Daddy’s a Bad Liar!

Movie Title: The Stepfather (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Nelson McCormick’s The Stepfather stars Dylan Walsh as “David Harris” and Sela Ward as “Susan Harding” in this psycho step-dad thriller. Penn Badgley is Michael Harding, Susan’s previously delinquent son, who returns from boarding school to find his mother engaged to a “dream guy” who appears too good to be true.

Ex-husband “Jay” and Susan are recently divorced. This has put a strain on every member of the family, which includes a younger son “Sean Harding” (Braeden Lemasters) and “Beth Harding” (Skyler Samuels). And now here mom is getting married again. How is her oldest going to handle this? Is she moving too fast? Her sister “Jackie” (Paige Turco) and a rather large network of neighbors and friends are at her side, and they love Harris.

But as seen from the trailer (which shares WAY too much of the movie), Harris is a real bad guy, a psychotic killer who can have toast and coffee as the rotten bodies of his former family lie around the house. America’s Most Wanted is hot on his trail, so he must cover his tracks—all the while seeking to fulfill his undying need to follow the advice of Dr. James Dobson and “Focus on the Family.”

Focus on the family Harris does a bit too much. Harris is a family man…or at least, a man looking for a family. The Stepfather is loosely based on the true story of John E. List (September 17, 1925 – March 21, 2008), a pious Lutheran man and WWII vet-turned-accountant who slaughtered his family in 1971 to keep them from falling into “the sin of poverty,” in List’s words.

Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh doesn’t handle well the roll of the non-religious David Harris, but to no fault of his own. The movie is another thing that doesn’t handle itself well. All performers fall victim to a poorly written story that robs the viewers of a worthy viewing experience. There are so many flaws that it’s hard to know where to start…

Do people still propose toasts at parties? They do, but not even close to as often as it happens in the movies. Do people kiss kids on the head to show affection? I guess so…occasionally. Do families talk like they do here to communicate? A case can be made either way, but no, not really, not if you're an adult.

Do shrieking cats jump out in view to scare us? No, they sure as hell don’t, except in clichéd, wannabe horror films. So you can see why they couldn’t help but throw that bit in here. Michael and his girlfriend Kelly look nearly too old to play their parts. This “crazy cat lady” is way too clean and organized. And Harris’ state of mind? For that we have to go back to the drawing board...

You would think that with the budget of a major release picture, you’d hire a criminal psychologist or at least someone who specializes in the finer points of creating sociopathic behavior to help map out how a psycho killer operates and thinks, but it looks like they skipped that step. Harris can’t remember the names of his allegedly deceased kids, and he tells stupid lies that come back to haunt him. And this guy gets scared to show I.D. I thought only minors slipping into clubs where alcohol is served had that problem.

The unfolding of the story does not come together well. The hangnail pacing doesn’t help. The writing doesn’t cover much ground, and what is covered isn’t engaging enough to be memorable. The misplaced and mismatched music selections and anti-climactic romance cutaways between Michael and Kelly result in a runny presentation that lacks both focus and credibility.

Just follow Susan and her kids and their friends as they slowly piece together that an obviously shady and awkwardly evasive David Harris isn't who he says he is. A room full of idiots, like cattle, slowly trotting towards finding out the truth...when you get there, it's like a joke with an underpowered punch-line.

What does the film have going for it? It has one thing—it’s about a madman, and there is an innate fascination in us all with the crazies, especially predatory psychopaths. Like 2009’s Obsessed, that attribute all by itself creates appeal. You keep watching, if only to see how twisted it will get. But really, you shouldn't.

The bizarre and unbelievable storyline, the bad camerawork, and the obstructed screenplay become more and more distracting the longer you watch. Just be satisfied with the trailer. When you see this on TV some boring afternoon, you’ll thank me someday.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Nelson McCormick
Summary: A teenager becomes suspicious that his mother’s boyfriend is a psychopathic killer.
Starring: Dylan Walsh “David Harris,” Sela Ward “Susan Harding,” Penn Badgley “Michael Harding,” Amber Heard “Kelly Porter,” Sherry Stringfield “Leah,” Paige Turco “Jackie Kerns,” Jon Tenney “Jay,” Nancy Linehan Charles “Mrs. Cutter,” Marcuis Harris “Detective Shay,” Braeden Lemasters “Sean Harding,” Deirdre Lovejoy “Detective Tylar,” Skyler Samuels “Beth Harding”
Genre: Thriller / Horror
Trailer

It’s About Corn

Movie Title: The Informant! (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Is it worth your time to see The Informant? Or, put another way, is seeing a detailed and accurate re-creation of the 1980s and 90s valuable to you? Is it more valuable than hearing business conversations between employees you are not among and don’t work with, conversations that are about as interesting as accounts payable lectures or the implementation of insurance policies?

Based on a true story, Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, who was vice-president of Archer Daniels Midland from 1989 to 1995, an agricultural conglomerate specializing in corn products. Mark was brought up on racketeering charges and ended up serving nearly nine years in federal prison after serving as an informant for the F.B.I. in one of the bigger corporate price-fixing cases of the 1990s.

The movie is not challenged, unlike Whitacre, the runny clump of candle wax who is the main character, a clandestine individual with sociopathic tendencies. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, The Informant is classy and sturdily constructed, with as much grace as anything produced by the likes of Ron Howard. Where it falls short is in the quality of material selected to work with (which is to say, I have absolutely no idea why a movie was made of this scandal).

The rhythm and low-grade humor are steady throughout, the products of a time-released and intelligent script. Performances by Scott Bacula as F.B.I. agent Chris Shepher and comedian Tom Papa as Mick Andreas, with The Soup’s Joel McHale as F.B.I. agent Dean Paisley, try to provide appeal, but somehow seem less than legitimate fits for their parts, much like Damon himself.

As an actor, Matt Damon is both interesting and talented. In his role as Whitacre, the word “interesting” shouldn’t be put in the same sentence with the name of the character. Whitacre would be interesting to a psychologist, but not to anyone else. Whitacre is a man more annoying than he is smart, but his wife and beautiful children can tolerate him just fine. Now, there’s just the question of whether or not you can tolerate him and the movie about him.

In Whitacre’s garage are expensive sports cars that are never driven. His home is nice. He wants to keep it. He begins to spot corruption within the inner-rankings of his company and he reacts in a way that will eventually speak volumes about who he is. When you learn more about him, you are able to appreciate him a little, but until then, you watch with interest as you wonder and wait for what could possibly go wrong in this upstanding man’s career and pursuit of a clean conscience.

What I couldn’t appreciate was Damon’s makeup job. His sudden balding at the end was inexcusably done. The makeup artist(s) should be fired. You invest yourself into an explicitly in-depth movie focusing on the life of one decadent corporation and one disturbed man who must have the social IQ of a light switch, and what do you get?

You get knowledge of one scandal and you get to see Matt Damon piss you off, if in a notably sagacious fashion.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rating: R
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Summary: The government goes after an agriculture business giant with a price-fixing accusation, based on the evidence submitted by their star witness, vice president-turned- informant, Mark Whitacre.
Starring: Matt Damon “Mark Whitacre,” Rusty Schwimmer “Liz Taylor,” Tom Papa “Mick Andreas,” Melanie Lynskey “Ginger Whitacre,” Scott Bakula “FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard,” Howie Johnson “Rusty Williams,” Joel McHale “FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon”
Genre: Comedy / Crime / Drama / Thriller
Trailer

The Best Seat in the House?

I want to introduce you to my friend Terri. She is a person of simplicity, and yet her depth of character has you looking down and not seeing bottom. Being a complicated person is not what I am talking about. Any chick – any dude, for that matter – can be complicated, conflicted, unpredictable, with “issues.” That’s not what I’m talking about at all. I’m talking about a person who is enough of an individual to have a personality you can nail down. You can predict them, and yet they can teach and surprise you in unforeseen ways. Such a friend is Terri.

Terri is about my age. She doesn't have a lot of money. She doesn't own a car. She lives in a small apartment in an obscure city in the mid-west. By society's standards, she is nothing. By my standards, she is nothing if not an amazing person. She has a big brain and she never hems herself in by having less than an open mind. She’s made her share of mistakes, but the world would be a better place with more people who had her robust intellect.

I met her last year in that deep sea of online fishers called the internet. We share no romantic chemistry. She is just a friend, albeit one of my true friends. One is doing well to have five good friends in life. She is one of those. We've never met in person. I’ve seen her, but she's never seen me. That's because Terri is blind. She was blind from birth. Her eyes never formed correctly in the womb. She was born without retinas and other essential components that make eyes work.

