approach that would have made David Lean proud.  Over time, this will be the definitive version, not the one panned and snubbed by the Oscars - and it's not the first Scott film to have a notoriously superior version than the original theatrical cut (Blade Runner).

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Kingsman: The Secret Service

A spy organization recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid into the agency's ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius.

The Good: It might start a little rough, if not often clunky and a bit aimless, but once Kingsman gets going, finds its footing and knows what kind of movie it wants to be, it totally nails it. It's witty and clever without being snarky, it's satirical without being pretentious (too much) and its a fun movie that also has just enough dramatic flare to give it some weight.

What's great about Kingsman if that it feels fresh. There's an energy that just leaps off the screen - one where everyone is in on the joke and having fun with it. It takes this old ideas about spy movies/chosen one movies/YA novels and just mixes it up, slaps on an R rating, throws in a ton of bad words and innuendos and enjoying playing up the classic ideas of a spy adventure (more absurdest Moore than suave Connery).

Director Matthew Vaughn gives it a fantastic sense of style and directs some of the best action scenes you could ask for - he has always been able to do that going back to his directorial debut, Stardust. More importantly, though, is the casting of the movie. I don't think there was a single bad performance here, but Colin Firth most notably stands out. Here's a guy in his 50s, looks and moves 20 years younger and you totally buy every second of him shooting, running, punching and absolutely decimating everyone in his way. He's "old James Bond" but unlike Moore's later years where he's obviously winded and its obviously a stunt double, this one sells its actor.
The cast around him is equally as great, even if some have little to do, and the world built to explain this Secret Service and its arch villain is given fantastic time and focus without feeling too expository in the process. It's a fun movie in that "I can't believe I just saw that" type of way - one where you go "oooh!" when someone gets punched or shot and its actors give a slight wink.

The Bad: The rough start to the movie is strange. Much of the second and third acts are polished and move well with its story, yet the part that is the most simple (an origin story) is clumsy and uncertain with itself. It's as though it can quite nail the tone: does it want to be a serious spy flick or does it want to be more irreverent.
Eventually, it decides on that irreverence, but the beats and more dramatic nature of the films beginnings really don't set that stage well, and when it does make that transition it's pretty noticeable. Remarks are a little wittier. Comedy falls less flat. Characters seem more confident in what they're doing and scenes have points to them rather than feeling like small vignettes.

While most of the rest of the film more than makes up for the shaky start, there is one or two minor things that are tough to overlook. Certain twists come out of nowhere. Certain characters seemingly have little to nothing to do. One or two plotlines sorely underdeveloped. In other words, it's kind of the same thing that seems to follow Matthew Vaughn's career. When he hits, he hits. When he misses, it's noticeable. Yet, there's so much solid stuff happening in all of them that the shortcomings are easy to let go and just enjoy the ride.

The Ugly: There's an absolute cathartic action scene that is a wonderful wish-fulfillment. Hey, nobody is going to do that in real life, so let's just do it vicariously in a movie and say "this is what we think of you people."

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

A murder mystery brings together a private eye, a struggling actress, and a thief masquerading as an actor.

The Good: A comedy of errors and mistaken identities, all while poking fun at the very business that created it. Oh, and it's a damn fun piece of film noir all the while. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a film that tries to be a lot of things and pretty much succeeds in being all of them. It's irreverent and funny, but it's an incredibly smart and clever piece of mystery fiction as well. It's charming when it wants to be, funny when it should be and violent when it needs to be.

Shane Black has been a screenwriter for a long, long time. He has a unique style, mixing various genres incredibly well throughout all of his movies (comedy and action most notably, with Lethal Weapon being his highlight) but more relevantly is he has a unique handling of dialogue. It's a mix of banter, humor, minutia and purpose and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has some of the most engrossing and fun dialogue put to screen - sometimes with jokes flying so under the radar you need to rewatch to catch them all. The quality of all those fancy words and phrases is only as good as the actors that deliver it, and Robert Downey Jr as well as Val Kilmer are just masters at it. It's noir and comedy meets quirky self-referential humor and homages to the genre as a whole. Throw in a solid director able to take in all the cutaways and flashbacks and quips and make it all coherent, you end up with a very unique, funny and entertaining film that is really one of the more under appreciated films of the past ten years.

The Bad: It's flashy and quick to a pun, but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a film you can't really follow most of the time. It's not that it's complex, it's that it throws so much at you, often in a span of just a few minutes, you aren't sure what you should be paying attention to or even why. Add in the fact that we are, quite literally, told we should be paying attention about 15 minutes in by our narrator (in a pretty cheap "gotcha" angle) seems to make the film a bit more of a difficult watch than it should be. This is a movie you want to sit and just enjoy (and you will) but you'll also be racking your brain trying to keep things in line and track it as it progresses.

It's also a film that dwells in darkness. It's a black comedy, but it's also very cynical. Sub-plots and references seem to go nowhere at times and the jaded nature of it all can cause one to just stop caring. Yet, you can't…because the film forces you to have to pay attention and you realize that it's one of those movies where 30 minutes feels like an hour, and 100 minutes an eternity with all it's trying to do and put into its story. Though the presence of the actors at the top of their game more than keeps us at attention, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is movie that demands too much of its audience at times.

The Ugly: Many have looked to this film as the one that really put Robert Downey Jr. back on the map. I can't say that for certain, but it certainly showed him doing what he does best: banter. There's not a lot of actors out there that can deliver dialogue so fluidly and convincingly with such calculated casualness.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5    


The Kite Runner

In 1978, Amir and Hassan are young boys living in Kabul, where Hassan and his father, Ali, work as servants for Amir and his father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi). Amir and Hassan make an excellent team in kite competitions, with Hassan having a gift for running down kites, but after one contest, he is bullied by Assef, who does unspeakable things to him as Amir watches from a distance and then runs away, not helping his friend. As the Russians and then the Taliban take over Afghanistan, Baba and Amir escape to America, where they make a new home in San Francisco. But even as he graduates from college and meets a beautiful young woman, Soraya, who is also from Kabul, Amir is haunted by his cowardice and can't turn down an opportunity to try to make things right when it is offered by his father's old friend Rahim Khan--even if it means risking his life

The Good: "For you…a thousand times over." Only until that final line is spoken do we fully understand and get our protagonist, Amir, and thus fully understand the story. The Kite Runner is a tale of regret and redemption and is one of the most heartfelt and touching films you will ever see. It shows us the human condition that is universally relateable, even in foreign lands where much of this story takes place. Sometimes when a movie is able to reach out to you with sincerity and sentiment, you are able to overlook the faults it might have otherwise.

The Bad: I found it interesting, as I so often do, that "bad" reviews of the film still admit to its humanity and moving sentiment. The film has its flaws, yes, but it does what we want these films to do: movie us. If it achieves this goal does that not, at the very least, overshadow the other flaws. That’s not to say you can’t be critical: the film is sluggish one minute yet rushed the next, a friend suddenly turning on another is never full explained and it tells us nothing new regarding Afgan people or society (in fact it plays more up to our own assumptions and negative views if anything) …but if you are moved by something, how can you say it’s "bad?" There are countless films with similar stories that might be technically superior, better edited and more beautiful to see, but those don’t always achieve the emotional impact they wish to convey. The Kite Runner is not a great film, but it’s a fairly moving one.

The Ugly:There's one scene in particular that is pretty difficult to watch, and you find yourself hating Amir for not doing something, but that's also where the whole idea of redemption comes into play.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Knife in the Water

On their way to a sailing trip, an aging husband and wife invite along an emphatic young hitchhiker out of sheer patronization. 

The Good: Knife in the Water was the first film by Roman Polanski. You wouldn't know that by simply watching it, however. The traits of the future-great are all in full force in his native Polish debut. Taught storytelling, perfectly paced tension, subtle characterization and immaculate photography are pretty much standard fare for a Polanski film. All the more impressive that the film only has three actors, pretty much takes place in one small location or two yet feels incredibly large in scope. The scope being its own purpose and core narrative dealing with rebellious youth, desires, sexual tension, machismo and arrogance. It's about human nature - assuming it's civilized then slowly realizing we're not much more than animals. It does it poetically, without forcing it, making the entire purpose of the film have that much more of an impact.

Knife in the Water was an ambitiously directed and shot film.  It is gripping from beginning to end, always with an aura of something awful potentially happening at any moment, and when that something awful does happen it was more than worth the wait. It never forces the issue or try to come up with some convenient plot device. Everything feels natural. Organic. Human. Real. That's a staple of much of Polanski's work - a casual kind of storytelling that draws you in.

The Bad: The actors are non-actors, and it can show sometimes. Outside of that, there's not a lot of things to dislike about Knife in the Water. Polanski's first film was really one of his very best, up there with the likes of Chinatown, Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby easily.

The Ugly: One of the best debuts for a diretor...or the best debut for a director?

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Knowing

In the fall of 1959, for a time capsule, students draw pictures of life as they imagine it will be in 50 years. Lucinda, an odd child who hears voices, swiftly writes a long string of numbers. In 2009, the capsule is opened; student Caleb Koestler gets Lucinda's "drawing" and his father John, an astrophysicist and grieving widower, takes a look. He discovers dates of disasters over the past 50 years with the number who died. Three dates remain, all coming soon. He investigates, learns of Lucinda, and looks for her family. He fears for his son, who's started to hear voices and who is visited by a silent stranger who shows him a vision of fire and destruction.

The Good: If there’s anything you can be guaranteed with when watching an Alex Proyas film, it will look great. Proyas has always had a keen eye and has a striking ability to incorporate special effects effectively. He also has a knack for Science Fiction and while I, Robot was a pale facade in comparison to the brilliant Dark City, it at least had some solid set pieces going for it on top of its human-android racial allegories. Knowing, though, isn’t an action vehicle for Will Smith. It’s cerebral but not necessarily thought-provoking (at least to the extent it thinks itself to be). Nicholas Cage is well-cast in the role as he’s always shown range of someone who can be subdued and normal one minute, then nuts-crazy the next. The role certainly suits him and he works with what little the script gives him. The mystery, though, will always keep your interest. Even though that is the central story, and it’s actually well told in that respect, I think the true core of Knowing comes thematically if not metaphorically. It brings up questions that really don’t get answered, but it doesn’t try to do that as much as it tries to show the importance of life itself. There’s a lot that Knowing could have been working with but simply doesn’t quite piece it all together, resulting in a lot of sloppiness even if the mystery holds you. It certainly did me. The reveal, however, is what I can’t quite wrap my head around, making this review rather difficult to write.

A quick note, I mentioned the special effects and Proya’s use of them – his ability to make them have purpose and meaning. There’s one long-take that is utterly brilliant that I will certainly not spoil here, but if anything is worth seeing the film alone for.

The Bad: Knowing starts small, almost like a Da Vinci Code-esque thriller with sci-fi overtones. Then, it just explodes and eventually cascades itself into outlandishness that is so far apart from the tone set in the rest of the film, you end up with a movie that obviously doesn’t know what it really wants to do. Is it a father-son drama? Is it a thought-provoking piece of science fiction? Is it, a mysterious apocalypse tale? I don’t know, and it’s apparent the writers didn’t either. It’s convoluted, we have no interest in any character (some dropping out completely, as I’m not sure where the sister of our main character went off to) and themes of religious faith are shoehorned in at the last minute. This is a movie I really wanted to love, but in the end I only sort of liked and promptly forgot about an hour later. While it flourishes on a basic thematic “has you thinking” level, it deals out a half-hearted story in the meantime that doesn’t have much of an impact after you’re done thinking of “what if” scenarios and thinking of MIT probabilities and deterministic theories.

The Ugly: (Spoilers ahead) The terms “shrill” does not even begin to describe Rose Byrne’s performance here. I nearly stopped watching at one scene, started wondering why I was still watching as more scenes continued, then stepped out for a smoke after one final scene that got me more to go “ha” than the emotional weight the film probably wanted me to feel. I had no attachment to the character already, the film failed to manage that as she seemingly comes out of nowhere (although the film has an interesting theory on that, which I do like). Once she intentionally began annoying me, I couldn’t help but wish her dead. Wish granted.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Krull

An indescribable monster and its army (the Slayers) attack the planet Krull. In order to stop the invaders, two hostile nations decide to join their forces by the marriage of Princess Lyssa and Prince Colwyn. During the ceremony, the Slayers attack the palace, kill both kings, wound Colwyn and kidnap Lyssa. The next morning, the wise Ynyr seeks and finds Colwyn. With Ynyr's help, Colwn gains possession of a magic weapon, a five bladed sword, and together they go on their quest for the indescribable monster's black fortress to free Lyssa.

The Good: Let’s face it, this movie isn’t going to be winning any awards. It falls in line with films like Buckaroo Bonzai, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe and The Last Starfighter (or more recently Speed Racer). Therefore, reviewing a film like this is difficult. It’s not particularly well made, acted, directed or have a great story. Movies like this, though, grab you, and I’ll tell you why. It’s the same reason George Lucas made Star Wars: recapturing the simplicity of your childhood with adult movies. It’s pure escapism entertainment, nothing more, and trying to approach it or gauge quality is almost pointless. So I judge solely on how cheesily entertaining it is, and for that Krull succeeds, stuck somewhere between the fun charm of The Princess Bride and the extreme camp found in Flash Gordon.

The Bad:
Looking past the utterly ridiculous nature of it all (it is written by the writer of the Batman TV series, after all) and understand that’s simply how it is, Krull does suffer from something I can objectively look at: poor pacing. It’s a slow movie, more than it needs or should be, and there’s little energy as we shuffle along to the next action set-piece. Peter Yates is an odd choice as a director, known more for movies like Bullitt and the TV show The Saint than some bit of high fantasy/science fiction. It can lull you to sleep and disinterest if you aren’t engaged by the fantasy aspect of it from the get-go.

The Ugly: I don’t know about you, but would have loved to see more of the Clave in action. It’s considered one of the great movie weapons yet we barely see what it’s all about.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Kundun

The Tibetans refer to the Dalai Lama as 'Kundun', which means 'The Presence'. He was forced to escape from his native home, Tibet, when communist China invaded and enforced an oppressive regime upon the peaceful nation of Tibet. The Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959 and has been living in exile in Dharamsala ever since.

The Good: Such an artistic presentation Kundun is that it almost makes me feel ashamed to say anything bad about it, but we'll wait on that. Kundun, while flawed, is overall a solid picture that has good intentions that can be misplaced. The visuals and music are astounding and at least hold the film together long enough for you to sit and pay attention. The best aspect, and really the entire point of the film, is to see the Dalai Lama as a person, more than just the figure we hear about. This brings back the idea of The Last Temptation of Christ where Scorsese presented Jesus as a mortal as well, flawed and struggling. Kundun doesn't quite reach the inspirational approach that film had, however. It's epic and beautiful, but impersonal and cold.

The Bad: The problem with Kundun is on two levels. One, Scorsese seems to have little love for the material. I've no doubt he admired the idea and script, but perhaps someone with a more personal reflection of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama might have that fondness come across with the storytelling as well, which leads us to our second problem: the story is boring. It lacks the liveliness of Scorsese's other works, likely because Scorsese doesn't have that personal attachment to the subject matter. It moves slowly, some have called it outright "boring and pointless." It's a detachment on and off screen and with the movie to its audience. The sense of being outside looking in has never been so apparent, and this is truly one of Scorsese's weakest efforts.

The Ugly:
Banned in China! Act now! Hot Dali Lama action! In other words: it's no surprise this film was banned in Asia. The Dalai Lama is a holy figure.


Final Rating:
2.5 out of 5


Kung Fu Panda 2

Po joins forces with a group of new kung-fu masters to take on an old enemy with a deadly new weapon.

The Good: A little darker, a little more personal and every bit as visually stunning as its predecessor, Kung Fu Panda. Our sequel here is every bit as entertaining too and, let's face it, it's very, very hard not to like Po, voiced by Jack Black in probably his most memorable role other than himself. His voice is a perfect fit, full of emotion and expression, that is able to be funny yet endearing, and sincere at the just the right moments and at just the right beats.

In fact, that's really what Kung Fu Panda 2 does extremely well. It hits the beats just spot-on, knows how to bring sincerity and dramatic elements to fit the action rather than attempt to shoehorn them in. Even though it can re-tread some elements of the first, Kung Fu Panda 2 is just one damn fun, entertaining ride with some terrific, memorable style and personality.  The animation is utterly gorgeous as it flows and moves with such life you wonder why every animated film can't look this good.

The Bad: As with the first Kung Fu Panda, there's a solid balance to action, comedy and emotional weight. Unlike the first film, it doesn't really feel organic to each other. It can come across as "telling" you about our characters being sad, forcing it at times. It still manages to do this in a visual creative way, though, and truth is there's enough emotional subtlety to help balance it out. However when it feels forced, it sticks out, and it only helps remind you that a lighter hand might have made Kung Fu Panda 2 offer a deeper, emotional resonance than simply being a good action movie with some heart. Especially considering it doesn't have to deal with character introductions and origin stories.

The Ugly: From time to time, when going into flashbacks, Kung Fu Panda 2 changes up its visual style to fit the mood and to tell the audience it's in the past. I would actually love to see an entire film in this style: a blend of 2D hand-drawn animation with the fluidity and punch of computer animation. It's damn gorgeous.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


L.A. Confidential

1950's Los Angeles is the seedy backdrop for this intricate noir-ish tale of police corruption and Hollywood sleaze. Three very different cops are all after the truth, each in their own style: Ed Exley, the golden boy of the police force, willing to do almost anything to get ahead, except sell out; Bud White, ready to break the rules to seek justice, but barely able to keep his raging violence under control; and Jack Vincennes, always looking for celebrity and a quick buck until his conscience drives him to join Exley and White down the one-way path to find the truth behind the dark world of L.A. crime.

The Good: A sophisticated and intelligent piece of a crime-mystery that lifts up
the entire film-noir genre, so prominent in the 1930s and 40s, to a work of art. It has all the elements and conventions of the genre, such as flawed heroes, moral ambiguity, interconnected mysteries and stories but does it all with class and brilliance of one of the greatest and perfectly-plotted scripts to ever be written and, simply, one of the best films to ever grace the screen. L.A. Confidential demands your attention from the opening monologue. It moves briskly and guides you through its various plotlines and characters; as though it grabs your hand and says “alright, let’s go.” If you blink, you might just miss it; a subtlety so long-forgotten in films, but in the case of L.A. Confidential sometimes overshadowed by the intricacies of murders, double-crosses and backstory delivered casually by men and women who feel so real and believable you honestly think it was shot in the timeperiod it takes place in. It’s a dirty film: this isn’t the enchanting Los Angeles and Hollywood you’re told about. It’s more akin to the likes of a dark alley and dirt-blown streets of a city still trying to decide if it wasn’t to be known as a place of glamor and dreams or a town in the Old West where everyone has a gun and on the take.

The Bad: As one of the finest screenplays to ever be written, it’s almost impossible to find any fault regarding story, the pace, the structure, so we must look outside that…and still, yet, outside of some slight accent problems from a couple of Australian actors, it’s hard to say there’s anything inherently “bad” about the film. Someone would have to really mess something up big to ruin the story. Hanson is too fond of the source material and this being his pet-project for that to happen. It’s one of the greatest crime-noir films to be made.

The Ugly: I’ve never had an issue with L.A. Confidential losing the best picture Oscar to Titanic. Titanic deserved it about as much and fit the profile of being a spectacle, something the Academy often leans towards. Over time, though, the public fondness of Titanic has waned and Continental’s popularity has risen to be a timeless classic. Don’t worry, Mr. Hanson, your film is in the same light as Raging Bull and Citizen Kane of not having Oscar recognition and going to be shown in film classes everywhere just like those. Titanic, on the other hand, will enjoy the money.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


La Dolce Vita

Journalist and man-about-town Marcello struggles to find his place in the world, torn between the allure of Rome's elite social scene and the stifling domesticity offered by his girlfriend, all the while searching for a way to become a serious writer.

The Good: La Dolce Vita is probably one of the most difficult films to really review. At least for me, I suppose. It’s an often beloved film about life – it’s title Italian for “The Good Life” or “The Sweet Life,” afterall. La Dolce Vita is considered (along with 8 1/2) the film that splits Fellini’s oeuvre, which explains how it seems to encompass both sensibilities. Rather than have that element be uneven, or overbearing, it all plays out equally. Those elements, combined with the rather complicated thematic backdrops of life paths, religion, celebrity status, class structure, politics, societal norms, morality and so forth, makes for a film that demands rewatching because, most likely, you aren’t going to quite get everything on a single viewing. It’s layered and I could write a full essay alone describing its motifs.

But some other time. At the heart of it all, Fellini tells a beautiful story (though that perhaps isn’t quite right), a plot reminiscent of his early films, focusing on regular people in society with a focus on a singular and flawed character, but presented and paced that would soon become his standard practice involving a slow, sometimes dream-like quality to them with rich textures and angles. It’s presented episodically (from day to day) with stories within stories, thoughts within thoughts, observations within observations. It’s a waxing/waning pace that can lure you in, hit you, then let you go as it appears aimless at times yet we carry on and follow Marcello (played by, well, Marcello Mastroianni) through his days and nights in Rome and through a unique film about self-discovery that juggles various plots, genres and points to make along with them.

The Bad: At nearly three hours, La Dolce Vita can feel as long as it is. This probably has to do with its odd structure that doesn’t quite have the three-act plot progression most viewers are familiar with. That is a fair criticism, actually. The film says a lot yet doesn’t necessarily tell us anything or weave any type of narrative that can enthrall you. It ponders more than progresses. Naturally, as a result, some might find themselves bored in certain moments if not outright begging for something to stimulate their senses (pretty girls aside). Yet, it always has something to day or point out, whether you find it interesting or not. Marcello is an fantastic character to pull you through it as well and the bits of humor sprinkled in with the life musings is something that appeals to everyone.

The Ugly: There’s been a lot said that the film is about the seven deadly sins. That’s cute...but I don’t see it. I don’t think Fellini did either, actually. But this is one of those films that gets people to think in such a way, and that’s pretty rare.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


La Strada

Gelsomina is sold by her very poor mother to Zampanò, an itinerant strongman. She follows him on the road ("la strada") and helps him during his shows. Zampanò ill-treats her. She meets "The Fool", a funambulist. She feels like going with him, but he puts confusion in her mind by pointing out that perhaps Zampanò is in fact in love with her ...

The Good: Neorealistic (is that a word?) melodrama at its finest. La Strada weaves a delicate, subtle tale that is far richer and far deeper than it’s simplistic nature. That’s the beauty of Fellini: it all seems easy to grasp...and then it gets you thinking, reflecting and pondering. La Strada is the essential film of the man’s early work. The story is lyrically beautiful beyond words, his camera is more an eye into the world than ever (a Neorealist standard) and everything is balanced, from cries and sadness, to loathing and spite, to a laughter. Such is life, only here it never feels like it’s trying too hard. It all feels a part of the world, and we sit and observe.

And where would Fellini be without Giulietta Masina? The “female Chaplin” was the man’s wife, after all, but she was also one of the finest actresses of her time and gives this film its soul. The innocence and fleeting approach to life she as Gelsomina expresses is in rare form and you can see the callback to classic comedy from the silent era. She says far more with her body and her expressions than with a single word spoken. She can have you laughing one minute, and get teary-eyed the next. Even Anthony Quinn’s Zampano, our other fantastic lead, succumbs to her spells in the end, though it’s heartwrenching to see his realization that it’s too little too late and all the bad things the man enacted aren’t washed away because of it. La Strada is poetry to me. It’s completely simple yet thoroughly moving in its intentions. Like many Fellini movies, it’s about life and living and the confusing fragility of it all. I think here, though, it’s also about reflection and regrets on a life wasted.

The Bad: Fellini made a lot of masterpieces. This is one of them. I suppose the only bad thing as that it’s on a long list.

The Ugly: Quinn’s performance is easily on par with Masina’s. It’s a perfect ying to her yang. Yet, it doesn’t get nearly enough acclaim. I would say, even, it’s the finest and most moving performance of his career.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Labor Day

Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

The Good: Carried by three strong performances and fantastic directing, Labor Day manages to not sink to mediocrity and become a film that can stay with you, assuming you're in the right mindset to handle melodrama. Kate Winslet is as fine as ever, her "bringing it" to any role is expected, but more importantly her chemistry with co-star Josh Brolin sells every moment of this earnest film. That and Gattlin Griffith, who at only age 14 or so when the film was made has to carry the entirety of it from beginning to end.

The texture of Labor Day is one of its defining trait. It makes you nostalgic without being so; warm tones, intimate portraits of a warm day or a comfortable kitchen, and an noticeable brilliant use on palettes throughout. Between the cinematography and Jason Reitman's directing, particularly his ability to just shoot the hell out of a scene of dialogue, makes for a movie that doesn't just engrosses you but nearly makes you feel a part of the scene itself as an active viewer. In a way, much like Henry himself, whose point of view we never leave.

The Bad: Labor Day lacks "it." The craft is there, from the directing to the performances, and its wonderfully plotted and paced. So the "it" here is that intangible thing that makes you appreciate the film - something that the film has to say or give a revelation. It's one of those types of films that is trying to say a lot but can't qutie get the words out.

Some have argued that despite the polish, there's a contrivance to it all. I would disagree, because every film and plot is a contrivance to a degree and a romance or a story of a father isn't anything new in the contrivance department.

What Labor Day never quite settles on is tone. It tries to be a thriller one minute, brilliantly I might add as an early scene in a grocery store plays out wonderfully, and then a romance film the next, equally brilliant, and then a film about family and broken pieces to be picked up, also just as brilliant. It all has a sheen, but it all is pulling from the center core of the film like too little butter for too much bread, ultimately making no core at all. If Labor Day settled on one element and ran with it, to not have a scene of intimacy undercut by tension, or tension undercut by feel-good family moment, then it would have a clearer goal to set out for itself and therefore a better film.

The Ugly: Though this might be Reitman's weakest film, it's far from his weakest effort. There's ambition here just in the idea of getting away from the type of films that have defined him. He shows he can dip his toes, though I don't know if he's shown he can dive head-first.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Labyrinth

15-year-old Sarah accidentally wishes her baby half-brother, Toby, away to the Goblin King Jareth who will keep Toby if Sarah does not complete his Labyrinth in 13 hours.

The Good: A creative, memorable and incredibly charming children's fantasy brought to us by director Jim Henson, writer and Monty-Python alum Terry Jones and producer George Lucas. What an odd grouping that is, and perhaps that odd grouping is where Labyrinth gets its identity. The sense of fantasy and place is Lucas to a T, the tone of whimsy and charm certainly Henson and the irreverence of it all no doubt the hand of Jones.

There's a dream-like quality to Labyrinth. That feeling of floating just outside the realm of reality was pretty common the fantasy genre films of the 1980s. It's as though you're watching creativity simply spill out rather than make entirely coherent sense along the way. We give it a lot of leeway, however, considering the genre style of it all. It's fantasy, so being a bit ambiguous and dream-like fits right into its foundation. Labyrinth is a bit more surreal than most, and I think that's why so many have come to love it. You have David Bowie, musical numbers, odd creatures and puppets and a mythology-inspired story that's a blend of Greek hero tests mixed with teenage girl wish-fulfillment. It's a vision, an idea, expressed with care and love.

The Bad: Is it irreverent? Or is it more nonsensical? Like a lot of genre films like this from the 80s, and in fairness it is suited for children, much of what happens simply happens for the sake of happening. There's really no point or explanation, things simply occur to test our heroine and send her down certain paths. The charm and fun more than makes up for it, but in terms of being a finely-tuned plot and story, it's far from.

The Ugly: You know it. You love it. Two words:  Bowie's bulge. Has any film had its legacy overshadowed by unintentional sexuality as much as labyrinth?

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Lady from Shanghai

Michael O'Hara, against his better judgment, hires on as a crew member of Arthur Bannister's yacht, sailing to San Francisco. They pick up Grisby, Bannister's law partner, en route. Bannister has a wife, Rosalie, who seems to like Michael much better than she likes her husband. After they dock in Sausalito, Michael goes along with Grisby's weird plan to fake his (Grisby's) murder so he can disappear entailed. He wants the $5000 Grisby has offered, so he can run off with Rosalie. But Grisby turns up actually murdered, and Michael gets blamed for it. Somebody set him up, but it is not clear who or how. Bannister (the actual murderer?) defends Michael in court.

The Good: I think there’s a certain amount of enjoyment to be had The Lady of Shanghai. Though the film itself is an utter mess, individual scenes and memorable characters more than make up for its lack of narrative cohesion. There’s still that distinct “Welles style” to these individual scenes, and many memorable with great effects (the infamous Hall of Mirrors climax) and simple but effective low and high angles that Welles loved to play with. The man’s style and mise-en-scène never, not once, loses its edge through out his entire oeuvre and even with the narrative structure of a person with ADD, The Lady of Shanghai is still rather brilliantly shot, completely self-deprecating and, more importantly, enthralling.

The Bad: There’s a story that the studio exec (Pres Harry Cohn) offered anyone who could explain the film and tell what the story is $1000. When this was brought up to Welles, Welles, too, didn’t have an answer. I think that more or less explains the film, does it not? It is, without question, one of the most convoluted, messy and overall confounding movies Welles did (and performed it with a come-and-go Irish accent to boot). I wouldn’t dare call a Welles movie “lazy” but I can certainly tell when the man is focused and in love with something, and when he just doesn’t care all that much. The Lady From Shanghai is the latter (because Welles really didn’t care about the movie and did it as a contractual requirement with Cohn). It’s simply all over the place, much like that accent, and is one of the hardest films to really follow in Welles’s repertoire. It’s capably shot, but hack editing and disinterested performances keep this movie from being exceptionally good, and only a few steps ahead of being above average.

The Ugly: One of the few Welles movies I would flat out say “you can skip that one” to anyone who might be interested in seeing the man’s work, or, at the very least, put it on the backburner until you can see his better works (and better refinement of elements Lady of Shanghai touches upon). Some have attempted to be apologetic towards it, saying the lack of story flow and sense-making was intentional, but I think that’s stretching it especially considering the likes of Mr. Arkadin and even Touch of Evil took a similar approach but were far more capable in handling it. It’s still worth a watch, and hell it’s still even entertaining, but far from the man’s best works.

I’m not going to be apologetic towards the film. Some say “this would have been great if the studio didn’t butcher it” or “they took it out of the master’s hands” as people attempt to explain it. Ok, sure, Welles didn’t have final say on the film. At the same time, I can’t stand “what if” scenarios and hypothetical situations, and I’m certainly not going to apologetically give the movie a great score based on such situations. We can’t cherry pick review movies, taking some elements and ignoring others. Review what is there, and what is there is entertaining, but not without some serious problems.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Lady Vanishes

Travelers on a trans-European train are stopped for the night due to bad weather and are hosted by a local hotel. Iris Henderson meets an old woman, Miss Froy who disappears as the journey begins again. Iris, helped by the musician, Gilbert, decides to find her.
 

The Good: What I find most interesting about The Lady Vanishes is that, despite being very early in Hitchcock's filmmaking career, he already knew what type of tone he would find himself going for in a majority of his movies. There's mystery and suspense, of course, but Hitchcock would often implement a wry sense of humor, darkly so, across many of his movies. He hits these lighter moments perfectly, doesn't dwell on them allowing us to breathe before the next batch of tense storytelling takes a hold of us. Much of that humor comes from Michael Redgrave, who comes across as a poor-man's Clarke Gable only down on his luck and not as charming as he presumes himself to be. His play off of Margaret Lockwood is what allows The Lady Vanishes, a film now copied numerous times about a person gone missing and nobody knows anything, so incredibly well. Hitchcock knew how to write characters but, more importantly, how to cast the right people. Lockwood and Redgrave may not be huge names to most, but they certainly are perfect in their roles and if it wasn't for then, The Lady Vanishes might end up being a bore of a movie. Hitchcock was smarter than that, you see. He knew the story was a small, and his implementation of a little tongue-in-cheek wit makes it far from it. The characters sell the film. The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock's best, as well as his last, British film before moving to America. He went out with a bang, that much is for certain.
 
The Bad: When reviewing great films, it's hard to note anything bad about them. In terms of Hitchcock, who's great films are lengthy in number, the only way you can say anything bad is by comparing them to other Hitchcock movies. In that respect, the Lady Vanishes, and really many of his British films, are precursors to better films he would eventually make.
 
The Ugly: This was one of the earliest "missing person" plots, and it really hasn't changed much since 1938. Almost all follow a similar line of storytelling, some even the same reveal. Almost all great suspense in cinema can be traced back to a Hitchcock movie, it seems.
 
Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Lady Vengeance

After thirteen and half years in prison for kidnapping and murdering the boy Park Won-mo, Geum-ja Lee is released and tries to fix her life. She finds a job in a bakery; she orders the manufacturing of a special weapon; she reunites with her daughter, who was adopted by an Australian family; and she plots revenge against the real killer of Won-mo, the English teacher Mr. Baek. With the support of former inmates from prison, Geum-ja seeks an unattained redemption with her vengeance.

The Good: Easily the darkest and most complex of Chan-wook Park, Lady Vengeance is not only an eclectic mix of entertainment and visual beauty, but it probably has the most to say about the notions of retribution and vengeance out of the entire vengeance trilogy. It makes no qualms about it: revenge is brutal, and thus Lady Vengeance is a brutal film. Not from the gore. Not from the scene of murder. But from its ideology and the situation our characters find themselves in. I can’t imagine ever being put in such a place where someone hands you a knife, says “that guy in the other room killed your child” and then ask “now what do you want to do about it?”

It’s not simple answer, and the film ensure we understand that. Taking the life of another person is not cut-and-dry no matter how much heartache you might have, and that’s where Lady Vengeance’s strength lies and where it manages to not be a re-tread of the first two vengeance films. Here it’s simply laid out and the ambiguities sifted through. True, it’s more like watching a debate between two sides than a story weaved meticulously and plotted through a narrative, but it’s an engaging debate nonetheless and makes for a fantastic, and even reflective, final piece of a film trilogy that is one-of-a-kind.

The Bad: Out of all the vengeance films that Park has given us, Lady Vengeance is by far his most cold. While I can understand its point, here Park is pretty much saying “Revenge is ugly, no matter how you justify it,” alongside his ever present thematic motif of “consequences,” but there’s a stark lack of relateability, especially to Lady Vengeance, Lee, herself. It’s a vacant, dark and cold room he sets us in with little to no notion of humanity – Lee’s eyes themselves often unblinking and just as vacant. We sense nothing and feel nothing throughout except from the mothers and fathers Lee brings together and their brief gasps and questions of moral superiority. Lee is less a character and more a prop used to allow more human characters, though they too are mere props, to bring thoughts and reflections on the acts of revenge and the ideas of real justice. In other words, while there’s a lot being said here and a great deal of commentary, there’s not a lot of humanity being seen alongside it. Even the messy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was able to convey that much, though Lady Vengeance does attempt to humanize the effort as best it can.

The Ugly: Kids....don’t like seeing the kid stuff. Just a warning.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Ladykillers

A gang planning a 'job' find themselves living with a little old lady, who thinks they are musicians. When the gang set out to kill Mrs Wilberforce, they run into one problem after another, and they get what they deserve.

The Good: As irreverent as it is intelligent, The Ladykillers is a comedic heist movie for those that ask for a little more from their comedic heist movies. It's not elaborate nor complex. It's just wonderfully executed and perfectly acted by its cast. Director Alexander Mackendrick, a US born but Scottish raised talent, may not have done a great deal in quantity, but the quality is certainly there in his career with The Ladykillers being his most popular film (though not quite his best, that would probably be his follow up). Even more oddly is that the screenplay, too, was written by an American. A British comedy, one of the most popular films of its time and produced by the legendary Ealing Studios, written by an American who, much later, would also pen the likes of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming? Not only that, all those are pretty damn different in tone and style and he gets them all spot-on. I suppose working with great directors helps.

To look at the film, you would think it a drab, dreary movie. The palette is full of grays and is a washed out world with only little specs of color here and there. It's a series of worse-than-before situations that can only end one way. To make this tone of dry macabre work, you need the actors to pull it off. Though they may lack the depth, the personalities leap off the screen and absolutely dominate the situations they soon find themselves in. Even though it is Guinness that is the top-billed star, and his character as brilliant as his performance, none of this would work if you didn't have the "straight-man" to play off of. Well, it's not a man, rather, but a little old woman played by Katie Johnson in one of her final roles and a role that won her a nice BAFTA in the process. The Ladykillers is essential British cinema simply because there's very little else like it from that time, and shows that during this post-war era, British cinema, especially comedies, was still flourishing.

The Bad: The Ladykillers seems a concept with big ideas but is overall underused. It has the elements but downplays them, making for a few grins more than laughter. The characters never quite connect to each other as well. This helps with a fitting ending but as a band of thieves there’s no sense of camaraderie or even being together for the sake of the heist.

The Ugly: As strange as it may sound, as it’s a film that was certainly mixed to reviewers, I think the Coens figured out how to connect the need to kill the old woman a bit easier and more imaginatively than what we see in the original. They were two filmmakers that "got it" and really ran with it. I think their remake is one of the better film remakes out there.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Ladykillers

A remake of the 1955 comedy, the story revolves around a Southern professor who puts together a group of thieves to rob a casino. They rent a room in an old woman's house, but soon she discovers the plot and they must kill her, a task that is more difficult than it seems.

The Good: As pretty much the only film from the Coen brothers films I would call an outright “screwball” comedy (many of their other films at least have some elements of that), I suppose it’s hard to fault its cartoonish and over-the-top nature. In fact, I rather liked its style and approach which The Hudscuker Proxy attempted as well but didn’t quite grasp. It’s dark comedy from beginning to end and the characters, while one-dimensional, are engaging enough to have you routing for them when you really shouldn’t be. They’re quirky and oddball, with Tom Hanks leisurely giving a fun performance as their ringleader.

The Bad: Whereas every other Coen brothers film gradually presents itself, The Ladykillers wishes to yell and scream at you to garner attention. It’s a rather amateurish effort, to be honest, and all though there are elements that work, nothing quite makes sitting through it worthwhile. We’re given a series of gags and punch lines with little resonance and although Hanks himself is good, the rest of the characters are utterly forgettable. The Coens, like Hank’s Goldthwait, seem to only use them as tools: a shoddy means to get to an anticlimactic end.

The Ugly: What’s lost here is the wonderful and enlightening Irma P. Hall. While every other character forces themselves upon us like bitter wine, Irma is like a natural, cool glass of lemonade on a hot southern day. It allows a bit of grounded characterization in an otherwise overzealous group of characters, yet nobody brings her up when talking about the film.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Land of the Dead

Now that zombies have taken over the world, the living have built a walled-in city to keep the dead out. But all's not well where it's most safe, as a revolution plans to overthrow the city leadership, and the zombies are turning into more advanced creatures.

The Good: If you like zombie flicks and lots of gore, Land of the Dead suits those needs well enough. Sure, there’s not a particularly interesting story or memorable characters in it, but the staples of what makes an enjoyable zombie movie is there: the satire, the zombie deaths and the deaths of people. Actually, there is one character that stands out, even if he’s not one to be backing: Kaufman played by the late Dennis Hopper. He’s arrogant, unintentionally funny and a great antagonist outside the zombie horde monsters.

When it comes to Romero zombie movies, it’s often a showcase of “degrees.” Ever since Night of the Living Dead, the social commentary play has been a staple of the genre as we are introduced to zombies and the numerous factions of humans ranging from the innocent to the ones that are so evil, you’d take the zombies any day. Land of the Dead continues those themes well, now with humanity even further on the brink and with a new playground to introduce them in. The film isn’t so much about the zombies as much as it is about the people, just as Romero’s movies always are, and to see how people try to re-establish their world is the best part of the film. Here we have a film that is his grandest in scope and vision.

The Bad: Land of the Dead is a film where it’s easy to see the concepts that are attempting to work. There’s ideas running, or lumbering, around there that could make for a pretty unique, post-apocalyptic zombie movie. However, it simply doesn’t come fully together and it all boils down to the film not having the elements that Romero is usually known for: characters and overarching and evolving plot. Nearly all the characters are either forgettable or simply unlikable throughout the film and due to the small, almost vignette approach to the story, everything tends to feel detached and not a part of the whole. There’s nobody to really route for and, surprisingly, you find yourself routing for the zombies instead. This leads into the elements that hinder it even more: if you’re routing for the zombies, then what’s left that’s scary or even able to get a tense rise out of you? Considering the humans are all we have, and even though it’s easy to see how human society would certainly veer to favor those with power making for some interest, the emotion and drama just isn’t there.

The Ugly: Peeling the grape...one of the best death-by-zombie scenes ever.

I mentioned Bud in the review for Day of the Dead, and how flipping the roles worked and made for a pretty ambitious twist on Romero’s part. Well with Land of the Dead, I think there’s one zombie that we’re supposed to also have a similar reaction to but he isn’t given enough time to go anywhere or do anything. The ugliness and extremes of the characters are still there, but there’s nothing to balance it with. Thankfully its ambition of scope and visuals make up for that.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Land of the Lost

On his latest expedition, Dr. Rick Marshall is sucked into a space-time vortex alongside his research assistant and a redneck survivalist. In this alternate universe, the trio make friends with a primate named Chaka, their only ally in a world full of dinosaurs and other fantastic creatures.

The Good: Although random and hard to anticipate when they might occur, there are a handful pretty funny moments sprinkled through a mess of a film and the visual appeal of this “Land” and its inhabitants is enjoyable enough to venture through (at least part of the way before wanting to turn back).

The Bad: Easily one of the more disappointing comedies I can think of in recent memory. The cast is there, Ferrell absolutely enjoyable, but there is simply no script at all to work with. I suppose that comes with the territory of adapting a cult TV Show with little content to begin with. The film is split into two identities causing an uneven, if not absolutely dizzying effect as you watch. You have the overall concept: a bizarre land that our heroes find themselves in, encounter strange creatures and get into adventures, completely knocked off balance with the second identity which is nothing more than a series of rejected Saturday Night Live sketches that try their best to be used as Will Ferrell vehicles. You watch, maybe get a few chuckles as it transitions from sketch to sketch about as smoothly and gracefully as a razorblade scraped on sandpaper, until you reach the absolute mess of a final act where all those series of sketches simply come to a head and the first identity begs and pleads for something overarching to show resolution to everything. Instead, we’re thrown, not more sketches, but just random scenes that we’re supposed to buy as conclusive and cohesive to all that came before. You can sense the film reaching for a runtime, with random scenes that hold no weight to anything before or after, and a pigeonholed presentation of what I assume is supposed to pass as a story. A pure, eye-rolling experience that you feel sympathy for yet wish you hadn't wasted your time with.

