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Icarus (I) (2017)
9/10
Dope
8 September 2017
Icarus, much like its mythological namesake, starts out openly enough. Writer/director Bryan Fogel, obviously undergoing a mid-life crisis, seeks to rise above his competition and win an long-eluded amateur bike race by subscribing to a doping program ala Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton. His gonzo-ish film about cheating the system then takes a serious turn as he flies extremely close to the sun by becoming involved with Russian doping superstar, Grigory Rodchenkov, just prior to the 2016 summer Olympics and Russian scandal – the doping scandal that is, taking into consideration another very serious scandal that occurred in the United States later that year in November, an event this film alludes to.

Fogel's film presents a complete analysis of Russia's athletic doping program and its pervasive influence on all of its athletes while providing a revealing look at how the conspiracy came to light leading to the eventual banning of 68 Russian athletes from Rio. The documentary is so compelling you cannot look away.

Rodchenkov, who comes across as a favorite crazy uncle, blasts away on camera with truths and proofs that lead to WADA and the IOC's landmark decision. Rodchenkov equally has no problems with broadcasting his opinions concerning President Vladimir Putin's fear-laden regime. If Putin and the KGB can easily evade the IOC, imagine what other high-level larceny exists that can be used to, ahem, trump other standards.

Icarus presents art dictating life, where one rather flaky story uncovers a very-real conspiracy that affects so many. This is not merely a sports documentary, rather a politically human one with real consequences, and needs to be viewed. Here's hoping the Academy's nomination committee is taking note, as Icarus has the potential to win gold of its own.
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Spectral (2016)
7/10
Video-Game Action; Direct-Release Scripting
6 January 2017
Let's play nice and call Spectral an homage to a heap of sci-fi films and not a mash-up of clichés from all that has come before. A mash-up, yes, but certainly a nice-looking one at that.

James Badge Dale, proving he had leading-man chops, as evident from HBO's The Pacific, stars in first-time director Nic Mathieu's sci-fi muscle film that provides more hardcore military meat than a Michael Bay Transformers film. Dale plays a scientist invested in designing protective tech for the US Army of the very-near future when he is assigned to accompany a Delta Force unit on the field in Moldova who have encountered, well, ghosts. Ghosts that can fly through walls and humans, the latter of which immediately perishes upon contact.

Mathieu's constantly-moving camera-work and in-your-face visuals are slick and surprisingly high-quality, thanks to the use of Weta for the F/X work. The story, however, is nothing more than an outline for the big-bang shoot 'em-ups and creepy apparitions. The Delta Force team members are mostly faceless fodder smacking of, but lacking the charisma of, the marines from Aliens; they even rescue a blonde girl who has been scavenging and hiding out safe from the ghosts in the inner workings of an old factory. Later, when Delta has the chance to regroup and restock, they are luckily holed up with enough provisions and workable gear that would make B.A. Baracus smile with glee, welding torch in hand.

The overall premise of Spectral makes for fun viewing. The film's a fast-paced video game where the viewer doesn't mind playing the third person role. And while the story briefly describes the HOW of the ghosts, the WHY is untouched resulting in an unfulfilled feeling as the convenient failsafe stopping the threat is thrown allowing the credits roll. The quick wrap-up makes you think that if there were a couple more available quarters to feed into the slot, the story could continue with a more satisfying ending.
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Luke Cage (2016– )
7/10
CAGE needs more Power, Man
23 October 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Marvel has had a successful outing on Netflix, and the latest, Luke Cage, certainly has all the makings of a another hit by the numbers. Critically speaking, this is the most disappointing of Marvel's three series. By no means is Luke Cage awful, rather, lacking at best and, for two episodes anyway, even downright boring.

Huge props to Mike Colter who plays the titular hero with swag, class and charm. This series has definitely shown that not only is he a good actor, but he can definitely lift the lifeblood of a show on his large, 2XL-shoulders, something that was questionable during his guest-star appearances on Jessica Jones.

What Luke Cage was lacking was an intense, and let's face it, better-written villain. Mahershala Ali's Cottonmouth had the potential to be something great – a Kingpin for Harlem, a character that has good intentions, but uses questionable means for execution – but was dispatched entirely too early for the inevitable rise and fall. Erik LaRay Harvey's Diamondback was an ill-fitting substitute antagonist; a cliché comicbook villain with a one- note revenge scheme and an invisible moustache to twirl.

Marvel has been doing its best to ground these Netflix heroes, but in doing so, should have looked to past, counter to what Pops always told Luke, and instead of creating a super- powered force for the big street brawl, and maintained a Lou-Ferrigno-as-the-Hulk beat- down of goons with guns while smashing through walls. Sweet Christmas, that would have shown some power, man.
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6/10
A DVD Featurette… unholy expanded
5 August 2015
Like it or not, George A. Romero truly is the father of today's horror cinema. The original "Dead" trilogy – NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY – accomplish that simple truth in unveiling a very human metaphor wrapped in the grisly package of blood-letting entertainment. And why not celebrate the man and his accomplishments? Perhaps dig deep into the motives and industry tales of movie-making. Perhaps that is what Rob Kuhns set out to do with his BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD documentary. Unfortunately, the data unearthed in BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD could have been a solid DVD featurette. Instead, an additional 40 minutes of repetitiveness was added, dragging the film down as a lumbering, undead walker.

To its credit, BIRTH sets the stage of 1968 America, when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released, quite well providing key insights to the civil rights movement as well as to the fact that NIGHT stars an African American. Likewise, the documentary gets right into how – and why – the film was made and some of the issues and trickery Romero and his crew employed during production and editing; Romero himself is presented as both jolly and candid.

Then the film rinses and repeats. And repeats. And, oh, did you forget that NIGHT starred an African American? Well hold on tight, you'll be reminded in just a few short minutes as horror film director Larry Fessenden will tell you how great the original film is and repeat the lines verbatim for the camera.

