Liquid Paper for the Resumes

Movie Title: Whiteout (2009)
Spoilers: No

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An impending storm, dark skies, miles and miles of desolate surface and ferociously windy cold…that is Antarctica, the featured (and only) attraction in Dominic Sena’s Whiteout.

Kate Beckinsale plays U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko, who is on assignment in Antarctica. It’s an historic event she has on her hands. The first murder ever has occurred on the continent, a place without an official government or ruling body of lawmakers. Making matters worse, Stetko has three days to investigate and get out before an engulfing six months of blizzard darkness makes it impossible to travel to or fro. A saliently talented Tom Skerritt plays Dr. John Fury, a levelheaded doctor and Stetko's close friend.

Sena has seen, well...better...days (Swordfish, 2001, Gone in Sixty Seconds, 2000) as Whiteout boils down to being about little more than a pick-axing madman who is killing people at the South Pole (of all places, yes, the South Pole!) There’s a complex (and sometimes muddled) story behind why that is happening, but the thing of interest is that the culprit must be in amazing physical condition to run around in -60 and fast dropping temps with 200+ mile an hour winds. And we're talking "off the charts" determination levels (don't even get me started!)

The film’s admirable attention to detail does stand out. The grizzly and unfortunate affects of exposure to extreme cold, saddled with an always-eager presentation of life-like gore, might cause some gasps. Such are revelations with the feel of some of the darker mirror-glancing moments life has to offer. The film’s dignity and confidence do demand at least a head-tilting smirk of respect, although Whiteout will surely be “whited out” as far as acting resumes are concerned.

Whiteout has, shall we say, little going for it. It is…wait for it…v e r y…s l o w, menacingly slow, death by old age slow. Barely a moment passes when that observation is not hair-strokingly apparent. The camera work is execrable, especially when any sort of movement is happening. I’ve never had a seizure, but it’s hard to imagine having one leaving me feeling more “out of it” after a series of action sequences. The music, along with the timing and build-up to a sudden revelation or a surprise…none of it is done to the level of a major release production.

The story has some interesting similarities to the real life case of Dr. Jerri Nielsen. Stranded in Antarctica, her case made 20/20 Primetime back in 2001 as she had breast cancer and fought to get back to civilization for treatment as described in her book Dr. Jerri Nielsen: Cheating Death in Antarctica. Now there's an Antarctica story for you! It has the added bonus of being a heart-tugging presentation. This does not.

Whiteout takes its sweet time getting to the conclusion, and then it fizzles out. The useless flashbacks become repetitive and gnat-in-your-face annoying. Yes, it’s a wanting movie no matter how you slice it, arguably one of the worst among the big budget-ers. By critic consensus, Rotten Tomatoes has it listed at number 100 in the Worst of the Worst movies of all time, but every teacher at some point grades on a curve. Well, here’s my curve—I never wanted to like a bad film so much!

The scenery was...close to literally...out of this world. You get to see what it's like on the coldest and most isolated region of our planet. Blowing snow in a white wall so thick that you can barely see your hand in front of your face, luscious scenery, gorgeous sunsets that rival the looks of any place on this mud ball…I say that’s worth a bump.

(JH)

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Grade: D- (1 star)
Rated: R
Director: Dominic Sena
Summary: U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko tracks a killer in Antarctica, as the sun is about to set for six months.
Starring: Kate Beckinsale “Carrie Stetko,” Gabriel Macht “Robert Pryce,” Tom Skerritt “Dr. John Fury,” Columbus Short “Delfy,” Alex O'Loughlin “Russell Haden,” Shawn Doyle “Sam Murphy,” Joel S. Keller “Jack (as Joel Keller)”
Genre: Horror / Thriller
Trailer

Not Hungry for Theta Pie

Movie Title: Sorority Row (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Coming from a Latin term that means “sister,” the word sorority is simply a reference to an organization of women. But women who (a) are young, and (b) feel the need to put Greek letters as the name of their organization are as bad as their male fraternity member counterparts.

Let’s face it; there are loads of people in this life who deserve to fall asleep at the wheel, run off the road, and slam into a tree in a drunken stupor (more power to the tree if the crash is fatal). College partiers, like investment bankers, are the worst kind. They suck. They stay out late. They keep people up at nights. They deserve what they get. Call it karma, or I don’t care what you call it. They suck.

Sorority Row sucks. Title-wise, it’s a far too obvious re-do of 1983’s The House on Sorority Row. In content, however, it’s nothing more than I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) brought back to life with fresh sets of bra-clad (and sometimes not) tits. Sorority Row is not witty or impressively written. The acting is nothing to speak of by any means, but the teen-marketed terror is accompanied by one impressive feat, and that is, cool comic relief.

Even the superior Drag Me to Hell didn’t quite nail it in perfecting the unstable mixture of horror and humor. It went one direction and then it went the other. Sorority Row pulls its weight in keeping the terror tension up with the humor in equally high gear: Girl One: “Please, God! Don’t let me get killed!” Girl Two: “Don’t give him any ideas!”

In a convincingly impassioned tone, a shotgun-wielding Mrs. Crenshaw (Carrie Fisher) declares: “Please don’t think I’m afraid of you. I run a house with fifty crazy bitches!” Mrs. Crenshaw is the head of Theta Pi, a close-nit, secrecy-valuing sorority (a.k.a., a society of brainless snoots) who suddenly have a lot more to talk about than hot guys and treatments for yeast infections when a prank gone wrong makes them all the targets of a vicious serial killer.

Wouldn’t you know, five college juniors – Cassidy (Briana Evigan), Claire (Jamie Chung), Ellie (Rumer Willis), Jessica (Leah Pipes), and Megan (Audrina Patridge) – are compelled to put down the alcohol and the nail polish just long enough to duck the slashes of a sharpened tire iron-wielding murderer. From boyfriends to bubble baths to cell phones and doctors who trade medication for sex, Sorority Row gives us everything we don’t need along with the highly sought after killing.