The Ugly: Rather than a Will Ferrell film, this entire concept would have been much more appealing as a family friendly movie with children. Instead, we end up with something without an identity. Looking at the people involved, namely the writers and director, perhaps I shouldn’t have been “disappointed” at all because they gave us what is pretty true-to-form with their track records.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Last Days On Mars

A group of astronaut explorers succumb one by one to a mysterious and terrifying force while collecting specimens on Mars.

The Good: The Last Days on Mars is a film full with classic tropes of horror movies: isolation, darkness, the fear of being alone, not knowing who to trust. Oh, and zombies. Martian zombies, to be exact. It’s a film that takes all these and, well, it doesn’t really do anything new or interesting with them, however it manages to at least be entertaining for its brief runtime thanks to its solid cast and sense of atmosphere.

While The Last Days on Mars isn’t necessarily bad, it doesn’t quite have the strength to really see its premise through: that strength in its script. The performances, though they feel wasted here, help it along with good characterization which helps elevate the tension and sense of risk even if it loses it all with blandness and boredom. If you’re a fan of these types of moves (I am one) then you’ll probably still enjoy it. To a certain degree I did. But I can’t help but be honest when it’s all said and done, and despite the good effort from cast and crew and concept, it just doesn’t quite have that punch, or that “it” factor, to really make for a good movie.

The Bad: The Last Days on Mars feels like a conflicted film. One minute, it’s trying to be psychological and deal with a sense of claustrophobia that some of the best of this genre play around with. The next: martian zombies and it becomes a monster movie. In fails in both cases because it can never quite reach the right tone to make either of them effective. A little more focus on character and mood and atmosphere, you might have a good psychological thriller ala a Moon. Maybe taking a darker, gorier, and scarier take would allow for those martian zombies to be effective, such as a regular zombie movie or something like The Thing or even the great Doctor Who episode, Waters of Mars which essentially has this same idea but by far has the tone of it expressed far better.

Lacking suspense or anything to distinguish itself, The Last Days on Mars never fully grasps whatever it’s trying to hold on to. The actors might do an incredibly good job on what so little is given to them, notably Live Schreiber and Kim Aldrich, there’s just nothing to really make any of it have an impression. It came, you watched, then probably forgot all about it.

The Ugly: Derivation isn’t a critique, but not molding the derivation into a good version of those derivatives is bad. Just bad.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Last House on the Left (2009)

After kidnapping and brutally assaulting two young women, a gang led by a prison escapee unknowingly finds refuge at a vacation home belonging the parents of one of the victims -- a mother and father who devise an increasingly gruesome series of revenge tactics.

The Good: When a studio or film is looking to do a remake, as I’ve said numerous times around this site, it should be a film that needs a remake, not one that was already good to begin with. The original Last House on the Left was a film that needed a remake. It’s a horror classic known for its social commentary, graphic violence and guerrilla style directing…but not a particularly well-done film. It had a great concept, and with a better script and presentation it could really succeed. That’s exactly what this remake manages, well, presentation-wise at least. Same concept, same sense of brutality, but a slightly better script and hell a lot better directing and acting lifts it up out of being a gore-fest exploitation flick and actually a very visceral and raw revenge tale. What surprised me most, though, is how tastefully (for the most part) done it was. It has a calmness around it, a sense that this isn’t some Hollywood remake but a lyrical thriller with foreign film sensibilities. I felt as though I was watching something out of France, like a Cache or a Tell No One.  Greek director Dennis Iliadis is likely the cause of that. It’s a beautiful looking film and daring in its approach to the material. Sharp camera shots and a clean style, long, sustained takes of things that you wish you could not see echoes the roots of the exploitation genre and the original film, and the acting is very good on top of it- realistic and subtle, with very little dialogue, which is rare for the horror genre. Competent directing, a beautiful and understated visual style and superb acting lifts the material above what it probably should have been: just another gory torture film.

The Bad:
While I might laud the technical approach and acting, I have to pan the unfortunately predictable script. We know how it will end, who will do what, and there’s really no threat of any of those things not happening. It feels it wants to merely go to through the motions and thus do we. Perhaps a better sense of pacing and showing more unpredictability would’ve allowed for the tension to emerge outside of merely being “found out.” The idea that maybe your plan wont’ work never really comes up, or the threat of a character betraying another is never in question either. Perhaps it felt it needed to just wrap it up and move on, but the presentation deserved a better script for it.

The Ugly: The film would have actually received higher marks from me, even if a mere half a point (I assume), if it weren’t for the final scene. Tacked on doesn’t begin to describe it. The story was over, the characters wrapped….should have faded into credits. But no, one last unnecessary gore scene had to happen that has no bearing and relevance to anything.  Brad Miska of Bloody-Disgusting, probably the best horror-movie based site on the internet, wrote “It’s obvious this moment is in here so the audience feels a sense of closure and glee as they return to their safe homes. This scene is NOT what the movie is and has no place in it.”

Final Rating:
3.5 out of 5


Last Knights

A fallen warrior rises against a corrupt and sadistic ruler to avenge his dishonored master.

The Good: Though the action is sparse until the big third act set piece, when Last Knights is doing it it’s doing it pretty damn well. Well shot, choreographed and all with a blend of martial arts and swordplay styles that is reflective of the film’s art design as a whole - a fantasy mixture of Japanese Samurai movie with a sword and shield Middle ages grittiness to it along with the warrior philosophies of both. It’s all intentional and actually rather clever though the world building itself isn’t fully fleshed out.

Last Knights isn’t a good movie but it’s not a horrible one either. The acting is fine, the action good and I do rather like the art design and how it’s all shot, but it kind of just stumbles along until one of those good things pops up once in a while. It fails not because of its plot or even storytelling, but because it forgets you need those smaller things like character chemistry with dialogue to carry what is a plot and story we're quite familiar with. I'm on board for the former, but to be fully rounded you need the latter and Last Knights never gets there.

The Bad: There’s a running theme in Last Knights about the relationship of these men and their significant others. Wives. Girlfriends Etc… Much time is given to it, but there’s little really explained about it all. As mentioned, the world building isn’t entirely made clear here and the importance of a woman to a warrior doesn’t quite have that emotional spark that it’s meant to have. Instead it feels borderline materialistic - as though the woman is a “thing” they come home to rather than someone they really care about.

I realized this in a final scene at the end that is meant to have some sort of poetic beauty to it, but then remembered that’s not what the movie was really about. It’s a revenge tale, and the women in the movie are treated and plopped in less as something organic and meaningful and more like something that’s arbitrary. The actresses are fine, but I know nothing of them really.

But that’s when I also realized that I really didn’t know much about anybody, including our warriors and knew barely anything of Clive Owen’s lead character. There’s not enough chemistry here, there’s no distinction or sense of brotherhood or honor that the movie constantly says is there yet we never really see. It’s all rather cold and kind of callous, and no big action scene and well done fight can’t add in character development.

There’s also an issue of the actors. Some are obvious not native English speakers, but some I would argue just aren’t very good actors. There’s an inconsistency but none more than The Emperor, an actor that perhaps is fine in his own country but delivers lines like Ahbed from Community when he pretended he was a robot.  It seems like a minor quibble, but this is meant to be a “big” presence that took me out of the movie every time he spoke. Not every time he was on screen, necessarily - he certainly looked the part - but the voice and the fact that this is a ruler of a kingdom never found a convincing way to meet and the villains around him just don’t have that sense of a threat to make up for it.

The Ugly: I feel that if the movie went for a Hard-R rating, it might be a bit more enjoyable in the same way a 13 Assassins is. This movie shares a lot of similarities to that film but it doesn’t quite have that edge to it, though it seems it really, really wants to. Plus 13 Assassins might have had a similar plot but it also found the time to give the characters some distinction and build bonds, something this movie also doesn’t quite get.

Final Rating: 2 out 5


The Last Stand

The leader of a drug cartel busts out of a courthouse and speeds to the Mexican border, where the only thing in his path is a sheriff and his inexperienced staff.

The Good: You should know the name Kim Ji Woon. Most people probably don't, but to put it mildly: there's few that have such a handle on depicting and expressing action scenes better than him. If there's anything you're guaranteed to have in a film from him, it's action and quality action at that. Often original, inventive and unique with a lot of blood and a lot of violence. The Last Stand is a great vehicle for him: thin on story, but top-tier in action and just being entertained.

The selling point here? Characters. Yeah, who would have thought a silly action movie with such a basic premise would have characters you care about and, even better, remember and route for? If there's anything that action movies have failed at in the past few decades, it's been lack of believable characters to get behind - great personalities that you want to see succeed and can understand and cheer for. The Last Stand, in the same vein as movies like Point Break or They Live in both camp quality and approach to character, have characters you want to see take on the bad guys and beat the snot out of them. They're not necessarily great movies, but they're fun movies...which in itself is a great movie to enjoy.

Schwarzenegger plays his role pretty straight, no-frills, which is good because he's not exactly an actor with range. He manages to get off some great lines, have solid scenes and delivers his dialogue with necessity rather than vigor. But that vigor is with the characters around him, some of comic relief, some just to be an opposing dynamic and some just to show a little more humanity to say "these are people you should care about." A job well done by the entire cast, which may not have a lot to work with but works wonderfully when put together.

The script is simple, but inventive and fun. It never tries to do too much comedy, but when it does it really nails it, and it never tries to play it too safe. Yes, there's a lot of familiarity here, but it also has moments of great spectacle and original moments of action that you can honestly say you haven't seen before. The balance is damn near perfect.

The Bad: Though the action from the great (and I mean great) Kim Ji Woon is the selling point, there's a lack of scope to it all. His command of action is, arguably, the best in the business, but style and understanding of drama and character outside of intense action doesn't quite fit here and despite the conceit, the tone wants it to go in another direction of over-the-top spectacle. It never quite gets there. Half of that is the script, which dwells between trying to be interesting as a drama for our characters to defend their town, feels out of place. For example, only until the third act did, suddenly, characters in the town even feel a part of it. One moment has a character that we haven't even been introduced to yet have a major plot point for a minute, as though the film had something to say yet the only thing that is in our heads is "who is that?"

It's entirely built on cliche, but good cliche. Just because something is cliche doesn't mean it's bad. What isn't cliche, though, is the action which is why, at times, The Last Stand feels like two different films entirely. You have the wooden and rather stilted story, fun at times with good characters but nothing special, but then you have the really special action which is also cliche at times…but done really, really, really well. It's a polarizing attribute: a film that is incredibly fun, but constantly feels like it wants to do more, yet never attempts to. Incredibly entertaining, yet at the same time there's a sense that it's missing an opportunity.

The Ugly: Luis…dude…I know you're pushing 60 and have always been kind of a "big" guy but man…wow. Someone get the guy a trainer.

Luis Guzman is one of those character actors I just never get tired of, I genuinely love him every time I see him. So I want to make sure he's around as long as possible.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Last Station

Fact and fiction converge in this talent-driven drama based on Jay Parini's novel about Leo Tolstoy. THE LAST STATION focuses on the marriage between Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) in its final years. James McAvoy stars as a young man who works for the couple, while Paul Giamatti plays an advisor to the writer who fights his wife over financial issues.

The Good: Firmly grounded thanks to an all-star cast and impeccable performances, not to mention an artistic eye, The Last Station is a heartfelt look, not at the final days of Tolstoy as the trailers may imply, but at the concepts of love, desire, friendship, trust and relationships. Plummer and Mirren are the central focal points here and while the movie (as the book) washes over the complexities of their relationship, their chemistry is never in doubt. This is paralleled beautifully with Mackavoy and Condon's story with Giamatti planted in the middle as someone who is on the outside looking in, or on the inside scheming. Tolstoy was a complex figure but the film does discuss and present his lifestyle and philosophy, or more importantly others' interpretation of his philosophies, without undermining the primary focus of love itself. It's not your typical romantic movie but more of an analysis and observation of it without really understanding it, accepting you will never truly know but desiring it despite it. Perhaps that's what love is to begin with.

The Bad: Sadly, the film sometimes doesn't know what type of film it wants to be. Drama is mixed in with comedy but there's never a solid and consistent tone balance stricken to where you can safely say you should be laughing in some scenes. The comedy feels natural, the drama feels sincere, but the shifting from one to the other is disjointed and awkward and the fantastic performances suffer as a result because you can't tell if you should be chuckling or not.

The Ugly: The very final few scenes are emotive yet strangely bland and stretched out until the final shots. I can't imagine sitting and simply waiting for someone to die...so maybe that's more accurate than I give it credit for. Story-wise, it's boring and stalls...yet the response you have as a viewer is probably the same feeling the people living the situation have as well.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Last Temptation of Christ

The carpenter Jesus of Nazareth, tormented by the temptations of demons, the guilt of making crosses for the Romans, pity for men and the world, and the constant call of God, sets out to find what God wills for him. But as his mission nears fulfillment, he must face the greatest temptation: the normal life of a good man. Based, not on the Gospels, but on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel of the same name.

The Good: One of Martin Scorsese's most misunderstood films; full of protests and out-spoken religious pundits even before its release, The Last Temptation of Christ is one of his most complex and intelligent pieces of work. It explores the fallibility of Jesus, not as a Messiah, but as a man with melodrama and sentiment like a classic Greek play. Everything about Scorsese, his style and ideas, can be found here: sin, redemption, religion, long takes, voiceover, editing techniques; it's all purely identifiable to him and dealing with an issue noticeably personal. There is no other film (and probably no other filmmaker) that can tackle the subject of Jesus in this manner. It's one-of-a-kind, daring and artistic, lyrical and beautiful and one of Scorsese's best pictures.

The Bad: The film, likely due to the controversy, was obviously done and shot on a shoe-string budget. There's no grandness or epicness to it, which is fine considering the subject matter of humanity and humbleness, but it doesn't exactly take you away to a different time and place either. The costumes look unauthentic, the performances all over the place and shooting style noticeably staying with smaller-scale shots rather than attempting to be expansive. It also has a tone of indecision, being literal interpretation one minute and symbolic the next, almost making it a surrealist picture with the intention of not knowing what is happening and not happening...only that it is happening which makes for an easy distraction to the otherwise intriguing story and concept. I sometimes wonder, though, if people praise the film due to the controversy or despite it.

The Ugly: Jesus gives his heart in the film...literally.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Law Abiding Citizen

A brilliant man orchestrates a series of high-profile murders that grip the city of Philadelphia - all from inside his jail cell. The prosecutor assigned to his case realizes he is the only one who can end the reign of terror.

The Good: A solid performance from Butler becomes wasted on a sloppy script and awkward tone. The film is capably directed and has a great look about it, something director Gray has always managed even with his mediocre productions (A Man Apart, Be Cool notably). The suspense is daring and always has you guessing and it shows how ten years can make any man  be as elaborate to plan everything out – even if it does sway to the absurd on numerous occasions.

The Bad: I suppose expectations aren't high to begin with, but a sloppy script is ultimately going to result in glaring problems with it. Here, we have a massive plot hole that I can best explain as so: Butler doesn't want the DA making deals with murderers. However, the only way the DA can save the people Butler is threatening is by making a deal with him usually has a certain time. The problem emerges when there are numerous occasions where the DA doesn't make a deal with him, and various people die anyways....what's the message? Do you not see the mathematical problem here? You can't say you want someone to do something, they do it, and people are killed anyways. All the planning on Butler's character's part is based on them making deals with him, otherwise people will be killed, so when the DA makes no deal they die. I just don't get the process of it, I guess. I would much have preferred if they just make Butler a complete nutcase with no agenda and who's been in and out of an institution for ten years, planning and scheming on his vengeance (this version specifically says it's not about revenge). And that's the biggest issue: Butler's character is one we kind of want to route for, but the by the end we end up with too characters that, as far as I'm concerned are worthless. Foxx is too bland with no substance to his character, Butler is far too shallow and directionless in his agenda and thus our own trying to find either appealing falls to wayside of explosions and death. I guess I can surmise it as this: it's less intelligent than it thinks it is, and could have been far simpler and therefore effective than what it ended up being. Instead of coming up with twists, we could have had a streamlined story and more character development to, at least, understand the two perspectives. It lacks logic, and between all the preaching of accountability and morality, it lacks a point entirely.

The Ugly:
T-Bone Steak. Jail cell. Talk about a scene that was shocking, yet totally fantastic.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Le Samourai

Hitman Jef Costello is a perfectionist who always carefully plans his murders and who never gets caught. One night however, after killing a night-club owner, he's seen by witnesses. His efforts to provide himself with an alibi fail and more and more he gets driven into a corner.

The Good: Intelligent, minimalist, poetic. Then again this is Jean-Pierre Melville so that should be no surprise. His work is one of the most influential in cinema history. What Melville does is create a "mood" in his films. The atmosphere exudes tension before a character even enters a frame. It's bleak, washed out and probably more fitting during the height of noir in the 30s or 40s than here, the 1960s. This world created is an extension of the story and character of Jef Costello, our resident hitman, itself: its cold and callous and uncaring. His empty, gray-colored flat and caged bird are more than enough symbolic representations of the tone of the film.

But all that wouldn't matter if we weren't compelled by the story and characters, and Costello and his antithesis, The Superintendent (who isn't named, at least I don't recall if he was) are perfect in their balance of a film that starts at a five and slowly, consistently and assuredly builds to 100 as we become more and more invested in them. You, strangely, route for both. Costello is an immoral man, but he isn't an evil man. He kills for a living, but he is so matter-of-fact about it with no hatred (and no remorse, admittingly) that he might as well be a bank teller counting money. The Superintendent is certainly in the right, yet he's also on a personal vendetta in a way as well: he knows this is his man and he is going to bring him down one way or the other. A fantastic script and cinematography, remade a few times (notably John Woo's The Killer and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai) and influencing numerous directors, Le Samourai is the quintessential Melville film in every regard. It's a film that shows command and control by its auteaur, a flawless masterpiece of a thriller, character study and morality play that never forgets its a noir of mystery and suspense despite the layers it builds upon. It says more by merely saying nothing than the loudest of explosions, high-energy music or exposition every could.

The Bad: Like a lot of the films it draws from, Le Samourai doesn't quite allow its female characters to grow. They're more used as props or plot devices than actual well-rounded characters. It's a minor quibble, though. They're enough for what the film needs to focus on (Jef and the Superintendent) and it doesn't degrade them or treat them as sexual, which is nice and fitting - this isn't a movie about romance and love, it's more about the passion or allure than anything. Then again, this is Melville, and that criticism of his shallow approach to female characters is not uncommon when discussing him.

The Ugly: Melville only was able to bring us thirteen films during his short career and, sadly, his short life (was only 55 when he died). Damn near every one is an essential film for any film fan to watch. Melville, not his birth name, was a leader of the French Resistance during World War II, a national hero of France,  a Frenchman who was fond of everything American and lived a seemingly rock-star-like life of fame, Mentored a handful of future Auteurs, influenced countless others (Scorsese, Tarantino, Mann, Truffaut, Woo etc..) an entrepreneur and influence of the French New Wave style and independent filmmaking as a whole, a man who built his own studio of independent filmmaking from the ground up after being rejected and did more in those brief 55 years of a life than most will do with 100.

Also a man who's name should be more acknowledged and revered than the usual "I'm sorry...who?" when it's brought up.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Leaves of Grass

An Ivy League professor is lured back to his Oklahoma hometown, where his twin brother, a small-time pot grower, has concocted a scheme to take down a local drug lord.

The Good: A strange little movie but for all the right reasons, even if it isn't quite sure how it wants its tone to be. It's quirky and funny with a great performance by Ed Norton in two roles as twin brothers, both uniquely different in acts and lifestyle yet oddly similar in their thought processes. They merely take very different paths in life.

But Leaves of Grass is full of great characters and that's where it shines. Sure, Norton will get the most notice here, but it seems every single one is distinct and full of energy. They have personality, from the sidekick played by Nelson (who wrote and directed the film also, which is inspired by much of his own life), to the love interest with Keri Russel (a headstrong woman in the midst of, well..dimwits) and even the "might as well be cameos" in Susan Sarandon and Richard Dreyfuss, both obviously having a lot of fun with their roles. Fans of Coen brothers films will likely appreciate the dry humor and solid dialogue, and maybe even the violence though it seems to come a bit too harshly. It's intelligently written, spouting philosophical observations and classical literature, and is a thinking-man's dramedy if there ever was one.

The Bad: Leaves of Grass is a completely uneven film that isn't quite sure how it wants its tone to be. Three fourths of it seem a quirky, almost light dramedy about a man returning to his hometown and getting caught up in his brother's illegal dealings. The other fourth, though, is full of brutal violence that feels so out of place and sudden it makes everything else seem irrelevant. The blood and sudden darker turn causes a complete 180 where you no longer know the story, the characters or the point - you're just surprised it suddenly went down a path that you wish it kept away from. Far from a bad film, as it is it's merely an interesting one that probably could have been even better had it more polish.

The Ugly: The romance angle with Keri Russel really needed more to it. It feels tacked on and not well developed. What's there is fine, but considering the ending shot, it was apparently meant to be more important than how it really was. It's barely touched upon.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Soren, a young barn owl, is kidnapped by owls of St. Aggie's, ostensibly an orphanage, where owlets are brainwashed into becoming soldiers. He and his new friends escape to the island of Ga'Hoole, to assist its noble, wise owls who fight the army being created by the wicked rulers of St. Aggie's. The film is based on the first three books in the series.

The Good: “A feast for the eyes...” That’s something those poster-quote grabbing critics would say, right? Of course, if you know how posters are marketed, you should know that “...” means it’s only a segment of a full quote. So we really don’t know the context, do we? How about this:
“A feast for the eyes if you can stand the rest of it.”

There you go.

Legend of the Guardians is an absolute gorgeous looking film. So beautifully done and animated that I have no problem saying it’s the best looking animated film of 2010. It’s sharp, original, dark and the use of Zach Snyder’s patented slow-motion finds a fitting home as we sit in awe of the poetry-in-motion of flight, battles and lots of owls that tend to look alike.

The Bad: Legend of the Guardians is quite the conflicted film. It can’t quite decide if it wants to stay with classic, family entertainment troupes or really offer up something never before seen and wildly original animated feature. The first half hour is wonderfully stylish, though a tad slow, then begins to take a Disney route by introducing quirky side characters and comic relief including a humorous (and I’d say rather cheesy) music montage sequence that’s oddly out of place considering every other moment tends to play itself so straight and serious.

What’s more is that there seems to be large chunks of pertinent information removed from the film, and this choppy sense of storytelling is its ultimate downfall. Things seem to simply just happen rather than have any sense of context, flow or a woven story, much less actual feeling or emotional weight to it due to a less-than-stellar sense of character and personality that asks little investment. It’s more a presentation of classic archetypes that lack the heart to draw you in (and it tries, but just doesn’t quite make it) and have you truly feel for the characters, plot and risk involved throughout it. It’s poorly paced, uneven in tone and in the grand scheme, an absolute disappointment considering the gorgeous visual splendor and animation it offers up.

The Ugly: I’ve never seen an animated movie just end like this one does. All that’s achieved and accomplished seems oddly underwhelming and completely downplayed by the characters, the tone, the music and the ending voiceover. If the film gives off such a sense of underwhelming mediocrity and conviction, it’s no wonder it feels so uninspired despite the desire, and truly the potential to be inspired in the first place. It’s there on paper, plain as day, yet never seems to quite grasp its goals outside of its visual beauty.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Legion

An out-of-the-way diner becomes the unlikely battleground for the survival of the human race. When God loses faith in humankind, he sends his legion of angels to bring on the Apocalypse. Humanity's only hope lies in a group of strangers trapped in a desert diner with the Archangel Michael 

The Good: A great atmosphere and solid acting (even for one-dimensional characters) will at least keep you watching. On a purely shallow level, Legion will keep you enticed and maybe even a little entertained. Paul Bettany, who knows he is better than this material, does give us a solid performance as a fallen angel. He's got some great scenes to work with and fantastic dialogue to deliver even if it all is paper-thin.

The Bad: For most of its runtime, Legion is really on to something. It's a small film, the "scope" discussed more than shown, and has everything working nicely as a film combining atmospheric and suspenseful horror with a gun-blazing western in the vein of the Man With No Name films by Sergio Leone. Sure, it never quite sees those things through, but it at least had an idea it was working with. Then it gets rid of that nonsense, apparently it was making too much sense, and turns itself into typical Hollywood finale of choreographed fight scenes, explosions and special effects. Add to that the necessity the film seems to showcase in not really telling us anything about its characters or having any sense of drama and realism around them, something similar films usually focus on first (such as The Mist) or add element of comedy (such as Demon Knight). Instead, Legion just isn't sure what tone it wants to go for, including whether or not it even wants to be a horror movie. It takes itself far too seriously while lacking any deep, dramatic weight to anything and is far too bland to be considered frightening.

The Ugly: Director Scott Stewart is also directing Bettany in Priest, due out next year. Another good cast for that film, but now I'm a lot more caution on how it will end up. Either Stewart will learn from the lessons of his first film here, and maybe correct them and grow as a director, or he's just a hack to begin with.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Lego Movie

An ordinary LEGO minifigure, mistakenly thought to be the extraordinary MasterBuilder, is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil LEGO tyrant from gluing the universe together.

The Good: Hold tight, because the LEGO movie is going to feel as though it ended just as quickly as it began. If you could film pure energy, or perhaps unabashed animated joy, it would probably look and feel like this. That’s the intent - to not think too much about this movie and just “go with the flow.” You’ll understand why by the end and find its center and soul in the process.

And boy does it have a lot of heart going through it. If there’s anything that it will be remembered for, it’s how it can truly make you love children, childhood and your own nostalgia about growing up and using your endless imagination to “go places” and think of ridiculous things along the way. That’s the entire point of the film, making all the flaws worthwhile just to have such an experience captured in a bottle as it is in The Lego Movie. Memorable and fun characters, an incredibly gorgeous yet practical artistic design and animation and some of the most fun absurdity you could ask for.

The Bad: Lego the Movie isn’t concerned with story, nor should it be. It has a plot structure, but story is far from its concern because that actually goes against its entire concept and idea it’s trying to work with come the third act. But it still is a haphazard mess. Oh, it’s a lovable mess, but a mess nonetheless as it runs through its motions like…

…well, there’s a point to how it manages its pace and macguffins and deux-ex machinas to which there are more than I can count, and it does so with glee, but it takes a good hour to actually find a point to all that. The film is exhausting and feels the need to change itself up every ten or fifteen minutes because it can’t have one constant - as though it gets bored with itself and doesn’t trust where its going - as if all the yelling and screaming every ten minutes didn't say that already. Thankfully, the main character is that one singular thread holding all that messiness together, more than strong and fully-realized enough to make up for the times the film seems to become tired of itself and much of the plot and jokes become lost amidst the constant yelling and screaming every scene seems to have.

The energy and adventure works in that regard, though it comes at a cost and the jokes often don’t quite work or fall flat because the film spends no time in really expressing them. They’re puns. Gags. Quick lines. Then off to the next. Most of those don’t work, and they’re spent after a half-hour, and I can’t say I really laughed a lot, but it keeps things light and fun which ends up making them merely serviceable at best though often monotonous at worst. The adventure and characters will engage you, the writing, jokes and dialogue…not so much.

The Ugly: There’s a “stinger” gag at the end I just don’t get. It kind of goes against the message the entire movie was going for, but it’s also not entirely clear as to its intent either.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Les Misérables

In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine's daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

The Good: If we were to determine a film's quality solely on the production quality itself, costumes, sets, cinematography and so forth, Les Misérables would probably be the best film of the year. Unfortunately, due to some pacing concerns and a few miscast actors, we have a film that's good, well worth your time if you love musicals, but also disappointing in that it's a bloated piece of filmmaking. But for a melodramatic musical, that can work. It's really the audience that it can go for or against. You kind of know what to expect: constant singing, done mostly well, and some great visuals to go along with it.

There's no denying it is one lavish production. Running two and a half hours with superb cinematography and aesthetic design, Les Misérables is a production for the ages when it comes to taking stage musicals and putting it on film. Unlike man musicals, this is certainly one that you will watch and say "that certainly couldn't be shown on stage." For me, that's a major factor. Many film adaptations of musicals and plays do little make it unique and warranted for such an adaptation. Les Misérables makes certain you don't have those feelings in its very first shot. Tom Hooper's follow up to The King's Speech is an antithesis in every way: instead of subtle and subdued, it is bombastic and grand with a great performance by Hugh Jackman, showing the man is a consummate entertainer no matter what is thrown his way.

The Bad: It really comes down if you like musicals or not. This is a very direct, on the nose musical without an ounce of subtly to its name. If you like the overblown style, this being Andrew Lloyd Weber, after all, then there's no reason to not find Les Misérables an incredible experience. Is it one I personally prefer? Not really, but you can see the time and effort put in to it in every frame.

Yet, outside of my own personal tastes, there are few missteps that are hard for even those that love the film to deny. First, some songs tend to go on far too long, the actors not always giving their best due to the uniqueness of singing it live rather than in a studio. Their voices don't quite carry, notably Russel Crowe who is a visual presence but lacks the passion of his peers on screen and his voice waffles from key to key - certainly has the dedication but just not the chops to pull it off. Another issue is the length and the pacing, which hits strong at first and then begins to drag quickly - lumbering from scene to scene as though it has to drag a cholera-infested corpse along with it.

Then you aren't sure what kind of film will show up once it gets to that next scene: there are moments of true beauty, then there are the frantic over-edited numbers that might have you rubbing your eyes and not able to follow what's happening on screen. That's when you begin to notice the one-dimensional characters fabricated to simply be singing mannequins rather than characters you can feel a strong passion about (Anne Hathaway aside, who does the single finest song in the entire production).

All the over-zealous approaches soon takes its toll. You realize the story is good, a story we've seen in film a good dozen times now, but just told horribly. The musical numbers begin to blend together, especially after the early centerpiece song sung by Hathaway, and visually it loses its appeal due to the constant bombardment that tries to hide the shallowness of everything else.

The Ugly: Hugh is the man.  I can't imagine a better choice for Valjean.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Let Me In

A bullied young boy befriends a young female vampire who lives in secrecy with her guardian.

The Good: Let Me In loves to trick you. It has a peculiar way of making you think one thing, then flashing into something else quite quickly or hiding it far in the back so you don't notice (or have to really search for it).Think of it as when you're piecing together a puzzle and you start with odd little pieces that you aren't entirely sure what they are or where they go. You just go by the shape and colors, putting them together based on that. Then it turns out the entire area you've been working on wasn't even the main area, it was some background painting. Let Me In enjoys this by having you piece elements together, then reveal the true story underneath. It's a sharp script, no doubt, and the leads are solid in their subtle, quiet portrayal of detached characters.

There's some very intriguing directorial decisions going on in Let Me In, some nicely subtle nuances that show that young Matt Reeves isn't just a flash-in-the-pan director with Cloverfield. Let Me In is a complete 180 of his previous film, yet equally as visually acute and ambitious as it. Cloverfield was about grandeur from a grounded perspective, Let Me In is about perspective that we over-assume as real. It's a coming of age story about childhood fears, neglectful adults and even a hint of romance, but the sharp flashes of brutality set against that backdrop creates a surreal uneasiness that beckons you into its ice cold world, if you let it.

The Bad: Let Me In is less a “remake” as much as it is an “imitation.” It really tries hard to be as close to the original film, that it doesn’t quite differentiate itself enough to warrant a “must watch” recommendation. It’s hard to really judge this one. It throws in some extra blood, effects and a few minor details are altered but overall has the same sensibilities and naming faults with this film would mean naming faults with the original film (can be a bit directionless and plodding at times). It’s that close, so if you saw the original and there were things you didn’t like, you probably won’t like them here either.

So to determine the “bad” of the film, you have to pretend you didn’t see the first film. Let me close my eyes... the first thing that comes to mind is the rather shallowness of the film. It’s less about two souls finding a connection and more a revenge fantasy put on a pedestal. There’s a connection between Abby and Owen – we see it and understand it – but there’s not particularly any depth or meaning to it all. There’s a subplot, as I mentioned, involving Owen’s mother, and that too is handled rather loosely and never quite has resolution to itself either. Let Me In is a film with a  lot of ideas but nothing that really sticks with you once it’s done.

The Ugly: I'd still recommend the film to those unlikely to see a foreign film. It's an imitation, but still a good one (as in, it's not the Psycho remake which was utterly pointless).

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Let the Right One In

Oskar, a bullied 12-year old, dreams of revenge. He falls in love with Eli, a peculiar girl. She can't stand the sun or food and to come into a room she needs to be invited. Eli gives Oskar the strength to hit back but when he realizes that Eli needs to drink other people's blood to live he's faced with a choice. How much can love forgive? Let The Right One In is a story both violent and highly romantic, set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg in 1982.

The Good: Shot and released in Sweden in 2008, Let the Right One In set the indie-circuit and festival tours on fire last year and many hail it as one of the greatest vampire films to ever be made. Well, usually I am reluctant to put out such a claim, but the more I think of it, the more I am in agreement on that statement. It’s a very restrained film that in no way glorifies vampirism, in fact the whole notion of vampires is secondary to the story of friendship. It shows it as a heartbreaking and tragic thing, here exemplified by an eternal vampire child named Eli. Put this film against the likes of today’s Hollywood vampire takes like Twilight and True Blood, and you can see the uniqueness, polish and quality. Vampires are overdone, and you need something new and original to bring it back to earth. That doesn’t always work either (30 Days of Night showed that) because you need quality execution on it as well. You can’t just throw vampires on a screen and expect magic, there’s a whole untapped element that is rarely touched upon. One showing the tragic aspects of immortality, the moral ambiguities and consequences and the unglorified nature of having to feed off of human beings. This rather initiate portrait of that hits all those notes, its too bad a majority of filmgoers are now unable to even reconsider a vampire tale of this nature with all the Twilights and True Bloods of the world.
 
The Bad: The pacing and tone will no doubt catch many off guard, but if you’ve been accustomed to foreign horror movies, this will be as expected as foreign filmmakers and writers take a drastically different approach than their North American counterparts. It’s a melancholy film, very quiet and holds back from ever (ever) going overboard. When someone shows an emotion, which is rare, it’s almost a shock. I suppose if I were to consider anything bad for this rather brilliant piece of horror, it would be just that its almost too slow for its own good. Personally, I found it hypnotic, but others can easily sway to the side of boredom if they are unaccustomed to this style.
 
The Ugly:
As usual, Hollywood grabs up anything with a glimmer or buzz. The remake will surely be a bad imitation, being directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) isn’t going to help matters. Also, despite the many awards and great reviews around the globe, many were upset this film wasn't even nominated for an Oscar.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Let's Scare Jessica to Death

A recently institutionalized woman has bizarre experiences after moving into a supposedly haunted country farmhouse and fears she may be losing her sanity once again.

The Good: A deep, pulsating beat. A bodiless whisper. A shadow in the distance. Let's Scare Jessica is what I would consider a "mood" horror film. There's nothing that's going to jump out at you and scare you like a monster in the woods, but the sense of apprehension and unsettled tension will suck you in. The "mood"  is captured wonderfully. One thing will be for certain: you won't be at all sure what's happening. You'll be questioning and wondering just as Jessica is.

What is real? Did you actually see something or are you simply witnessing Jessica's fall back into psychosis?

It's interesting that this film is one that you can see both sides of. In that, you understand its appeal as a niche film with a cult following, yet those exact same qualities that draws those people in are the same qualities that kept it from becoming a more popular, broad film. It's an art-house take on horror that isn't for everyone.

The Bad: As a mood piece, there's no denying Let's Scare Jessica to Death has it in spades. It's an exercise in keeping you unsettled and never quite sure what's happening. Unfortunately, it's also an exercise in having very little, if anything, actually happen during the film. It's more a series of moments and visualized emotions than it is a plot or story or even a character study (which would have benefited the film a great deal, because we really know nothing about Jessica from the first frame all the way to the last).

There are some pretty cheap tricks going on in Let's Scare Jessica to Death, all of which were quite popular devices in the 70s. Certain synthetic sounds, fast zooms, quick cuts and so forth almost make it seem as a parody. Think of a "70s" horror film, and all those cliche troupes can be found right here.

The Ugly: There's a lot of horror cinema from the 70s that is just lost or forgotten, but many like this one have found a major cult following.

Also, it seems people in the 70s didn't know what moles were. Then again they also chase pale women dressed in nightgowns through graveyards, so what do I know.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Lethal Weapon

A veteran cop, Murtaugh, is partnered with a young homicidal cop, Riggs. Both having one thing in common, hating working in pairs. Now they must learn to work with one and other to stop a gang of drug smugglers.

The Good: With a focus on characters balanced against a backdrop of guns, explosions and a presentation of comedy, Lethal Weapon manages to find a rare balance of drama, laughter and energetic action. Gibson, who was certainly on the rise then (and sneaks in his Aussie accent from time to time) shows how smart casting can do wonders – and that’s what really sets Lethal Weapon apart from the rest. Danny Glover IS Martough and Mel Gibson IS Riggs. You can not imagine a single other actor pulling it off and being so convincing for either of them, but especially Gibson’s utterly unpredictable insanity (which would, sometimes unfairly, steer his career). These two guys are what Lethal Weapon is all about and seem as though they were destined to work together (Glover/Gibson and the characters on paper).

The plot? Honestly, it’s completely secondary here. It’s nothing special because it’s there to drive the characters. It’s really a movie about the characters against the bad guys, notably Gary Busey as Joshua who is every bit the match for Riggs. This is utilized to put Riggs’s ‘insanity’ into perspective and shows that he could have easily gone down the same path. Instead, he meets Murtoaugh who invites him into his home, literally. The development here is more subtle than just two opposites learning to work together. Sure, that’s the logline and in the trailers. But it’s also about searching for acceptance, family and true friends and Lethal Weapon never forgets that. It knows when to pull the right strings and still have a good time doing it.

Oh, but it's not just the character chemistry that people have fond memories of when it comes to Lethal Weapon. How about that classic music score. Those beats. Those cues and riffs and hooks. The score my Michael Kamen would last through the entire franchise because it's that damn good and one of the defining traits. It would add intensity to action, a tongue in a cheek if needed and if dropped just right would even get a laugh or two.

The Bad: This, is a defining film on the 1980s. Buddy cop movies were certainly popular back then, but Lethal Weapon is really the standard to most. It hit every mark, it balanced the comedy, action and drama perfectly and ushered in the (now overused) cop archetypes to one final breath of popularity that extended it for a few more years (48 Hours in 1982 started the trend, that’s for sure, and Miami Vice made it even more popular in that decade).

Would you say its unoriginality works against it? I personally don’t. It’s one of the best example of something that doesn’t really offer anything new and is completely formulaic, but it does that formula absolutely right. Movies like this, you can’t expect a ton of original ideas. It finds its originality in the chemistry of the characters (even the characters themselves had been done before). It’s that aspect that makes Lethal Weapon so rewatchable. At the same time, I can understand how some might wish for a better plot, something more involving, mysterious and “cop-like” with the detective detecting rather than seemingly just falling into something that's over their heads.

The Ugly: Lethal Weapon hit its marks so well, easily one of the Top 5 action movies of its decade, that it really set the bar far too high for its own good. The characters were ingrained into pop culture and the first film completes their arcs as well. These two things really work against the coming sequels.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Lethal Weapon 2

Riggs and Murtaugh are at it again in this sequel to the original Lethal Weapon in 1987. When a red BMW crashes while they are chasing it, they discover the trunk is full of South African Krugerands. Their boss assigns them to protect a federal witness named Leo Getz to try and keep them out of trouble. When the witness reveals he has been doing business with South Africans, the story evolves into a fast moving chase.

The Good: A far darker and grittier installment of the Lethal Weapon franchise, there are less laughs found here and far more drama. The energy is still there, the characters still there (we see them a lot more vulnerable, which is great) but now they are pushed...a lot. This is a good follow up in that it doesn’t try to rehash merely what we saw I the first film and starts anew and fresh (something parts 3 and 4 don’t quite hit). It takes risks, literally, but skewing more dramatic and gritty than light and comedic.

If you know about storytelling, to take on that sudden change, you need to find something for the people to hitch on to. Luckily, Riggs and Murtaugh are as strong as they ever were. In fact, I might even say they are a little stronger because we see a tougher side to them even when compared to the first film (noticeable mainly in the final third of the movie where they really turn to "all business" mode).

The Bad: While I can be on board with a little more drama and a darker tone, the lighter aspects came few and far between and it’s really the balance of those that seems out of whack. What made Riggs and Murtaugh so well-rounded in the first film is they had a lot of different elements to play off of. I suppose you could say the covered them in the first film, but at the same time if you’re building a franchise you have to look for consistency along with the quality. I don’t doubt Lethal Weapon 2’s quality – the characters are fine and the story actually a bit better – but it feels more like a Second Act when a Second Act isn’t really what they’re going for. Still, it does a solid job in retaining the Lethal Weapon name by pushing the boundaries just enough and is probably one of the best follow-up sequels out there. It's as good as the first film but for entirely different reasons.

The Ugly: You’ve never seen Riggs this brutal and at the edge (car door head bashing...I remember the TV edit always cutting that to just one head bash rather than the dozen or so). This movie gets props for a major turn on that half alone.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Lethal Weapon 3

Martin Riggs finally meets his match in the form of Lorna Cole, a beautiful but tough policewoman. Together with Roger Murtaugh, his partner, the three attempt to expose a crooked former policeman and his huge arms racket. The crooked cop (Jack Travis) thwarts them at every turn, mainly by killing anyone who is about to talk, but Murtaugh has personal problems of his own as his family are brought into the equation.

The Good: Lighter than the second, in fact it manages to find the comedy/action balance about as well as the first one did. The chemistry here is as good as it’s always been, still strong and still having a fresh feeling to it. Lethal Weapon 3 isn’t the strongest entry in the series, but it has enough with the characters and their development, notably Riggs finding that elusive true love in Renee Russo, who is actually strong with her character to match up against Gibson. Pesci's more prominent role is welcome and really is a great source of comedy, even if they focus a little too much on him at times.

The Bad: I’ve found that the Lethal Weapon films are only as good as the bad guy in them. It brings more to the table and certainly allows more for Riggs and Murtaugh’s development and situations to play off of. Lethal Weapon 3 has an overall weak villain in an overall weak plot about crooked cops that feels sluggish. While Lethal Weapon hasn’t always been about action set pieces, they’ve always managed to get some in there to at least get a thrill for you. Here, the action set pieces are underwhelming, if not outright lazy and bland. The chase sequence is pretty spectacular, though it could still be done far better.

