Stir-Fry Cinema Podcast Series

Friday, March 26, 2010

Good Burger

Good Burger
Genre: Comedy

Starring: Kel Mitchell, Kenan Thompson, Sinbad, Abe Vigoda

Director: Brian Robbins

Release Date: July 25th 2007







Click the link below for this week's

Crappy Movie Night Podcast!



That's right, folks.
E watched the movie wearing a fake moustache.
You can't make this stuff up.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Zombieland

Zombieland
Genre: RomZomCom

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Release Date: October 2nd 2009







     It's not every day you come across a zombie flick with a real budget.  Or one with a director with an actual vision.  Maybe you lucked out, and you come across one with writers who are truly passionate about the genre.  Writers who can give it a real, developed story and write a good film, Zombie or not.  Maybe, just maybe, you came across the rare zombie flick with real and talented actors, who can bring integrity and sincerity to the project.  But what happens when you get all of these things in the same film?

     Zombieland.  This movie is the real deal folks.

     The film follows Columbus on his trek for survival across the United States of Zombieland.  Columbus is a coward, plain and simple, who has only survived due to his strict adherence to a list of carefully devised (and very humorous) rules.  These include "Cardio", "The Double-Tap", "Seatbelts", "Beware of Bathrooms" and MANY others.

     On his journey, he meets Tallahassee on the side of a wreck strewn highway.  Without saying a word, or even lowering their guns, the two make a silent pact.  They bond together for survival, a fact that the two are not always quite thrilled with.  The two soon meet and "befriend" (at least eventually) Little Rock and Wichita, sisters on their way to "Pacific Playland", a supposedly Zombie-Free California theme park.

     Zombieland has it all.  The script is well written and very funny.  The director not only has a good sense of the genre and how to use the horror to shock you, but he also manages to use it to make you laugh.
  
     Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland) does a great job as the cowardly Columbus, a man who's biggest dream is to brush a girl's hair behind her ear.  The beautiful Emma Stone (Superbad, The Rocker) plays the tough and very clever Wichita.  She and Eisenberg have a real chemistry on screen, and she does a good and convincing job of being the "tough chick" archetype.  Not only is she quite pleasant to look at, she can actually act too!  Abigail Breslin plays Little Rock.  Naive about some things ("Who's Ghandi?") yet also surprisingly wise about things such as running cons and killing zombies.  She almost always impresses when on screen, and Zombieland is no exception.

     The real highlight of the movie, though, was Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson.  A border-line psychotic with an unnatural obsession with finding one more Twinkie, Tallahassee also has a preternatural gift for killing zombies, one he makes thorough and frequent use of.  That's right, folks, white man can't jump, but they can sure as hell kick some zombie ass!

     Not only does the movie have a talented cast and a devoted production crew, the gore is fantastic!  Whether is is a woman crashing through the window of a minivan and skidding face first along the pavement, or a horde of zombies ripping into a fresh meal, the effects reach new heights of realism.  At least for the zombie genre, that is.  The gore is perfectly handled, not used to excessive levels and not so pervasive that you get sick of it.  There are parts that, I swear, you will want to (and actually might) stand up and cheer out loud.

     The humor, unexpected as it may be in a zombie film, is spot on.  Often tongue in cheek, or executed through visual gags, you will find yourself laughing at things you never would have imagined.

     I am trying to remember complaints I had so that I can write about that end of things.  I realize, however, that I didn't have any.  NONE!  Everything worked for me.  Even the fact that the zombies' origins are left unknown didn't bother me as it usually would.  The few survivors we see have no idea why it happened, so how could we?  Basically, this movie took what Shaun of the Dead began with the RomZomCom (Romantic Zombie Comedy) genre, and perfected it.  Need more proof?  How about this exchange from the movie's second act:

     Little Rock: "Do you have any regrets?"

     Bill Muray:  "Garfield, maybe..."

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 6 out of 5!  (This movie exceeds my normal classification)

Breathers: A Zombie's Lament

Breathers: A Zombie's Lament
Genre: RomZomCom

By S.G. Browne


Release Date: March 3rd 2009










     Everyone who decides to make a movie or write a book about zombies inevitably has their own ideas about what a zombie is.  Purists among the ever growing fan base will insist that, to actually qualify as being a "zombie", it has to meet certain criteria:

1) They are mindless, base animals that exist only to devour.
2) Though animated once again, they are d-e-a-d, DEAD!
3) A bite from one transmits the "disease" to the victim, eventually making them into a new zombie.

     There are other points that could be argued, of course, but I think all can agree, those are the big three.  In these people's opinions, failing to meet these criteria means you are out.  Sorry 28 Days Later.  Sorry Dead Snow.  Sorry any of a number of other popular "zombie" films and books.  I admit that, individual quality aside, I tend to agree with the purists.  However, for zombie week, I am going to adopt the other perspective; that any of a number of attributes can make a zombie.  It is up to the author.

     I say all that because this inclusionist mindset is critical to qualify today's book, Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, as zombie fiction.  The author says they are zombies, so (for today at least) they are.

     Breathers follows Andy Werner.  After dying in a car crash, Werner revives to find that, despite a severely mangled body and a newly formed speech impediment (due to a more or less destroyed lower jaw), he is still kicking, despite not actually being alive.

     The problem becomes that, in this society, zombies are discriminated against, to the point of being seen as lower life forms.  They are thinking, feeling creatures, yet they are treated like dogs.  Whether being forced to attend Zombie Support Groups aimed at training him not to eat people, or being harassed and attacked in broad daylight, Andy has a lot on his plate.  Then, you add the fact that he is quickly falling in love with Rita, fellow zombie and support group member.

     One day Andy, Rita and some friends meet Ray, rogue zombie and anarchist who lives deliberately off the grid.  Ray and his cans of venison set off a series of events that will change everyone in the support group, and their outlook, forever.  I could go into more detail, but I don't want to give away important plot points.  Well thought out though the story may be, I found them pretty predictable.  Still, they were enjoyable, and it is not up to me to spoil them.

     S.G. Browne has written a very sweet and funny book, despite the usually horrific nature of the source material.  He isn't so much working in "zombie horror", though, as he is writing a RomZomCom (Romantic Zombie Comedy for the layperson).  He foregoes the frightening aspects almost entirely in order to write an effective allegory of racism and prejudice in society.

     The dialogue doesn't exactly "sparkle".  Te plot doesn't do much to surprise.  This is a first novel for Browne, and it shows.  That does not mean it is bad or unenjoyable, however.  Quite the opposite.  One place where Browne really impressed me was how well he developed characters.  This is particularly true of our anti-hero, Andy.  Perhaps surprisingly (perhaps not), character development is one of the hardest things for a writer to perfect, and Browne has done a nice job.

     Likewise, the plot felt complete.  No glaring holes jumped out to distract me from the read.  He didn't waste time on grossly unnecessary details, but didn't leave blank spots either.  He is a very balanced writer, and is a pleasure to read.

     I know I haven't discussed a lot in detail, but again, I fear spoiling the plot.  It is, I think, enough to say this.  Although this isn't going to top any of my lists, and if you aren't too much of a "Puritan" Zombiephile, Breathers will make for a nice read.

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3.5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dead Snow

Dead Snow
Genre: Horror

Starring: A bunch of people from Norway

Director:  Tommy Wirkola

Release Date: January 9th 2009








Click the link below for our weekly

 Crappy Movie Night Podcast!