The killing itself isn’t very good either. For one thing, people die too easily and too quickly; and for another thing, there’s that problem of how someone who never killed anyone before suddenly becomes so good at it. The killer can move as stealthfully as a Navy Seal and can hoist up bodies with extreme ease. Fearless and relentless, the perpetrator sets out to kill with the cold-blooded calculation of Arthur Shawcross.

Need I mention that the police never arrive on time? I didn’t need to. You already knew that.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Director: Stewart Hendler
Summary: A group of sorority sisters try to cover up the death of their house-sister after a prank gone wrong, only to be stalked by a serial killer.
Starring: Teri Andrzejewski “Bra–Clad Sister,” Adam Berry “Danny,” Briana Evigan “Cassidy,” Margo Harshman “Chugs,” Rumer Willis “Ellie,” Jamie Chung “Claire,” Leah Pipes “Jessica,” Audrina Patridge “Megan,” Matt O'Leary “Garrett,” Julian Morris “Andy,” Debra Gordon “Mrs. Tappan,” Carrie Fisher “Mrs. Crenshaw,” Caroline D'Amore “Maggie,” Matt Lanter “Kyle”
Genre: Horror / Thriller
Trailer

One Serving of Gluttony, Two of Imagination

Movie Title: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
Spoilers: No

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The thought of food, especially junk food, falling out of the sky and right into my lap…is there a word to describe my exhilaration at the thought? I run no risk in sharing too much about myself when I admit that I light up inside thinking of a day when tacos with extra lettuce and cheese fall from the heavens in unlimited quantities. It would truly be a “blessing” (and I say that as an unabashed atheist).

Some reviewers find this gluttonous food-for-all nauseating. I can’t say I relate to that feeling when applied to this film, except on one level, which we’ll discuss in a sec. But can you imagine inventing a machine that creates food from clouds and moisture in the air? I can, and the thought isn’t too enticing when approached from a scientific point of view.

Think about how clouds form because dirt particles cluster together in the air until the weight of the bundling water molecules becomes too much. Gravity gets the better. We call that rain. It’s cold in the upper atmosphere. Would not the food be cold and soggy and taste like dirt?

No sir. No ma'am. The food tastes as good as you can imagine it tasting. I know so because that is the beauty of creativity and is what sets Cloudy With a Chance for Meatballs apart as an outrageously entertaining film. No skeptics here. They aren’t allowed in this club. The sign on the treehouse says so. Obey it even though its written in crayon. Here you can be a kid again. Here you can think like a child at play with his toy shark that squeaks in the bathtub.

The obstacles that constantly plague my adult mind don’t follow me inside the club. I don’t have to care about the fact that food dropping down everywhere in a city would rot and ferment and stink like trash in a day’s time, and about how it would cost more to clean up and dispose of than 12 feet of snow in northern Minnesota during the worst winter. Were it not an island this is happening on, falling food would bring in rodents, pests, and animals from every possible quarter.

Forget the stench. This would knock the entire ecosystem way out of whack. The economic collapse of restaurants (a slight issue in the film) would be incredible. But I am happy to report that none of what I just mentioned means a thing. It can’t mean a thing because the thought of 2-liter bottles of Pepsi falling 35,000 feet and landing on people would make this one hilarious gorefest!

But aren’t the characters rather one-dimensional? Some are, but it’s ok. The main characters are just like you and I, which is to say, they have hang-ups. Audiences relate best to people with hang-ups. These people are obviously not intended to look that real. The movie is about dodging lifelikeness, though not completely. It is written in such a way that it forgets neither the kids, nor the adults. There is plenty for both (sometimes a little too much for the kids).

Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) is a brilliant kid, brilliant enough to be a social caterpillar who hasn’t yet become what he can. He invents this bizarre cloud-to-food machine that gets the town in a craze. There is some emotional distance between he and his father, Tim (James Caan). Tim is like a lot of burly dads I’ve known, “less talk more action” type of guys. The world goes around because of them.

Earl Devereaux (Mr. T) is the town cop who always stays in uniform and has too much energy to do a low-key shift of eating donuts and giving out traffic tickets. My only disappointment with him was that not a once did I hear the word “sucka” in 90 minutes of watching. Sorry. It’s just that I miss my B.A. Baracus. Mayor Shelbourne (Bruce Cambell) is an opportunistic mayor who puts on weight like a boa constrictor consuming a fully-grown hog. He’s a bad guy you want to be bad. You don’t want him to be reasonable or wise or to have a listening ear.

The film, adapted from a 1978 children’s book with the same title, is a superlative work for a new age. The frequent use of technology, an insistence on nerd-like education, and the drive for entrepreneurship are bonus parts of this package. And the criticism…of a food-obsessed society, where men go so far as to bathe in public in cheese whiz (now that should turn your stomach!), and vain Hollywood stars who coast on their celebrity status…none of them get off the hook.

I don’t know if Indiana Jones saw this much action or adventure. Much of it is scary—and disgusting when dark-colored “plops” of meatballs the size of cars “splat” onto the ground. Sometimes I couldn’t tell what I was looking at, and sometimes I could and wished I couldn’t (if you know what I mean).

But who can complain about something that brings out the fun of a planned cafeteria food fight, like the kind you wished you'd started in sixth grade but never had the guts? You’d hate being sticky afterwards and having to take an extra-long shower, but just the imagining is enough.

