I Vote “Yeh” on State of Play

Movie title: State of Play (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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Alas, we get a movie about conspiratorial/political corruption that succeeds in maintaining credibility and in being entertaining at the same time! State of Play succeeds where The International fails in that State of Play’s storyline is believable, and better than that, the film’s steady leaking out of incriminating facts draws fascination rather than a dreary sense of “Oh, now they just want to confuse us!”

Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, a veteran journalist investigating four local murders, one of them the “other woman” of McAffrey’s old friend and roommate, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). A firestorm of media coverage is ablaze, and Collins is getting roasted. McAffrey is eventually teamed up with a number of reporters to cover portions of the ever-growing case, including Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a rookie journalist who wants to make it big. As the two push legal boundaries to get to the deepening well of questionable motives and black bag ties to shady corporations, the job is angry with them for not getting something in print. The police are breathing down their necks as well, and beneath all of that is a love affair between McAffrey and Stephen Collins’ wife Ann (Robin Wright Penn), which only complicates things further.

Crowe’s “I can play any part in the world” adaptability is never more noticeable. This is, without a doubt, one of the best performances of Ben Affleck’s career (he ceases to carry around that goofy-looking kid smirk that makes him look like he’s about to shoot spit-wads in a high school cafeteria). Jeff Daniels is Senator George Fergus. His role as a distant-but-connected figurehead adds dimension to a ripe story.

Though sometimes riding a bit heavily on the meat and potatoes of journalistic work, it backs off before boredom can set in. The search for facts, although at times tedious, never spills over into becoming uninteresting. Crowe’s scruffy, leftwing, non-conformist look fits the reporter he plays. Selected well was the background lighting, always careful to match the mood of the film. Best of all is the “rev” of the plot, which doesn’t fade, but advances, growing closer to the truth right through to the end.

What State of Play is light on is action-driven suspense and perhaps a sense of lightheartedness (read: time away from work) as a break from the plot-focused intensity. This, however, should come as a request on the part of some rather than as a criticism by all. Director MacDonald is concerned with the logistics of the story and is careful not to bend credibility until it breaks—having journalists dodge bullets and return fire is not in their job description, nor is it what we should expect to see!

I once wrote an article entitled “When The Stars Get Too Big.” In it, I addressed the tendency of certain movies (*ahem* Oceans 13, etc.) to flaunt a star cast until it becomes obvious that what is being watched is a prestige pageant, and not something that requires acting skill. In State of Play, you have – lo and behold – actors earning their keep, absorbing their talents in becoming the characters whose names and traits they wear.

State of Play is polished with every scene fitting in, leaving no painfully unanswered questions or feelings of melancholy. Among political thrillers, it steps up to take its place in a genre where the power of having a high position is often flaunted, but this one is different. It flaunts that the truth will come out. Truth has a way of doing that!

(JH)

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Grade: A- (4 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Summation: A team of journalists headed up by Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) follows an ever-darkening path of corruption and murder.
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Starring: Russell Crowe “Cal McAffrey,” Ben Affleck “Rep. Stephen Collins,” Rachel McAdams “Della Frye,” Helen Mirren “Cameron Lynne,” Robin Wright Penn “Anne Collins,” Jason Bateman “Dominic Foy,” Jeff Daniels “Senator George Fergus,” Michael Berresse “Robert Bingham,” Harry Lennix “Det. Donald Bell,” Josh Mostel “Pete,” Michael Weston “Hank”
Genre: Thriller / Drama / Crime

Star Power Saves

Movie title: 17 Again (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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17 Again, starring Zac Efron as a young Mike O’Donnell and Thomas Lennon as old Mike’s friend Ned Gold, is about…yes…being 17 again. No, you’re no genius for figuring it out since it doesn’t take one to guess the plot. Old Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) starts wondering what might have been in his life had things been different and he not married Scarlett (Allison Miller/Leslie Mann). We’ve only seen the plot 17 times already and thought about it probably 1700, but graceful performances on the part of the three main stars manages to save what would otherwise have been a complete wash-up.

The film begs to be funny, and it is funny—about as funny as the antics of an annoying, pencil-tapping eighth-grader. It’s the charisma of Zac Efron that bails out a problematic storyline. Reno 911’s talented Thomas Lennon is Mike’s rich and nerdical sci-fi buff of a best friend, and although he too puts on a fine performance, such characters have by now become clichéd and nearly unwelcome. The out-of-place uber-ism really isn’t funny, though it tries to be. It stands out like the World of Warcraft gamers it parodies: “Are you now or have you ever been a Norse God, a vampire, or a time-traveling cyborg?” See what I mean?

Lackluster acting bleeds through, but it’s not too much of a problem because the parts that are played require little acting skill. There’s just no sophistication with anyone. The only slam-dunks are a well-selected cast of MILF-ishly pretty ladies and dialogue that are at least worth a nod.

Then there are those annoying oddities, the chief of them being the question of why younger Mike would suddenly be taken with interest in his older wife. If he lost perspective when he got older, and his turning young again is enough to cause him to regain his zest for what he once had but took for granted, the rest of the movie is rendered irrelevant. And why did no one bother to get a hold of older Mike when he was out of everyone’s lives for such a substantial amount of time? The movie never answers.

I found it exceptionally bothersome that the supporting characters were never sufficiently incorporated into the unfolding of the plot. A high school bully jumps into the storyline and never jumps out, but he is never developed. A mystical janitor plays a key role, but it’s a very small one as he has little to say. The message of the film was deemed so important that a lot was left undone. And in addition to some overhauling that director Burr Steers needed to do, we have the fact that Matthew Perry is not a believable older Zac Efron, not at all. Perry is way too tall, but damned if that occurred to anyone making the film.

Penalty points assigned, 17 Again (by the skin of its teeth) succeeds at being an entertaining film, making you travel back in time in your mind, asking yourself how well you would do at a second shot at school. We’ve all wondered about it and gone back and forth on whether or not we would do things over again if we had the chance. The focus of the movie, however, abandons that concern rapidly. When that happens, the end is three-point-shot predictable. But star power saves, and this movie is proof.

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Summation: Mike O'Donnell gets a chance to be 17 again.
Director: Burr Steers
Starring: Zac Efron “Mike O'Donnell (Teen),” Leslie Mann “Scarlett O'Donnell (Adult),” Thomas Lennon “Ned Gold,” Matthew Perry “Mike O'Donnell (Adult)” Tyler Steelman “Ned Gold (Teen),” Allison Miller “Scarlett (Teen),” Sterling Knight “Alex O'Donnell,” Michelle Trachtenberg “Maggie O'Donnell”
Genre: Comedy

Crazy Preteens Lash Out!

Movie title: Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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Try and imagine yourself as a ten-year-old girl on the bus ride home from school. The girls sitting next to you are doing the same thing you are, and that is texting others with countless back-and-forth messages in faithful shorthand fashion (“u r a dork.”) When the bus arrives at your stop, you get off and say “text u n a few” to the friends on your block. You head inside and throw your backpack on your bed, and before you begin watching iCarly and the rest of the after school favorites, you eat a Carnation Instant Chocolate Bar and then turn on the tube. Hannah Montana is on.