Eli five minutes into Dead Snow and...




...me, five minutes after.  Enjoy!

Black Dynamite

Black Dynamite
Genre: Blaxsploitation, Spoof

Starring: Michael Jai White

Director: Scott Sanders

Release Date: January 13th 2010








Click the link below to listen to the FIRST EVER

Crappy Movie Night Podcast!


Black Dynamite


World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War
Genre: Horror

By: Max Brooks


Release Date: September 12th 2006










     For the most part, books and movies classified as "Horror" are, sadly, just not scary.  Grotesque, yes.  Sometimes even horrific.  But not scary.  I know that must certainly be due, in large part, to my own mentality.  I was frightened of the as a kid, sure, but as I've gotten older (call it desensitization if you want), they just don't frighten me, despite my sincere enjoyment of them.  That is not the case with World War Z.

     Max Brooks (author of the wildly popular Zombie Survival Guide) has truly written a masterpiece of the horror genre.  I know there are naysayers who will argue that the words "horror" and "masterpiece" don't even belong on the same page, let alone in the same sentence.  I don't care.  That is exactly what it is.

     The books is told in a documentary style, presented as a series of interviews dictated to the page.  The subjects are everyone from highly trained elite soldiers, to common citizenry, to a Japanese warrior monk.  All the interviewees are survivors of the zombie apocalypse, or "World War Z" as it has come to be known.  Each account tells of their individual encounters and how they came to join the fight.  Each ties in perfectly to the next.  The tableau that Brooks created actually terrified me.

     Starting with accounts of the first reports of outbreaks from around the world, and how those reports were handled or ignored, the story advances and evolves quickly.  It continues at the same relentless pace as the globally increasing "Zack" threat (the signifier used by the Army for zombies).

     What makes this such a great piece of horror fiction is the undeniable fact that Brooks has done his homework.  The world he has created is so thorough, the manifestations of his "breed" of zombies so complete, that you become totally immersed.  An outbreak of this type and scale quickly moves from feeling like "fiction" to feeling entirely plausible and, more importantly, possible.  I became so enthralled with the world he had created, I found my mind running in circles, trying to figure out what I would do in such a situation.  This quickly spiraled into thoughts of, "What if my family were turned.  What would I do?"  It was that fact, that the book sent my imagination to a place completely out of my control, and made such preemptive thinking seem (at the time) entirely rational, that scared me the most.  Once the realization hit, I found I was so shaken, I had to set the book down and I believe I said out loud, "I need to read this during daylight."  The interesting thing is, rom conversations with friends who have also read this, I found that they had similar if not identical experiences!

     This was staggering for me.  That every single account had me on the edge of my seat, turning on lights, and listening for groans and shuffling feet around every corner.  Despite what it might do to my reputation as a horror buff with a relatively "iron" will, I admit it freely; I was scared shitless.

     It's not just the subject matter that caused this.  It is far more Brooks' execution of the story.  He has a natural ability of knowing exactly how much to explain, and how much to leave unknown.  He knows just where and how to let your mind take over.  Also, he seemed to have almost a sixth sense as to when to move to a new account, or perhaps to revisit an older one.  So thoroughly convincing is the book, you wonder at times (just for a moment) if perhaps this actually happened and you just somehow missed it.

     I could go on and on about what I liked about the book, but I won't.  Likewise, I could spend time discussing individual sessions that I particularly liked.  I won't risk spoiling even one line of it for those of you who will decide to read it.  I could even spend time talking about what I DIDN'T like.  The problem there is that the list is not only short, it is non-existent.

     If you like horror, or if you want to give it a try, READ THIS BOOK!  Hell, if you DON'T like horror, read the book.  It is, simply put, amazing.

     Now let's hope the movie is as good...

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Fright Factor: An enthusiastic 5 out of 5!
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Diary Of The Dead

Diary Of The Dead
Genre: Horror

Starring: Michelle Morgan, Josh Close, Tony Ravello, Amy Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth, Philip Riccio

Director: George A. Romero

Release Date: September 8th 2007




     It is impossible to have "Zombie Week" without discussing one man in particular.  George A. Romero.  His 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead not only defined a genre, it created it.  Unlike the legends of vampires, werewolves, etc., there is no historical basis for the zombie as it appears in popular culture.  There are voodoo legends of the "Zombi" as a deceased person who can be reanimated to serve the will of another. That is about as close as the legends come, though.

     Through his series of "Living Dead" movies, Romero has created an entire mythos that is now one of the most loved and cherished by horror fans the world over.  Though not all his films are of an equal caliber, when a Romero movie comes out, you had better believe that we Zombiephiles take notice.

     Though Diary of the Dead is not my ideal choice of a Romero to review for this week, it is the only one I have seen recently enough to feel I can do justice in a review.  So, I'm just gonna take what I have and run with it.  First, the premise.

     A group of film students are filming a horror film in the woods for a class project.  During a break on set, strange reports start coming over their radio about the dead returning to life and attacking the living.  While most of them brush it off as a hoax, a few take the stories seriously.  Divided on what to do, they collectively decide "better safe than sorry", and head to their hometowns and check on their loved ones.  With their teacher along for the ride, they start a journey that will teach them what true horror is.

     The movie is shown all from the "narrator's" point of view.  Or rather, from his camera's.  Not wanting to miss a thing, the camera never leaves his side, and the final product (the film you are watching) is presented as a documentary of what transpired.

     This was a great concept.  I like the idea largely because it puts you in the survivors' shoes more than other zombie flicks, which just cast you as an outside observer.  This boosts the film's "Fright Factor" considerably. However, as is often my experience with "Hand Held Cinema", the device tends to get a little old.

     Likewise, the story tends to drag.  The plot seems like it was just thrown together, serving as a mechanism only to get us to the next zombie attack.  There is certainly more character development than most other horror films.  For the story he was trying to tell, though, and considering how much we are obviously supposed to feel connected to the survivors, I didn't feel it was nearly enough.

     As for the zombies themselves, my hat is off to you, Mr. Romero.  One thing the man shows, time and again, is his mastery of the effects side of these movies.  No one else out there is using the makeup and SFX technology to it full potential quite the way Romero does.  The zombies in Diary are delightfully grotesque, the effects both startling and convincing.  In particular, I like the effects of the gunshots that fail to kill the walking dead.

     To summarize, this is far from the best zombie movie out there.  Despite a number of publications' claims to the contrary, it is not even Romero's best.  Most of the people making these lofty assertions gave me the impression that they thought this was his masterpiece simply because they had not seen any other of his catalog as comparison.

     The movie is NOT bad, though.  Certainly, the story/acting are "Horror Movie Bad" as I like to call it.  I almost expect that from modern horror, though, and it didn't at all prevent me from my enjoyment of the movie.  Also, for sheer shock value and gore, this one is certainly up there on my list.  If you like zombies or horror in general, give this at least one viewing.

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2.5 out of 5
Effects: 4.5 out of 5
Fright Factor: 4 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Monday, March 15, 2010

Marvel Zombies: Volume 1


Marvel Zombies: Volume 1
Genre: Graphic Novel
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Sean Phillips
Release Date: September 6th 2006










     Sometimes, a person working in a certain field will come up with something so original, so far above what others have attempted, that their names become forever linked with that genre.  Zombies in popular culture are a great example of this.  You can't have a conversation about zombie films without discussing George Romero.  Likewise, Max Brooks has set such a standard with his books (The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z), that anyone else is simply playing catch-up.