Granted, the docu's subject is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but that topic alone screams out for accompaniment. There was absolutely no mention of the 1990 remake, nor the 2004 remake of DAWN. And obviously the most apparent of Romero's offspring – THE WALKING DEAD – is only shown as a background image.

Kuhns showed the historical relevance of NIGHT, but only provided the merest taste of its social impact, a taste that was sorely missed.
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Tusk (2014)
6/10
The awful TOOTH about TUSK
6 April 2015
Amusing and certainly original, TUSK makes a nice mockery of the horror-torture clique without becoming an all-out parody. Unfortunately, when the film obligingly reaches into the realm of the complete ridiculous, the cleverness of it all falls apart. What TUSK does to correctly, and does well, is rely on the one strength of writer/director Kevin Smith: fantastic situational dialogue.

Smith is, when he wants to rise from his all-too easy reliance of mediocre potty humor, a good story-teller. He knows how to sculpt and pace dialogue, to craft an engaging tale, and how to mix in well-timed humor. Examples of such are immediately evident in three scenes: Wallace (Justin Long) in the Canadian convenience store, Howard Howe's (Michael Parks) introduction, and Guy Lapoint's flashback tale. The story itself is both comical and disturbing in a self-deprecating way, but a messy third act is ambiguous in deciding which swim lane to take – deadpan horrific or goofy schlock. The straddle ultimately presented leaves the film unfulfilled.

Smith being Smith, is an equally-opportunity offender making fun of Canadians, podcasters, mustaches, and Latino accents. Regrettably, a majority of the film's blatant third-act humor comes as the result of the ridiculousness of the "guest-star," setting the final focus of the film as murky as aquarium pool water drastically deviating away from any self-righteous statements on horror-torture films but also of any clever wittiness.
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Stoker (2013)
7/10
Suspenseful. Alluring. Slow.
17 April 2014
STOKER is a surprisingly decent indie film written by an American television actor, directed by a Korean known for violent action flicks, all told in a suspenseful vein that Alfred Hitchcock would find suitably satisfactory, especially with the themes presented within: loner child, daddy issues, ignorant mother, suspicious uncle and death, death, death.

Mia Wasikowska is India, the likeably-cliché intelligent teen who turns her focus from the ridicule suffered at school and the inattention of her depressed mother – the un-aging Nicole Kidman – to that of her mysteriously-alluring uncle, who may have clues regarding her father's death from when she was a child. Uncle Charles, played straight faced-creepy by Matthew Goode, offers India freedom, knowledge and empowerment as well as a few lessons that aren't always part of the standard learning curve.

Chan-wook Park constructs a visually beautiful movie that perfectly reflects the images, dreams and even memories that would belong to a solitary young woman, all which provide visual clues to the mystery at large. The excellent score by Clint Mansell completes the imagery. However, the first act of the film is terribly slow as the images alone don't move the narrative forward. Likewise, India's journey becomes too forced in order to reach the film's resolution. Park appears to be more interested in the look of the mystery than getting into the actual character impetus behind that mystery.

STOKER is an enjoyable film to watch. The film is also a killer to get frustrated over.
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Trance (I) (2013)
7/10
Cool but forgettable
19 December 2013
Danny Boyle's latest, TRANCE, contains many elements that made his previous films so successful: kinetic photography, slick editing, a killer electronic soundtrack, hip dialogue, and a heist too good to be true. By those standards alone, Boyle's TRANCE is a fun, twisty ride. Unfortunately, the film is also derivative, shallow and frustrating.

An art heist gone wrong requires Simon (James McAvoy) to seek the council of Dr. Lamb, a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson), in order to recover stolen, and now forgotten, artwork in order to pay off his debits to underworld baddie Franck, played by the always-cool Vincent Cassel. A fun play on the typical whodunit motif kicks in as the viewer is drawn into Simon's sympathetic plight and intrigued by Lamb's involvement as her trances procures more and more information from Simon's damaged mind.

Unfortunately, the film devolves into trickery previously seen – and better played at – in INCEPTION as the twist – oh yes, of course there is a big twist – is unsubtly thrown into the criminal mix coming as a surprise to only those, like Simon, with brain damage. McAvoy's character rapidly deteriorates into an anti-hero that no one would care about while Franck is nearly elevated into the heroic role, but at a point way too late in the story to capture the viewer's emotional buy- in. Dawson's Lamb, also goes through monumental changes, but for most of the film she is simply presented as eye candy, which simply relegates her character to a boring cliché of the femme fatale role.

TRANCE does entertain and is fun to watch and be carried away with. Of course, this would all be better if it could also be forgotten with the snapping of fingers.
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Superheroes (2011)
5/10
SUPERHEROES. Fighting for Truth, Justice… and their own Comicbook.
19 December 2013
Hollywood has perhaps reached its saturation point with comic book and superhero movies with every film now becoming more of an event: a-list stars, groundbreaking f/x, tie-ins, lead-ins and hints at a larger universe packed with even more superheroes. Maybe it's time to take a step back. Show a real hero, totally DIY. Mike Barnett has attempted this.

The WATCHMEN Blu-ray set contains a featurette interviewing "real life" superheroes. Mostly these were young men wearing bulky costumes of sewn together sports equipment and pronounced delusions of grandeur; although one interviewee was ex-military and simply patrolled as a concerned citizen in fatigues and a buzz cut. The HBO documentary SUPERHEROES amps this idea into a feature-length spectacle.

Mike Barnett presents a typical day-in-the-life perspective of the non- typical man-in-tights. Or clunky plastic armor. With names, among others, like Mr. Xtreme, Zimmer and, ahem, Master Legend. Although their hearts are in the right place, a food-and-clothing drive conducted and distributed to and for the homeless of San Diego being a very worthy effort, their heads most definitely are not. Barnett shows these heroes as misguided - Mr. Xtreme possess no guide in life other than comicbooks, which he reads obsessively in his van – publicity-seeking – an unintentionally-hilarious Master Legend drinks and cavorts with college girls in that crime-ridden gotham of Orlando – or thrill-seeking – the NYC-based Zimmer who patrols dark streets just looking for a head to bash in.

