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172 reviews in total 
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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
1 Nominee 5 Times at the Next Emmy Awards, 3 January 2015

Really, at the next Emmy Awards, Tatiana Maslany should be all 5 nominees for Best Actress. This has got to be one of the world's all-time most virtuoso performances by anybody anywhere. Not only does she make each of her clones a distinct and memorable character, you can actually tell when one of the clones is assuming the role of a different one — something that happens quite a lot!

So the acting is phenomenal, but if it were only that you could turn it into a kind of FaceOff competition. Instead there's much more. The plot is layer upon layer of intrigue, and every time one layer is peeled away and you think you're down to what's really going on, it turns out to be just a deeper layer.

A Canadian production made with a limited supply of Canadian dollars, "Orphan Black" proves that you don't need megabux worth of fancy special effects if you've got truly inspired writing.

One thing I really admire is that this is a serious show for serious adults, not children or the squeamish. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to bemoan the absence of an "A" rating for movies, for films that were intended for adults and didn't deserve the kiss of death that was the "X" rating (now wussified as "NC-17" but still just as deadly). This series earns its "A" in both meanings of the letter.

Really, the only thing keeping "Orphan Black" from being the best TV series on the air is that it had the misfortune to share the current decade with "Game of Thrones".

16 out of 25 people found the following review useful:
Not for Unaccompanied Adults, 3 January 2015

(other: talking animals, 2nd string, sequel, PG, 1:32)

Penguins is from Dreamworks Animation and tries to capitalize on the popularity of penguins generally and more particularly the 4 little comic-relief guys from the earlier Madagascar movies (tho it tells you something about the rest of what purports to be a comedy in itself if it needs its own comic relief). They are Skipper (the boss), Kowalski (the intellectual analyst), Rico (eater and disgorger of many things; also the demolition guy, not entirely unrelated to the disgorging), and Private (the cute one).

Joining them this time around are agents of North Wind, a kind of wildlife version of Men from UNCLE, protectors of animals generally and penguins in particular: leader Classified (wolf), Eva (big-eyed, dulcet-voiced snowy owl), Short Fuse (some kind of bird, I think), and Corporal (polar bear, the muscle). Skipper and Classified bicker first over whether the penguins need protecting at all and later over which of them should lead the strike team while the other guys provide a diversion.

All of this is to combat Dave, a giant purple octopus who used to be a feature attraction at the New York City Zoo until the penguins came along and drew away all the crowds with their unrelenting adorability. Dave became jealous and vowed revenge, and he's taking it in the guise of more-or-less human Dr. Octavius Brine, who's developed a green-slime Medusa Serum that he plans to use to turn all penguins worldwide into monsters so people won't love them any more.

Yes, this is absolutely a by-the-numbers throwaway plot. There are a few decent sight gags, a couple of chuckly lines of dialog, some wordplay featuring names of movie stars, and the obligatory happy ending, where even the villain finds someone to love him. It doesn't really drag because it keeps coming at you so quickly, ideal for SAS audiences (IE, little kids). Overall it's harmless but hardly worth the time of unaccompanied adults.

0 out of 24 people found the following review useful:
It'll Probably Actually Make Money, 3 January 2015

(fantasy: supernatural, bargain basement, sequel, OSIT cynics, PG-13, 1:39)

The original Woman in Black from just 2 years ago (tho it seems like lots longer, such was its unmemorability) was notable mainly because it was Daniel Radcliffe's first vehicle after the Harry Potter series. In it he played a solicitor called to creepy old Eel Marsh House to settle the affairs of its late owner. The house was located on a bump of land that's an island at high tide but which turns into the end of a peninsula at low tide, when it's accessible only by a causeway winding thru the eponymous marsh. I assessed it as 3rd string, formulaic, and worthy only of a 4. The sequel is equally formulaic and also gets a 4 but is downgraded to bargain basement in the absence of anybody you've ever heard of before, a nickel-a-word script commissioned by nickel-lovers, and the recycling of what must be the last tangible asset that Hammer Films owns, that increasingly rickety house on the moors.