     Like these two greats, the comics industry has its own heavy hitter when it comes to the living dead; Robert Kirkman.  Fans will know his work from the amazing horror series The Walking Dead, but far more people will recognize him from another series he has helmed.  Marvel Zombies.

     Set in an alternate reality (a convenient plot device the industry as a whole makes liberal use of) we start the first of these five collected issues in Manhattan, the epicenter of superhuman activity.  We are dropped directly into the middle of the action.  The city is one giant disaster area, and Magneto, the only survivor in sight, is attempting to fight off a horde of zombified meta-humas.

     All the fan favorites are in the fray.  Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and so on.  Earth's mightiest heroes have become devourers, tearing apart everything and everyone they see in their unending hunger.

     What is different about these zombies from most representations is that, unlike their mindless, animalistic counterparts, these still have a part of who they were.  Whether they embrace their new state or mourn it, the "heroes" know full well what they are doing.  It is only as their hunger takes over that they really begin to lose control of themselves.

     What I find startling and very interesting in Kirkman's interpretation is just how quickly the bulk of these characters take to their new lot.  Most of them seem to become not only willing monsters, but are often thrilled to find their next meal.  In fact, the horrendous acts they commit while in control of their faculties are often worse than those done because of the hunger.  Also interesting is how much this mental transformation is left unexplained.  We don't know what of their new behavior is the cause of the virus, or was perhaps hiding below the surface in each of them, waiting to come out.

     Reading the book, one might begin to wonder why there are no zombified "normals".  Does the virus only target meta-humans?  Does exposure kill those without extraordinary gifts?  The answer is as simple as it is grotesque.  Any normal human facing exposure is also facing a horde of hungry supers.  Once they are done fighting for the scraps, there is simply nothing left.

     Through these first five issues, the books does a great job of exploring not only the toll this outbreak has taken on the few pockets of survivors, but also the changes to the lives of the former heroes.  I think it is a nice choice to make the "zombies" cognizant of what is happening.  It is an interesting change in perspective to have the story told from the point of view of the zombies, something that has been impossible in the bulk of zombie-lit.  Whether the character's response is revelry or regret, the dynamics between them make the book a fascinating read.  Once a powerful, intergalactic force makes an appearance, thing really start getting interesting.

     The art has all the gore and violence you would expect and hope for in a piece like this.  From the scenes of dismemberment and devouring, to the zombies themselves, who experience a wide spectrum of bodily destruction and decay, these monstrous versions of our childhood heroes are simultaneously repellent and fascinating.  That is what impressed me most about the illustrations.  The variety of characters tackled in the story, and how well the "zombification" translates for each of them.

     The coloring is, likewise, very appropriate.  With a lot of shadows and dark coloring, the reader is given the sense that not only is the sun gone, but that it is never coming back.  The horror being presented makes even the idea of a surcease impossible, setting and maintaining a great tone for the book.

     There is one place that I felt the book was lacking.  Being a comic, not much is left up to the imagination.  Any horrifying thing they want to depict is done vividly and graphically.  Though I usually don't mind this in a comic, part of what makes good horror books (like World War Z) so terrifying is precisely the fact that so much is left to the reader's imagination.  Therefore, it is the nature of the medium that the art here keeps the book from being truly frightening.  It is still a great read, with a number of equally gross and engaging books released since.  If you like zombies, then by all means, check out the whole catalog of the Marvel Zombies series.

Concept: 5 out of 5
Story: 4 out of 5
Art: 4 out of 5
Fright Factor: 3 out of 5
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shaun Of The Dead

Shaun Of The Dead
Genre: RomZomCom

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Nicola Cunningham, Bill Nighy, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran

Release Date: April 9th 2004






     Shaun is a bit of a loser.  He works as a middle manager at an electronics store, he spends every night at the pub with his friend Ed (who is an even bigger loser than Shaun), and his girlfriend, Liz, has just dumped him.  He's made a complete mess of his life.  Shaun is, simply, a failure, and he knows it.  He also knows it is going to take drastic action to get his life on track, and get Liz to take him back.

     Then, zombies overrun London...

     In the face of the apocalypse, Shaun has to man up, fight some zombies, kill a few loved ones, save the day, and get the girl.  Now if he can just figure out how to manage all that without screwing it up.

     The term "RomZomCom" (or Romantic Zombie Comedy) is a pretty common part of the industry vernacular today.  It hasn't been that way for long, though.  Shaun of the Dead not only set the standard for the genre, but was singly responsible for its birth.  Prior to its release, zombie movies were just another part of the horror genre, taken in far too serious of a light by the industry and audiences alike.  Even those with excessive gore or laughably bad acting were making too much of an attempt to be taken seriously, in my opinion.

     Shaun of the Dead broke the mold completely.  It certainly helped that director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg are avid horror fans.  What they managed to create went far beyond what you would expect, though.  You might go into it thinking you're in for a silly spoof.  Possibly you are expecting a labored homage to the greats of the zombie movie such as Romero.  That doesn't begin to describe it, or to do it justice.

     The film is so carefully thought out, so precisely executed, that they have transcended being a spoof of any sort.  Instead, through the use of classic British wit and perhaps surprisingly good special effects, they have created a masterpiece of both the horror and comedy genres.  Ask any afficianado to name their top five zombie movies, and I can almost guarantee, Shaun of the Dead will come up.

     Additionally, by adding the truly brilliant humor, along with a touch of romance, they have single handedly made the genre more accessible to the average movie goer.  People who would never give horror the time of day have found themselves in equal parts cringing from and laughing at the "horror" of it.

     The humor adds another dimension to the film that so many others lack.  Where other zombie flicks try to create unease in the viewer through simple "shock cuts" and mood lighting, Simon Pegg as Shaun truly is an everyman.  The audience can connect to him, can get behind him, in a way they can't with other horror heroes.  You get sucked in, because you know that what Shaun does is exactly what you would do.  When faced with a dismembered man in a tuxedo, your first thought isn't to grab a gun and shoot for the head.  It is rather more like Shaun's reaction; to jump back, screaming "Oh my god!  His arm's off!"

     Shaun is also uncomfortable (as I imagine we all would be in his shoes) with using the term "zombie".  It simply makes it too real, and Shaun's reaction to the horror is what most everyone does when faced with the unbelievable.  They simply refuse to believe it.

     Along with Pegg is a brilliant supporting cast.  Nick Frost (Pegg's real-life friend) is Ed, a man idiotic to the point of being tragic, who still does a nice job of "rolling with punches".  Kate Ashfield as Liz is sweet yet severe, willing to take charge when need be, making her a perfect counterpoint to Shaun's indecisiveness.  Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran are hysterical as the bickering couple Dianne and David.

     The real highlights of the supporting cast for me, though, were Nicola Cunningham and Bill Nighy.  Cunningham is Shaun's mother, Mary.  Rather than being stupid or oblivious, as she comes off at first, she is simply too sweet to believe, or even to comprehend, the events unfolding around her.  Bill Nighy is Shaun's step-father, Philip, a serious, authoritarian man who is certain his bite wound will be fine.  Why?  Because he "...ran it under a cold tap."  In his short time on screen, Nighy draws the viewer in (as he always does) and manages to simultaneously touch and repulse us.