Unfortunately, Barnett's docu never presents a clear viewpoint. Are these losers real and sympathetic, slaves to a worthy ideal? Or are they to be mocked at? Severely. Throughout the film the viewer does both. But they shouldn't. At times, the film appears to be as just as a rambling mess as Mr. Xtreme on patrol: sometimes boring, at times embarrassingly cringe-worthy. Also unfortunately, the preventing of crimes, or exacting flying fists of justice as Zimmer so obviously wants, never occurs. Giant aliens don't attack. There are no criminal masterminds' plans to foil. Not even a simple grab-and-run from the local 7-Eleven. This exacerbates the question running through the whole film: so what?

Hey, if anything, the film invites you to grab a drink with Master Legend. He has a Facebook page.
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Lincoln (2012)
9/10
A most excellent look at a personage of historical significance
1 May 2013
Daniel Day-Lewis steals the show as the title character in LINCOLN, but by all rights, the film itself could have been named "AMENDMENT XIII" as the second act's energy, as well as most of the third, is focused on the debate in the House to abolish slavery nearly leaving Lincoln himself as just a witness to history while a cast of character actors from screens both big and small pound tables and chests alike in a grandiose fashion.

Director Steven Spielberg, and his long-time cinematic director of photography Janusz Kaminski, created a gorgeous movie where they carefully and beautifully frame each shot allowing the audience to play historical witness. Similar to Spielberg's work in MUNICH, the camera is expertly placed, rarely moving, allowing for a perfect spectacle of a scene: be it the aftermath of a bloody battle, the always-smoky rooms where speech itself has somewhere to hide, a rocking chair on a rickety floor that looks ancient even for 1865, or the bright, winter sunlight filtered through the gauze of a window furnishing or a washed-out flag. Likewise, Day-Lewis himself is always framed, the camera accenting on his height, catching the lines in the gray of his face as he bears the weight of a nation divided playing equal parts father, preacher, lawyer and, most of all, grand storyteller.

The film, however, keenly focuses on those individual glances but the overall story itself is not as put-together. A series of poignant, incredibly-acted, well-constructed scenes are displayed; each scene a marvelous production complete with conflict, character exposition and beautiful dialogue. Yet these scenes are nearly staged as free-standing productions by themselves and, other than the overarching story detailing the end of Civil War and the proposition of Amendment XIII, miss any flow connecting them and strengthening that overall narrative.

Again, it is the presence of Day-Lewis who provides the human touch to the drama of politics. Amidst the yelling and the smoke and the death that incorporates nearly every scene, Day-Lewis' Abraham Lincoln has the ability to smile and, in a move completely foreign to modern-day presidents, sit and speak with the everyday man. He knows this is who is fighting his war and also knows that these very same people will find their own strength to rebuild America. Like a grandfather, he has stories to tell bringing relevance and peace to the chaos of the day, just not his with own family where a slightly-miscast Sally Field, playing Mrs. Lincoln, adds embarrassment and strife while Joseph Gordon- Levitt, as Lincoln's eldest, wants to be the attention-grabbing rebellious son but at least maintains his nobility, even when being ignored.

Spielberg elevates the spirit of the man, in a similar manner to what he accomplished with Oskar Schindler, by bringing relevance and importance to that man's place in history. Spielberg shows a man who was able to work both with and around Congress, wanted peace badly enough to fight for it and was taken much too abruptly leaving any future potential into the smoke of history.
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6/10
Spirit of Vengeance: charred, but not hot
1 March 2013
The fact that Ghost Rider is a b-comicbook character at best should bring no surprise that a movie of said character would be of similar ilk. GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE is the ultimate b-movie complete with b-grade actors (welcome back to the silver screen Christopher Lambert), a generic plot (the only way for the devil's power to survive is by taking over the young body of his progeny), lots of guns, a villainous threat whose true evil power is the insane amount of cliché dialogue, and a feisty damsel in distress. Yet movies like these always have a way of capturing a little of that comicbook magic empowering their young-ish fanboy fanbase with elements of cool.

This sequel finds Nic Cage hiding out from the world – and his curse – in Eastern Europe where he rambles about evil as his eyeballs bug out of their sockets. When not being a true-to-life documentary showcase, Cage reprises his role as the quirky and sometimes-demonic Johnny Blaze who gets thrown into action alongside the always-hip Idris Elba, who is apparently the go-to guy for comicbook actions films – this being his third.

Gone is the forced romance from the first film. Instead, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor focus on Blaze's anguish and a cure for his curse. The directors also get clever with the Rider's look giving him a simple, charred look like he's been on the grill for a week too long, adding to the anguish. Their choppy editing and shaky camera work lend to the Nu Metal look that is very chic in Hot Topic.

Unfortunately, the film's simplistic plot gets too convoluted degrading further into the typical you've-seen-it-a-million-times-before shoot 'em up and highway chase scene. Ghost Rider's dialogue is kept to a minimum as much as Cage's is not – but he never gets to truly cut loose into a- quality action, even though it appeared that the f/x budget would allow such, and, surprisingly, doesn't get a lot of face time. And a Ghost Rider film without Ghost Rider, is just another bravura performance of Cage's body language.

GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE offers a fun, but not all-together great, look at property that has the potential to be so much hotter.
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Argo (2012)
10/10
The "Fake Picture" becomes a real hit
19 October 2012
In the film ARGO, producer Lester Siegel, played by Academy Award winner Alan Arkin, puts forth real effort into making a fake film a success as a perfect ruse to rescue six wanted Americans hiding at the Canadian Ambassador's residence during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The triple-threat of Ben Affleck (ARGO's Producer-Director-Star) must have channeled the spirit of Siegel (the character for the film was the amalgamation of real-life f/x coordinator Bob Sidell and producer Barry Gellar) as he, along with fellow producers and Hollywood heavies George Clooney and Grant Heslov, created a very real, very memorable film crafted with the utmost of professionalism in detailing the story's plight and rescue.