Set in the English countryside to which London children were evacuated during WW2, the cast comprises 2 teachers, 1 PTSDed RAF pilot from a naboring decoy airbase, and 8 children, only 3 of whom were paid to speak. The cast list is so short that they even pad it out with a credit for "Woman in Black", who barely appears at all, has no dialog, and could as easily have been rendered as a matte painting. Much of the plot is recycled from #1 — young single mother had her only child taken away and raised by relatives, faces horrible early death, vows to come back for her son, but by then he's already dead, so she needs to take others instead, yada yada yada, here we go again.

It isn't actively bad (despite the usual batch of unimaginative and irritating jumpatchas), thus the 4, and there are modestly effective uses of music and lighting from time to time, but really, the only reason this sad excuse for a movie saw the light of day was that they probably knew they'd make their production costs back out of the first dozen theaters that screened it.

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Nearly 3 Hours of Michael Bay Blowing Things Up, 27 June 2014

Transformers [4]: Age of Extinction (PG-13, 2:45, Imax, 3-D) — SF, biggie, sequel

No, 4 hours' worth would not have earned 4 stars.

Many years ago, I saw a movie about the Crusades, told (naturally) from the perspective of the Christian West trying to "civilize" the blasphemous Musselmen who were profaning the Holy Land with their mere presence. (How much things have changed since the 12th Century, eh?) During a truce, Richard the Lion-Hearted hosted Saladin at a grand feast in his royal tent and, wanting to impress the infidel with his puissance, seized a broadsword and, with a single hack, clove a large, solid object in twain. Saladin politely applauded, then arose, flung a convenient filmy veil into the air, and held his curved blade edge up as the veil settled gently across it, hanging for just a moment before its own weight parted it cleanly. (Damascus steel, you know.)

I was properly impressed at the time — and the level of respect the film-maker had accorded to Saladin also formed a lasting memory for me — but the real take-home point was that battles were not necessarily won with thud and blunder but sometimes with subtlety and finesse.

Expect none of that from the nearly 3 hours of Michael Bay blowing things up in Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Good things first. (It won't take long.) Yes, the movie was really loud, but it wasn't outright deafening, like its 2 immediate predecessors. A fast-talking, well buffed Mark Wahlberg was a distinct upgrade from Shia LaBeouf in the role of The Human We're Supposed To Care About. The 1st half-hour or so, the warmup that featured real human interaction, had some welcome goofy moments from screenwriter Ehren Kruger.

OK, so much for that. Let's smash some things. Let's smash some more. Nope, not enuf, more! Is that all you've got? Smash some more. C'mon, sissies, more! Look, we've still got an hour left to go, let's get with it! Whack. Bash. Slam. Ka-blooie. Whang. Ba-doom. Crash. Whoom. Clang. Bzzzap. Brief interlude in the lab. Kapow. Blooey. Somehow we found ourselves in Hong Kong. Hack, hack, hack. Metal dinosaurs. Gratuitous fireworks. Stabby. Pokey. Scratchy. Scrapy. Rakey. Ships falling from the sky. Whangy. Rippy. Smash, smash, smash, smash, smash! Gentle ringing sound of circular object slowly spinning down. SMASH IT!!!

Who are these giant robots? Apparently we're supposed to know in advance, because they're never properly introduced in the movie, and they move in such close-up and so confusingly and quickly (no cut longer than 3 seconds, lest Bay be accused of Attention Deficit Aversion) that we never have any idea of which of them is doing what to which others. I get the vague impression that there was supposed to be a 3rd group of them in addition to the 2 traditional ones, but really they're all indistinguishable from each other, except for a few who spout bad dialog a la the #3 henchthug in a 1947 gangster film. And those are, I surmise, the good robots.

Oh, incidentally, there are some characters. The one that showed the most promise gets fried early. All the rest have the sort of good fortune and miraculous escapes that are the stuff of epic poetry, legends, and holy books. Then again 4-5 more times for good measure.