     Finally, for being made six years ago, the effects are on par  with anything released in its time, and even most zombie films since.  The gore is used perfectly, and the only places it might normally start to feel excessive, it doesn't.  Those are the times you are laughing the hardest.

     In summary, this is not your normal horror film, or your normal comedy.  It stood out so much, that when he was making Land of the Dead, George Romero offered cameos to Pegg and Wright (which they, of course, accepted).  Shaun of the Dead is, and always will be, a standard by which great zombie movies are judged, and will proudly hold its title as the first RomZomCom.

Concept: 5 out of 5
Story and Script: 5 out of 5
Effects: 4.5 out of 5
Originality: 5 out of 5
Overall Rating: An enthusiastic 5 out of 5!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

JCVD

JCVD
Genre: Drama

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme

Release Date: June 4th 2008







     What happens when an action star gets caught in the middle of a real life bank robbery?  JCVD happens.

     After staring down the barrel of a faltering career and losing custody of his daughter in a drawn out divorce, Jean-Claude Van Damme has hit rock bottom.  His bank cards don't work, and his life has fallen to pieces.  Going to the bank to try and pick up a deposit, Van Damme accidentally walks into the middle of a hostage situation.  If that weren't enough, the police think HE is the culprit, a failed celebrity making one last desperate grasp for control.  While a mob of his fans shout his praises outside, and the police try to figure a way to take him out, Van Damme must put himself to the test, and find a way to not only get himself out safely, but the other hostages as well.

     On the case for the DVD is this quote from "Time, Magazine".

     "He deserves not a black belt, but an Oscar."

     Anyone feel a huge sense of trepidation at that statement?  I know I did.  Despite a childhood spent watching, enjoying, and emulating Van Damme's movies and moves, I have always been aware this fact; if Van Damme is known for one thing, it is NOT acting.  In my experience, the only times "Jean-Claude Van Damme" and "acting" occur in the same sentence is when they are the setup for a punch-line.

     Of the three versions contained on the DVD, I watched the theatrical cut.  Quite frankly, I wanted to see what "Time" saw.  I hoped by doing so, I would be able to discern just how far the heads of their contributing writers had been crammed up their collective keysters.  As you can tell, despite having heard good things about the film, I remained skeptical as long as I could.  And believe me, it wasn't very long at all.

     Throughout his career, we have seen Van Damme be the hero almost to exclusion.  But I can't think of one other time he has been not just a prototypical "good guy", and instead was a good MAN.  That is exactly what he has given us.  No flashy kicks, no "witty" one-liners.  He is just an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.  This is, without question, the defining point of his career, and not for one second does he disappoint.

     Van Damme shows not only a depth of feeling and ability that was unexpected, but the very notion of which has long been considered laughable.  From trying to look out for his fellow hostages, to his unending attempts to try to convince at least one of his captors to do the right thing, he shows in alternating doses dignity, resolve, and strength.

     One scene in particular truly blew me away, and solidified the "Time" quote as fact for me.  Towards the end of the film, Van Damme has a few minutes alone with the audience.  It is an emotional monologue, shot in one take, that breaks your heart and truly makes you feel for him in a way you never thought possible.  It is a side of him that is refreshing and awe-inspiring to see.  He talks of fame, addiction, a wasted life, and what it means to be nothing more than a fading memory.  One line in particular really stuck with me.  Said with tears in his eyes, and quite obviously on the verge of a breakdown, Van Damme says;

     (Translated from French)
     "It's hard for me to judge people.  And it's hard for them not to judge me.  Easier to blame me..."

     Believe it or not, Van Damme can not only act, he can do a truly brilliant job of it at that...

Concept: 3.5 out of 5
Execution: 4.5 out of 5
Van Damme's Performance: 5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Yes Man

Yes Man
Genre: Comedy

Starring: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp

Release Date: December 17th 2008






     Carl Allen is a "No Man".  When his friends invite him out, he says no.  When he sees a new possibility, he says no.  Every time opportunity knocks, he says no.  Hurt in the past by a failed marriage, Carl's only defense has been to withdraw into himself, shutting out the world and everything it holds.

     Then one day, fate intervenes, and lands him in a "Yes" seminar.  Terence (played by Terence Stamp) is a self help guru with very few bells and whistles, and one simple answer to all the questions and challenges life throws at us; Yes!  Taking the advice to heart, Carl begins to say yes.  To absolutely everything.  He starts a journey that will turn his life inside out, all starting from a simple act of kindness.  This new philosophy brings him squarely into the path of Allison (Deschanel), a spunky, "off the beaten path" woman with strange hobbies, a moped, and a passion for life and everything in it.

     Through ups and downs, losses and gains, lost friends and found ones, Carl finds out just how much good those three letters can bring.

     In a role every bit as over the top and full of slapstick as the movies that made him famous, Jim Carrey has somehow managed to outdo himself.  Though a lot of his comedy in Yes Man feels a little like we've seen it before, there is something about this particular role that stands out for me.  Maybe it is the material he is working from, maybe it's a product of his getting older, but he has much more depth and feeling in this than in almost any of his other comedic roles.

     Of course, he has shown he can be serious in the past.  Films such as The Truman Show and The Number 23 have been great opportunities for him to showcase his dramatic abilities.  This more than any other part, though, shows just how closely he can walk the balance between the two extremes that have defined his career.  Also, if you need someone to show you what it would look like when a shut-in who's given up finally embraces life, no one I can think of could have filled the role better than Carrey.

     Zooey Deschanel has been a favorite of mine for some time.  This performance has only made me like her more.  There is something so simple and honest about her acting style, that I am really drawn to her.  With that in mind, the character of Allison could not have been better cast.  Throughout the film, she gives warmth and life, and a smile that never quits.  She is a wonderful counterpart to Carrey's on-screen antics.

     Bradley Cooper really surprised me, as well.  I am used to seeing him play a**holes.  Films like He's Just Not That Into You and The Hangover have done a lot to cement him ino that kind of role; the cocky jerk with no regard for people or the emotions that come with them.  In Yes Man, he plays Peter, Carl's best friend and the last person in his life who has not given up on him.  Despite some good-natured heckling of Carl's new philosophy on life, Peter is a genuinely good guy who cares deeply for his friend, and truly wants him to be happy.  It was a nice departure from his usual, and he handled it very nicely.  Every time I watch it, I am surprised all over again.

     I will readily admit that the story is pretty formulaic.  It is your standard "Guy meets Girl, Guy loses Girl, Guy has to get Girl back" plot.  I didn't mind, though.  The specific humor was still very original, and even the minor characters handled their roles and jokes well.

     Ultimately, this is a great date movie.  It is sweet, very funny, and surprisingly touching.  Watching will certainly make you evaluate your own attitude towards the word "Yes".  I know I did...

Originality: 2.5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Carrey (despite everything else, he IS the movie): 4.5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Joker


Joker
Genre: Graphic Novel
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Release Date: October 28th 2008


*Warning* Book Contains Graphic Violence



     Graphic Novels are filled with colorful villains of every stripe, performing every evil deed you can imagine and then some.  It is the nature of the medium.  Writers and artists are completely freed to depict however much or little detail they want.  Need more information for the plot?  Add a few panels.  Too much background causing a distraction?  Simplify the art.  Because of this, creators can take chances that wouldn't succeed in other mediums.