I suppose that’s what the issue is with Lethal Weapon 3. It doesn’t really try to take a few risks or do anything new to really push the characters. The dark second film, even if it dipped in the comedic effort, took risks in doing so and really evolved the entire world and characters within it. If Lethal Weapon 3 wanted to back to the more even balance in the first film, it needs to do it with a better plot, more compelling action and certainly a better villain.

The Ugly: Lethal Weapon 3 is a failure and a success. As an action movie, it doesn’t work all that well. It depends entirely on what the series is known for (Riggs and Murtaugh chemistry) and little else outside that. In that regard, keeping up that relationship between the two leads, it still rides high. It just needed a better vehicle to have them sitting in.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Lethal Weapon 4

Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh, after escaping death from the previous movies are put on a hit list by The Triads. When blood thirsty mercenaries are on their tail they team up again with Leo Getz and Lorna Cole, a newcomer (Chris Rock) to finally put an end to the Triads for good.

The Good: Well my dislike of the third movie's villain was addressed right away. In fact, there's a decent handful of them here, but the big one is certainly Jet Li. Forgive me if I don't remember his character name, he's just Jet Li doing Jet Li stuff. Martial arts were never really big in the Lethal Weapon films. You saw Riggs do a few kicks and takedowns, but nothing quite like this. It's a welcome addition and combined with some solid action set pieces, chase scenes and a few shootouts, it handles its action moments about as well as you can expect. In particular, the car/house chase scene is a pretty original one, and original chase scenes are pretty rare.

I could go on about Riggs and Murtaugh, but I won't. Four Lethal Weapon reviews and if you haven't figured it out by now, they are always great. Instead, I'll focus on an element the fourth film really focuses on and makes for a good send off of the franchise: the entire supporting cast. The theme of "family" is as strong here as it was in the first film. It's a unit, they're together and even Pesci's character is now welcomed into the fold as a faimliy member, making him a little more genuine to all that's going on around him. Chris Rock's character might be a bit on the wasted side, but it helps balance a lot of things out and, truth be told, they needed a younger actor somewhere because "getting old for this shit" is the second running theme (now with Riggs in that category). Lethal Weapon 4 may get some things wrong, which we'll address, but thematically and chemistry-wise, it comes across as really right.

The Bad: The Lethal Weapon films have always played loose and free. Banter, lots of back and forth and quirky dialogue. This, combined with the musical cues, is a staple and allows for alleviation in case things get a little rough and dramatic. Lethal Weapon 4, though, kind of crosses the boundaries. Things aren’t given nearly enough emotional weight, instead treated more as a nuisance with a light tone than a serious situation. These aren’t fun a goofy situations either, such as a bomb on a toilet, but about as threatening as some of the darker moments in Lethal Weapon 2. It’s also overwritten at times, with too many characters to juggle and depending more on personality that chemistry – including Riggs and Murtaugh (though, to be fair we know them pretty well after three films already).

I think the best comparison within the franchise is that of Lethal Weapon 2 - only the exact opposite. Where Lethal Weapon 2 really grounded everything and made it serious and a little darker (with high patches of comedy), Lethal Weapon 4 maintains a light tone when it simply should be much darker and serious, this most noticeable when the families are tied up and left to burn to death. You never feel the risk, not as hard as you probably should anyways, and the reaction after the fact is less about real focus and determination, or even revenge like in Part 2, but with an attitude that says "alright,we're all fine, I guess we better go get that guy, huh? Even in the climatic final fight scene, there's little gravitas going on. It looks serious, if not brutal, but you don't quite feel the punch it wants to try and get home (an underdeveloped villain that talks little has a lot to do with that).

The Ugly: I think this is a solid send off to the franchise. It brings everything full circle and gets everyone involved. The rumors of a possible fifth film is disenchanting to me. It's been rumored for a long time, but with the way studios are going back and retooling stuff and making sequels these days, it would surprise me if Gibson and Glover and back on the screen.
That would be better than a remake, though, wouldn't it?

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Letters From Iwo Jima

The story of the battle of Iwo Jima between the United States and Imperial Japan during World War II, as told from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it.

The Good: It's so damn easy to just make a "war" movie. Well, ok not really. Special effects, scale battles and lots of actors naturally doesn't make anything easy. But what's hard is to do a war movie, yet not have it necessarily be about war: hence the "war" with quotation marks. Letters from Iwo Jima is one of the most humanizing, heartbreaking and emotional "war" films you'll ever see. It's a tragedy in every sense of the word - and something that would make the likes of Shakespeare proud. It's a raw account of Iwo Jima which fell, and the men from Japan that fell alongside it. It's not about the battles, there's really none to be found here, nor is it meant to be a point-by-point timeline account. It's about the human drama that unfolds within war and how the external conflicts brings rise to the internal ones of every man with a gun in his hand and a helmet on his head. It doesn't glorify it. It doesn't romanticize it or either side. Letters from Iwo Jima is one of the most honest, and thus heartbreaking and profound "war" movies to ever be made.

Its lyrical nature aside, the film still stands up on its technical levels as well. Shot entirely in Japanese with a Japanese-only cast (outside of the few American marines/flashback moments) Clint Eastwood utterly went well beyond the call of duty in the use of sound and his beautifully stark and fittingly drab palette of grays, faded blues and dark shadows. It's melancholy photography is accompanied by only flashes of war scenes: mostly the film concentrates on the dialogue, the silence of the moment and fits it all nicely with a soft piano alongside it all. It's tragedy, presented as tragedy and executed as tragedy. It manages to find life moments and with it sadness in the cracks of warfare and blood, and the entire film ends up a distinguished and beautiful story as a result.

The Bad: It's a little hard to keep track of all that is happening as the film closes to its end. Scenes are broken and away from other scenes because the Japanese unit themselves were broken and away.
The Ugly: I absolutely hate reviewers that say things like "it's just revisionist history" about as much as I hate reviewers that say "the book was better." Unless you're going to travel back in time and shoot the actual events, things are going to be changed and altered. By being so concerned on those types of things, a reviewer can miss the point entirely. Does the film demonize people? Does it glorify war? No. As I said. It's honest, has a point to make and makes it well. The end.

The Ugly: Like with many war flicks, sometimes you can feel pretty depressed at the depth of what a man can be and the acts that follow him.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Portrays in warm-hearted detail the life and loves of one extraordinary man. We meet the imposingly rotund General Clive Wynne-Candy, a blustering old duffer who seems the epitome of stuffy, outmoded values. Traveling backwards 40 years we see a different man altogether: the young and dashing officer "Sugar" Candy. Through a series of relationships with three women and his lifelong friendship with a German officer, we see Candy's life unfold and come to understand how difficult it is for him to adapt his sense of military honor to modern notions of "total war."

The Good: When asked of some of the great movie characters, many, including myself, seem to have the default responses: your Rick’s from Casablanca, or your Kanes and Annie Halls. Then I start thinking a little deeper, and one that has always been a favorite, in fact coming from one of the earliest “classic” films I remember seeing when I began to dive head-first into the history of cinema, is Colonel Blimp from the film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. As one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s most beloved works, I would think I shouldn’t have to think a little deeper. Then again, nobody else would think of him either, or probably knew who I was talking about to begin with.

The film is about a character. Now when I say that, I have to put it into perspective. It’s not so much about a story to be told here as much as it is a presentation of a man’s life...a man that never lived and is, in fact, a cartoon character played in live action and is actually not the name of the character itself. “Blimp” is just a term referring, if anything, to the larger-than life (and fairly overweight) military man that lives how he lives and fights how he fights. Gung-ho and rough around the edges is how he exists, much to the chagrin of those around him. I seem to always just call him “Col Blimp” because it sounds nice. His actual name is Clive Wynne-Candy - a name that doesn’t quite roll of the tongue and is as unknown in a discussion about great movie characters as “Blimp” is. In fact, he’s not even a Colonel, he’s a General. Confusion of the name is abound. As you watch, you begin to see more than just that and realize it's a portrait of what makes a man who is today and how others look upon him. Names aren’t really that important, just the man and his life you come to understand. You see a man, his way of thinking, his feelings and his look and perspective on the world around him. If you aren’t careful, you might just start to agree with him.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is not only a look into the makings of a man, but is also a very keen commentary on our assumptions of people – all done in a comedic (yes, this is a comedy) and light, humorous expression without undermining the sentimental nature of its themes. What do we know, truly know, about the person next to us? Our co-workers? Our friends? To know them and understand them, we’d need to know and understand every aspect of their lives...but we never will no matter how hard we try. Why is Blimp the way he is? The story threads, flashing back to the man’s life and putting the brilliant Anton Walbrook into the role of a rival German officer...his name Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff...and soon Candy’s best friend, all are part of the palette. His story, one of balance and parallel to Candy’s, is as integral to the understanding of the man as anything, but also that much more important to the theme of the film: men age, men of war age, but war doesn’t really change nor does the desire of man to destroy itself. Their friendship was one glimmer of light in an otherwise dark world.

The stories of the makings of a man within the film explains his sternness, stubbornness, his loves and his long-lingering friendship with an enemy before labels were put on them, and even his moustache. As it turns out we have a man that had seen and done much, been through more than most can imagine, and then you come to understand him that much more...and end up loving him as a result. Understanding the origins of a man, realizing that insight is the source of such understandings of a life, can make any person sympathetic to where you nod your hand and grin in mutual understanding, no matter how gung-ho, aged, weathered and rough around the edges they may be. A complex, charming movie that has held up immensely over the years, as relevant as ever and one of the most unique war movies about war yet not about war at all that you could ever see.

The Bad: Like so many great works of art, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was detested when it was first released. It dared to humanize a German during the height of the Nazi regime and World War II. The ironic thing is, that was the point. War dehumanizes people when they really aren’t...and here are people still doing it and taking it out on a film that dared to show that.

The Ugly: There are often discussions of great movie speeches or monologues, but give this one a try. Like the film itself, it often doesn’t get enough acknowledgement. 

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


A Life Less Ordinary

Ewan McGregor stars as a cleaning man in L.A. who takes his boss's daughter hostage after being fired and replaced by a robot. Two "angels" who are in charge of human relationships on earth, offer some unsolicited help to bring this unlikely couple together. The "angels" are so successful that the daughter soon turns on her father in order to save her captor.

The Good: It might be easy to think that Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz are the most important parts of this movie. Sure, they're our leads and their characters the primary focus, the the real stars here are the people around them. As far as this reviewer is concerned, Holly Hunter and DelRoy Lindo are the actors that steal the show and, appropriately, their characters end up the most appealing, interesting and overall enjoyable aspects of a movie that is as rudimentary as basic math and arguably just as uninteresting.

The Bad: Flat comedy and a far overdone premise makes A Life Less Ordinary a movie difficult to find original, much less memorable in any form (other than the ending credits, which I certainly won't spoil and is the one thing that the film can truly call its own). There are moments that will make you chuckle, Boyle's films always have a certain wit about them, but ultimately don't go anywhere. Diaz is another issue here. Her character and overall performance is ear-gratingly annoying, especially when put up against the far better McGregor (which eventually leads to a pretty contrived and disappointing romance). You can feel the energy here, and maybe even applaud its occasional fantasy genre nature, but it just lacks excitement.

Yet, McGregor is disappointing himself coming off of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, two great roles from him. He's so vanilla that me saying he overshadows Diaz probably gives you an idea just how Diaz is in it. I suppose I'm most disappointed, though, in the inability of Boyle to at least stay a little focused, it's his mind running a million miles a minute that seems to hurt this film.

The Ugly: I've always felt A Life Less Ordinary is like a less-enjoyable version of True Romance. It has some nice moments, but that's all it has.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Life of Pi

A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an unexpected connection with another survivor ... a fearsome Bengal tiger 

The Good: Less a story as it is a visual experience, Life of Pi is, without question, a film that will stay with you. Not because it is profound (it isn't), or that it has something to day (it doesn't) but because from strictly a visual standpoint, it is a beautiful piece that may not have the depth, but boy does it have the surface. It's like a painting in motion, moving and breathing with a life of its own. Director Ang Lee brings life through the lens as Life of Pi is a master class of how to visually tell a story even if the story doesn't have much else to offer. Each shot feels purposeful and not wasted, but that's the standard for Lee, who again shows his range and willingness to challenge himself as a filmmaker.

One major aspect is the special effects. The animals, the ocean, the entire world is mostly computer generated and it's amazing. The fantasy quality of the story fits perfectly with the beauty of live action blended with effects, likely giving this a special effects acknowledgement at the end of the year. It's hard to believe that these animals, especially the tiger, full of personality and "acting" just as much as the human counterparts, aren't real. Ang Lee handles live action and computer effects beautifully, as though they are actually there together, and paints a portrait of a film that is unique and beautiful all the same.

The Bad: With a beautiful, expressive presentation comes a heavy-hand of thematic symbolism, allegory and metaphor. The "you will believe in God" aspect comes at you like a caveman with a club, swinging and hitting every chance it gets in both flashback and present portions of the narrative. It is not, at all, a subtle film - so on the nose that it begins to diminish the quality of the rest of the film.

Though it will continue to visually engage you throughout, it soon becomes tiresome in terms of story. We really have no commitment to Pi, our lead (though Suraj Sharma does a fine job, it's just not there on the page) and never feel the risk of it all - both because we know how it all ends from the very beginning of the story and because we never truly feel a sense of dread and fear that a stranded lifeboat should entail. Soon it begins to become repetitious and you want to just move on from whatever expositional "god" discussion it's attempting to have.

The Ugly: This movie absolutely wouldn't have worked without Ang Lee. There's really no script to speak of other than a nice structure and framing, more just situations that need proper direction. This might be the most deserving of best director out of any film this year, it's hard to make a good film with such an average script.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Lifeboat

In the Atlantic during WWII, a ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle and both are sunk. The survivors from the ship gather in one of the boats. They are from a variety of backgrounds: an international journalist, a rich businessman, the radio operator, a nurse, a steward, a sailor and an engineer with communist tendencies. Trouble starts when they pull a man out of the water who turns out to be from the U-boat.

The Good: Lifeboat is probably Hitchcock's most overlooked and under-appreciated film. An entire hour and a half built around eight characters in a lifeboat. It sounds like that should be a short, but Hitchcock knows how to craft a story better than anyone. All he needs are a place and a few people. The suspense isn't found in the mystery, although there is one on this lifeboat, but in the relationships of characters' emotions, feelings, and development. Every character is a fully realized three-dimensional person, complex and compelling as a tale is weaved focusing on perspectives, ideologies, and our own sympathies on what is right and what is wrong. It's simply a brilliant movie that must be seen to be appreciated and, arguably, showcased complex and emotive plot elements that were ahead of their time.

The Bad: With such a focused and small tale, to call anything bad is probably going overboard (no pun intended). I suppose one might say it is certainly allied propaganda, but even the Nazi character is shown as a full realized person even if we question the way he approaches things. That's sort of the point. There are a few times when characters turn a little preachy, and I felt simply comes rather than feels as though it concludes due to a more action-oriented ending than what 99% of the rest of the film is. Still, it's a great ending with a poignant final bit of dialogue by Bankhead.

The Ugly: It's a simple story, and I'm surprised more haven't gone to look to remake it. Then again, watching it recently once more, it's impressive how utterly timeless it is. It's aged incredibly well (although I never hold it against a film if it's dated anyways, no critic should).

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Limitless

A writer discovers a top-secret drug which bestows him with super human abilities.

The Good: Limitless is a film of many colors. It's a little science fiction, a little psychological thriller, a wish-granting fantasy, a bit of murder mystery with some conspiracy elements, a bit of a gritty crime movie, a trippy "what just happened" road taken here and there (ala Requiem for a Dream or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and maybe throw in a nod towards Wall Street all at the same time. Limitless (and I apologize for this horrible, horrible play on words) is far from limited in what it wants to do as a film.

It's single log line is less a statement and more a question: if you had a pill that allowed you amazing intelligence, what would you do with it? Here we have one Bradley Cooper really showing his moxy as an actor as we will see him on top of the world in one scene, then a strung-out drug addict the next. He can be funny and charming, and then beat up a bunch of people in a subway station. What is most noted about Limitless is how visual the entire thing is. Oh, the script can't quite decide where it wants to go or what it wants to do, but it's a visual "rush" of a film.

If it weren't for a unique visual flare, I don't know if Limitless would have your attention (or care) nearly as much. The frantic and alluring pace isn't in the script...it's in how the visuals flow with the script. It's hard to not be hooked by it...

The Bad: but upon further review and a bit of thinking, Limitless is a rather shallow romp through a great idea. It touches on so many things and various genres that it doesn't ever really dive into them. An example is the addiction element of our little pill. There's a few moments where it seems it might turn into a thoughtful, and very intriguing, drama. Here it's not a chemical, but it's an "awareness" they become addicted to. Alas, that never goes beyond a conversation. There's some intriguing crime elements and psychological thriller elements as well, but again it only grazes the surface of both and in just a few vignettes that you can't help but really get invested in because they're so interesting and visually appealing.

But that's about all it manages to achieve. It doesn't have much to say but has a ton it wants to do. For the most part, it does all those and those little moments all strung together are what make up the film. It's better than it should be but it could've been so much better. Entertaining, but likely forgettable.
The Ugly: The trailers for Limitless really do little justice to the final film. I suppose a movie that mixes so many different genres is a hard thing to make a good trailer for, but it's far smarter and energetic of a movie than the rather bland trailers showcase.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Lincoln

As the Civil War continues to rage, America's president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.

The Good: All the pieces are in the right places and exactly what you want them to be. You want Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. You want Steven Spielberg directing this movie with Janusz Kaminski shooting it and John Williams doing this score. You want a writer like Tony Kushner adapting a book like Team of Rivals for this movie. You may not realize it until you see it, but you damn sure want Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones in their respective roles as well. Lincoln is the film that feels familiar because it give you everything you want because a movie like this and about this subject can only be done well with all these parties at their respective best. For the most part, they are. Beautifully shot, edited, acted, sounding…it's the movie you expect and pretty much want.

That doesn't mean it plays it safe. Lincoln is very candid about bigotry, political discourse (which really hasn't changed in 100 years), ego, emotional baggage and heartbreak. It makes Lincoln and all these figures human, not mythological gods to be bowed down to. It was a time of struggle and turmoil and Lincoln, despite the melodrama and occasional on-the-nose beats, is overall honest about who these men and women were and the problems around them. It captures an essence of the time, from how people lived to how they treated each other and how division and self-interest nearly destroyed the United States - something that strikes chords even today.

What I think is so impressive here is the ability to have exposition through conversation. There's a lot of information to relay, but (and as typical with a Spielberg film) it never feels taxing. It's presented through simple conversation and debate and understanding of an audience to put it together. For instance, Lincoln admits in a scene that the emancipation proclamation was about property, not because he agreed with slaves as property but because wartime powers allowed him abilities to posses property from succeeding states and if calling them property meant they could be taken away from the south, then he went along with it. It doesn't mean they were "equal" or that slavery was suddenly abolished. It's actually a very big point about the history of Lincoln, and it's casually put in the film and is clear, concise, cuts to the point and we understand the situation.

It also has an incredible ability to show just how volatile everything was at this time, and how Lincoln wasn't entirely well liked. We look back at him now and see a great man, but many despised him and everything he stood for in this period. This film manages to simultaneously glorify the man, but be honest with the fact that he was just a man, not a messiah. He had a troubled life, a troubled family, the weight of the world on his shoulders, enemies everywhere and overwhelmed with all the legislation, moral debating and the war at hand with the cost of life mounting.

The Bad: Not much, to be honest. You're kind of expecting an over-sentimental melodrama and that's pretty much what you're going to get. This elements can either work for or with a story, and here you kind of need it. It does, but the film's issue isn't in style as much as it is pacing and structure. It can be a slog of a movie, keeping clear its main themes carried by its polish, but going in varying paths to get to its story.  There was so much going on at the time surrounding the man, politically and as a father and husband, that we dip in and out of these stories without a big sense of a through line other than that it was difficult for him. I suppose we get a lot of context and information, but not necessarily in an order that allows us to really appreciate it all.

The Ugly: This film does what people call "putting a pin in it" or "put a bow on it" In other words, not just wrapping up, but trying to really bring home a point. The thing is, it didn't really need to do this. The point was made, and made well, and being on the nose actually makes the powerful nature of the film seem diminished.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Lincoln Lawyer

Mick Haller is a defense lawyer who works out of his Lincoln. When a wealthy Realtor is accused of raping a prostitute, Haller is asked to defend him. The man claims that the woman is trying to get some money out of him. But when Haller looks at the evidence against him, he learns that this case might be linked to an old case of his.

The Good: Sharp. Smart. Witty. Fast. That's The Lincoln Lawyer in a nutshell. In fact, those words can be used to describe Matthew McConaughey's character as well - McConaughey perfectly cast in a role tailored for him (you can't imagine anyone else selling the likeable but morally questionable character quite as well as he can). After a while you succumb to the hypnotic nature of the film, and though it's not a polished gem and there's some oddities that don't make a whole lot of sense (and are a little too contrived), you realize that two hours have passed.

The Lincoln Lawyer is what I like to call an "entertaining courtroom flick." It's not particularly poignant or have a lot of twists, it won't wow you with the drama of the proceedings, but it will entertain you because it's less about a legal issue and more about a moral dilemma of our main character. He's played on both sides of the morality line plenty of times, but now he realizes he's taken on something that will test him. It's that test that's intriguing, the entertaining court case is just the vehicle.

The Bad: If the Lincoln Lawyer managed to write out its courtroom proceedings better, I would say it's a damn good movie that you can't miss. Yet, it doesn't because it can't. It flows through its dramatic legal plot because it has to, not because it wants to. As a result you get a sense of laziness to it all despite a few flashes of intrigue and a twist or two. It is a boilerplate courtroom drama with a slick main character in a moral dilemma thrown in. The execution is good, but in a sense that it doesn't give you time to think. If you think to much, it might start revealing its problems.

The Ugly: There are certainly elements here that could have made the film far better than it is. It's a slick movie, but too slick for its own good. It doesn't reel back and hold restraint to let the story and characters settle into themselves.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Live Free or Die Hard

When someone hacks into the computers at the FBI's Cyber Crime Division; the Director decides to round up all the hackers who could have done this. When he's told that because it's the 4th of July most of their agents are not around so they might have trouble getting people to get the hackers. So he instructs them to get local PD'S to take care of it. And one of the cops they ask is John McClane who is tasked with bringing a hacker named Farrell to the FBI. But as soon as he gets there someone starts shooting at them. McClane manages to get them out but they're still being pursued. And it's just when McClane arrives in Washington that the whole system breaks down and chaos ensues.

The Good: There are two things that this fourth Die Hard movie has going for it. One, as usual, John McClane. He's older, still a bit of a hard-ass, but also a guy you really want to hang out with for a couple of hours and route for him in situations and Willis fits back into those shoes (if he's wearing them this time) very nicely. The second is that it had a huge gap between the previous Die Hard films meaning, in a sense, it can really rewrite the rules. As a result, we really get some absolutely spectacular action sequences that are both intense and fun at the same time. "Fun" being the key word. This isn't so much the grounded and gritty Die Hard as much as it is something that seems more akin to James Bond. Because of a lag in time, we can accept this change in tone and enjoy it for what it has to offer. The supporting cast of Justin Long is a solid addition and he plays the geeky computer tech, a bridge to the older-generation McClane to today's world, incredibly well. Unlike McClane's previous "sidekicks," Long feels actually relevant to the story and what is going on. We're also given a unique scenario, although preposterous, that offers up some inventive way to set up action sequences not to mention offer us a rather compelling villain played by the always overlooked Timothy Olyphant. While his exchanges with McClane aren't the biggest highlight, that would be the action and stunts, they seem to have an utter loathing of each other that makes the film incredibly fun to watch.

The Bad: With the more lavish action stunts and set pieces, much of our view of John McClane changes from "everyman" to "superhero." The stunts are cool, and he looks cool doing them, but nothing is inherently believable in any of them or feels grounded as though they could actually happen. It's a "lighter" film in that sense catapulted by a desire to turn McClane into Rambo or, as noted earlier, James Bond with overly lavish stunts. Like the third film, it also suffers from a rushed third act and an ending that feels unfulfilled. The entire concept is pretty outlandish, again feeling more James Bond than Die Hard, but while I can accept outlandishness in action movies it still needs to sell me on it. This movie simply does not. The motivation of the villain is completely forgettable, I know I can't even remember what is other than a guy trying to "prove a point" because he felt wronged. That's pretty thin, at best, and shoehorning McClane's daughter into the story is as forced throwing in a Harrier Jet into the plot or the occasional comedy bit such as Justin Long explaining Lo-jack and On-Star to McClane. Nothing feels naturally occurring, especially after the midway mark. There's also an unfortunate oversight regarding time in relation to location. The characters seem to freely move about the entire eastern seaboard with relative ease but we never really get a sense of scale or location because we have little no transitions occurring. While Live Free or Die Hard is a valiant effort, it seems to just try to damn hard.

The Ugly: I know PG-13 really pushes the limit these days. Now you have a "hard PG-13" and "light R" and so forth. The fact is, Die Hard was built no blood, bullets and vulgarity. That is one of John McClane's defining traits and they are stripped from him here. It's not just saying "f-bombs" and blowing a guy's head off, it's how McClane casually does it and we, somehow, cheer for him in doing so. Here, it forcefully shows itself restraining from doing so. Even the "Unrated" version which puts in a few extra curse words feels forced and unnatural. While it's a fun film, and McClane likable (unlike in the third movie), it fails to really bring the personality and tone of what made the Die Hard movies, even the mediocre second and third ones, to the fourth. It's a better film than those two, but it's not quite a better Die Hard film than either.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Lives of Others

In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives. 

The Good: The Lives of Others works on two levels. One, it tells us the story of East Germany, the socialist-driven, human-rights destroying government and the people trapped there. On paper, you would think all these questionable things the government was doing took place during the 1960s (if not during Nazi Germany itself). But no…it was only a few decades ago. It paints a picture of a world nobody reading this could probably understand and through its small narrative says a great deal about it. Secondly, it’s a gripping thriller and human drama. It’s more complex than it’s simple “wire tapping” plot. You start with a case of rights, which leads to morality, which leads to the real story: there are people’s lives at stake, both literally and metaphorically. You can’t live in East Germany, you can only be alive and keep your head down. The acting is utterly superb, matching the low-key nuance of the story and directing, and the scenes of suspense are intense, but in a way that won’t scare you, just that you know what will happen and don’t want to see it.

The Bad: If there’s one flaw, it’s the extreme predictability of the story. I do believe it’s more the journey than it is the destination, and The Lives of Others takes a wonderful path in this regard. But a few key plot elements were set up in a way that we aren’t supposed to know what will happen. However, we do know because we get to understand the main character, Gerd, so well and know exactly what he plans to do, say and think. A great character study, yes, but doesn’t make for a great sense of unknown outcomes and suspense which the film is geared towards. At best, though, this is a minor complaint and doesn’t detract from the biggest surprise and emotionally difficult aspect of the film’s final series of scenes. It’s not about the shock or thrill, as many thrillers build themselves on, but in the outcome and consequences.

The Ugly:  There was a time when American thrillers were of this caliber. The easiest example and comparison is to Francis Ford Coppola’s mesmerizing The Conversation or (Antonini’s classic Blowup only from a visual aspect rather than auditory). Like The Lives of Others, it was a quiet and subtle piece of work that drew its story around its central character. The days of something like that, I thought, were all but over..but no…they just jumped over to the other side of the pond.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Locke

Ivan Locke, a dedicated family man and successful construction manager, receives a phone call on the eve of the biggest challenge of his career that sets in motion a series of events that threaten his careful cultivated existence.

The Good: Tom Hardy has proven time and time again that he’s one of the best actors working today. Yet, for some reason, I can’t help but assume he’s constantly overlooked because in 2014 he pretty much did a one-man show on film and got nary a recognition for it outside of a few critics circles. He’s a guy that can be flashy and play it big or be subtle and unique as he creates a character on screen, often becoming lost in the role.

In Locke, he plays Ivan Locke who is probably as “normal” of a character and of a movie as you could ask for. Well, “normal” being relative as it all takes place with Hardy in a car and having conversations on the phone. Just a regular guy dealing with a lot of stuff as he drives down a highway at night. That should be boring and dull, right? Not with an actor like Hardy at the helm who is able to capture the emotional ride that Ivan has to go through on the literal and figurative road of life. A dissolving marriage. A career about to be destroyed. A woman that’s not his wife giving birth. All of this is relayed entirely through conversations on a phone and managing Hardy’s reaction as we go through it with him.

The story goes one step further: Locke isn’t an entirely likable guy. That’s what’s so fantastic here, you don’t particularly like him yet you emphasize with him because we’ve all had our lives tested and even seeing a guy that’ you’re not fond of deal with it really gets you to relate him. The dialogue and conversations here feel poignant and real, a testament of a great actor with great material to work with. Writer/director Steven Knight has often been hit and miss in his career, dishing out great scripts for Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things but misfiring on something like Seventh Son and World War Z (in his defense, he’s one of many writers on the latter two there and the sole writer on the previous two…the too many cooks syndrome is full effect there). He, with Hardy, creates a captivating film that is unassumingly captivated as it casts its spell on you.

The Bad: There’s no “structure” in the traditional sense here and in many respects you have to kind of accept that the film is just not a comfortable film to sit through. There’s no old standard that you’ve become accustomed to. There’s no plot. There’s a story but it’s more the slow revelation of a man’s life than anything. So what you need, as a result of all that, is a guide of some sort…and Locke doesn’t quite have it. It’s a series of conversations with great performances yet nothing that truly resonates with what it’s attempt to present.

What is it trying to say? Seeing the film a couple of times now (which is no problem as Hardy is fantastic) it doesn’t have a point to itself other than to let you into the world of Locke. Locke is an interesting character yet its hard to know why his story needs to be told. It’s a bold and challenging film that overcomes that with its stronger elements of directing and acting, thankfully, because it’s so unlike most of what’s out there to say “what’s the point?” feels dismissive. It really is one of the better films of last year that deserves to be seen.

The Ugly: Boy, that’s one hell of a way for a wife to find out, huh?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Lockout

A man wrongly convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage against the U.S. is offered his freedom if he can rescue the president's daughter from an outer space prison taken over by violent inmates.

The Good: With some great inventive action sequences, fast pace and fun characters, Lockout is the right prescription for one of those movie-watching nights where you don't want to dedicate a lot of time or interest. You just want to have some fun and watch a lot of people kill each other in space. It's derivative, but most things are these days, and Lockout at least understands that and has some fun with it along the way even if it's not much more than b-movie fodder.

Guy Pearce, as usual with him, elevates every scene he's in. His character, Snow, is an arrogant, egotistical asshole of a man who just happens to be very good at killing people. He also just happens to have a moral center, even if he covers it in layers of machismo. While the set up is great to take advantage of this character, and there's always stuff for him to do, he and Pearce should be in a far better, polished and fun film.

The Bad: Lockout tries, desperately, to do too much. The desperation is most apparent when the best parts of the film, our "hero" Snow traversing through a space-prison and taking people out, gives way to some half-realized conspiracy / frameup plot. Why the filmmakers think we care enough about these characters to shoehorn such a thing into a movie that should have been 95% on that prison is beyond me, but the rush-job it gives everything at the end and the fact that the climax becomes undermined by it all (and rushed) shows the film likely went through a number of re-writes with notes that involved the word "think bigger."

This didn't need to be bigger. When it tries to be, the falsity of it all comes through (as well as its limited budget, notably during a chase sequence in the opening scene). It feels cut down and under-realized because the filmmakers were busy trying to overcompensate and everything ends up diminished as a result - the fun, the action, the focus. After a while it all loses its luster. A story of a great character like Snow going in and taking care of business in a prison full of psychopaths should have been the point of the film, and it shows that when it is doing that it's at its most entertaining, but it changes direction and loses focus resulting in a convoluted story that tries way too hard than what it needed to do.

The Ugly: You're probably wondering if I'm reviewing the unrated version. I am. I don't see any differences. At least not enough that's significant.

In many situations, this is the type of movie I love. If it's fun and knows what it is, I'm on board. There's something to be said about simply making something that's sole purpose is to entertain. Not make you think, not try and have anything significant to say, just get your heart pumping. Lockout gets some of that right...but it doesn't know what to do with the rest. There's still a craft to it and Lockout is a crafty idea with no craftsmanship executed.

Final Rating:  2.5 out of 5


Logan's Run

An idyllic sci-fi future has one major drawback: life must end at 30. 

The Good: With a great idea comes great science fiction. Well, in the case of Logan's Run it's great idea is a bit muddled and all over the place, but it still makes for good and entertaining science fiction. Lots of chasing, lots of fun, perhaps some unintentional humor and a great aesthetic and full-realized world to play around in is the name of the game. If anything, Logan's Run offers us a great premise, a large scale to feel the prominence of that premise and entertainment as a result of both. One thing you can't deny, though, is that Logan's Run is ambitious. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but its intentions are certainly there and it's admirable as a result of it.

The Bad: Some science fiction is timeless, others a product of their time, great ones a bit of both that says both about the era in which they were created yet as a universal appeal that lasts forever. Logan's Run is the second of these. It's from the late 70s and feels like its from the late 70s. Yet, even by that standard it still has some sloppy writing and structure, occasionally laughably-bad acting and a theme that never seems to fully develop. It has a message, but it's bogged down by sloppiness. It has a direction, but isn't quite sure how to fully bring the image and path in clearly. Logan's Run is an idea. I fleeting notion of a conceptual scientific theory of a possible future, based much on a counter-culture that even in 1976 was a fading idea, but it doesn't quite know how to put those pieces into place.

Logan's Run is entertaining, but its commentary on society never quite lives up to the science fiction genre's usual standards and probably not up to what it probably was hoping to reach itself. The film is more notable because it has a wonderful idea, not a particularly great execution. It's hammy, extremely campy and works well enough to be memorable, but not particularly a legendary piece or a timeless science fiction classic.

The Ugly: Again, the acting is a bit funny sometimes. In particular...I just don't think Logan is that great a lead character. You route for him because of what he's fighting against, not because you particularly like him. Also, a remake is in the works, and this is great movie to be remade...especially considering who is signed on to direct it.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Lolita

Humbert Humbert, a divorced British professor of French literature, travels to small-town America for a teaching position. He allows himself to be swept into a relationship with Charlotte Haze, his widowed and sexually famished landlady, whom he marries in order that he might pursue the woman's 14-year-old flirtatious daughter, Lolita, with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love, but whose affections shall be thwarted by a devious trickster named Clare Quilty.

The Good: What Lolita tells us is how lust and desire can sometimes be mistaken for love and affection. Humbert doesn’t merely have a fondness for the 14-year old girl, but develops an obsession. This dive into the human psyche shows us a character that, in most cases, we would loathe. However, Lolita manages to humanize a man who is obsessed and boiling over in passion. James Mason is solid in his role. He tells a lot through body language and expression. Peter Sellers, though (and this is usual with him) steals the spotlight with one of his more daring and subtle performances as, well, another obsessed pedophile.

The Bad: There’s much that is merely implied. While being explicit (the novel was very heavy in that department) isn’t required, the numerous scenes that have to imply certain activities, dialogue that is far from poignant and a narrator that is sporadic and unreflective, begins to become more and more obvious as the film goes on. Also, Lolita is considered to be a comedy, a very dark one at that. While there are some funny things, such as the name of the camp and some funny banter, the slow, indirect story doesn’t present the comedy particularly well and instead it comes across as an uncomfortable and awkward film – especially considering the subject matter.

The Ugly: Kubrick went on record to state that had he known of rating restrictions ahead of time, and how censors were breathing down his neck, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the movie. Yet it still received an X rating in Britain despite the changes (Pedophilia just wasn’t popular, it seems).

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Lone Ranger

Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

The Good: If you can get around a lot of the fluff and fat, and truthfully that shouldn't be your job as an audience, you can find a lot of inventive and fun entertainment and action in The Lone Ranger. Sure, it all gets lost in all the other stuff, but when the action is working, and it usually is, it's a really fun trip to a fantasy old-west. It's some of the best action you'll see on screen this year. Like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, there's a great dose of world-building here full of original ways to bring action to your indulging viewing pleasure. Unfortunately, like those movies as well, it all gets lost with too much stuff as it follows "we need more shit in this movie" policy of filmmaking.

Oh, and Armie Hammer is good. Like real good. You probably won't' notice because of the stilted dialogue, convoluted script and Johnny Depp's rather uninteresting Tonto taking up most of the screen here, but he has a really good presence and sells the "emerging hero" arc well. Not to mention he has a nice bit of comedic timing which you need to balance out everything else considering any more melodrama will probably make the movie explode.

The Bad: "Overindulgence" can be a good thing if done the right way - see any 1980s action movie or anything made by Paul Verhoven - but if done wrong, we end up with something where the tone and style and everything else is just wrong as well because trying too much, and dipping your toes in to too many pools, makes for strange bedfellows. Being more comedic, silly and fun might suit a reboot of The Long Ranger franchise, but being excessive does not, much like it's decision to also be dark and sometimes even morbid. Here we have a story that's too convoluted, action scenes that go on for way too long, a framing device that is only there to try and wrangle in the lack of plot and story and a running time of all that being nearly three hours long.

While I can say some of that fits, it goes beyond just indulging itself and whatever sense of "fun" that the film begins with slowly dissipates as it stretches it, and stretches it, and stretches it to where it snaps. It no longer is fun after all that, and shortly becomes tedious. This take of The Lone Ranger is a good idea gone awry, swerving and weaving down an seemingly endless highway with no sense of direction or end.

What's worse is that, if you take a step back, there's some pretty inspired things happening in this movie, that final action sequence damn fine for example. But it all becomes awash because it can never settle on what it wants to be, extends itself far beyond what is necessary and even the elements that might have been "fun" or even "good" just have you wanting to get it all over with.

There are other things to be upset, annoyed or bored with in The Lone Ranger, but it all comes down with nobody wrangling it all in and keeping focus. It wants to do this for a bit, so it goes off and oes that, then it comes back and it wants to do something else, so it goes off and does that to. Backstory? Sure, let's spend ten minutes on exposition.

It's too much and falls to the same faults that Verbinski's latter two Pirates of the Caribbean movies had as well. No, not run-time. Being "long" isn't a criticism. The Lone Ranger is the same running time as Curse of the Black Pearl, arguably the best out of any of these types of movies. The problem is pacing, focus and understanding how to tell a story so you don't feel the weight of the time. The Lone Ranger will have you checking your watch quite a bit.

The Ugly: If you can't take The Lone Ranger and tell the story, action set pieces and all, in a little over two hours yet still feel like you're wasting time, then you're doing something wrong.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Lone Survivor

Based on the failed June 28, 2005 mission "Operation Red Wings". Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd.

The Good: One of the best things about Lone Survivor, because it so easily could have fallen to this, is that it’s not a chest-pounding/flag-waving type of movie. Yes, they’re United States soldiers on a mission in hostile territory, but there’s never any grandstanding or even any “no man left behind!” quotes. It’s about men in a fight, and many of them not making it. That’s not a spoiler, it’s called “Lone Survivor” for a reason and though they have little to chew on, the young actors, Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster especially, give it their all, and you feel as part of the incident as they do.

Much of that has to do with its ability to accept restraint. It’s a small affair, a small firefight in a small part of the world with only a few people.  There’s an increase of tension because of that. It’s not broad and sweeping, but you feel the mud and the dirt and every jagged rock and every cut, bullet and every pop of a bullet going off. Peter Berg gets us in there with handhelds and closeups, offering a realistic depiction of an actual battle, without it becoming confusing as he directs action and foot chases.

The Bad: While the heart is there, the emotion isn’t. We really don’t know these men. Sure, we know they’re dedicated to each other and really don’t want their brothers and friends to die, but there’s not a lot to understand about them as the film takes a very matter-of-fact approach. The matter-of-fact nature works to keep it off the patriotic soapbox, but it shouldn’t be to the point of not making

Does that undermine their work and sacrifice? No. Nor does it undermine them as human beings as a whole. But it’s a story less about trying to tell who these men were and more just checking off the facts of one incident that happened to them. This is odd because, as mentioned, it’s a small affair about a small group of people, so you would assume that knowing these men a bit more personally would have come along with it, because many of their personalities are indistinguishable.

That doesn’t mean you don’t feel for them, however. The message of “fighting for nothing” comes through without resorting to yelling it. But I also wanted to know they at least were something beyond just men-with-guns to begin with.

The Ugly: Peter Berg also wrote and directed Friday Night Lights, so you would think giving more time for these characters, based on real people as well in Lone Survivor, would have come naturally for him because that was the one thing Friday Night Lights did extremely well.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Looper

In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to 'close the loop' by transporting back Joe's future self.

The Good: As good as a genre film could get? Well, if not then I don't know what it is. Far from perfect, but certainly further removed from forcing us to feel the conventions and tropes that usually hinder the science fiction genre. Perhaps being an independent production allows it to explore things without your typical fall to "standardize blandness" if under a studio umbrella. Then again, perhaps Rian Johnson is just a damn good filmmaker at the end of the day.

The first thing Looper does incredibly right is that it uses the idea of time-travel as a means, not an end. It's an element of the story, but not the defacto all-encompassing plot. It's there. It exists. But it's simply a part of the larger main focus of Looper that deals with character and motivations first, action and "brain-frying" time travel elements secondarily. Plus, it's more referenced than actually shown or an integral element of what happens and why, similar to the way the Terminator films (ok, the first two) or the first Back to the Future film used it to set up the story, casually exploring it with dialogue,rather  than making a big bowl of exposition attempt to generate a plot. The plot isn't about time travel, and that's the best thing a genre film about time travel could do. I suppose the trick to a good time-travel movie, or any science fiction movie, is just to not make a giant, big, "oh my god can you believe it?" moment. It's there. It exists. Get over it…the film has. And we don't have to spend time explaining everything. It simply is and we can worry about story and characters instead.

Looper then spends time with characters, and that's what the great genre films have in common: great characters. We need to relate and understand them, and through that we understand and relate to the world and comprehend the risks involved with the story. It's simple on paper, but very, very difficult to pull off well in execution. It's hard to create a genre film where the device itself, whether it be robots, dystopia, or time-travel…you name it…doesn't overshadow the characters and their purpose. A film might try to make you care about someone, but then it's on to the next action moment or block of head-bashing exposition about how self-important and cool it all is which makes caring about the characters damn near impossible (i.e. Waterworld, The Matrix sequels or The Happening). 

Looper never goes down that path. It's an action movie. It's a science fiction movie. But it's a character study at heart and has you wondering and pondering the existence and being of a character more than the existence and being of all those science-fiction elements. Hell, a good chunk of the movie just takes place on a farm much like we see today with little to no reference of anything "futuristic" at all. So even the setting is as minimalist as it comes.

