From the Mail Room

Movie Review: Gulliver's Travels (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Jack Black, Jason Segel, and Emily Blunt star in the high-energy hit that (in this case) isn't, Gulliver's Travels.

Even Jack Black can't save this one from doom as he plays Lemuel Gulliver, a mailroom worker who takes an assignment to the Bermuda Triangle to impress the girl he is too afraid to ask out on a date. Arriving at his destination, he finds himself towering over the primitive, Tom Thumb-sized inhabitants of an unknown island called “Liliput” where he is feared as a ruthless giant.

After saving the city from a rival nation, he is crowned as chief protector in the perfect opportunity to be revered and adored like he could never imagine. There, he makes friends, Horatio (Segel) and his forbidden love interest, Princess Mary (Blunt), while the envious General Edward (Chris O'Dowd) works to get rid of him.

This remake of the well-popularized 1726 classic Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, plagued with recycled clichés and fall-flat attempts at family-friendly humor, is an outlandish and buffoonish one, and predictable aplenty. You nonetheless have to admire the film's direction that manifestly believes in and wholeheartedly stays the course of its own poorly executed style of comedy to the blissful end.

There aren't many solid laughs in this overgrown story – the first half of which sounds like the equivalent of crickets at the finishing punch-line of a stand-up comedian – but there is a pretty girl, Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), whom Lemuel admires, and who is, of course, romantically available for him to make the story work.

Black's familiar dunce cap-worthy antics may keep him from going the way of Pauly Shore anytime soon, but not many will refuse to call this a complete waste of tape and time, with its failing to measure up to the average afterschool special geared for 14-year-olds.

Especially when things get started, this hodgepodge of bad parody is indelibly hard to watch, despite being engrossingly well paced. The special effects are not greatly impressive, and the respectably committed level of vitality put into each and every performance is of little value with the writing being what it is.

Who will contest that Black has the perfect face for the goofy, lovable ogre he plays? Not I. The regrettable thing is that the lively talents of Black, Segel, and Blunt have been put to waste.

You try to like it because the whole shebang is a goodhearted attempt at fun, but the mishandling of the story makes it so that it can't even pass for good fantasy. Watching the boundless energy of the cast dance around on screen (as they far too often do) gives that all too familiar feel of being the only chump at the party who isn't drunk and not down with the tepid, toasty-eyed humor derived from sheer foolishness.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: PG (for rude humor, mild language, and action)
Director: Rob Letterman
Summary: Travel writer Lemuel Gulliver takes an assignment in Bermuda, but ends up on the island of Liliput, where he towers over its tiny citizens.
Starring: Jack Black "Lemuel Gulliver," Jason Segel "Horatio," Emily Blunt "Princess Mary," Amanda Peet "Darcy Silverman," Billy Connolly "King Theodore," Chris O'Dowd "General Edward," T.J. Miller "Dan," James Corden "Jinks," Catherine Tate "Queen Isabelle"
Genre: Comedy / Family
Trailer

Meet the Raunchy

Movie Review: Little Fockers (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro are back, with Jessica Alba and Dustin Hoffman, in the new addition to the Meet the Parents lineup, Little Fockers. Yes, humor drawn from the risqué-sounding name continues in this third (and hopefully last) in the series.

Looking to expand his business and make some extra money, Greg Focker (Stiller) takes on the promotion of an erectile dysfunction drug while Jack Byrnes and family travel down for the Focker twins’ birthday party. Trouble erupts when Jack becomes convinced that Greg is cheating on wife Pam (Teri Polo) with the drug company’s hottie of a representative, Andi Garcia (Alba).

All that’s missing are the whacky romance hook-ups in this funny but inferior comedy that, at its core, has a story with a reasonable level of substance that falls back on the integrated family dynamics built up by the previous films. The children, Henry (Colin Baiocchi) and Samantha (Daisy Tahan), are actually involved in a useful way in the plot, which at least tries – with an initial degree of success – to fight off a looming sense of predictable.

What begins with a brief re-introduction to the Focker family runs immediately into sexual innuendo, which is where much of the film’s time is spent, with jokes on anal insertions and references to “musical condoms” and “manopause.”

The star-packed cast, which includes a brief appearance by Deepak Chopra, gives a much needed boost of energy to the crippled script that comes a day late and a dollar short of measuring up to the more genuine story quality exhibited in the previous two films, Meet the Fockers (2004) and Meet the Parents (2000).

Edging out weaknesses in the writing and covering for the fact that even some of the slapstick doesn’t go over as well as intended, a long-running and excessive theme of raunchiness is intended to supplement the silly levels of unlikely that characterize parts of this film and its comically overdone characters and predicaments.

None of this takes from the fact that Little Fockers works as a non-serious adult comedy that can be appreciated in a lighter mood, excusing some back-setting juvenile appeals along the way.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for mature sexual humor throughout, language, and some drug content)
Director: Paul Weitz
Summary: Family-patriarch Jack Byrnes seeks to appoint a family successor while Greg Focker represents an erectile dysfunction drug.
Starring: Robert De Niro "Jack Byrnes," Ben Stiller "Greg Focker," Owen Wilson "Kevin Rawley," Dustin Hoffman "Bernie Focker," Barbra Streisand "Roz Focker,"
Blythe Danner "Dina Byrnes," Teri Polo "Pam Focker," Jessica Alba "Andi Garcia,"
Laura Dern "Prudence"
Genre: Comedy
Trailer

Tron: The Less-than Legacy

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Tron: Legacy takes off more than twenty years after the events of the original 1982 film. Do you happen to remember the first movie? Were you alive when it was made? Two of the main stars of this film weren’t. How did it affect you? What impressions did it make on you? Well, as it turns out, it doesn't really matter.