     Sometimes these risks don't pan out.  The story or character doesn't translate to the page the way he appeared in your head.  Maybe a feature of a character, or an entire character, just don't work the way you imagined.  Sometimes, though, a character comes through so perfectly, so precisely, so complete, that it feels less like a fiction, and more like a biography.  Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's one shot adaptation Joker falls squarely into this latter category.

     The story opens in a wide shot of Gotham City.  Through the narration, we learn a startling fact, one that right from the gate will shock any fan of the Batman universe, and set the tone for the rest of the book.  The Joker is being released from Arkham Asylum.  Jonny Frost, a low level henchman and the book's narrator, volunteers to go pick The Joker up at the gate, setting off a series of events that quickly spin far out of his control.

     Without missing a beat, The Joker does exactly what you would expect of him; he begins picking up where he left off.  Immediately, he starts a frantic and chaotic campaign to retrieve his territory, his underling, and his status.  Not everyone is thrilled about his return, though.  To get what's rightfully his, The Joker must crack some heads, spill some blood, and spread some good old fashioned fear among the criminal underbelly of Gotham.  He even has to put the hurt on a few familiar faces.

     Former rivals turn and, whether willing( like Killer Croc) or unwilling (like The Penguin), they help him in his attempt.  Others keep their distance from the situation as best as possible, such as The Riddler.  And still, others, such as Harvey Two-Face, actively try to stand against him.  As he has proven so many times before, though, however hard they strive to be, no one is the equal of The Joker.

     Joker is easily one of, if not the, most enduring villains in the history of comics.  Many writer/artist teams have tried to give the character their own spin, and not all of them have been successful.  It takes a very certain type of person to truly understand the character well enough to write for him, and Azzarello has done a brilliant job of it.  I think his choice to have a third party as the narrator was a very smart move.  No one can truly get into the mind of The Joker, and Azzarello must have known what an insurmountable task that would have been.  Rather, in having a narrator act as witness to The Joker's maniacal crime spree, and even participate in it, really works to convey to the reader that sense of madness, that total loss of control that is just a Tuesday for The Joker.  While reading it, we really feel that we are being swept up in something far bigger than we could have imagined.

     Bermejo's art is the perfect complement to Azzarello's writing.  Combining just the right elements from he character as he has appeared over the years, and with an obvious but perfect dose of Ledger's amazing portrayal in the movie The Dark Knight, we see on every page a world that could be.  Bermejo's art is realistic enough to make us discomforted by the events unfolding, as if we are actually watching them.  He has enough fantastical elements, though, and art that is stylized just enough, that we still feel like we are being held outside of events and the control of them (much like I imagine the Joker's victims must feel).

     The story they have chosen to tell is unsettling, disturbing, and brilliant.  The pacing keeps you on edge from start to finish.  I found myself so caught up in the story at times, I had to remind myself to stop and look at the art, too.  You will always find yourself on edge, waiting for the next more to be made.

     Two points of note:

     1) If you are looking for Batman, look elsewhere.  Though the Dark Knight does make an appearance, this is all about The Joker, and Bats has very little influence on this book.

     2) At a meager 128 pages, and of course, being a heavily illustrated Graphic Novel, this is a very fast read.  In fact, my only complaint was that I wanted more.

Story: 4.5 out of 5
Art: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 4.0 out of 5
Overall Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin
Genre: Action, Martial Arts

Starring: Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune

Release Date: November 25th 2009







     With a rather unimaginative title like Ninja Assassin, one would not be particularly inclined to expect much of a film  Especially if you, unlike me, are not predisposed to enjoy that sort of hyper-stylized film.  Despite this fact, Ninja Assassin is a brilliant martial arts spectacular.  The story is intriguing, the casting adequate in the worst case, fantastic in the best, and the action is on par with anything I have ever seen.  And believe me, I've seen a lot.

     Rain (that is actually the name under which he is billed) plays Raizo, a lone ninja fighting for his honor and for revenge.  As an orphan child, Raizo was taken into the Ozunu clan, one of the Nine Clan's comprising a secret order of assassins that has been active for more than a millenia.

     Throughout his youth, and into adulthood, Raizo is trained in body, mind, and soul in the ways of the ninja. This training comes from his clan leader, Ozunu, played by Sho Kosugi.  Kosugi brings poise and strength to the role, such that even at his most monstrous, Ozuna is a powerful character that captures and hold the audience's attention.

     Naomie Harris and Ben Miles play agents Mika and Maslow.  Mika, a forensic researcher has uncovered a number of seemingly random facts that, when put together, point to the existence of the secretive order.  Maslow, her fellow agent and superior, disbelieve the facts before him at first, but as event unfold, he has to believe whether he wants to or not.  Neither give career making performances, but neither are they unsatisfactory.  Harris in particular gets more and more likeable the more her character develops, largely through her growing connection to Raizo.

     Rick Yune plays Takeshi, Raizo's fellow ninja, older "brother", greatest rival, and eventually his sworn enemy.  Though his performances in the past (The Fast And The Furious, The Fifth Commandment) have been less than stellar, his action scenes are very well done, and he pulls off the balance of being intimidating and threating, without taking it too far and becoming cheesy.  My biggest complaint about this character was that the rivalry between him and Raizo never felt truly established for me.  Through the bulk of the film, Takeshi is only shown in the past, played by younger actors, so it was sometimes confusing to me that it was meant to be the same character.

     The action is very stylized, very effects laden, but the effects aren't used to make the action.  Rather, the are used to compliment the amazing fight choreography, executed to perfection by this incredible cast of martial artists.  There is, admittedly, a good deal of gore involved in the action (severed limbs, blood spray, etc.), and it is to a large enough extent that not everyone would enjoy it.  If you are not squeamish, though, or are at least willing to give it a much deserved chance, the fighting can't be beat.  I have found myself saying that a lot lately, because I've been fortunate enough to see some really great action films in recent weeks.  Still, Ninja Assassin is miles beyond anything I have seen.  The last series of fight sequences in particular are, quite possibly, the best I have ever seen.

     I feel this was a severely underrated, underbilled, and underexposed movie, and star Rain absolutely blew me away with his skill and technique.  I don't know how much of the fighting was him, or doubles, or even CGI, because he is so talented, his every move so crisp and precise, that even the most extreme and fantastical piece of choreography seemed entirely plausible in his capable hands.

     If you enjoyed the combat sequences of 300, or the hyper-stylized fighting of the Kill Bill movies, yo will love Ninja Assassin.  I know it's at the top of my "To Buy" list, at least.

Story and Script: 3.5 out of 5
Action and Effects: 5 out of 5
Rain and Sho Kosugi (they deserve their own category): 5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, March 6, 2010

District 9

District 9
Genre: Science Fiction

Starring: Sharlto Copley

Release Date: August 14th 2009







     Stranded on Earth, a tremendous alien ship is left in stasis over Johannesburg.  What starts as an attempt by aid workers to help the sickly and dying refugees from another world, degrades over time into a full scale imprisonment in the midst of growing anti-alien sentiment.  Their prison?  The fenced and guarded "District 9".  The aliens, or "Prawns" as they are called (due to the species having a startling resemblance to their namesake) have devolved over their 20 year imprisonment to the level of base survival instincts, managing as best they can in the squalor they are confined to.