Speaking of minimalist, my single favorite element of Looper is that it never tries to do too much. It never goes into "the government" or "a corporation" or really anything about a conspiracy, it remains fairly small in scope. It easily could have, but it knows that if it did it would lose the entire purpose of the story: our protagonist. It's all about him, not something "grander" which is why it downplays everything that's not about him. It's interesting that a film with so many layers, at its core, is actually very very simple - it all rolls back to concentrating on that one singular character and the theme of "choice."

It never once loses grasp of this. Seriously, it literally says "time travel…who cares?" because calling this a time travel film isn't accurate whatsoever (much to the chagrin of genre film fans who love these types of movies and demand more scope).  In fact, it's a time travel movie where the time-travel is actually downplayed. It sets the scene that it exists and that's about it. It doesn't try to dive deep in to it, thankfully. It's the most simplest and non-convoluted of a time travel movie since Doc Brown pulled out a chalkboard in "bad 1985 Hill Valley" and just drew a couple of lines.

Yet, it's not just an action film. It would be easy to be one. The elements are there for a great set up full of guns and chases and twists and cool special-effects laden moments. The film would probably be just fine if it just stuck with that, have a few good characters and just let the world speak for itself. But Looper manages to go above the call of duty and add in layers that are rare in genre films like this - maybe once every few years or so. It deals with theories and philosophical ideas about existence, moral decisions, and how one life can go in so many different direction. It also deals with classic themes like redemption, love and all those classic film tropes and does it well thanks to characters you care about and performances that truly humanize our main character thanks to Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis. Neither are perfect human beings, but they have a very human side to them that allows you to understand their pain and their motivations, their wishes and their views of the world...and it's the same person.

There's so much going on, but it's never overly confusing. You get what's going on pretty easily, which makes Looper such a rarity. A complicated film with many layers yet very digestible. It never gets ahead of itself or tries to do too much in its story; a film that knows that value of limiting itself and staying focus over trying to pound in numerous elements of time travel theory and techno-babble jargon. Even with a ton going on, from flashback to flash forwards to dreams to time-compressed montages, Looper manages to put it all out there clear without a lot of exposition and lets you explore its themes and ideas rather than try to just put pieces together so it makes sense. If more science fiction films can get back to these basic roots of the genre, an element someone like Rod Serling or Philip K. Dick pioneered and that seem to be reconnecting the past few years thanks to directors like Duncan Jones or, here, Rian Johnson, you might just get a breath of fresh air in a genre that is more misses than hits. 

The Bad: It's just impressive how much the film gets right. For example, it knows it's a time-travel movie and goes out of its way to say, without being direct, that trying to figure out time-travel is impossible. The rules, the weaving of timelines and grandfather paradoxes....all that stuff, it's just theory. This film knows that and even though you'll be leaving with the usual questions that creep up when you see a time-travel film, you can't say the film didn't warn you. It's self aware and by not trying to explain it all, it can just focus on storytelling. In fact, it specifically says that the rules of time-travel are unclear. So why think about it?

However, and it's kind of a big however, if you do decide to think about time travel, even the time-travel elements brought up direct to you on a silver platter in this very film...things start getting a little wonky. Sure, you probably shouldn't be worrying about the devil in the details, the movie doesn't really want you to, but it's also kind of hard not to either. There's some major events that occur that are entirely depending on time travel and even in this world, it's not entirely clear how it works. How does displacement work? Are there multiple time possibilities? If so, how does one cross into the other if one is already removed (such as an older self from a different time-line?) But, as said, the film kind of knows all this...and it's hard to be critical of something the film really has no interest in explaining in the first place because it knows it can't.

The Ugly: Those…eyebrows.

Also, there's a good chance Rian Johnson won't revisit this genre. He seems like a filmmaker who will dabble in many things. Too bad.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Lorax

A 12-year-old boy searches for the one thing that will enable him to win the affection of the girl of his dreams. To find it he must discover the story of the Lorax, the grumpy yet charming creature who fights to protect his world. 

The Good: It's disappointing when the best thing I can say about a film is that it is merely "capable." The Lorax, or fully titled "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" though I don't know of a single person that calls it that, isn't an awful film, it's merely a capable one. The animation is nice. The voice acting fitting and done well. The art design befitting of Seuss' world. In the end, kids will like it. It's flashy and colorful and shiny. But this is one of those animated features that, unfortunately, isn't going to really have a cross-generation appeal. Despite the good intentions and occasional moments of charm, The Lorax lacks a soul to its too-manufactured heart.

The Bad: In a weird narrative design choice, The Lorax is bent on throwing everything at you that probably includes the kitchen sink. Flashbacks, dream sequences, random things happening for no reason whatsoever solely for the sake of happening, musical numbers that don't really have any meaning or context (though I did love the opening number quite a bit, but also really, really hate an over-the-top music video rock number that was troubling out of place) and animation that, though fluid and pretty, jumps, waves and hollers at you to get as much attention as possible. The Lorax in story and style is like a group of kids at show and tell and everybody darting around to be first so you'll notice them.

The problem is that everything is too much. It's over saturation on everything it sets out to do. Puns lack punch because everything is trying to be a pun, sight gags get lost in the static and the story, obviously only there to serve these series of gags, music and ADD-style animation, never comes together or attempts to really make any connections to the audience. With heavy-handed themes and painfully obvious plot points, The Lorax is one of the most uninspired animated films I've seen in a while.

The Ugly: A serious problem here is that The Lorax is, literally, two movies in one. There's  a story told in the movie, and that story is actually The Lorax's story. There's no relationship between the two tales, it might as well have been two separate films seeing as it's already disjointed and you forget about the other story as we jump back and forth. Neither feels complete or concluded.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that was what happened. The Lorax's story was told, then they realized they only had about 60 minutes of a movie and needed to add more.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-Earth still it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell, by chance, into the hands of the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. On his eleventy-first birthday, Bilbo disappeared, bequeathing to his young nephew, Frodo, the Ruling Ring, and a perilous quest: to journey across Middle-Earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom.

The Good: Brilliantly envisioned and beautifully presented, few films can truly transport you to a different world that is as believable and detailed as Jackson does with Middle Earth. It isn't merely just a pretty picture, though. This world feels real, it breathes and is alive. It's in this world and its denizens that we become utterly lost and enjoy a film of this grand scale that much more. It's fantastical yet personal and familiar, as are all of the characters within the story that is full of energy and charisma, not to mention a nice amount of artistic vision from Jackson giving us such visual splendor and auditory allurment by composer Howard Shore. Perfectly cast, which is probably the entire trilogy's greatest attribute, and a focused and streamlined script that has the right dose of action, drama and heartfelt emotion. Each character is beautifully defined and portrayed, McKellen's Gandalf, Bean's Boromir and Mortenson's Aragorn at the top of the heap, all giving even more credibility to the four Hobbits (Wood's sense of adventure yet nievity of the world taking center stage) that join them on their journey and are flanked by Bloom's calming Legolas and Rhys-Davies boisterous Gimli. All to be loved about epic and fantasy films are found here with little to take away from it.

The Bad:
Although beautifully paced and with fantastic characters that come through brilliantly, the plot itself is sadly repetitive. The journey might be interesting, but the various stops and plot points along the way are simply reflections of the one before it. After a while, it begins to wear thin. Frodo may be the focal point of the story, but his various near-death experiences feel forced after a while.

The Ugly: The extended edition really offers little to the film itself, although there are a few nice scenes. The ugly here, though, is the studio's toying with fans with the various editions and the forthcoming Blu-ray edition, which isn't the extended films thus forcing many to buy both versions, is just sad.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Sauron's forces increase. His allies grow. The Ringwraiths return in an even more frightening form. Saruman's army of Uruk Hai is ready to launch an assault against Aragorn and the people of Rohan. Yet, the Fellowship is broken and Boromir is dead. For the little hope that is left, Frodo and Sam march on into Mordor, unprotected. A number of new allies join with Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Pippin and Merry. And they must defend Rohan and attack Isengard. Yet, while all this is going on, Sauron's troops mass toward the City of Gondor, for the War of the Ring is about to begin.

The Good: Diverging its story and juggling various scenarios, The Two Towers is a more complex narrative than its predecessor. We're introduced to new characters, revisit some old ones, and the singular story of the first splits paths to give us a vareity of fantastic high fantasy. After the first film, we've become invested in these characters and know them well, so it's great to see them again, but The Two Towers gives us a spectacle that many had been waiting for: a large scale battle. It's long, brutal, sometimes fun and sometimes moving, the battle of Helms Deep is the central character to the entire story. It's anticipation and build up to it hours before it even occurs. Meanwhile, we're also given the story of Treebeard along with the two hobbits, Pippen and Merri, which is interesting thanks to Treebeard himself which also leads to another story of the Rohan which allows us to see one of the great human kingdoms that is sadly faltering. Of course, the biggest addition to it all that of Gollum, a rather psychotic character with a split-personality, who joins the duo of Frodo and Sam. Gollum soon becomes the focal point of the entire story, for better or worse, and is one of the great antagonist in the history of film.

The Bad: The character development so well brought in the first film screeches to a halt in this one other than the rather brilliant character of Gollum. There's a lack of a focus on the script itself, wandering aimlessly yet at the same time stagnantly, through a muddled narrative only to try and limp to a climatic payoff of the fantastic battle of Helm's Deep. Much of it has to do with the stillness of the characters in their locations, parallel with the stillness of the character development as it seemed the further they journeyed, the better they became. Now they're stuck in a place, all three stories, and we have to make do with a contrived love triangle and kings and warriors stalling on their decisions. Instead of something flowing and streamlined, we're merely given something bloated that ends up nothing more than a means to set up the third and final film rather than one that can stand on its own legs. The story shouldn't be about the end, but about the journey, and while it has some great moments, a fantastic finale and solid emotional dialogue, the journey in the Two Towers feels in bad need of a compass.

The Ugly:
Out of all the Extended Editions (all of which I am reviewing, not the theatrical versions) The Two Towers seemed to get better thanks to more scenes inserted that allow for some great character development and interaction, notably the flashback of Boromir and his brother Faramir and smaller, more subtler scenes such as Frodo and his dealing with Gollum. While they don't help the pacing issues of the story, they still contribute greatly and are actually the reason I give the film a 4 out of 5 rather than a lesser score, which I would have had it been the theatrical cut.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Gondor is overrun by the orcs of Mordor, and Gandalf rides to Minas Tirith to aid the humans in the war that is ahead. Aragorn must realize his true identity and purpose as the King of Men, and journey with Gimli and Legolas to summon the Army of the Dead so that the battle against evil can be won. Meanwhile, paranoia and suspicion rises between Frodo, Sam and Gollum as they continue their increasingly dark and dangerous travel to Mount Doom, the one place where The Ring can be destroyed once and for all.

The Good: An epic and climatic payoff after two large and lengthy films before it. To try and bring closure to it all with a sense of satisfaction is daunting, yet Jackson is able to do it with large-scale battles intertwined with emotional and subtle character drama (something so lacking in The Two Towers). By the end of Return of the King, you've spent nine hours with this band of heroes. It's an investment and you demand a payoff. Luckily, you get that with some fantastic action sequences that will no doubt go in the film history books as some of the grandest spectacles. The story picks up and moves briskly, taking us to some gorgeously imagined locations and battlefields. It's not just those, though, it's the closure to the characters that is the film's strongest aspect. When you feel as though you're saying goodbye to old friends, you know the not only this film is doing it right, but the entire trilogy of films are this way and Return of the King a fitting farewell. Saying goodbye can be hard, especially as well as Jackson tugs at your heatstrings so tenderly with slight music and warm smiles, and we're left thankful for such an experience that will likely not be seen again.

The Bad: As Return of the King is the finale and final jewel in the crown that is The Lord of the Rings, it almost demands that you know it. It's grand for the sake of being grand, although its hard to say that we wouldn't have it any other way, but it does sashay to the side of ridiculousness at times.

The Ugly:
The fact that this trilogy sets the standard that of epic fantasy more or less means we won't get anything quite of its caliber again. A few films have tried, and all have failed. The energy, love and craftsmanship of these films will only grow more in appreciation as time goes on and we realize how fantastic they really are.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Lords of Salem

Heidi, a radio DJ, is sent a box containing a record -- a "gift from the Lords." The sounds within the grooves trigger flashbacks of her town's violent past. Is Heidi going mad, or are the Lords back to take revenge on Salem, Massachusetts? 

The Good: Atmospheric and moody, and some nicely done moments of dread and tension that will certainly unsettle you to the point of not wanting to watch any more (in the good, intentional way). Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem is a battle of attrition, but half is because it can be unsettling at times, in the way that seeing gruesome murder scene photographs can be unsettling, the other half is trying to sustain watching through the bad and mediocre storytelling, characters and pace.

Still, despite the many flaws, there's a voice here. That's more than can be said for many horror films out there. Rob Zombie is distinct and style and, here, restrained and methodical. Sure, it may have one odd of a third act, but the man knows how to build tension and certainly creep you out in ways that few other filmmakers can.

The Bad: It's unfortunate. That's the best word to describe The Lords of Salem. "Unfortunate." You can see that there a good understanding of the cinematic language in this film. Rob Zombie knows how to compose a shot, knows how to build tension and knows how to use a space well. What he doesn't know how to do is tell a story and instead needs to reduce whatever he's trying to express to a series of scenes loosely connected to the main idea but never really feel relevant to each other, not to mention clear on exactly why we need to watch, care or listen to whoever any these characters are.

It's obvious that Zombie is a very visual person. It shows through all his films, actually, because he knows how to put fantastic imagery on screen. That's the entire shortcoming of this film as he's more focused on the micro rather than the macro; as though he might be better suited for a short or anthology horror film rather than a film that struggles to even reach an hour and a half. Lords of Salem is a missed opportunity for a fantastic psychological horror movie. The premise is there, even the entire set up is a great set-up, yet it never wants to refine itself to reach that lofty height.

The Ugly: We keep waiting for Rob Zombie to really nail the horror film because we consistently see flashes of it throughout all of his movies. I don't feel like waiting anymore, and maybe writing him off at this point is all we can do.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Lost Boys

Financial troubles force a recent divorcee and her teenage sons Mike and Sam to settle down with her father in the California town of Santa Carla. At first, Sam laughs off rumours he hears about vampires who inhabit the small town. But after Mike meets a beautiful girl at the local amusement park, he begins to exhibit the classic signs of vampirism. Fearing for his own safety, Sam recruits two young vampire hunters to save his brother by finding and destroying the head vampire.

The Good: A completely unique take on the notion of Vampires that, strangely, has been more badly parodied than setting a trend (see Twilight).  The Lost Boys asks the question: if you are a teenager forever, would you also be with no morals or inhibitions?  They’re young, attractive, and with no remorse, and being immortally a teenager and living your own rules is pretty much every kid’s dream. What really sells it, though, are the teens in the movie that are a little younger: especially the comic-fans Edgar and Alan Frog (note, Edgar Alan? A Poe reference? I don't know if anyone else has ever caught that, I always found it funny) and the friendship they strike up with Sam who’s brother seems to be slowly becoming a Vampire. It’s a great friendship to see formed and is the central core of the entire film. It’s funny when it needs to be, gory when it needs to be and dark and moody when it needs to be. It’s not a horror movie that will scare you, other than a few cheap jump-out scares, but it’s more the story and idea that is entertaining, not merely the desire to entertain you with cheap frights. There’s a great subplot involving Michael and Sam’s mother and whether or not her new beau is the biggest vampire of all. It’s so simple and easy to become a part of this world through Sam (moving to a new town representing us being new to everything as well), and you can tell they had a lot of fun making it.

The Bad: All the characters are very well done and the actors do quite a good job, except one major one: the romantic lead, Star, who seduces Michael. It’s hard to really understand where she is coming from. She loves Michael, ala Romeo and Juliet, yet pulls him into the world of vampires, even gets him to become one. Her whole angle is just odd and questionable and really drags down the entire film mainly because you would get the same result in terms of story if she wasn’t even in it. Once she starts to get Michael more and more involved, the film begins to slow down (but thankfully wrapped up with a great finale). There’s sadly a bit of predictability to it all. Sure the notion of hordes of teenage vampires wandering the land is unique, but the structure is nearly identical to most vampire movies (especially Fright Night, which came out a few years prior).

The Ugly: Ah, the Coreys. As much of a punchline as they are now, they at least made some fun movies back then. Too bad it all fell apart.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Lost Boys: The Tribe

The orphan and former surfer Chris Emerson and his sister Nicole Emerson move to Luna Bay expecting to initiate a new life without housing expenses with their Aunt Jillian, but she charges rent to the siblings for a wrecked house, and Chris seeks a job working as board shaper to raise money for the unforeseeable expenses. While in town, he meets his acquaintance and also former surfer Shane Powers that invites Chris for a surf parting at night. Then the siblings unsuccessfully seek out the board shaper and vampire hunter Edgar Frog in his trailer trying to find a job and Chris leaves a message for him. They go to Shane's party and Nicole stays with Shane and drinks booze offered by him. Later she becomes a half-vampire and Edgar advises that she drank vampire's blood and can only be saved if the head-vampire is killed. Chris and Edgar search the hiding place of Shane and his tribe to save Nicole.

The Good: The best thing about the film is a Tom Savini cameo. There’s some decent gore effects as well and some well-done scenes involving Vampires, fighting Vampires, and killing Vampires. Why they sometimes melt and sometimes turn to stone and sometimes explode…I haven’t quite figured that one out, the movie likes to make up the rules as it goes along.

There’s also some very attractive women who aren’t shy towards nudity.

The Bad: What a miserable movie. Whatever it tries to do, it fails entirely. It’s not scary, it’s not entertaining, it’s not funny, it’s not charming in that nostalgic principles kind of way in relation to the original film. There’s really no sense or even a slight homage to what the original film was. Actually, it does have that sense, in that it is exactly like the original. There’s just no love in it. The story is the same, even the characters to an extent, not to mention how the story is structured. Only here you don’t have Goth teens on bikes but Goth douchebags on surfboards. Even Corey Feldman’s character is now presented with a bore and, I feel, just doesn’t work as an adult; Feldman himself seemingly sleepwalking through the role and forcing out a gravely voice that is more or less the death-nail for the character who was so popular in the first film, which was successful because it had, what I call “youthful intelligence.” Like a John Hughes movie where the kids teens aren’t merely caricatures but convincingly realistic, only they get ripped limb-to-limb.  The unique thing about movies like The Lost Boys, Fright Night or even An American Werewolf in London is the youth involved in it that relishes in the fact there is youth and energy. The teens are believable, but take that way and add in people you can’t see yourself in, you have nothing but an audience anticipating when the next person will be killed. There’s a lot of waiting and anticipating in The Lost Boys: The Tribe, and it can’t even deliver on that.

The Ugly: I don’t believe in something being “direct to DVD” as an excuse for mediocrity. I can forgive a few things that are made with a lower budget, such as special effects (which this movie has little of) but as an excuse for poor acting, directing and atrocious scripts? No. Those are the fundamentals of filmmaking. Get those right, and you at least have something watchable.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Lost Highway

When Fred Madison finds a video tape on his doorstep that shows the interior of his house, he's convinced that someone has broken in and calls the police. Things get really complicated when he finds another videotape showing him killing his wife, and the police arrest him because his wife really was murdered! Then he disappears from the prison and we start watching the life of a young man who works in a garage...

Lost Highway is loved by some, disliked by most even amongst Lynch fans. I can't really say why that is, it seems right up a Lynch-fans alley and true to form for him. It's just as odd and strangely structured as Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, so what is it that some just don't like?

Bill Pullman.

Ah...there it is, then. Despite the man's best efforts, he just can't carry this film. His character is completely uninteresting and he sticks out against the noir styling rather than blend into it. The role really needed someone with a lot of weight and he just fades against the likes of Arquette, who does a remarkable turn in her role.

There's also another element: the film doesn't have a lot to say. Sure, a lot happens, but unlike other Lynch films it doesn't seem to have a motif to surround itself other than the concepts of anxiety and duality, but those are common in Lynch films to begin with. There's no central idea and it wanders, and wanders, and wanders until we finally, kind of, get a conclusion. While not his worst, the directing and cinematography are fantastic and performances solid, it's far from his best and something I would only suggest seeing if you are fan of Lynch's other works (especially the far superior, yet oddly similar, Mulholland Drive).

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Lost in Translation

A movie star with a sense of emptiness, and a neglected newlywed meet up as strangers in Tokyo, Japan and form an unlikely bond

The Good: There’s this often underused when it comes to writing: sometimes the best things to say is to not say anything at all. Being obvious, direct and on-the-nose when weaving a story is one of the easiest things for a writer to do. Thinking of creating “moments” but not having to write them is something only cinema can really achieve. I recall a scene in Richard Linklater’s wonderful Before Sunrise where the two leads, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, where they cram into a listening booth to listen to a record. On paper, it probably just notes them sharing awkward glances in the booth while listening. On film, and through a director’s decisions, a simple sentence turns into a romantic scene of two people saying a ton without saying anything at all.

Much of Lost in Translation is on a similar level. It’s underwritten and reliant completely on those moments the actors can bring out. It’s honest. True. Minimalist if not sublime in its candor. A pause during a phone conversation, a sigh, merely sitting next to each other and taking in the moment of each others’ presence is what builds a sense of believability. Life is mundane if not exhausting, but going through it with someone and having those unsaid moments is what defines it. We might be more reliant on remembering a big vacation or when you saw something great, but I’m willing to bet you saw that with someone too. It’s finding that connection, even through the minutia of life, that Lost in Translation showcases to flawlessness: two people detached find each other. It never becomes romantic, even the friendship is felt as spontaneous, but it is showing how a connection is often made naturally – not something that’s just written into a plot.

The tagline for Lost in Translation is “Everyone wants to be found.” That is one of the most poignant and lyrical taglines I’ve seen, and once you see it in the context of the film, you’d certainly agree.

The Bad: If the minutia of life bores you, you’ll probably find this a boring film. The thing is: it also bores the characters – that’s why their connection is that much more beautiful and something I think every person can relate to. Sometimes you just meet that soul and love being around them.

The Ugly: I utterly despise people and critics who will say “He’s just playing himself.” Maybe Murray is, but he’s still acting, and any actor will tell you simply playing yourself (as in a regular person and not delivering merely dialogue) is the hardest thing to do. This is his best performance of his career. His most beloved? Probably not.

Final Rating:  5 out of 5


The Lost World: Jurassic Park

After a small girl is attacked by a small group of compsognathus, Ian Malcolm discovers that there is a second island full of a variety of dinosaurs. Dr. John Hammond decides to send four adventure to monitor the dinosaur's lifestyle before INGEN move forward in controlling the island. Ian Malcolm doesn't like the idea and wants to contact the other three members, but before he can contact them, he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding is already on the island. Now, what was supposed to be a natural viewing of the incredible creatures in their habitats, has turned into a rescue mission with everyone’s life at danger.

The Good: How do you follow up a film that is one of the most entertaining films to ever be made? Does it even need a sequel? Well, apparently it did and this is the result. Some go as so far to call it Spielberg’s worst film. I contest that and say “have you seen 1941?” The Lost World is a love-hate film. You’ll be enjoying it for a while, then get bored or roll your eyes, then enjoy the next piece it has to offer. It’s far from as consistent as its predecessor but still an entertaining enough romp. Afterall, there’s only so much you can do with a dinosaur story. The encounters with them are what drives the movie, lord knows something has to.

The Bad: It’s really amazing that Spielberg actually looked at the script and said “yeah, it’s good.” I’m not sure where his standards were. Maybe he wanted to do something fun and light again as he did with Jurassic Park. Maybe he just liked dinosaurs. What I do know is that The Lost World was a reaction to fans, not because author Michael Crichton and director Spielberg came up with it one day. The Lost World is what Spielberg often tries not to do in his films - be conventional. There are worse movies, even in Spielberg own filmography, but even those are, at the very least, original and imaginative in some form and offer something unique in terms of story and characters. Well, the characters, outside of Goldblum, are stock and, at times, annoying and the story is simply haphazard and a bore with the only highlight being the finale in San Diego.  To go from dinosaur scene to dinosaur scene simply shouldn’t feel so obligatory. It is the dinosaurs that take center stage and are actually more interesting than the characters that encounter them. There’s no sense of discovery with it, and perhaps that’s an expected problem with a sequel that already explored that department, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still make us look in amazement through the characters eyes…even if we can’t enjoy the characters as much this time around.

The Ugly:  If you want to know if a movie gives us great characters, all you have to do is try to remember who was in the movie. Most people can recall the stars and characters of the original. Outside of Jeff Goldblum, many forget this, too, was a star-studded cast with Richard Attenborough, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Richard Schiff and Pete Postlethwaite and I’m willing to bet even less can remember the characters they played, what they did in the movie and what happened to them.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Love & Mercy

In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.

The Good: Love & Mercy is as personal and intimate of a biopic as I've seen in some time. While it still goes through two crucial timelines of Brian Wilson's life, the 60s and the 80s, it does so as a personal journey in numerous levels. Finding genius. Finding music. Finding yourself. Finding love. Understand and even contemplating your place against it all.

Sure, it's also about The Beach Boys and their sound and success, but at its heart Love & Mercy is a dive into the mind of a musical prodigy and his faltering mental state - some natural occurring, others not, as we see late in his life as people took advantage of it all. Then the movie hits you a final time with a sense of swelling emotion as it rolls to credits, putting that journey into perspective.

Of course, that wouldn't work if it weren't for the acting. Yes, the script is marvelous and the directing (and period-styles and clothing and music) meticulously combed-over, but it comes down to Paul Dano and John Cusack giving, respectively, some of the best acting of their careers. Dano's boyish and wide-eyed approach to the world around him as a young Brian Wilson, ever-gazing at the stars and endless possibilities but losing himself in the process, could have been its own film. But then we jump ahead and see what became of it all under Cusack, and it's bittersweet at best, heartbreaking at worst.

Love & Mercy is the type of biopic that doesn't feel watered down. It wants to show you something and tell you something about its subject matter and the person beyond "In 1966 this happened...then in 1967 this happened..." and so on. Because of that, it feels that much more appreciative of who it is about, and is that much more meaningful and memorable than you a-typical films about real people that you forget about.

The Bad: As great as Cusack is and as needed as the story of him in the 1980s is, the fact is it's not as interesting or insightful as Wilson's life in the 1960s. THe full-circle is needed, it's a theme and an obvious one that the writer and director are going for, but it also has the least happening in it that is intriguing. Actually, the 1980s era could have been summed up in three or four scenes, but instead a good chunk of the movie is needed for it.

As a result, it feels stretched out and, from that, feels like padding making for an uneven experience. I don't discount the performances by Cusack and Banks here, they're great and chemistry wonderful, as is Paul Giamatti who has “Scumbag in a Musical Biopic Award” tied up for 2015, but it's also not quite Brian's story, it's his future-wife's story, making for an uneven approach as we are no longer in the head of that genius but simply an observer from someone else's view of it.

The Ugly: Oh yeah, Elizabeth Banks also gives her career-best performance here, I might add. The 80s era is all about her as Melinda, and as mentioned that kind of works against the film, but she is still totally fantastic in the role.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Lovely Bones

"The Lovely Bones" centers on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family - and her killer - from heaven. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.
 

The Good: Beautifully shot, solid acting and great special effects persevere over a muddy script and shallow storytelling. Stanley Tucci, in particular, is absolutely fantastic in his villain role. Although rather on-the-nose for this type of villain, to see it so masterfully exploited is mesmerizing. He makes you uncomfortable and unsettles, exactly what he should be doing. Young Saoirse Ronan, in the few areas where she can actually stretch he acting wings, shows great promise as a future star and Sarandon steals the show as the alcoholic grandmother. Many of the other characters become background fodder, even Wahlberg who's character is pretty central to the story, and are ultimately forgettable, but these three carry it well  enough to engage you to commit to this odd little fairytale of the afterlife. Jackson's directing camerawork and Andrew Lesnie's cinematography are utterly superb, somehow able to be broad and sweeping yet intimate and close at pefect time (sans some wasted shots, something the two of them often do in all their films together, yet they are good fit for one another). Although it becomes a mess less than half way through, it still has enough to it to hold you through to the end...even at the times you utterly roll your eyes or scratch your  head.
 
The Bad: Roughly, about 30 or 40 minutes into the film as we watch what appears to be a greatly paced thriller, the entire thing blows up into something utterly ridiculous and completely uneven on every level. Suddenly, we are transported into a world of overwrought CG effects and back-and-forth into a reality that we simply can't quite grasp on where the connection between the "heaven" or "purgatory" our heroine is in and the harsh reality that is occurring along side her. They are as distant as can be, and we literally have to take her word for it that she is somehow seeing thing and they're occurring as she lives out her fantasies while her mother and father feel the pain of her loss. The emotional connection is lost at this point, down to an exact moment I can actually recall, and for all its best efforts to try and relay emotional resonance ala What Dreams May Come, it miserably fails because we simply stop caring and find ourselves as distant as the main character in her afterlife. What's worse, is that because we feel so distant to our main character, we spend, uncomfortably so, more time with her killer. That's not good when we find ourselves watching her killer far more than her or even her family, whom feel like footnotes by the time the credits roll - one character I don't even recall seeing at the end, another's importance never finding ground, and another utterly useless to the entire film as a whole despite the fact that she is rather fun to watch. Nothing ever feels connected, it tries too hard and does too much and the ending is nearly laughable if not sappily melodramatic.

The whole movie ends up being underwhelming because it is overwhelming. The best I can explain that is this: let's say you have a plain, white piece of paper. Now scribble all over it with a pencil. At first, those scribbles are just random lines, but they are a single line with a purpose. Now keep scribbling, and scribbling, and now that white piece of paper is an ugly charcoal black and no lines can be seen. What do you have now but a miserable finished paper that will go in the trash? In that respect, you have The Lovely Bones.
 
The Ugly: I utterly loved the first 30 minutes or so of this film. Hell, I even thought it was going to be brilliant. Well, it was entertaining, but brilliance may not be in Peter Jackson's repertoire these days, having well-spent it with the Lord of the Rings. Now I see a filmmaker tired, if not bored, and falling back on old conventions. The Lovely Bones should have been a challenge for him, and instead it's right up his alley.
 
Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Machete

After being betrayed by the organization who hired him, an ex-Federale launches a brutal rampage of revenge against his former boss.  

The Good: Like violence? This movie is for you. The entire point of the film is to be an exploitation film, intentionally so, and in that regards it succeeds. Machete is less meant to be a parody of an exploitation film (such as Black Dynamite) as much as it is to be an actual exploitation film. It's still tongue-in-cheek, but much of the film plays itself straight and could easily have been plucked from the 1970s (I actually wonder if setting it during that period would have been more beneficial to the experience). It's simple and fun, but plays its exploitation angle to its fullest with "the man" really being the evil bastards. It has something to say about that and is one of the more relevant exploitation films considering the time and issues we find ourselves in these days. Perfectly placed and, like most exploitation films, has a lot to say about society as a whole. It's mindless, but still there's a point to what it's doing which is why I say this is less parody and more a legitimate 100% straight exploitation film. That's daring and creative to do, and it's a lot of bloody fun as well.

The Bad: Is saying "it's meant to be cheesy and exploitative and look poorly made" a method to the madness, or merely an excuse. Can we say the action is poorly shot and the ending incredibly messy because it is legitimately so, or do we overlook those facts because it's meant to be that way. It could go either way, but I can for certain say the following: there's only about three or four action sequences that really matter and are enjoyable. Everything else is a summation of women looking hot, characters hamming it up and blood - lots and lots of blood. Those things are awesome, but the action simply is not handled all that well, Rodriguez is far more a stylish director than a capable action director (he's, arguably, not exceeded Desperado)  and the sequences that feel relevant are few and far between and the action only comes in spurts.

This is most notable with the ending. It's just a complete mess and only about half of it would I say is meant to be as messy as it is. The dumb dialogue and sudden appearance of characters fit right in with what the film is going for, but the inability to tell what is going on or have any sense of who is where and what and why simply is not. A movie can be an homage and exploitative, but that doesn't mean those intentions can't be well made. One look at Rodriguez's Planet Terror can prove that. It, too, was meant as an homage but it had a much better sense of pace and enjoyable sequences than Machete really offers up.

The Ugly: I think I like the idea of Machete more than the end result of the film, to be honest. A fun time at the theater, especially with the right crowd, but likely forgettable down the road. I'd still recommend it to anyone just looking for a mindless good time.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Machete Kills

The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space.

The Good: Machete Kills, like its predecessor, succeeds in being both a representation of bad b-movie schlock while parodying the genre itself. It is a perfect example of someone saying "if you liked the first movie, you'll likely like this one as well." No harm in that, even if it has little surprises, because the tone and sense of cartoony R-rated violence is very much the point of this series.

Danny Trejo is likeable in pretty much anything he does, even when being a hardass killer like Machete. Just through simple looks and moments of silence, he can say a hell of a lot with his character. Then probably kill someone. The comedy still works and a lot of it is because of him and the fact that everyone else seems in on the joke, including a very humorous Antonio Banderas and a wily-eyed Mel Gibson in his most Mel-Gibsony performance in a while. It's a hell of a lot of fun to just laugh at something where everyone is there having a great time.

However, while I think it's a bit more polished than the first film, outside of its weird pacing and structure at times, I wonder if that's a good thing or a bad thing. It almost looks too good to be an intentional bad movie, and too bad to be any good.

The Bad: Machete was an enjoyable, dumb, silly, ridiculous film that made a feature-length movie out of one single joke. It worked. In a sequel, though, Machete Kills has problems because sequels, by definition, have to escalate in some way. Well, Machete was already revved up high and all the sequel can do is "more of the same." Yes, it can still be fun and dumb and silly, but nothing new or interesting really happens and that joke played itself out in the first film, now just a shadow of a pun in this one.

More interestingly, though, is its lack of inventiveness. There's a lot of memorable moments from Machete because it had everything to play with. Machete Kills, though, seems to be working with scraps until its final weird, strange and incredibly fun finale. There's a lack of solid action directing from Rodriguez as well, who usually handles action with a frantic grace. Here, it all feels slapped-together and only to set up for the incredible-looking last film in the trilogy.

The Ugly: Now Machete Kills Again...In Space, the assumed final film, looks to do what this movie probably should have done. Instead of just an extension of the first film, it's reinventing itself and doing something completely new and probably more ridiculous.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Mad Max

A vision of an apocalyptic future set in the wastelands of Australia. Total social decay is just around the corner in this spectacular cheap budget gang orientated road movie. Where the cops do their best to lay down the law and the outlaw gangs try their hardest to defy the system. Leather clad Max Rockatansky husband, father and cop turns judge, juror and executioner after his best friend, wife and baby are killed. Here we see the final days of normality of a man who had everything to live for, and his slip into the abyss of madness. Mad Max is the antihero on the road to vengeance and oblivion.

The Good: At its heart, Mad Max is a post-apocalyptic western centered on a classic revenge tale. And, it works this angle perfectly. Perhaps it’s the budget, but Mad Max never tries to be more than director George Miller wants it to be (something he kind of forgets in the third film). It plays it completely straight in one of the best “worlds” to be presented on film – a wasteland with a few survivors and gangs and thugs roam the earth. Now, even in 1979, this wasn’t completely original. You had numerous books and films before it that also depicted a wasteland ravaged and controlled by violence and the strong surviving. The difference is in to major attributes that define the world created: 1) The addition of cars and vehicles and the importance they play in this world. There’s nothing here, and getting from Point A to Point B makes people even more dependent on their various modes of transportation (the sequel will up this even more with the vehicle/gasoline aspect). It uses these as a great means to not only the nice stuntwork and car chases, but as a quite significant plot device that doesn’t feel contrived. This world feels in need of vehicles as much as those vehicles are in need of it. It’s a fantastic atmosphere. And, of course 2) Max himself. This is the film where we see Max go from a fairly regular person to a quiet, solemn man that is a lone wolf. The film paces this out to near perfection, and everything comes gradual and with a great deal of patience the character arcs. Mad Max is a film that is an absolute testament to a director with a will, a star with a dash of charisma and shows you don’t need big financing to create a classic (only 300k, even the original Evil Dead has more by 50k). One of the most important independent films of all time.

The Bad: While the entire trilogy is entirely about energy, adrenaline and masculinity, certainly movies to turn off and just have a great time, the original Mad Max lacks one thing: getting to know any other character outside of Max. Again, the second film rectifies this fantastically, but out of all the films to be about people other than just Max, this is the one to do it. It shows his friends, his co-workers, his family...yet they are all mere props to the eventual revenge tale that emerges. Even the villain, here, is more developed. The other films have max as his lone persona, they can get away with underdeveloped supporting characters. Here, it spends time on them, yet doesn’t really round them out. They’re like shadows that will soon fade so that Max’s journey can continue on.

The Ugly:
Make sure you get the film with the original Australian audio. The overdub with “American voices” is absolutely laughable. It should say on the back of the DVD on if it has the original audio or not, make sure it does.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

Bartertown is a city on the edge of a desert that has managed to retain some technology if no civilization. Max has his supplies stolen and must seek shelter there in a post apocalypse world where all machines have begun to break down and barbarians hold what is left. He becomes involved in a power struggle in this third Mad Max film where he must first survive the town, survive the desert and then rescue the innocent children he has discovered.

The Good: It's in Beyond Thunderdome that we see Max's search for his meaning in life come full circle. Forced though it may be, there almost isn't any other way to really to do it justice. Max was destined to lead. He was already a hero, but here we see him take on his biggest task. Beyond Thunderdome reminds me a lot of The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of the finest westerns of its genre. In there, we see a man's search of revenge then redemption towards the end as he finally, successfully, turns his grief into righteousness (Eastwood would revisit the theme again in Unforgiven). While that film does it in its runtime, the entire arc of Max spans three films, here his final destination of finding a purpose as the great legend he was meant to be.

Out of all three films, though, the visualization of the world Miller has created really is in full-force in this installment.  Naturally, a bigger budget allows that. Bartertown is a fully realized place and is presented fantastically, from the sets to the Thunderdome to the costumes. It’s all laid out nicely.
The acting is sporadic, but it’s also a story that doesn’t ask much of its actors other than from Max and Tina Turner, who actually does a damn fine job despite her rather strange attire. Gibson you know, so I won’t discuss his nice performance that brings Max to the full-on leader he was destined to be (the ending really making note of this as his legend is passed down) but I will go into Turner. She is just so incredibly charismatic here. When she leaps into the Thunderdome amidst a fervor of chants, you know damn sure she is the boss of this town. She’s manipulative and cocky, and a fantastic villain to play off the Max who is her complete opposite in his moral compass.

The Bad: It’s at this point the trilogy falters. While we see Max come full circle, which is great, the overall plot and story here is poorly paced, supporting characters poorly presented and much of the film just as ugly as the big sties in Bartertown (or Tina Turner’s hair). There’s a bit of “Conan the Barbarian” edge to this one (and combined with Josey Wales, tends to show how derivative it can be sometimes). The hero comes to town, befriends people, offends people, fights a lot, then returns with a small band of warriors to take back the town. Actually, a number of westerns have that element too, so chalk those up as well. In other words, there’s not huge amount of originality going on in Beyond Thunderdome and considering this is the most story-centric of the Mad Max films.  There’s little action other than one cool Thunderome fight and one chase sequence, though fantastic, seems to try to really recapture the chase sequence of the second film and though it is cool, isn’t nearly as good and has some continuity issues (keep an eye on the background/time of day, one minute cloudy with the sun setting, the next midday sunny and clear),.

Where the first two films had a natural casualness to them, Beyond Thunderdome seems to really try to make something of itself and be more than it really needs to be, at least until the third act where it turns into the Mad Max of old. The plot to overthrow Aunty, the dealings of the Bartertown for power between Master and Aunty, the children’s history, Max’s plan, infiltrating the town etc... Just makes for a bit of a clutter that detracts more than contributes.

The Ugly: I am absolutely not a big fan of the kid’s story in this movie. Supposedly, they are the children of survivors of a plane crash...but if that’s the case it doesn’t quite explain why there isn’t a single adults around. It wants to be like The Lost Boys from Peter Pan, but it just has too many glaring holes to really buy that concept.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Mad Max: Fury Road

In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.

The Good: Dear The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I know every year we sit around and behoove you to consider movies that you don’t normally consider. From The Dark Knight to The Social Network, you, at best, will nominate a movie or two that we know won’t win but put it there to say to the masses “hey, that movie you like? It’s nominated for Best Picture! Watch our show!” It’s less a nomination and more just a marketing ploy.

Members of the Academy, please don’t use Mad Max: Fury Road as a marketing ploy. Of all the movies in the past few years that you just toss in for good measure but never actually consider, this is one that doesn’t deserve to just be in there as some sort of arbitrary thing that’s simultaneously being completely imperious towards it.

Now me going on about some Oscar stuff is pointless. Personally, I don’t care about whether or something gets an award, but I look at the reviews, I saw the thing, I check out the reactions of the audience in person and just admire the craft of holding them in suspense for two straight hours and I realize that Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just a great movie, it’s arguably a masterpiece of cinema. Not just “an action movie masterpiece.” That sounds dismissive. Just great filmmaking from beginning to end and if we’re going to sit around and discuss about great filmmaking, what criteria is there? Why is Mad Max: Fury Road going to be put to the side as “oh, that’s movie” while some historical drama or indie darling becomes a frontrunner?

It’s well acted, beautifully shot, has an incredible musical score, holds some of the best examples of editing I’ve ever seen, has an incredible pace, memorable and emotional characters, incredible world building that doesn’t beat you over the head with how it all works and all spearheaded by a director with a unique and clear vision that says “this movie would not work without him.” I know choosing a great movie isn’t simply a checklist of criteria, but to know that most people will just toss it aside as though its some aberration kind of makes me a little sick inside.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a film made for film people. Every aspect is a finely crafted piece of moviemaking that people will look at over the next few years. Analyze. Appreciate. Love. It’s the kind of down-and-dirty, grounded action filmmaking that has been lost in this era of computer effects and needlessly-complicated plot devices.  To see it is not only to be highly entertained, but to admire its craft. These are very long, complicated action sequences that never get dull or are hard to follow and if you don’t clap after that first one, where it’s about 20 minutes long with a constant beat of drums that culminate into the Fury Road theme as we see them head into a sandstorm, or get goosebumps at the sheer thrill and (I consider) beauty of this finely honed sequence that exemplifies everything right with moviemaking, then you are a soulless human being.