Your parents may or may not know it, but you know it. You know that all 7 to 13-year-old girls worldwide know—that Hannah Montana is the newest and biggest thing around. She's the new preteen-targeting icon, and she can actually sing. And she's not just a singer. She's a celebrity in every sense of the word. For those of you who have yet to experience the erratic squealing, the intense begging of your younger daughter or sister and her school bus mob of girlfriends who will not relent until they get to see her in concert, brace yourselves. Chances are, you'll encounter it soon enough.

Hannah Montana is the celebrity side of Miley Cyrus (Miley Stewart in the film), Billy Ray Cyrus' daughter. Miley is the average schoolgirl. Only a select few close to her know she's a big star in disguise. She's only Hannah when she goes to perform on stage; the rest of the time, she's just Miley. The buzz is all about being popular while going “under cover” with the fame to relate to your ordinary kid. I understand the appeal. Secrecy, even if it's only in character on TV, is cool. It inspires pretending, you could say.

But the buzz about Hannah Montana: The Movie is about how terrible it is. “It was awful,” I kept hearing. So, having invested the necessary two hours of my life to render a verdict on the matter, I can say that what Hannah Montana: The Movie lacks is quality as a movie for anyone over the age of 10. What it most certainly does not lack is appeal to the stop-at-nothing fans that so, so, so love this girl.

So I get done reviewing the film and give it the scantily passing grade of D+ (1 1/2 stars). Some of my fellow critics are amazed. With all the goofy chase scenes and everyone tripping over air itself and not having the toddler-level intelligence to recognize a girl with just a wig on, how could it not get a right-between-the-eyes F? The answer to that is, the movie is all about the fans, and in far too juvenile fashion, it gives them exactly what they want.

A hugely popular Hannah and her best friend Lola Luftnagle (Emily Osment) are living high with Hannah's shining stardom. Hannah begins to find that her career of limousines, living large, and laughing easy is getting in the way of the things she values most—her friends and family. So, she heads back to the place where it all started, to the family farm in Crowley Corners, Tennessee. There, she has a lot to learn about priorities and her roots.

As you get to meet the family and a wise grandmother, you get to hear Hannah sing and perform and even write songs. That guy who loves ferrets? Ignore him. Really, he's harmless. When she's not riding her horse named “Blue jean” or making a fool of herself as a hopeless L.A. city girl trying to do farm work, she's striking up conversations with a good-looking former schoolmate who has a crush on her. But things get more difficult when Miley and Hannah both have to be in the same place at once. As she finds it harder and harder to preserve her big secret in a small town, she soon has to make a decision. Will she be overwhelmed with stress as a secretive singing celeb, or will she be exposed as a superstar and not be able to live a normal life again?

Suddenly, the shoe shopping trips, the big cases of eyeliner and cosmetics, and the cool electronic platforms that raise her up onto a stage before thousands of screaming fans don't mean as much anymore. Miley and Hannah both have some thinking to do.

But what you might need to think about is how bad this movie can be if you watch it and are unlucky enough to be over the age of 13. So be prepared for some craziness, like that everyone in Hannah's world is chronically clumsy. There's as much tripping as there is talking. I move that the whole cast be checked for neurological disorders. The humor is so tawdry and kid-oriented that parents who brought their children may feel the sudden need to step outside and get a breath a fresh air before going back in. This is normal! If you experience dizziness, nausea, or vomiting, discontinue watching and contact your doctor immediately. It may not be in the running for the worst movie of the year, but it narrowly misses qualifying.

Despite it all, a positive, pro-family plot mixed with music, concerts, and the life story of Disney's brightest new superstar managed to come thru. It's not going to win any new converts to the Hannah cult, but let the initiated have what they want. There's no harm in that. Let them have their Hannah.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: G
Summation: Miley Stewart (Hannah Montana) heads back home to the farm to get a new perspective on the meaning of family.
Director: Peter Chelsom
Starring: Miley Cyrus “Hannah Montana / Miley Stewart,” Billy Ray Cyrus “Robby Ray Stewart,” Emily Osment “Lilly Truscott / Lola Luftnagle,” Jason Earles “Jackson Stewart,” Mitchel Musso “Oliver Oken / Mike Standley III,” Moises Arias “Rico,” Lucas Till “Travis Brody,” Vanessa Williams “Vita,” Margo Martindale “Ruby,”
Genre: Comedy / Drama / Family / Music

Dragonball: Excretion

Movie title: Dragonball: Evolution (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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Dear James Wong,

I regret to inform you that after reviewing your film Dragonball: Evolution, I am left with no choice but to give it a failing grade of F (0 stars). Your attempt at transforming a work of Japanese animation into a live-action movie for international audiences was...to put it nicely...a full-dress failure that had me running for the toilet.

Your efforts to reach across cultures and continents with made-real martial arts fighters to attract mainstream audiences, while remaining theatrically appealing to an Asian fan-base was a total loss—a loss of cinematically epic proportions.

It happens to be the case that many cartoons and comics can be fashioned into great movies (i.e. The Hulk, Superman, etc.), but this requires an immense budget and finesse-full directing. But even then, not all animated source materials can be translated into real-life action. Take, for instance, Mario Brothers.

It doesn't require immaculate intelligence to see that Italian plumbers breaking bricks and stepping on dangerous turtles is not going to translate into our world very well. I think you have the intelligence to see that. Why then did you proceed to make a movie and not see this poor fit? In this drag of a Dragonball, you did nothing but waste the talents of more than one able actor and actress (Yun-Fat Chow as “Master Roshi,” Jamie Chung as “Chi Chi,” and Emmy Rossum as “Bulma”).

How did you miss that beings that destroy planets in the tumult of their wars do not punch each other across living rooms? They level buildings like the Hulk—and that on a backhand! How did it get by you that beings who leap up way into the air to do kicks cannot so much as be inconvenienced by falling into pits in attempts by thieves to trap them? How did it not dawn on you that such transcendent beings like Goku and the masters won't be slowed down by a thin river of lava? They don't need to find stones to hop across. These are big problems. The power curve of the characters in your movie is way off and can't stay true to the original characters. How did you not see that this would be a problem for the fans?

As an addendum to the previous point, your use of special effects was atrocious. The lighting was off, as were the performances of the characters. No one was believable, being that they were trapped in the prison of bad lines from a script with a calling to be flushed down the commode. May I please be excused?

Your decision to have martial arts masters fight, followed by one of them turning around and letting out a prideful laugh would win over no audience above the age of 6. But I know why you did it. You keep fighting this urge to score points with a blithe Japanese audience, and the urge keeps beating you. The result of these defeats is a ruined movie.

Would you like to know why you blew it here, Mr. Wong? It's the same reason as before—you can't see that Dragonball does not translate well into an international, live-action movie. Your run-amuck directing should have been kept in check by a smart writing staff, but you apparently lacked one.

The diarrhea-inducing behavior of the high school punks who pick fights and use stupidly scripted lines like something from American Ninja II is inexcusable. I know you tried to show off Goku's awesome fighting talent, but your inability to see where you blew it shows a massive lack of understanding of human drama, not to mention modern American social behavior. Important note: stop getting inspiration for your dialogue from 1980s ninja movies. Kids (even stupid ones) don't talk like that.

We are never made to develop concern for the three main characters (“Goku” Justin Chatwin, “Master Roshi,” and “Bulma”). The warped acting and uncalled-for theatrics exceeds the limits of human tolerability. Was it really beyond you to see to it that the characters had proper scripts and that the lines were delivered in such a way that the audience would buy into them?