Never having known the ability to see is, to me, a huge thing to take in. That means she has never seen a sunset or the stars or a peculiar cloud formation. The things the bulk of us take for granted, the things we have forgotten to be amazed by, are the things she will never get to experience.

The conversations Terri and I have can be interesting, but very often, would be boring to the point of tears for anyone to listen to. We have covered nearly every subject you can name. No topic is too personal or private. We can fill up four hours of talk until we drop into an unintended slumber. While much of what we talk about wouldn’t interest anyone, some of it would. Take, for instance, my trying to explain to Terri what it is like to see.

I have tried to describe to Terri colors and shapes and what things “look like.” I have tried and tried and failed every single time. Only recently have I admitted that describing to a person who has never had sight details of what it means to “see” is an absolute impossibility. No, Terri doesn’t “see black” like people always ask. “Seeing” is a meaningless term to her.

It's funny…really it is. For all of her intellectual fortitude (she has a registered I.Q. of 143 as opposed to my 134), Terri will never understand how people see through glass. It really is a big mystery to her. And she doesn’t understand when I say that things looked at up close appear smaller as distance increases. She will never understand it.

Terri may not be able to see, but she takes in the information of what is around her that she needs. She shared with me a story about how she first began to be aware of her ability to sense what is around her. She was just eight years old and walking around the block with her father the way they always would. Terri would walk next to dad and hold his hand. On one occasion, they walked some ways and then Terri felt the need to walk in front of her father. “There is something here,” Terri said. Her father said: “Yes, there sure is.” “What is it?” Terri said. “A mailbox.” her father replied. But that mailbox was probably 25 feet away, and yet she knew she was going to need to move to dodge it.

One of the things people say about being blind is that your other senses are raised to mega-high levels, and there is a little truth to that. But it's not so much true as is the fact that you learn to rely on your other senses more. And there is one particular sense that develops that is the biggest help. It is sonar. Just like bats, blind people acquire the ability to use a very low-level sonar, which is how they can tell when they are next to a wall or piece of furniture or out in an open space. To them, the information translates from subtle sounds as a slight airy feeling on the face or cheeks, which gives an idea of distances and surroundings.

Terri types through a program called JAWS. It enables her to hear messages that the rest of us see on any computer screen. I have listened to this electronic speaking voice, which she has set to speak at the fastest possible level. I can't make out a single word, and here she is reading entire novels in the space of four to six hours! That girl’s got an amazing auditory processor!

Maybe Terri is a sharp cat, but sight is still better, yes? I asked her one day: “If you could have sight right now, would you not take it?” I almost felt bad about asking since the answer is so “obvious,” right? “Oh no!” she said, so emphatically with that windy-sounding voice of hers. I couldn't believe it, and in the course of our discussing the matter, she nailed me to the wall. She pointed out that sight would change her world forever, and there could be no going back. We argued, but she ended up convincing me.

Terri’s taking on the ability to see visible light was analogous to Joe Holman taking on the ability to see in infrared or in x-ray vision or perhaps the ability to see germs and things on the microscopic level. Nature dictates that abilities connected to the senses cannot be turned off and on at will. If you had super hearing, you would have to live out in a field somewhere because every TV and radio playing in a city or apartment building would drive you insane in a week’s time! My having the ability to see in x-ray vision, for instance, would mean that I could never turn that off. Imagine seeing skeletons instead of people’s faces! Muhahahaha!

That means my world would never look the same again, and nothing in the world would look the same—not a pair of naked breasts or the most benign patch of skin on an elbow. Nothing would be the same. It would be a different world…

So yes, Joe, it would be very nice to be able to drive myself to get groceries and shop, but this is my life. I don't want to know any differently. This is how it has always been for me.

What faulty assumption did I make? It was my own (human) arrogance that set me up for the fall. I simply assumed that the way I perceive life was the best way to perceive it. I assumed that because I know the beauty of a sunset that I somehow got the best seat in the house for observing the universe. This brings us to a powerful observation: if we had evolved to see things in infrared light or if we had developed x-ray vision, we would be parading around about how wonderful our observations are just as when we see them in the visible spectrum and marvel at “the glories of nature.”

This is the arrogance of consciousness. We and any other life-forms out there that can think would, of necessity, fall prey to this same ignorance: “You should see what I see! I got it good! This is the way it should be!”

I can make fun of it, but it sounds so convincing to remind myself of what I love about perceiving life. Do you want to experience life as a dog that sees everything in the color of a late summer evening or as a spider that cannot take in the whole sky and views things in ultraviolet light? I‘d say no, and I suspect, if you could ask the spider, the thing would not be looking forward to viewing things like I do.

We arrogant humans can go to bats or people in Terri’s position and say, “You will never know the beauty of a sunset!” Or, we could go to a deaf person and sign to them: “If only you could hear Bach and the sounds of a symphony!” But we might just as well run to a cockroach and say: “You are so damn disgusting and small and are missing out on what it means to be at the top of the food chain! Hah!” A smart cockroach would reply: “And you don’t know what it’s like to be able to survive a nuclear blast, so fuck off!”

Here is this blind woman, this friend of mine, a woman who has lived an immensely difficult life in so many ways. She was supposed to die at birth, but medical technology kept her alive. She had every reason to be dissatisfied with her life, to hate her existence and to finish herself off by doing something like mixing a bucket of ammonia and bleach.

But Terri doesn’t hate life. She loves it. She wants to grow old and die of old age with someone special. She has not a religious bone in her body, but she has hope. She is a survivor who awakes to each new day and finds meaning and purpose. That almost makes me angry. How envious I am!

Here I am, with all the faculties, and I’m half suicidal. I wanted her to see things my way. At first, I felt sorry for her. I kept wanting her to do what I would do and give up. But she didn’t. “If only you could see you as I see you!” I kept thinking. Then I got to know her, and I quit saying that. It’s in her nature to find the good in things. I don’t feel sorry for her anymore. I almost want to feel sorry for myself. If I lost sight, I wouldn’t be that strong.

I have known sight. To know sight and to lose it is different than never knowing it to begin with. Take the most beautiful pair of twins in the world who are the pride and joy of their father and mother and cut them up with a filet knife. Many parents could right nearly die from the grief. But go back in time and get rid of the children by not allowing them to be conceived and those same parents will never shed a tear for them.

It’s universal arrogance. We think we have the best seat in the house to live lives envied by all. Even the Bible says we are the highest creation. Is this a religious thing? Isn’t it faith that helps us overcome the trials and tribulations of life? Isn’t it getting on our knees and having a little talk with Jesus that makes things right? Not at all.

And here you were thinking I was going to tell you how evil the world is and how a good God couldn’t have created it. Or maybe you thought I was going to blame the arrogance of humanity on Christianity. You got me all wrong. I’m not blaming the Christian God. No deity did anything…as usual.

When we pull through tragedy and pain, we do so of our own strength. Sometimes that strength is not enough, in which case, we don’t make it. But other times, it is enough, and when we pull through, we assign reasons for it. Sometimes “finding Christ” is one of those reasons. That’s when things get dishonest.

Your genes tell you to survive, pal. All other voices are superfluous. You think by following the course of nature and then boasting about how triumphant God has made you gives brownie points? Might as well bestow sainthood on every Border Collie for having the “strength” to get his freak on with a neighborhood bitch in heat!

Sorry. Ole’ Jeebuz didn’t do a flippin’ thing, just as he never does. We don’t have the best seat in the house. Our seats are just warm and we prefer not to move.

(JH)

...A Thousand Paranormal Words

Movie Title: Paranormal Activity (2009)
Spoilers: No

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There is a term for low budget movies that cost little to make, and against all odds, blow up into huge gross-ers. “Sleepers” is the term. An example: the 1999 Blair Witch Project. Opinions differ on the quality of the film, but it cost a mere $35,000 to produce and grossed (worldwide) more than 248 million.

Next in line for consideration: Paranormal Activity. It is for sure less sophisticated than Blair Witch, but it’s sad to consider that a chunk of the viewers lost out on the effects because they were teenyboppers and wanted a cheap date thrill instead of a story with a meaningful plot. But for most of us with brains, Blair Witch was scary as hell, and so is Paranormal Activity—much scarier even. Best part of all, age isn’t going to be a factor here.

Ten minutes in and you’re still swearing that this can’t be scary. Wait till you hit thirty-five minutes and see if that conviction hasn’t lessened a bit. It will weaken the longer you watch. To start, you feel like you’re watching a homemade movie, and indeed you are. It’s like one of your buddies got on YouTube and just started filming around the house. Only, there was no 10-minute time limit. Ug!

The stars are young people, born some time around 1989, I'm sure. Chances are, just three years ago, he was eating too much Mac-n-Cheese in his dorm room, and she was going out drinking with the girls every other night and coming home smelling of vodka. If you were standing near them together, they would smell like soap. It would overpower their cologne or perfume. I shouldn’t joke since I work with a guy who is best friends with Katie Featherston (her real name and name in the film).