The Bad: Maybe a few noticeable computer effects and composite shots early on that stick out like a sore thumb. But that’s it. Fury Road is a movie that is very, very hard to find anything wrong with. It sucks you in and it never stops with the world its created, characters you care about and some of the finest action sequences (long sequences I might add) you could ask for. Seriously, there’s, maybe, six or seven scenes in the whole movie with five of those being action set pieces. It never gets dull or uninteresting for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a time. Then it cuts to black and you can finally take a breath as though George Miller is saying “hold on, take a moment. I’m giving you a reprieve. Ok, you ready to go again? Let’s go.”

A lot of times I reflect on a movie days after as it sinks in and can think of more things to say that don’t work or whatever…but the more I think of Fury Road the more I just want to watch the thing again and again. It’s a cathartic experience.

The Ugly: The MRA folks really showed how utterly juvenile and childish they are by “banning” this thing. Hey guys, sorry that a movie featuring strong female roles makes you feel even more insecure than you already are, but it gives the majority of normal people a little bit of extra glee while watching knowing that you’re against it. I’m seeing it a second time. Half because it’s a great movie, the half just to say screw you.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Maggie

A teenage girl in the Midwest becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that slowly turns the infected into cannibalistic zombies. During her transformation, her loving father stays by her side.

The Good: I suppose there’s only so much you can do with a zombie movie at this point. If there’s anything that I admire about Maggie, it’s that it is willing to take such a personal, intimate and just human story to a level that’s beyond “look zombies!” or “gore gore gore!” It’s a drama. Truth is, the disease could be anything, really. It could just be Alzheimers or cancer or a really bad case of chicken pox. It really doesn’t matter because the story of Maggie is about inevitability and how a person deals with it.

In this movie, we see it from many different angles. Wade (Schwarzenegger) is told what will happen to his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin)and the many options he has with it. Maggie knows these as well, along with rumors and conjecture, but all dealing with the fear of the unknown. It’s made even more frightening knowing that it has to come. There’s no cure. No miracle. No saving grace from on high. It’s an incredibly real-world scenario framed within a zombie movie. It’s minimalist. Often haunting. Never about scares or horror but about the human condition of dealing with eventual loss and accepting the inevitable outcome we all have to face at some point.

Maggie is a smart movie made by newcomers. It’s subversive though it doesn’t necessarily exceed expectations. It’s just a unique film done well. Performances from Schwarzenegger and Breslin are strong, certainly the centerpiece of it all, with Breslin giving a wonderful performance as our heroine - not someone who kicks ass and takes names but approaches her mortality in a way that asks big questions without having to constantly shout it.

The Bad: Pacing kills Maggie. It’s a restrained movie, which is fine, but also a movie that can go aimless and loses its thread on more than one occasion. Its central point is about the father and daughter, but it seems to forget that sometimes. It’s a film that is at its best when its dealing with that human drama, but it seems to get sidetracked far too often. Stuff about the neighbors, stuff with the family that seems to be dropped quickly, stuff about the police…none of this feels as relevant as it should. The movie needs those elements, if anything to showcase conflict, but it feels so underdeveloped it makes you wonder why even bother.

So we’re left with a 90 minute movie where much of it feels a bit lifeless and uninteresting. The themes and ideas are certainly there, and I do think the acting is damn fine, yet I can’t help but think either the script didn’t get to a good enough level or the director just didn’t quite know how to approach the material. Both are newcomers, as mentioned, so who knows? It could simply be an idea, a good idea, in the hands of inexperience.

The Ugly: You know, Arnold is pretty damn good in this, not as some big action star but as a convincing father struggling to make the right decisions. It’s just too bad the movie itself isn’t better because it feels wasted.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Magic Mike

A male stripper teaches a younger performer how to party, pick up women, and make easy money. 

The Good: A surprisingly fun, energetic, funny and just all around entertaining film that is set in a world of male strippers, but isn't necessarily about them. Rather, it's about characters, situations they encounter, obstacles that come into their lives, the rises, the falls, and all centered on one "Magic" Mike played by Channing Tatum, who's right at home in this story inspired by his life as a former male stripper. Tatum is not only comfortable in the "performance" aspect of the film, but damn natural and comfortable in the acting part as well, creating a character that is severely flawed, but also knows he's severely flawed and wants to overcome it.

The best elements is the very organic feel of it all. The way these characters talk, interact, flirt, look at each other. I suppose having two actors that are incredibly good at delivery (Tatum and Matthew McConaughey being the centerpieces of this film) helps that, but it's also surprisingly just how "human" they make their respective characters an interesting blend of likeable, despicable and sympathetic all at once. When you have a script that's this loose, and focus on just letting scenes unfold as character pieces because there's really no plot to be had, it's all up to the actors to become our centerpiece. They do, and do it damn well.
Though it might go down as a bit of a guilty pleasure when it's all said and done, Magic Mike is still well-made enough and well-acted enough to be well above what you might assume it to be (a Flashdance/Showgirls type of movie that is more cheese than meat).

The Bad: Here's the basic structure of Magic Mike: character scene, stripping, character scene, stripping, character scene, stripping. Maybe if the stripping scenes didn't go on for as long as they did, or have something relevant to say or do in terms of story, it wouldn't be so bad. Oh, they're creative, well choreographed and fun, but they're just lengthy transitional scenes between vignettes of character interactions. Truth is, I'm far more interested in the characters outside of their club.

One scene really explains this well: when Mike, who has all this cash, goes to the bank. He has everything a man could probably want, but at the same time he can't have a normal life. It's a very effective yet simple scene, you can just see Mike's frustration as though this isn't the first time he's been turned away from getting loans/opening accounts/establishing credit or being taken seriously.

Then it's time for another strip scene and dry-humping women on a stage.

At least it dips off as the film goes on, I don't think there was another stripper scene for the last 20 minutes or so and concentrates on elements that it needs to. Unfortunately, one of those elements involves "The Kid" played rather flatly by Alex Pettyfer. "The Kid" is pretty damn important to the story, but his arc is treated like a red-headed step-child and really just ends itself to allow a bigger focus on Mike. Perhaps if he wasn't so prominent for the first half of the film or so, this shift in focus wouldn't have been so head-scratchingly noticeable.

The Ugly: There's a moment where I was upset over the action of one of the character more than the ones that I SHOULD be upset over: and it involves "The Kid's" sister. For the most part, she's our grounded character. The normal one. But one moment is damn-near infuriating because it just doesn't play out naturally like the rest of the film and feels incredibly forced.  You'll know it when it happens, because you'll probably say the same thing that I did under my breath: "Ummmm....ambulance, anyone?"

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Magic Mike XXL

Three years after Mike bowed out of the stripper life at the top of his game, he and the remaining Kings of Tampa hit the road to Myrtle Beach to put on one last blow-out performance.

The Good: Magic Mike XXL is a road trip movie that is pretty much a series of dudebro machismo comedic moments interspersed with dance sequences. That’s it. If that’s what you’re looking for, then it has it in spades because it’s got nothing else going on in terms of story, character or plot. Sexy guys want to put on a sexy show and win a competition. There you go.

But that’s not all it has, actually. On plot and character, Magic Mike XLL is thin, but what it wants to achieve isn’t so much about a story, though that would have been nice, as much as it is a message. A fun and energetic message of just “going with it” and “being yourself.” This movie is a vicarious moment of lightning in a bottle. You end up falling into it as though you’re on this trip, living the way these guys live, and coming to accept their wonderfully positive message about friendship and sexuality and machismo without once dipping into sexism or crudeness to get to that point.

You have to respect this movie for that and while it lacks the consistent humor and solid characters of its predecessor, it wants to make sure you leave it in a better mood - and it’s impossible to not be in a good mood once this journey is over.

The Bad: Nothing important happens in this movie. Not important in terms of story, as all that was spent in the first film, and nothing in terms of character because, again, the first film fulfilled that arc perfectly fine. So what we end up with is a fun film, yes, but a completely empty one that is just a series of guys acting kinda dumb and lots of dancing. It doesn’t hide it, the movie knows it’s dumb, but it also ends up far less fulfilling than the first film, which was all around more interesting and funnier.

Magic Mike XXL is a well intended movie all-around. It just doesn’t hit the notes to make it a good one. I simultaneously applaud its sense of positivity and enjoying life, thongs and all, but can’t get past the fact that it offers nothing else alongside it. It’s a movie I desperately wanted to be better or have more to it because a meandering series of dance sequences is something you tune out on after a while, even if that final one is jaw-droppingly awesome.

The Ugly: Should have left well enough alone. What does this add? More abs?

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


The Magician (Ansiktet)

When 'Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater' comes to town, there's bound to be a spectacle. Reading reports of a variety of supernatural disturbances at Vogler's prior performances abroad, the leading townspeople (including the police chief and medical examiner) request that their troupe provide them a sample of their act, before allowing them public audiences. The scientific-minded disbelievers try to expose them as charlatans, but Vogler and his crew prove too clever for them.

The Good: Director Ingmar Bergman loved the idea of morality. Moreso, he loved to impose a moral question in his films. Often these were quite serious, dealing with elements of existentialism and the nievity of human beings to think we can comprehend it all. When a person murders someone, was it just? How is one way just and the other not? When one is contemplating their own mortality, do they find God or feel they will just be worm food?

The Magician asks none of these questions. Well, it does but not in the rather serious and melodramatic way Bergman often does. Truth is, The Magician, also known by its Swedish title Ansiktet or "The Face," is one of Bergman's more lighter romps, though his thematic premises are still potent. Here Bergman deals with the concepts of lies and truth, as usual, on a multitude of levels ranging from the simple notion a traveling magician (Max von Sydow) is a fake (as all magic really is) to the idea that its the townspeople and the persons that have put them up for the night that are the true "faces" here - full of their own secrets and agendas.

None are overly serious, however. Truth is the film is rather playful when it comes to it all though there is enough dramatic characterization to get you on the right side of the equation and route for the right people. Better yet, is Bergman plays his own tricks toward the audience itself, yet another of his many layers, as you aren't quite sure what's going on or what will happen as he uses his own film as a misdirection and is obviously having fun with it all.

With a keen eye and darkly beautiful photography, as Bergman's muse Max von Sydow in absolutely top form, The Magician may not be on the list of required Bergman watching, but it's easily one of the man's best.

The Bad: With it being lighter, the views aren't as blurred as they often are in a Bergman film. Truth is, the overall simplicity and straightforwardness of the "bigger picture" is a bit surprising, but only by comparison to the dreariness and overt seriousness of Bergman's other works.

The Ugly: A very un-Bergman like ending for a Bergman film, and boy does it stick out. Bergman is a darker, often cynical director that delves into thematic depth to make a point. Does he make a compromise here for a rather out-of-left-field ending that seems to throw all that out the window? The answer is both yes and no.

No in that is still maintains a thematic punch. Yes in that it completely does with a tone that's unlike the rest of the film, almost a "happy/chippy tune" as it progresses. The point is still there: the right people are proven wrong and those that had faith find a type of salvation or "out" to their own being. It's just that it's done almost comically with music that sounds fit for an animated film and maybe a pie in the face.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Magnificent Ambersons

The spoiled young heir to the decaying Amberson fortune comes between his widowed mother and the man she has always loved.

The Good: There are many who believe The Magnificent Ambersons is up there with Citizen Kane in terms of Welles’s overall proficiency and quality storytelling (though not quite as creative). This is certainly true seeing as The Magnificent Ambersons, banking heavily on its ensemble cast, is able to weave a complex, layered and overall polished story about a family trying to hold on to its old guard the best it can (paralleled by the rise of the new guard – industry). We see much of this over decades of time, and through the eyes of various persons-  notably George Amberson played terrifically by Tim Holt.

It’s an ensemble film, as I mentioned, so Holt isn’t the only quality performance going on here. Anne Baxter and Joseph Cotton are also at the top of their game here as is Dolores Costello, who really stretches her acting wings playing young and older versions of her character, and Agnes Moorehead who’s Aunt Fanny really steals the show in some crucial and emotional scenes. At its heart, it’s a character piece but with a great group of characters. It’s a simple drama with romance told masterfully by, well, a master (even if he didn’t get final cut). No, it’s not Citizen Kane, but film scholars and historians sometimes actually prefer Ambersons in a pure, narrative sense. Like Kane it’s a character study, it even has those strong thematic motifs Welles was always known for, but it manages to reel back the desire to be inventive and play less with technique and more in narrative flow and pacing. It’s not as glamorous as Kane but a different approach to a similar subject matter (the rise and fall of opulence being one of the strong themes of Ambersons as well). My thoughts? I like both for different reasons, but there’s not character in Ambersons, despite the wonderful performances, that match the presence of Welles in Kane. Amberson’s is a great film but in a very different way.

The Bad: The Magnificent Ambersons demands your attention as well as your patience. It’s not flashy, though Welles technical skill is superb, and is more dialogue and character centric than it is story. What seems to be just a series of events involving the Amberson family and those around them, with romance and occasional loathing here and there, is less about a story but more about an idea or theme. It’s the rise and fall of a time long forgotten as we see two parallel sides with one floundering in the old ways and the other rising thanks to industry (the automobile).  This is much like Kane where we saw the rise and fall of one man, but unlike Kane where we can point and say “it’s Charles Kane’s story” here we don’t have that type of focus. It’s the story of a family but with no clear defining story or one single character to base it on and present it for an audience.

This is not a “bad” thing, but it’s a thing that some people, when seeing the film, sometimes overlook and often find themselves bored with what might simply appear as a soap-opera without direction (audiences then and even to today still have such a reaction). No, there’s direction here. It’s hard to find, maybe hard to understand at times, but there’s a clear route and destination taken – not just a bunch of people and going from potential romantic involvement to the next. It’s much more than that, and maybe it can get a little hard to see once in a while, but it’s still certainly there, with clear character arcs and a fantastic directorial approach.

The Ugly: Like many Welles films, The Magnificent Ambersons ended up not his original vision, with cuts made without his “ok” and the “full version” seemingly lost. Most notable the ending, and seeing as I can only review what is here and not “what might have been,” the ending sticks out as, obviously, not a Welles decision. Still, though, let’s not discount the film because what is here is still quite remarkable and among one of the best films ever made.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Maleficent

A vengeful fairy is driven to curse an infant princess, only to discover that the child may be the one person who can restore peace to their troubled land.

The Good: World-building is tough to do in film. While a book can express it all through exposition, its exposition and "explaining" something in a movie that can often drag it down. The old "show, don't tell" line about cinema is hard to implement when you need to express to an audience a world that actually doesn't exist. A lot of movies, especially fantasy and science fiction, will have an opening prelude that goes over it all, but even then it needs to feel real and "lived-in."

Maleficent manages to create a dark, fairy-tale world that, unlike past films that have attempted it in "re-imagining" classic fairy tales, feels authentic and genuine. This is a beautiful, yet simultaneously gloomy and dark world that simply "is" and doesn't always need explaining. What's more, is that it feels interesting, and wants you to believe in it rather than throwing magical things to the wind and impress you with visual treats.

And all that, folks, is because Maleficent manages an element that all those other fairy-tale films fail at: it's human. At its heart, there's a very human element, most notably expressed by our titular character played with passion by Angelina Jolie, that shows a side that allows us to relate to the world around her by relating to her as a person. A magical person, yes, but a person nonetheless. The same can be said for much of the cast, including a wonderfully "fall from grace" arc for Sharlto Copley to sink his teeth into (though he is, at the end of the day, much more one-dimensional).  This is, simply put, how "re-imagining" a fairy tale needs to be done.

Perfect? Far from it, but it's also on much a right track than others of its kind and simply engaged and makes itself far more interesting.

The Bad: "Writing yourself into a corner" is one way of looking at Maleficent. Yet, it's not entirely its fault: it has one way it needs to go and there's no way around it. In other words, Maleficent is best when it moves away from the Sleeping Beauty tale and doing its own thing yet at its worse when it is obligated to adhere to what that fairy tale story did. Sure, you need that to have that "angle" but Maleficent

There's also an issue of tone. Maleficent attempt to interject humor at times, but it's painfully out of place and never quite hitting its mark. While we certainly don't need an overly-earnest take on a fairy tale (see Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton) it never quite finds a balance to make the comedy work and simply tries too hard so we aren't overwhelmed with the melodrama. Perhaps because it's often, literally, just three characters doing a schtick as dumb "aunts" is why it's often too obviously out of place as they feel as though they're shooting a completely different film.

The person not in on that joke? Jolie. She carries this entire film with grace and nails it, which is why when she's "observing" these dumb people and they try to be funny, her eye-rolls are probably indicative of yours as well. 

The Ugly: There's a lot of ambition here, only held back by its own source material if anything. The flashes of brilliance (and not talking down to the audience) capably overshadow its shortcomings, thankfully. Out of the man "rebooted" movies like Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz or Snow White (a couple of times), Maleficent is the most bold and daring, and that's why it works despite when it makes compromises. 

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Maltese Falcon

A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette.

The Good: If you think of the film noir genre, you probably automatically think of a few things: dark shadows and black and white, gangsters, mystery, conspiracy, private eyes, detectives, homicides, guns and sharp wits alongside sharp tongues. Film noir is, often, all those things, but really it's most defining element is how it utilizes them into on unit. Film noir acts more as a journey rather than something that has set plot points, set pieces or beats as they're called. Truth is, it usually beats to whatever drum it damn well pleases. Rather, noir "develops." It begins as one thing, then through various curves, twists, bends and a roadblock or three ends up as something entire different. It's a puzzle box that's attempting to be solved repeatedly over the course of a few hours or an endless labyrinth with its share of quiet dead end alleys broken by gunshots.

To this genre there are many films that are identifiable. One, though, isn't so much considered the "best" as much as it is considered "the" film noir film.

When the Maltese Falcon was attempting to get off the ground, for a second time (this classic 1941 is, technically, a remake) it cast upstart star Humphrey Bogart as the Hammett hero Sam Spade, a couple of unknown character actors at the time in Peter Lorre, then making a name for himself in Hollywood as Mr. Moto, and Sydney Greenstreet in his film film.  Oh, and a writer to direct it all: the now-legendary John Huston in his debut film.

Simply put, everything clicked. It clicked damn good. So good that every single film noir film that has been created since has had to stack up against it.  It took the idea of this little mystery movie and created elements of the genre still used to this day: dark shadows, minimal light, awkward (if not uncomfortable) camera angles, dialogue that flows so fast and quick you hang on every word and mise en scene that is both visually intriguing and thematically daring.

The Maltese Falcon is not only a masterpiece, but easily one of the most important movies ever made. Bogart's performance is iconic, probably only rivaled by his equally iconic Rick in Casablanca (a film where, not coincidentally, brought back Greenstreet and Lorre as well...a match made in heave if there ever was). Huston's directing and Arthur Edeson's photography is daring but never over-bearing. It shows restraint, perhaps half of that being the technical limitations at the time and the other half being smart filmmaking to not draw attention away from the actors and story. Rewatched and reseen by millions, loved by millions more, it's the quintessential American film and the defining piece of cinema for one of the most beloved genres of movies.

The Bad: I'm not a person to sit and say "well everybody loves this, I better not say anything bad." If there's something bad, I'll point it out. Here...there honestly is nothing.

The Ugly: 1942, a year that gave us this classic, the Hitchcock mystery classic Suspicion and, of course, Citizen Kane...none of which won best picture.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Mama

Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for 5 years.... but how alone were they?

The Good: Atmospheric, incredibly well shot and surpassingly well acted, especially from its younger stars, Mama is a spooky tale with a great sense of chilling "creepiness" all around, even if the scares a bit lukewarm.

I don't know what it is, but if a director can really control child actors and knows how to make them scary, they can be really scary. Mama has that luxury, thankfully. While the "Mama" is the centerpiece, and ruined by the film trailers no less, the kids are the creepy consistency that keeps you watching and the directing is sharp enough that even when you know something is a set up for a scare, it's still effective and doesn't get dull by keeping it full of variety and different takes on some old tropes.

Though you'll certainly be saying to yourself "get on with it" when it comes to the film spending time trying to develop its story (through telling its backstory, naturally, because horror movies like this rely more on things that already happened rather than things that are actually happening), the moments that do come are nicely done and highly effective - mixing a lot cheap jump scares with some fantastic built-up moodiness and subtle creepiness all around so the world its created doesn't turn stale.

It always keeps the presentation fresh and inventive. For example, there's about a minute or so long-take towards the end of the film that is just brilliant showing great camera movement, kid actors doing a great job and brilliant use of angles and light. It's amazing what a little pan of a camera can do in a horror movie, so kudos to the director Andy Muschietti and cinematographer Antonio Riestra for setting up a lot of shots like that throughout the film. It never gets dull in that respect…however it does get a bit dull in others...

The Bad: "Jump the sharp" is a phrase often reserved for television programs; noting a time in a series when something declines sharply in quality beyond the ability to recover. That's the official definition, but usually it means something takes a turn in desperation to try and keep that train going and keep people interestedBut more often than not this is viewed as a mistake as it ends up getting way ahead of itself instead of naturally getting to a point where that revival might have even been necessary. It's a reference to the infamous Happy Days episode where Fonzi is skiing and literally ski-jumps over a shark. It showed that this show, once a small little sitcom about family and teens in the 50s, turned ridiculous. In other words, it's the noted and obvious moment where something stops getting better and just starts getting worse.

In film, this is the same, and as I watched Mama that moment came around forty or so minutes in when a "twist" happens and I ended up completely uninterested in the rest of the movie and my vested interest was spent more making notes about what ended up being wrong with Mama rather than losing myself in the film. The atmosphere and mood was still around, so I wasn't entirely bored, but I certainly no longer had an investment in what was going on or cared about the characters. Mama is a testament to bad structure - a film that had a great idea, revealed it all too soon and played itself out too quickly that the remaining hour I had left was me wishing and hoping it would at least do something interesting to make up for all that. Seeing as it no longer had a sense of suspense and mystery, both due to lazy scripting and movie trailers running the entire experience, Mama needed something more to it and it never came. See it for the kids, who are great and wonderfully creepy, and certainly some spooky scene directing, but leave for the conventional story and the film becoming tired of its own concept a less than an hour in.

The Ugly: I can not figure out the use of audio in this film. There's a lot of what seems to be loud noises, but apparently we are the only ones that can hear it. A sudden "scream" right in front of a character ,it turns out, isn't really part of the film, it's just an attempt to make the scene have a cheap "punch" for an audience. It's too bad as it takes a lot away from the scenes because the cheapness feels so obvious, and the film utilizes audio and music cues very effectively otherwise (this is a movie built with the bumps-in-the-night approach, so when a wailing scream off-screen happens and nobody reacts to it happens, it just diminishes the entire point of not only that scene, but the approach to what the movie is trying to do in terms of horror).

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Man of Steel

A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.

The Good: Man of Steel is, and I suppose this is expected with anything Zach Snyder does, one gorgeous film. Taken on visuals alone, it's a masterpiece of fantasy action that has few in its league. Snyder has a fantastic way of presenting something in a large scope, yet strangely intimate. Cluttered. Lived in. Real. His grasp of the cinematic language is arguably the best in the business right now, and his understanding of action sequences and special effects have few equal.

With him he has a solid cast to work with - not just "names" but men and women that slide nicely in to the roles they're give. They have little to work with, very little actually and more on that in a moment, but they don't necessarily feel out-of-place and miscast either. In fact, I think the entire film is wonderfully cast, it just has nothing for that wonderful cast to really do. They walk in, do their job, and that's all we need at this point about a flying man punching the faces of other superpowered beings.

The highlight out of all that is long-time character actor Michael Shannon. Shannon is the type of guy you can buy in just about anything. He can play a simple dad or brother, or he can play a detective, a murdered or, here, an absolutely insane general from another world hell-bent on making Kal-el kneel before him.

Well, he doesn't say that, thankfully. But we're all thinking it, aren't we?

Henry Cavill as our title character also has very little to work with. Man of Steel is more a story about where our Man of Steel has been rather than where he's really going, which probably explains the laggy pace and the odd rush to the final act, but he achieves one major thing: he's believable. He isn't dynamic, but with what he has here, I can buy him as our Jesus-from-Krypton any day.

The rest of the cast suits their needs well, but as mentioned don't have a lot of meat to chew on. Snyder's sense of intimacy helps when the world starts crumbling, and though it invokes a mood of nostalgia and occasional childhood, it fails to really a sense of heart. As entertaining as Man of Steel can be on the action front, it lacks the ability to truly make you care about the world and the characters in it.

The Bad: There's no script here. There's a plot. There's ideas. There's themes. But there's no storytelling or characters - just a loose idea with cardboard cutouts. The actors do well, very well in fact, with what so little is given to them, but that's the thing: this epic, sprawling movie about the duality of a man and a metaphor for the human condition has no understanding of how humans actually are. If we're to believe in things like love, fatherhood, parents, coming-of-age...then there needs to be something backing up these stunning visuals.

That "something" isn't complex, it's just simple basic writing. I can accept the odd structure, the flashbacks (which I actually liked), even the strange pace (I don't think a second act exists), but the characters need to be there to guide us through all that, but more often than not they simply glare at each other and have only a handful of lines. You can't develop someone or make them feel "real" with just pretty visuals and mood. Character, chemistry and personality is something the entire film is devoid of.

It barely manages to find a single ounce of joy through it all as well. Due to the lack of interaction of characters, some shoehorned in an absolutely useless subplots (Perry White, for example) and the dower/sour mood, the sense of "fun" isn't here. I'm fine for drama, and Superman probably lends himself more to drama than to quipy one-liners, but the aura of depression and moodiness sends ripples throughout the entire thing, and even when it tries to be "fun" it constantly tries to up the ante of solemness that negates all of it.

While Man of Steel isn't a bad film at all, it's a shining example of a missed opportunity. The visuals are there: this is, without question, how you would want a movie about Superman to look even if it's not how you would want one to "feel." These are the actors you would probably like to see cast. That's the re-design and vision you could accept in a modern-day retelling. Those are the action set-pieces you would want. That's the score you could get in to. But all the effort found in Man of Steel that is wasted with a Goyer script that spends more time setting up ideas than it does spending time with a single character in the film to make those ideas matter.

The Ugly: Here's a thought: the sequel. There will be one, but this one tried to approach narrative in a different way and pretty much missed it entirely. Will they, or can they even, do that in a sequel? I don't think you can have more flashbacks that are even remotely relative. That being said, due to the climax of this movie, that really sets up for a Lex Luthor to come in, call out Superman for his destruction and rise to power. Maybe that was the plan all along, but even if not they need to own that massive, Roland Emmerich-esque destruction that you've seen in the trailer somehow.

In hindsight, the film skates by on Snyder alone. The man brought it. The production design and action is phenomenal. I can't dislike the film for that, but I can dislike it for everything else.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Man of Tai Chi

A young martial artist's unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club.

The Good: There's a lot of love for martial arts found in Keanu Reeve's first directorial effort. It mixes old with new and grounded with fantastical as we have elements of "newer" martial arts films with elements of classic ones. It's very modern, yet very old-school, if that makes any sense. It's as much a homage as it is a dang good action movie.

Martial Arts films often come in two different ways: the "real" or "modern" ones and the "fantasy" or "wuxia" style where it's more about mythology and Chinese lore. While the story stays grounded, fights play out realistically for the most part, the homage to the Wuxia style is apparent in the main plot. In other words, this is a film about yin and yang in both subject and form, it finds a balance between many things, and in that balance we end up with a damn good martial arts film.

Reeves shows an incredible eye as he photographs these fights, all by legendary choreographer Yeon Wo Ping. Reeves does exactly what a good action director should do. Set the scene, plan the camera movement, and then just let the fighting and choreography speak for itself. A great blend of style is here, giving time for long takes and time for fast, heart-pumping quick ones with lots of edits. There's enough fights in the film to allow different approaches and Reeves shows he has enough wherewithall in understanding martial arts and how to photograph it.

The Bad: It's hard to find good plots in a lot of martial arts films, particularly in the "modern" style. The Wuxia style has a lot to play around with, but for modern martial arts films, the most difficult thing is finding a reason why people are fighting all the time in modern times. Man of Tai Chi succumbs to this as well, ptting an underground fighting world against police and one man caught in between. It often feels contrived, even though some of it is based on real events.

None of the characters come across as particularly memorable, though Tiger Chen is certainly a good presence on screen. One-dimensional and simple, it's a film that knows what it is, but it doesn't necessarily try to rise above it. Characters often act and do things that seem a bit out-of-place, and Chen's own character seems oddly ignorant of the world around him and of others even if it is a "learning a lesson" plot.

The Ugly: If the acting thing doesn't work out, Keanu, you might just be an action director to remind all those flashy and special-effect riddled action movie directors how its done. Sometimes, restraint is the best medicine and balance something all should seek.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Man on a Ledge

As a police psychologist works to talk down an ex-con who is threatening to jump from a Manhattan hotel rooftop, the biggest diamond heist ever committed is in motion…

The Good: Man on a Ledge is a film i'm a loss to really say anything about that doesn't end with "waste of time." That's unfair, I know, because I will say it's shot nicely. In fact, everything about the film from a technical standpoint is handled pretty well, it's just that the material being handled is low-grade, uninspired junk.

Oh, and cool, Ed Harris. I'll see him in anything. Even this movie.

The Bad: Man on a Ledge is a film I liken to taking Green Eggs and Ham and trying to turn it into War and Peace. It's conceptually thin, has little in terms of plot or a point, yet it somehow manages to fill up over an hour and a half of screen time. The plot takes forever to get off the ground, little to nothing interesting happens and the entire sense of tension and fear, or even care about a potential twist or plot-turn, is flat. The film is calculated, going through the numbers, and does little to really make a name for itself.

Characters need to drive a film like this. And I'd be lying if I knew or cared about any of them. There's no real purpose, no arc or lesson to be learned, no depth of emotion or exploration of their personalities or even desires to do what is they're doing. There's been plenty of films where a majority of takes place in one location. Though that's not entirely accurate about Man on a Ledge, it does try to follow the presets that films like Dog Day Afternoon or even a C-level thriller like Phonebooth had set before. The difference, I feel, is the complete lack of passion in the film. The acting is bland, the characters one-dimensional, there's no emotion or real care that doesn't come across as disingenuous. It's a film that, once is over, simply screams its own lack of necessity from the mountaintops…or at least an edge of a building.

The Ugly: What a waste of Ed Harris in this film. Even he can't make his character interesting. It should also be noted that the writer of the film has made a name for himself in the world of television movie-of-the-weeks. And that's exactly how Man on a Ledge comes off. It's a cheap, made for TV movie story somehow dotted with a few big names and put out into theaters.

This isn't one of my better reviews. I come to that situation when there's just so little to bring up because the film ends up an unnecessary experience. Don't put yourself through the unnecessary experience. It'll waste your time as much as it wastes the electricity to put itself on screen every time a projector or DVD player is turned on to play it.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Man on Fire

In Mexico City, the former CIA assassin and presently an alcoholic decadent man John Creasy is hired by the industrialist Samuel Ramos, with the recommendation of his old friend Rayburn, to be the bodyguard of his young daughter Pita and his wife Lisa. Pita changes the behavior of the cold Creasy, making him live and smile again, and he feels a great affection for her. When the girl is kidnapped Creasy swears to kill each one responsible for the abduction.

The Good: You know, there's this whole class of film that are well made enough, but not particularly good, yet they're interesting and entertaining even if the full quality isn't fully realized. I'm thinking of movies like Point Break or even a majority of the James Bond movies. Man on Fire is one of those flms: a violent and messy movie but one that is extremely entertaining thanks to great visuals  and directing by Tony Scott and a fantastic performance by Denzel Washington, both of whom are probably better than the material at hand.

Man on Fire is like an animal, moving forward with only a basic sense of purpose to it. Surprisingly, this works quite well considering the material at hand and probably makes for a better film as a result. It doesn't have us thinking a lot because it moves far too quick for us to think, and thinking is the last thing that John Creasy, Denzel's character, is concerned with. He has a job to do and is going to do it. Period. The simple story and bare-bones plot probably helps the film considering its ever-progressing approach to story. Trying to do too much with conspiracies and plot twists would have done more harm than good and keeping the characters as basic personalities, if not cliches, probably helps as well. It's a film that lacks depth, but like those other, similar types of films, I think trying to shoehorn depth, emotion or intelligence would have done it far worse. There's a place for films like that, and Man on Fire is a film that apologetically knows exactly that.

The Bad: Two and a half hours is not what a film like this needs. In fact, this is a great example of the running time working against the material. This should have been two hours at most, if not less considering it's a thin plot to begin with and it moves briskly through it. It's overkill, pardon the pun, that should have been far more streamlined. Instead we feel how drawn out it is and seeing as how none of that time is really there to present anything more than an action film, it can grow tiresome after a while. The plodding third act and final conclusions seem to indicate that. I like how it ends, but by then you feel underwhelmed and tired and just want it to end. You end up with an uneven and overly long movie as a result.

The Ugly: lolbuttbomb. In this movie, I wouldn't have expected anything less. It's a thoroughly enjoyable film, just don't think too much on it.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Senator Ranse Stoddard returns to the city of Shinbone in the Wild West, to go to the funeral of his friend, Tom Doniphon. To a journalist, who's wondering what the senator is doing in Shinbone, he tells how his career started as "the man who shot Liberty Valance". As a lawyer he came to Shinbone to bring law and order to the west by means of law books. When the stagecoach is held up by outlaws, he is savagely beaten by Liberty Valance. He survives the attack and is nursed by his future wife, Hallie. Hallie is being wooed by a local rancher, Tom Doniphon. Ranse teaches the people of Shinbone to read and write, all the while trying to find a way of bringing Valance to justice. He finally takes up a gun and faces Valance in a menacing shootout...

The Good: Like many westerns, especially those from the master John Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is essentially a morality play. Ford has always dealt with such concepts, and by this, his last great film, he was already established as a master and could have hung it all up in 1940 (he began directing during the silent era) and still get that title. He wrote the book on Westerns, influenced generations of filmmakers and is often considered one of the first Auteurs, up there with Chaplin and Griffith. He rarely missed a mark in a film, and in 1962 at the age of 68, Ford was as brilliant as he always tended to be thirty years prior.

Ah, see what I did there? I got off on John Ford again. I do the same thing for Kurosawa and Buster Keaton too. Yet, to understand and appreciate Valance, you need to know where it comes from and by whom. Ford won four Oscars by this time, and he easily could have just phoned it in for the film. Yet he chose not to. Instead, we get a darker film about justice, a metaphor underlying the entire theme that involves the East meeting the West as the "Wild West" was dying to make room, it refuses to glamorize cowboys and lawmen and never paints its world as merely good and evil. It shows the humanity behind it all - an intelligent portrayal of what should be done versus what needs to be done not to mention the raw, difficult nature that is the attempt to find simple human bravery within ourselves.

The Bad: The film is damn near perfect, save for one problem: Jimmy Stewart. Sure, that might seem blasphemy, he is one of the greatest actors to ever live and I'll be the first to say his performance here is fine. However, he's simply miscast. The role calls for someone much younger and much more naive. As is, he simply comes off as just ignorant, which goes against his rather intelligent persona, as his purposes clash with the "old vet" of the picture, John Wayne (who is perfect in his role) and his naivety ends up really forced.

The Ugly: Lee Marvin really should get more acknowledgment as one hell of a performance as the villain (Valance). His name never really comes up when talking about great screen villains. Then again, Lee Marvin never gets enough credit as an amazing actor in the first place. He only won an Oscar...

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Man Who Wasn't There

1949, Santa Rosa, California. A laconic, chain-smoking barber with fallen arches tells a story of a man trying to escape a humdrum life. It's a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Ed Crane cuts hair in his in-law's shop; his wife drinks and may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, who has $10,000 to invest in a second department store. Ed gets wind of a chance to make money in dry cleaning. Blackmail and investment are his opportunity to be more than a man no one notices.

The Good: As an exercise in technical filmmaking, The Man Who Wasn’t There is up there with the best the Coen brothers have to offer. It’s a stunning visuals and beautiful cinematography shows their grown as directors with keen eyes and a good partner with Roger Deakins, who had been shooting the brothers‘ films since The Big Lebowski. There‘s a sense of trust mingled within the craftsmanship that the best partners and film relationships always create. It’s often forgotten how great of a an actor Billy Bob Thorton can be, he doesn’t make it easy to remember with his role choices, but not since Sling Blade have we seen him thus utterly good. Again, the Coen’s know their characters and the cast the perfect actor and get the best out of them. Ed is a classic Coen character yet unique in his passiveness and unintentional intelligence. It’s a thoughtful thriller, although a relatively uninteresting one.

The Bad: This was a film that really came and went for the Coens for good reason. It’s an utterly dry experience that can appear to even be bored with itself at times. There’s not a lot of flavor to it despite it being all-around a solid film on many levels, from the script to the gorgeous black and white. It reflects the rather mundane nature of Ed Crane himself, sitting in his mundane world and trying to do non-mundane things. It’s a movie that asks you to be in a particular state of mind to sit through and appreciate, it’s not as easy to be eased into as even other Coen films. It tries a little to hard to be a piece of film noir, a plodding one at that, and is a strenuous film to sit through and take in. It’s one of the few Coen films that you perfectly satisfied just watching once, then popping in Fargo or Miller’s Crossing again.

The Ugly:
Again, a wonderfully made film that is just a tough watch and has faded into obscurity. Sadly, much of what is great about it becomes lost as well.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

A chronicle of Nelson Mandela's life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

The Good: Tracing the entirety of Nelson Mandela's life is a pretty big undertaking, and even at two and a half hours, this biopic only scratches the surface. Yet, you can't help but be enticed by it all - to see it all play out, the major events even if it is the cliff notes, of Nelson Mandela's life and how it changed him over fifty or so years.

To lead that charge is one of the finest actors working today, and Idris Elba doesn't disappoint. He never does, to be quite honest, and brings a gravitas to a larger-than-life figure yet manages to find the nuanced subtlety to make him human. From a boy to an elderly man walking the hills of his land, his arc feels natural and organic as Elba powers on to the screen in one of the finest performances this year.

The Bad: It's often been said that Idris Elba is better than the movies he ends up being in. I don't know if I agree completely with that, but the fact is the man is extremely talented yet many of his films seems to not be up to that standard. No matter the movie, though, he delivers, and here in a lead role he carries the entire thing, because otherwise it's as lukewarm of a biopic you could ask for.

It starts in a manner that is appealing: Mandela wasn't always good nor bad. He was committing crimes, a womanizer, seemed distant to his family...but half-way through it stops doing that. Mandela changes, sure, but so does the entire focus of the film. No longer is it a look at the man, easily the most interesting up to that point, but in the myth and what he stood for. While that's important, it's also not very revealing or insightful.

Suddenly, the struggle becomes less personal and intimate. It begins to paint its picture in broad strokes and all the Idris Elba in the world can't fix that. Even he comes across as distant, more observer to Mandala than actually playing out his life. It ends up falling in to the trap so many biopics fall in to: going through dates and events, checking them off, and leaving the interesting parts on the cutting room floor.

The Ugly: I wish the entire film was like it was at its outset. So much potential and promise in those beginnings, then it rushes through the rest because of obligation rather than love or interest.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Maniac (2013)

The owner of a mannequin shop develops a dangerous obsession with a young artist. 

The Good: If you’re going to do a remake to a pretty popular (in certain circles) and unique classic Slasher movie, you need to make damn sure you put your own stamp on it. Well, Maniac, both the original 1981 classic and this remake, aren’t exactly “slasher” movies as we know them. They’re more films analyzing insanity, because here we’re with the killer the entire time rather than a bunch of disposable teenagers being stalked, and in the case of this remake we’re literally in the killer’s head.

A fully POV movie is tough to pull off. Many films today get by with a “found footage” first person quality that is engaging but you’re still just seeing it through a camera. Here, we hear the killer’s thoughts, hear his breathing, see his hallucinations and begin to realize that not only is this a bold way to do a remake of a classic, but it’s a bold and utterly brilliant way to just do a very violent and unsettling film in general. Beautifully show, the camera becomes the character itself and through simple actions and original thematic motifs that visually pull in and out (such as "watching" the kills outside of the killer's head, something serial killers say they feel and I certainly haven't seen visually represented on film before, or the theme of shattered mirrors and reflections all over the place). It's a journey and exploration on top of being just a very unsettling film.

Think about this: you’re in the head of the killer, but you’re not in control. The film puts you there and you can't escape it. Sure, you can walk out, but that kind of says something, doesn't it? You can walk out, an insane person can't. That’s how the killer feels as well: he’s killing people, but can’t stop killing. You’re in a place that you badly want to get out of, but you can’t. You’re as trapped as he is. Perfectly updated to modern times, noting that social media is as much an isolation device as it is a "social" one, and with a dark and bold turn by Elijah Wood, Maniac may have a cult favorite movie its based off of, but makes itself all its own and is one of the more uniquely brilliant horror films you'll see.

The Bad: I've never entirely understood what the original Maniac was trying to say. It was unique in that it was a bit more than just "killer go kill" because we saw it all from the killer's perspective.  The remake takes it all a bit further, but still holds its laurels back by retaining some of the odd and bizarre subplots from the original, which had its share of strange and bizarre (and now dated) subplots. mannequins. Scalping. Mother obsession reminiscent of Blue Velvet. But everything is rather vague and distorted. As much as I'd like to say "well, Frank's world is vague and distorted because he's batshit crazy," that simply feels like a copout. In the end: what is the film trying to say?

Normally a horror movie isn't trying to say much thematically, but Maniac, whether it's this one or the 1980 version, constantly feels like it wants you to listen. If you're going to make an audience bear witness to awful things, usually its accompanied by some sort of commentary about something as well - American Psycho commented on the 80s/pop culture/shallowness, Henry Portrait of Serial Killer about emotional and societal detachment and how killing can almost be mundane when you've done it enough, Funny Games about violence and how movies utilize it by forcing the audience to participate and feel a part of the awful things going on. Is it just a nihilistic view and violence for violence sake in Maniac? The film(s) never really bother give us context along with everything they throw at you yet constantly feels as though it wants to.

Perhaps its a victim of its own devices. The original Maniac was so grind house and low-budget that it not trying to say something is expected, or at least unsurprising. This new one, though, is a finely crafted movie. The use of camera, sound and light and shadow, scene structure and pacing is some of the best you'll see - it's maybe too polished and technically sound for its own good, which makes us want the nasty grittiness of the original so we don't have to think too much on what it throws our way…because thinking too much on it might be asking too much of us in the first place.

The Ugly: The movie is exhausting. When it’s done and we finally see that black screen, you feel the agony of it all it put you through. It’s incredible to me that a movie can have that affect on someone, but that’s why I love movies. Some take you a ride, this one forces you to bear witness to stuff you probably wish you weren’t seeing, mentally and emotionally draining you at every turn.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Maps to the Stars

A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.