Everything went so fast. Nothing felt real...nothing felt real because you didn't know how to make it real. This poorly edited, film school student material might have worked as a class assignment, but as a movie, it provides another place to get some cheap fertilizer for my lawn. That's about it. You should have known this, Mr. Wong.

Yep, you blew it. You blew it big. You got everything wrong, even Goku's spiked hair. None of it worked. The stretched-out story of Goku, Bulma, and Master Roshi having to find the seven Dragonballs and expel the evil Piccolo from this world was flighty and made to feel cheap and uninteresting. I didn't care who saved what. Nothing, not even the fight scenes, connected with me. When the unfolding of the story wasn't flat-out boring, it was comically bad and at no point did it possess drama or class or make me wonder about anything in the least.

You did a decent job directing your 2001 film The One, starring Jet Li. So I beg of you, look back at that and ask yourself what the difference is between that and Dragonball: Evolution and ask yourself why one was remotely successful and not the other. Take a lesson so that future audiences won't have to suffer like I had to suffer.

Sincerely,

A disappointed critic

Joe E. Holman

(JH)

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Grade: F (0 stars)
Rated: PG
Summation: Young Goku seeks revenge for his fallen master at the hands of the evil Lord Piccolo who seeks world domination.
Director: James Wong
Starring: Justin Chatwin “Goku,” Yun-Fat Chow “Master Roshi,” Emmy Rossum “Bulma,” Jamie Chung “Chi Chi,” James Marsters “Lord Piccolo,” Joon Park “Yamcha,” Eriko Tamura “Mai,” Randall Duk Kim “Grandpa Gohan”
Genre: Action / Adventure / Fantasy / Sci-Fi / Thriller

I Love This Movie, Man!

Movie title: I Love You, Man (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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With exquisite performances and a script straight from the gods, I Love You, Man, starring Jason Segel as Sydney Fife and Paul Rudd as Peter Klaven, hits pay dirt. It’s funny, but just credible enough to be worth its salt as a serious story about friendship between two guys.

Peter is your average fellow. He’s a socially split personality—part cool guy and part office drone. His intelligence and sense of refinement keep him in a certain mannerly mold. He’s comfortable doing the things he’s always done and being the way he’s always been. He’s got his sights set on marrying one girl, the love of his life, Zooey (Rashida Jones).

Sydney Fife, on the other hand, is an honest guy, but a little bit too honest. He has no shame and he never cleans up after his dog. He's the epitome of liberation and self-expression. Heck, he makes Woodstock hippies look like shy schoolgirls! You only wish you could cut loose like this guy. You’ve heard it said before about someone you know: “He's crazy, but in a good way.” That’s Sydney.

They're different people, Klaven and Fife. Klaven is uptight. Fife is as loose as a chick he’d take home with him. Both men are astutely intelligent, but Klaven’s strengths lie in the business area. Among other things, Fife has street smarts and an ability to read people like cheap novels. An odd conversation at home gets Klaven started mentally confronting the fact that he has no real male friends in his life. Thus begins his journey to find a real friend. The relationship-bending tensions that will follow…well, he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

This satiating comedy of witty banter and awkward situations sports some toe-curling embarrassment and some shameless sexual admissions, and (god forbid) some straight-up male bonding or “man dating,” in the film’s own words. The characters are lovable…from a say-too-much, share-all father and a gay but cool-as-hell brother, to a family that likely mirrors your own, not to mention friendship dynamics that anyone can relate to. But I love You, Man – while laced with dry, sharp, and off-color humor – does not hold up comedy as it’s finest trophy. The soft-pedal drama is the finest trophy, that ability to deal with drama without blowing a gasket.

It didn’t have to convince me of its quality and true-to-life-ness. I believed it. I felt it. It was serious, but never did it take itself too seriously (I realized this for sure right about the time Lou Ferrigno got Fife in a headlock and put him out for a nap!) Director John Hamburg and writer Larry Levin bring you one hour and fifty minutes of heartfelt onscreen harmony. Four stars for a winning and worthy I Love You, Man.

(JH)

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Grade: A- (4 stars) Recommended!
Rated: R
Summation: A friendless man takes it upon himself to find a friend before his wedding.
Director:
John Hamburg
Starring: Paul Rudd “Peter Klaven,” Rashida Jones “Zooey,” Jason Segel “Sydney Fife,” Sarah Burns “Hailey,” Jaime Pressly “Denise,” Jon Favreau “Barry,” Jane Curtin “Joyce Klaven,” J.K. Simmons “Oswald Klaven,” Andy Samberg “Robbie Klaven,” Lou Ferrigno (as himself)
Genre: Comedy / Drama

Duplicity...and How Sucking at Math is OK

Movie title: Duplicity (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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Most of us know the feeling. You're sitting in math class studiously staring at the board. The arched frown on your face almost touches the floor. You fear the intense concentration beginning to bring on a headache and a touch of perspiration. Flooding your mind are those self-esteem-bludgeoning questions: “Am I the only one this confused?” “Is it a good idea to announce that I'm totally lost or should I wait for someone else to go first?” Now you've got that headache. You can feel your blood pressure as it rises.

You needn't be ashamed if this describes you. It does me. That unpleasant feeling of being confused may be extra noticeable in brain-twisting subjects like math, but the feeling has been known to surface in areas germane to our consideration—movies.

There's no slam against you to admit it. A movie can have a person confounded as easily as a math problem, and never has this been a more common thing than today when movies are out to trick you. Too numerous to mention are the well-known and loved films that expressly try to trick and keep you in the dark for as long as they want you there (the Saw series and American Psycho immediately come to mind).

But it's one thing to possess information and another thing to convey that information so that another may possess it. Therein is the problem for many an otherwise great movie—they don't sufficiently unravel their mysteries. The commonly used rapid-fire flashback method has become tiresome by now. And I, for one, find it conceited for a movie to try and trick me as opposed to entertain me. There is an unforgivable arrogance there that I just can’t get past.

Distinguish, please, between a predictable plot and an understandable one. One is clichéd, lacking in creativity and advanced thinking; the other is ingenious and intellectually teasing, but always succinctly logical.

Duplicity, despite its grace and excellent craft, is weighed in the balances and found wanting. The enhancing presences of Julia Roberts and the always impassioned Clive Owen could not save it from the stagnation of a frustratingly confusing plot that manages to bring math class right back to the forefront of your mind.

Roberts seemed detached. This was not her best work. Owen held his own, but it was the presence of both that made Duplicity the eyes-glued-to-the-screen event that it was, at least until just past the halfway marker. At that point, the confusing plot began to foster a sense of indifference.

If you want to know what Duplicity is really about, focus for a few moments on the title. From Dictionary.com, “duplicity”…

–noun,
1. deceitfulness in speech or conduct; speaking or acting in two different ways concerning the same matter with intent to deceive; double-dealing.
2. a twofold or double state or quality.

The Aleve-worthy Duplicity features two attractive people who are as dishonest with each other as they are with their employers, and it doesn’t matter to them that trust is a make-it-or-break-it job commodity in their fields. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith left you in some way unsatisfied, try Roberts and Owen as Ray Koval and Claire Stenwick. They’re a team, charming and more sophisticated for sure, but believably so, in a way that Jolie and Pitt are not. Paul Giamatti as Richard Garsick is one of the best supporting actors today, and he doesn’t stop being here. He only looks like a desperate, out-of-work conman or a car salesman.