The picture begins with random shots of Micah (Micah Sloat) playing with his new camera. He got the camera to investigate the random occurrences that keep plaguing he and Katie, who is his live-in girlfriend. These weird things have been following Katie since her childhood in and out of three different houses. Now things are getting worse, and you get to watch as “bump in the night” mischief turns to mayhem.

Ok, Blair Witch wasn’t your thing. How about Cloverfield (2008)? It was an intense – supercharged! – suspense-packed thriller made like this one, with an ordinary camera that most any college student can afford. YouTube has changed the world. Has the ordinary camcorder done the same? Has it changed the horror movie genre? How many bad copycatters to follow? How long will this take to get old? Is it already?

You sit there glued to the screen. This is because you know that you aren’t going to have to endure fluttery special affects or embellished graphics of monsters or evil hell beasts. You endure the sometimes-real-and-sometimes-not filming of mundane household activities because you know that whether true or false, what you see will be something believably scary. It won’t let you down in that regard, although it won’t get really scary until some ways in. You don’t care. The expectation of suspense gets you past the irrelevant guff. And that low hum that passes for music when Katie and Micah are in bed...wow, that got under my skin!

What you get isn’t perfect, and that is due to this “mockumentary” being an admittedly non-professional production. But then, it isn’t expected to be graceful or well done, so it gets a pass…or does it? Should it? In some ways, it disappoints…the video of the exorcism gone wrong…a psychic coming over and then stiltedly turning around and leaving…the couple’s continual reluctance to turn the lights on when they need to see…I let out a smirk and then a “Puh-lease!”

They are so afraid of that one room, but foolishly, they keep sleeping there. And the camera gets toted around so much that you nearly want to root for the demonic entity. This was not a great film. This all-American and comely-looking couple is supposed to tug at your heart-strings. Sorry, I didn’t like them that much! I did like that there were only four active cast members.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that the film was not a success. It was. Just hearing people talk about unexplained things happening creates fear, and the movie does that well. It is an anthropological fact that storytelling is the best way to pass on wisdom and teach lessons. The bi-product is suspense, which is why learning to write in the present tense is literarily invaluable. But the suspense – and the suspense alone – is what gives this one a thumbs-up (if only by the skin of its teeth). It’s far more interesting and scary than ten Sorority Sows or Halloween sequels or, heck, 90% of horror films and their weak re-makes.

The things that people fear the most are the unknowns. Write that down! But once something can be analyzed or studied, the fear factor all but disappears. When we can put the components of a mystery into perspective, superstition has much less wiggle room, which means less fright. The paranormal can only exist and thrive in that shrinking realm called “the unknown.” “God exists in the gaps of our knowledge of the world,” so said Epicurus. And this is coming from a guy who has actively investigated “haunted houses” as a former believer in them.

We get so many movies wearing bad disguises while trying to proverbially “sneak in” as being scary movies. Most of them aren’t. This is a welcome sidestepping that will bring the longed-for feelings of terror. Last I checked, that is what horror movies were intended to do!

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Director: Oren Peli
Summary: Footage captures a couple tormented by a demonic entity.
Starring: Katie Featherston “Katie,” Micah Sloat “Micah,” Mark Fredrichs “The Psychic,” Amber Armstrong “Amber”
Genre: Horror / Mystery / Thriller
Trailer

Bite Your Mom. Then Go Play.

Movie Title: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Spoilers: No

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From the outset, let’s establish two things; first, though it happens to focus on one particular kid, Where the Wild Things Are is not a kid’s movie. Monsters eating people and leaving around their bones and ripping arms off is not young school kid material. Even without bloodshed, dismemberment is a disturbing thing; and second, let’s not give in to the desire to do what white, libertarian, art-geek jerk-offs do and say that everything is good if it’s done in the name of “creativity” and “symbolism” or “to be child-like.”

Meet Max (Max Records). Like most kids his age, he has his set of social glitches, though something tells me this kid’s got a few extra issues on the backburner. Being at odds with his older sister and his mother, the body of the movie begins. Max runs away after throwing a tantrum in front of mom (Catherine Keener) and her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). He bites her and runs out. He should have remembered to take his Valium, but he did remember to bring an animal costume—a costume he never takes off the whole film.

The kid must have gotten hot in that suit, and it must have started to stink at some point. That’s all some of us can remember about childhood, the playing till we were red in the face and stinking from running around outside—that and getting beaten up. Kids play and kids smell. I had to share that tidbit with you because I couldn’t quit thinking about it. But that is not something to think about (if you can help it). The movie makes no attempt to be logically coherent, and one can see why. Doing so would detract from the core imaginative value.

Can’t worry about how Max went days with these “wild things” without eating, or how he showed no fear or homesickness like any kid would after spending a lot of time around beings that effortlessly knock holes in trees and leave the bones of fallen “kings” lying around that they ate. And why hasn’t anyone else found this island? How can a kid who knows nothing about sailing jump in someone else’s boat and get to it? The sign says “wrong way.” Can’t think like that.

And like that wonderful book that was so near and dear to me in my young years, the movie is faithful to the same message. Where kids live is a different world from where we adults live. The self-directed pursuit of eternal bliss, with its dirt-clod fights and building forts and sleepovers in big groups, seems such an easy thing. But the world of the wild things is in need of governance, and that can’t be gotten from within. You’ve got to leave the wild things to do that, and that is what it means to grow up.

Childlike energy: check. Creativity: check. “We’ll have a swimming pool with a bottom that is a trampoline.” The gender roles are neutralized. Everyone keeps “one-upping” each other in their arguments with retorts on a level no higher than “you’re not the boss of me.” This is how kids think, act, and talk. No doubt about it. The “king” doesn’t get treated like a king, as surely as kids playing on a playground wouldn’t know what that entailed. The boundless chaos of the juvenile thought process can be beautiful, though I don’t exactly know why.

My problem with the movie is not with people in fake costumes (I didn’t like the CGI). They look just a little more convincing than football game mascots in characters that have the mentality of 9-year-olds. My problem is that the audience for this film is rather hard to identify.

We grown-ups have already had our fill. We read the book (or had it read to us) and used our imaginations. A book of pictures and few lines makes the mind fill in the blanks, whereas a movie fills in the blanks and robs the story of value. The movie can’t give us the imagination that the book gave, and the nostalgic value is low. We didn’t need a movie from the book by Maurice Sendak that I grew up knowing, but maybe this generation of hopelessly visual learners will think differently.

The movie is too scary for the younger kids. It’s not quite as bad as Coraline, which was dark enough to scare the “daylights” out of any little kid, normal or not. The older kids...they won’t be sitting still long enough to appreciate it, not to mention, the finer meanings will be over their heads. It’s been a long time, but I say kids play; they don’t relish watching movies of other kids playing.

But you can have the full affect of Where the Wild Things Are without seeing the movie. Just run into your 4-year-old’s bedroom and start screaming, “We’re going to tear things up!” Then mess up the room and wrestle on the bed in an ecstatic and crazy manner until you are both tired and fall asleep leaning up against each other. Child-wise, that’s what the movie seems most concerned with and that is the bulk of what you get.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: PG
Director: Spike Jonze
Summary: A boy frustrated with his mother and sister runs away and finds a world of strange wild creatures.
Starring: Max Records “Max,” Pepita Emmerichs “Claire,” Catherine Keener “Mom,” Steve Mouzakis “Teacher,” Mark Ruffalo “The Boyfriend,” James Gandolfini “Carol (voice),” Paul Dano “Alexander (voice),” Catherine O'Hara “Judith (voice),” Forest Whitaker “Ira (voice),” Michael Berry Jr. “The Bull (voice),” Chris Cooper “Douglas (voice)”
Genre: Drama / Adventure / Family / Fantasy
Trailer

Surrender, if Necessary

Movie Title: Couples Retreat (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Watching Couples Retreat was like trying to keep eye contact while listening to some uninteresting blabbermouth at work carry on about something you don’t care to hear. You keep eye contact out of respect, but then you start fighting that progressively worsening urge to look away, yawn, and lean back in your chair to look up at those suddenly interesting cracks in the ceiling. You finally succumb to the urges and it is at last apparent that you don’t care.

Maybe you were interested, but that was before the near-monologue became a pointless rant. The details were someone else’s problems; you couldn’t connect, and it ran too long; bottom line: you lost interest. You tried to care – really, you did – but some things are out of your control. Couples Retreat gave me no choice but not to like it.