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is the son of Encom Industries video game and software designing tycoon, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who inexplicably vanished from the scene twenty years back. After hacking into his father's former company, Sam is led to revisit the last place his father was known to be, only to find himself injected into the same world of digital disaster that has been home to his father for so long. 

As stated, it doesn't matter whether you remember the first Tron or not. That film held a marginal place of honor in its time. While rather shallow in its appeal, it was the journey of imagination that resulted from its viewing that made it worthwhile, working in conjunction with its dazzling special effects. The new film has significantly less appeal, but you needn't recall a thing about the original to appreciate this very juvenile show of neon light-accompanied acrobatics if that’s what you seek.

How the world of Tron came to be the way it appears is only explained in terms of a new type of life birthed from complex code sequences. Such geek talk is not new and not really that fascinating, as films of the last decade and before have been holding in awe mysterious code causations. But once you learn that Tron: Legacy is a remake (if you didn't already know), that concern quickly goes out the window because you then know that things look the way they do because they had to in order to honor the original film.

These 1980s sounds that faithfully make the viewer recall the decade, together with the colorful combos and shapes that tickle the imagination, are a keen recreation. Would that they didn’t come from a time when people still thought this is how our future would look. It seems a little awkward here, even when a whole new generation can enjoy this techno-perky journey of geeky goodies and excitement in a land where pointless and deadly games are fought in an arena out on an unexplained and unexplainable desire to compete.

Tron: Legacy does stay true to the original film somewhat well, or at least within an acceptable framework. No need to pick apart discrepancies of continuity between this and the original because what we have here is another tale, the underlying message of which is what The Matrix and a hundred other scifi films were trying to get across: “We are moving too far too fast technologically! Woe is us!” We need to stop and admire a sunset and learn before it’s too late that imperfection was really perfection all along. Not a bad message, but one we’ve been getting from our sci-fi for quite some time.

With the irregularities in theme and focus similar to a cologne commercial from the 1990s, things go from Sam's journey into the (for some reason) competition-obsessed world of Tron to his meeting Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a creation of pure coding who fights with Kevin and Sam against Clu (also played by Jeff Bridges), Kevin's grid creation-turned-conquering nemesis (and one of the least successful attempts at portraying a conqueror I’ve yet to see).

When not in disk battles and to-the-death cycle races that Sam seems to be remarkably good at, despite having no experience whatsoever, bizarre and unlivable characters like Michael Sheen's “Zuse” raise eyebrows as they seem to be more of something you'd find in a Star Wars intergalactic bar than in something created in a computer code abstraction set in motion by a genius.

This “strange bedfellows” sci-fi concoction that is supposed to lay down a thick layer of nostalgia runs along less than smoothly before the door is opened for plays on the subjects of the spontaneous generation of the first particles leading to computer life and how the earliest isomorphic creations “came into being” when conditions were right. Such is perfect jargon that cleverly opens the door for debates on the origin of our existence.

The first Tron was by no means a great film, but this film – unlike the earlier attempt to express our feelings of woe of fast-expanding technology  – is not even a successful one and cannot be expected to make phenomenal impressions.

The entire effort is undercut by a cheesy melodrama that gets worse towards its end. The emotionally withdrawn and juvenile characters are all alike in that they have strikingly little to say, giving us the sum total of what Tron: Legacy has to offer—surprisingly limited excitement to go with a sappy sentimental lean. This one won’t win over the bulk of audiences.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language)
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Summary: The son of a virtual world designer goes looking for his father and ends up inside the digital world that his father designed.
Starring: Jeff Bridges "Kevin Flynn" / "Clu," Garrett Hedlund "Sam Flynn," Olivia Wilde "Quorra," Bruce Boxleitner "Alan Bradley" / "Tron," James Frain "Jarvis," Beau Garrett "Gem," Michael Sheen "Castor" / "Zuse"
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Trailer

Stupidity in a Foreign Country Gets You This

Movie Review: And Soon the Darkness (2010)
Spoilers: none

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The original 1970 film And Soon the Darkness has fallen out of memory and into obscurity. For that reason alone, its remake is not only justifiable, but arguably worthwhile. Beats pointlessly recreating what everyone already knows and loves about the classics of their choice.

As in the first film with the same title, the story is of two females who travel to a foreign country for leisure. In the original British version, that country was France. Here, it is Argentina where two privileged and naïve white girls travel around in a part of the world where the kidnapping, selling, raping, and murdering businesses are booming.

You have two unwise girls, stupidly flaunting the fact that they are unaccompanied by anyone else, lightly packed, and not fluent in the local language—no way that's going to get attention from those who might, say, take advantage of them? Nah, surely not. And it surely won't encourage the situation with one of them in particular being overly flirtatious with the local gentry, thanks to alcohol.

But let's not forget: It is damn hard for a beautiful girl abduction movie to go wrong. A lot has to be wrong to kill the appeal of seeing a helpless heroine fight to escape her cruel captor(s). No, it’s not going to take home any awards, but And Soon the Darkness doesn't get a whole lot wrong and should, I believe, be put on that nonchalantly created list of movies to watch when it comes on TV and you find yourself bored out of your mind on some uneventful weekday afternoon. 

When we meet the two main characters, Stephanie (Amber Heard) and Ellie (Odette Yustman), they seem like nice enough girls we would want to care about. But we have almost no feelings for them after we see their bar-frequenting habits and when we hear a sweet woman, Rosemaria (Adriana Barraza), who works at the hotel they are staying at ask them if they are traveling alone. You get the distinct feeling from the question that doing so is a bad idea. 

So the girls are stupid, and bad things happen to stupid people. That means you no longer want to care about them. Then along comes a groping, drinking, controlling man who gets aggressive, Chucho (Michel Noher), when Ellie refuses to “put out” for him. In comes Michael (Karl Urban) to help out by putting the jerk in his place. Now all the main characters have been introduced except for the most dynamic one, Calvo (Cesar Vianco), an Argentina police officer who will be sought out for help when Ellie goes missing.