The Good: Always interesting, always compelling, even when David Cronenberg is at his most “normal” he’s at least never dull and always has something worthwhile to say and show. Here’s his determined to show a dark, cynical and jaded (and, for the most part, quite accurate) look at Hollywood. Agents. Managers. Child actors. Dysfunction. Drugs. Celebrity obsession. Yeah, it’s pretty right about all that stuff.

Various strands are woven into a web with precision. There’s a steady confidence in everything here, from the pace to the actors, notably Julianne Moore and newcomer Evan Bird who carry their roles with certainty - they’re awful people for the most part and you buy their personas whether you like it or not. Solid actors are dotted throughout, such as John Cusack and Mia Wasikowska (who have a very creepy and troubling scene together, actually a couple of them).

The surrealist quality to Maps of the Stars both makes though. There’s an undercurrent of discomfort running through it. People are overly melodramatic, people have hallucinations, present fake smiles. It’s a movie where, if an actor suddenly stripped down sat on a toilet constipated and farted constantly while having a conversation with her assistant, it wouldn’t come as any surprise.  It just has that type of “not quite real” element, as though it’s just slightly removed from reality. How long can you take having a knot in your stomach. Cronernberg lets scenes linger and you really let it all sink in.

Spoiler: that scene happens.

The Bad: That knot in your stomach I mentioned? Well it’s going to get tighter before it loosens up, unfortunately it loosens up in an absolutely silly way almost as though it’s a completely new movie that enters and takes over. It feels cheap. A little “well, we need to end this somehow” and it hastily gets to an end. It doesn’t feel quite complete, or satisfactory in how it wants to finish its story. Still, it’s all done in a very Cronenberg-style way - very dark, and quite bloody.

That’s probably the biggest issue. It’s already an unsettling film, and to have an unsettling end just feels less a climax and more “the norm.” That sense of full-circle arc never quite finds itself, just a lot of nastiness ended with even more nasty cynicism then have credits roll. It's a tough film to sit through, with little to no light at the end of the dark tunnel it sends you down. It weighs on you, often in a good way, but also in a way that doesn't quite make you feel you spent your time well.

The Ugly: Having lived in LA for a while now, I can confirm that the movie does capture a certain element of the industry quite accurately, not to mention the sense of entitlement socialite teen/20 somethings have.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


El Mariachi

El Mariachi just wants to play his guitar and carry on the family tradition. Unfortunately, the town he tries to find work in has another visitor...a killer who carries his guns in a guitar case. The drug lord and his henchmen mistake El Mariachi for the killer, Azul, and chase him around town trying to kill him and get his guitar case.

The Good: Robert Rodriguez knows how to play with a film's tempo and pace. Like the music that inspired the concept, everything moves at a beat. The slower, dramatic scenes play out like a ballad. Soothing, soft, takes time. Then comes in the drums. The guns. The beat escalates. Then the action hits, and that's the staple Rodriguez. He likes to orchestrate his action. He's not always in perfect-pitch, and sometimes those crescendos are sometimes hard to distinguish, but he knows how to get out the raw, visceral fun of an action scene about as well as anyone.

Yet, that's not why I think El Mariachi, or any of the Mariachi films, are good. Truth be told, many of the action set pieces are hit and miss throughout all three films. So a lot of it has to do with the atmosphere. It's gritty as only Mexico can be. You can sense the culture and feel the heat of the sun hitting the stucco. It exudes "cool" in this fantastic culture that brings back the same tones and sensibilities of Spaghetti Westerns and grindhouse cinema.

The Bad: A paper-thin story doesn't necessarily mean a fault here, but perhaps a little more originality within it would have helped. It's low-budget through and through, and the action carries it entirely (then again, that can be said for all the Mariachi films).

The Ugly: While I understand why Rodriguez went with Banderas for the sequels (he's simply a better actor and more charismatic), Carlos Gallardo is no slouch here. He's a great lead.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Margin Call

A thriller that revolves around the key people at a investment bank over a 24-hour period during the early stages of the financial crisis.

The Good: Margin Call plays out like a play. It's minimalist, taking place in one location over about 24 hours, is dialogue driven and delivered by its cast so effectively you can't but be engrossed with every sentence and hang on every word uttered by them. Much of it reminds me of the  film (and play) Glengarry Glenross where every phrase has a purpose and every character commands the moments they're in and you are able to develop the story yourself through their interactions. There's nothing wasted. The cast is sharp, their dialogue a terrifc blend of poignancy and personality and the story itself developing its point without having to shove it down our throats. It's organic. Natural. It's like you're having a conversation with it yourself but you're so captivated by it you don't even realize how much it's actually saying because it's saying it so damn well.

It's an insight into the workings of really smart people with more money than they know what to do with. At the same time, Margin Call is able to show that they are not demons, well not all of them, but people. They think and debate, they have arcs and emotions and worry about their futures. It manages to put a face on them, in particular the character of Sam, played by Kevin Spacey, who is at a moral crossroads. You can sense the regrets and problems that he's confronted with, and that's just one great performance amongst many here. Like all the other characters, he's stuck. There's really only one call that's to be made here, it's just that some people still have an ounce of soul and maybe hope for an alternative to come up. But that's nievity talking, Sam knows it just as everyone in the board room does. Even though the result is predestined, the call obvious to those that fear for their own salaries and jobs, the path there isn't always the easiest one to take for some.

The Bad: While a terrific dramatization of these people and this place, with the outcome already known is watching a group of high-powered men and women go down a path leading to short-term gain but long-term disaster be worth your time? Well, that's not the point entirely. It's a film about performances and characters, so that should be the point just as it was with real estate in Glengarry Glenross. Unfortunately, not all the characters are painted as vividly as Spacey's. Many are just caricatures. We see some dip their toes into the waters of development and dimensions beyond just one, but nothing really ever comes of it. As it's an ensemble, the time given solely to Spacey's character is considerably apparent making the rest of the cast, and therefore much of the film as its so dependent on the cast, seem off balance.

That's not to say the performances aren't great. Believe me, they are, it's just we don't really get to know any of them all that well. It lacks the dynamic nature of being a dramatization, and instead comes across more as a one-act play that wasn't fully written. There are more than enough moments for these people to feel, well, like people, but that time is spent explaining the MacGuffin (an equation), going over charts and pointing at things while diatribe to the audience. Margin Call is good, but seeing the opportunity where more could have been done, discussed and expanded on beyond the numbers is noticeable.

The Ugly: Kevin Spacey, the greatest actor of his generation? Even when he's in a mediocre movie, he's always amazing. This whole cast was great, though. I only wish their characters were a little better.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Marnie

Marnie Edgar is a habitual liar and a thief who gets jobs as a secretary and after a few months robs the firms in question, usually of several thousand dollars. When she gets a job at Rutland's, she also catches the eye of the handsome owner, Mark Rutland. He prevents her from stealing and running off, as is her usual pattern, but also forces her to marry him. Their honeymoon is a disaster and she cannot stand to have a man touch her and on their return home, Mark has a private detective look into her past. When he has the details of what happened in her childhood to make her what she is, he arranges a confrontation with her mother realizing that reliving the terrible events that occurred in her childhood and bringing out those repressed memories is the only way to save her.

The Good: Underrated and overlooked, Marnie is a damn good psychological thriller. While the Birds is often the only film considered good from Hitch's later years, we end up having a handful of titles that don't get enough credit their way. Marnie is one of them. It's not a perfect film, but certainly not a horrible one either (hint, Hitchcock has never made a horrible film. Just keep that in perspective). Marnie is really only "bad" if it's compared to other Hitchcock movie. It's characters aren't quite that compelling, both Connery and Hendren just passing by it seems, and it never quite achieves a natural flow to itself whereas (many feelings of Spellbound come through here). There’s also a certain amount of self-reflection here from Hitchcock, as though this is also about him on top of everything else.

The Bad: Marnie suffers from one major thing: it's incredibly dated. Not dated as in "we're looking back decades at it" but even dated upon its release. It's old conventions and style, as well as old special effects, that cause the film to feel as though it was made in the 1940s rather than the 1960s.  

Personally, I don't fully buy the "German expressionist" theory - in that some argue he intentionally did this. I say, if he intentionally did it, he would have said so and be more obvious as well. Hitchcock was very open and public about his films, I think that would be something he would bring up considering many at the time also made note of the dated look and techniques. It's psychological (a little too much) and symbolic (ala Vertigo only not quite as sharp), but he's managed those things before without suddenly backtracking to a long-dead style. Like Torn Curtain, only moreso, everything feels artificial. Thankfully, this one has a better story, pace and characters to life it up.

The Ugly: Sean Connery works here, he is a gentleman after all (when he's not slapping women) but at the same time he feels oddly out of place. He was James Bond by this point, but I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I think it’s more that he simply never did a lot of psychological thrillers in his day.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Martha Marcy May Marlene

Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult. 

The Good: When you have more of an idea to drive a film than an actual story, you need something else to captivate the audience. Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't quite have a story, only a situation that juxtaposes two lives, conflicting emotions and comparative arguments through one character. Martha is our driving force as a character in a movie like this needs to be, and we end up with a beautiful, poetic and sometimes disturbing indie film that will leave an impression on you.

Whether that impression is good or bad is up to you. It's a film that will have just as many loving it as those hating it. It's slow. It's haunting. It's chilling and sometimes even unsettling. One thing everyone will agree on is that Martha is a fantastic and complex character, who would have thought an Olsen sister would be the one to pull it off? Elizabeth Olsen has separated herself form her twin-older-sisters with a daring performance that strips a character bare one minute, and then shows the discourse of her trying to find her way the next. We jump back and forth between Martha's time with a cult and her time trying to re-assemble a broken life. The script doesn't tell the story, it's Olsen that does. Through her emotional nakedness we see a conflicted woman full of insecurity and uncertainty that is trying to find her way in life - and it leaves you hanging on whether or not you think she will find that. For a movie like this, I don't think I would have had it any other way - in fact I expected it as trying to answer the question of this nature would undermine the complexity of human emotion.

The Bad: Sometimes it's difficult to do a film review in this form. I make them quick and to the point because I like to share my love of film, but in some cases I wish I could do an exploratory thesis on a movie without simply labeling things "good" and "bad." In the case of Martha Marcy May Marlene, you certainly can't limit yourself based on form. At least, I don't want to.

You see, there's nothing particularly "bad" about it. It's a character study dealing with emotional distress, paranoia and, to me, the classic debate of "nature versus nurture." It's a psychological piece and it plays that part well. Was Martha always this way, or was this cult that much of an influence on her to the point of insanity. Why did she leave for it in the first place? Why did she stay as long as she did? What was she frightened of? It asks all these questions but never really provides the insight for us to understand it all. It's not intent on telling a story, only to show Martha in two situations to where we only fully understand her in one. The other isn't delved into nearly enough - treating it merely as a catalyst when, in reality, it's the source of so many answers, yet the source of so many questions at the same time.

The Ugly: Keep an eye on Elizabeth Olsen, folks. The younger sister of The Olsen Twins is what a young actress should be all about and her separating herself from her tabloid sisters is the best thing she could have done for her career.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Masters of the Universe

The world of Eternia in the aftermath of Skeletor's war on Castle Grayskull, which he has won after seizing Grayskull and the surrounding city using a cosmic key developed by the Thenorian locksmith Gwildor. The Sorceress is now Skeletor's prisoner and he begins to drain her life-force as he waits for the moon of Eternia to align with the Great Eye of the Universe that will bestow god-like power upon him.

The Good: A great cure for insomnia. Also Dolph Lundgren is awesome even if his character here is not.

The Bad: A large-scoped/high concept animated fantasy television show set on a far off world is suddenly turned into a low-budget, fish-out-of water movie about aliens coming to Earth. This will not end well.

The He-Man and the Masters of the Universe wasn’t the best of animated shows to begin with. It was children’s cartoon so standards aren’t that high...yet, somehow, Masters of the Universe still falls way, way below even that bar. No, it’s not the bad special effects and lack of faithfulness to the source material – truth is I forgive 1980s special effects and faithfulness to source material is utterly pointless here because the source material wasn’t that great either. So sure, filmmakers, do what you want....so they gave us this. A movie that doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy, a movie with a plot that is all over the place, bad acting, bad directing and on top of all of that, it’s an absolute bore of a flick.

There’s a lot of 80s camp classics that are entertaining: movies like Flash Gordon, Krull and even Buckaroo Bonzai. Masters of the Universe cares not of what made those things work and seems to be more a parody of those movies than an actual film. I would say it is a parody if only it didn’t take itself so seriously, its comedic moments utterly flat and all the actors having a deer-in-headlights look about them. What people wanted with this film, and what probably would have made it work, is a Conon-esque approach of a big guy, big sword, and some fantasy elements thrown in. instead we have a big guy, big sword...but wait!....now he and his alien friends are transported to earth and wacky antics ensue (wacky not being the appropriate word, really, that would imply something funny, but these aren’t comedic actors and it shows).

The Ugly: Low point of Lundgren's career easily. What I find strange is that this is the one and only feature film that director Gary Goddard ever did. Why put a big franchise into the hands of this guy? Want to hear something stranger, though - this movie actually won some small sci-fi/fantasy awards. Well...I've seen worse. That doesn't help the badness factor of it, but at least it's not Zardoz or Hobgoblins.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


The Matrix

Thomas A. Anderson is a man living two lives. By day he is an average computer programmer and by night a malevolent hacker known as Neo. Neo has always questioned his reality but the truth is far beyond his imagination. Neo finds himself targeted by the police when he is contacted by Morpheus, a legendary computer hacker branded a terrorist by the government. Morpheus awakens Neo to the real world, a ravaged wasteland where most of humanity have been captured by a race of machines which live off of their body heat and imprison their minds within an artificial reality known as the Matrix. As a rebel against the machines, Neo must return to the Matrix and confront the agents, super powerful computer programs devoted to snuffing out Neo and the entire human rebellion.

The Good: During the late 1990s, the action genre needed something new.
Most of what was successful was already mastered during the 1980s and early 1990s. It was stagnant. Then along came the Wachowski brothers to more or less reinvent it. Make no mistake, they did just that. They brought something that action movies were lacking at the time: ambition. The Matrix doesn't play it safe. Everything it does is unique and new, from the concept, camera techniques and special effects to the action sequences themselves, a little bit of asian martial arts films combined with anime all mixed into science fiction grandeur. It's fantastic set piece after set piece, no different than most action movies, but now with this new spin and new approach, emphasis on hand-to-hand fighting and superhero-like powers, it all brings in something new. It's entertainment in its purest form. It's a movie that gets its audience riled up and on the edge of its seat with anticipation over what will happen next, but more importantly what they will see next. It's simply one of the best action movies ever made.

The Bad: While the script is fun and dialogue enjoyable, even humorous at times, there is this large sense of pretentiousness to it all. It isn’t quite as bad as the sequels would eventually dive into, but the whole focus on mysticism, symbolism and allegory tends to dominate a script that maybe should have focused a little more on our characters that it badly neglects. It does a better job than most movies would with the same bloated material, however, and the characters are, at the very least, identifiable but there's no connection to these people, no more than the robots they fight against. Some are compelling, demanding your attention, but the most compelling is Agent Smith and the most robotic our hero, Neo....something is wrong there.

The Ugly: There’s no denying the Matrix’s influence in terms of action. It did exactly what the Wachowski brothers wanted: give us live-action Japanese animation. Now everyone thinks they can do it and many just come off as cheap and half-assed. The Matrix might be dubbed a "special effects extravaganza" but it also did it intelligently and at about half the budget of most action flicks.

Final Score: 4 out of 5


The Matrix: Reloaded

6 months after the events depicted in The Matrix, Neo has proved to be a good omen for the free humans, as more and more humans are being freed from the matrix and brought to Zion, the one and only stronghold of the Resistance. Neo himself has discovered his superpowers including super speed, ability to see the codes of the things inside the matrix and a certain degree of pre-cognition. But a nasty piece of news hits the human resistance: 250,000 machine sentinels are digging to Zion and would reach them in 72 hours. As Zion prepares for the ultimate war, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are advised by the Oracle to find the Keymaker who would help them reach the Source. Meanwhile Neo's recurrent dreams depicting Trinity's death have got him worried and as if it was not enough, Agent Smith has somehow escaped deletion, has become more powerful than before and has fixed Neo as his next target.

The Good: The best element of the original Matrix was the concept of “following the white rabbit.” You’re introduced to everything wide-eyed and in awe, just as our hero, Neo, is. While that element is gone in the sequel and Neo now a Superman-like figure, it doesn’t lose its edge and now gives us some of the best damn action sequences and finest special effects you’ll see on film. The fight choreography and scenes run the gamut of intensity and degree, from a thousand to just two in hand-to-hand kung-fu combat. The shootouts are more spectacular, the chase sequences beautiful and the style more apparent. Visually, it's one hell of a polished movie and incredibly entertaining.

The Bad: For the same reasons to dislike the first, it’s even more prevalent here. The brevity of it all is overwhelming and, as a result, heavy-handed. It makes up for much of it with some spectacular action and special effects, some of the set-pieces outdoing the original film Ten-fold, but we still feel or relate little to our group of heroes. The human factor is all but removed despite there being more humans. We can no longer relate to Neo as well, he's moved past being a mere mortal, and the love story is forced and far less subtle than it was in the first as the relationship between Neo and Trinity is at the "next" stage (or so we're told).

The Ugly: No, that score is not a mistake. I believe the first sequel is every bit as compelling as the original film. But, as they say, two steps forward...one step back.

Final Score:
4 out of 5


The Matrix: Revolutions

Neo discovers that somehow he is able to use his powers into the real world too and that his mind can be freed from his body, as a result of which he finds himself trapped on a train station between the Matrix and the Real World. Meanwhile, Zion is preparing for the oncoming war with the machines with very little chances of survival. Neo's associates set out to free him from The Merovingian since it's believed that he is the One who will end the war between humans and the machines. What they do not know is that there is a threat from a third party, someone who has plans to destroy both the worlds.

The Good: While we might already know how it all ends by the end of the second film, it's still a fun journey to see be had. While Revolutions may not have exactly what fans wanted, it at least brings a solid closure to the epic story of Neo. There aren't really any loose ends, it ties it up everything up pretty nicely. Foregoing the Matrix itself, outside of the final battle, we see more of the "real world" and the amazing looking Machine City which is unique and visually impressive. The allegories are through the roof on this, although by now we've gotten used to them, and we see our Savior emerge.

The Bad: What is it that people like about the first two Matrix movies? I'll tell you: seeing incredible things happen in our own (supposed) reality. That simply does not happen here and instead we're treated to the tales of Zion and its defenses against the machine horde. It's no doubt interesting to see: rusted out mechs with chain guns, onslaught of machines penetrating the city, small stories of war and triumph. Yet after a while...you just want to see some kung-fu and extravagant jumping. That might sound superficial, but that is what the first two movies and the Matrix universe based everything on. To have it removed is to have the Matrix try to find something to replace it. It does manage to make us care for the characters, as emotionless as they are, but no more than the first two. It shows real humans that don't have superpower like abilities in the "real" world, but those aren't as fun or interesting. There's no more twists to be had and secrets to be revealed. It's all be done, now we just have to finish it up, which is why this film maybe feels more arbitrary and anticlimactic than compelling. It was the Matrix Revolutions that made us realize what it was we liked about the first two films-only when something is gone do you realize how much you miss it.

The Ugly: There's a strange sense of blandness to the whole film. The style of the first two is gone, supplanted by the gritty reality of Zion, and there's little to no sunlight in the whole thing. It's gloomy and dull visually. As they took away the visual aspect, there's simply little left to like. While not "bad"...it simply lacks what makes The Matrix...it removes the Matrix.

Final Score: 2.5 out of 5


Me and Orson Welles

A teenager is cast in the Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar" directed by a young Orson Welles in 1937.

The Good: In what is easily my pick for surprise of the year, Me and Orson Welles is a great piece of historical fiction, Zak Efron’s presence, be damned. To be truthful, though, Efron pulls his weight in a rather simple role and creates a young high-schooler that is both incredibly out of his element yet incredibly charming at the same time. His attempt at Shakespeare is a tad laughable, but we see him grow into even that role convincingly. Of course, the big show-stealer here is Christian McKay who has some rather large shoes to fill in portraying an icon like Welles. Not only does he have to play the crazy young Welles, he has to play the crazy young Welles playing Shakespeare as Welles did on top of that. The film isn’t as brainy as other Linklater films, but it’s got his distinct wit and smart, dialogue-driven scenes with, thankfully, people who can deliver the dialogue well. Overall, it’s a fun movie with element of history, humor, drama and a character study thrown in for good measure. It’s a great look into the world of theatre during a time when it was the only show in town.

The Bad: While Efron is our main character, McKay’s Welles utterly dominates every angle of the film where you have to really assume he is our main character, not the pencil-neck high schooler. Efron is absolutely out of his league here despite a solid effort and eventually you find yourself stop caring about his endeavors are become captivated by McKay (and, to an extent James Tupper who gives us a great Joseph Cotten and becomes more and more prevalent in the film as Efron fades more and more). The biggest issue is the odd ending which simply just ends with us standing around wondering what the film was trying to tell us. Don’t pass up an opportunity? Don’t waste your time with dreams? Know your role? The other issue is our setting, here taking place in the 1930s and many characters simply don’t quite act or even fit into the time (this is a combination of the performances but the dialogue by Linklater as well). As a look into Welles, it’s utterly entertaining. As a story that’s supposed to be about Efron’s character, it falls way short.

The Ugly: McKay is one of many great best supporting contenders out there, 2009 a far better year for supporting roles than main roles, and sadly he’s going to get lost in the shuffle. Then again, he should probably be in Best Actor category if anything.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


Mean Streets

The future is set for Tony and Michael - owning a neighbour- hood bar and making deals in the mean streets of New York city's Little Italy. For Charlie, the future is less clearly defined. A small-time hood, he works for his uncle, making collections and reclaiming bad debts. He's probably too nice to succeed. In love with a woman his uncle disapproves of (because of her epilepsy) and a friend of her cousin, Johnny Boy, a near psychotic whose trouble-making threatens them all - he can't reconcile opposing values. A failed attempt to escape (to Brooklyn) moves them all a step closer to a bitter, almost preordained future.

The Good: Many consider Mean Streets Scorsese's legitimate feature debut (he made two films before but one was the student film Who's that Knocking At My Door and the other a Roger Corman feature he had no control over). Mean Streets is a personal reflection and look at Scorsese's own life. There's nothing overly complicated about Mean Streets. It's straightforward and streamlined and its in this straightforwardness, if not its bluntness, that we appreciate it. It's an honest film about crime. It doesn't glorify it or take sides, we follow the trials and tribulations of the low-level lackeys played by Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro. Mean Streets has become one of the most influential films of all time. It's camera techniques, use of music and editing can be taken for granted now, because we've become so accustomed to them, but we shouldn't forget the pioneering efforts of Scorsese and a style that is still seen often to this day.

The Bad: While the characters and the setting are the compelling element, the story narrative and structure tends to be the minutia of the life rather than giving us a straightforward story. This might come with the creative process, however, and perhaps Scorsese just didn't care about the story as much as he did the personalities which are as vibrant as those mean streets themselves.

The Ugly: Originally meant to be a sequel to Who's That Knocking At My Door, many elements of that film are present and appear far more refined.  The idea of it being a sequel still comes through and the similarities are rather obvious once comparing the two films. It makes me wonder why Scorsese didn't see the idea of a sequel all the way through, it practically is.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Mechanic (2011)

Follows an elite hit man as he teaches his trade to an apprentice who has a connection to one of his previous victims.

The Good: I don't know if there's quite a good action star at the moment than Jason Statham. Sure, he may not be in the best of films, but as an action "star" he always delivers with solid acting and a convincing presence that makes you think "this guy can probably kick some ass." To his equal, similar yet different, is Ben Foster who isn't an action star, but he's not supposed to be one. In fact, that's the whole point of his character in The Mechanic: he's a guy that doesn't know anything about killing people, is a bit troubled (though that's never really delved into) and wants the ability to kill people just for the sake of having it. Statham is the professional, Foster the rookie...and we've seen it all before.

That doesn't mean there aren't enjoyable moments in The Mechanic, only uninspired ones. Even those uninspired ones are done well, the directing by Simon West is more than adequate and stylish enough to have an identity, but the plot is just a rudimentary, back-tabbing action thriller, with more emphasis on action than thrills. It's serviceable, yes. There's nothing inherently "bad" about the film, it's well acted and directed and the script is as trite and cliche as you expect it to be...it's just bland and unmemorable.

The Bad: Poor pacing and a rushed, almost sudden, third act makes The Mechanic not quite reach the full potential of, at the very least, an entertaining action movie. It seems to be pulling itself in two different direction, one being with the characters (notably Ben Foster's who is as a stiff as a board yet someone we're supposed to understand his conflict) and the other directing being a very over-the top action movie. It never strikes a balance or really achieves the dramatic angle it strives for making it not much more than just a series of scenes of two decent actors that have a few action elements in because it knows those other scenes aren't going anywhere.

The Ugly: Did The Mechanic sacrifice a strong ending to leave it open for sequels? Yes, and it's pretty obvious. The ending here makes the entire story seem inconsequential and completely done in vain because the ending doesn't bring it home.

You know what ending did? The ending in the original The Mechanic. That movie made no compromises and it's better for it. As much as I don't like comparing films, when it's this blatant, you can sense the loss in quality and shift of purpose, especially considering that this remake does manage to do so much else right to begin with, then just negates it.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Meek's Cutoff

Settlers traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845 find themselves stranded in harsh conditions.

The Good: Meek's Cutoff is a very interesting western. Not in story of style, but in pacing. Most westerns love to glorify the mythology of the west. You know, gunslingers, ghost towns, quick-draws and very bad men getting their just deserts. Meek's Cutoff, though, is more about the life and the hardships, the quietness of the world and uncertainty of the future. It's not so much a "western" as it is a movie about living in a barren, difficult land full of hardships around every turn.

Classic western themes are still present, however. Culture-clash being the biggest as our travelers come across a man that is not like them. It's at this point the film really begins to take off and drama ensues that isn't solved with a gunfight but more a contemplation on morals. For most of the film there isn't much of a story until this moment, instead it's more getting you to succumb to its own solace - an interesting hypnosis that draws you in before throwing the punch.

The Bad: It's unfortunate that to draw you in, to have you experience what these people are experiencing, you have to give yourself completely to their slowness of it all. A movie shouldn't feel like a "test" for an audience, and this one most certainly does. It'll test your patience and even your interest as the story seems aimless and the film directionless for the most part. Slower films should still feel purposeful in their execution, but this one doesn't. Shots seem elongated and moments still and quiet less for an impact of the experience and more the director simply wanting to make it so. The actual "idea" seems to not develop well into the film, and by then you are either going to be succumbed enough to endorse it or agitated enough to not care.

The Ugly: Michelle Williams really got praise over My Week With Marilyn, but this film really shows her ability and range. She's officially one of the best actresses working today, even though this film won't be seen by most.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Megamind

The supervillain Megamind finally defeats his nemesis, the superhero Metro Man. But without a hero, he loses all purpose and must find new meaning to his life. 

The Good: Some films can get you to overlook their flaws by simply rolling with their concepts. In the case of Megamind, it has a pretty typical story, typical characters arcs and below-average comedy with only a few standout moments. Yet, at the same time, it has some amazing personality running through its otherwise tired veins. It's a film full of enthusiasm and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't sold on that enthusiasm and vivaciousness it emanates.

I think it begins with the take, firstly. It's a story from the villain's point of view. More specifically an inept villain that has a superhero for his nemesis. It's interesting that I found myself not disliking either. Sure, Megamind himself, Will Ferrel doing a terrific job lending his voice, is conniving and over zealous, but he's also lacking common sense and a bit out of touch. His counterpart, Metro Man, is heroic and loves everything and everyone, but is also arrogant. In both cases, though, they simply aren't what they want to truly be. I actually found myself feeling a bit sorry for them, and especially when Megamind kills off his rival in the opening scene and then realizes that he has nothing else to live for himself.

This...really intrigued me. Megamind may not get everything right, but it got this aspect right I found. It may not be entirely new and fresh, but it really dedicates itself to the material and you can't help but be sucked into the world with all its homages and satirical nods to everything about the superhero movie genre. Megamind may end up being a forgettable film in the long run, I'm willing to be many have already forgotten about it by now, but it's one I would whole heartedly recommend as a solid, B-grade animated film to pass the time.

The Bad: Megamind really lacks one crucial attribute: the comedy. Oh, it's there. It's certainly lively and dedicated to it. However, the story isn't really offering consistent laughs or even original ones. It's a story we've seen before, only dressed a little different, and it actually succeeds more in bringing out characters and bits and pieces of sincerity far better than it hits its comedy marks. Usually if an animated film does something wrong, it's throwing all sorts of comedy at us without really giving us time to take it in or feel anything for the characters. For Megamind, it's actually the exact opposite. I loved Megamind as a character, I thought the supporting cast was incredibly strong as well, but they aren't really hitting comedy beats we haven't seen before and not really doing enough new to get us to really chuckle at the rest.

The Ugly: Perhaps it's the fact I didn't really get to see Megamind until recently, as in a week or so ago, but I was overall pleasantly surprised. The film came out in 2010, a pretty strong year for animated films overall and it just got lost in the shuffle it seems. But even though it wasn't as great as others of that year and isn't without some pretty big flaws, it's also incredibly entertaining and fun and, to be honest, I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Melancholia

Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide into the Earth.

The Good: Melancholia is a frustrating film, but at the same time it's a rather brilliant one. Evoking emotion and mood better than director Lars von Trier has ever done in the past, it's hard not to be captivated by its sincerity and imagery. It's a cynical film, though not without a few bits of underplayed humor in its first half, it's also a personal one for von Trier as well, as it explores to plotlines of heavy magnitude: severe depression and the end of the world. Yes...this is one of "those" movies.

But "those" movies conjure up a sense of personal exploration, not merely by the filmmaker in this case but of the audience. "Those" films are rather unhinged and willing to go a route to not conform to your typical notions of what a film can do or what a film is supposed to be. Similarly, I think back to Terrence Malik's Tree of Life which also came out this year and how similar Melancholia is in form yet astoundingly different it is in principle. Melancholia traces its characters through the inevitable end of existence as we know it. The coming of destruction, though, isn't a relevant point until the final act. Up until then, we're seeing the human problems with the onslaught of Melancholia (the planet) as background noise.

Throughout, we are carried by a brilliant performance by Kirsten Dunst in a daring performance that words simply couldn't do justice in describing. It's depression in purest form with her, and with her you absolutely believe it. Her actions, her personality, her sadness and the aura of calmness in the face of destruction (a theme von Trier was going for and she hit on perfectly) are incredibly candid and believable in her character. You forget it's an actress at times and simply let her performance wash over you to the point where you think it's an actual person we're observing, and the end of the world we're witnessing.

The Bad: Melancholia is a film that is about the end of the world, but it's unfortunate you don't care much  about a single character we're shown. Well, perhaps except for John Hurt's character, he's about the only one I can say feels like an actual person. Almost everyone is a miserable, dysfunctional, shrill, annoying or just flat-out cold individual that you will certainly have no emotional connection to any of them, making their inevitable demise more a "let's get on with it" rather than "maybe there's still hope."

This goes for Dunst's character as well. While her performance is astounding, her character's misery, I would have to assume, causes everyone else to be equally miserable and pessimistic around her.
However, it's not just about the end of the world. It's also a serious look into the elements of depression. While I might tout its candor in this regard, due to the fact that there's little good in any of the people here, you have nothing to compare it to. There is no baseline of the human condition: everyone is just miserable in some form, especially Justine (Dunst) making the entire experience miserable. While it might explain Justine's actions, it doesn't anyone else's. So if it's purpose was to have that depression and misery transcend the screen and inject itself into an audience, it most certainly succeeded...and knowing Lars von Trier that was the entire point to begin with.

Just know that there's little joy here making this a film for a select crowd, and even then they may or may not enjoy much of it. It wants to show the deepest and most depressing elements of humanity, from a bridal shower with a bride who doesn't care to a controlling sister, apathetic mother, naive and always on-edge husband and absent betrothed. Everyone either says nothing or speak in emphatic whispers, often with obligatory exposition that looks to back-up their rather one-dimensional troupes rather than showcase any meaning into their character or interactions. Thankfully, Dunst's performance is hypnotic and will keep you glued and the second half of the film comes on incredibly strong to pull us through it all.

The Ugly: I'm unsure of why the film insists on the overuse of Wagner music, but it becomes tired after the sixth time you hear it...and laughable by the seventh and eighth.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Memento

Memento chronicles two separate stories of Leonard, an ex-insurance investigator who can no longer build new memories, as he attempts to find the murderer of his wife, which is the last thing he remembers. One story line movies forward in time while the other tells the story backwards revealing more each time.

The Good: I’ve always been much the proponent of originality. I feel that attempting to go that extra mile and set your film/game/song/book apart from the rest is creativity at its finest. It shows desire, passion and effort rather than shelling out the same tired thing again. Even if it doesn’t always work, that extra effort is always noted by me.

A man finding his wife’s killer is nothing new. Even a man with short-term amnesia trying to find his wife’s killer is dipping into a shallow well. But a man with amnesia trying to find his wife’s killer and the entire film told in a backwards format where the end is the beginning...well now, it makes you wonder why you haven’t seen that before. Memento is one of those films that you always remember when you first saw it. It’s the movie that you didn’t realize was missing from your life until you actually see it. It’s daring, takes risks as Nolan does in all his films, and never loses the “tumbling forward” ideology that the director has staked his claim in . In other words, it always moves forward and never turns boring. Everything feels purposeful and important and glues your eyes to every shot and has your ears hanging on to every word. The visuals are striking, often intimate, and Guy Pearce arguably gives his greatest performance in a filmography full of them. You admire his goals but pity his perceptions – a unique blend for a character, certainly and only a strong actor like Pearce could ever pull it off with such grace.

The Bad: Like most of Nolan’s films, his approach has you glued and in awe and because it always moves forward it ends up having you never question anything that happens and overlook the flaws. This is most notable in his Batman films, but that’s how he always works, really. He sucks you in and leaves you at the end. Only in hindsight do you really start to pick things apart.

Well, while that might be true for a good portion of Nolan’s work, The Prestige, The Dark Knight most notably, it’s less so here (or any of his earlier films, actually). The degree of absurdness or plot holes varies in his films, but you rarely notice them because he’s so enticing in every facet and practical and poignant when need be. Many reviewers actually hold its structure against it, one going so far (and I quote) to say “it's told backwards because telling it forwards would tip us off much sooner that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.”

Well, to that I say: no shit...that’s why it’s told backwards. What, did you think that it was told backwards by accident? The entire film is built around it....but you have a point on the sense part.

The Ugly: Like a lot of twist-based movies, especially in the false-protagonist kind, Memento isn’t a film you can really go back to time and time again and enjoy. It really hinges on its reveals, and once it’s done with those, seeing it a second time simply can’t have the same effect.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The Men Who Stare at Goats

A reporter, trying to lose himself in the romance of war after his marriage fails, gets more than he bargains for when he meets a special forces agent who reveals the existence of a secret, psychic military unit whose goal is to end war as we know it. The founder of the unit has gone missing and the trail leads to another psychic soldier who has distorted the mission to serve his own ends.

The Good: Terrific acting and wonderful characters take a haphazard story and turns it into something original, funny and entertaining. The idea is there, an odd concept of "jedi warriors" (unintentionally made funny by McGregor's presence, which is distracting at the same time) and these characters will endear you (or have you loathing them) as people you can care about and hope the best comes from their stories and hardships. This bit of history is untold, and some say completely made up, but it's interesting and many will be happy to go down the road with these companions to figure it all out.

The Bad: The story is all over the place, but more disappointingly is the tone itself. There are times when it wants to be funny and witty, perhaps in terms of a Coen brothers comedy (this material would have been ripe for them) and there are other times when it's trying to hard to be darkly humorous that you don't know if it's satire or sincere. Individual scenes can be incredibly funny, and individual scenes can be incredibly dramatic, but neither one gels together into a whole. As a result, it's a film that says a lot yet has absolutely nothing to say. There's no voice here other than the one where you ask yourself if you liked it or not as you leave the theater.

The Ugly: Mustaches...don't trust mustaches.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Messenger

Co-written by Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon, THE MESSENGER is a powerful and tender story about a returned war hero making his first steps toward a normal life.

The Good: Thankfully, The Messenger is not a political film. To take sides on the issue of war and morality would demean the entire purpose of the story which is about people, plain and simple. IT deals with agony of loss and tragedy that, eventually, ever person will have to undergo in some form. It can be callous, then again so can death itself, and the various reactions of the numerous people of the film towards it runs the gamut. Some feel sick, cry out in pain, others turn on their empty gazes and shock. There's no right or wrong way to react, just as the film shows there's no right and wrong to war itself. Foster and Harrelson are remarkable, Harrelson showing his dramatic scope with a difficult role and Foster rising the ranks of his generation as one of its premiere actors to keep an eye on. The directing is commendable here, taking a docu-style approach and allowing for long takes to get everything honest and straight. It doesn't shy away from the heartbreak, nor should it as that would be demeaning.

The Bad: There's no definite story to The Messenger. It's simply a slice of life, this time showing a man's job and the difficulties with it, and maybe even a tad dash of a redemption theme scattered in. I think a typical A to B to C, three act plot progression would have been a disservice to the film's subject matter. If there were a fault, it's that despite the various monologues and conversations, it's really hard to get to know Foster and Harrelson's characters that well or try to understand them.

The Ugly: The Ugly? The fact that this is a mere glimpse into something that probably happens hundreds of times a day. "The messengers" are often just small portions of other war movies, now that camera is shifted to the other side, and even this small bit probably doesn't put the whole thing into perspective. I can't imagine a person's job having to go door to door and tell people their loved one is dead.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Metropolis

In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city's mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.

The Good: To this day, Metropolis is one of the most visually beautiful films you’ll ever see. It’s influence is still felt in terms of its depiction of the future, here seen more industrial and, what we might call today, as steam-punk. The artistic majesty here is working overtime and the atmosphere offers something that few films even touch. It’s ethereal, like a depiction of heaven if heaven was built by Hector Guimard.

Metropolis is often credited as the first, great science fiction film. There were smaller films before it (Melies most notably), though they only touched upon the ideas (and in some cases were just adaptations, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Frankenstein). Not only do I agree with it as the first great one, I still think it set the standard by what every other science fiction film could and couldn’t do. I find it odd that many consider Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey as “the film that legitimized science fiction” when Metropolis did it (and did it better) forty years prior. It shows the depth and thought-provoking nature that great science fiction can achieve. It’s visualizations of life, the visual and narrative allegories and metaphors abound, it’s utter directness to say “this is science fiction” is to be applauded. Why it’s not put on the mantle as the grandfather and true icon of science fiction and fantasy is beyond me.

I like to think back to this era and maybe what the great Fritz Lang was thinking when he thought of this film (alongside his then wife, Thea von Harbou). Nothing like this was attempted, save for paintings here and there. But a full-on visualization of a future world moving, breathing with flying machines, towering steeples, superhighways and rails and robots moving around? Metropolis is one of the greatest films that is so bold, daring and audacious that its ripples are felt in every piece of science fiction sense both artistically and in thematic relevance.

The Ugly: As is the case with a lot of Silent Film era movies, there is a lot of footage that is simply missing from the movie. Luckier than most, seeing as how 75% of movies from the silent era are complete lost now. Though in 2008 a new print was found in the archives of a museum in Buenos Aires. Even then, though, there’s still quite a lot missing from the original 153 minute feature. A new DVD is going to be released at the end of 2010. Guess what, though? It doesn’t matter...

Final Rating:
5 out of 5


Midnight in Paris

A romantic comedy about a family traveling to the French capital for business. The party includes a young engaged couple forced to confront the illusion that a life different from their own is better. 

The Good: It occurred to me that I have yet to review a Woody Allen film on this site. Seeing as one of my favorite movies is Manhattan and The Front and Annie Hall is a seminal classic, it's pretty inexcusable now that I think about it. At the same time I'm a bit happy about it because Midnight in Paris is a great way to start it off: it's his biggest success in years, it's critically acclaimed alongside it (as most of his films are) and it's still unlike a lot of what he's dabbled into. Allen tends to avoid the fantasy and the surreal in exchange for candidness and dialogue. He'll dip in and out, such as pulling Marshall McLuhan from a line to spout the legendary line "I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work."

I suppose what Allen's films have always had, though, is that dose of self-awareness. In terms of Midnight in Paris, it's Allen's mind spilled on celluloid. You know he's fantasized the elements that happen in the film: time traveling back to eras of the past to talk with writers, musicians, artists and poets. You know that Owen Wilson is Woody Allen. You know Allen's view on "a better place and time" is exactly as Wilson discovers: everybody thinks it and you're not special for thinking it...you just have to deal the cards given to you in the here and now.

Midnight in Paris is a romantic film (romantic in many ways and on many levels) and it does so in this breezy, unassuming lightness that knows exactly what it is, but it's an exploration of things people love and like and of of life itself in this wish-fulfillment kind of way. Finding that "soul mate" is one, or those flings, or those that inspire and eras we relish in. Midnight in Paris is less a story and more a love letter to dreams, fantasy and the elements that make us as people. Not to mention our desire to find those that might share in our dreams. Incredibly well acted, especially by Wilson who is spouting Allen dialogue like it's second-nature, and sharply directed, Midnight and Paris is a brisk hour and a half of pure and fun entertainment with just enough depth and character to not become a cliche of itself.

The Bad: It's hard to tell what is and is not a passion project for Allen. This film is most certainly him and telling us a lot about him on a personal level, but it's not saying much at the same time. His films can win a great deal, but then lose something along the way. Rachel McAdams' character (and her family) seem ludicrously out of place it makes you wonder why Wilson's Gil would have ever been with her and them in the first place. They seem to discard him, and he seems to write them off without ever standing up for himself. When heads clash, there's no resolution or, I should say, no satisfactory or believable one to this arc. It's an integral part to the story and to Gil's character but it seems tacked on, almost as though the film would have been better without having to have that plotline in the first place.
In fact, it really didn't need it. Inez and her family feel out of place already and you realize they are merely there as a "reference" to what Gil is, not characters or a story themselves.