The entire film is an at first intriguing and then tiring exercise in trying to figure out who’s on who’s side and who will get burned. Loving mysteries will help. Being a genius or a detective will really help, but not to foresee the ending. An end that borders on predictable is a little bit of a let-down. For the amount of mental anguish endured, I expected a little more of a pay-off.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13
Summation: Two agents discover an opportunity to go rogue from their intelligence agencies.
Director: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Clive Owen “Ray Koval,” Claire Stenwick “Julia Roberts,” Tom Wilkinson “Howard Tully,” Paul Giamatti “Richard Garsik,” Dan Daily “Garsik's Aide”
Genre: Crime / Drama / Thriller / Romance

The Hoax in Connecticut

Movie title: The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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In 2002, a 2-hour documentary aired on The Discovery Channel called A Haunting in Connecticut. In it was featured the story of the Snedeker family. It was 1986 when Allen and Carmen Snedeker and their three sons, a daughter, and two nieces moved into their newly rented home at 208 Meriden Ave. in Southington, Connecticut. The documentary was so scary that it caused a stir and soon began to get national attention. The affect of the documentary had been aided by a 1992 novel by author Ray Garton entitled In A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting. It contained the chilling narrative of the family's experiences while living at the house.

The reported experiences are quite bizarre. Blood is seen being mopped onto a floor. A man with blue-grayish eyes rolled back into his head appears to the oldest son. A featureless, black-colored being with no eyes is a regular unwelcome guest. Specters of boys walking around are seen. Voices of men arguing are heard. One of the nieces is nearly smothered in a shower curtain. The family curls up together in fear as doors slam open and closed and strange clawing sounds echo throughout the old funeral parlor-turned-cheap rental property. Paul (“Matt” in the movie), the oldest son, is fighting cancer. The demons target him and he is said to have become an incestuous, raping monster that had to be institutionalized for a time to protect the rest of the family. Once put away, he returns to his normal self and the forces of evil target other family members.

True to form, people who already believe in supernatural phenomenon or else remain naively open to it experience most hauntings. The same can be said of those who, when plagued by ghostly apparitions, seek out exorcisms and mediums, expecting them to rid the property of these nuisances from the netherworld.

Back to the story, investigators are called in. Who are they? They are Ed and Lorraine Warren, the same lying phonies who were shown to have been the hacks behind the Amityville Horror nonsense, which itself was shown to be the result of hype. It was the Warrens who made the decision to call in a Catholic priest who reluctantly agreed to do the exorcism when he felt his shirt being tugged on by a satanic presence.

As is the case with all alleged hauntings, the details of the Snedeker story shift like the lever on your 5-speed pick-up truck. The documentary and the book have their share of differences. Names and events conflict or else are omitted. Was it Teresa who was molested by a demon or Kelly? Did an evil presence drive Allen's truck through a building to try to run him over? Yes says the documentary, no says the movie and the book—they omit it completely. Most damning to the story is that before and after the exorcism, other occupants of the home reported no unexplainable occurrences. The smoking gun is the testimony of Ray Garton. He reported that it was the inability of family members to get their stories straight which led him to abandon further work on the case. That’s the story behind the movie. We now move on to the movie itself.

The Haunting in Connecticut (not “a”) builds onto the already shaky foundation of the afore-described Southington Funeral Home legend, a story that succeeded at sending reverberating chills down my spine when it was in documentary form. But that was the legend, not the movie. Thanks to special effects, the movie begins hellishly scary, but gradually fades into a drawn-out theatrical melodrama. Eerie music and well-incorporated sound effects intensify horrific visuals of ghosts and creepy paranormal activity that focuses on subverting (at first) one Matt Campbell (Kyle Gallner) and gradually begins to terrorize the remainder of the family.

The drama is there from the start, but not enough to achieve critical mass. It soon gives way to a ridiculously bizarre and strained tale about séances and what happens when mere mortals play with powers they can’t control. And it’s farfetched, all of it. Ghostly encounters – if they happen at all – don’t happen like this, and that realization lessens the affect of the movie. Once you discover the basics of the plot, the cat is out of the bag and the fear factor drops off. At this point, you just watch because you want to see a resolution…kind of.

The biggest fault with The Haunting in Connecticut is that the movie nearly completely adulterates the original Snedeker story. Had they stayed with the bone-chillingly scary documentary material and expounded on it, this could have been a memorable experience. The film’s prostituting itself out to an undiscerning public that wants nothing more than an embellished ghost story with clichéd stigmatic body-writing and Amityville rip-offs should be labeled pitiable. It just goes to reinforce the lesson that the words “based on a true story” have very little meaning in Hollywood.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13
Summation: After a family is forced to relocate for their son's health, they begin experiencing supernatural behavior in their new home, which turns out to be a former mortuary.
Director: Peter Cornwell
Starring: Virginia Madsen “Sara Campbell,” Kyle Gallner “Matt Campbell,” Elias Koteas “Reverend Popescu,” Amanda Crew “Wendy,” Martin Donovan “Peter Campbell,” Sophi Knight “Mary Campbell,” Ty Wood “Billy Campbell,” Erik J. Berg “Jonah,” John Bluethner “Ramsey Aickman”
Genre: Horror / Thriller

Enough of Knowing

Movie title: Knowing (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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I am going to coin a phrase: “Atheists and Hollywood don't mix.” Hopefully, anyone who uses it from here on will give me credit for it, but I don't really care. The statement is true. That's the important thing. The movie industry runs the gamut with devotees of many beliefs represented, from Buddhism (Steven Seagal), to Judaism (Jackie Mason), to Christianity (too many to count), to mysticism (Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhard), to Scientology (Tom Cruise, John Travolta), and many other flavors, including a few atheists (Julia Sweeney, Kevin Bacon, and Ray Romano). But atheists never get to be atheists in movies, at least not credibly.

Hollywood has so very little atheist influence. The result of that is that when movies are made portraying us, we come off wrong—wrong and bent. It's the same junk every time. Atheist characters in movies are always closed-minded, hopeless cynics who won't believe something unless they can see it right then and there. They are usually tragedy-stricken introverts, thinkers who shake their fists in rebellion to a deity or the powers that be over some personal struggle or disappointment. Then, after an enlightening journey of self-reflection, they learn that there really is more to life and a reason to rejoice in the knowledge that there is something higher to look up to. Spare me the steaming piles of rhino terd!

These bad assumptions have always been wrong and they are wrong when done in Knowing, starring modern neanderthalic wonder Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, and Danielle Carter.

John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) is a college professor, a smart man for sure, but he recently lost his wife. He's still grieving, as is Koestler's son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), a virtually mute boy who is a smart but innocent kid and has very little to say throughout the whole film. He loves the stars and bunnies. Note: I get so damn tired of seeing mute kids in films that have nothing substantial to add to the plot, but I'll save that rant for another time.

Through his son, Cage discovers a 50-year-old “time capsule” unveiled at school—a class project where students draw pictures of how they imagine the future will be and bury them in a vault to be opened some 50 years later. When the capsule is unearthed, one “picture” isn't a picture at all, but a complex numerical prediction that seems to predict world disasters. Though at first skeptical, Koestler begins to be confounded and then convinced by it.

But remember, Koestler is an atheist who believes there is no god and that there is no meaning to life. So just to show off his smart atheism and his educated status, he is seen lecturing his students on “the theory of determinism verses the theory of randomness.” The director should have sprung for a philosophy consultant rather than dig into his own noodle. He's got it wrong, much as the film does with its stereotypical misinformation about atheists.