Vince Vaughn, that guy who always looks like the beer-drinking, dart-playing buddy you’ve known for a long time, plays “Dave.” He is married to “Ronnie” (Malin Ackerman). They feel like their marriage is going ok, but due to the influences of Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell), who both happen to be slide show junkies considering a divorce, they and two other couples end up going to an island that features counseling in the midst of rejuvenating tropical surroundings.

These frustrated couples are given the opportunity to come to terms with their problems while tangling with each other’s vices as they discover what lies beneath their own unique sets of dissatisfaction. But nothing can get you ready for this…this slow, boring, and excruciatingly predictable romantic comedy that feels more like a socially retarded soap opera than anything else. You can’t even appreciate the low-key smut.

The characters are not real or individualized enough to overcome the stick figure stereotypes that they portray. Perhaps the most interesting character is Shane (Faizon Love), a recently divorced and overweight black man who is just plain tired of moving and whose life ambition is to sleep and rest his aching knees while his 20-year-old girlfriend, Trudy (Kali Hawk), tries to get him to go to parties 24/7. A close runner-up would be Jon Favreau as “Joey,” but no one has any sufficient depth.

Not many people know that sitting around and pondering why Vince Vaughn is a star is a way to beat boredom while waiting to be called in to see the doctor. Now you know.

Most of the humor is Grade-D material, predictable stuff, like getting boners during massages at the hands of a beautiful masseuse, a gigantic black “gun” getting shown off that has everyone in awe, and bikini-clad Hula-dancing girls who beckon married middle-aged men whom they don’t know into dancing—it’s like something out of a bad Disney movie with smutty suggestiveness. You have gay foreign exercise instructors who “push” the boundaries in their “duties” and start “doing” what they shouldn’t…can I stop now, please?

What little humor remains is legitimate, and in a more dignified venue, could have succeeded. I laughed out loud…and more than once. For just a few moments here and there, the traffic jam of contorted writing lets up, and in comes some dry and acerbic humor, which aspires to being great, and would have meant something had the film not been gridlocked in a pile-up of formulaic foolishness that ran too damn long.

“Couples Retreat” is as cheap as your last plate of “Vegetable Delight” at a poorly lit take-out Chinese deli where the service is terrible and the people are rude. Since it doesn’t taste good, you needn’t worry about throwing it away, or better yet, not getting it to begin with. Your best bet is to retreat – nay – surrender—do whatever it takes to not have to sit through this!

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Peter Billingsley
Summary: Four couples settle into a tropical-island resort for therapy and vacation.
Starring: Vince Vaughn “Dave,” Jason Bateman “Jason,” Faizon Love “Shane,” Jon Favreau “Joey,” Malin Akerman “Ronnie,” Kristen Bell “Cynthia,” Kristin Davis “Lucy,” Kali Hawk “Trudy,” Tasha Smith “Jennifer,” Carlos Ponce “Salvadore,” Peter Serafinowicz “Sctanley,” Ken Jeong “Therapist #2”
Genre: Romance / Drama / Comedy
Trailer

The System Must Pay!

Movie Title: Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
Spoilers: No

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L. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen was a fun film to watch and to review. Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a father and husband, a family man in every sense of the word. When violent thugs mercilessly take the lives of his wife and daughter, he finds himself waiting in the long line of the justice system to see justice served. His disappointment in the legal system is what sets the film’s tagline: “The system must pay!”

The movie follows Shelton in his own vigilante pursuit of justice on a citywide scale. How many lives will be lost, how much damage must be done before the greater good is served? In opposition to Shelton’s justice is that of Nick Rice, the city of Philadelphia’s chief prosecutor (Jamie Foxx). You have two geniuses clashing minds and a string of terrorist-style murders in a tale of bloodshed, justice, and morality.

Law Abiding Citizen is deeply flawed. The plot runs south of the border of believable on not a few occasions and brings with it a contrived feeling of being a flimsy story that tries (in vain) to make the audience ask the question: “What is real justice and who’s dispensing it?”

The film doesn’t make you ask that, but it does make you say: “Wow, that guy sure kicks ass! How is he doing that?” The simplicity with which it executes its vengeful plot has a beauty that could be dusted off and put on a shelf for decoration. The seething anger comes right through the screen and touches you. It writhes in its retaliatory binging with the single-mindedness of an autistic 3-year-old.

The writers love to hear themselves rattle (too much) through the characters, but you can’t tell me Law Abiding Citizen is not thrilling and entrancing—regardless of how many vicious beatings from the critics it will take. It will take them all…and more. The acting, especially that of the supporting cast, would be spat upon if it could jump into a suit and tie and try to get into high society, but that sooooooo doesn’t matter!

“Get ready to root for the bad guy” was the VHS subtitle of Mel Gibson’s Payback (1999), that being an example of a graceful story execution that puts you heads-locked-forward in wanting the bad guy to win. Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t quite go that way, but ends up being more like the Saw series. The film’s message of good vs. evil, justice vs. injustice, becomes consuming to the point where it can only be appreciated for its violent and vindictive aim.

But some directors should take a long, hard look. Would that both Punisher movies (2004 and 2008) had the teeth-gritting gumption to pull off a gory, action-packed explosion of excitement and getting even such as this. THIS is how The Punisher should have been played—as a broken man, consumed with grief and pain, crushed under an avalanche of life’s manifold evils.

Law Abiding Citizen relishes in its gore and in its reckless agenda of being nothing more than a mean-spirited thrill-ride that helps vent any residual hatred for the red tape of bureaucracy, but there’s room for that. I would have demanded that a number of scenes, along with gaping chunks of dialogue, be cut out (a great many needed to be). And how many more movies are going to have a parent say “go wash up for dinner” to the kids? Who the hell says that anymore!

If you’re watching to see a classy, award-winning movie, you’re watching for the wrong reason. Law Abiding Citizen is not an example of fine writing, but it stays ahead of the curve in being brazenly entertaining and not as predictable as expected. Let the critics say what they want. This one will have its admirers no matter what.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Director: L Gary Gray
Summary: A man decides to take justice into his own hands after a plea bargain sets one of his family's killers free.
Starring: Jamie Foxx “Nick Rice,” Gerard Butler “Clyde Shelton,” Colm Meaney “Detective Dunnigan,” Bruce McGill “Jonas Cantrell,” Leslie Bibb “Sarah Lowell,” Michael Irby “Detective Garza,” Gregory Itzin “Warden Iger,” Regina Hall “Kelly Rice,” Emerald-Angel Young “Denise Rice,” Christian Stolte “Clarence Darby,” Annie Corley “Judge Laura Burch,” Richard Portnow “Bill Reynolds”
Genre: Drama / Thriller / Crime
Trailer

Aliens. Adventure. Ice Cream Sandwiches.

Movie Title: I’ll Believe You (2007, DVD release: November 2009)
Spoilers: No

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Nighttime can mean different things to different people. The night hours are those forsaken hours when the world rests while a select few of us have the privilege of working. The normal people are asleep, the restaurants closed, and the clamorous sounds of traffic and big business have been brought to a welcomed halt. But nighttime has the queer distinction of being the time when the flying saucer people come out.

If you’re up at the wee hours of the morning, you can catch a broadcast of Coast-to-Coast AM, the nationwide radio show that for years has featured a myriad of mentally insane guests, ranging from your ordinary quack promoting “energized water” to the standard psychotic who believes that a piece of tinfoil placed squarely between your eyes will unlock the ability to see auras.

The show’s most popular hosts, George Noory and Art Bell, do what all good mystics will endeavor to do when confronted with mysteries, and that is draw the most extraneous and far-reaching conclusions possible. But these half-psycho sensationalist sell-outs are not alone.

Meet I'll Believe You's Dale Sweeney (David Alan Basche), late night radio talk show host for WMEL radio in Melbourne, Florida. When the sound of the crickets gets low enough, you can hear Dale’s eloquence as he fills that oh-so-coveted 1 am timeslot. He’s a solid mystic, wanting like heaven to believe in something beyond what he can see or hear or feel. He’s in search of aliens, as is his ridiculously small listening audience.

Mr. Fratus (Fred Willard) is the station manager. Willard’s comedic spontaneity would, if it were possible, lift a planet right out of its orbit. Mr. Fratus never fails to look out for #1, nor does he relent in endowing others with his pragmatic wisdom: “Religious people spend money. Crazy people hoard cats.” I couldn’t agree more. He’s on Dale like white on rice to get the ratings up…or else!

Not wanting to be out of work and compelled to join his brother’s workforce of way cool water hose salesmen, Dale finds himself in the pits of despair until an obscure phone call to his show starts to arouse some attention. A newly motivated Dale and his two trusted friends, Paige Zinke (Cece Pleasants) and Officer Nick Senna (Patrick Gallo) begin a comically imbued hunt for a visitor from another world.