The Ugly: The actors chosen to play these historical figured would make damn good actors for biopics of those historical figures. Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali? I'd take it. Maybe Allen found a springboard for a dozen other movies in this very one.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Miller's Crossing

Tom Reagan is the laconic anti-hero of this amoral tale which is also, paradoxically, a look at morals within the criminal underworld of the 1930s. Two rival gangs vie for control of a city where the police are pawns, and the periodic busts of illicit drinking establishments are no more than a way for one gang to get back at the other. Black humor and shocking violence compete for screen time as we question whether or not Tom, right-hand man of the Irish mob leader, really has a heart.

The Good: A straight, although twisty at times, gangster movie that has the stylish nature of a Scorsese film with the subtle plot sensibilities of The Godfather. Miller’s Crossing has only gotten better with age and is one of those films that seems to get better the more times you watch it (I similar feat to the Coen’s Fargo and Big Lebowski films). While Gabriel Byrne probably gives the performance of his career here, it’s really the darkly sardonic John Turturro that steals the show. This is more than just good and bad people doing right and wrong things. It shows that nothing is as easy as you think, and sometimes taking the “moral high road” only results in more problems down the road. Oh, and the music. Oh the music. One of the greatest film scores to never really be acclaimed. It is as utterly simple and beautiful as the film itself as it comes to a crescendo with the final shot and last dip of Byrne’s fedora. I don’t make note of a film’s score very often, but the compositions and its use here is mesmerizing.

The Bad: It’s sometimes hard to tell if Miller’s Crossing is a realistic depiction of the time, or merely an homage to it. There are moments, many in fact, where it shifts from a stylish realism to what best can be described as a parody. This is especially notable in dialogue quips and banter where the classic 1930s Cagney-like delivery sticks out for the sole reason that nobody else is in the scene is really speaking in such a way. I can’t say for certain it’s intentional or not, but either way it draws attention to itself and that can be detrimental to the entire sense of losing yourself fin the movies, especially when so much of the film is so incredibly well-crafted and controlled in a straight manner.

The Ugly: Due to its unique and purposeful approach to classic gangster movies (and a resulting imbalance that I noted) it is a movie that can really turn people off who aren’t quite used to that style.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


A Million Ways to Die in the West

As a cowardly farmer begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town, he must put his new-found courage to the test when her husband, a notorious gun-slinger, announces his arrival.

The Good: A Million Ways to Die in the West is not a good movie. Wow, helluva way to start a review, huh? Well, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s not without some enjoyable things to it, or that it doesn’t have some funny moments, but it never really wrangles and hogties it into a package. That being said, it manages to have some clever moments, be well shot and, certainly, have some solid performances from its cast even if the humor their putting out never quite finds a humorous bullet for its punchline gun.

What A Million Ways does have, though, are bits. Funny bits. Consistent? No. But some manage to hit their marks, notably from Neil Patrick Harris who often seems like the one person having a larger-than-life good time.

The Bad: Somewhere, there was a really good movie here. There’s hints of it throughout: funny bits, recurring gags and silly townsfolk doing silly townsfolk things. The romantic angle is well developed and the actors are all fine. But the thing is, it never quite comes together to give us a fully-formed comedy. In other words, there’s a lot of things that happen, but not a lot of it is really funny.

“Funny” is subjective, of course, which makes comedies one of the harder genres to review. “Funny” is personal. “Funny” is dependent on the one viewer watching it. It’s not like a drama that will have that emotional uptown or interesting story, or the ticking-clock of a suspenseful moment, but it’s simply what makes us laugh. I can’t say I laughed a lot in A Million Ways to Die in the West. I can say that it had potential and things that seemed like they would evolve into comedy, but most of it just fell flat.

The script seems to want to do a lot - a jack of many trades yet a master of none. The romance through line helps keep it a bit focused, but it jumps from plot to plot, characters arrive and disappear and reappear again, comedy styles seem to shift and tone is all over the map. At nearly two hours long, A Million Ways to Die in the West starts to turn into an endurance test both for us and for its own conceit. It doesn’t sustain itself. In fact, it barely has something worthwhile to sustain in the first place.

The Ugly: Two hours long? Why?

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Millions

The UK is about to switch its currency from Pounds to Euros, giving a gang a chance to rob the poorly-secured train loaded with money on its way to incineration. But, during the robbery, one of the big bags falls literally from the sky on Damian's playhouse, a 7-year old given to talking to saints. The boy then starts seeing what the world and the people around him are made of. Ethics, being human and the soul all come to the forefront in this film.

The Good: Millions is not a film about kids that found a bag of money. It might appear that way, but it's not. Millions is about the goodness of people, and how goodness can stem from finding such money, not be swayed by greed because of it.  Damien is our savior, as the parallels of his visions of Saints and his good deeds towards others represents. Millions could have just been another "kid gets rich" movie, and there are a ton of those, but it eschews this entire concept and, instead, is much wittier, poetic, intelligent and polished than anything that Hollywood might dish out. It's not trying to be a comedy on top of that, which is interesting, but is far more a drama. This is as much a "family" movie as Stand By Me is, and both have about the same amount of heart and thoughtfulness put in to them.

The Bad: There is certainly an uneven tone to Millions. It's an adult movie masked by child actors, so don't let the youthful nature of the characters confuse you.  It wants to be a film for families, but I don't see  a lot of children finding nearly as much enjoyment in it as adults despite its attempts to usher in imagination and childhood antics. The broad appeal is not there, but adults can find satisfaction in its portrayal of a child's fantasy than the children ever would because it doesn't set out to insult its agegroup but at the same time probably gives its agegroup too much credit in their ability to understand what's happening. It's a jumpy film, especially when we're diving into a child's dreams and not quite knowing what is real and what isn't, and the child character far more appealing to adults than someone his own age (which he's meant to be).

That taken out of the equation, though, because it's more the marketers that tried to claim it a family film than it probably was the filmmakers themselves, it's largely overly sappy and can, at times, try too hard to touch on some emotion. Then it will turn whimsical at the drop of a hat then surprisingly dark at the next hat that's dropped. It's tone is all over the place and inconsistent, though that never overshadows its overall message, it can cause a deal of confusion in what it is we're supposed to be feeling or understanding at any given moment (or any given hat-drop).One minute you love Damien, the next minute you can't and end up shaking your head. Much of the uneven nature of the film stems from him. Though you applaud his overall presence and purpose, you'll roll your eyes at his blatant stupidity if not ignorance at times. How can a child that is so smart do such dumb things?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Minority Report

Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Minority Report is about a cop in the future working in a division of the police department that arrests killers before they commit the crimes courtesy of some future viewing technology. John Anderton has the tables turned on him when he is accused of a future crime and must find out what brought it about and stop it before it can happen

The Good: As one of the most visually creative and unique films in Spielberg’s lineup (envisioning anything in the future is often hit or miss) Minority Report takes us to a believable reality that isn’t so far advanced we can’t come to appreciate it. It’s the future, but not dystopian which most of the better futuristic vision (Blade Runner, Children of Men) often get applauded for. I like to call it an “optimistic, futuristic film-noir.” It’s a future that feels like it could actually exist. It’s seamless. We know most of what we’re seeing was computer generated, but it blend well with the reality around it, even if its dirty and grimy. It’s a thought-provoking film that doesn’t forget that it’s also there to entertain you. It’s about a puzzle to be solved and the chase, the whole film seemingly a rush of energy, as we follow Anderton (Tom Cruise in one of his better performances) as he tries to clear his name; a name that he has yet to taint, but it’s predicted that he will, it’s this ambiguity and question that gets the audience to think and debate amongst themselves. From a purely entertainment standpoint, it’s one of Spielberg’s best…but it’s also one of his more intelligent films as well.

The Bad: This movie is so close to seeing itself all the way through. It brings up issues of rights, morality, justice even fate. Should it be that it not set out to answer all of them? Minority Report does and, I think, some of the mystique is lost as a result. Some things don’t need to be perfectly explained. It answers are moral questions for us, without diving as deep as it seems to indicate it wants to, and as a result it all ends up rather neatly if not shallowly. It’s in the last portion of the film that we start to notice problems, before that it’s nearly flawless. The ending feels like an epilogue, and the fact the film was already nearly 3 hours it makes it even more so. The pace halts, the chase is over and the mystery is solved. It just needs to be shown and end with a high note as though it's a requirement rather than a natural piece of the story.

The Ugly: The fact that Agatha is strangely sexy is an odd decision. She's angelically attractive, always in white and surrounded by light You're not supposed to be attracted to her, though, and I find myself confused as result...or are you? Hmmmm...

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Misery

Best-selling novelist Paul Sheldon is on his way home from his Colorado hideaway after completing his latest book, when he crashes his car in a freak blizzard. Paul is critically injured, but is rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes, Paul's "number one fan", who takes Paul back to her remote house in the mountains (without bothering to tell anybody). Unfortunately for Paul, Annie is also a headcase. When she discovers that Paul has killed off the heroine in her favorite novels, her reaction leaves Paul shattered (literally)...

The Good: "My god, I love you" says the lovely, down to earth and hospitable woman with a sledgehammer. When people discuss great villains, for some reason Annie Wilkes from Misery rarely gets a mention. Maybe it's the subtlety of her and her gradual, growing madness combined with brief explosions of anger and violence that is the cause. She's not overly theatrical, save for those brief moments, and is not one that commands attention like a Hannibal Lecter or a Darth Vader. Annie appears like a regular woman, complacent, smiling and kind. She literally is the female version of Norman Bates without the mother issues, but her demeanor is every bit like his in many respects and, like Norman, there's probably a good chance that she has no idea that what she is doing is wrong. She's probably never even done it before until, by chance (supposedly), she finds her favorite writer in her home, immobile, and she begins "caring" for him. In a movie like this, a majority taking place in a small home in the country, you must have performances that carry it. Well, considering this is arguably James Caan's and Cathy Bates' best performances, there's no problem there. Caan balances his anxiety and helplessness incredibly well with his desire to escape and Bates...well she won the Best Actress Oscar  and the Golden Globe so what more do I need to say on her? Rob Reiner's directing must be applauded as well. His fantastic use of camera and space has us moving in and out of Annie's home and we can truly feel the sense of claustrophobia and cabin fever that begins to invade Paul's life that you can cut the tension with a knife (before and after Annie's "cure" to keep him from walking).

The Bad: The ending is surprisingly flat and uninspired, especially considering the tautness of the rest of the film. It tries to run through scenes, showing Annie's world falling apart and her barely able to hold on, but in the end it just ends bluntly and then tries to tack on an unnecessary epilogue for one last cheap thrill (not the scene where he sees Annie, but the cheesy "I'm your biggest fan" line). Perhaps that's the issue of Annie not being in the same category of other villains - the overall film ends up not grabbing you despite the brutality at times. It's well made but lacks something other than Annie to truly define it, and thus Annie becomes lost in the minutia of it all.

The Ugly: Head plus typewriter = ouch.

Final Rating:
4 out of 5


Mission Impossible

Ethan Hunt is a secret agent framed for the deaths of his espionage team. Fleeing from government assassins, breaking into the CIA's most impenetrable vault, clinging to the roof of a speeding bullet train, Hunt races like a burning fuse to stay one step ahead of his pursuers . . . and draw one step closer to discovering the shocking truth.

The Good: Though it sometimes tries hard to be a little too smart and outdo itself, Mission Impossible is a lot of fun. There are flashes of brilliant filmmaking throughout the piece, with solid writing on occasion, mainly with some well-done characters and pushing of pace, perfect casting and direction that really knows how to handle its subject matter.

As is the case with many of de Palma’s movies, the camerawork and scene framing is spectacular. The man just knows how to shoot actors, utilize space and, as shown here, really notch up the tension and action at just the right moments; and tension is really what Mission Impossible is all about. Mission Impossible sets up its structure perfectly, hitting the right moments when it needs to. It's strength is its sense of timing, though. It constructs scenes with skill, ranging from tense and nail-biting sequences to a lovely cornucopia of extravagant action set pieces and stunts. It hits these marks seemingly effortlessly and though we might lose track of the plot, the characters and set up helps drive it home.

The Bad: Unfortunately, Mission Impossible tends to wallow in a desire to be mediocre. When it hits the big points, it hits it well. Outside of that, it seems the film seems intent on making its premise as convoluted as possible. What’s odd is that it’s both convoluted, yet ultimately shallow at the same time. That’s one of the worst combinations you can have for a film: spending so much time with twists, turns and explaining things yet most if it is paper-thin and add little to the plot.

While I’m a noted “journey over destination” guy, Mission Impossible ultimate end is something you’ll have figured out in a matter of minutes and only about thirty minutes in. After that, it seems to just go through the motions of getting there. Some are spectacular, though... And a few iconic in pop culture history.

The Ugly: I sometimes wonder if the first is so well thought of, not because it’s a particularly great film, but good only be comparison to the other two, one of which was sadly mediocre and the other unwatchable (unless you’re in a guilty pleasure mood...though it sometimes doesn’t even achieve that). As a standalone, I still feel it’s a really solid action/spy/thriller movie through and through.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Mission Impossible II

A secret agent is sent to Sydney, to find and destroy a genetically modified disease called "Chimera"

The Good: Action. Explosions. Slow motion. Awesome hair. If you want to see the style of the movie be the substance of it, then Mission Impossible II is right up your alley. Woo knows how to make a fun action scene, he’s shown that throughout his career, but it’s unfortunate it’s absolutely wasted on such a bad film and his style overzealous at every turn.

The Bad: As great as it is to love and admire John Woo, you would be right in doing so and there are some great individual scenes going on with Mission Impossible 2 from an action standpoint, the weak characterization, nonsensical plot and utterly ridiculous nature of it all (and taking itself far too seriously while doing it) makes for one of Woo’s worst films by a mile. What really amazes me is how bad the plot and action set pieces are written the way they are. It’s all just so self-gratifying that, when combined with Woo’s approach to them, makes for an utterly pretentious Tom Cruise vehicle, not a Mission Impossible movie.
Mission Impossible II is an incredibly shallow action movie but makes itself worse by thinking it's this great piece of cinema. It exudes this from beginning to end in a "hey, look at how cool I am" way that brings out the worst of the film rather than conceal it. The characters suffer the most here, with many utterly forgettable and the rest utterly useless. As much as I'd like to be forgiving to Woo, the film demands loathing on nearly every facet. Even the man's action moments become a series of yawn-inducing, derivative bores that tunes you out after three minutes of it. It's no wonder this film more or less killed the franchise for quite a long time.

The Ugly:
One thing Mission Impossible should never be is utterly Impossible when it comes to basic logical physics and believability. It pushes the boundaries, but never turns absurd in the process. This one, though, relishes in the absurdity to the point where it might as well have been a cartoon.

Final Rating: 1.5 out of 5


Mission Impossible III

Ethan Hunt comes face to face with a dangerous and sadistic arms dealer while trying to keep his identity secret in order to protect his girlfriend.

The Good: Mission Impossible 3 is all about balance. While it doesn’t necessarily excel in any one particular area, it doesn’t outright fail in them either. The espionage thrills, the action set pieces, the character and drama are all given enough time and development to make for a pretty solid film. The action sequences are lavish, though a bit messy at times, and many moments give great thrills. It’s some enjoyable escapism, although it’s far from the top of the heap of first choices.

The villain in Mission Impossible 3 is strong. Very strong, actually – at least from a purely personality standpoint. Philip Seymour Hoffman is menacing in every sense of the word, but not in a theatrical or over the top way. He exudes that “I can kill you whenever I want” type of persona, cool and calm and never raising his voice.

The Bad: As I mentioned, Mission Impossible 3 doesn’t necessarily excel in any of its areas. As a result, while you have something solid, you don’t have something that’s very memorable or will go down as a film you can come back to for repeated viewing. It’s just so...average. Of course, it’s that “good” average, not average as an overall film, but it could have been a great action movie if it attempted to take a few more risks or find something to really distinguish itself. It’s entertaining, but ends up a middle-of-the-road action flick. It’s lavish and fun at times, but doesn’t quite have the refinement and the eventual satisfactory climax you might expect.

The Ugly: Like the two films before it. There might be a good director in the chair, there might be some great sequences and moments shot. But how is it, now three films in, there can’t be one really great script? Mission Impossible III is probably the tightest of all three, but it’s still mediocre, and the first the best paced but, still, it’s overwritten as it tries to constantly explain its plot. I think all three films try to be a little too smart and a little too cute for their own good.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

The IMF is shut down when it's implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin, causing Ethan Hunt and his new team to go rogue to clear their organization's name.

The Good: Blink and you might miss something, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol moves at break-neck speeds with every type of action scenario you can think of...and it's all done incredibly well. Stunts, explosions, special effects and gunplay are all top notch here with just enough espionage suspense to drive the plot. As for keeping things grounded? Forget about it. Gadgets are the biggest they've ever been and don't expect them to be explained, they, like the movie itself, are just a lot of simple fun.

Fun is about all you can ask from this series at this point. They had the moments of sharp suspense, then over the top action, then a little more grounded and back to the roots, now it's a comedic fun action extravaganza. It does exactly what it's intended to do and that's entertain the hell out of you for two hours and probably have you forget all about it by the next day. Though the characters are one-dimensional and plot all over the map, it does it with a bit of childlike glee. Maybe that's what this series needs at this point.

The Bad: Subtlety is nonexistent in this fourth romp through the Tom Cruise action universe. Despite the grandeur of it all, it's also incredibly ridiculous on more than one occasion. Any notion of Mission Impossible being a "thriller" is completely on the out now in lieu of massive set-piece action movie scenes, no character development whatsoever and a script that seems intent on one-upping itself every ten minutes like a kindergarten class showing off its new toys at show and tell. It feels far-too purposeful in that approach. Why have a simple chase scene when you can have a simple chase scene...but in a sandstorm?

It's fun, sure, but doesn't carry a lot of weight with it. There's no serious threat happening when everything plays out like a cartoon and you know your main character isn't in any real danger. A lot of the script still goes through your action movie cliches and predictability, shallow character and uninspired "serious" moments that make the big set-pieces all that more spectacular by comparison. Perhaps that was by design as well. But again, it feels all too intentional and despite the entertainment value, you know nothing bad is going to really happen and even if it did, it's all done with too much levity to make you really care.

The Ugly: All that is compounded by the fact the film, unlike the previous three movies, really took a liking to comedy. The movie is more funny than anything, and I honestly don't know if that is good or bad. Simon Pegg is fantastic and there's great scenes with the characters getting in some hairy situations, but it's all played off like Wile E Coyote chasing after the Road Runner. While it's good, it's far from what I think Mission Impossible is known for. Perhaps if you take yourself out of that thought process you'll have a great time. It took some effort, but I know I did. But the thing is...it shouldn't take that effort.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Ethan and team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate - an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.

The Good: There comes a point where you have to start having a serious discussion about the Mission Impossible being one of the best film and television franchises of all time. The consistency of the movies from installment to installment has being astounding - the only way you can walk about them is by relativity to other Mission Impossible films, like the James Bond franchise which Mission Impossible has been veering further and further towards the past three movies.

That’s a great thing. At its heart, it’s action and a spy thriller so putting it up against a James Bond installment as a comparison is kind of fair. Big set pieces, usually an elaborate (and in this case show-stealing) pre-credit opening into some plot and a dash of comedy. Actually, more comedy probably because since Mission Impossible III, the franchise has become more comfortable and aware of what it is meant to be: fun. Not “dumb,” but entertaining through and through. Mission Impossible III hit the highs of drama, Ghost Protocol hit the highs of balanced comedy, and this one, Rogue Nation, is pretty much being comedic and kind of ridiculous - but clever and smart all the same.

It’s probably the most entertaining action movie you’ll see in 2015 not because it just gets action right, but because it gets characters right - something other blockbusters this year seem to overlook. You care about what happens to them, you get their personalities and you understand their goals. It’s kind of simple once you say (or type) it outloud, isn’t it? It makes you wonder why some films find that hard to grasp, but here we are with great characters and big action and it works. It’s entertaining and enjoyable and this installment has one of the best sequences in the franchise (and it’s not even an action-heavy sequence, it’s just a classic spy-thriller set piece at an opera, perfectly paced with fantastic turns and twists). They’re already in talks for the sixth, one, I say bring it on because, while I didn’t enjoy this personally as much as Ghost Protocol, it’s still a well done big action movie that knows its genre and doesn’t insult its audience. The more we can get of that, the better. Even if the suspension of disbelief is treading thin ice at this point.

The Bad: Pacing hinders much of the enjoyment of Rogue Nation. Wait. That’s not right. It’s still highly enjoyable and entertaining, but it also doesn’t feel as together or structurally sound as it wants to be. The plot doesn’t always mesh with the action, something Ghost Protocol did incredibly well, and is often used as an excuse rather than as a development to get to the next sequence. Action scenes you end up looking forward to, because they’re all well done, any point of drama, character and, most of all, exposition is perfunctory at best, hand-wavy so we don’t notice its flaws at worse.

Case point: Jeremy Renner’s entire purpose to the movie. He’s there to talk and explain plot, but it all comes across as a dullard just breaking away from the fun and enjoyment. Another is any moment with Alec Baldwin, who is never quite a threat because, like Renner, any sense of plot or drama is far removed from the rest of the action material. So what ends up happening is we don’t get that organic emotion beat that the film is really trying to strive for because the distance between us caring about what happens and why versus HOW it’s happening is a massive chasm by the time we get to the talky-explanation pin-in-it moment towards the end. It’s just not there and when reveals take place or when a literal ticking bomb is counting down, the urgency and importance never lands correctly because it’s just the B portion or the rest of the A portion - two separate movies mushed together that just doesn’t gel.

Rogue Nation isn’t a “dumb” movie. It’s a clever one with solid action that feels like it was tackled from two different ends when it comes to its progression and storytelling - like a railroad being built and hoping to meet in the middle…but someone screwed up the map and one missed the meeting point by a mile or three.

The Ugly: At least Simon Pegg is in this a ton. He’s brought a massive amount of freshness to a series that’s becoming more and more self-aware, but it hopefully won’t cross that threshold of too self-aware because then it just gets silly. That might work for the Fast and Furious franchise, that won’t work for Mission Impossible.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Mississippi Burning

Two FBI agents investigating the murder of civil rights workers during the 60s seek to breach the conspiracy of silence in a small Southern town where segregation divides black and white. The younger agent trained in FBI school runs up against the small town ways of his former Sheriff partner.

The Good: A classic film by all accounts, Mississippi Burning succeeds in taking a touchy subject and really streamlining it for an audience. The storytelling principles are simple: one side is the racists, the other side the more liberal "normal" people and in the middle you have your liaison: Gene Hackman. Hackman isn't the "star" of the film, it's co-shared with Willem Dafoe, but his character is easily the most important. He is on the side of Dafoe but helps bring explanation and insight to the side of ignorance and racism. Simply put: this film would not have worked without Gene Hackman's fantastic performance. He is utterly in the role, the stories he tells of his past for his character are utterly convincing and often sincere to help bring light and relevance to the situations they find themselves in. He's the realist, and if Hackman wasn't cast it would have come across as merely a storytelling device rather than a sincere character because the other two sides are the extremes.

Of course you need a script at the root of all this, and Mississippi Burning is a story we've seen many, many times before and since, but not quite done as well. The strong focus on character, the smart use of the character of Agent Anderson (Hackman) and the beats and pace all play out smoothly. The unique approach with a quasi-documentary feel at times and smart scene set up in how rural 1960s Mississippi is shot by director Alan Parker and DP Peter Biziou (nominated for won an Oscar respectively for the film) transports us and drops us convincingly into the era. Mississippi Burning is a well-crafted thriller with an insight into civil rights and an era and place many can't imagine with fantastic character actors in supporting roles and strong leads.

The Bad: Ah, but what is Mississippi Burning about? It's about whites racist against blacks. Yet there isn't one black character and those that are there are used to help investigate the situation rather than actually feel involved and legitimate people afflicted by racist bigots and stuck in a place they can't escape. They are props and nothing more. Considering this is all based on a true story, I think humanizing the people that are hurt by it would have added a stronger element of the human condition, at least stronger than it already is because the film does show their struggle well and realistically. It just would have been nice to know a few of them.

The Ugly: Evil is a hard thing to paint, and Mississippi Burning does a great job painting it in a complex way but in a streamlined and understandable way. It's one of the strongest films of the 1980s, small budgeted and uniquely crafted. Goes to show that you can make fantastic films with minuscule financing if you just put the right cogs in place and have a determination to get it done.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Moneyball

The story of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players.

The Good: The Good: Moneyball is as much a non-baseball movie about baseball as you can imagine. The drama of the sport, something that most "sports movies" will focus on, isn't the centerpiece. There's a few scenes here and there for the happenings on the field as the Oakland A's do, in fact, make some sports history, but 90% of the story shows the elements behind the scenes of a major sports franchise: something we rarely see, at least to such an accurate depiction of it. IT's a lot of egos, a lot of backstabbing, a lot of "I'm right, you're wrong" on where a team should be heading. Most interestingly, though, is how "old" it all is. The men are old. The philosophies are old. The approach to the game is old. Billy Beane made it all new again, and that story of Beane and the elements that it took to "rethink" how lower-income sports teams like the A's can play with the big boys.

The wonder of Moneyball resides in its script. It takes a very complicated an idea and not only makes it digestible for non-sports fans and understand the mathematical equations of what Beane and his partner Peter Brand (played show-stealingly by Jonah Hill in a great blend of drama and comedy) but it relates it to the men on and off the field. It's a mindset they all have to agree to, some more willing than others, some difficult choices needing to be made by managers and their athletes. Hire this guy, he'll fit the equation. This other guy, though, you have to tell is knocked down to the minors and have to take a pay cut. Talk to this older player and tell him to be a leader and admit his best days are behind him, then tell this other player he's traded…he's not part of the equation.

It's interesting that on paper, Beane handles it rather coldly and directly. A great scene of him explaining that to Brand shows the left hand of the business side versus the right hand of the player/fan side of a sports team. It's callous, but it's also the best way. Emotions will rise and fall, you have to be the stone-face.

Beane is such a stone face, and Brand trying to his best to follow suit. He's a baseline, pardon the pun. So when he's looking to "shake things up" it turns everything on its head. Those old codgers aren't accepting, critics criticize on the radio, fans boo, players get frustrated. The idea of Moneyball might have ended up a confusing mess. The ins and outs of how it work, though, are simplified and the conversation never feels like exposition as the two discuss it and convey it to an audience that has no clue what they’re trying to do. Eventually, you get it and thanks to the ability of the story to punctuate the statistics game with the human factor of Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane and the humor factor of the in-over-his-head Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand, you have a damn dynamic story being told that goes well beyond just being a “baseball” movie.

The Bad: Two major points hinder Moneyball. One is Beane's family, which we never quite understand. It goes into his backstory more than it attempt to define his relationships with his ex wife and, especially, his daughter. The script seems in need of more time spent with her especially, considering there's a major reveal towards the end that she influences. IT feels awkward not only because of her absence through much of the story, perhaps far too in the background for her own good, but because it leads to the second reason: a far too-elongated final act.

There's a very distinct climax in the film and then an aftermath. Then it goes on. And on. And continues to go on but without really offering anything new to the story. It just extends itself to a degree of lulling you to sleep. It's not saying anything new, it's only delaying the inevitable and far too noticeable for me to simply say "it just drags near the end." It not only drags, it becomes a nuisance because it's so obvious. Even though it's pivotal, the point is made easily and doesn't need to be re-established again and again through padding in more scenes.

The Ugly: People need to start giving some props to Jonah Hill. The guy can really command a scene, even when thrust into one of an actor like Brad Pitt. The chemistry is palpable here, and much of it has to do with how Hill handles his character so incredibly well.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Monsters

Six years after Earth has suffered an alien invasion a cynical journalist agrees to escort a shaken American tourist through an infected zone in Mexico to the safety of the US border.

The Good: Monsters knows how to create an atmosphere. It does this convincingly by a) Being very nicely shot making even the slums of Mexico and shipwrecked boats appear gorgeous and b) smartly using believable and subtle effects to bring out everything from graffiti and warning signs in the background to a towering fence keeping our resident Mexican Monsters at bay. Well, the fact it’s a low-budget film probably has a lot to do with that. It's a very lean and simple approach, making its visual subtleties both effective and necessary. But a film that does not make. If you’re low budget and want to make such a film about monsters and with special effect but can't fully accomplish it, you have to rely on characters and smart writing.

Well....

The Bad: If you’re to have two unlikable protagonists, you’re going to have a bad film. Well, not “bad” as much as it is unappealing. On a technical level, Monsters may have it down, but on a character and story level, it’s an often painfully annoying and trite experience with two one-dimensional, uninteresting and outright annoying lead characters combined with a a series of ever-so convenient plot events that exude overly-melodramatic, pandering writing barely strung together by its loose concept. It can only end one way:  Ridiculous and heavy handed if not outright one-note (especially for the first fifty minutes that recycles the same “we gotta get out of here” and “what’s going on?” scenarios).

Monsters has a concept that needed to be downplayed seeing as how it’s a character-centered piece, not over-dramatized with characters we never get to know or route for much less like. In a sense, its writing needed to reflect its visual style yet after a while even its stylistic approach of choppy editing and montage sequences tends to wear thin. It may be guerrilla-style, but it sacrifices time that might have made likable characters we can route for for series of shots to show the over-zealous themes as it desperately attempts to be about something and have some sort of meaning. It never achieves that.

What’s odd is that when it’s not being melodramatic, it’s acting more like a tourist hike. Excess exposition explaining everything isn’t telling a story, it’s just explaining and reading lines and this is something it practices to a fault, and characters spending more time arguing and complaining doesn't make for appeal. There’s little to no sense of danger as well. So little is seen and even littler felt that the should-be intensity of their travel across the Infected Zone feels more like a ride at Universal Studios than people trapped and trying to get home. Perhaps the constant “We’re in a vehicle and there be monsters outside” scenes is what allows that sensation that nothing feels quite threatening as it probably should be.

The Ugly: The fault with Monsters simply boils down to it being a character piece but with bad characters. It can’t and doesn’t focus on the Monsters, so we’re just left with a journey across Infected, Monster-riddles Mexico with two people you kind of hope don’t make it.

Still, though. It’s only a debut feature made for $15,000. Oh, as a film it’s got a ton of issues, but as a first-time feature for a director, it’s a solid debut. Filmmaker Gareth Edwards has something fine to show people visually, but his writing isn’t quite up to the level of his directorial and photographic eye.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


Monsters Inc.

Monsters generate their city's power by scaring children, but they are terribly afraid themselves of being contaminated by children, so when one enters Monstropolis, top scarer Sulley finds his world disrupted.

The Good: The animation in Monsters Inc, and especially combined with its fantastic design, really brings everything to life I, what I would consider, Pixar’s first, major original (in look, not idea) film. Everything before was based on things we already are familiar with, bugs and toys. Here, it’s an entirely different world that plays off a combination of a satire meetings childhood nostalgia – and it all feels natural.  A monster walking down a street or at dinner feels natural and believable – the world (though a bit limited, we’ll touch on that in a minute) is one of Pixar’s most enjoyable ones they’ve created. The movie, it’s tone, music and art, just exudes “style.” That style is probably one of its most defining attributes, but at a certain point it starts to mold itself into something more well-rounded when it starts to find its heart. It goes from two misfits, for lack of a better word, to a seemingly updated take on classic comedic duos such as Laurel and Hardy, who’s “Their First Mistake” short seems a quasi-inspiration to this entire feature. It takes it in stride, expands on it, and we end up with this thing called “chemistry” once all the players are in motion. Sulley and Mike are fantastic characters, but made better with their relationship to each other. They aren’t your typical “outcasts” of the world, getting glares from the others around them. They’re very much a part of it until the plot shows up and they start trying to balance the two. This works wonderfully, but wouldn’t have worked at all without these two characters, the iconic voices of John Goodman and Billy Crystal, and the imaginative design of everything around them.

The Bad: An oddly paced film, for the most part, notably that it starts strong, then wanders a bit for a second act, then hits it home with a great final act (or, more specifically, final amazing chase sequence that really is one of Pixars best moments). During the middle portion, it all tends to fill more like filler than anything naturally flowing from scene to scene. It tries to force Sulley and Mike into individual scenes rather than try to get a sense of completion to everything going on – like an episode of Family Guy only with a lot more heart and intelligence to it. It introduces us well enough, then it feels as though they need something to do and hits a wall. They introduce “boo” to the story, but even she is used more as a Deus Ex Machina for Sulley and Mike and much of this world and these characters interest halts. We see flashes of the world and their lives outside the factory, but flashes don’t allow for a well-rounded experience even in a movie that is probably about 15 minutes longer than it really needed to be.

I suppose what that boils down to is how unfulfilled Monsters Inc. seems to be (perhaps that’s why a sequel is in the works). They had the characters, individual scenes and world, but didn’t quite have the story to piece it all together to make the impact that, say Toy Story had or Finding Nemo, the film after, certainly achieved.

The Ugly: Out of all the “childhood monsters aren’t what we think they are” movies and TV shows, I would probably have to say this one is the best.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Monsters University

A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University, when they weren't necessarily the best of friends.

The Good: If it weren’t for Mike and Sulley, I don’t know if Monsters University would have even been worth it. It’s funny at times, certainly imaginative and creative with its new setting of a school of monsters, but we know their stories and how they end. Thankfully, they’re entertaining enough and the chemistry of these animated characters more than justifies the existence of an unneeded, yet inviting sequel/prequel.

Even though it may be a bit of a repackaged world and themes, the energy is never lacking and no scene is without purpose. Characters are memorable, though I'd argue the supporting cast steals the show seeing as we tend to know Mike and Sulley already. It's their interactions with the new Monsters that surround them that makes this such an entertaining film.

The Bad: A very safe film that takes tropes we’ve seen and simply re-purposes them, while Monsters University is always entertaining it is never once surprising. Considering where we know these characters end up, that’s expected, but even the set up and climax and every beat along the way could have taken more steps to not be as equally as expected. Yes, we know how it all ends, but for a prequel we at least need some surprises along the path there.

Monsters University doesn’t bother to do that, really, and it shows as you start to know what a character will say before he even says it. The characters are fun, quirky and engaging, but the sense of risk is not once apparent in any bit of turmoil they find themselves in. Sadly, Monsters University just lacks an identity. It’s formula is derivative of not only previous college-humor films, notably Revenge of the Nerds, Old School (which was already unoriginal) and Animal House as it borrows many plotlines and even characters, but it has the misfortune of being derivative of its own predecessor, except now the bad-guy is a bad-frat and the Incorporated is a University. It’s destined to not be remembered other than the fact it was a sequel to classic – a fun sequel, but not one anyone was asking for and not one that sets itself apart from anything else.

The Ugly: Call her a plot device if you want, but Boo in the original film was there for a reason: to give the film heart. This lacks that “boo” and though it keeps a strong grasp on the theme of friendship, and even heart, there’s a certain emotional sweetness that is noticeably absent – a sweetness that I felt defined the original film and should have been something that would be carried over to anything Monsters-related.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5



Monty Python and the Holy Grail

King Arthur and his knights embark on a low-budget search for the Grail,
encountering many very silly obstacles.


The Good: Outlandish, wacky, distinctly British and completely nonsensical  why that must be Monty Python. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more Monty Python than something to do with Arthurian legend, is the iconic film it is for a reason...I'm just not entire sure what that reason is.

I think it boils down to scenes. Yes, scenes. Not so much character or plot, though King Arthur is quite funny in his exchanges with his comrades, but certain set ups to punchlines. A scene with a castle siege and rude Frenchmen, a scene with a Black Knight who can take a hit, a scene with a king arguing with a peasant man...woman...whatever....Monty Python and the Holy Grail is about moments and small vignettes that will ingrain themselves to your memory thanks to fantastic comedic timing, a great sense of self-awareness and satirical nonsense along the way. It's all subversive,though. Behind those little vignettes are some of the most intelligent bits of dialogue, rhetoric, metaphors and bits of satire ever filmed. Always purposeful, never without a dull moment. It's a far smarter film than ever meets the eye, and it just happens to be quite funny too.

The Bad: While The Holy Grail certainly has some of the most iconic moments in Monty Python lore, as a film it's actually one of the weaker efforts. Its story makes little to no sense, not  making sense something they've always done mind you, and you don't so much remember the characters or plot as much as you remember certain situations, such the knights that say "Ni." evil bunnies or galloping with coconuts. How they all fit together isn't nearly important as just making sure they're there and to get a laugh, it seems. That¹s a product of sketch comedy roots, I suppose, but the troupe would far outdo Holy Grail from a cinema storytelling a few years later with Life of Brian, even if the latter didn't have the iconic moments that Holy Grail did.

The Ugly: Holy Grail is super-low-budget all the way. And I think that actually adds a lot to the charm and affection people end up having for it. These are really sharp and smart comedians doing very silly things all shot, what looks to be, out in random fields and backyards. That's what makes it so unique and beloved  you can't keep good comedy down and the jokes and
gags well exceed its lack of funding.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Monuments Men

An unlikely World War II platoon is tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their owners.

The Good: Though less a movie and more of a message, it is an important message nonetheless. If The Monuments Men succeeds anywhere, it is showcasing the importance of art, history and cultures of people. Imagine all the art that was taken from various civilizations over the years, destroyed or simply just lost over time. Preservation of our past is just as important as the preservation of our future, and the Monuments Men ensure that’s a message you won’t forget.

Of course, it doesn’t quite succeed anywhere else quite as much. The costume and set design is appropriately 1940s, the cinematography gorgeously bringing those elements out in a blend of realism with fantasy nostalgia. This isn’t a “gritty” film set in World War II as much as it is an imagining of what it would be like through rose-colored glasses.

That doesn’t mean it’s all happy, there are certainly great moments of drama and character moments, and not everybody survives their mission, but it shows that the film was more focused on the message and plot, not necessarily the point of realism and storytelling.

The Bad: I wish I knew what kind of movie The Monuments Men wants to be, at least enough to write about it. It’s one of those films you see but then forget rather quickly - little impact in any one element. It’s never fully dramatic. Never fully comedic. Never with action. Because of its inconsistency in style, tone and even acting and character arcs, this wonderful story is undermined. This is a great story that is told poorly - a plot that works on paper in a few lines but never comes together when stretched out over two hours.

Most underwhelming are the performances, however. There’s great character actors all around the movie that have some solid moments, and strong leads to be the driving force, but none are memorable and all fall flat just like the rest of the film. Despite the great intentions, and certainly the clear message of culture, art and history, there is simply not an interesting enough story or memorable and interesting enough characters to keep attention. There’s little so little to write about, that this review is ending here.

The Ugly: If there’s anything that is tragic, it’s the irony that a film about art and remembrance is so incredibly dull and unmemorable.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Moon

With only three weeks left in his three year contract, Sam Bell is getting anxious to finally return to Earth. He is the only occupant of a Moon-based manufacturing facility along with his computer and assistant, GERTY. The long period of time alone however has resulted in him talking to himself for the most part, or to his plants. Direct communication with Earth is not possible due to a long-standing communication malfunction but he does get an occasional message from his wife Tess. When he has an accident however, he wakens to find that he is not alone. He also comes to realize that his world is not what he thought it was.

The Good: Science Fiction is a dying breed. More specifically, thoughtful and intelligent science fiction. Moon follows the example of Solaris and Sunshine, two more recent sci-fi films, in attempting to recreate the thoughtful nature that so dominated the genre in the 1970s with the original Solaris, THX 1138, Close Encounters and A Clockwork Orange that came in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, we get one every few years or so. While much of what has been done ha been done, budgets growing and scales grander, here comes a little independent film with one actor, one voice actor, and one first-time director/writer. It works far better than it should, but thanks to Sam Rockwell, we're able to overlook the rather unoriginal nature of the story and concentrate solely on his character(s). It doesn't take long to become sympathetic to Sam (that's his character's name also) and eventually you begin to simply love the guy. He's making things work the best he can, probably has a bad case of cabin fever in the process, yet is always positive until the major event occurs that changes everything. I won't spoil it here, most likely you'll know quickly, so you'll be concentrating solely on the study of Sam, his environment and the serious issues at hand. Simply put, if it wasn't for Rockwell, this movie would be nothing and to see a movie, a real science fiction film, focus on the idea of something rather than the spectacle, is a rarity.


The Bad: If there's one problem with Moon, it's the completely predictability of the story. Everything you expect to happen does and all that happens should. Thankfully Rockwell is so fantastic we're able to still be compelled, if not moved, by what is happening evne though we've seen it done before. That's often a problem with science fiction - it can turn very derivative if it's not careful. Moon, I think, understands it's not going to reinvent the wheel, but it still makes the road worth traveling with Rockwell driving the car.

The Ugly:
I think the film could have used a lot more Gerty. Gerty is pretty much the Hall/R2/Marvin of the film with Kevin Spacey spot-on as his soothing yet oddly distant voice. He's pretty underused despite a pivotal scene. The film implies he and Sam's friendship, which could have allowed for an interesting dynamic considering the plot, but doesn't really go anywhere with it. I find it interesting that Gerty, I believe, actually has emotions...I think I would have loved to see more of that. I don't hold it against the film at all, I reserve this Ugly section for excess thoughts like this, but I think the film would have offered something more original should they put a little more into Gerty.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Moonrise Kingdom

A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

The Good: If you like Wes Anderson movies, you'll probably like this one.

Wait, that's not a good start. Might as well say that for any filmmaker. "Hey, you like Rob Cohen flicks, you'll love Stealth."

I suppose what I mean is that Wes Anderson has a certain style and this film is probably the most expressive of that style out of his entire repertoire. Every shot, every character, every musical cue showcases the particular "just outside of reality" element that Wes Anderson has through all of his movies. He's a master of dry humor, because even though this is just outside reality and odd both visually and tonally to us, making for good humor, to everyone within the world it's completely normal, which makes it even funnier. To have Bill Murray just casually walk through a living room with a bottle of booze and an axe and say "I'm going to go find a tree to chop down" is hilarious because you get the impression that's the norm for him. Just a typical Tuesday. Then again, that might be the norm for Bill Murray in real life too.

Anderson builds his films on moments and moods, and he doesn't disappoint here. His films could be misconstrued as just a series of unfortunate events showcased through a series of vignettes, but he manages to weave it all together because the world and the texture of the film is the binding force, not necessarily the story of the characters. That's why he feels (sometimes wrongfully, of course) that because you have that binding element, you can go anywhere and do anything which makes for an ever-present "what could possibly happen next?" attribute for the audience as we take this journey. You don't know where it could go, but won't be surprised if it goes there either. That's kind of the wonder of an Anderson film, and as said Moonrise Kingdom is him arguably at his very, very best and that's a journey well worth taking.