(JH)

Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: PG
Summary: A socially challenged young scientist invents a machine that makes food rain from the skies, which causes the town to lose its way.
Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller Starring: Bill Hader “Flint Lockwood (voice),” Anna Faris “Sam Sparks (voice),” James Caan “Tim Lockwood (voice),” Andy Samberg “Baby Brent (voice),” Bruce Campbell “Mayor Shelbourne (voice),” Mr. T “Earl Devereaux (voice),” Bobb'e J. Thompson “Cal Deveraux (voice),” Benjamin Bratt “Manny (voice)”
Genre: Comedy / Family
Trailer

Mediocrity Wins This Round

Movie Title: 9 (2009) 
Spoilers: No

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When I saw the 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, I can remember not knowing exactly what to think. Those scissor hands were made for Edward, who himself was also "made," created by his creator/father, The Inventor, who died before he could give him real hands. But he bled. Edward cut himself in one scene. He bled like a human. At the end of the day, he was human…at least he might as well have been. Having a “designed” flesh-and-blood human being was a bit disconcerting. You never get to know much about how he is what he is, and that took from the effect of the film.

Nineteen years later, I’m sitting in front of a screen taking in some incredibly well done special affects about an apocalypse-crushed world. There is so much sensory input, and every bit of it speaks to man’s fascination with doomsday phenomenon. A mechanical “beast” with a great big red eye - well after the world and all life in it seems to have been destroyed - is roaming about making sure any and everything that moves is dead. Its job is almost done.   

But less than nine little creatures remain. They keep moving, having to be careful. Staying alive is hard. Nearly all of them have been killed—it is fair to say “killed” because clearly (by the Edward Scissorhands definition) they were “alive” and very much like that human scientist who created them to carry on with human virtue and even gender roles.

These little life forms aren’t human, but then they are. At first, I wasn’t sure that they weren’t some type of modified rodent or ant. The bug eyes and funny little fingers, the stitched up skin/garments…as with Edward Scissorhands, I didn’t know what to think. And these little things never really won me over. The apocalyptic theme…it didn’t have me.   

One problem with scary Tim Burtonesque animated films is that they eliminate a huge chunk of their audience. Kid’s movies can’t be horrifying, and this one isn’t for kids. But then, why have an animated film that can’t touch a younger audience? That’s one problem, and it’s a small problem.

My bigger problem with the film was that it wasn’t as creative as it was promised to be. Great care was taken to map out the characters. Each numbered creature is wholly different from the others. #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) is smart and inquisitive, and also defiant. His nature puts him at odds with the leader, #1 (Christopher Plummer). It was Plummer who got to deliver the simple-but-dauntingly impressive lines.   

#7 is a chick (Jennifer Connelly) and she’s good supporting character material. But I expected more—and not from the voice actors. Martin Landau as #2 and John C. Reilly as #5 were on the same level as everyone else. I’m sorry to admit that no one could make me care for these human nonhumans. I didn’t sympathize with their plight because I didn’t know what they were, which meant I couldn’t classify them like I needed to do to feel for them.   

Every being in every large-brained species does this (consciously or unconsciously)—we must first mentally in-group or out-group an animal before we can choose to care or not care for it. A creature that is one of our kind is given special status. We feel for them the more like us they are. Other less fortunate life forms that might fall victim to a bad turn of events…that’s just life. Boohoo, now we move on, inane platitudes extended.

I wasn’t ready to cry for these things. They were supposed to be higher than rats and rodents, the kind that scurry off when the big carnivore comes, but that didn’t come through. I cared about Bambi's mother getting shot. I cried like a slit-wristed teenybopper when Optimus Prime died, but these creatures didn’t reach my center.   

What positive can I say for 9 other than that it was an ominous visual experience? Not much. Work your computer magic till candy wrappers and empty take-out Chinese boxes cover your desk—that won’t replace an intelligently executed storyline. 9 didn’t exceed expectations in that regard.

Of course, not getting my recommendation is not so bad. Falling out of memory? That’s bad! Being mediocre isn’t the worst that can happen…or is it? The big question is, will the film be forgotten in future years? Ironically, 9 could succumb to the fate that the characters in 9 tried to avoid! But if something doesn’t stand out, then it’s already on it’s way to being forgotten, isn't it?

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars) 
Rated: PG-13 
Director: Shane Acker 
Summary: 9 life forms fight for survival in a world where mechanical beasts seek their destruction. 
Starring: Christopher Plummer “#1 (voice),” Martin Landau “#2 (voice),” John C. Reilly “#5 (voice),” Crispin Glover “#6 (voice),” Jennifer Connelly “#7 (voice),” Fred Tatasciore “#8 / Radio Announcer (voice),” Elijah Wood “#9 (voice),” Alan Oppenheimer “The Scientist (voice),” Tom Kane “Dictator (voice),” Helen Wilson “Newscaster (voice)” 
Genre: Animation / Adventure / Drama / Fantasy / Sci-Fi

Forget Madea. Remember the Drama.

Movie Title: Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009)
Spoilers: No

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There is not a single man or woman reading the words of this review who does not have someone in their life who is…for lack of a better word…pitiable, but at the same time, cherished. You and I know someone or some people who exhibit unfortunate or else deplorable characteristic(s), and yet you still have a soft spot in your heart for them. I have few such soft spots, as I do in film. Tyler Perry’s Madea character occupies one of those spots.

A 6’5 400 pound black woman with beautiful silver hair doesn’t bother me, not even when she’s a man underneath who knows how to parody black “ghetto-ness” in a way that is more effective than when Eddie Murphy takes a crack at doing the same. Madea is her own cocktail of craziness, with indomitable self-respect and anger problems: “I will hit you so hard that your cranium, your skull, and your uretha tube will be tied up together inside each other. You won’t be able to do nothin’ but pee and run!”