     First, the things I liked about District 9.

     Let me start by saying that I feel this is a brilliant concept.  Though not a very subtle allegory, it is still an effective one, echoing the tone of most discussions about immigrants and illegal "aliens" in society today.  Rather than focus on conflict between races and make one group the villain, the filmmakers focus on conflict between species, making all mankind the villains while illuminating the capacity for prejudice and hatred in us all.

     In addition, it is refreshing to me that high-concept Science Fiction like District 9 is being well received.  I feel comfortable in that assumption, given that it is a nominee for this year's Academy Awards, and for Best Picture at that.  It means that a wider cross-section of filmgoers are starting to take the genre seriously.

     Sharlto Copley in the lead role of Wikus Van De Merwe was also a definite positive for me.  I have never heard of this actor prior to District 9, and didn't think that much of him at first.  Much of the movie, particularly the setup and conclusion, are done in an interview/documentary style, and from the first of these two sections, very little is done with the character, to the point where I didn't even realize he was the protagonist of the piece.

     His performance in the beginning was pretty weak, but as is evidenced by the progression of the plot and by the rapid and thorough development of his character, it is my feeling that this was a failing, not of Copley's, but of the script.  I liked him more and more as the film went on, and by the end, I genuinely felt attached to the character.

     On another positive note, the effects were very well executed.  The Prawns themselves were very well designed, and were animated with such thoroughness that they really interacted well with the practical (i.e. non CGI) aspects of the environment.  The technology, though far etched of course, worked well, especially when shown in it's ruined state in the slums of District 9.

     Now for the bad parts...

     This, for me, is a classic example of a brilliant concept exceeding its execution.  Was the film bad?  No.  I do not, however, feel that it lived up to its full potential.

     The rest of the cast, you will notice, has remained suspiciously anonymous through the proceeding paragraphs.  That is because no one besides Copley stood out enough in my experience to warrant specific discussion.  Most of them weren't bad, they just didn't really impress me.

     The pacing, also, was a persistent problem for me.  The crucial aspects of the plot took far too long to take the spotlight, and once they did, these crucial parts weren't allowed to keep the focus they deserved.  The backstory went quickly from thorough to excessive, and for a little while there, I got pretty bored.  Whether it was a break in the plot for a drawn out action scene or for relatively pointless exposition, the pacing was inconsistent, and that definitely colored my opinion of the whole.

     Overall, this was an enjoyable watch, though.  It had it's good points, and was worth seeing at least once.  I can promise you this, though.  District 9 will not be causing any upsets at the Oscars this year.

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2.5 out of 5
Effects: 4 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Finishing The Game

Finishing The Game: The Search For A New Bruce Lee
Genre: Comedy, Mockumentary

Starring: Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Moniqe Gabriela Curnen, McCaleb Vrnett, Dustin Nguyen, Jake Sandvig, Meredith Scott Lynn, M.C. Hammer.

Release Date: Strangely absent from IMDB.com





      Have you ever stubbed your toe?  I don't mean a little bump of the foot.  I mean a full on, heart skips a beat, "Oh My God!  It's Broken!" kid of stub?  Then, have you ever immediately stubbed that same toe again?  Ever done it a third time?  A fourth?  Ever done it for 83 minutes straight?  Well picture that in your head, that excruciating pain. Keep it in your mind, how every time you think it's finally going away, Boom!  You smash it again.  Congratulations.  You know what it feels like to watch Finishing The Game.  Every bit that could be "funny" proves to be more painful than the last.

     The premise is simple.  Bruce Lee has died suddenly leaving behind 12 crucial minutes of Game Of Death, the movie he intended to be his masterpiece.  So, let's go film a documentary of the casting process of trying to find someone to, quite literally, fill Bruce Lee's shoes.

     Seems like not only a simple concept, but an (at least mildly) intriguing one. Being the Bruce Lee fan that I am, I certainly thought so.  What follows is an hour and a half of awkwardness, with the viewer spending most of his time pitying the poor bastards who got suckered into making this, and hoping they weren't working for free.  The sad thing is, it could have been so much more.  Director Justin Lin made a nice debut some years back with his film "Better Luck Tomorrow."  Then, he signed on and directed The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, and things apparently just went all to hell from there.

     Had this been in the hands of, say, Stephen Chow (director of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle), it had the potential to be not only hilarious, but to be a respectful tribute to the greatest martial artist of the modern age.As it stands, though, it petty much accomplished exactly what the studio's final release of Game Of Death did.  To dig up Bruce Lee's grave, drop trou, and piss all over his corpse.

     The acting was awful.  I mean it, and I mean ALL of it.  Yes, I have said this of movies in the past, but never with the fervor and revulsion I feel as I write this.  Every line made me wish I was drunk, and heavily, so that by the end of the less than 90 minute feature, I was seriously considering making a liquor run of coma proportions.

     I am even unable to claim that there was at least one person who, seeing the caliber of actors around them, made any kind of a standout performance.  One actor did have a scene (and yes, only one) that approached some real "acting", but it was too little, and WAY TOO LATE.  The white guy playing a half-chinese man with a moustache that screams "Child Molester", protesting and reading slam poetry about being called "Slanty Eyes" was a new dimension of suffering the likes of which I've never seen.

     So, in case you couldn't tell, the move sucked a golf ball through a garden hose.  I paid five bucks, and was ripped of for about $4.50. So that's why it had no release date on IMDB; this vile excuse for comedy went straight to rental.    Least I know now, and when it comes to sh**ty movies, knowing is half the battle.

Everything Sucked.  Straight to the final rating.
Overall Rating: 0.5 out of 5 (including the mandatory 0.5 increase for a Ron Jeremy Cameo)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra

G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
Genre: Action, Science Fiction

Starring: Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Sienna Miller, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dennis Quaid, Ray Park, Byung-hun Lee

Release Date: August 7th 2009






     G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is set in the near future, where weapons technology has evolved at an incredible rate, and a brand new science is changing the face of combat; nanotechnology.  Microscopic robots that have nearly unlimited destructive capabilities.  When these weapons fall into the wrong hands, it's up to top secret special-ops group G.I. Joe to get them back.  Highly trained and well equipped, the "Joe's" are our last line of defense.  As their commander summarizes, "When others fail...we don't."

     If you watched the cartoon as a kid (or a grownup, depending on how old you are) you will notice one change early on.  Whereas G.I. Joe used to be the "Real American Hero", now they are a virtual United Nations of soldiers and specialists.

     The film opens in the past, with a Scottish weapons dealer, McCulloch, being brought into a torture room by his French captors.  McCulloch has been selling to both sides, supplying their king, as well as the king of England, with arms.  McCulloch rails against them, saying his descendants will never stop, and he is proud to die.  Rather than kill him, though, they sear a white hot iron mask to his face, which he must "wear to the end of (his) days."  The mask, which will serve as his prison, will be easily recognizable to fans of the cartoon.

     This is the first and last scene not dominated by technology.  From here, the film leaps to the future, where McCulloch's descendant has developed a nanite warhead.  The weapon has the capability to destroy entire cities, and four such warheads are being sold to NATO.  The weapons are entrusted to a group of special operatives for delivery.  Leading them is Duke (Tatum).