You'd think it would be difficult to get bored with all this non-stop action roiling across the screen, but about 130 minutes in I found myself imagining Megatron sidling up to his director during a break in the filming and asking "What's my motivation here?" I expect that Bay would be at a total loss for words. But he'd make up for it by blowing something up.

The Rover (2014)
7 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
Hard, Desperate, Slightly Crazed Men in a Hard, Desperate Society, 26 June 2014

The Rover (R, 1:43) — other: drama, 3rd string, original, OSIT cynics

We know this from the opening title card: It's Australlia, 10 years after "the collapse". That's the last nod to science fiction in the film, which is otherwise about hard, desperate, slightly crazed men in a hard, desperate society that might as well have been medieval Japan.

We learn this thru dialog: 4 such men have committed some kind of crime (never seen, even in flashback), and 3 of them are fleeing from the scene in their truck. The older of a pair of brothers, Henry (Scoot McNairy), has been shot in the leg and is in the truck; the younger, Rey (Robert Pattinson), a dimwit, was shot in the side and left for dead, but he wasn't.

We see this in the opening scene: A gaunt, grizzled, bearded loner in cargo shorts (Guy Pearce), sits brooding behind his steering wheel before bestirring himself to enter a ramshackle, isolated general store in the outer part of the Australian outback, where they sell limited amounts of expensive food, very limited amounts of very expensive petrol, ammunition, and serious, serious suspicion. The credits claim that this is Eric, but I don't recall him ever mentioning it, not even later, to the grandma who continuously importunes him for his name. As he nurses his mason jar of hooch, the overturned truck containing the 3 squabbling fugitive thugs slides by outside the store window.

That was probably the most expensive action scene in the whole film, which would have qualified as a bargain-basement production were it not for the presence of its 2 stars. There are few characters, almost no sets or locations, maybe 20 total costumes (mainly army surplus), and even dialog that appeared to be dispensed with eye-droppers. Screenwriter (and director) David Michôd was clearly not being paid by the word; the Pearce character in particular is monumentally taciturn.

The thugs get out of their truck, spot Eric's car standing nearby, hotwire it, and take off again. He immediately leaps into their truck (which has come to rest upright but entangled), rocks it out of its snare, and takes off after them. When they finally both stop for a confrontation, he is monomaniacal on a particular subject: "I want my cah back!" he repeatedly insists, in the thick Australian accent that makes it difficult to understand half of what limited dialog the movie offers up. And, despite the fact that the thieves are holding guns on him, he seems determined to beat that car out of them.

When he wakes up, they're long gone, but shortly thereafter, as he's trying to figure out what to do next, the halfwit Rey shows up, looking for the brother who abandoned him. These 2 form an uneasy partnership and set out on the trail of the desperados. Along the way they will encounter multiple hard-core and hard-luck types, and there will be a plethora of danger, punctuated by sudden, violent death.

About 99 minutes into the 103-minute run time, we finally find out why Eric was so damn obsessed with getting his cah back.

As I said, hard, desperate, and perhaps more than just slightly crazed.

The Signal (2014)
3 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Spoiler Bait — 1st 15 minutes described here, rest keeps getting weirder, 20 June 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The Signal — SF, 3rd string, original

An odd film. A trio of hyper-bright MIT students are on a road trip to California to deliver 1 of them (the cute one, Olivia Cooke) to a year's fellowship at Caltech, but the other 2 (the dorky one, Beau Knapp, and the rugged, athletic-looking guy with the crutches, Brenton Thwaites) want to take a little side excursion to a spot in rural Nevada which seems to be the point of origin of a mysterious computer signal that trashed their computer servers back in Cambridge and which has been heckling them about it ever since.