In philosophy, determinism states that the chain of cause and effect is endlessly tied into an unbroken line of causes and effects. So every effect has a cause, ad infinitum. The result is, there is no freewill or chance. Everything happens because it had to happen that way. The concept is similar to predestination, but different in that predestination describes a definite (fixed) outcome at the planning and direction of a higher power. Determinism is unguided and unplanned. Freewill then must be contrasted to determinism, not a so-called “theory of randomness.” The Determinism vs. Freewill debate has nothing directly to do with the teleological question of our existence being guided or constructed by intelligent causes or not.

The way the discussion is used to hint at a universal “first cause” (or by implication, a creating god) is false. The dichotomy is, do we choose anything or are all of our decisions already “made” by the vast inter-connecting variables of life? But that isn't discussed. The professor's lecturing is just another (actually uninformed) way to drive home to the audience that Koestler is a closed-minded atheist who thinks everything happens out of “pure chaos.”

So, in case you missed it, the writers want you to know that Professor Koestler is hard-hearted and burned out on life. And his colleagues are just as skeptical as he is. He'll need to convince them that the anomalies he's onto aren't just random, but when he tries, they don't believe him but rationalize away everything he says. Those damn bone-headed atheists! They even admit the earth is exactly the right distance from the sun to house life and yet they still cling to their atheism! Oh, and let's not forget that Koestler's father Rev. Koestler (Alan Hopwood) is a minister whom Koestler is at odds with, evidently because he resents his father's Christian beliefs. It’s strange how I'm an atheist and I know not one other atheist who refuses to talk to his family simply because they are Christians, but I sure as heck know many atheists who have been disowned by Christians for being atheists. Well, I digress.

Such simplistic characterizations of atheists are, as stated, stereotypical and induce a smirk and a rolling of the eyes. The theme in Knowing is no different from the X-Files and any other presentation that involves a dispute between a believer of the supernatural and a non-believer—the skeptic always gets owned and shown that there is more out there! Utter crap, which isn't to be glossed over in light of the many other imperfections to be found.

With an especially scripted feel, the acting was wanting on everyone's part. The drama was cheap and flighty, despite played-up special affects and the Sylvia Browne-level, pseudo-scientific themes that so many love to harp on. Littered with numerology, what we have here is a UFO-inspired, toned-down version of the biblical apocalypse and rapture, replete with biblical themes—only those who hear the call may come! “No man can come unto me unless the father who hath sent me draw him and I will raise him up in the last day.” (John 6:45) Though not boring, it is underwhelming and largely unsatisfying.

And a plane crashing and people from the wreckage still alive and running around the ground on fire? Stupid. The story never quite manages to do anything but to barely hold interest, and for many of us, it doesn't even do that.

(JH)

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Grade: D- (1 star)
Rated: PG
Summation: A man finds fifty-year-old predictions of a student to be warnings of coming disasters.
Director: Alex Proyas
Starring: Nicolas Cage “John Koestler,” Chandler Canterbury “Caleb Koestler,” Rose Byrne “Diana Wayland,” D.G. Maloney “The Stranger,” Lara Robinson “Lucinda Embry / Abby Wayland,” Nadia Townsend “Grace Koestler,” Alan Hopgood “Rev. Koestler,” Adrienne Pickering “Allison,” Joshua Long “Younger Caleb,” Danielle Carter “Miss Taylor (1959),” Alethea McGrath “Miss Taylor (2009)”
Genre: Action / Mystery / Sci-Fi / Thriller

Monsters vs. Aliens

Movie title: Monster vs. Aliens (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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Monster vs. Aliens is a big, bulgy-eyed, animation movie that tries to boast its value in a 3D presentation. Flashy, but only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, it's a kid's movie without an appeal to intellect. An all-star voice cast – with the likes of Keiffer Sutherland (who happens to be a remarkable voice actor), Amy Poehler, and Renee Zellwigger – does little to offset the obtuse-ness of the film.

Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is an ordinary girl. She's getting married to jazzy TV news anchor Derick Dietl (Paul Rudd). Well, that was before a meteor fell and transformed this ordinary girl into a nearly 50-foot-tall giant-ette whom the government has taken the liberty of capturing and renaming “Ginormica.”

Her fellow monster captives are a brilliant doctor-turned-cockroach "Dr. Cockroach, PH.D" (Hugh Laurie), a ball of slime that has the hots for ordinary tabletop jello molds "B.O.B." (Seth Rogen), a charmer who shares DNA with a lizard-like creature "The Missing Link" (Will Arnett), and a thousand-foot-tall caterpillar "Insectosaurus," all of whom have been pinned up by the government for a very long time. Though scorned by a judgmental public, their monstrousness is going to come in handy when Earth is attacked by aliens impervious to military weapons (kind of a nice plot that pays homage to a corny Japanese Godzilla movie or a sci-fi epic from the 1950s, wouldn't you say?)

Creative visuals do not hide skip-along plot points that, quite frankly, are not well thought-out. For instance, of the two times Susan gets captured, her captors always manage to have a change of clothes ready for her giant body. That's odd! She may contain "quantonium," the element that makes her grow, but she's easily captured—and by humans who miraculously know how and where to instantly appear right where a newly mutated girl happens to be made. Somehow, the government can contain her, and yet they can't contain the threat they need her to liquidate. I know it's just a kid's movie, but where is it written that kid's movies get a pass on having gaping plot holes?

A lot of things aren't addressed, like where she plans to sleep or live, but a family-friendly and fun story largely sidesteps these concerns. It's PG-rated for combat action and some crude humor, but it doesn't cross the line into being too violent or risqué for younger viewers. Fast-moving but only sometimes funny, Monsters vs. Aliens makes off with a respectable two-and-a-half stars.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: PG
Summation: A young girl is turned into a giant and finds that she and her fellow monster friends must save the earth from aliens.
Directors: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Starring (voice cast): Reese Witherspoon “Susan Murphy” / “Ginormica,” Seth Rogen “B.O.B.,” Hugh Laurie “Dr. Cockroach Ph.D.,” Will Arnett “The Missing Link,” Kiefer Sutherland “General W.R. Monger,” Rainn Wilson “Gallaxhar,” Stephen Colbert “President Hathaway,” Paul Rudd “Derek Dietl,” Julie White “Wendy Murphy,” Jeffrey Tambor “Carl Murphy,” Amy Poehler “Computer”
Genre: Animation / Action / Sci-Fi

The Frowning and the Furious 4

Movie title: The Fast and the Furious 4 (2009)
Spoilers ahead: No

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There’s one thing you can be certain of when watching any in the series of The Fast and the Furious—the story will invariably boil down to a street race. Not a single series has been made with a more predictable plot in all of filmdom. That’s what you have…men between the ages of 20 and 40 settling disagreements or initiating members via illegal street races like a tenth-grader in his first V8 Mustang. Only in The Fast and the Furious (F&F) can instances of reckless disregard for human life be as common as clouds while watchful traffic cops are nowhere to be found when they are most needed.

What you get in this, the fourth installment of the F&F series, is a straight-up improvement from certain earlier films, i. e. Tokyo Drift—an insultingly cheesy put-on at best. The death-defying stunts and adrenaline-pumping car chases you only wish you could pull off come standard with all F&F models. They are found here in abundance, but featured slightly more is the story.