Unlike Dale, Paige is someone who holds logic in high regard, a teacher with a science background. She’s the always-fun-to-be-around skeptic who never makes you feel stupid, though she can get as wound up as the best of us: “If I see you wearing a red vest, I swear to God, I will punch you in the spleen!” Pretty Paige can suck the energy right out of a scene, but she can also give it back in offering an intelligent persona contrast that ends up complimenting those of the other characters.

What begins with gusto starts to seem as if it’s not going anywhere. But it does go somewhere. Where it goes is to a hardware store, a school, and to the beach in one of the most unlikely searches for extraterrestrial life you’ll ever see. Though not quite reaching phenomenal, I’ll Believe You holds its own in the humor department, with polished performances by Patrick Warburton (voice of “Joe Swanson” of Family Guy) and The Hangover’s Ed Helms as Leon, a guy with a watertight plan to catch the Loc Ness monster. I’ve never seen Helms quite this funny.

What makes I’ll Believe You a success is not the material (which, in and of itself, can be a bit flighty), but the characters. Strong writing makes a more than smile-worthy film, graced with the talents of a contending, chemistry-charged cast. The energy between them says this was more a labor of love than anything else. A few hoky scenes and one failed character adaptation aside, no particular fault heavily detracts from the presentation.

The message of I’ll Believe You is that the future is not about silver jumpsuits and things unfamiliar—rather, that notion is cleverly lampooned. It’s about not fearing the future. It’s about taking responsibility to follow the compass of the heart. Just don’t take yourself or your endeavors too seriously along the way. The journey towards the future can often be more enjoyable than actually being there…and just maybe as enjoyable as eating ice cream sandwiches!

(JH)

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Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: PG
Director: Paul Francis Sullivan
Summary: A late night radio talk show host thinks he is being contacted by a UFO.
Starring: David Alan Basche “Dale Sweeney,” Patrick Warburton “Dr. Seth Douglass,” Siobhan Fallon “Larry Jean,” Patrick Gallo “Officer Nick Senna,” Cece Pleasants “Paige Zinke,” Fred Willard “Mr. Fratus,” Thomas Gibson “Kyle Sweeney,” Chris Elliott “Eugene the Gator Guy,” Ed Helms “Leon”
Genre: Comedy / Sci-fi
Trailer

A Smoky Hotel Hell

Two weeks ago was a turning point for me, as it was the end of a living situation nightmare that made the whole month of September an exceedingly miserable time.

As I write, I'm sitting in a pearl white recliner at home in San Antonio, that place that has the sometimes taken-for-granted benefit of a city-wide smoking ban in all businesses, something the Dallas/Ft. Worth area needs to get and enforce. I'm presently sucking down a 44 oz sweet tea and getting caught up on some writing as the fourth heap of clothes dries.

Why all these clothes? Because I had to wash every garment and blanket I own to get the smoke smell out that was put there by gaunt, leather-faced, saggy-forearmed, red-nosed, denture-wearing, baggy-eyed, dirty, unkempt, white-trash pieces of shit who made it a practice to smoke INSIDE their apartments instead of stepping outside, like a normal person getting their tobacco fix.

I never found out who they are, but I couldn't have done anything about it if I had. The place where I lived allowed smoking in the building, and that made my already bleak existence an even more enraged and bitter one...until two weeks ago when I got my ass out of Dodge!

I can't reproduce it here as it is an Associated Content Exclusive. Read the full story HERE.

P.S. If you smoke in your apartment, I'm telling you to go fuck yourself for being inconsiderate of every non-smoker in your building who is exposed to the offensive 4,000+ chemicals that make smoking bans a needful thing to enforce.

Fuck you for every couch you've ever ruined and every wall that had to be repainted on account of your nasty, stinking, nicotine-craving ass! Take your shit outside! Get it away from us!

(JH)

What Makes a Politician

It hasn’t been long since May of ‘09 when President Obama addressed the mothers of our nation with his message: “Moms, go back to school.”

As with all things Obama, the mainline media insures that nothing he does goes unnoticed. He’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, or even the Serrano pepper, so says much of America and nearly all of Europe. And now, the President of the free world gets the Nobel Peace Prize, even though he hasn’t done a flipping thing to deserve it.

There he was, the President of America, competing with humanitarian contenders for the prize, like Dr. Sima Simar, an Afghan female physician who dared to speak out for the rights of women in opposition to that diabolical digression known as Sharia Law, but did she win? Obama won, and for no real reason. Anti-war Obama says he is humbled to get it, but the real “humble” thing to do would have been to not accept it, at least not at this point in his service to his country.

But “anything’s better than the last guy!” Isn’t that the reason Obama has been so welcomed and cherished as the new Commander-in-Chief? Anyone better than Bush, right? And let’s not forget, Obama’s a black man! A black man is now president of what the Obamas and his supporters think is still a racist and bigoted nation (nevermind Obama's own bigotry). But now that Obama is in office, the race-hustling complainers can stop complaining because it appears that America’s racism has just reached a low enough level to allow a black man to win the presidency by a landslide.

This is good news. Not only is a black man now president, but this means bullhorn-wielding race-hustlers, like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the Jeremiah Wrights of this world – some of whom think it is racist to use the astronomy term “black hole” – can shut the fuck up or be hung by their dingle-berries.

Obama’s message to moms is of course a good one. No one but a Bible-thumping backwoods-er can oppose education. There can’t be too much of that. But Obama’s message to moms is an admission of why politicians have such an uphill battle in winning over those of us who stand firmly planted as independents rather than Republicans or Democrats. Who is Obama’s message primarily aimed at? Black women who raise five misbehaved kids in the inner cities and work three jobs to pay the rent at a run-down, graffiti-walled apartment complex on the wrong side of town. What has he to tell the rest of us? I'm going to take your hard-earned money and put it toward the medical care of tuberculosis-carrying illegals who drive without auto insurance (though not in so many words, that is what Obama says).

Barack and Michelle Obama always have something bad to say about America. America has been racist until March of 2009, and America is cruel to minorities and has become a nation of barbarians. We have wanted to torture everyone for so long that we need to free the terrorists at GITMO and close the place to get some respect back in the world. Just listen to their speeches. America sucks, and the Obamas are its only hope, they think.

But not all of us feel that way. America, though grievously flawed, is the best the world has to offer as of right now. When Obama speaks, he’s speaking to those who want their mortgages paid and gas put in their cars. He’s speaking to those who receive with glee coaching on how to break back into the houses they had repossessed. That’s the Obama crowd—“Give me, give me, give me! What can you do for ME, Mr. President!”

So Obama speaks to reach mothers, mothers with no education and lots of kids. In many cases, the kids never had fathers because the mothers never bothered to get the guy’s name. This didn’t stop them from bringing kids into the world whose mouths they couldn’t feed. They can’t buy houses. They don’t pay federal income tax. They don’t make enough. But they have babies, some of them crack babies. In the ministry, I met the caretaker of a crack baby and got to play with this poor kid who couldn’t stand up properly at three years old because of what his mother did. Don’t tell me not to hate!

President Bush has been listed as the worst president ever, even over William Henry Harrison, who died after only a month in office, having done nothing. Bush wasn’t the worst president ever. He was the worst communicator of any president. Obama, by contrast, (we can't hold it against him that he looks like Stewart Little) is eloquent and articulate and persuasive.

But a politician is still a politician. They are lying, deplorable jackasses who speak only to those who lobbied to get them in power, and they make good on less than half of the promises they made to those they owe everything to. They have an agenda, but never can it be in everyone’s best interest. That is why nothing replaces a good old-fashioned revolution.

(JH)

Flawdorum

Movie Title: Pandorum (2009)
Spoilers: No

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So I get to watch Pandorum, a film a trusted colleague had “high hopes for,” one I was told, “showed much promise.” I have two reasons to want to like it. The first is that it was talked up. The second is the alluring premise of being lost in space while an entire city-ship is reaping the fruits of insanity brought on by space travel. The title “Pandorum” is intended as a term for “space madness.”

But first, let’s lay the foundation: The setting is in the future where Earth’s population is such that it cannot continue to thrive. The planet’s resources have been exhausted. Wars have taken their toll. One massive vessel, the Elysium, has been launched to a far away planet, the only known planet in existence that can take the place of earth, with rich resources to sustain an industrious society.

It’s a long way there. The crew has been put in suspended animation. They begin to wake up. That’s where things take off and get creepy. One officer awakes, Engineer Bower (Ben Foster) and then the ranking officer, Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid). They have amnesia from being asleep so long, but they learn their duties and their mission to preserve the remnant of humanity on the new world.