They drive down a rutted dirt road to find what appears to be a deserted shack, and they figure it must just be a relay point for a hidden operative located elsewhere, but the lads go poking around inside it anyway, when they hear screams coming from outside. They rush back out just in time to see the gal suddenly levitated, then everything goes black. When they wake up, they're flat on their backs in separate rooms, wearing hospital gowns, in a strange, all-white underground lab, surrounded by mysterious people in hazmat suits, only one of whom (Laurence Fishburne as Damon) ever talks to them, often from behind a 1-way mirror.

What's up? They spend the rest of the movie trying to (a) find out and (b) get out.

It's a puzzlebox of a movie. It didn't need much of a budget, but it's well scripted (by William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank, and David Frigerio), aside from repeated obscure flashbacks by Nic (the viewpoint character), his legs all muscular, running thru the woods, pausing beside a rushing stream, and riding on a carnival tilt-a-whirl. We keep waiting for these scenes to contribute some explanatory power to the situation, but they never do, so in the end they're just a distracting annoyance.

There are few other characters, and — aside from the central 3 — they're all strangely "off" somehow. The actors sell them well. The plot keeps your attention all the way thru. It's an original. All of these are plusses. The main downsides are the credibility gaps, but if you go into it without conventional expectations, you'll probably be able to slide past them.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Groundhog D-Day with BFGs, 6 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (PG-13, 1:53, Imax, 3-D) — SF, biggie, original

Officially sourced from the Hiroshi Sakurazaka novel All You Need Is Kill, this movie will never escape the comparison to Groundhog Day, where the protagonist (here Tom Cruise instead of Bill Murray) is required to live the same day over and over until he gets it right and can finally escape into the future. What, does that make it derivative? Yeah, sure, because it reworks a concept so overused that you can remember picky little details of its predecessor — like the snowball fight or the alarm-clock song — 21 years later. When's the last time you saw a hair's-breadth escape from a car crash, volley of gunfire, or exploding bomb and thot to yourself "Golly, THAT'S original!"

The comparison I encourage you to make is to Greg Bear's Nebula-winning short story "Hardfought".

Here the day being relived occurs not in placid Punxsatawney, PA, but rather on the beaches of Normandy. Not the Normandy of D-Day 1944 (tho the movie was released on its 70th anniversary, doubtless by pure coincidence) but rather one of the near future, when a meteor smashing into Hamburg, Germany (seen briefly in an opening montage of TV news clips), has emitted a ravening horde of kinetic alien sea anemones that rapidly overspread Europe like, um, a ravening horde of Nazis (maps included). Human resistance seems futile until the Battle of Verdun (no, not THAT one, THIS one), when a heroine emerges: Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), quickly dubbed "the Angel of Verdun", who seems to be everywhere on the battlefield, able to anticipate the enemy's every move and provide just the right counter to it. On TV news coverage, this is credited by US Army Major William Cage (Cruise), a former PR flack, to "new technology".

Of course, as is customary in war, the first casualty of battle is the truth. There was no new technology involved. Instead, as we soon learn, Vrataski's abilities were a fluke, the result of her having been initially killed at the Battle of Verdun by an alpha-type alien that got some of its blood on her. It turns out that alpha blood, now mixed with hers, enables her to restart the day whenever she dies. So that's what she does, hundreds of times, each time learning exactly what to do to avoid her previous death until she finally prevails.

But wait, there's more. There's a flaw in her plan of continual resurrection. Eventually she's just wounded instead of killed, she gets a blood transfusion, and that thins out her time-shifting abilities to the point where they no longer work. Now she's just an ordinary soldier (tho admittedly by far the most experienced one on the planet), when into her lap drops Cage, a former ROTC guy who isn't trained for warfare, isn't any good at it, and wants nothing whatever to do with it. That's why he too was killed (also by a splattery alpha, as it happens) 5 minutes into the invasion he was press-ganged into. Rita's job becomes to prepare him for combat, join him on the battlefield, and keep killing him until he gets it right.

Of course, each day that Cage comes back, he's initially confronted with non-coms who think he's just a shirker looking to desert as soon as possible, so he has to figure out a reliable way of outwitting them as quickly as possible so he can get busy with the real work. The movie gives us 1 or 2 quick tastes of what this must be like without beating it to death. The rest of the film is building up the choreography step by step, using trial and error, without ever having seen the full dance demoed.