Briefly parting ways after a fight, when Stephanie comes back, Ellie is nowhere to be found. Her cell phone is found left behind. Another day is coming to a close. What has happened to Stephanie’s best friend? She’s out there, alone in a strange land, deserted by a friend who obviously was the victim of one too many in a series of really bad “brain-farts” that caused her to make the knuckle-headed decision to leave her friend in the first place. And it sucks barely being able to communicate in a country known for kidnapping, where even the bad guys mock you for leaving your best friend alone and unprotected in a foreign country.

The acting may be a bit stilted at the opening, but this isn't a crippling problem. To its credit, people behave in very logical ways, and without too many dramatic embellishments or rash actions to uphold a farfetched plot. The simplicity of it is as beautiful as our main characters. When Ellie goes missing, the police are called. When a stranger (Michael) catches up with Stephanie and offers to help her find her friend, she remains suspicious of him, even while thanking him for running off the jerk from the previous night.

There are some pacing difficulties, but they disappear quickly to allow the latter half of the film a sliver of suspense to sufficiently hold interest. The low-budget feel, in this case, actually serves to remind the viewer that the humble and internet-less surroundings of these tin shacks and un-air-conditioned restaurants are not home. You don't feel as comfortable when you’re not at home, especially when you're a foreigner in a place not your own, ripe for being taken advantage of.

The unexpectedly small-time slave trade operations of very poorly organized slave traders are a somewhat life-like indication of just how far the American dollar goes in certain impoverished places of the world. $6,000 for a virgin with blond hair? Hell, I'm speechless.

The movie goes to ridiculously short lengths to showcase any given aspect of itself. Are we working with an impoverished budget here? You would think, with the little effort that is put into showcasing the struggles of abduction or the inflicting of pain – things that horror fans usually want to see more of – though what is shown can arguably be called sufficient for the rest of us who appreciate a good thriller over a good horror.

And that is the good news I leave you with; the unpredictable and disturbing turn of events and the ability of director Marcos Efron to construct characters that read body language and take hints and act like (dare we say) normal people is present here whilst absent from so many other abduction horror flicks.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R (for some violence, rape, and brief torture)
Director: Marcos Efron
Summary: When two American girls on a bike trip in a remote part of Argentina split up and one of them goes missing, the other must find her before her worst fears are realized.
Starring: Amber Heard "Stephanie," Odette Yustman "Ellie," Karl Urban "Michael," Gia Mantegna "Camila," Adriana Barraza "Rosamaria," César Vianco "Calvo," Michel Noher "Chucho"
Genre: Horror / Thriller
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Top 7 Worst Movies of All Time

- is transitory
- is growing
- as far as I'm concerned, must not come from some list online, but from personal enjoyment or lack thereof.
- The first raped my soul

The "I'd Rather Chew Broken Glass" List

1) Disaster Movie (2008)
2) Epic Movie (2007)
3) Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
4) Fear dot com (2002)
5) Mission to Mars (2000)
6) Space Mutiny (1988)
7) Sea of Fear (2006)

- the second made me laugh while crying inside

The "So Bad It's Good" List

1) Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956) [iconic cult classic award]
2) Troll 2 (1990) [iconic cult classic award]
3) Alone in the Dark (2005)
4) Eagah (1962)
5) Love Happens (2009)
6) Teenage Strangler (1964)
7)

Short Films (1)

Check back regularly as we continue our look at independent films in the form of short films that aren't exactly movies, but stand out as fine examples of single cinematic projects, or in some cases, a series that aims towards something bigger. Among the more recent picks of the lot are...

Imaginary Bitches (A+)
Every episode is a "cat fight" waiting to happen in a provocatively well-done series created by Andrew Miller with a sensual fit and finish similar to Ryan Murphy's Nip/Tuck.

Perry St (A+) 
Focuses on a man named “Perry” (Mark Epperson) who sees his counselor, “Elaine” (Catherine Mary Stewart – “Gwen Saunders” from Weekend at Bernie's, 1989, and "Maggie Gordon" from The Last Starfighter, 1984). Then Perry meets “Sophie” (Brittany Moore).

While quickly loosening up within the first three or four minutes, this short, 15-minute film naturally flows into a piece you wish were longer, with its humorous lean and thoughtfully conceived writing.

The film carries its weight as it slightly loses energy and intensity before ending with a twist that is clever. Written and directed by Antonio Padovan.

You Don't Know Me (A-)
Creepy and oh-so-confident, first-time director Sean Melia brings us this horror/thriller that is chillingly well-done!

Over Coffee (A-)
Solidly likable scripts and acting don't all come from mainline Hollywood directors. And so we observe in the film Over Coffee, directed by Sean Meehan, starring Timothy J. Cox, Erik Potempa, Michael Oberholtzer, and Jocelyn DeBoer. It involves pressing time constraints, and you guessed it, coffee.

Seldom can clefts of overacting be detected in this cutely conceived short comedy that stirs together feelings of awkwardness in a concise, stress-reliever—to be appreciated by all who tackle the daily grind of office life.

Socks and Cakes (B+)
Starring Timothy J. Cox and directed by Antonio Padovan, this philosophically honest piece just about constitutes proof that a long-term friendship between a man and a woman is possible when you've had sex at least once. 

Jimminy Jack: Story of a Porn Star Extra (B+) 
This spirited “mocumentary” about a porn star extra who can't break to his parents his non-interest in the family business of smut is cleverly conceived and well written, with a semi-ingenius take that beckons to be watched at much greater length than its 23-minute runtime affords.

There are a few minor mic placement issues, but the only real fault is that the film never goes as deep as it could have into the potential wellspring of laughs made possible by the easily-parodied subject matter. Directed by Louis Silverstein, starring Nolan Silverstein, Kyle Nicholson, Clara Campi, and Timothy J. Cox.