Working together, they must overcome the problem of the ship being in a terrible state of disrepair, an insane crewman who appears to be responsible for all that has gone wrong, rogue human fighters, and then there are those…things. They’re…zombies?! No, try genetically enhanced crewman gone wrong, but what’s the difference?

They’re like a cross between whitish zombies and dinosaurs with shoulder horns and superhuman strength. They eat human flesh and fight like tribesmen. My level of interest takes a plunge dramatically with the introduction of these clichéd and corny creatures that had just as well been left out of the story or replaced with something better.

The engineer’s wife is supposed to be somewhere on board, but where? Of greatest importance is his need to get to engineering and restore power to complete their mission, but will they be able to do that and hold their wits as space madness continues to eat away? If these hellish zombies don’t consume them, maybe the ship will, or perhaps the people themselves in fits at each other’s throats.

What consumes me is a flawed film that could have made something of itself. I couldn’t tell what was happening to whom or who was eating whom. The lighting is terrible (sometimes intentionally). The sounds are grading. People are there and then they are gone. Scenes are choppily cut and then resume with eye-assaulting roughness.

If you let it, the plot will slip right by you. It takes some effort to keep your attention on this cinematic equivalent of a baby in a highchair tossing food onto the carpet. The questions of how they got into their predicament and why are eventually answered, but the layout leaves the viewer largely unappreciative of the intricate story that lies at the core.

I stepped out only briefly for a snack. Those 2.36 minutes were the best yet, and the snack was even better. I resume viewing. Here I am again, playing the waiting game, waiting for this film that keeps threatening to be a good use of tape to make good. It never quite makes good.

“Out here, there is no rescue and there is no turning around.” Scary? More like claustrophobic and unnerving (that was the intended effect). The story is laid down without a smidgen of a light-hearted moment. Instead, you get Dennis Quaid with his Harrison Ford-like qualities in a solid and serious performance. That menacing look in his eyes, his delivery of lines…those make him the most memorable character in this problematic sci-fi venture.

The tagline is: “Don't fear the end of the world. Fear what happens next.” Here’s mine: It’s a train wreck, no, a spaceship wreck, no, just a wreck. The action sequences are hard to watch. The film is visually incomprehensible, despite a plot bursting with potential and capable actors. I’m not afraid of the end of the world. I am, however, afraid of the prospect of having to sit through this again.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rating: R
Director: Christian Alvart
Summary: A pair of crewmembers aboard a spaceship wake with amnesia and must fight to stave off space madness.
Starring: Dennis Quaid “Payton,” Ben Foster “Bower,” Cam Gigandet “Gallo,” Antje Traue “Nadia,” Cung Le “Manh,” Eddie Rouse “Leland,” Norman Reedus “Shepard”
Genre: Horror / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Trailer

The Cure for Zombie Apocalypse-itus

Movie Review: Zombieland (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Why zombie apocalypse films have thrived for as long as they have could be called a mystery to some. I say “some” because I don’t call it a mystery. I have it nailed down to the steadfast conviction that deserted towns (ripe for the trashing) and de-humanized, futureless humans with blood and guts running out of their mouths (justifiable for killing) are way too much of a temptation to resist.

No respectable psycho with any testosterone left in him can resist the primal urge to see shit knocked over, or to see heads split open with mallets and aluminum baseball bats (doesn't sound very eloquent, I know, but it's the truth). And garden tools are great weapons too. Seeing a tool Martha Stewart would pick up being used to spill blood like a butter knife through a ripe tomato is a beautiful thing when looked at with the right glasses on.

Chainsaws…well, hell, nearly every weapon an audience is used to seeing on the big screen is used to paint the streets in Zombieland in zombie blood. To my disappointment, Mag-lites weren’t included. What a shame. But the zombie entrails are nearly like the garland around a Christmas tree. Those who have restraint tables in their basements and sharp metal instruments for disfiguring victims would say it’s beautiful. I say it’s beautiful because Halloween is a beautiful time.

The point is made: the sight of stores being trashed and pianos matting walking corpses into the sidewalk…I understand why the zombie apocalypse theme has lived so long. But it’s been a while since 1968’s Night of the Living Dead (the nearly undisputed zombie movie king) and a much shorter while since 2002’s 28 Days Later (an excellent and frightening zombie flick by all rights and privileges).

Meanwhile, droves of copycatters and outright flops have come along and dropped off little to hold up in the way of quality. Those of us who weren’t movie junkies who would go see anything just to get out of the house on a Saturday night hated them. The intelligent movie watchers became allergic to the zombie apocalypse hype and crap. Call it “zombie apocalypse-itus.” I was a sufferer myself.

And now Zombieland comes riding in on a white horse. At last, the smoke clears and the dust settles with a close-up of one kick-ass zombie movie satirical screamer that is gory, thrilling, suspenseful, heartfelt, and last but definitely not least, funny enough to make me want to tell you to bring a change of pants.

Woody Harrelson was a more than right choice, even an irresistible one, as “Tallahassee,” a dog-lover with a jaded mind and a painful past. Jesse Eisenberg is “Columbus,” a WoW-playing, Mountain Dew Code Red-drinking, phobic recluse. The two meet and will need to keep in check some personality differences for when they cross paths with “Wichita” (Emma Stone) and “Little Rock” (Abigail Breslin), two sisters and fellow survivors who will test their limits and define their senses of character.

The story…you know the story: the entire world has been overrun by walking dead things...yada, yada, yada. The film doesn’t waste much time explaining why this catastrophe happened, nor should you wonder about it. We've seen enough zombie movies to know that, give or take a few small points, the plot is not going to vary that much. Just let your imagination take over. It's all the same.

As tasty as the action is, it is not the best part. The capsizing comedy…that’s what will follow you home. Character development is above reproach. Plot pacing is sterling except for one brief drop-off about halfway through where Bill Murray (as himself) makes a cameo appearance. A short, nearly 20-minute derail doesn’t negate the tidal waves of humor and class that Bill Murray can exude by just being himself.

Where can I go to get sensible “the world has gone to hell” entertainment? Glad you asked. Try Zombieland. It is not only entertaining, it is satisfying, and more than that, meaningful. And tell me when you last heard the term “meaningful” applied to anything zombie-related?

(JH)

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Grade: A- (4 stars) Recommended!
Rated: R
Summary: Zombieland focuses on two men who have found a way to survive a world overrun by zombies.
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg “Columbus,” Woody Harrelson “Tallahassee,” Emma Stone “Wichita,” Abigail Breslin “Little Rock,” Amber Heard “406,” Bill Murray (Himself), Derek Graf “Clown Zombie”
Genre: Horror / Comedy / Action
Trailer

2009 Has a Nights in Rodanthe!

Movie Title: Love Happens (2009)
Spoilers: No

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I’ll tell you the short story of how I once spoiled the career of a scriptwriter. It happened when he approached me and asked me to look over a manuscript before sending it off to a group of fellow writers. I looked it over. Everything was fine right up to the part where the bad guy got introduced.

He was supposed to be a mean bad guy, more villainous and more contemptuous than your normal Columbian drug-lord. That’s why this fiendish thug had to be extra wicked. How about make him a sick baby-killer rapist? That works…and then some! Mind you, it wasn’t enough to find just a healthy baby to violate and kill. The bad guy had to be a sick baby-killer rapist.

This otherwise talented writer took my words of wisdom well, even after admitting that his future as a “bright lights big city” Hollywood writer was probably dead before it began. His demise rested in the fact that he was a sucker for the big melodrama wrecking ball, a thing so many writers fall for.

You see the melodrama wrecking ball when you see a writer who goes all out trying to solicit the outpouring of emotion from the viewers. Nothing is quite as bad as the human tendency to overdo things, especially when amateur poets try to sound eloquent in their poetry by throwing in extraneous references to “wind” and “trees” and “roses” to cover for the fact that their words have as little substance as inside the head of a stegosaurus.

Last year, you got to see the wrecking ball in action in Nights in Rodanthe, starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. Such big stars, such a crappy movie! It had the same key ingredient found in Love Happens—melodrama…enough to colonize ten planets.

In Love Happens, there is little chemistry between Aniston and Eckhart, and what little they have is the highpoint of the film. It’s downhill from there. Jennifer Aniston is Eloise, a successful flower shop owner with a bad dating track record (like you didn’t see that coming!) She meets a chisel-chinned Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart), a motivational speaker who lost his wife in a car wreck, wrote a book about dealing with the grief, and became a household name as an “overcoming tragedy” self-help guru.

The problem is, Mr. Self-help guru needs help himself (that’s actually part of the plot. I’m not just saying that to interject that the movie needs help, which it clearly does). The movie doesn’t so much need help as it is beyond help. The simplistic writing culminates in a feeling of contrived that is more pitiable than a poisoned puppy. Scarcely can one or two bits of genuine feeling be pulled out of the entire 109-minute presentation.