Hanging like a sword of Damocles over the whole proceeding is the knowledge that the alien's central controlling omega organism — Cage and Rita's ultimate goal — is itself capable of fiddling with time.

After you walk out of the theater, you may find yourself asking questions like "Where was our air support?", "Why didn't we just nuke 'em with ICBMs?", or "Why was Paris awash in water?", but none of that occurs to you in the midst of the action, which is a mark of a movie that effectively causes you to suspend your disbelief.

Maleficent (2014)
0 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
An Interesting Frozen-Like Variant on an Old Fairy Tale, 5 June 2014

Maleficent (PG, 1:37, Imax, 3-D) — fantasy: fairy tales; biggie; formula; OSIT feminists

Well, after only a week, you're probably out of chances to see Maleficent in Imax (as Edge of Tomorrow takes over the big screen at 8 PM), but it'll still be available in 3-D as well as 2-D. IMO, not worth the premium price for either of the frills.

I enjoyed Maleficent and give it a 7, but I guess I was hoping for more. In particular, if you saw Super 8, you know what a tremendous talent Elle Fanning is, and that was back in 2011. Here she plays the role of Aurora, the sleeping beauty who's the ostensible central character of the original Grimm Brothers fairy tale, and all she's expected to do is skip about, smiling and perky, looking all dimpled and rosy-cheeked and fresh-faced, and very very blond. With so little to do, she comes off as perhaps a little dim or simple in addition to being cloyingly vapid. But she clearly has a heart of gold, and that endears her to all who meet her.

The odd couple here are the super-powerful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and the power- obsessed peasant boy Stefan (Sharlto Copley from District 9), denizens of naboring kingdoms with radically different lifestyles. Stefan's is a typical ruff-and-ready, ruthless, medieval human kingdom, while The Moors, where Maleficent hangs out with a host of animated (but universally insignificant) critters, is a literal fairyland. They meet young and hit it off, but as they grow older, Stefan's ambition leads him to betray Maleficent, and he cuts off her wings to present to his king as evidence that he has vanquished the chief defender of the naboring realm.

Maleficent, horrified and outraged, waits until Stefan — now elevated to the throne — hosts a christening celebration for his new-born dotter before exacting her revenge, in the form of a curse upon the infant that she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel before sundown on her 16th birthday and fall into a deep sleep, awakenable only by love's true kiss. That's the basic fairy tale, and the rest of the movie is devoted to the untold part of the story, which is not as neat and clean as has come down to us in legend.

Suffice it to say that neither Maleficent nor her pet crow are beings you want to be on the bad side of, and Disney pulls out all of its special effect to underline the point. I would've preferred a little more humanity, altho, to be fair, one of the reasons Imax was overkill for this is that much of the screen time is devoted to closeups of the characters. But they're mainly just doing completely in-character line readings.

I suppose I shouldn't expect too much realism in what's basically a fairy tale. And it puts a nice feminist gloss on the tired helpless-princess trope. Still, I ended up wanting more.

Godzilla (2014)
0 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Everything You Expect in a Godzilla Movie, Nothing You Don't, 16 May 2014

Godzilla (2014, 2:03, PG-13, Imax, 3-D) — SF, biggie, remake

It's everything you expect in a Godzilla movie and nothing you don't. Special effects are bigger and better than ever before. I saw it in Imax (worth it for the big screen and big sound, not so much for the retrofitted 3-D, which is nothing special).

If you were expecting meaty roles for top-notch actors Bryan Cranston, Julette Binoche, and Ken Watanabe, too bad. The first 2 are killed off early, and Watanabe mainly just stands around with his mouth open (tho he and sidekick nuclear engineer Victoria Graham do get a couple of minutes to unload the only exposition the screenwriters figured the audience would sit still for). At no point does anyone question why creatures that feed on electromagnetic energy need such huge mouths and so many teeth.