Affleck ups his game with his third directorial stint and moves away not only from his usual Boston locales but also from the present day. In doing so, he completely immerses the viewer into the period of the film. Alongside the requisite horror show that was the 70s fashion style as well as carefully-placed Star Wars memorabilia – that no doubt brought a tear to the eyes of fanboy friend Kevin Smith – Affleck restaged the storming of the US embassy with the all-too real documentary feel and cast lesser-known actors into the roles of the Americans allowing their performance, not their celebrity status, to carry the show.

Interchanged with this, is the flawless, and at times welcoming, editing of the situation in LA as Affleck's character, CIA operative Tony Mendez, wheels and deals with Hollywood to create a tight cover story, the kind that only Tinseltown can. Affleck portrays LA as an open, bright and aloof place, contrasting the tight, grainy and oppressive situation in Tehran. Modern-day Hollywood itself makes the most subtle of appearances during the film's climax through some of the drama during the airport escape including an almost-forced chase scene.

Backed with John Goodman's smile and Bryan Cranston barking orders like he's on the set of a Glen Larson TV show, Affleck delicately builds the tension leading up to the escape. Much like Cameron's TITANTIC, the ending of the film is known, but the wielding of the personal dynamics, which is just one of reasons that made THE TOWN so incredibly good, proves Affleck's acumen. Affleck provides a fast-paced, suspenseful and, at times, humorous film that makes for great storytelling. Even more importantly, ARGO furthers solidifies Affleck's talent as writer/director and distancing himself from his roles in a host of truly-poor rom-coms and actioneers from the early 2000's.
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The Town (2010)
10/10
A great spotlight for Affleck's talents
19 July 2012
Let's admit to a solemn truth here: heist flicks are as formulaic as any other genre film. One grand heist leads to another, more often than not there is at least one car chase, the alpha male falls for a woman, said male decides to leave his life of crime, which leads to his final escape, be that successful or not.

Let's now subscribe to another truth, this one more recent: Ben Affleck has matured well beyond his Armageddon and PEARL HARBOR foibles both in front of and, perhaps even more importantly, behind the camera. THE TOWN, then, is beautiful example of the craft of the heist formula executed perfectly and proves that Affleck, his second outing as a director, is one helluva storyteller.

Based on the Chuck Hogan novel "Prince Of Thieves", THE TOWN follows a bank robbing troupe led by Affleck with Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner along for the ride and overseen by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite all while being pursued by Jon Hamm's G-Man. Aside from the life-as-a-criminal angle, significant insight is given to Affleck and Renner's relationship, complete with daddy-issues – performed in a killer scene by Chris Cooper – and the budding romance with Rebecca Hall. The drama in these characters' lives proves to be just as strong and important as that of the robberies themselves.

And that grand heist? None other than the theft of ticket sales from Fenway Stadium and Affleck even films inside the holy internal works of the Green Monster. Affleck's direction throughout the film is meticulous and tight showing the audience his exact view on the story itself.

THE TOWN is an entertaining, well-executed movie and a great vehicle for spotlighting Affleck's talents. Also, it should be noted, this is the film that got Renner his recent super-hero and spy gigs and, more importantly, should have brought him an Oscar as well, the absence of which is the true crime here.
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State of Play (2009)
9/10
A Great Newspaper Story
18 July 2012
STATE OF PLAY, the film from director Kevin McDonald (LAST KING OF Scotland, TOUCHING THE VOID) and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (BOURNE trilogy, DUPLICITY), successfully incorporates the high points from the successful BBC miniseries of the same name but does something the series could not, which is the incorporation of the near-irrelevance of print media into a much-better-than-standard conspiracy thriller.

In the film, seasoned newspaper writer Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is led into story involving assassins, military contractors, a U.S. Congressman (Ben Affleck), his wife (Robin Wright Penn), an affair and even a few murders, just for emphasis. Affleck's Stephen Collins, a friend of McAffrey's, is caught in an affair with his aide after she is found dead, and then pronounced murdered. McAffrey helps his friend, and Collins' wife, but is truly committed to the story, as well as any truths that might be associated along with that.

The "quest for the story" element is how the film differs from the mini- series, which was more involved in the personal relations of the key characters. Set in the end of the 21st Century's first decade, Crowe's McAffrey is dedicated to the dying art of investigative journalism, which is quickly being replaced with up-to-second blogs, represented in the film by young writer Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). Overseeing, and adding to, this tension is the editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who is giving both reporters a short-leash leeway with their respective styles but is ultimately concerned with circulation, satisfying a corporate buy-out and keeping her staff employed.

Cal and Della work – and work well – both as independent rogues as well as uneasy partners in a pseudo-traditional mentor/apprentice relationship as they deal with both the story and the future of the newspaper biz. The conspiracy elements of the film are good with plenty of keep-the-audience-guessing moments along with a few comedic bits from Jason Bateman, whose character has had dealings with the murdered aide. However even more interesting is how STATE OF PLAY comes across as a love letter to the dying newspaper breed with Cal passing the pen-and- paper torch off to Della's blogs and tweets.
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Crazy Heart (2009)
9/10
Pick up your Crazy Heart
11 July 2012
Country music, and I mean good, soulful music that both comes from and punches you in the heart, often tells an honest story, sometimes exaggerated. That story can have ups and downs, tell tales of love lost and love found, even for one night, and probably makes more than one reference to drinking all night, bowling alley bar assumed. This good, raw music helps tell the story of one Bad Blake, who epitomizes that cowboy soundtrack, and no one other than Jeff Bridges could pull off such a character study as found in Scott Cooper's CRAZY HEART.