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is back. Now an international fugitive, the search for a common enemy has him crossing paths with Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), a get-things-done FBI agent who knows Toretto all too well. Working together to reach their respective goals, the streets of Los Angeles and the Mexican desert will be the battlegrounds in the race to take down a dangerous drug cartel.

The story is not without its problems. In addition to buffed-out Vin easily punching and elbowing through windows like the sugar glass that we shouldn’t know they’re made of, and jumping from speeding car to speeding car in a fashion that physics just can’t agree with, it is never exactly clear why a powerfully successful drug-lord needs to recruit street-racers to compete to be selected to make drug runs. It doesn’t even make sense if you think about it. Wouldn’t such a figure know that his type of lucrative business calls for secrecy and loyalty and that always-valuable commodity of being able to smuggle goods, not the ability to burn rubber on asphalt? Oh no…that Nissan Skyline bellowing down the freeway at 150 mph…no, that won’t attract suspicion from the authorities!

But that’s not what F&F is about. It’s about racing fans, usually kids with full heads of hair who soup up their Honda Civics by putting mufflers on them that are too big for the cars themselves. It’s about tough guys being tough guys, with their buff-ness and tight shirts, while hotties work the testosterone-filled rooms, as bright lights bounce off the hoods of shiny, souped-up hotrods. What’s the harm in liking that? It’s guy stuff, young guy stuff. It takes time (and a few tickets) to get the racing bug out of your system. I’ve been there.

All-round, there’s not much character development, and the drama is light enough to fill a balloon. Just enjoy the ride. The entire story is merely scaffolding to get to the juvenilic craving to put the rubber to the road anyway. You’ll have to forgive the thousand-yard stares and enough frowns for Terminator auditions, but otherwise, you have a perfectly respectable machismo movie.

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Summation: Brian O'Conner teams up with Dominic Toretto to work with the feds to bring down a heroin importer.
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Vin Diesel “Dominic Toretto,” Paul Walker “Brian O'Conner,” Jordana Brewster “Mia Toretto,” Michelle Rodriguez “Letty,” John Ortiz “Campos,” Laz Alonso “Fenix Rise,” Gal Gadot “Gisele Harabo”
Genre: Action

Fired Up...Watered Down

Movie title: Fired Up (2009)
Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Summation: The two most popular guys in high school decide to ditch football camp for cheerleader camp.
Spoilers ahead: No

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I understand perfectly the appeal of raunchy teen-targeted comedy. The stuff sells. Hearing about bodily processes, “scoring” with the opposite sex, the lure of “getting wasted,” the glories of pot, and an undying love of fraternity drink-offs makes sense. I loathe the immaturity, but it makes sense.

Kids love to see these things. If they didn't, we wouldn't be having the rising floodwaters of cheap, bad, worthless teen movies that have been assaulting our sense of good taste since the late 1990s. What I don't understand is how a film like Fired Up is supposed to fit into this category.

It's not raunchy enough. It's not dirty enough. It falls out of step in only mildly having boys (yes, boys, not men) gawk over female anatomy and “making out.” And it had an actual plot—a plot that was a little unbelievable, but a plot all the same. Is applause called for?

Two guys, Shawn Colfax (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick Brady (Eric Christian Olsen), want to rake in the babes, but they decide to go about it in a most unusual way—by becoming male cheerleaders, thereby getting closer to the “action.” But things don't go as planned. What starts out as a means to a fling ends up being an educational experience.

The journey should be exciting when you have two above-average looking guys and a busload of short-skirted honeys. But there's more, like “cat fights” between rival teams, a jerk boyfriend of Nick's hotly desired “Carly” (Sarah Roemer), a borderline pervy male director “Coach Keith” (John Michael Higgins) who was practically born with palm-palms in his hands, and a team that – believe it or not – could use their help. Now, if only they can get out of football practice and away from a coo-coo-for-cocoa puffs “Coach Byrnes” (Philip Baker Hall) who loves a certain four-letter curse word a little too much!

At some point, every sensible parent of young boys asks, what does it take to rid my young man of juvenile foolishness? Some might answer that with a suggestion to make arrangements for summer camp, others a trip to a foreign country for a month or two, but who would suggest becoming a male cheerleader? Probably no one. It is a fact, however, that doing things we don't want to do makes us better off than we otherwise would be, and that can mean that the blood-sweat-and-tears road to self-improvement happens by accident. Just imagine…two guys on a quest for what they want finding what they need? Who'd have thunk it?

What Fired Up gets is a round of applause for stepping up and having a story with some meaning and constructiveness, but the title doesn't quite fit. Fired Up is “watered down” when it comes to comedy. Regrettably, humor was offered up on the altar along with the raunchiness, and in return, we get a Sarah-plain-and-tall story. I still must complain—that's not what I ordered!

D'Agosto and Olsen’s screen presence wasn’t bad, nor was their acting. What was only a hop, skip, and a jump from “bad” was that a connection was never made to the real world, turning the viewing experience into a reminder that the story is a cutely concocted comedy, a romance novel-style fiction, but without the humor to redeem itself.

(JH)

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Director: Will Gluck
Starring: Nicholas D'Agosto “Shawn Colfax,” Eric Christian Olsen “Nick Brady,” Sarah Roemer “Carly,” Molly Sims “Diora,” Danneel Harris “Bianca,” David Walton “Dr. Rick,” Adhir Kalyan “Brewster,” AnnaLynne McCord “Gwyneth,” Juliette Goglia “Poppy,” Philip Baker Hall “Coach Byrnes,” John Michael Higgins “Coach Keith,” Smith Cho “Beth,” Margo Harshman “Sylvia,” Hayley Marie Norman “Angela”
Genre: Comedy

Coraline

Movie title: Coraline (2009)
Grade: D+ (1 1/2 stars)
Rated:
PG
Summation:
A young girl finds a doorway to another dimension in her new home.
Spoilers ahead: No

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To say that Coraline was memorable isn't doing it. This movie will forever be etched on the folds of my brain. And in this case, that's not a good thing. I can only imagine being subjected to this as a child and not having nightmares from it.

Reading the summary of Coraline makes it sound so quaint, like an adventure in a wondrous world of thrills. Potential viewers should take note of the MPAA rating. Coraline is rated PG, not G, and when it says it, it means it. This is way too scary for young kids. It would border on cruelty to expose a 9-year-old to this. But let's look at what we have.

We have gothic and depressingly dark coloring (better like blue and black) with love-it-or-hate-it stop-motion animation. Drab and unpleasantly life-like animation defeat the real purpose of animation (i.e. to transcend the clutches of this mundane reality). Dark and derogatory rocks, but Coraline's world depressed the living hell out of even me.

Yes, everything is blue, very blue and very depressing. This includes the main character Coraline, a snotty and more or less unlikable blue-haired spitfire who is just darn cute, not unlike her mother. She finds her equally unlikable parents to be inattentive and indifferent. Coraline (Dakota Fanning) is simply the young version of her mother (Teri Hatcher), a contemporary woman like any self-respecting northerner. Her father (John Hodgman) is a career-minded man. Both parents love their daughter. Ungrateful little Coraline has trouble realizing these sorts of things, but she’s in for a surprise.