She’s a match for George Foreman. She’s done time in the big house, but by her own admission, needs to remember to do some praying: “Oh child, I ain’t talked to God since the last time I saw a cop in my rear view mirror.” Hey, at least she’s honest about it. Her Bible knowledge…now that could definitely use some improvement.

Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, and Jaws was there and so was Eve. A lot happened back then on “the Greek Atlantic Ocean,” so says Madea. But forget about Madea. Madea isn’t the main attraction anymore. In fact, she’s hardly in the movie at all. The story begins when three misguided youths try to break into Madea’s home. They are caught, brought back to the closest thing they have to a caretaker, April (Taraji P. Henson), a strung-out child of a woman who needs to clean up her act as surely as she needs to dump Randy (Brian J. White), the married man she calls a boyfriend.

You’ll likely be disappointed that Madea is hard to find. She serves only to anchor in one small-but-pivotal plot component towards the film’s end. Be satisfied to hear her tell the inner-city kids’ version of the Bible because that’s the only humor that is offered. Beyond that is to be found drama in the struggles of three children who desperately need a real home.

This is a signed Tyler Perry production. It comes from his play (and perhaps should have stayed one). It has the heavy-drama-on-light-comedy thing going for it as we’ve come to expect from Perry, and all the necessary elements of the story are tied together in a more than respectable way. In addition, we have fine performances on everyone’s part.

It is therefore a shame that with such finesse-full writing and fine-tooth-comb attention to detail that audiences must be warned about being trampled to death by painfully long church choir singing. So I’m here to warn you…unless crosses line every wall in your house, I’ve got ten to one odds that you’ll find it as difficult to watch as I did. I won’t lie—I found this unbearable.

It’s long and slow and the laughs just don’t have enough punch. The “Lord Jesus, Deliver me!” singing and mourner’s bench-style facial close-ups are too much for most of us to handle—don’t believe me because I’m a whitey, but because I hereby challenge all black Pentecostal females from Louisiana to tell me differently. Even they might take issue with it.

The core elements of the story – the abuse, the refusal to love or to trust, and the unwillingness to change – are thrown on the table before us as though to say: “You wanted it! Eat up!” The title of the film, that says it all. Reflect on it for just a moment—I can do bad all by myself. And don’t we? When we do, whose fault is it? Everyone’s life is shit – some more than others – and so we can’t blame anyone else but ourselves for not coming through the trials of our circumstances.

Noble? For sure it is. Necessary? Not unless you grew up with an abusive parent who dunked your head in a bucket of Pine Sol and you need a little more God-anointed “pep” in your weekly dose of counseling. General audiences stay away. I’m going to stay away because I have enough drama in my life.

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Tyler Perry
Summary: Madea encounters three young children who come from a bad home and are pushed into a life of crime.
Starring: Tyler Perry “Madea / Joe,” Taraji P. Henson “April,” Adam Rodriguez “Sandino,” Brian J. White “Randy,” Hope Olaide Wilson “Jennifer,” Kwesi Boakye “Manny,” Frederick Siglar “Byron,” Gladys Knight “Wilma,” Mary J. Blige “Tanya,” Marvin Winans “Pastor Brian”
Genre: Comedy / Drama

That Syrupy Silver Lining

Movie Title: Extract (2009)
Spoilers: No

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The movie (ineloquently named) Extract is about one Joel (Jason Bateman), a company owner and producer of extract (yes, like Adam’s and whatnot). He’s also a distraught husband who, in addition to having some personal struggles to overcome, has some business-related issues to work out.

Built from the ground up, Joel’s company is run by a mob of shiftless and unsatisfied employees. They aren’t well diversified. Some are racist and gossipy. Some of them are quite dumb (and some are dumber than that). But they show up to work, always with their respective personality glitches in tow, happy or not. That means you, the viewer, are in a position to be entertained by watching them—barring the astoundingly apparent need for acting lessons on the parts of some.

We’ve already mentioned Joel, a sexually frustrated man with his beautiful sweatpants-wearing wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) who is unsure about his company’s future. And you have Brian (J.K. Simmons), Joel’s right-hand man, who is so personally disconnected from the employees that he just calls them “dinkus” instead of learning their names.

Joel’s neighbor is Nathan (David Koechner), an “I’m talking and I can’t shut up” neighbor who has no earthly idea that he is a constant irritant. His role in the film lacks relevancy and feels more scripted than it was intended to feel, but the character aspires to add dimension to the lives of Joel and Suzie. Not a success, but it is a small failure.

You have Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), a man with a brain only a little higher functioning than a turnip, a man who wants more than anything to be Floor Manager at the plant. He brings with him the social skills of a hyena. He has a half-brother who drinks lots of Pepsi. Okay, that last comment is evidence that there’s not much else I have to say. Sorry.

Along comes Cindy (Mila Kunis), a mouthwatering dame who, above all things, is “looking out for number one” to the extent that she snatches up what belongs to “number two.” Along for the ride is Dean (Ben Affleck), a pill-head and one-man bar support system. He has enough drugs to qualify as a pharmacy…and he can hook you up! If he were real, his picture would be viewable in the Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Worst Advice Giver of All Time.”

Affleck is frightfully convincing as a consoling long-time friend of Joel’s who always steps up to the plate to help out his buddy. The problem is that he ruins everything he touches. Hear his wisdom: “You should hang out with my boy Willie. He’s a great guy! He’s the one who gave me that horse tranquilizer.” Top that, King Solomon! Hah!

In Extract, director Mike Judge (creator of Office Space, 1999, and the hilarious Idiocracy, 2006) has fired up his engines again. Like before, he’s done a damn fine job. His new film carries the same scent of his previous works, with just a few less sparks flying. Dryness and sarcasm, combined with respectable writing, makes Extract funny and mesmeric. Though not hysterical, we have before us an amusing and appealing satire dealing largely with blue-collar life.