Bad is a living cliché. In his prime his stature would have made him a contemporary of the Highwaymen and his charisma certainly a welcome addition – as it stands, Bridge's Oscar-worthy performance eases together elements of both Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. But his prime is now well good and done and he consigned to playing bowling alley bars with session bands that idolize the man looking past the fact that he's more a drunk than a singer. But then true love hits and his muse returns, as Maggie Gyllenhaal's plucky single-mom reporter, giving way to a new song.

Bridges IS the film and lays out Bad's life in a true train-wreck style. As off-the-rails he gets, though, the constant twinkle in his eye proves that he is a charmer and endears the viewer to the character. One of the provided insights is his relation to Colin Farrell's Tommy Sweet, a one- time Bad Blake protégé who is now playing to sold-out amphitheaters. Bridges shows a range of complex emotions from resentment over Sweet's popularity, anger at the distance they kept, and prideful awe recognizing that Sweet truly is a performer. Farrell supplies his wonder factor proving that this Irish bloke can sing country – well.

As with many character-driven movies, the narrative tale becomes a minor chord and plays itself out with the familiarity of other songs. Instead of the typical elevator story of found fame - lost fame – regained fame, CRAZY HEART begins at the bottom and sinks lower before getting back to ground level. The progression of the man, however, the heart, is much more important that the trappings of a three-act format. To quote Bad, that's the way it is with good ones, you're sure you've heard them before. CRAZY HEART, and Jeff Bridge's Bad Blake, is among the best.
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Adventureland (2009)
9/10
True nostalgia; clever story; great characters
9 July 2012
Every couple of years a nostalgic film of note comes along allowing the previous generation to remember the glory days of old. Director Greg Mottola provides this with ADVENTURELAND, his follow up to the comedic hit SUPERBAD. Set smack in the late '80s, ADVENTURELAND tells the coming-of-age tale, which such movies are ought to do, of likable, Spielbergian every-boy James who schulbs along in the self-titled ma- and-pa run amusement park the summer before grad school.

Starring a pre-SOCIAL NETWORK Jessie Eisenberg as the likable lad, TWILIGHT's Kristen Stewart, getting her Indie-chops on, as the girl-of- his-dreams and a pre-GREEN LANTERN Ryan Reynolds as the bad boy who holds her heart. ADVENTURELAND plays to the clichés of the time wrapped around a soundtrack of familiar standards, including many that normally don't make the cinematic memory rounds, and, if anything, tells truths that most Gen-Xers either believe, lived through or simply fall prey to that great lie of "remember the time...?" when friends, co-workers or whoever just sorta hung out and talked.

With those truths is the, again, likable geek James, who could very well have been written into a John Hughes movie, learns, harshly, that a smooth life isn't handed out, you have to work and relationships aren't as perfect as one may think. Aside from some killer New Wave music, and Cold War paranoia, one of the things the 80s provided was the nuclear family sometimes detonated and that teenage infidelity was as rampant as Sylvester Stallone movies. ADVENTURELAND doesn't make importance of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, rather shows the importance of breaking walls between friends and how going on a date with the wrong girl has just as many consequences as the Iran-Contra Affair.

Greg Mottola successfully gives those that have been there a great memory and provides a laugh at times gone by for those that weren't. By the film's end, James needs not to crash his father's Ferrari to gain attention but also knows he's well past his sixteenth birthday to wait and nab the girl.
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9/10
I Will Choose Free Will
2 July 2012
A mash of sci-fi, fantasy and rom-com, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU works as a fun film, and actually works quite well as a suspend-your-disbelief narrative goes, mostly due to the believable chemistry between likable stars Matt Damon, a senator-to-be, and Emily Blunt, an NYC dancer.

Writer/director George Nolfi chose not to go easy with his first-time outing and decided to adapt a Philip K. Dick story, a tale in which every event in life is mapped out – and policed by fedora-wearing caseworkers – but two lovers meet as a result of a cosmic accident and, as if a modern-day Hitchcockian duo, decide to run against fate. The resulting genre flick is a meeting of the overlord concept from DARK CITY and the rebelling-against-prophesy ideals from the MATRIX, both of which parallel the age-old ordeal of the existence of free will. Damon does it with his Boston smile, Blunt with her accent.

Nolfi keeps the pace moving lightning quick, complete with a piano-heavy Thomas Newman score, and offers just enough exploration to keep the wow- factor accelerating giving neither the characters nor the viewer a chance to fully take a deep breath and put together the sense of it all. Is it truly to be believed that spilling your coffee is a planned event akin to the election of a president? However, the delivered world of the film is one of fun make-believe where impulsive choices are the best, properly-worn fedoras are still magical and Matt Damon takes the bus - daily.

Another theme that helps complete THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU story is the empowering choice to write your own ending. True, Damon and Blunt's David and Elise, may have had their destiny already assured, at least by the viewer, but that classic sci-fi theme that states the future is wide open, that destiny has not already been written, needs to be affirmed for the next generation, which is who, perhaps, Dick was writing to. Nolfi has helped with that vision.
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Super 8 (2011)
9/10
Super.
21 June 2012
Writer/director J.J. Abrams knows, if anything, to keep the pace up, sometimes even hitting 11. His monumental STAR TREK reboot played testament to this as characters, settings, intrigue, cosmic play and even the death of Winona Ryder came flying at warp factor 9 when, at times, it can be argued, a slower pace would be welcome to provide more character development. So too happens here with Abrams' latest, SUPER 8, but instead of playing with Gene Roddenberry's creations, an even higher-power is being paid homage to as this film feels as it could be set in Producer Steven Spielberg's backyard.