Smoke (B+)
It's all in the eyes and music! The haunting stares and disjointed fly-by blurbs of confusion in this brief story of a man who became the victim of surreal insanity doesn't exactly make sense, but then, it's not supposed to.

Directed by Grzegorz Cisiecki, this 7-minute journey of madness and delusion has some of the eeriest music to be found, carrying the viewer down an inexplicably entrancing path.

Echoes (B+)
Do you know what it is like to have your mind betray you? That's what Echoes is about, a very short but poignant vision into the mind of schizophrenics. Directed by Chuong Vo.

Well, Venice Looks Nice Enough

Movie Review: The Tourist (2010)
Spoilers: none

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A case of mistaken identity has Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) and Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp) fleeing for their lives when a ripped-off crime lord comes looking to reclaim stolen funds in the mystery/thriller, The Tourist.

This mostly robust and posh film takes its time showing off the wine-complemented beauties of Venice, not to mention the ever-breathtaking seductiveness of Jolie, while having much to say on the theme of trust and the two-faced human tendency to employ deception to gain an advantage.

Teasingly romantic, with violin music and beautiful tapestries, The Tourist relies far too heavily on its authentically embellished backgrounds that very often take the focus off of this gentle stream of a story, which could have used some rockier writing to generate some much needed excitement.

The Tourist is unfortunately yet another example of the reliance on star power rather than the raw and piercing performances needed to make a lasting impression with audiences.

There simply isn't much here to make this careful thriller into anything more than average. There is a gracing appearance by Timothy Dalton as Chief Inspector Jones, but an over-the-top James Bond-style gangster boss played by Steven Berkoff, and a handful of suspicious stares in a plot that lacks playful misdirection until the very end.

It is just before the halfway point when director Donnersmarck's cautious eye for detail goes on strike and the whole project starts to lose energy. Scenes of Depp running like a girl in pajamas on rooftops do the film no favors. Sensual scenes intended to foster chemistry between Depp and Jolie have only varying degrees of success.

The Tourist doesn't move very fast, and in some places, drags noticeably. It isn’t far in until the audience has a pretty good idea of the story’s predictable ending, while some viewers will see it coming long before that.

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Summary: An American tourist visiting Italy meets a beautiful woman on a train as he finds himself wanted by the mob.
Starring: Johnny Depp "Frank Tupelo," Angelina Jolie "Elise Clifton-Ward," Paul Bettany "Inspector John Acheson," Timothy Dalton "Chief Inspector Jones," Steven Berkoff "Reginald Shaw" Rufus Sewell "The Englishman"
Genre: Action / Drama / Thriller
Trailer

Thinking Outside the Box with Jack Abramoff

Movie Review: Casino Jack (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Casino Jack is the adventurously titled story-made-movie of the Jack Abramoff scandal. All but the most disconnected from TV and radio will by now have heard of Jack Abramoff, the indicted super-lobbyist for the GOP currently serving his six-year prison sentence for a wide range of corruption charges, including conspiring to corrupt public officials, tax evasion, and fraud.

Kevin Spacey is an eager and energetic Abramoff, introduced to audiences while brushing his teeth in the mirror, as he rehearses the telling off of his accusers. Then comes the call from fellow miscreant, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), in hot water with him: “They're calling us the new Watergate!” he says to Abramoff. And then we see Abramoff taking mugshots before the audience is taken back to over a year earlier when the whole mess started. 

“The reality is that without lobbyists, the wheels of Washington would come to a grinding halt.” Spacey's Abramoff eloquently says. And from there, he lectures the audience – and his fellow Republicans in the Bible classes he teaches, consisting of Christians and Jews – on how the Republican party is a bulwark of truth for God and represents his will for mankind: “Prosperity enables us to help our fellow man.” Abramoff says. You can bet your last dollar you wouldn't expect this much cigar-smoking, golf-playing preachiness outside of a satire piece aimed at the far right, but you see it here—much to the delight of critics and viewers en mass.

The movie's presentation is, of course, not nearly as far-reaching as the scandal itself. Indeed, you wouldn't expect it to be. But the movie brings in key elements for viewers. Beginning with the striking of deals that affect poor jeans-makers in the Mariana Islands, the long-range economic tampering goes upward, with Abramoff bilking the casinos out of nearly 30 million dollars.

Then Abramoff and partners move onto bigger game than the Native American casino players they started out with. Abramoff and cohorts wine and dine clients. They play tennis and golf and walk around holding drinks like vodka on the rocks. They’ll spend one hundred thousand dollars to get investors to fork over the real funds. They want money. They say so in so many words. And then, they work together with other connected high rollers like Tom Delay (Spencer Garrett) and President Bush (Brent Mendenhall)—here, W’s got a too exaggerated accent.

Not only do we get Bush, but Clinton (Timothy Watters). You can see side and back shots of John McCain from the actual hearings. Spencer Garrett’s Tom Delay is by far the best pulled-off representation of the real guy. And he has some wittily self-serving lines that take boasted patriotism about “God and country” to a whole new level. Yes, if I haven’t mentioned it enough, the material is the stuff of a satirist’s dream!

Jon Lovitz's Adam Kidan, a mob-tied defunct mattress salesman and disbarred lawyer enters the picture and things get worse as bogus money wiring and wage rivals begin to tear apart business from the inside out. His cocaine habit and whores with their shown top-up nudity and Kidan's sleazy, used car salesman appearance only adds to the dimension of his role as a grimy figurehead set up to represent Abramoff's interests.  Lovitz is hilarious, but comes off like a sand lizard when he gets serious.