The film’s lack of focus can be classed as a plus or a minus, as no one group or class is consistently parodied. Every bunch, in turn, has their ups and downs. The men will fall victim to hot women, and the women will do the same with hot guys who come to clean their pools. The “working class stiffs” may have it harder than those who stare at them from an air-conditioned office window, but if they want better, they’ve got to do better by showing that they are smarter (that’s a real obstacle for this crowd)…and they need to quit bitching about their circumstances.

We’ve all got something to bitch about—that means none of us can complain about anything! Blue-collar or white-collar, everyone’s life sucks at some point and everyone is stupid at some point. Don’t hate yourself or others. Just move on. That message I got and can respect. Wait for the silver lining. It shows up even where cooking stuff is made.

(JH)

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Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: R
Director: Mike Judge
Summary: Joel, the owner of an Extract plant, tries to contend with a myriad of personal and professional problems and must safeguard his business from a lawsuit.
Starring: Jason Bateman “Joel,” Mila Kunis “Cindy,” Kristen Wiig “Suzie,” Ben Affleck “Dean,” J.K. Simmons “Brian,” Clifton Collins Jr. “Step,” Dustin Milligan “Brad”
Genre: Comedy

I Say "Game Over!"

Movie Title: Gamer (2009)
Spoilers: No

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It is the near-future. The place is…everywhere in the U.S.A. Society has gone the way of ancient Rome with a coliseum game-like obsession for seeing society’s outcasts fight to the bitter end in gun battles as they are controlled in a true-to-life video game. The players have complete control of the convicts. If a convict survives the bullet-flying battles with the hellishly bad odds against them, they go free (never happens). If not, they die, and the world is the better for it. This is not a simulation!

The drive for virtual reality was how it started, and then even that got old. Why virtual reality when you can have reality reality, which is better than that plain old "reality"? Why not pay off the debt that the incarcerated put on our nation’s economy by giving those who will pay for it the opportunity to take ready-to-die prisoners and let them fight it out in teams with house-leveling explosives?

Makes sense, I guess…in an Ivan The Terrible sort of way. And there doesn’t seem to be that many voices speaking out against it in this world. It also doesn’t seem to be any different from the plot of The Running Man (1987) and other films where gamers go too far in the name of entertainment. But really, the idea is just not as cool as it sounds at first.

The federal government likes these games, which are technologically made possible by Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall, aka “Dexter”), a wicked mega-genius of nanotechnology who surpassed Bill Gates in richness almost overnight. But the games are not just for convicts, like Kable (Gerard Butler), that beefy Rambo replacement and star of the show you‘ve seen strutting his stuff on the big screen lately.

Nope, anyone can have decisions made for them in this not-so-virtual world. Just agree to have the nanite probes implanted into your head, and within the parameters of the game/life, you are being completely controlled and your interactions broadcasted to the paying gamer who is – quite literally – “using” you. Sound like the plot of some bizarre, cult classic Sci-fi thriller? It is. Only, it’s much worse than you imagine.

Described thus far is the world from the movie Gamer, which opens up with a gunfight and runs (while stumbling moronically) to get to many more. Sequences of bloodshed and unapologetic, head-bursting violence could – if it were possible – make Rambo have self-esteem issues. Rambo is cool, but Kable may have him! Kable is so cool that his piss fuels automobiles (yes, really)! But Kable has been on death row for four years on charges of murder. Kable has done something…something bad…and higher-ups have had their hands in it. More bad is headed his way if he can’t get out of the suicidal games he is forced to be a part of, the games that he – no thanks to his toughness, ballsiness, or skill – is a champion of. He’s been lucky so far.

But none of what I have explained up to now matters that much. Let’s pretend that directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor care about the moral messages of their film. Have video games gone too far? Will they? Does seeing characters get graphically blown to bits in a virtual reality desensitize us and put us one step closer to murdering or wronging our fellow man? And may I be so bold as to ask: Does seeing Roadrunner drop a safe on Wiley Coyote make us want to copy their behavior?

Don’t be fooled for a second, friends. The directors care not to answer those questions. Like the Crank series before this one, we have yet another “F*ck you, world!” movie from two decently talented filmmakers. But this feature isn’t what the Crank series was.

Forget any attempts at being thoughtful or provocative or unique. It’s not any of those. The action sequences can be wretchedly hard to follow. Scene after scene is badly shot, and on not a few occasions, confusing as all hell, giving the mind of the viewer a hard time meshing with what just flashed before your eyes the second before. The dialog never rises higher than: “Why don’t you shut the f*ck up!”

The bad lighting, the torturous verbal and non-verbal exchanges, the senseless combat and killing…it’s enough to give anyone over 25 a terrible migraine—worse than the one you got watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And I haven’t yet said a thing about the cutaways to a bi-curious, naked, morbidly obese cyber-junky who gropes himself while using the bodies and speech of hot women to seduce men into anally popping them in the seat for his twisted satisfaction. Don’t think about it. Just accept that it is more disturbing than you care to see (and I’m not sure I’ve been more serious about anything in my life!)

The only thing I can take out of Neveldine and Taylor’s work is the hit that it gives to my nation, a nation of fat, lazy, repugnant, cyber-pervish ork-like creatures who are evolving day-by-day into a more disgusting, caffeine-consuming breed than you ever thought possible.

Thin-plotted as an infant’s crown, Gamer is repulsive and poorly written, and despite some accomplished presences, doesn‘t get redeemed. Kyra “The Closer” Sedgwick as a vivacious Gina Parker Smith and Alison “Drag me to Hell” Lohman as a forceful Trace more than do their parts, but neither make a dent in this incomprehensible ipecac.