The film itself pays homage to the days of super-8 mm recordings and times when young boys made movies before becoming the next generation of Hollywood. So too here, a group of teenage friends plan to make a monster movie and instead end up as stars of the film itself. However, unlike in the aforementioned STAR TREK, where the characters, if anything their names, are already known, Abrams' fast pace prevents the viewer from getting any deeper into the lives and characters of these kids who are already deep into their long-term existing friendships. Outside of Joel Courtney's Joe and Elle Fanning's Alice, the other friends all kind of blend into the Goonies, Elliott's bicycle gang and Biff Tannen's nameless thugs.

Abrams does get a huge piece of the puzzle correct, and that is the everyday boy getting involved in the spectacular extraordinary all wrapped in a coming of age tale – the perfect Spielbergian formula. Courtney and Fanning are believable – enjoyable – teens and their fathers – Kyle Chandler for Joe, Ron Eldard for Alice – are both dramatic and fantastic. As the tale rockets by a little too quickly, their characters make for a great focal point of the story, even if Joe's bedroom, perhaps a little unbelievably, houses every bit of late 70s and early 80s toy collector nostalgia possible.

SUPER 8, like Joe's bedroom, is a wonderful vision of nostalgia. A bit derivative at times, a little glossed over at others. However, it would be hard to come by a finer example of a modern-day look at a time of fun films.
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Moon (2009)
10/10
Welcome to Lunar Industries. Enjoy your stay.
20 June 2012
Science Fiction used to be just that: fictional storytelling that has an underlying, relatable theme set in a fantastic environment pseudo- grounded within the realities of science. Authors like Heinlein, Bradbury and Dick understood and thrived in this medium, setting the tempo for the imaginations of the next generation; their film adaptations, for the most part, were not as spectacular. That next generation, however, seemed to forget the thematic elements of such stories and focused instead on the spectacle of fiction. MOON has the pleasure of recapturing that feel and the message of those tales from a by-gone era.

MOON is, essentially, a one-man play admirably performed by the Oscar- overlooked Sam Rockwell, playing Sam Bell, a miner overseeing a solo three-year operation on the moon. Bell spends his time focusing on his work, staving off boredom and interacting with the station's HAL-esque computer system, the Spielbergian-named GERTY, perfectly-voiced by a cold, or is that cool, Kevin Spacey. An accident out on the lunar surface gets Bell's attention that, surprise-surprise, things are not all well with Lunar Industries and that his indentured slavery to the corporation might be a greater price than imagined.

Directed by Duncan Jones, whose father knows a thing or two about the oddities of space, MOON absorbs the viewer into Bell's tight living space. The film's lo-fi F/X work to its benefit amplifying that classic sf-movie feel giving proper attention to the story, not the visuals. But as such, the look is starting real as is the permeable paranoia that also exists on the station, a paranoia that is enhanced by Clint Mansell's simple yet haunting orchestration, a paranoia that leads to a quest for escape. But who can escape the reaches of a corporation?

With MOON, Jones crafts a mystery around Bell's service, his life, and his destiny. He also brings into question how much of our souls are willingly sold to corporations and the almighty, intergalactic dollar as well as if we have what it would take to escape.
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Young Adult (2011)
8/10
Young Adult. Solid showing, missing some laughs.
15 June 2012
YOUNG ADULT, the latest from Hollywood Next-Gen'er Jason Reitman and the second pairing with Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, is a complex, compelling and, often times, creepy character piece focusing on an alcoholic author, the ginchiest of clichés admirably played by Oscar-overlooked Charlize Theron, who decides to reclaim the former greatness of her life by hooking up with her past true love in her past hometown. The catch being, of course, that said ex-love is happily married and, naturally, a new father. Bitterness and ignorance ensues.

Reitman's fourth outing gives Theron's Mavis plenty of screen time and Cody's dialogue shifts between the outrageous and the depressing. Unfortunately, the harmless supporting cast neither amplifies or compliments Mavis' behavior resulting in more-than-a one-sided tale that drains away the sarcastically-cool hip-factor Reitman is used to showing. Patton Oswalt's pop-culture nerd, although the most likable of the cast, is nothing more than a shade of a character from a Kevin Smith film (albeit nowadays, all of Smith's characters are shades, perhaps truly proving that you can't go home again), never getting daring. Patrick Wilson, the former flame, is a boring flicker of impotence, married to Elizabeth Reaser's forehead, a nag who would make a nice enough neighbor when not practicing on her drums.

YOUNG ADULT flirts with the fish-outta-water template and presents an exaggeration of opposite lifestyles but the story's outrageous flavor needs some habanera. Mavis is both pitied and laughed at but perhaps a little too real. Reitman and Cody made a fun, watchable film around an otherwise depressing character, but a few more extremes would result in a few more laughs, intentional or not.
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Duplicity (2009)
9/10
Duplicity – nothing but lies… except it's great
14 June 2012
DUPLICITY, by writer/director Tony Gilroy , of the BOURNE trilogy and MICHAEL CLAYTON fame, takes your standard heist plot and throws in elements of the perfect con game playing out a mutual mistrust that exists on every level from the main star pairing of Clive Owen and Julia Roberts to the always-outstanding supporting cast members of Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, where the only constant is that smart is sexy.

Gilroy plays fast and loose with a series of flashbacks and slick cuts reminiscent of a Soderberg Ocean's film that introduce Owen and Roberts' characters, professional liars that seemingly not only mistrust each other, but their employers as well. Or do they? The two engage not only in a game of cat-and-mouse in finding the secrets of a frozen pizza recipe - or is that the cure of male pattern baldness? – but also play out as lovers trading quips between kisses.

Dialogue and story both are crafted in a way to include the viewer into secrets shared among the parties as well as having key data excluded for the film's big reveal. In the meantime, the banter, equally subtle and obvious, between the corporate spies keeps the characters interesting. Gilroy utilizes his knowledge of spy-thrillers and works it in, almost with a comical wink, to the banality of everyday living. As such, having Claire Stenwick bat her eyelashes in a board room wearing a St. John power suit is a compromisingly-believable fantasy than Jason Bourne driving a Mini Cooper backwards on the Bahnhofplatz in Zurich.