And aren’t you the lucky one…you get to follow Ryan around in always-rainy Seattle (of course!) as he instructs a paying mass of grief-stricken wimps on how to be less wimpy. These wimps won’t wait for time to heal their wounds like normal grieving people. They’re wimps. They have to be led around to a tool store to experience the joy of remodeling and wearing tool-belts.

Another thing that is sure to help is having these wimps walk over hot coals barefoot as if they were monks in some stinking rat-infested temple in Tibet. It’s “overcoming fear,” we are told (which would mean something if the wimps had come to the workshop because they were afraid to walk on hot coals to begin with, but they didn’t. So what the hell was the point?) But this crying crew must be pardoned. After all, they are the type of people who cook their husband’s ashes into cookies, so nothing should be surprising.

And gathering on the top of a tall building to hear a lecture…that had a purpose too. The purpose was so that Ryan could make the awesome illustration of how all those distant buildings represent everything that we could have in life if we can just see what’s out there and get past the grief. Jesus, I’m under-whelmed! Dr. Phil, PLEASE kick this guy’s ass!

To any intelligent audience, it should be as obvious as a McDonalds that this guy has nothing to tell people. But who cares, right? Isn’t it just a supporting element of the story? Sure, as is a former contractor whose son fell off some building scaffolding and “snapped his spine in two.” And this wimpy ex-contractor “Walter” (John Carroll Lynch) takes up more than 1/3 of the movie. I don’t know…I think I liked the sick baby-killer rapist idea better.

And Ryan’s deceased wife’s father, played by Martin Sheen, doesn’t like his daughter’s bird that is being kept at his house. Watch as the bird is abducted and then released into the wild, consuming some ten minutes of screen time! Watch with vested interest as this silly little animal fit for the act of a comedian in an amateur comedy club from the 1940s becomes yet another small sub-story in this ferocious fumble of a film.

(JH)

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Grade: F (0 star)
Rated: PG-13
Summary: A widower whose book about coping with loss turns him into a best-selling self-help guru meets a flower shop owner and romance is sparked.
Director: Brandon Camp
Starring: Aaron Eckhart “Burke,” Jennifer Aniston “Eloise,” Dan Fogler “Lane,” John Carroll Lynch “Walter,” Martin Sheen “Burke's Father-in-Law,” Judy Greer “Marty,” Frances Conroy “Eloise's Mom”
Genre: Romance / Drama
Trailer

The Bottom of the Food Chain (Part Five of Five)

We’ve talked about four losers from my life so far. But of course, there are others. What we haven’t done is talk about loser #5, the writer of the piece you are now reading.

Odds are, the four people I have criticized before the entire online world you don’t know. The accounts I gave are completely true down to every recollect-able detail with the exception of a portion of each name. They’ve been changed ever so slightly—they may not be innocent of the charges of loserdom leveled against them, but I want to protect their identities anyway.

Based on everything said so far, I’m a pretty big loser. Why? Because I befriended them, the losers, life’s miserable, embarrassing failures. I reached out to them, the idiots, for no other reason than that I wanted to. I had things in common with them. I benefited (in some small way) from knowing them. If nothing else, they taught me about life.

I look back and remember a kid who was deemed quite amazing, a kid of whom it was said that he could talk at 11 months. He was so smart, had the planets memorized, had the alphabet memorized, but he also stood at the living room window and screamed if the buses didn’t go by in the exact order that he expected them to. Some doctors called it savant autism while others disagreed.

I remember a kid who was so creative that while his friends were pretending to be Superman and Spiderman, he was pretending to be an air conditioner with the sky-touching ambitions of sitting outside all day and all night on a concrete slab and making noise.

I remember a kid who so, so, soooooo couldn’t fit in with his peers. He got in fights at school, made trouble for his teachers, got caught and scalded for trying to rip off a bag of sweets from Albertson’s grocery store once, and he did a hundred other things. But as much trouble as he was for everyone around him since his daycare days, he was more trouble to himself.

He got home from school and jumped on the trampoline for over an hour to let off steam. The kid held that cassette player in his hand. The tapes he would listen to stuck out from his pockets, as he listened to music while leaping and occasionally stopping to stare up at the stars, wishing so badly – sometimes crying and wishing – that he could jump high enough to find an alien race that would have more in common with him and adopt him. Or, maybe they could come down and get me.

Everyone keeps telling me about how amazing and intelligent and eloquent I supposedly am. I get emails far and wide praising me for my objectivism and astute presence of mind in being able to reject Christianity and change from the ground up my belief system. I get very few negative emails, a few negative blog posts, but no threats.

But then, my defection from Christianity can be looked at another way—I went from a minister to an atheist! That’s a pretty far fall to some. I once preached against porn, but that was followed by a time when I worked security, encouraging and protecting the free traffic of the very smut I preached against! The irony…if it wasn’t so funny, it would hurt like a sprained ankle.

My fellow writers and critics, as well as some aspiring writers, tell me I have a gift, that they wish they could write like me. Those where I worked always told me they wished they could debate like I can. A number are asking for tips and thoughts on this and that.

What do I have to tell them? That I’m a loser? No. Such information does no one else any good. And it doesn’t matter to me if you believe it or not. To me, I’m just a much bigger version of that scared boy who stepped onto bus 214 every day of the week through junior high school back when news about the space shuttle Challenger blowing up was still news in 1986.

I’ve learned a few things since then. I’ve laughed a little and cried a lot. Now, all I can do is laugh, but it’s a Joker’s sort of laugh—I laugh because there is no point to it all, and I’m too sore to keep crying. That’s why I laugh. It just hurts too much.

I try to pass these things on when I can. With regard to Christianity, what I thought was truth turned out not to be, and learning that tore me up inside. I’ve lost 4 cats and 8 dogs. That tore me up some more. Most of my humanity died the day my last dog died. It was November 20th, 2004. I remember dates so well. Damn my memory.

I love eating Reese’s Pieces out of a plastic cup with a plastic fork so that I don’t have to touch my mouth with my fingers. I cherish the roughest generic brand toilet paper in any store. I love piddling with plastic wrappers from mint candies when I can’t get my thoughts together to write anything. I love pens with fat rubbery handles, and I love pecking on new keyboards until the crispness of the key surface is shiny and rubbed off.

Take caution in admiring me. Admire only the writing and be wary of my wisdom. I may not speak for you. I may speak against you. These are the words of a bent man. Just listen and sift through what you can. Throw the rest (or all of it) out. I know I like unique things, and I like unique people. The weirdos of my past weren’t much, probably never became much either. I hope I am wrong, but if not, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters in this life except how I decide to make my life count…or not count.

I am a hedonist. I live doing what makes me happy (we all do, ultimately, but more so those of us who answer to no higher power). I know I am happiest with things and people who aren’t normal. The thing that attracted me to the losers was the fact that they weren’t normal. Though I am speaking out of jealousy, I do adopt the slogan: “Normal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Society may have no place for them. I may find them intolerable to hang out with, but give me the losers anyway. They may be the bottom of the food chain, but they’re towards the top on my list. Give me the rejects, the failures, the sickos, the addicts, those who make everyone else say: “God damn! Why can’t you get your act together!?”

The rage, it is what consumes me, nothing more sophisticated than that billion-year-old vice that never goes away. Fuck normal. The universe is too big for any intentional uniformity. The unintentional deadness is enough. Humans are supposed to be the exceptions to the deadness, the lifeless patches of cold and hot matter that cover everything like dust on the shelves of a vacant building.

Life pulled a fast one on everyone when it brought us into existence. Everyone stands and points and says, “Be like us!” and I take such great pleasure in yelling back: “No!”

“Now why is that what I see? Don't bother trusting. Don't bother waiting. Don't bother changing things that won't give into changing. Just let me go away.”

-Blue October

(JH)

If the Occult had a Teenaged Daughter

Movie Title: Jennifer's Body (2009)
Spoilers: No

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There is a fundamental rule in writing that we adults take for granted. It was taught to us in elementary school. You’ve probably forgotten it by now, but you’ve heard it. The rule says, never start a story with “once upon a time” and never finish it with “and they lived happily ever after.” It became a rule because children have storybooks read to them that begin and end that way. An end had to come of our expectations for more of the same infantile content. We had to graduate to reading rational narratives of the adult world.

Jennifer’s Body, starring Megan Fox as Jennifer Check and Amanda Seyfried as Needy Lesnicky, is a film with a story that retreats into the level of fantasy akin to something you would find in EMO or Goth themes. Not exactly children’s viewing, with it’s plenty of sex and gore, but it does have the same defiance of grim reality that a child’s book has. It defies reality. It also defies expectations as a horror movie. It isn’t particularly scary, and it introduces nothing new or menacing so as to compete with classics, like The Exorcist (1973) or even that respectable modern achievement, Population 436 (2006).