(JH)

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Grade: F (0 Stars)
Rated: R
Summary: A gamer must free himself from a suicidal game in which he has lost control of his mind.
Directors: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Starring: Gerard Butler “Kable,” Amber Valletta “Angie,” Michael C. Hall “Ken Castle,” Kyra Sedgwick “Gina Parker Smith,” Logan Lerman “Simon,” Alison Lohman “Trace,” Terry Crews “Hackman,” Ramsey Moore “Gorge”
Genre: Sci-fi / Thriller / Action

Coming Up Short

Movie Title: Shorts (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Shorts is a childish cinematic display that is so named for the fact that it is presented in the style of short or segmented presentations with narration by the show’s star, Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett).

Toe (that kid who played a young James T. Kirk in Star Trek) and his older sister Stacey Thompson (Kat Dennings) have their share of quirks like everyone else in the film, and so do their germaphobe neighbors, “Nose Noseworthy” (Jake Short) and his dad “Dr. Nose Noseworthy” (William C. Macy). They live in a community called Black Falls.

Toe is being bullied by Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) and her older brother Cole (Devon Gearhart). Toe’s parents (Leslie Mann and John Cryer) aren’t doing much to help things. They’re too preoccupied working for the tyrannical Mr. Black (James Spader, Boston Legal’s, “Alan Shore”), who runs a power-hungry corporation known as the Black Box Unlimited Worldwide Industries Incorporated. This madly competitive corporation produces “The Black Box,” a dubiously referred-to small black device that is supposed to do basically everything you could ever want it to do.

With a more charismatic cast of child actors than your usual lot, Shorts tells the story of four friends (Toe, Loogie, Laser, and Lug) as they come across a rainbow-colored rock. Whoever holds the rock is granted whatever they wish for. By the time the boys realize that wishing for all manner of frivolous things is dangerous, their school rivals and the entire town wants in on it. Realizing that the rock is much better than his Black Box, Mr. Black’s hunger for power causes him to take a personal interest in it.

You need only a touch more perception than that of a giggling busload of cheerleaders to see where things will end up. Be that as it may, there were so many better angles that could have been taken to develop this plot…and might I add, less disgusting angles! I get tired of saying it, but what is it with the lack of care taken in the production of kid’s movies?

As a critic, I am sometimes told when I assign a low grade to a certain kid’s film that I’ve gotten too old and “no longer know how to think like a kid” (as one recent emailer put it to me). I turn their logic around on them and point out that I think it’s the other way around; it’s the adults who “no longer know how to think like a kid” who make the movies for kids, which is why so many of them tend to suck buffalo scrotum. A movie needn’t be stupid to appeal to a juvenile audience. But what can I say other than throwing up that old adage: “My words are like sweet perfume wasted on a desert air!” *sigh*

Shorts wobbles and finally falls face-first on the side of “thumbs down” being that the story is told in a most ridiculous and intellectually insulting fashion. The series of “shorts” that gives the movie its title does nothing but smear the story, which from the start, puts little effort into keeping focused on its goal.

You have bullies, braces, broken arms, and brainless boyfriends. You have germ freaks and weird neighbors who cover their house in plastic…and boogers that come to life! Your local elementary school has plenty of qualified critics who could take this film apart. But what they will likely miss is what the older crowds should stop to pick up on.

The adults in Shorts act every bit as dumb and as unruly as the kids, and that was intentional. Old or young, the poor ways people behave when more options are open to them is what the film is driving to demonstrate. While the movie is muck, the message is commendable. The Black Box and the rainbow-colored wish rock are analogous to our ever-growing dependency on technology to solve our problems and to gratify our corrosive and all too American “convenience-is-king” mentality.

Believe it or not, there was a time when a cell phone was just a cell phone. No Yahoo! Messenger, no internet, no palm pilot features, no music downloads…none of that. Those born after 1995 might have a hard time coming to grips with this realization, but we never knew the difference without those things. Today, cell phones do nearly everything. And what do we do? They give us internet on the go and we complain about how small the screen is. Where…when…will it stop?

Human nature being what it is, it's not stopping anytime soon. We wish for too much, and if we could have everything we wished for right at our fingertips, we would sink in the boiling moat of our own vanities. In a day and age where “e”s and “i”s are the first letters of more than half of the products on the market, I’m happy to see a retreat from the obsession of convenience-crazed commerce—if only in a flop of a film with nothing else going for it.

Want in on a bit of irony? I wrote this review on my T-Mobile Dash! :O

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rating: PG
Summation: A young boy's discovery of a colorful, wish-granting rock causes chaos in the suburban town of Black Falls when jealous kids and scheming adults alike set out to get their hands on it.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Jimmy Bennett “Toe Thompson,” Jake Short “Nose Noseworthy,” Kat Dennings “Stacey Thompson,” Trevor Gagnon “Loogie,” Devon Gearhart “Cole Black,” Jolie Vanier “Helvetica Black,” Rebel Rodriguez “Lug,” Leo Howard “Laser,” Leslie Mann “Mom Thompson,” Jon Cryer “Dad Thompson,” William H. Macy “Dr. Noseworthy,” James Spader “Mr. Black”
Genre: Family

From Those Who Failed Physics Class?

Movie Title: Final Destination IV (2009)
Spoilers: No

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that takes as much teary-eyed joy in sporting outrageously improbable and brutally reckless physics as in Final Destination IV. In this world, what goes up must…keep going up? It seems the laws of physics have banded together and decided to take on a rebellious life of their own. If Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking moved into this universe, they would be considered retards.

I can just mention the word “physics” or “math” and the blood pressure of some starts to rise, but no worries. You don’t have to be a math major to see that 52 spectator deaths at a racetrack stadium from cars exploding are as horribly unlikely as they are horrible. You don’t need to have proved Fermat’s Theorem to know that chance explosions at racing events are not vengefully executed. But in The Final Destination, explosions – like the totality of the laws of cause and effect that we are shown – have a mind of their own and quite a mean streak at that.