Coraline and family are new arrivals at The Pink Palace. There, she meets a much-needed friend “Wybie Lovat” (Robert Bailey Jr.), two busty English ladies “Miss Spink” (Jennifer Saunders) and “Miss Forcible” (Dawn French), a Russian athlete and performer “Mr. Bobinsky” (Ian McShane), and a so-called “wuss puss” of a cat (voiced aptly by Keith David). Coraline finds a hole behind an old door in her new place. There, she finds an alternate reality.

Interestingly, everything that is a plus about the film is countermanded in some way. The dialogue is accomplished and fast-paced. It's snappy, but it exposes young viewers to some highly unusual words of the day and visuals, like poison oak, “rat crap,” to nearly nude and busty BBW tea-making women, and graphically disproportionate sportsmen with funny mustaches like something out of a 1960s cartoon. So you see how nothing in Coraline’s world follows an associative train of thought. Most everything is oddly unrelated. When you see something, it’s stand-alone and doesn’t relate to anything else.

And not surprisingly, both realities Coraline goes into and out of are void of anyone who reasons logically. Coraline has a nasty habit of being enthralled with entering a dimensional doorway to another universe in her apartment. It’s ONLY a dimensional doorway! Could she be trapped? Well, the possibility doesn't seem to enter her mind. And she trusts “other parents” who give her everything under the moon. In her mind, there's not even the slightest possibility that they may have ulterior motives.

Poor little Coraline…when chased, she doesn't think harm will come to her until it is upon her. And when seeking to escape back home, she doesn't bother to go back the way she came until she has to. Segments of reality come and go...houses are walked away from, and if you walk far enough away, you come upon them again. Befriending cats hang around for a while and then are not to be found. A character may appear rational in one scene and drunk and distorted in another. About the only thing that anchors your mind back to the real world is a late-model Volkswagon Beetle in Coraline's real world driveway. I never thought I would be so excited to see a Volkswagon in my life!

This might be a treat for those anti-Disney gothic artsy types who love to envision psychedelic takes on our world of the Tim Burton persuasion. It could be described as, in the words of one reviewer, “art-geek masturbation.” Mothers who talk about sewing buttons onto children’s eyes and fixing their kid's friends to make them not talk as much is about as disturbing as any nightmare I've ever had in 35 years of breathing!

One of the beauties of animation is that we can escape reality, not mirror it exactly. But with Coraline we see a move in the opposite direction. That world is not like our world. There, the most disturbing and nightmarish things happen. I felt like I was watching The Outer Limits lumped together with Alice in Wonderland. Only, this land was far less wonderful than Alice's.

Not every “children's movie” is going to get a leg up in the reviews because it is animated. We get plenty of creativity and surrealism, but no payoff in genuine character depth. The story does make some valid points with the Coraline at the end being a breath of fresh air in comparison to the one at the beginning. The morals of the story are sound. Still, if you want a movie to scare your kids and give them a taste of reality from the eyes of someone who was probably molested as a child, show them this.

On the list of things that amaze me in life are the things that pass for “art” and what was running through the mind of creator Neil Gaiman. Art people are like math people in that they can be exceptionally kooky. Whether we're talking about people who draw scribbly lines and staircases and call them naked women, or stupid professors who tell us that parallel lines will someday meet, it's all insanity, much like Coraline. Sorry. I can’t go along with all the hype of praise on this one.

(JH)

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Director: Henry Selick
Starring: Dakota Fanning “Coraline Jones” Teri Hatcher “Mother / Other Mother,” Jennifer Saunders “Miss Spink,” Dawn French “Miss Forcible,” Keith David “Cat,” John Hodgman “Father / Other Father,” Robert Bailey Jr. “Wybie Lovat,” Ian McShane “Mr. Bobinsky”
Genre: Animation / Adventure / Family / Fantasy

The Shallowest Pool on the Left

Movie title: The Last House on the Left (2009)
Grade: D+ (1 1/2 stars)
Rated: R
Summation: A gang led by a prison escapee unknowingly finds refuge at a vacation home belonging to the parents of one of the victims, where a mother and father seek revenge.
Spoilers ahead: No

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Wasted time can put me in a bad mood. Having a bad time is understandable in that bad times are beyond our control. We deal with them, and often, they make us relish the good times even more. But wasted time is different. It detracts while giving nothing in return. Bad movies have that effect. They take, but someone show me where they give back. The Last House on the Left is a prime example.

First, you have typically clueless teens wandering into trouble, reapplying that tired old sense of poetic Hollywood justice that says kids doing naughty things always end up dead or in dire straits. It's the moral of the story of nearly every horror movie in existence. The kids are young and dumb and hot, but if it weren't for their bimbo-ic rumps, there wouldn't have been a movie to suffer through. But there is, so you see now why I hate them so.

Then you have over-the-top bad guys, a gang of morally dissolute thugs, convicts who have no cause whatsoever, just a desire to do evil. They're just evil and love hurting and raping and killing simply for the sake of…hurting and raping and killing. That's all there is to it. You just have to accept that.

Now in a good movie, what makes interesting villains interesting is that they have a cause or at least an underlying reason to account for their marred and malicious natures. They’re complex, perhaps screwy and insane, definitely flawed, but always flushed out, which is to say, there’s a lot to them. But this isn’t a good movie. We get none of that in this refined-but-rancorous take on a horror flick.

And then we get a director who has what has to be an unhealthy passion for keeping the camera on tortured victims for as long as he can possibly get away with. Sort of makes the viewer think of something along the lines of: “Alright, we get it. The girls are suffering at the whim of violent and cruel men. Ok. Enough’s enough. We got it!”

If violence and gore and prolonged scenes of intense, agonizing torture is your thing, no problem (though if it becomes too much of an obsession, you may need to talk to someone). It only becomes my problem when that's all you have in a movie.

I want plot twists, damn it! I want some level of suspense, a satisfying massage of those other tense back muscles I call my emotions. Give me something to transmit that perky feeling that I'm being mentally paid back for my time spent watching. I get irritable when I don't get that.

Walls painted with blood are a wanted commodity to some. A hand forced into a running garbage disposer is a good thing. Expect that. Expect action--with an ironic twist of fate. Just don't expect anything more from a story that is not on equal footing with the 1972 Wes Craven original. If this film were a pool, you’d see a “NO DIVING” sign.

(JH)

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Director: Dennis Lliadis
Starring: Garret Dillahunt “Krug,” Michael Bowen “Morton,” Joshua Cox “Giles,” Riki Lindhome “Sadie,” Aaron Paul “Francis,” Sara Paxton “Mari Collingwood,” Monica Potter “Emma Collingwood,” Tony Goldwyn “John Collingwood,” Martha MacIsaac “Paige,” Spencer Treat Clark “Justin”
Genre: Drama / Horror / Thriller

Fucking Everyone Over

The first secular job I took since my resignation from the ministry was selling cars. After 3 months of unemployment and trying frantically to get work, I wound up in the 8-by-10 office of the manager of a local San Antonio car dealership who was nice enough to give me the chance with no prior experience in the car selling field. I was excited, but had no idea what I was in for.

Being a car salesman is tough because everyone hates your guts like old eggs. You get treated like a lawyer, a perceived shyster son-of-a-bitch who's just trying to make a buck at the expense of honesty and truth. Actually, selling cars taught me that it's the buyers who lie way more than the salesmen...

Customer: "I saw this car cheaper at the other dealership I was just at."
My reply: "Really? Then why didn't you buy the fucking thing?"