Abramoff, made to be a sometimes annoying, movie-quoting, joke-telling, standup comedian-style “smooth operator,” has a business persona that reflects Spacey’s talent, and at the same time, seamlessly integrates with the character’s less-than-genuine motif as he verbally slithers to defraud others. The greedy and unthinkably hypocritical lobbyist evokes an undercurrent of emotions as viewers become perplexed at just how good a job he does at deceiving himself into thinking he is not guilty of any wrongdoing whatsoever. He gets up in the morning and “works out every day” (he repeatedly reminds us lest we forget). He’s just a fine American, providing for his family to keep them from becoming “slaves” who have to ride the dreaded subway.

With Abramoff, it is righteous indignation accompanying the words coming out of him. Abramoff talks of God and sets out to open Jewish schools and five-star kosher restaurants while not even being able to stay current on his own mortgage payments—and knowing full well he’s a spoof of a Jew. But the shock of blinding insanity brought on by greed only increases as the storytelling brings in the growing sense of woe aimed at this hotshot who takes no hints from the increasing number of enemies he finds himself making. This is in direct proportion to the acting, which improves as the plot thickens from a surprisingly melodramatic opening.

Sometimes funny and always interesting, have no fear that Casino Jack will prove to be a live wire source of entertainment…neverminding some occasional indulgence in stereotypes and some heavy thematic liberties taken.

(JH)

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Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: R (for nudity, violence, language, drug use, and adult themes)
Director: George Hickenlooper
Summary: A hot shot Washington DC lobbyist and his protégé go down hard as their schemes to peddle influence lead to corruption and murder.
Starring: Jack Abramoff "Kevin Spacey," Jon Lovitz "Adam Kidan," Michael Scanlon "Barry Pepper," Ruth Marshall "Susan Schmidt," Graham Greene "Bernie Sprague," Hannah Endicott-Douglas "Sarah Abramoff," John Robinson "Federal Agent Patterson," Spencer Garrett "Tom DeLay," Brent Mendenhall "President Bush," Kelly Preston "Pam Abramoff," Paul Stephen "Reverend Mueller," David Fraser "Karl Rove," Mike Petersen "Senator Jarvis"
Genre: Biography / Comedy / Crime / Drama
Trailer

The Warrior's Waste

Movie Review: The Warrior's Way (2010)
Spoilers: none

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As you've seen from the trailers, The Warrior's Way is a ninja movie about a master ninja assassin who fights to eliminate competing clans. When Yang (Dong-gun Jang) comes across the last remaining infant child of an enemy people, he decides to save her life and care for her as his own, thus marking himself for death as a traitor and an enemy of those he formerly called family.

But that is only part of the story. The way it is laid out, it is very misleading, suggesting to the audience that what to expect is a conventional martial arts action movie, when in reality, this movie is nothing like the cool trailers suggest. Allow me to describe the full order of events beginning where the introductory paragraph leaves off...

Ninja defies clan. Ninja takes child and moves to an American frontier town in the old west where bits and pieces of buildings can be seen that are supposed to pass for an actual city. Ninja travels a long way, with no diapers or baby supplies, with the unnamed baby no doubt combating nausea as she swings from a stick over Ninja's shoulder like a hobo's gear.

Ninja arrives at the town seeking an old friend who is no longer around. Ninja meets Lynne (Kate Bosworth) who loves to throw knives, but sucks at it. Ninja throws pebbles at her ass and teaches baby to walk, blowing bubbles at her while running a laundry business. Ninja does this while cultivating flowers and enjoying a quiet life with Lynne who helps take care of baby. The baby is suddenly named April. Ninja teaches Lynne to sword-fight. 

Marauding rapist cowboys roll into town, led by Colonel (Danny Huston), who begin killing and harassing people without merit. A drunk quits drinking and takes up shooting rapist cowboys alongside Ninja and clowns who fight in theme park rides to distract them in an entire amusement park that materializes, seemingly, from out of nowhere, with fully operable rides. Then come the ninjas from out of the skies, and later, from under the snow (unaffected by frostbite or sub-zero temps and able to dig themselves into layers of snow for long stretches of time, and without arousing the suspicions of a keen-minded ninja). End summation.

The idea of warring ninja clans (swiped from 2009's flawed, but much better than this, Ninja Assassin) seemed too good an idea not to incorporate into this slipshod slacker of a ninja movie that is, quite actually, a disastrously unfunny attempt at combining lighthearted, humor-splintered drama and action into one sword-slashing affair that does, in fairness, attempt to be philosophical in its approach and Asian in style.

Yang's ninja clan is called “The Sad Flutes” because when a man's throat is slit, it makes a sound described as a sad flute. It is towards the end of the movie that enemy clan leader, Saddest Flute (Lung Ti), again appealing to Yang to kill the child, asks: “When she grows up, will you tell her that you killed her father and mother and everyone who loved her?” Ah, here is some food for thought. Sadly, it is not enough.

By way of point deductions, there is so much more to look at here than a paper-thin story and even thinner characters that would have to put forth incredible effort to get things more off the mark than they do. The obviously and artificially created walls, skies, and storefronts, all created in a studio on a green screen with CGI-aided scenery and crappily drawn-in blurbs passing for ninjas running and leaping from building to building are another noticeable glitch in this wobbly work of numerous imperfections.

Tony Cox plays “Eight-Ball,” a comic relief circus midget character that, in some alternate universe, could have pulled off his role successfully, with abundant charm (as much or more than Bosworth and certainly everyone else in this laughingstock). Geoffrey Rush plays “Ron,” the token town drunk who gets into gear to kick ass with the rest of the city, infiltrated with lawless bandit rapists and, yes, ninjas who jump from plum out of the sky and onto buildings.

Grim, emotionless stares and tired sequences of filming that accomplish little more than fortify an action-deprived story that nobody cares about (yes, this ninja movie receives hefty point deductions for lack of action) compose the majority of the film's run-time. Baby April is a pleasant baby, and one of the best screen presences, though apparently immune to colicky crying spells, unlike most babies. I don't know if I would have preferred the sound of a crying baby to this Asian-ized ninja/western excursion void of any real sense of feeling. And what better way to reward a quiet baby than to have the main character suspend her on clothespins?