Car tires shoot straight up into the air and stop, and at a 90-degree angle, shoot back down to splatter a girl’s guts out. Entire stadiums full of flag-waving, beer-chugging racing fans get hot engines shot into their laps and their chests crushed. Spectators in the bleachers get blown off of their feet and impaled. The rest get severed at the waist by flying debris.

It begins when Nick O'Bannon (Bobby Campo) and his friends are enjoying their day at the racetrack. Nick starts to get disturbing premonitions of impending disaster. His premonitions are proven true and lives are saved. With the premonition-based knowledge, the deaths of his friends are avoided. As with the other movies of The Final Destination series, this dodging of the hand of death forces fate to get even.

They each begin to die in the order in which they were supposed to die at the track. They get together and try to determine who died in what order to give themselves as much time as possible to be on guard against the hellaciously improbable accidents that keep happening.

You never get to see what lies behind the fatal forces that seek to bring their lives to an end. You have fate working against them—fate causing needless and crazily unlikely occurrences that lead to accidents. Why fate doesn’t just give them all heart attacks or strokes is a mystery, but fate is supposed to be mysterious. Too bad this film isn’t. It’s not hard to see what drives it—money.

What you have in Final Destination 4 is a super cheap Halloween thriller that was never intended to be taken seriously or to win an Oscar. It was quick box office “cash kitty” material, and nothing more. It’s loud, gory, and corny enough to kill the low level of intrigue generated by a few oddly misdirecting scenes. This type of film, by its very nature, is as predictable as a timepiece.

Too much is wrong to mention. Not even a brief moment of angry racial tension is done right. Every character is as one dimensional as those from an eight-year-old’s attempt at a novel. You have no substance whatsoever, not even a defined message. Can you cheat death? Can you die when it is not “your time”? If you avoid death, will it find some other way to catch up with you? My answers are “yes,” “yes,” and “no,” but hell if I could have come to those conclusions by watching. To be appreciated, it doesn’t require any contemplation, just the nerve of a toddler who gets the hiccups when scared.

Candidate for worst movie of the year? I’d say so. Why this is I can only speculate. This could have been because the writers failed physics class (and probably other things in life too) and – honest to goodness – didn’t know how to do any better. But I suspect, this one fails because it didn’t even try.

(JH)

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Grade: D- (1 star)
Rating: R
Summation: After a teen's premonition of a deadly racecar crash helps saves the lives of his peers, Death sets out to collect those who evaded their end.
Director: David R. Ellis
Starring: Bobby Campo “Nick O'Bannon,” Shantel VanSanten “Lori Milligan,” Nick Zano “Hunt Wynorski,” Haley Webb “Janet Cunningham,” Mykelti Williamson “George Lanter,” Krista Allen “MILF / Samantha,” Andrew Fiscella “Charlie 'Gearhead' Kewzer,” Justin Welborn “Racist,” “Racist's Wife,” Jackson Walker “Cowboy”
Genre: Horror / Thriller

Take the Red Boots and Let’s Call it a Day

Movie Review: All About Steve (2009)
Spoilers: No

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The world wants to know, when is Sandra Bullock going to drop the ditzy, short skirt, clueless, giggling girl routine and resume taking on some serious roles? That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a straight-up question that calls for a straight-up answer.

Her periodic dilly-dallying in clueless-but-positive-girl-looking-for-love roles is a crushing misuse of her talents. Look at Jean Cabot, the snobbish, well-to-do white woman who needed a friend in Crash (2004). What about Ellen Roark in A Time to Kill (1996)? These roles commanded respect. Her role in All About Steve does not, but practically begs for the arched back hurling of rotten tomatoes.

Bullock is Mary Horowitz, a crossword puzzle producer who works for the Sacramento paper. She loves her job. She’s a genius, with an uncanny ability with words, fluency in 17 languages, and an encyclopedia’s worth of mostly useless information. She wears loud, kick-ass red boots. But she’s nuttier than a macadamia cookie recipe. All she’s missing is the stringy, oily hair.

When Mary is introduced to Steve (Bradley Cooper) on a blind date, her weirdo-ism gets the best of her and she does what she does so well for the duration of the movie—act strange to the point of making those twitchy homeless bums that sleep on park benches seem normal. She blows the opportunity on her date. Then poor camera operator Steve realizes he has a stalker on his hands who follows him around as he travels between reporting assignments at work.

Imagine a whole film where not just Bullock, but virtually everyone is weird to some degree. Imagine Bullock getting kicked off of buses for talking too much. Imagine Bullock annoying truck drivers by thanking them for not raping her. Her friends are a protester chick she met at a rally and a guy who makes sculptures out of apples. It isn’t hard to call time of death on this one.

You can almost relate to Steve. He’s the only normal guy amongst his two news anchor colleagues, Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church) a jug-headed fool who at least has a cool name and can cry on queue—and he looks like the Marlboro guy. And there is Angus (Ken Jeong), a guy who doesn’t add anything to the plot. These supporting characters get increasingly dumber, but they aren’t exaggerated enough to be made funny.

The three travel to a hostage situation where one of them mourns the loss of an only apparently dead horse. They attend “pro” vs. “anti” third leg rallies where opposing masses protest the surgical removal of a baby’s extra leg caused by a genetic disorder (not exactly knee-slapping material they have to work with).

The awfulness of All About Steve is not seen in its lack of good quality comedy, but in its pointless, eyebrow-raising queerness that spells “mission accomplished” on making a movie as weird – or weirder – than the main character herself. You feel guilty for even wanting to laugh, a couple of outlandishly funny moments aside.

The message of the movie is the only redeeming quality: Be yourself. Don’t change. There’s nothing wrong with being the odd one out. Be weird and be proud…and in that they said a mouthful.