Fun, hip and full of those falsehoods that make great films, DUPLICITY may not steal away the spy-grifter film genre, but should have enough lire in its bank account for a long-term Roman holiday legacy.
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Coraline (2009)
9/10
Henry Selick's animation masterpiece
11 June 2012
Henry Selick, director of cult-classic and animation masterpiece THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE Christmas, offers up another piece of animation magic and proves that he can do so without the creative help of Tim Burton. Of course, working from a story written by graphic novel wizard Neil Gaiman certainly has its advantages.

The star and titular character of the story, Coraline, is the perfect imaginative kid for a perfect imaginative tale, set in a similar vein as the children from Narnia or even Dorothy Gale… if both were re-imagined by the aforementioned Tim Burton, even though Gaiman is absolutely no stranger to all things eerie as this tale clearly shows. Coraline, voiced by Dakota Fanning, is a bit of an A-type brat and ignored by her typically over-worked 21st Century parents who spend more time in front of a laptop screen than listening to their only offspring. And so the tale begins.

Coraline is whisked away into the troublesome but adventuresome (and aren't they always?) "Other" world where, at first, her Other-Mother and Other-Father treat her to a royal treatment, one not used to back at her real home. Then, as is apt to occur with such fairy tales, the young girl indeed finds out that strange things are afoot at the Circle K. Meanwhile, the viewer is whisked away into yet another gorgeous world of stop-motion animation where Selick's imaginative realism borders on pop-art candy for kids and something more sinisterly macabre that would certainly induce nightmares for the under-10 crowd, which includes ghost children, a wanna-be mouse-circus ringleader, and retired actresses whose age could be counted like the rings of a tree.

As it is easy enough to imagine, the promises and threats of the Other-world soon have real implications in the real one. Selick treats the viewer into stunning images of cobwebs, raindrops and creepy spaces along with a fun cast of characters, including a know-it-all cat perfectly voiced by Keith David. Aside from the goth-lite plot and a nearly-too convenient wrap-up, Selick does his very best to keep the craft of his animation at the peak of its form while also using it to benefit the story, something that Burton seemed to forget in the not- quite-as-hip CORPSE BRIDE (2005).

Fun, beautiful to watch and perhaps mistargeted to a kiddie crowd that Pixar usually caters to, CORALINE is a winner. And, perhaps if released in Pixar-free year, would have been an Oscar winner as well.
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Get Low (2009)
9/10
Compelling story, characters. Get Low.
16 May 2012
Most times, as the cliché goes, the journey is just as important as the destination. These true words perfectly suit GET LOW, a Robert Duvall, Bill Murray flick helmed by first-timer Aaron Schneider.

Duvall plays Felix Bush, a self-imposed hermit living out a self-imposed penance for a personal crime committed some 40 years back. Felix is nearing the end of his life and finally becomes curious at what the townsfolk think of him. Bill Murray and type-cast good ole boy Lucas Black play funeral directors who decide to help Felix throw a funeral while he's still alive. Those in attendance get to enter a raffle to win his incredible parcel of land. But what happens, as Felix prepares for death, is his acceptance of life.

Duvall is a master at playing quiet, contemplative figures allowing his body language and facial expressions to tell the eloquent story of the script. GET LOW, as OPEN RANGE and THE APOSTLE did before, provides plenty of those quiet, introspective moments allowing the audience to see the pain of the character and wonder at his thoughts.

The only criticality of the film is that Murray is rarely allowed to truly get going as the off-beat comedic genius he is (Wes Anderson, it appears, is the only current filmmaker that can give Murray full control of the open throttle). Much of the movie's comedy is attributed to him, but the character's secondary role to that of Duvall cannot shine as bright as it ought to. Also, for a film where stories are to be told of the not-quite-deceased, not many are told. Save Felix's own. But perhaps that's enough.

GET LOW is a good story and a great character piece; moving and, perhaps, even redemptive, but not in a prime-time Disney-fied way. Instead, Duvall gets to say his... peace. After all, before one can soar high, one must get low.
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9/10
Clever thriller. Pass the popcorn.
14 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
As with most suspension-driven thrillers, there is always that built-in awareness, an unspoken agreement that most of the time occurs at the ticket kiosk or when pushing the "Open/Close" button on the Blu-ray player, that a dose of suspension-of-disbelief probably as hefty as the salt in the popcorn is as sure to occur as a montage sequence showing the story's protagonist preparing for that daredevil dive into the breathtaking unknown. THE NEXT THREE DAYS, writer/director Paul Haggis' thriller starring Russell Crowe and based from the 2008 French film POUR ELLE, is a convincing, fun, escape-plan thriller that still has its moments of disbelief-suspension, but consider such as the low-in-sodium variety.

In a typical wrongly-accused fashion, with the other escape cliché being a revenge vendetta, Crowe's wife, Lara, played by Elizabeth Banks, is convicted of murder and soon to be sent to a high-level security prison. The courts cannot seem to help and so for his own sake, and that of his son's, Crowe's John Brennan opts to break her out and flee the country. There are, of course, rules for doing such and Liam Neeson provides those with a gruff-and-wizened voice of a Jedi teacher that the Internet has yet to master; the Internet does, however, provide John with all of the other techniques he needs in his arsenal, such as making a bump key as well as breaking into a van with a tennis ball.

Paul Haggis' film gains intensity as the actual prison break occurs. Aside from the convenience that Lara is a diabetic and requires frequent blood work, which is what gives John his inside move, the audience is treated to the run of the escape as opposed to the planning – don't worry, the planning montage set to Danny Elfman's score is still there – allowing for more than a few heart-quickening moments where an out seems impossible.