The Bad: Really, the only thing to complain about is something that you would probably complain about in every Wes Anderson film: detachment. It's not an emotional film, it's all rather straight-faced and dry. For some, that just doesn't work and can come across as trying too hard. For others, it's just an understanding of a filmmaker's particular style. You might call it one-note, I might call it the only person playing that note at the moment (though many have, since Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, have tried emulating it best they could. Anderson's films are set just outside reality, narrative and visually - more of a fairly tale than something that should be taken at face value or trying to be something it';s not. Is there an emotional detachment? Yes. But is a detriment to the film's quality? Absolutely not.

That being said, there are narrative elements that seem to not really go anywhere. Social Services, for example, is a character (yes, that's the name of her character, and it's quite funny) the film doesn't do anything with it other than finding a role for Tilda Swinton to play. It's not even done in a funny cameo-esque role that we see with Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. She's pretty much a useless character and there's no point to her. It's odd that the film would remove Sam's foster parents (because they make it clear they want nothing to do with this story) so easily and fittingly, yet try to shoehorn in a rather useless character like Social Services.

Truth is, that's pretty nit-picky too. Social Services is a punchline serving to be a punchline, not a character in and of herself and that's merely an observation more than something that lowers the film's quality. Truth is, this is a film that's hard to find something to complain about. It does what it does and does it damn well, and Wes Anderson shows again how unique of a voice in film he truly is. It's a film that might enjoy its own existence too much at times, lord knows Anderson loves to draw attention to his style and this one might just do that more than his other films, but it's also a film where you can say "I've not seen anything like that" - unless, of course, you're talking about Wes Anderson films, in which case you have seen something like this and probably know beforehand if you'll already like it or not.

The Ugly: I refused to use the word "charming" or "whimsical" in this review.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


A Most Violent Year

In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city's history.

The Good: A restrained drama that isn’t quite a crime thriller and certainly not all that violent, A Most Violent Year is supported by a gorgeous, period aesthetic and incredibly strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. It’s a contemplative film that builds over his runtime - as though it starts as a loose string that slowly tightens into a knot. It’s a slow burn, but it also feels incredibly taught and well-paced, never having a moment that felt throwaway or filler, nor a moment that was simply there to be “cool” or club you on the head with a message or theme.

Oscar Isaac is the main focus here. His performance is restrained and the comparisons to Pacino’s Michael Corleone, though the story far from as epic or sweeping as those classics, are probably still pretty justified. Chastain is the one with the bottled-up elements, though - maybe she’ll explode or maybe she’ll simply let it be. Truth is, it’s unpredictable and both characters have enough subtle depth to them (never painting a clear picture of each as humans tend to be complex like that) to shine as believable human beings in what’s a movie about series of unfortunate events. This film about morality, ethics and loyalty to others, requires your attention. Director JC Chandor doesn’t waste any time as it’s finely crafted and story well told, though it also might be a film that wastes yours through its faults.

The Bad: As great of performances as Chasten and Isaac give, there’s not a whole lot to either of their characters. Yes, they have solid personalities and we can read plenty into it, but they’re also rather dull and uninteresting at the same time. Perhaps the “common people” element the film is going for is a little over-zealous is showcasing that commonality. They have a home. They know people who know people. They have a business trying to get off the ground with a big deal. And…that’s kind of all that we know about them. In other words, yes, we can say that Isaac’s performance is much like Pacino in The Godfather, and that his character shares similar traits, but the character doesn’t have nearly as much interesting things going on around him, and he does so little in the first place, that it’s at the same time not a good comparison to relay to anyone.

A Most Violent Year soon becomes insufferable from it not really knowing what it’s supposed to be about. With it’s rather simple plot, it wanting to say more about themes and ideas of its characters more than tell a story, it kind of doesn’t have much to really say or do. It’s a movie that’s well shot and extremely well acted, yet I couldn’t help but wonder why I just spent two hours with people that weren’t all that interesting in a story that was as equally uninteresting. Because the sense of it being 1981? The pretty pictures? The good acting even if they’re a bit dull?

Truth is, I’m not sure. A Most Violent Year is both a well made film yet a rather bland one. It’s a movie I both liked but didn’t exactly enjoy (see also this year’s Inherent Vice). It’s a movie that seems like it wants to be more but is such a victim of its restraint, it just never quite gets there.

The Ugly: I’m still a big JC Chandor fan. He’s shown diversity and range in his filmmaking, and I wouldn’t necessarily call this a bad movie on his part at all. Something different, certainly, but not necessarily bad. I just hope his next one offers a little more energy or, at the very least, a bit more inspiration that he showed in All is Lost or Margin Call.

Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Mother

A mother lives quietly with her twenty-eight-year-old son, Do-joon, providing herbs and acupuncture to neighbors. One day, a girl is brutally murdered, and Do-joon is charged with the killing. Now, it's his mother's call whether to prove him innocent or to leave him imprisoned.

The Good: Breaking convention yet remaining comfortably familiar, Joon-ho Bong's feature followup to The Host is a masterpiece of suspense and a character study that reaches the heart and soul of right, wrong, and love of a mother. Its story is simple. Its poignant points are far from. It's a thriller that entertains yet leaves you thinking and contemplating the issues that it brings up. What's more, is that it's hard to really discuss those within a review because doing so would destroy the film. It's far too perfectly plotted, reveals timed perfectly and complexities boiling over to be able to bring up without ruining it all.

Yet, I don't want to simply wash over it either. I can only discuss it on basic terms, I suppose.  It's a constant progression from beginning to end that is difficult to turn away from because it will usher in a new plot point, angle, reveal or twist at just the right time to entice you as though you've just started watching it all over again. It even manages an occasional laugh here and there (this is about family, afterall) yet that never undermines the severity of the situation. It balances this well against the drama of the Mother (Hye-ja Kim in a beautifully, emotionally exposed role) and her son, the sympathetic son (Bin Won). Many of these moments are heart-wrenching, and in many cases you start to look at both in completely different lights. You will not think the same of either by the end of the film as you did in the beginnings. Good suspense is able to toy with you like that - always gearing forward and flipping the lights on and off as you go down a dark highway. Great suspense does all that manipulation, plays with your assumptions and expectations, but makes it worth your while in the end. Mother is the latter.

The Bad: "Mother" goes off to do her detective work. Why? Well, her love for her son is her motivation, but the reason really is because the police are incompetent. In fact, they're laughably incompetent that you have to wonder why they are policemen to begin with and this old woman is better at their job than they are. Thankfully for her, there's enough convenient plot devices and clues along the way - nothing some money and badgering can't handle. I know it's not so much about that, though...but she seems to find it all out with relative ease. But, as you'll see, the mystery and crime isn't nearly as important as the mother-son story. It's just a nice vehicle to have.

The Ugly: Don't look away. Joon-ho likes to use quick jump cuts and inserts (think of them as "visions" if you will) and many, many of these are integral to everything. You have to pay attention. It momentarily lost me at one point about the time a suspect was having his teeth knocked out and I couldn't recall who he was or what he was supposed to know (or exactly how Mother and her "partner" came to know about it), but I then remembered they referenced who and what that was and how he would know about half an hour ago, though very briefly. That's what happens when you turn away for a few minutes...and then have to rewatch the whole film again (It's streaming on Netflix, go see it now).

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Mouse Hunt

When their father dies, Ernie & Lars inherit an old house and the family string factory. Lars, the loyal son, refuses to sell out the factory, which angers his wife so she kicks him out. Ernie, who runs a five-star restaurant, is suddenly fired when a man dies while eating there. With no other place to go, the brothers shack up at the old house, suddenly realizing the place is worth a fortune! The boys decide to fix up the place and sell it in an auction, but first, they have to get rid of a mouse living in the walls. Sounds easy enough, right? Think again...

The Good: A live action cartoon that never turns too “cartoony.” Mouse Hunt is somehow able to give us a combination of Laurel and Hardy with Loony Tunes in a style that blends into a fun hour and a half that you’re probably forget about in a day or so. If there’s anything it has going for it, it’s the visuals. This was the debut of Gore Verbinsky, who has a very specific look to his films and it actually fits perfectly for the live-action cartoon feel Mouse Hunt is going for. It’s very appealing that way even if the story and characters try really hard to make it less so.

The Bad: Mouse Hunt lacks heart. Now “heart” is a hard thing to define, but here I think it resides in the Mouse itself. We don’t know the mouse, yet it spends well enough time trying to establish him. It probably would have been better if they either a) get us to like him more (because he can be a bit mean spirited) or b) not make him so prominent. At the same time, it makes it hard to like Ernie and Lars as well. Both, too, are mean spirited and selfish and even though all three have some funny moments here and there, you don’t necessarily route for either because you aren’t sure who you should be routing for in the first place. It’s apathetic to its own characters, and thus we are apathetic to everything that happens to them. At least the brothers are better established, though, and you feel like you know them - Lane and Evans go well above the call of duty to act as crazy and screwball-like (with some great comedic stuntwork) - but that’s really all their characters become relegated to: screwball props.

The Ugly: What Mouse Hunt wants to be is something like Tom and Jerry, but it ends up more like Itchy and Scratchy where it’s merely a shadow of what that potential could really be.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Monsieur Hulot comes to a beachside hotel for a vacation, where he accidentally (but good-naturedly) causes havoc.

The Good: I've said it many times across many reviews now, but I'll say it again because it really has never been so relevant. Good comedy is memorable. It does what it sets out to do and make you laugh and be enthralled by the jokes, gags, puns, error, slapstick and so forth. Great comedy, though, is timeless. What was funny then is, often, funny now. Mr. Hulot's Holiday is a French film made in 1953 my one of the most influential comedic filmmakers, Jacques Tati. Watching it today will only confirm the fact that he was a comedic master, perfect in timing and with hilarious situations of our befuddled Monsieur Hulot, but also proof that, indeed, great comedy is timeless. This is a film made over fifty years ago and is as funny now as it was then.

Jacques Tati wrote, directed and acts in this comedic classic. There are elements of familiarity here, but never in a manner where you call it predictable. Instead, it's comforting, where you know something is going to happen and, instead of trying to say it or plan it ahead of time to throw it aside as "dated" or "been there done that," it slides into your vision and mind and you welcome it like an old friend. Or, rather, an old friend that you forgot about because he or she looks far better now than when you remembered them. Mr. Hulot's Holiday is such a friend. Familiar, but you greet them with open arms. The comedy is pitch-perfect in every scene, the film itself a collection of various comedic styles form goofy slapstick to comedies of manners to simple, Buster Keaton-like visual gags as we follow Monsieur Hulot on his vacation.

Monsieur Hulot doesn't say a word. Taking from classic silent stars, Tati creates a profoundly funny and memorable character through actions and situations, reactions and confrontations, rather than spouting dialogue or trying to be too witty for his own good. He is a background man, mostly, in that he's someone we observe, but he doesn't always observe those around him. I would think, if anything, he's mostly oblivious to the comedy that is going on around him, and his ignorance is where the laughs stem from. It's a simple story, a simple comedic approach with a simple character, and from that the comedy flows naturally and fluidly from one scene to the next, never giving up ground or losing a step along the way. It's an adventure, in a way. An exploration. Hulot is like our oblivious Indiana Jones as he explore his vacation world with him.

Few films accomplish what Tati has done here. A feeling of nostalgia and familiarity blended with excited anticipation of the next scene. What is Hulot going to discover next? What is going to happen at the hotel? The beach? How is he going to fit into that car? Didn't that happen to me one time as well? There's something very human and real around all the farce. What's more amazing is that I, personally, have never become tired of the film. Great comedy is not only timeless, but you find yourself always going back to it again and again. Sure, you know the gags, but great comedy and great filmmaking makes you forget you know and it all seems new again.

The Bad: Tati made a total of four Hulot films, watching this, or any of them for that matter, makes you wish he did even more for the classic character.

The Ugly: Or, for that matter, a few more films as a whole. Tati only made a total of six movies, and they came few and far between at that.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5


Mr. Peabody and Sherman

The time-travelling adventures of an advanced canine and his adopted son, as they endeavor to fix a time rift they created.

The Good: If it weren’t for the fantastic third act of Peabody and Sherman, where the humor actually begins to work and characters do more action than reaction, I would say it’s an absolute mess of a movie. Well, it is still that, but at least it gets to a better focus by its third act. I know that’s not particularly a good thing to say in a section marked as “good” but saying “it gets better” is the best descriptor I can give. The film starts out week and gradually turns better, as though someone else wrote the second half.

That’s not to say there’s not good elements throughout. Peabody and Sherman is able to focus on the relationship and chemistry between its titular characters remarkably well, even if it forces it at times. The voices sell the piece, staying true to their classic counterparts but also approaching it with more bravado and emotion rather than straight-laced “educational” pieces. It has a solid consistency of humor, but best of all is its sense of variety.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman knows what it is and where to put its strengths. It has a variety of comedy, of characters, of time periods, set pieces and is able to take all of that and still keep it grounded thanks to its strong leads. While it may not have the focus, which is what the cost of having variety probably offers us, it certainly won't get boring.

The Bad: Let me start here with an example. More often than not, the jokes and gags and banter goes on just a beat too long in nearly every scene, in particular around the first two thirds of the film where it struggles to find a good foundation and footing. One of the ongoing jokes is how oblivious Peabody is when others are talking, so he just keeps talking, they keep saying “no you don’t understand” and still he keeps going and still they go”no you still don’t understand” and then you realize the joke is going on for far too longer.

This joke is used three times in the first 15 minutes and a few more times throughout.

Another quandary it has character motivations that make no sense, or are just never explained. Yes, Peabody is a dog, he has a human son…but there are people who want to take his son away because….well….yes, I’m waiting. Now days later, I still don't know why people had a problem with a Peabody adopting a child. One assumes it's because he's a dog, but simultaneously they are really, really angry about it and it's never explained why when everyone else seems pretty cool with the idea.

Of course when you go down that route, then you have the whole can of worms opened, and that's ultimately the biggest problem with the film because that's a can that should have remained sealed. If Sherman being Peabody’s “son” is a plot point, rather than “he simply is” and you don’t make a stink out of it, then you have to start asking more questions. How? Why? And so on. Then you need a backstory. Then you need a twist or something to make it seem bigger than “talking dog adopts boy” and then, above all that, you have to explain the “talking dog” as well.

None of that stuff should even be an issue, but the movie makes it one. The whole point of Peabody and Sherman should have been to not think about: just go on adventures and have fun. But they have you thinking about it because they make a point to make it “a thing” and they spend far too much time going through those motions to explain “the thing” when it’s quite obvious the strong parts are when you don’t have to think at all and you can just enjoy the characters and fun animation.

Peabody and Sherman starts digging itself a hole early in the film that it never is able to get out of even when it’s at its best in the third act. It’s too little and too late. I think it did so in an attempt to find an emotional core, but there are better ways to do that without needing to “explain” it.  The beauty of the old shorts were their simplicity, and this is exactly when you start trying to create something “more” out of that simplicity.

The Ugly: The third act, as mentioned, salvages the movie. Almost all the problems I had, from the overlong and overdone puns and gags to the complete lack of focus in tone and writing, is rectified. Except for trying to figure out “why” our “villain” wants to separate Peabody and Sherman entirely. That’s never resolved, she’s there just to be an antagonist for the sake of being antagonizing. The film wouldn't have lost anything if she were removed entirely, and it wouldn't have gained anything if they explored her more.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Mr. Turner

An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner's life.

The Good: So what is Mr. Turner about? It’s obviously about J.M.W. Turner who, as time went on, became renowned as one of Britain’s finest artists. We watch and take in the final few years of his life and his struggles to be acknowledged as such. Thanks to a career-defining performance by Timothy Spall we get a very human story of a very eccentric man.

Now if Mr. Turner was just that, it would have been just fine. A standard little biopic about an overlooked artist in British history - it’s pretty typical biopic fare. But while that’s the engine that drives the whole thing, what really sets Mr. Turner apart is the backdrop of it all. It’s not just about J.M.W. Turner, but British culture and society of the time and the highs and lows of trying to be an artist - dealing with change in tastes, rich people being judgmental, trying to do what’s right and what you feel passionate about versus what is merely lucrative. Turner is just one of many painters in the film, others that could be equally as brilliant but some person with money somewhere doesn’t like them so they’re kept down, or the “boys club” that a gallery seems to create as pranks, insults and backstabbings crate less a picture of a culture that appreciated art and more one of pettiness and elitism that makes you wonder who died broke and penniless chasing their passion (Turner one of them) and who was simply given the nod because they shook the right hands and got hung in the right places at a showing.

Turner himself is an interesting man, but this setting and the world created that feels incredibly authentic is where Mr. Turner really shines. It’s absolutely fascinating how, almost like children, the socialites and elite players of art critics and well-off benefactors act amongst themselves and how they treat others. Mr. Turner isn’t just a biopic but a commentary on British society then and our own culture now. Mike Leigh patiently tales this very focused and refined story with the hand of a master which he is by this point. It’s a passion piece about passion and art, and I don’t know if there’s another filmmaker that would have approached it as beautifully as Leigh does here.

The Bad: Mr. Turner is poignant in its desire to be as realistic as possible, and as a result it also can get lost in the minutia of mid 19th century living, manners, style and speech. This wouldn’t be a problem had the film not also been two and a half hours long, making for a curiosity on my part on why some things simply weren’t paired down and edited a touch to get a smoother pace going. When it’s sharp and moving along, Mr. Turner is brilliant, but when it gets lost in its own atmosphere, serving little to the story, themes or character, it becomes a slog to get through. Even Spall’s brilliant performance becomes tiresome as a result.

The movie kind of becomes its own war of attrition. The points become lost, the focus blurs and we kind of lose the point as Mr. Turner wanders about, talking a bit, acting like an ass, waiting here and there and then repeating itself. It’s all a bit fascinating but it all wears out its welcome as less becomes revealed because of the repetition and less becomes interesting as a result. 

The Ugly: How could people live during these times? I mean…there’s a lot of grossness all around yet people still put on their fancy dress or coat and carried on.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Mud

Two young boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love. 

The Good: Jeff Nichols had already shown a stunning ability to take a simple tale and bring a strong human angle to it with his previous writing/directing effort, Take Shelter. A simple story, but not so-simple characters and certainly not a simple take on human relationships. Concepts small, heart is big, and themes hard to not relate to no matter how much the personalities may be unlike your own. In Mud, it's about perspective - specifically perspective on love and the relationships between the masculine and the feminine and, moreso, how societal labels each. What one person feels, the other does not. What one person assumes, the other person assumes something else entirely. Complex, difficult to manage for most filmmakers I would think, but not here.

Mud is taxed as a "crime movie." It's not. It's a drama that just happens to have some crime elements circling around it. It's also not about Mud, though that character, in what is probably Matthew McConaughey's finest hour, drives the plot. It's about youth: the lessons we learn, the innocence we can lose, and those assumptions that we, years later, realize were wrong all along. It's a classical tale, some might say more in line with a Charles Dickens than a Mark Twain, but classic all the same.

A stunning sense of atmosphere, the deep south, and bittersweet through the end, Mud is a complicated movie that builds layers and layers on its central theme. A great command of the cinematic language guides us, stunning performances move us and in the end we're left to think about all that we just took in and what the film says. The slow-brew nature is never dull, it never loses interest and it certainly is something you won't forget.

The Bad: Though it may never really "drag" per se, it's a movie that feels needlessly over two hours long. It's a simple tale, a simple melodrama, but doesn't full come in to its own until half-way through when the bigger picture begins to emerge.  The final act feels a bit forced, perhaps even a little rushed, but certainly fitting.

The Ugly: I've read some saying the women in the film are depicted as "shrews, liars and emasculators." Problem is: all the men are also shrewd, liars, beat women and show the worst that masculinity to be. So what's the critique again?

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Mulholland Dr.

A bright-eyed young actress travels to Hollywood, only to be ensnared in a dark conspiracy involving a woman who was nearly murdered, and now has amnesia because of a car crash. Eventually, both women are pulled into a psychotic illusion involving a dangerous blue box, a director named Adam Kesher, and the mysterious night club Silencio.

Not since Blue Velvet had Lynch really made something so utterly magical. Well "magical" isn't the best word with his films, more something that might bring Disney to mind, but this one was magical because it hit all the right notes and ended up being one of his very best (some would say, after a bit of a drought). This is Lynch's abstract interpretation of Hollywood. That should say enough right there, but there are numerous other elements within the story - as there always are with a Lynch movie.

The acting is what really sells this film and its central characters, Naomi Watts in particular who shows great range and ability. It's a mystery, but one of Lynch's very best and arguably his most satisfying experience as a complete work of art. It's plot is complex, yet it also stays with you and not overly confusing - merely ambiguous. Everything simply strikes the right balance for a Lynch film that is able to feel so right as something perfectly odd and perfectly engaging. There's not a lot of dawdling or filler and everything fits in with a purpose to it. That's not to say everything makes sense, of course, but everything does feel to want us to make sense of it rather than going from scene to scene in hopes it will eventually (something Lost Highway or Inland Empire sometimes suffered from).

Everything to like about David Lynch is found here. It's puzzle that will all come together to great results. I would also say it's one of his more elegant pieces as well, especially the cinematography which is colorful (how he's able to still make it menacing is a testament to his ability to present atmosphere and tone beyond merely visualization). If I were to choose one film to introduce someone to Lynch's style, this and Blue Velvet are in contention for being that film.

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Munich

During the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes are taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September. In retaliation, the Israeli government recruits a group of Mossad agents to track down and execute those responsible for the attack.

The Good: An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind. Munich’s message is clear if not heartfelt. Its lines of dialogue, delivered beautifully by a fantastic (and understated) cast seem to always have a point to their meaning, doubly so, as much of what is discussed and implied is still relevant to this day. Spielberg’s directing is, as always, top-notch. This time, though, he takes a slightly different approach. It lacks the polish of his previous few films and instead goes for a grainy look and 1970s approach with lots of simple angles, still shots (beautiful shots and compositions I might add) and zooming. It fits the story of the time, and in a way he not only transports the story on screen to the 1970s, but us watching as well. It’s a complex piece of work, exciting and dramatic, and powerful to the end (even though it doesn’t seem to quite know how to end it.) The story ends, though, but the story continues after the ending. It’s about values and the human condition. Rights and wrongs are just words when compared to the people that try to determine those rights and wrongs to begin with and the assessment they place on those words. It tells us communication is not just a physical distance but an ideological one that maybe we’ll never close in on. There is no resolution to the conflict, it’s still going on today in the news and will probably never end. Just the ending of this one little chapter that Spielberg presents is all we get – a chapter  in a book full of hundreds of chapters. Munich, because of its approach to story and unique directing, divided critics despite being nominated for many awards. I think, now, years later it, like Empire of the Sun, more and more appears to be the man’s biggest unheralded pieces of work.

The Bad: Perhaps Munich’s biggest problem is the standard it wants to set for itself, or perhaps the standard it doesn‘t set. It doesn’t settle as just being a thriller, it tries to be much more than that. Tries a little too hard, maybe, because after a while the constant weaving and genre-blending, from action and suspense to mystery and romance, it slowly begins to get ahead of what its basic premise is supposed to be (simple revenge). I would say it’s a reflection of the whole issue entirely; not knowing where to head, aimless, unclear...but for a piece of cinema it doesn’t make for a coherent narrative. There’s no denying this is one of Spielberg’s least accessible movies, even his serious dramas can guide a viewer in easy, but Munich is jarring and puzzling in that it’s a series of events wrapped around a story than a clear and definable story wrapped around a series of events; guiding it along from beginning to end in three clear acts.

The Ugly:
I know Crash was the critical darling of the Academy. It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong. I buy Munich losing to it a lot better than I could Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love. But Munich is, for all sakes and purposes, a masterpiece of a thriller. To lose to a heavy-handed and often pretentious film like Crash is just sad to see. Then again, Crash was the third or fourth best film that year (Capote, Brokeback Mountain, Goodnight and Good Luck are also all superior)...so maybe I have a bigger problem with it than I let on.

Final Rating:
4.5 out of 5


The Muppets

With the help of three fans, The Muppets must reunite to save their old theater from a greedy oil tycoon.

The Good: After a long absence, and even longer since a truly good movie, The Muppets return in full-force. Full of laughs, gags, music and self-awareness, this is more than a worthy entry to the long-running (though sometimes deviated from quality) franchise that brings it all back to its roots. I know this because Kermit himself says so. "Did you see the first movie?" he asks. Yes I did, and this one doesn't miss a beat.

Written by Muppet-lover Jason Segal, the nostalgia drips out of every frame. He loves the Muppets and he expresses that love throughout, from dialogue quips to broad music numbers. It's The Muppets doing what they do best: be funny, have a good emotional core and message and memorable, fun songs. It's a simple premise done right and for all sakes and purposes, The Muppets is about as good of a Muppet movie any fan could ask for.

The Bad: The film moves at a brisk and wonderful, eye-catching pace. You certainly never get bored as it's always progressing and having fun with itself. Then something happens in the final twenty minutes or so - the film just can't seem to know where to go or what to do. It tries to hit too many highs, wrap up too many threads, then leaves us a bit cold and blank as we go out on a sudden musical number and not quite sure if that's the last of it or if there's more to come.

Truth is, it's a minor complaint, but the film always tries to give a sensation of it ending then never does. Then when it actually does you end up wanting more because it wasn't quite satisfying. If the rest of the film wasn't so damn good, this minor flaw wouldn't stick out so much.

A larger flaw is probably the film trying to do too much. Some plot lines come and go, some get put a shelf for far too long and we often miss points being made because it wants to shoehorn a cameo by every single muppet it can conjure up. The self-aware gags can sometimes grow thin after a while too, especially when it comes to singing, but, again, it's minor. Musicals really were a think of the past and could generate odd scenes, but in this one they're aware of it making for some chuckles even if they go to that same well a bit too many times.

The Ugly: Will this spark the franchise? I think a lot of the film's success is found in the fact The Muppets haven't been around in a while, they can't go back to that well so we'll see, but if you have the same people involved, I don't see why not.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


The Muppet Movie

Story of a frog, a bear and a pig (portraying themselves are Kermit the Frog, Fozzie the Bear and Miss Piggy) on the road to Hollywood. Kermit claims it is "approximately" the way the Muppets began. While on their nationwide trek, they encounter Doc Hopper who plans to make Kermit his spokesman for his Frog Leg restaurant chain. Muppet characters' first outing in the movies features cameos in the double digits and safe family fun.

The Good: Movies like the Muppet Movie are rare. Or, I should say, they aren't so much "rare' as they are stemming from a select group (one of which Pixar in recent years has garnered all its own). It's a movie that is literally for all ages, as cliche and tepid as that sounds. It never talks down to the kids in the audience and never feels stupid and childish for the adults in the audience. It's a balance that not only allows for a broader range of audience appreciation, but also allows for timelessness on top of it all. The Muppet Movie, much like the Muppet Show, is a timeless work of art. It does rely one bit on toilet humor or pop culture references (other than the many cameos within it from stars at the time) and

That's because Henson had class. He had a way of not wanting to simply entertain for kids with his puppetry but just to simply entertain. Disney had that philosophy as well early on with darker tales and less light hearted fun. Henson's movies, though, are more whimsical and charming - never taking themselves too seriously but serious enough to want to take them seriously. Yeah...wrap your head around that for a second. It has to do with his ability to make something universal and from this universal appeal across gender, race and age comes something you seriously appreciate because it doesn't try to be so serious. It never bombards you with melodrama yet you feel moved my the characters, these little puppets, because you badly want the best for them. The plot, here, is completely secondary. We know that because we start off knowing how it ends. Instead, it focuses on these fantastic characters, surprisingly deep dialogue (and tunes to boot...Rainbow Connection one of the best songs ever in a film - Oscar nominated I might add losing to a worthless movie nobody remembers that was Norma Rae) and the situations they find themselves in along the way. Instead of focusing on getting out of said situations, we know they all will, it focuses on getting to know the characters. If Henson didn't have these fully-realized personas illuminating the screen, The Muppet Movie would have just been another movie with puppets instead of a charming, warming film with characters we love.

The Bad: I'd hate to say anything disparaging about The Muppet Movie. Muppet Treasure Island...sure, I'd rip into that one. In a sense, saying anything bad about it is pretty pointless. I mean...you either see it for the Muppets or you don't see it all. Criticizing the loose script with mish-mashed transitions from scene to scene that can be forced is pretty irrelevant, isn't it? Or the lack of coherency as it moves from point to point, cameo to cameo, probably a result of the writers and characters themselves far more used to three or four minute sketches at time. Yet, when the focus of the film is those characters and it succeeds 100% in that endeavor, who cares how it's relayed through the narrative? It's a movie that understands this and uses the story as a background for us to get involved in the likes of Kermit and company.

If someone wants to point out the flaws, sure. There's some here and there. But if someone outright hates this movie...I'm sorry, but you're a loveless, heartless bastard and should go jump off a cliff somewhere.

The Ugly: The guy was only 53 years old...could you imagine the decades of enjoyment and charming stuff he would have brought still to this day?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


Muppets Most Wanted

While it may not reach the delirious heights of The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted still packs in enough clever gags, catchy songs, and celebrity cameos to satisfy fans of all ages.

The Good: Charming, full of wonderful cameos and musical numbers and a good dose of elaborate action for a bunch of puppets, Muppets Most Wanted has a solid plot of mistaken identity and heist movies - something we’ve seen in the past with the Muppets, which may work more to this film’s detriment than anything. The gang is all here, even the ones you forgot about as they point out, and specifically Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey are here, and they’re fantastic as the engines of the A and B plots of the movie.

Gervais and Fey came to play, that’s for sure. Gervais, especially, delivers his tongue-in-cheek lines wonderfully as though you expect him at any moment to look at the camera with a wink. Fey doesn’t have a character to really do that, but she’s simultaneously sweet yet aloof as Nadya our Gulag Warden. Gulag? Yes, a Gulag, and I’d argue it’s the best moments of the movie as we get some fun music and characters out of it.

Muppets Most Wanted is well directed and well acted, and it manages a whimsical tone the films are known for. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really know what to do with all the parts it has, and that includes the parts of the Muppets. But at least we get some fun cameos, right?

The Bad: While there is a fine plot here, and the actors and Muppets are game, there’s a serious lack of comedy in this comic caper. Perhaps it’s the lack of irreverence the Muppets are known for, seemingly playing it a little straighter this time instead of self-referential humor that many of their films, especially the previous one, did so well. Or maybe it’s just the lack of comedic moments as a whole as we spend more time with the mystery and heists than we do with funny lines and character interactions. In fact, all the Muppets seem strangely detached from everything else that matters in the film, including each other.

While Gervais saves this movie, at the same time Gervais shouldn’t have had to. That’s kind of the point. He’s the funniest movie in a movie that’s supposed to have funny Muppets. The problem is, the Muppets are too busy putting on shows (which we never really see) and being in prison (which we see too much of for what is essentially one gag) or trying to break a prisoner out (which is the only time it felt like a Muppet movie and it lasts for all of five minutes).

Muppets Most Wanted is wonderfully intended as a family fun, it just lacks the fun when it comes to the Muppets themselves. It’s all the more glaring when you consider the previous film which nailed the tone and style of how to do a modern-take on a Muppet film. This sequel simply doesn't do it and shows that the "other" way just doesn't work and feels as though they gave it to the B-team.

The Ugly: The music absolutely saves this movie. While the humor is flat throughout, the songs certainly are sharp and catchy with great directing and sequences to showcase them.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Muppets take Manhattan

Kermit and his friends go to New York to get their musical on Broadway only to find it's a more difficult task than they anticipated.

The Good: With a very basic plot and an aura of character nievity, The Muppets take Manhattan is already setting itself up for something commendable. The Muppets are looking to "make it big" and find themselves in the place to make it big and strike it rich, only it becomes much more difficult because, let's face it, they're Muppets. Nobody takes them seriously.

Enter the best thing about The Muppets Take Manhattan: seeing the Muppets out of their usual Muppet element. They're trying to make ends meet, find jobs, or just new ways of life. It's a pretty standard formula, perhaps a bit too close to the first film as everyone eventually comes back together. Out of all the Muppet movies, this one is probably the most Kermit-centric. It's entirely his story and journey and coming to terms with Miss Piggy, who also gets a more gracious arc than simply being a love interest and given a lot more to do.

What this Muppet film has best, though, is balance. It never feels like it's overreaching nor does it feel like it's doing too little. It has a great opening bookend with a great finale, some incredibly memorable musical numbers and nominated for a Grammy on top of that (Saying Goodbye and Right Where I Belong being two personal favorites, though the film also has one of my least favorite Muppet musical numbers) and has one of the better crops of cameo actors (though no Muppet film has yet to outdo the original in terms of cameos and probably never will). It's fun, engaging, incredibly sweet and, as is always the case with a Muppet movie, just enough emotional heft to get you to fall in love with these characters and truly care what happens to them.

The Bad: A little over half-way into the film, there's a sudden change in everything. From plot to focus to tone as we are stuck with a pretty tired and forced "amnesia" plot line that really seems shoehorned into the thing. it's unfortunate, because some of the points where Kermit is finding himself are poignant and sweet, and there's some very funny moments in the entire thing with his interactions with his new frog friends. It's practically yelling at us that the filmmakers needed something to happen in Act 2, and this is what they had to come up with. Out of all the things this film does right, this is a large portion that feels unfortunately disingenuous (though it does give Miss Piggy a good reason to stick around at the end of the day).

The Ugly: There are moments when the film feels far too similar to the first and can come across as merely treading water, but there's also enough new vignettes and gags to counter that along the way.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


The Mutant Chronicles

At the end of the Ice Age, The Machine came from the outer space with the purpose to change men into mutants. However, a hero defeated the device and a great seal was laid over The Machine. In 2707, the depleted world is ruled by four Corporations: Mishima, Bauhaus, Capitol and Imperial that are in constant war. During a battle between Capitol and Bauhaus, the great seal is broken and The Machine works again transforming soldiers and civilians in hordes of mutants. A small part of the population escapes to Mars, leaving millions of people behind. The man of faith and leader of an ancient brotherhood Brother Samuel is a believer of God and the Chronicles, a bible about the mutants. With the city under siege of the mutants, he visits the Corporations' leader Constantine asking for an aircraft and twenty men for a suicide mission to destroy The Machine,

The Good: Far too ambitious for its own good, the Mutant Chronicles at the very least paints a unique look and world for itself and attempts something original, even if it doesn't quite have the budget to fully realize it.

The Bad:
Simply put, if they knew they wouldn't be able to fully present this story correctly, they probably should not have even bothered. It struggles to show and tell us something original, and so we struggle along with it but can't help but cringe at the horrible special effects (even simple things like blood spatter and explosions) and bland, uninteresting writing that wastes what was probably intended to be an epic piece of science fiction/fantasy. It hangs by its threads to try and manage to put something watchable together but utterly fails. The film is noted as being unfinished, so I ask again...why bother? Mutant Chronicles is on par with an Uwe Boll film, at best.

The Ugly:
The bottom line here is the film wastes a great concept and solid cast with lazy writing and an awful, if not downright ugly, presentation. Sometimes, and by that I mean all the time so I'm probably being facetious here, the idea goes beyond what its capable of behind the camera.

Final Rating:
1 out of 5


My Bloody Valentine

Tom returns to his hometown on the tenth anniversary of the Valentine's night massacre that claimed the lives of 22 people. Instead of a homecoming, however, Tom finds himself suspected of committing the murders, and it seems like his old flame is the only one will believes he's innocent.

The Good: Simply put, this is a really fun and enjoyable movie. I went into it with no expectations, and maybe that helped. The slasher genre is all but dead, but when a movie comes out and understands what it is, doesn't try to be more than that and knows its audience, it's hard to go off and say "it's bad." My Bloody Valentine does a better job than most slashers, which honestly is a genre that we haven't seen in a while and haven't really seen done well since Scream, and gets us invested in the characters and, above all else, has great kills on screen. Some brutal, but not in the grotesque manner many horror movies today tend to do, but the fun way where you just have a great time and maybe laugh while you're at it.

Also, no, I did not see this in 3D, but while those parts are pretty obvious, I don't think it helps or hinders the film itself.

The Bad: As fun as it is, it still suffers from what most slashers suffer from: predictability. Many try to make themselves out as mysteries and a "who done it" plot, but it's all pretty one-note and, thus, a slasher movie has to keep up with the pace and get your attention by making entertaining kills and gore. While My Bloody Valentine does that, it doesn't offer the dialogue and plot to really drive it all and the dependence on kills in today's horror movies causes problems with those things, particularly pacing because the entire plot revolves around those rather than a story. 

The Ugly: My Bloody Valentine is an R Rated horror movie in every sense of the word, and you'll have fun with it, that's for sure. There's one kill in particular that will have you grinning. It's brutal, but hilarious at the same time.

Final Rating: (a surprising) 3.5 out of 5


My Name is Nobody

A young, easygoing gunman (Hill) worships and competes with an old gunfighter (Fonda) who only wants to retire.

The Good: In a genre that's known for being over-the-top with absurdity, I can't think of one that's quite as over-the-top as the tongue-in-cheek take of a Spaghetti Western, My Name is Nobody. Perhaps Sergio Leone, who wrote the script, wanted to do a comedy but didn't want to direct it himself (other than a few scenes here and there). Most of that duty falls to Tonino Vallerii who is very much from the Leone mold of Spaghetti Western directors seeing as how he was an assistant director for Leone on his first two "Dollars Trilogy" films. It shows: many shots emulate Leone well, he spends more time with brilliant setup than most directors probably care to deal with and he uses a brilliant Ennio Morricone to set a mood and paint a picture with the best of them.

Unlike most of those Italian-flavored Old West tales, My Name is Nobody is light, I'd say even charming, as it focuses more on the absurdity of the Old West than the mythos that is glorified in most Spaghetti Westerns. At its heart, it's a comedy. Comedy-westerns have bee done plenty before, and the take here is less the lighter take with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and more an in-your-face Marx Brothers in Go West. Does it work? Well, sometimes...

...but what certainly works are our two main actors, Terrence Hill and Henry Fond - two leads that by 1973 when My Name is Nobody came out, were more than familiar with the workings with the western genre. So much so that they're able to do wonders with their character tropes and whatever misgivings it might have in terms of comedic tone, it makes up for with some fantastic personalities on screen. My Name is Nobody  is a Spaghetti Western that is made for fans of the genre that, perhaps, want to poke fun at themselves or the material they so graciously adore. It's done with heart and charm, as well as a ton of ridiculousness.

The Bad: Perhaps it's the difference in culture, but one thing is for certain: Italian comedic sensibilities doesn't mesh particularly well with the western genre. Now there's a lot of comedy in Spaghetti Westerns, but My Name is Nobody is a film that probably puts it far more in the foreground than little winks and nods in the background. The humor is often direct, in your face and far from subtle which would be fine if it just simply worked. Sometimes it did, in particular when Terrence Hill is around, but often the sped-up film moments, slap-stick quality of fights and gunfights and overall goofiness can leave you scratching your head or a direct reference to Sam Pekinpah that took me so far out of the movie I couldn't take it as serious anymore.

And that's what you have to do with My Name is Nobody: don't go into it with the idea it's to be taken seriously, because it never takes itself seriously.  But, maybe that's where it lacks that aspect to be taken seriously as a film entirely.

Some of light charm and humor works, and works really well. We're introduced to Nobody in a great scene: he's fishing...with a club. It's great. Most times, it doesn't, such as an awkward scene in a urinal that consists of a lot staring and silence, then a silent-film-esque chase after a train (awkward sped-up film and all). Some slap stick fights work, but they begin to wear out their welcome. Most of all, is that one Henry Fonda never quite seems in on the joke. He plays it all straight, serious, which again makes for a rather uncomfortable bit of viewing and still leaves us without a full answer on whether or not this is meant to be a western-comedy, or a Spaghetti Western just a bit over-zealous with its comedy entirely.

The Ugly: Seeing this makes me wish Henry Fonda did a few more Spaghetti Westerns. His performance here is a complete 180 of his only other Spaghetti Western role in Once Upon a Time in the West. There, his turn as the sinister Frank is one of legend. Here, the sweet-old-gunfighter and comedic angle turns it all around and makes you realize just how damn good of an actor he was.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


My Week With Marilyn

Colin Clark, an employee of Sir Laurence Olivier's, documents the tense interaction between Olivier and Marilyn Monroe during production of The Prince and the Showgirl.

The Good: I can only imagine it would be incredibly difficult to "be" Marylin Monroe. She was a character in and of herself and attempting to recreate her on screen would, often, come across as someone simply doing an impression or, even worse, a parody of the sex-symbol. Even more difficult is to become "lost" in a performance to where you forget you're watching an actress portray her, but rather feel it actually is her - which is what every filmmaker and actress wants to achieve. Here, director Simon Curtis and actress Michelle Williams achieve just that.

In what is one of the most astounding performances I've seen in a while, especially with all the weight levied against her to pull it off to make the film work, Michelle Williams becomes Marilyn Monroe to the point where you can't imagine anyone else even coming close. It's the same result that Al Pacino had with Jake LaMotta, George C. Scott in Patton and, most recently, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. So much does Michelle Williams command the screen, you might just come to think Monroe made a film about herself and they just now dug it up.

There must be mention of the other fantastic acting in the film - notably Kenneth Branagh as the actor-of-actors Lawrence Olivier, an equally demanding role as Monroe is for Williams. Judi Dench, though used sparingly, is as generous as ever with what little she's given.

My Week with Marylin is an actors' film, however it paints a great picture, not of the characters, but of what Monroe stood for. She was a conflicted person, half of her shone as bright as the sun, the other half a woman that shunned the idea that she was just another pretty face and merely being used for that aspect of her. It loves the grandeur of this era and of its stars as much as the actors do portraying them, and is a great look at a classic screen icon that is rarely pulled off as intimately as it is here.

The Bad: Colin Clarke is our main character here. The story is told entirely from his perspective and is based on his own memoirs of the event. Unfortunately, at least in this biopic, he is a bland and uninteresting character that seems to wallow in dullness. He's overshadowed by better characters and, as it turns out, more capable actors portraying them, that leap from the screen. We don't understand him nor does the film try to make it so we do. If he were merely a passive observer of the events, it would be fine. But he isn't. He's in the trenches of this turmoil and we still have no clue who he is.

The script comes across as merely a line tracing scenes with Williams and scenes with Branagh. Everything else might as well have been a footnote. Director Simon Curtis does a passable job, but it's hard to know how much is him not finding a good stance with the material, sometimes passing by far too quickly if the scenes didn't involve Monroe or Oliver, and how much is the script itself.

The Ugly: Williams is so prominent in this film, it's easy to overlook the rest of it. You want to see her. You want to see Marilyn. Sometimes you might forget there are other fantastic performances in her wake as the script seems to only serve her - and she's not even the perspective of the story.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5


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