(JH)

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Grade: D- (1 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Phil Traill
Summary: Convinced that a CCN cameraman is her true love, an eccentric crossword puzzler trails him as he travels all over the country, hoping to convince him that they belong together. Starring: Sandra Bullock “Mary Horowitz,” Thomas Haden Church “Hartman Hughes,” Bradley Cooper “Steve,” Ken Jeong “Angus,” DJ Qualls “Howard,” Keith David “Corbitt,” Howard Hesseman “Mr. Horowitz,” Beth Grant “Mrs. Horowitz,” Katy Mixon “Elizabeth,” M.C. Gainey “Norm the Truck Driver”
Genre: Comedy
Trailer

Michael Myers, The Genius

Movie Title: Halloween II (2009)
Spoilers: No

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The last time I picked up a knife to stab somebody was in the early 1980s. The knife was made of plastic and my attempt at killing was in good, clean Halloween fun while dressed up in a costume that consisted of army pants and a red bandana. The would-be victim of my pretend attack was an aunt. I remember her turning around and yelling at me: “Stop it!!!”

Pretend or not, that play knife sure did look like the one Michael Myers uses, the one he manages to keep in hand and never loses no matter his encounters. I was always a Jason fan, myself. But choosing between Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees is like choosing between a Mazda B-series truck and a Ford Ranger.

Both Jason and Myers are seemingly unstoppable and do not cease to surprise everyone in town by reappearing at the craziest of times—accompanied by their legends, of course. Both cover their faces and are well built. Both Jason and Michael have unhealthy fixations on their mothers, and both move and react very slowly, probably due to their perpetual fixation on their families and inner pains.

Well, anyway, that pretend knife and I saw some fine times together. It provided hours upon hours of non-stop action in the form of murdering innocent victims, along with zombies and lions (and whatever else decided to get in line to attack us all in the same play session). But we kids weren’t slow…not for long. Their came a time when that knife got put away. I still have it tucked in some old toy chest in mom and dad’s attic, I’ll bet you.

Unlike our own hellish hero of horror Jason Voorhees, we kids sooner or later picked up on the fact that killing anyone who gets in your way doesn’t make much sense. Payback makes sense. Revenge makes sense. Fanatical religious killing makes sense. “Snapping” and going off on everyone around you for the time even makes sense, but not walking around with a knife or machete for the nearly sole purpose of slaughtering everyone you meet en route to reuniting family.

Will someone please explain to me how a group of young kids can come to realize this and not writers, producers, and directors of horror movies? If you ask me, I have no answer. I’m asking you. And I’ll add another question. I think I have an answer to this one, and it is: Why would anyone resurrect the Halloween series for the 2000s? My answer: For the same reason they resurrected Friday the 13th, which was to draw in the kids for a quick, box office-stirring, Friday night date scare. What’s your answer?

Maybe Psycho (1960) wasn’t enough. Maybe we needed Halloween (1978) and the subsequent seven more movies in the series, not including this one. So, in my book, the bill of blade-wielding, evil-empowered madmen has been paid already. Some don’t think so, which is why we have our current crap-fest of Halloween II (2009).

First, there was Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007) and now an addition to it. This one continues right where that one left off. And nothing has changed. This is the place to see the same very apparently scripted conversations and quality of acting that would have been outdone had they had actual zombies inaudibly groaning and lulling around during shooting.

But I learned something from this Halloween. I learned that Michael Myers is a genius beyond comprehension. He has to be a genius to keep showing up at places where nobody is around who will or can call the cops. How does he know? But being that this is a horror movie we’re talking about, even if the cops were called, they wouldn’t get there in time. So, I guess nevermind. Even more spectacular is the fact that Myers knows just who to approach among those who are pointing guns at him.

I always thought Myers just walks up slowly to whoever is in his path and slashes them to a blood-squirting death. But no, he doesn’t. There is an art to it; he approaches that special class of morons who hold their guns and threaten to use them but walk forward, only to have the guns taken out of their hands. You see? Genius! It’s almost as genius as having Jason move around with trick-or-treaters for cover! How’d they think of that gem!

I’m guessing the gorehounds who continually cream their pants watching waterfalls of bloodshed are lacking in some nutrient (perhaps…iron?) But I have learned that the longings of gorehounds are like longings for sex—they will never be satisfied! Maybe the desire to see people being gutted won’t go away, but can the same be said of a guy who keeps getting lucky sneaking up on people? A tall guy who moves slowly with a long knife, hiding behind trees well enough to sneak up on towns full of alert citizens, including police officers? Will that ever get old? It should, nay, it has!

Tyler Mane is Michael Myers. His mother is again played by Sheri Moon Zombie (wife to director). Scout Taylor-Compton is Lauri Strode. Margot Kidder is Barbara Collier, Lauri’s therapist. Malcolm McDowell is Dr. Samuel Loomis. Sorry, fellas! The position for the most hated, advantageous, and ineloquent movie doctor of all time is still filled!

While Halloween II more than reaches its quota of spilt blood and guts, it pours over into pointless and preposterous territory. The poorly constructed story with its weakly employed symbolism is as soggy as a thawed out French fry fallen beneath your stove. “Been-there, done-that” called, and yes, he wants his hat back.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Summation: Presumed to be dead, Michael Myers rises again and begins killing to reunite his family.
Director: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie “Deborah Myers,” Chase Wright Vanek “Young Michael,” Scout Taylor-Compton “Laurie Strode,” Brad Dourif “Sheriff Lee Brackett,” Caroline Williams “Dr. Maple,” Malcolm McDowell “Dr. Samuel Loomis,” Tyler Mane “Michael Myers,” Margot Kidder “Barbara Collier”
Genre: Horror

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