Suffice it to say, The Warrior's Way doesn't exactly pay tribute to ninja fighting and the things that made 80s ninja cheese so watchable to previous generations. But the thing that gets me most: With the arrival of this great master ninja (who, for some weird reason, is so much better than the massive armies of the other ninjas he once fought alongside), no one in the town – and not even the Lynne character – seems to appreciate being around “the greatest swordsman ever.” What, I ask you, is a martial arts flick without that sense of awe-inspired amazement?

And despite ninjas with very noticeable head gear, jumping out of the skies and snow in broad daylight (who repeatedly ignore every surprise advantage they get, choosing to jump head-on into bullets instead), it doesn't have an ounce of respect for the genre that made it possible in the first place. There are only a few townspeople in this “town,” and all of them look as goofy and ill-placed as Gomer Pyle walking onto the wrong set.

The Warrior's Way just keeps getting worse and is “The Warrior's Waste” as far as I'm concerned and a serious runner-up for the worst movie of the year. But if they'd thrown in just a few more clowns, we might have had a contender for that ever-coveted “It's so bad it's good!” category. Only going the way of a cult classic can save it now, seeing as it's no great wonder why critics were given no advance screenings on this one. 

(JH)

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Grade: F (0 stars)
Rated: R (for bloody violence and adult themes)
Director: Sngmoo Lee
Summary: A warrior-assassin is forced to hide in a small town in the American Badlands after refusing a mission.
Starring: Dong-gun Jang "Yang," Kate Bosworth "Lynne," Geoffrey Rush "Ron," Danny Huston "Colonel," Tony Cox "Eight-Ball," Lung Ti "Saddest Flute," Analin Rudd "Baby April," Markus Hamilton "Baptiste"
Genre: Action / Fantasy / Western
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Slow Justice is No Justice

Movie Review: Faster (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Dwayne Johnson is a vengeance-minded killing machine in the Action/Crime/Drama, Faster.

Following the death of a brother who was set up and ambushed after pulling off a bank heist, newly freed convict, Driver (Dwayne Johnson), goes on a Terminator-style killing spree to take out the parties involved. His job won't be easy when a team led by veteran “Cop” (Billy Bob Thornton) and a highly skilled mercenary, Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), are out to stop him.

Faster is a proud movie with no shortage of attitude. Its prisons and shaved heads and tattooed muscle guys and their noisy, souped-up hotrods that make unapologetic peal-outs could, in some circles, be called staples of American life. We've all been wanting to see Dwayne Johnson in a rougher role (not aimed at young audiences) he takes seriously. And here he is, making us happy, slickly filling shoes Arnie himself would be proud to wear.

While not hiding its vestigials, this throwback is not all covered in the stench of being a product of less sophistication. It’s true that we get our fill of cop clichés, like cops coming onto a crime scene with coffee and a cigarette and proudly asking: “What do we have here?” We also have the sly, smoking cop who doesn't care a flip about his marriage corroded in a dirty past or for his chubby kid he visits on the weekends to play baseball with. Add to that, we have an English-accented bad guy, but that's about where the clichés stop.

Johnson's Driver character may be poorly explained, but there is some depth to the bad guy, Killer, a classic narcissist who can't get enough of himself and is constantly on the bend of proving to himself repeatedly just how much of a badass he can be. Killer is a brilliantly thought-out character, unlike the rest that straight-up lack originality.

Take, for instance, Thornton's Cop. This has to be one of the flattest performances of Thornton's illustrious career. We can work with Xander Berkeley as Sergeant Mallory and Carla Gugino as Detective Cicero. Both of them serve as the nails in the connecting boards to make this violently bloody tale of shooting, stabbing, and street racing work.

But Faster sets out to entertain. And entertain it does…with loads of meaty excitement! It wastes no time in making Driver the killer you become increasingly fascinated with in your puzzlingly growing desire to sympathize with and learn more of. But you never come to understand what makes Driver, nor what that “ghostly” tattoo on his arm means that adds to his badass-ness twofold. Evidently, that was the way it was supposed to be.

You won't understand the complex elements that “drive” Driver. That's because there are none. He wants revenge for his brother, plain and simple. You do come to understand the mentally unhealthy makeup of Killer, who is a compulsive perfectionist who talks with his therapist often. Our problem is the un-bridged gaps of appeal that affect the other major players in the story.

Those wayward souls targeted by Driver for revenge are simple enough. They are junkies with ugly pasts. Put the whole lot together and you need only look at the writing that connects them; a guy goes on a revenge quest to knock-off murderers, rapists, and child pornographers that wronged him. You want him to spare only one man among them who has become a minister and has turned his life around. Your waiting for him to make up his mind to off the guy or spare the guy gives suspense. What doesn't is the unconvincing acting that tends to hang around what comes before and after intense and gruesome execution scenes carried out by our main man.

Faster has a few big twists, nearly all of them at the end. The movie you start with isn't as good as the movie you end with. Heck, the conclusion of the film gives this average movie its passing grade. I love happy endings, even bloody ones, especially when they make the movie I've watched feel like it was worth sitting through. Sure beats the crap out of seeing Cop take his no-resemblance-bearing, porky kid to a baseball game.

(JH)

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Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R (for disturbing and bloody violence, strong language, and drug use)
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Summary: An ex-con sets out to avenge his brother's death after they were double-crossed during a heist years ago. During his campaign, he's tracked by a veteran cop and an egocentric hit man. 
Starring: Dwayne Johnson "Driver," Oliver Jackson-Cohen "Killer," Billy Bob Thornton "Cop," Carla Gugino "Cicero," Maggie Grace "Lilly," Sergeant Mallory "Xander Berkeley" 
Genre: Action / Crime / Drama / Thriller
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Don’t Just Think About Beating the System! Do it!