     On their way to the delivery, things go predictably wrong.  It is only through the timely intervention of a group of Joe's that the weapons aren't lost.  After very little thought, Duke and his friend Ripcord (Wayans) want in.  They get their wish.  The rest of the movies is keeps a fast pace, full of action and littered with so-so dialogue.  Through the course of the film, the warheads change hands several times, and it is a constant struggle to keep them from being used.

     I didn't find myself cringing through any of the movie, but with a film like this, you can certainly expect to chuckle through at least some of the dialogue.  Likewise, no one actor really stood out over the rest, because none of them were particularly impressive.

     Channing Tatum was average in his portrayal of Duke.  He didn't show much emotion, except anger, but I expected that.  It is not only a fair description of the bulk of his career, but really is all that is required of the character.  He's tough, a good soldier, and nothing else about him really matters.

     Marlon Wayans, also, didn't seem to bring much actual "acting" to the film.  He played Ripcord the way he plays all his parts; as a smartass.  That's not to say it bothered me.  His humor kept a lightness to the film's tone that I really think it could have suffered without.  I just mean there were no surprises here.

     Sienna Miller plays Duchess, duke's ex-fiancee turned villainous killing machine.  Her performance was relatively dry, and yet still I found myself at several points thinking "Wow.  She's trying WAY too hard."  Her action scenes, on the other hand, were actually pretty well done.

     Dennis Quaid is General Hawk, leader of the Joe's.  Without a huge amount of screen time, we didn't really get much of a sense for his character.  We know he is a tough, no-nonsense military man (Yours, Mine And Ours anybody?) who cares deeply about every soldier under his command.  Quaid was good, of course.  He always is.  I just feel they underused him.

     The real highlights of the cast were Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow and Ray Park as Snake Eyes.  These two character, particularly Snake Eyes, have been fan favorites for decades.  Fans, I promise, regardless of anything else about the movie, these two will not disappoint.  Both are brilliant martial artists, and they really got to showcase their talent.  Whatever else you say about the production team, you have to give them this; they nailed the fight scenes.  But, how could you not with the man behind Darth Maul.  He was the highlight of the whole film for me, and he never said so much as a word.  when it comes to non-asian martial artists working in the industry today, he is top of the list for me.

     I ahve heard some complaints from people about the amount of attention these two were given.  One friend said, "They should have just called it 'Snake Eyes: The Movie'".  After watching it, though, I have to disagree.  Yes there are a number of scenes featuring him, but he is a crucial part of the G.I. Joe universe.  Yes, there was a lot of backstory scenes for him and Storm Shadow, but how else are you going to get this information when the character doesn't speak?  Overall, I thought these wound up being some of the better parts of the movie.

     Finally, despite the weak points in the script, the action and effects were amazing.  The technology didn't seem thrown together or out of place, but were (for the characters) a natural part of the world they inhabit.  Also, I must say it has been a long time since I saw action and fight sequences of this caliber, with Park and Lee standing out even above the rest of the excellently executed action.

     Would I recommend this?  Sure!  It was a fun movie, one I'm glad I watched.  If you like action, no movie has come out in some time that can compete.  Don't expect too much from the story or the actors, and just let yourself enjoy it.  This is not a movie to be overthought, so just sit back, relax, and watch the pretty explosions.

Story: 2.5 out of 5 (formulaic)
Performances: 3.5 out of 5 (raised from 2.5 thanks to Park and Lee)
Action: 5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How To Lose Friends And Alienate People

How To Lose Friends And Alienate People
Genre: Comedy

Starring: Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges, Megan Fox, Gillian Anderson

Release Date: October 3rd 2008






     How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is the story of Sidney Young, a failing entertainment writer.  A badly failing one.  No matter what tricks and schemes he comes up with, he is unable to get enough access to the stars to finally get his big break.  His magazine/tabloid "Post Modern Review", which he runs from his apartment, is constantly on the verge of going belly-up.  This is, in part, because the magazine is one large hatchet job against the very stars who could be a lucrative livelihood for him.

     Then one day, he pisses off the right person.  Crashing a party hosted by "Sharps Magazine", the premier entertainment magazine in the world, Sidney catches the eye of Clayton Harding (Bridges), the magazine's editor.  Harding pulls him from his downward spiral in England, and gives him a chance at "Sharps".  Here he meets Alison Olsen, a fellow writer in the "I Spy" section, which (as Sidney puts it) "Catch(es) celebrities when they're drunk."

     Not happy with his lot, Sidney tries time and again to shake things up, refusing to sacrifice his journalistic integrity, even when doing so would be to guarantee his success.  Stunt after stunt, however, go progressively worse, until he nearly loses his job and everything that goes with it.  Through battling for his principles, to battling against them, and through a very unexpected (both for him and his colleagues) rise to the top, Sidney must decide what is more important; integrity or fame.

     Simon Pegg is Sidney Young.  I don't just mean he plays him, I mean he IS him, as if the role were written for specifically for him (which it likely was).  Chalk it up to that dry British wit, I suppose, but Pegg has an innate ability to take something that is completely unfunny, and to make it so over the top, so out of place, so downright awkward, that suddenly we find ourselves laughing out loud.  He usually does this by embarrassing himself with how ludicrous whatever he is saying happens to be, all while taking it completely seriously.  His comic timing is, as always, flawless.  I wholly believe that Pegg is one of, if not the, funnest men working in film today, and this role is an excellent showcase of his comedic ability.

     Jeff Bridges is also exceptional.  His character, Harding, truly is an a-hole, there is no question about it.  You don't mind in the least, though, because brutal though he is, he is 100% honest all the time.  He is the perfect foil to Pegg's antics, and I imagine there were probably quite a few blown takes between the two.  The end result, however, is simply brilliant.

     That's the good news.  Now for the bad...

     Megan Fox plays Sophie Mays, the up-and-coming ingenue starlet.  Mays is, throughout the film, the object of Sidney's aim and his obsession, with his end goal being (of course) to sleep with her.  I could not for the life of me figure out why, though.  Fox played her character so vapid, so over the top in her idiocy, I began to wonder whether she was acting at all.  She is attractive, yes, but this isn't Transformers and her looks were nowhere near enough to carry this role.  Every scene of hers was a waiting game, holding out for the return of humor.

     Gillian Anderson (in a rather minor role) is Eleanor Johnson, Sophie's publicist.  Though she didn't turn in a bad performance, or turn my stomach for that matter, but neither was it stellar.  I felt like she was really just meant to be there as a plot device, because that's all she was.

     Finally, we have Kirsten Dunst.  For those who aren't aware, this is the woman who suggested they ought to have killed off Spiderman.  She is a heretic, and in all likelihood a witch, and if anyone has a stake and tinder, please let me know.  In her less than able hands, Alison Olsen was expressionless, unemotional, boring, and nearly as vapid as Megan Fox.  She seems to work from the "I don't need to try because I'm getting a check either way" school of acting.  This character could not have been more wooden if it were played by a tree.  Her awkward scene of drunken rambling was especially painful.

So, considering these wildly varying opinions of the cast, what was my final impression?  Overall, I did enjoy it.  Pegg and Bridges made the movie their own, and kept me from turning it off.  I will admit that there were moments, however fleeting, that the thought crossed my mind.  Still, I'm glad I watched it.  Would I watch it again?  Possibly, but if I do, I will be keeping my finger very close to the fast forward button.