Elizabeth Olsen is utterly wasted in a throw-away fretting-mom role, and the nominal hero of the whole shebang, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (much buffed up since regularly getting his ass kicked in the title role in Kick-Ass) stoicizes as a Marine lieutenant thru a series of disasters that he just happens to be in time to witness as he follows nature-balancing Gojira and its 2 new nemeses, a male and female mating pair of MUTOs, across the Pacific where they will jointly devastate San Francisco for a change, after warming up with Honolulu and Las Vegas.

Blessedly, the movie-makers let us see the creatures fairly early (instead of teasing us with obscure distance shots and partial glimpses for much of the movie) and at full size. Unlike the Transformer movies and Pacific Rim, you can actually see who's doing what to whom else at reasonable distances, and at speeds resembling real time. Good shot composition and no soft-pedaling of the destruction involved, tho the PG-13 rating is preserved by showing us essentially none of what had to be a gargantuanly massive toll of deaths and injuries.

Godzilla gets bigger with every incarnation, and this one is no exception, making it perfectly believable that some forces of nature (like Antarctic glaciers, sunspots, and giant radioactive Japanese lizards) are so powerful that humanity is helpless before them. Really, with CGI technology as advanced as it's gotten, there's no upper limit on creature size, certainly not the frequently and cheerfully ignored square-cube rule. I expect that soon we'll be seeing Galactus gracing the big screen.

Of more substantial interest, the opening trailers included one for Christopher Nolan's latest mind-blower, Interstellar, due out Nov. 7. It's not the case that the trailer alone is worth the price of admission, but it's value added.

14 out of 29 people found the following review useful:
Boring, Pretentious, Cognition-Free, but Naked Scarlett, 21 April 2014

Under the Skin (1:48, R) — 4 — SF; 3rd string, original; OSIT chauvinists

I realize that lately I've been handing out mainly 6es and 7s, but that doesn't mean I've abandoned all critical judgment, it just happens to be a coincidental run of pretty good movies.

To reassure you that, yes, there are worse flix out there, I cite for you the OTHER film in which Scartlett Johanssen stars this month: Under the Skin, a no-bones-about-it art film playing at Sundance Cinema. Based on its artistic merits alone, it deserves a 3, but my reviews are my personal opinions, so it gets bumped into the up-to-you range due to the many opportunities to watch Ms. Johanssen disrobe. YMMV.

You can tell right off the bat that it's going to be pretentious when the opening 15 seconds comprise a silent black screen, and the rest of the opening minute or 2 is a tiny pinpoint of white light in the center ssssllllllooooowwwwwllllyyy growing larger and transforming into a series of shiny circular shapes that slllloooowwwwwllllyyyy morph into each other. This motif is apparently offered sui generis and never recurs. So, check mark for "pretentious".

The check mark for "tedious" is justified by the glacial pacing, best exemplified by 20% of the movie being medium shots of our nameless protagonist behind the wheel of her big white panel van, devoid of expression, driving around what appears to be Edinburgh looking for lone male pedestrians. Really, a little of this would've gone a long way, but apparently Director Jonathan Glazer enjoyed extended periods of watching his star at work.

The extremely limited dialog is all vapid small talk exchanged in mumbles or chowder-thick Scottish accents, adequate to establish a mood and obviously not intended to convey any useful or interesting information, as this seems to be a cognition-free zone.

Intermittently a mystery motorcycle guy careens buzzingly down a deserted highway for about 30 seconds, to no obvious purpose and without any visible connection to the rest of the story.

Oh, the SF angle. She's an alien, as we finally see in the last 5 minutes of the movie. But by then we'd inferred that something bizarre was up, due to the repeated scenes of her and a series of guys walking sssllllloooowwwwllllyyyy across all-white or all-black backgrounds, dropping articles of clothing as they go.

If you're looking for a GOOD off-beat movie with "skin" in the title, go for Pedro Almodovar's 2011 The Skin I Live In.

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