Movie Review: The Next Three Days (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Elizabeth Banks is Lara Brennan, a woman convicted of a murder she did not commit in The Next Three Days. Husband John, fitly played by Russell Crowe, is a college professor who has no idea he will find it in himself to attempt to break his wife out from one of the most well fortified prisons in America upon discovering she will be moved in 72 hours. But he’ll have to have help from former and famous escapee convict, Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson) who steps in to provide the know-how.

In this crime/drama/thriller – with its mega-loads of suspense, clustered with avid star power – things come together for a long and frustrating journey of trying to pull off what seems to be the impossible when appeals and the legal system fail.

Lara’s trial is never shown and the details behind it are scattered around and throughout the film, but the audience is brought sufficiently up to speed on the basics by 15 minutes in as things go from bad to worse for Lara, as she faces a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

From the introduction of the predicament, viewers watch as Brennan is caught in a balancing act between self-destructing depression, as he tries to raise their son on his own, and meticulously planning a successful breakout, not knowing which will be his undoing.

Paul Haggis, director of 2004’s Crash and lead writer for Million Dollar Baby (2004) brings us this remake of a 2008 foreign film entitled, Anything for Her. Unfortunately, this one isn’t quite the mark-maker his earlier works were. But Crowe slides right into his role as a well-spoken teacher who steps way out of his league in taking on a hard life outside the law.

Hard-pressed plot logistics and the utilization of things like bump keys “that will open any lock” and other devices that test the limits of believability are difficult to look past in light of Brennan's lack of experience with them. But the knee-shaking level of excitement manages to hide most of that.

The Next Three Days happens to be one of those films where audiences and critics will disagree a little more than usual, but it is the scope of vision that proves a bit contrived for both sets of viewers; the cops and the system are narrowly portrayed as menacing and evil; the plot structure is built so that breaking free is what you are supposed to want, but the viewer’s viewing experience is made conflicted by the fact that you would rather have real justice instead. Events are set up precisely so that John must break Lara out. You are meant to embrace the conviction that escape via ingenuity is the only way. To some viewers, this will not be as easy a sell as predicted.

An always suspenseful and careful use of misdirection parallels great performances on the parts of Crowe, Banks, and Olivia Wild as Brennan's friend "Nicole," but we are still left with an ending that doesn't create the feelings of satisfaction we would hope to find in a movie that stakes its claim in championing the “lone good guy beats the system” theme.

(JH)

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Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R (for violence, drug material, language, some sexuality, and thematic elements)
Director: Paul Haggis
Summary: A married couple's life is turned upside down when the wife is accused of a murder.
Starring: Russell Crowe "John Brennan," Elizabeth Banks "Lara Brennan," Michael Buie "Mick Brennan," Jason Beghe "Detective Quinn," Aisha Hinds "Detective Collero," Ty Simpkins "Luke," Olivia Wilde "Nicole," Brian Dennehy "George Brennan," Liam Neeson "Damon Pennington"
Genre: Crime / Drama / Thriller / Romance
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The Spooky Truth About Spunk: The Low-down on Working in a Porn Store (Part II of III)

In the first article, we began discussing the classes of normal frequenters to a porn store. We talked about the good time couples, the medical shoppers, the party shoppers, and the ambitious lovers. But it’s not the normal customers that make us nervous. It’s the not-so-normal crowd that gives cause for concern. We continue with a description of these disturbing classes, unflatteringly penciled into that group known as “Hardcore Customers”…

The Hair Comes Down, not the Charm

Movie Review: Tangled (2010)
Spoilers: none

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Tangled is the new, holiday-timed Disney release of the story of Rapunzel, un-enchantingly titled, allowing it to sound like a description of the conflicted emotions inside the head of a girl in a cheap, 90s romance novel-turned-movie. That primarily cosmetic criticism is an indication of a telltale tendency in a film that tries exceptionally hard to serve itself up as a dish of richness and fine taste. It tries, and it just about always succeeds.

After the infant Rapunzel is touched with a magical flower, she is stolen from the king's palace by the wicked Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy, voice), who seeks to preserve her youth with the enchanted hair of the babe. When the child spends 18 years of her life in a far-away tower, kept from the world, a now mature Rapunzel is visited by a fleeing bandit, Flynn Ryder/Eugene Fitzherbert (Zachary Levi), who winds up in a position to help the young princess see the floating lights of the city, which – unbeknownst to her – are left every year in her honor.

Cutely voiced by Mandy Moore, the Rapunzel we get to meet on screen here is much like the one from our child storybooks, but tweaked to reflect the ambitions of the modern girl. You can't argue with the creativity that made classic childhood stories great, but you can adapt them to reawaken their appeal. Tangled does just that.

Unnecessarily, it takes the old, innocent childhood tale and makes it into something more than it needs to be, but this does not hurt it. It replaces a good portion of the story's innocence and mixes in a lightly humorous pandering to adults and general audiences. No harm there, but this will make it more of an initiating viewing experience for the little ones, who will have to be brought in early and made comfortable learning about death, theft, deceit, bloodshed, violence, and mortality. The film carries a well-deserved PG rating.

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” Everyone seems to expect her to do it. Who needs a drawbridge or tower gates when you have a girl's 70-foot-long hair and her willingness to let all who would use it do so as an elevator cable to ride up on? When she leaves the tower, Rapunzel travels everywhere and that Suave-less, golden hair is collecting dust and dirt on a no doubt maddening scale, but you don't need a good shampoo or conditioner when you've got magic hair, or when you've got the wonders of animation. What you do need is focus, a thing Tangled totally has. 

The animation is absolutely remarkable, but the most lovable and winning combination of emotions is not found in the dialogue of the (average quality or somewhat less) musicals, but on the faces of the characters as they interact.