Plot and Script: 4 out of 5
Pegg and Bridges: 5 out of 5
The rest of them: 1 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.25 out of 5


*Note*  The movie does contain a good deal of harsh language, and brief scenes of graphic nudity, and drug references, earning it a definite "R" rating.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Blind Side

The Blindside
Genre: Drama

Starring: Quinton Aaron, Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates

Release Date: November 20th 2009

*Contains Spoilers*










     I am, as a general rule, very skeptical about sports movies.  If you know me, you know I've watched maybe three football games in my life.  I've seen one live sporting event (KU Basketball back when Jacque Vaughn was on the team), and when I watch a trailer for a sports movie, I start having "Mighty Ducks" flashbacks.  So, when my wife decided she wanted to see this for her birthday, I felt like I was borderline for a pretty serious panic attack.  I went, though, and I am so glad I did.

     The Blind Side is the story of Michael Oher, who was a first draft NFL pick in 2009, and is now a defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens (thank you Wikipedia!).  The movies isn't about his still very short professional career, though, but about his life leading up to it, with some events and places fictionalized.  Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Oher was a ward of the state and a runaway from numerous foster homes.  He was a quiet boy of tremendous physical stature and, as far as anyone could tell, a severely limited intellect.  He had a 0.6 GPA upon entering the Wingate Christian School.

     Michael was your everyday hard luck case that you hear about or see about so often these days.  A broken home, an absent father, a mother addicted to drugs, and the victim of numerous other tragedies no young person should have to suffer.  When he is taken in by the Tuohy's, whose children also attend Wingate, they all expected it to be just a place to stay for a night or two.  Instead, their bond grows, and they eventually  welcome Michael fully into their family.  By the end of the film, he even calls Leigh Ann (the Tuohy matriarch) "Mama".

     Michael is played by Quinton Aaron.  This is Aaron's first big screen role, and that can easily be an intimidating experience for a young actor.  The pressure can affect the performance, and with a story this heavy, it would have been easy for his portrayal to turn withdrawn or maudlin, but Aaron does neither.  He shows confidence throughout the film, even when doing so means showing just how little confidence his character has.  From the opening credits to the last line, he stayed true to his character and drew me entirely into his world.  I felt for him, I (almost) cried for him, and I cheered for him like he was a close friend.  As the character grew and came out of his shell, it only got better.

     Sandra Bullock (who is nominated for an Oscar for her performance) plays Leigh Ann Tuohy.  Severe and standoffish, she is a wealthy woman who not only knows what she wants, but tends to get it.  There is another dimension to her, though, just below the surface.  One that is warm and giving, who happily changes a young man's life and asks for nothing in return.  This is a bit of a departure for Bullock, whose catalog of romantic comedies has often put her squarely on the opposite end of the spectrum from the aloof Tuohy.  Even in The Proposal, the humor overwhelmed the careful balance Bullock had between being the kind person, and the human wall.

     Not in The Blind Side.  Her flair, attitude, and innate kindness come across perfectly.  She is inspiring in her portrayal, and she absolutely deserves her nomination.

     Tim McGraw is Sean Tuohy, a successful restauranteur (albeit of chains like KFC and Taco Bell).  He is often the voice of reality and reason to Bullock's character, and as a result, he is often ignored.  But he is every bit as kind, and he has the added bonus of being able to be overtly humorous.  Kathy Bates is Miss Sue, Oher's tutor and friend, a unique woman who warns the Tuohy's "I'm a Democrat," and gives Michael the tools to become the student, and the man, that he wants to be.

     With a slew of actual NCAA coaches lending their names and faces, the film gains an added level of honesty and truth, reminding us that this story not only happened, but happened recently.  The movie concludes touchingly, with footage of the real Michael Oher being drafted into the NFL, as well as with photos of him with the real Tuohy family.

     I am so glad I gave it a chance, and I advise you to do the same.  Who knows, maybe one of you will be inspired to help the next Michael Oher.

Story: 4 out of 5
Performances: 4.5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies
by Seth Grahame-Smith
Genre: Classics, Horror, Spoof
Published by Quirk Classics
Date of Publication: April 4th 2009






     They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  I suppose spoofs fall into that category, and I have yet to find a better one than Pride And Prejudice And Zombies.  Rather than rewrite the regency classic, Grahame-Smith has used a different tactic.  Taking Austen's original text, he has expanded it in a number of places, adding scenes and a backstory of a zombie outbreak.  The rest, he left completely untouched.

     For the sake of this review, I am going to have to assume you, the reader, have at the very least a cursory knowledge of the original.  It is not my intention to try and "review" a masterpiece of English literature, and I find even the idea of such an attempt intimidating and far beyond my meager talents.

     This version of the book follows the Bennett family (particularly Elizabeth) through the same course of events as the original.  The class intrigues, romances, and family disputes all remain largely unsullied.  In fact, the bulk of the book (say 85%) remains identical to the original piece, down to the word.

     In this version, however, the countryside has been overrun by Unmentionables.  Oddly enough, the word "Zombie" rearely appears in the book.  Rather than being the somewhat less than "prim and proper" society ladies we know them as, the Bennett sisters are a highly trained and widely respected group of zombie slayers, whose collective technique (learned in a monastery in the orient) is referred to as the "Pentagram of Death".  Elizabeth is, as expected, the fiercest and most talented martialist of the bunch, and possibly in the world.

     Likewise, Mr. Darcy is esteemed across the country as being unmatched with a blade, and his record of kills borders on uncountable.  Their matched skill as combatants adds a very nice additional layer of tension and one-upsmanship to their courtship, and brings a new dimension to their feuding.

     Through questions of their suitability as women of class, to the infection and death of a close friend, and through all the same trials and tribulations, this time with "added zombie carnege and mayhem", there are no twists that can catch you offhand.  But then again, how could you possibly expect there would be with any book as established as Pride And Prejudice.

     The thing that really made this book for me is the flawless reworking of certain famous lines, in particular, the opening line of the book:

     "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains"

     In addition to the flawless used Victorian language, there are several sparsely used illustrations peppered throughout the book.  Done in much the same style as old woodblock prints, these add a very nice touch to the volume.



     When this book was announced, Austen fans the world over rose up as one to collective complain, flooding book sites with wordy diatribes why this idea was not only ludicrous, but bordered on the blasphemous.  They ranted against the bastardization of the beloved classic, and tried ardently to persuade everyone they could to not even give it the time of day.

     Yet in spite of all that, the book not only saw it's release, but the sentiment of hatred and revulsion (one widely shared across a large cross section of literati) proved an old saying true; "There's no such thing as bad publicity".  In fact, preorders reached incredible numbers, surpassing the records for many years, and it was even optioned as a movie PRIOR to the book hitting shelves.  Why?  Because zombies are awesome, and so is Pride And Prejudice And Zombies.

     I would not suggest reading the original and this back to ack, as I did.  No matter how great the classic is, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies is still largely the same book, and even a classic like Pride And Prejudice gets a little old (no pun intended) after two consecutive readings.  Also, I admit to wishing for more narrative about the zombies.  But, the next time you would revisit the original, consider picking this up instead.  If you can keep an open mind, or are anything at all like me, I promise you won't regret it.  The book does exactly what it claims it does on the back cover.  It "transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read."

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5