Alongside the "how" of the plan, Haggis addresses the "why", albeit in a typical Hollywood theme. The clarity in the hearts of her men that Lara's absence had since muddied since her incarceration three years ago; John is listless in his career and their son, Luke, doesn't interact with other kids. The answer is obviously that Love will find a way, and it does with the help of the Internet and a detailed, long- range plan. Haggis' film is clever, fun and highly-enjoyable, just pass that popcorn over if you don't mind.
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The Avengers (2012)
10/10
Disney Marvels at Whedon Assembly
11 May 2012
If you have been a fan of the core Marvel Studios' films since 2008's IRON MAN, where the beginnings of the "Avengers Initiative" were first teased and carried through into the 2010 sequel as well as THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR and CAPTAIN America: THE FIRST AVENGER, then the AVENGERS will not disappoint. In fact, it very well might make you question why the other franchise films weren't as good as this fast- paced, funny, superhero showdown.

Marvel has been very focused and dedicated with the development of its properties under the Disney banner – and they no doubt wish that the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises could return to their fold, as it was the success of these earlier films that brought Marvel Comics out of bankruptcy – and has been providing solid entertainment from its creators and stars alike; by Odin's beard, Sir Kenneth Branagh directed THOR. Enter Joss Whedon, who created a weekly TV show in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER that was a near-perfect example of a live-action comic book, to deliver a heavily-anticipated yet so-easy-to-fail production of getting such a diverse character set in a movie that worked. And worked it did.

The film gets off to a slow and even somewhat murky start as Loki, Thor's mischievous half-brother, played with a Anthony Hopkins-worthy sneer by Tom Hiddleston, appears, escapes from and is responsible for the destruction of a SHIELD HQ as well as the spiriting away of a few supporting characters including Stellan Skarsgard's Dr. Selvig, also of THOR, and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, getting the full movie treatment here, all under the semi-impotent glare of Samuel L. Jackson's one-eyed spy Nick Fury. Obiously Loki never saw Samuel L's wallet from another film.

The movie picks up with the re-introduction of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow as Whedon has some fun showing what moves he could have presented in BUFFY if he had an Avengers-sized budget backing him up, but it truly gets bright when the three protagonists, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, finally appear and, of course, get into a wrestling match to prove who has the biggest repulsor/shield/hammer. Once the team finally assembles, insanity, and the hilarity that often follows, ensues. Oh, and Mark Ruffalo proves that the Hulk can indeed smash.

Joss Whedon's adept skills, he also writes the screenplay, prove to be the other superhero powerhouse as he successfully created a production that pleases the hardcore fanboy who is aware of Thanos, the mainstream movie audience who thinks that Tony and Pepper are destined for each other, and his own loyal, core fan base of Browncoats. Each hero gets their own time to shine in situations worthy of a comicbook splash page. The rough-up dust-up of a third act that entirely deals with the assembled team involved in a street-level brawl in NYC against, what else, an invading alien army, could very well have became tedious, as admittedly, the obligatory interstellar menace is faceless, forgettable and seemingly invented for the sales of action figures, but the action, humor and allure of these powerful heroes is truly something unique and that magic is perfectly captured on the screen.

2008 saw the release of both IRON MAN and Warner Bros.' DARK KNIGHT. The result was that both films set the bar that future genre films would have to follow. In 2012 that bar was set yet again. What remains to be seen is if the upcoming DARK KNIGHT RISES film, as well as the sequels for IRON MAN, THOR and CAPTAIN America, will continue to raise that bar, or if they will all just... assemble.
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Prohibition (2011– )
8/10
Ken Burns' latest docu: goes great with ice and a twist of lime
5 March 2012
Daniel Okrent's "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "Prohibition" mini-series were two similar projects that began together resulting in two different end products. Together, both provide a rather detailed account not only of Prohibition's place in American history, but the events leading up to such, the results of repeal and the long-lasting societal impact of the entire matter. Separate, both are still strong, informative and entertaining yet each tend to focus on different themes that sometimes do not intermingle and the result is noticeable.

Ken Burns, in his trademarked fashion, intermingles fantastically- original photos and video with colorful interviews from subject-matter experts and first-hand histories over-laced with celebrity voice-overs, makes learning hip and brings about a passion for a dark, but necessary, time in American history. Burns' documentary was too light in certain instances where a deeper look at American history would have benefited the story. Okrent's novel definitely fills in such details that Burns either ignored or edited out but was definitely too heavy at times with whole sections coming across as a historical text book rather than an entertaining narrative.

Burns, and Okrent as well, enlighten 21st-Century audiences to the fact that Prohibition, what can be now considered a silly arrangement, was not only responsible for the rise of Jazz, the introduction of mixed drinks and the invention of speed boats but also led to very beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the outright success of Women's Suffrage.

Naturally, Burns provides much attention to that of the gangsters of the era, particularly Chicago's Al Capone. But again, he provides just enough details for a satisfactory display of information yet fails to get deeper. Similarly, this occurs when discussing the role of the Church and the Prohibition movement. Dry Congressmen and Senators knew how to convince their Baptist and Methodist ministers to use the pulpit to condemn the evils of alcohol, particularly in the Mid-West states.

Likewise, Prohibition was an outcry not just against alcohol but also against the rise of poor immigrants filling America's urban centers. The Irish, the Germans, the Italians, all known for enjoying wine and spirits, and all Catholics, became a scary threat for "decent, Protestant country folks". Cutting off immigrants from their alcohol was a way to ensure that these new Americans were productive members of society, not a burden of filthy drunkards. Burns did not spend too much time on these ideals.

However, Burns attention to detail and crafting of a narrative tale is shown in his vision and with what is presented. He does keep entertainment at the forefront of his documentary, much like what he has done in the past, especially with his must-see Baseball series. Some indirect humor is presented with history playing the comedian to a more naïve time. Burns does get political with some of his views, but at no time are such views sobering enough to prevent the viewer from seeking out a drink.
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