It tries to do too much, but what it does it does damn well, even being crowded with uncalled-for beginning and ending narration, a sly, arrogant “good” guy in the person of Eugene Fitzherbert (whose personality may not be received as well as hoped for in the eyes of audiences), determined soldiers, a law-enforcing horse, and exceptionally gruff mercenaries. And then there is the entire kingdom of festive souls. The least important background piece made to pass for a townsperson or shopkeeper in the city is made to seem as lively and involved as any of the main characters. Everything is strikingly brought to life.

Mother Gothel made me think of Cher every time I saw her, but her witch-like qualities make her as intimidating as Cruella de Vil or the Wizard of Oz's “Wicked Witch of the West.” Drinking barbarians that show tender sides and pursue dreams are what we could have had more of. Who knew hook-handed ogres could play the piano? I'm also down with having more law enforcement horses like Maximus.

Tangled may not give us anything terribly close to the more traditional versions of the German fairy tale the world is used to hearing, but it proudly puts its own “magic” to work in a story that deserves as much respect.

(JH)

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Grade: A+ (4 stars)
Rated: PG (for mild violence)
Directors: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard
Summary: The longhaired Princess Rapunzel has spent her entire life in a tower, but when she falls in love with a bandit who was passing by, she must venture into the outside world for the first time to find him.
Starring: Mandy Moore "Rapunzel" (voice), Zachary Levi "Flynn Ryder" (voice), Donna Murphy "Mother Gothel" (voice), Ron Perlman "Stabbington Brother" (voice),
M.C. Gainey "Captain of the Guard (voice)," Jeffrey Tambor "Big Nose Thug" (voice), Brad Garrett "Hook Hand Thug" (voice), Paul F. Tompkins "Short Thug" (voice), Richard Kiel "Vlad" (voice), Delaney Rose Stein "Young Rapunzel / Little Girl" (voice),
Genre: Animation / Comedy / Family / Musical
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Doesn’t This Sound Magical

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
Spoilers: none

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It was ten years ago that the first Harry Potter burst onto the screen. Created from the books by J.K. Rowling that gave them life, the series has gone far. These are the same books, we are told, which have hoisted up the literacy of an entire generation of text-speak junkies and kids who wear their jeans too tight around their calves.

Do the movies measure up to the books? That only the fans themselves can answer. In light of the previous movies, dare we ask: Will this Harry Potter have more emotional depth instead of the usual teenaged, after school-ish-ness? That's the question. The answer: Well, perhaps, but who's to say? The fans cannot totally agree amongst themselves. 

To think that all this time of these books teaching kids how to read (and for the boys, how to masturbate over Hermione Granger until their wieners were sore) has brought us so, so far. The boys learned for themselves the best self-poking techniques experimenting over still-shots of Granger. But here we are, now at the end of the Potter series, but not quite the end. An unnecessary Part 2 to this film is still to break forth as the Deathly Hallows finale has been set up for late next year.

Beginning with boastful tones of gray-blue lighting, this runner-up to the final production makes not even a perfunctory effort to bring new viewers up to speed. What’s new, right? But Deathly Hallows is fairly exciting except when it's not boring, but as usual, it is incomprehensible to non-fans who haven't followed the series. Not being a loyal follower, I had no clear idea what anything meant or what was going on beyond a group of bad magic-users wanting Harry dead.

Harry is the accepted chosen one, but everyone always has to bail ole' Harry out of trouble, and that hasn't changed. These students get to spend so much time together that it’s downright amazing that note-writing, crush flare-ups, and other expected snaps of immaturity haven’t done them in already.

Deathly Hallows has the look of a War World II movie. The passion is still alive in the beloved and now more mature cast offering up solid performances, but the setting works against them too often. The small interludes of humor are not totally unwelcome in a film so ceremoniously grim, with its treeless and barren landscapes. 

There are some playful hints at romance in between the intervals of referencing events from past movies and solving clues concerning sacred artifacts. These are another welcome bit in this last big endeavor that is really supposed to amaze Potter fans with good directing. Good directing?

Well, it's a mixed bag; Granger has been cut back on. She takes a noticeably pulled back role in most scenes she is in. The rest of the lads seem to be cycled in and out in terms of immediate plot importance and script-utilized relevance. Scenes of terror are brought in deceptively. You don't see them coming, and then – “Boom!” – they are done with. But there's not much magic, hardly any at all. One wonders how the 150 million dollar budget was ever used. Doesn't feel like it.

Following Dumbledore on the magic newspapers, seeing specter beasts, and otherwise trying to keep from becoming snake food at the hands of those who want him dead...it's really not that interesting, especially when the kiddos keep surviving all these potentially lethal encounters with evil-ascended masters of wizardry before resuming the wizard school-based drama as though nothing happened.

A necklace leads to the revelation of the tale of the deathly hallows and its meaning, which is the single moment toward the film’s end at which things come closest to actually making sense. And then there’s the cliffhanger to leave us all wondering and waiting for perhaps a whole year to see the big finale. I, for one, can totally wait. 

It's long and close to boring, with the promise of yet more of this crud that everyone who already knew how to read by the late-90s and early 2000s has no problem seeing drop off the edge of the earth. Here's a parting question, though: Why doesn't Harry just use his magic to make himself not need glasses?

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images, and brief sensuality)
Director: David Yates
Summary: As Harry races against time and evil to destroy the Horcruxes, he uncovers the existence of three most powerful objects in the wizarding world: the Deathly Hallows.
Starring: Bill Nighy "Rufus Scrimgeour," Emma Watson "Hermione Granger," Richard Griffiths "Vernon Dursley," Harry Melling "Dudley Dursley," Daniel Radcliffe "Harry Potter," Julie Walters "Molly Weasley," Bonnie Wright "Ginny Weasley," Rupert Grint "Ron Weasley"
Genre: Action / Adventure / Fantasy / Mystery
Trailer

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