...but I suppose that's another matter. I always thought selling cars would be fun because you get to talk about the stats and features of the vehicles you're peddling, but I came to see that it's not about that at all. It's about moving inventory, crunching numbers, closing deals (with a heavy hand, if necessary), and holding gross. The closer you can stay to the sticker price when closing a deal, the better. Or, if you can peal someone off the ceiling and get even more for the vehicle, all the better. I remember my very first sale, a black 2002 Chevy Malibu. I was high with excitement.

But I also found that the car business is far dirtier than even the porn industry. It is a haven for people with criminal records. Some of the biggest adulterous cocaine snorters I ever met sold cars. I walked into the office of a finance manager who was snorting away his chopped breakfast just as I was hoping to close a deal. I've worked with a guy who did 8 years in the state penitentiary for shooting a man who owed him money. Drug-users, sex offenders...I've worked with them all. They were liars, dirty liars and morally questionable people in most every way. One man I knew would always give us the low-down on his affair five years running with some floozy he was meeting behind his wife's back. Hey, it was his own life. I just minded my own business and appreciated the job for what it was worth.

I made some money and then I quit making money. The car business is designed to get fresh talent, "green peas" as they are called, and squeeze the juice out of them, and when they burn out, they get tossed. It's a cutthroat industry. Your bosses love you as long as you're helping butter their bread, and when you're not, they hate you, even if you were last month's selling superstar. That's the way it works. But what never ceased to occupy my mind was the treachery with which all we humans operate, and not just the car salesmen. We treat each other like shit and the world keeps going around. Never did this become more apparent than in the note car sales department.

Note cars are dealership owned cars, and unlike regularly financed cars which are financed through banks, they are financed in-house and outside of banks. No loans are required; the customer gets the vehicle and has to pay the dealership directly. These note cars are what makes the "credit doesn't matter" car lots possible. Because they are owned in-house, they are cheap cars (both in quality and in price) and when a deal is made on them, the cost of the vehicle is put down up front. That pays off the vehicle, so if the deadbeat to whom it is sold refuses to pay the agreed upon bi-weekly payment, the vehicle is repossessed and then sold again to someone else, resulting in a huge long-term dealer profit. The nice, new, shiny vehicles on the main lot, those are bank financed vehicles. It requires good credit to get them, but the note lot is where you take those with shitty credit--those with beacon scores of 510 or less. They're fucked. They can't go anywhere. They're at our mercy. And the cars suck, and the people who buy them are silently scorned by the dealership because they aren't worth much. That means they better have cash to put down up front. But the note lot was where the real bad stuff was. The note cars were the worst still-drive-able cars available.

I once sold a 2001 Kia Sephia. It was midnight blue and would have been a pretty car were it not for the massive dent on the right side of the hood just above the headlight where rust had consumed it nearly straight through. And that wasn't all; the back had been crushed in during a wreck and rebuilt, but not properly. So as it drove, the back tires would scrape against the wheel wells loudly, making a horrible scraping sound. Piece o' Poop! Your date will be real proud of you in this thing--even more so if she has the honor of getting picked up or dropped off where friends are present! It got worse as the vehicle picked up speed and began to shave off the back tires with a low-vibrating hum being heard in the vehicle! The vehicle needed an alignment worse than I'd have imagined possible, making the driver fight and nearly sprain his wrist trying to keep the vehicle from diving off the road to the right! Kias suck as far as quality and reliability are concerned in general, but this gave a whole new meaning to the term "crapola."

I sold the thing, crappy as it was, but like most note vehicles, it came back on the repo truck only a month later because the stupid dick-wipe to whom I sold it didn't pay on it. I want to call him a fucking loser, but then the car did suck a mean ricardo! I'll settle for just calling him stupid since he put down $2,300 of his own money on the car and then walked away from it.

Then there was my attempted sale of a 1993 Dodge Dakota. The truck was dark green and the body was intact, except for a massively rusted left side of the truck bed. The would-be owner really dug that! The steering column that had been graciously ripped open and hot-wired by kind gentlemen at some point in the past--now that was a big selling feature! And the grass and sand that sat nobly ingrained into the carpeting from the last user (it had never been cleaned upon being repossessed) was just an added bonus to an already fab vehicle! I never sold it. Does that surprise you?

There was a gold 1996 Chrysler LeBaron Turbo that I almost sold to a woman who hadn't paid anything in months. She burst into song for love of it once I opened up the convertible top. That's when she saw that the roof had a leak and water had gotten in and puddled on the back seat, mildewing it. It was then that I learned that rust and grayish white seats ruined from being exposed to the elements will work wonders for a sale!

And I'll never forget the 1989 GMC Sierra Stepside truck I almost sold. The steering column shook and the shift lever was off-kilter so that when you shifted into reverse or drive, you could never tell which gear you were in. You had to experiment to find out if it moved backwards or forwards, and it never stayed in the same place, so there was no way to get it and keep it figured out. I almost ran over a man right in front of his kids because of this piece of dung. The guy's face turned bright red. Luckily, I threw on the brakes in time. But the real highpoint of my selling career on that lot came when I had a man ready to buy it--even with the 293,000 miles it had on it and with blue smoke puffing out the tailpipe! He was a GM enthusiast, and just when we went to crank it up to take it for a ride, the door chime decided it didn't want to go off like it was supposed to when the doors close and the seat belts fastened. Thinking it finally would, we took it for a test drive like that. It never stopped. That conversation of elevated voices went something like this...

Me: "So, [beeeeeeeeep] how long have you been a GM man? [beeeeeeeep]"
Customer: "Oh, all my life. [beeeeeeep ]The last one lasted 500,000 miles until I wrecked it. [beeeeeeeep]"

We were subjected to "beeeeeeeeep" for the whole five-minute trip! It was really fun trying to talk over the sound and drive back to the dealership like that! We got back to the dealership and he said he'd still buy it if we could fix it. I was new still. I thought that to make a deal, they'd fix it, even though I had heard that note cars are never fixed or even cleaned, no matter what. They're just thrown out there as they are. I asked the boss to fix it. He said no. I went to the head honcho and told him the situation, but neither he, nor the maintenance manager himself would give. "They're note cars. We don't fix nothin'." It was never fixed and we lost the deal.

It's a lesson: As humans, we all fuck each other over--somehow, some way, and at some point. If you're a piece of shit who doesn't pay your bills, you're gonna fuck over the people that trusted you to begin with, and then you're gonna get fucked over. If you're a fat-ass car dealer with great credit, you're gonna take those desperate suckers for all they're worth simply because you have them where you want them and they can't do any better. And the car dealers are gonna get fucked over too and are everyday, as every car lot the world over is teaming with low-lives who can't line their pockets to get a deal done. It sucks, but it's life. Everyone's fucking everyone over.

And now, suddenly, everyone has become so tired of having been fucked over for so long that it has finally caught up with us. Car dealers, banks, consumers, etc. everyone's suddenly tired of getting fucked over. Now that the economy is in the toilet, it's open arms and contrite smiles: "Will you give us a bail out, please?" No sir. No ma'am. We've fucked each other over for far too long. We made our bed. Now it's time to lie in it.

Despite the grave predictions of some, I think we may ride these bad economic times out and find clear skies again. The sad thing is, we'll never ride out human nature. We'll keep fucking each other over. It's what we do!

(JH)

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