It seems to be going nowhere…and going nowhere rather slowly. The elements don’t look to be coming together, but they are, just not believably; the odds of running into a murderous Satan-worshipping group of guys are pitifully small; people don’t react like they do in the film when escaping from a burning building; and no, a gal with a box-cutter can’t overpower a demon-energized human being when a 220-pound man tried and failed. But those aren’t failures. They are intentionally done for effect, for the same effect found in a child’s reality-bending narrative that rides on imagination. Watch it with that eye.

The film militantly promotes stereotypes, and in so doing, defies them. You’re not getting force-fed a diet of militant feminist propaganda because it pulls no punches in casting aspersions on the same: “PMS is a myth created by the boy-run media to make everyone think women are crazy.” Oh, that’s good! And it’s not fodder for lesbian foreplay, but it’s as much of a flirt to any sexual orientation as Jennifer Check herself, that teaser of exacerbating skill. Like a true woman, it’s hard to see where the movie is going. But unlike some of the women in my life, its behavior will be found to make sense in the end.

Devil’s Kettle is a cool name for a small town. And like many a small town, here you have the self-absorbed focus on the events and news that concern its citizens. That overplayed aspect was also intentional. In this town, two girls are best friends (Jennifer and Amanda), the latter being submissive to the former. Their friendship dynamic has been tested many times, not the least of which being that Amanda’s boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) hates it that his girlfriend is forever preoccupied with her controlling and stuck-up best friend, that bitch of bitches named Jennifer. You don’t have to worry about strains on the friendship for too long. They are soon to become the least of the items on anyone’s list of concerns.

Jennifer’s Body indulges in a splurge of Occult fiction and girl-talk, and it beautifully blends both. It sticks in a sense of capriciousness and at no time does it presume to try and scare you with any of the used shock value models on the horror movie market. No big surprises either. It relies on something old – mythology – and then it girl-lifies it with tampon talk and hordes of remarks to socially relevant teen issues and sex: “It smells like Thai food in here. Have you two been fucking?” I forgot to mention, it’s raunchy.

It doesn’t succeed with the soft-core humor, but it does with the brilliantly written lines—gotta love ‘em! A bad ending hasn’t been this cinematically satiating in a while, and a girly-girl kill flick hasn’t measure up since Kill Bill Volumes I & II. It will be up to the individual to determine if the high school flavor or lukewarm attempts at being humorous or attractive exceed their limitations. Jennifer’s Body does not reach masterful standards of artistic expression or horror icon status, but it does fly as a satisfyingly clever achievement.

(JH)

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Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R
Summary: A newly possessed cheerleader turns into a killer who specializes in offing her male classmates.
Director: Karyn Kusama
Starring: Megan Fox “Jennifer Check,” Amanda Seyfried “Needy Lesnicky,” Johnny Simmons “Chip,” Adam Brody “Nikolai Wolf,” Sal Cortez “Chas,” Ryan Levine “Mick,” Juan Riedinger “Dirk,” Colin Askey “Keyboardist,” Chris Pratt “Roman Duda,” Juno Ruddell “Officer Warzak,” Kyle Gallner “Colin Gray,”
Genre: Horror / Thriller / Comedy
Trailer

Partly Cloudy in Not So Great Film Land

Movie Title: Surrogates (2009)
Spoilers: No

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There was a day in 1987 that I will never forget. I was in 8th grade, heading into geography class. It promised to be just another day of not listening and getting punched in the shoulder by a bully twice my size. His name was David. He walked up like he was going to unload on me as usual. Then he stopped about 5 feet in front of me and looked down at a shelf. On that shelf was an issue of Omni magazine. It had a partially human face covered with electronic circuit boards and wires with one yellow robot eye. It said something like: “The year 2000 approaches.”

He didn’t hit me. I was so surprised. He just stood there and picked up the magazine in a very mellow mood. We were now both staring at it. He said to me: “Like I’m going to be part f*cking machine in the f*cking year 2000! Ha..ha..ha..ha! Yeah, right!” That exceedingly dumb look…I will never forget it. He just laughed, put the magazine down, and walked away. I laughed to reassure him of how funny I was supposed to think he was. Then I sat down and thanked my “f*cking” lucky stars for a bruise-free class period.

I give you that almost totally useless flashback to make the point that portrayals of technology leave such a big margin for error. Look at the pictures of concept cars you saw in the 1970s and 80s, the ones they said we’d all be driving today. Are we? We’re not only not part machine and not driving super-efficient high-tech cars of fantasy, but it’s fast approaching 2015 and those longed-for hover boards from Back to the Future II are nowhere close to being invented. I once believed I would live to see tables in every restaurant hover by the time I was an old man. That’s not going to happen.

Surrogates stars Bruce Willis as Tom Greer, an FBI agent in a reality similar to our own, but in a world where you go to work by proxy, as a robotic duplicate of yourself called a surrogate. You pull a 9 to 5 shift and then you head home and take control of your own body…or not. The world has gone crazy with surrogates now that everyone can afford one. But they are safer, and hey, no germs! Woohoo!

Well, my neurotic tendencies needn’t concern you. You’d never see them because in my surrogate body, I’d walk up to you looking 3 times better than Brad Pitt and you’d drop your cup of coffee. My chiseled face would make Peter Gallagher hide in the “f*cking” weeds! Sure, at home, my muscles would be atrophying due to non-use, but they’re already not far from that. Might as well stay in my surrogate body forever. All of us out-of-shape slobs who spend our days on inconsequential tasks like writing, eating Doritos, and sucking down Dr. Pepper by the 12-pack need surrogates real bad.

Screw uniqueness. Cram individuality where the sun don’t shine. In a world of diabetes, kidney failure, bad backs, and homely looks, you’re stupid if you would oppose surrogates. And think of how much easier on the eyes the general public would be? A trip to the grocery store would be like a gentle massage on the eyeballs. No crater-faced, leather-skinned, red-cheeked, frail, smoker a-holes with missing teeth and “track marks” on their arms, like the kind that occupy and stink up most apartment complexes with the stench of menthol cigarettes. So many hideously ugly human blood sacks…it should be like on National Geographic where we get in a boat and only have to see them when we need to study them.

Tom has a partner, Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell). I would say “attractive” partner, but close to everyone in Surrogates is attractive, so that would be meaningless. Without the action, the film would be like an extra-long episode of that cursedly superficial show The O.C. But Surrogates is not superficial. It opens in haste and races into the flow-thru of the plot. The retro blue-ish/black-ish look tries too hard, but the acting is the real problem, and so is the continuously flat and unrelentingly bad dialogue. Even Willis can’t win anyone over, nor can his surrogate. And I just can’t get used to the look of a Bruce Willis character with a Terminator-like Arnie jaw.

And speaking of Terminator, it was director Jonathan Mostow and writers Michael Ferris and John Brancato who were behind Surrogates’ creation, the same sad trio responsible for bringing to life Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation. If there was a god, he would not have allowed T3 or T4 to be made—so say all James Cameron-loyal Terminator fans. T3 and T4 were grievous abominations. They are likewise conclusive proof that no deity exists anywhere in the universe.

But Surrogates does provide something that more nearly makes up for it’s noticeable flaws—it provides a good measure of entertainment value. Car-leaping action scenes and a plot that proudly sprints into the nuts and bolts of a very creative and eyebrow-raising storyline will make Surrogates engaging viewing for many. There is a tremendously big plot-hole towards the end (email me if you don’t catch it.) And just remember to forgive instances of overzealous writing, like the statement that 98% of the earth’s population uses surrogates. Way to make a comeback, Ethiopia!

Hurting the film the most is its style of presentation, with its fire hydrant blast of sci-fi, but with no plot-twists or big cliffhanger moments, nothing to offer up the necessary peaks and valleys that would provide so much more pep. Look out anti-smoking lobbyists, cyber junkies, and anyone obsessed with using technology to obtain artificial beauty. Ooooooh, a movie with a message!

Just another partly cloudy day in Not So Great Film Land.


(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Summary: Set in a futuristic world where humans live in isolation and interact through surrogate robots, a cop (Willis) is forced to leave his home for the first time in years in order to investigate the murders of others’ surrogates.
Starring: Bruce Willis “Tom Greer,” Radha Mitchell “Peters,” Rosamund Pike “Maggie,” Boris Kodjoe “Stone,” James Francis Ginty “Canter,” James Cromwell “Older Canter,” Ving Rhames “The Prophet”
Genre: Action / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Trailer

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