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The surprise is gone... but the awesome is not!
2 July 2017
Writer/ Director James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" from 2014 (wow, that was fast) is not only the best entry in Marvel's box office-busting Cinematic Universe in my opinion; it's one of my favorite films of this decade full stop. Gunn's hand-made aesthetic and an ever-present love for his characters and source material (along with stunning technical merits, gorgeous effects and color palette, game cast, and perfect comedic timing) cemented "Guardians" as the pleasant surprise of the year and a bonafide critical smash. Expectations were justifiably sky high for a follow up, then in steps "Vol.2." Luckily Gunn and co. stick the landing with only some leg wobble. Yeah, much of the surprise is gone. We know these characters and we know the quirks. But the characters are still fun to be around and the quirks a joy to roll with in an MCU of near endless iterations and routines. Most satisfying, the ensemble of outcasts (our heroes) have evolved from the last outing. Rocket isn't just comedic relief. Baby Groot isn't overused. Drax is as giddy as a hyena. If Starlord isn't as charming or charismatic as the last time it's because his relationship with his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), is the dramatic center of the show. Gamora is underutilized but her subplot with her sister Nebula hit home. Most surprising is Yondu (Michael Rooker); who is given so much depth and emotional gravitas that he emerges as the most memorable aspect of the film... and maybe even the single best thing about this instalment.

Unlike it's predecessor, "Vol.2" is a comedy first, and a space opera second. This is a bit of a problem, especially in the first act. Vol.1 used humor to spice up a believable sci-fi world and awesome characters. Here, it feels forced: notably in a first half hour that's part franchise reintroduction and part stand-up routine. The comedy does become less scattershot however, as does it's relatively loose (and sometimes distractedly unfocused) plot, the further into the running time we get. Equally unfocused is the development of Ego, Peter Quill's father, who is seminal to the plot. I always love Kurt Russell, and he's as solid as ever here. I just wish so much of his role didn't involve lengthy exposition.

But like "Vol.1," Guardians 2 is a brilliant piece of visual film making. The colors pop, the action's exciting, and Gunn infuses all of this with his now signature handmade, fan-first energy. There are also moments of pure joy and heart that rival (if not surpass) the best bits of the first film. The final half hour or so is pure bliss. We are still firmly in the upper echelon of summer blockbusters with this one.

Many were expecting perfection with this one... expectations that could possibly be never met. But "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2" delivers a brash, funny, action-packed delight that's hard to knock. It's heart is in the right place. It's characters? More than welcome for the inevitable "Round 3."
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Split (IX) (2016)
There you are M. Night!
4 June 2017
"Split" is an intensely realized thriller that pulls the rug out from under you every time you think you have it pegged as competent genre fare. It's more than that... and over it's two-hour running time defies your expectations with dark, complex drama and unexpected emotional weight.

Basically Shyamalan is back, with the kind of quality Horror-hybrid that made him a household name way back before films like "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" hampered his credibility (and ones like "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth" made him a viral laughing stock). Equally credible in SPLIT's success is James McAvoy, who is let loose in a multifaceted, titular-phenomenon of screen acting that will likely go down as his best moment. Relative newcomer Anya Taylor- Joy (terrific in last year's THE WITCH) holds her own in yet another terrific, mature turn.

But the story of the hour is M. Night, and whether or not he can keep this newly minted success going. I'm hopeful he can. SPLIT's final moments hint at a future of surprise, indulgence, and awesome as far as his filmography is concerned. Bring it on!
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The Best Picture of 2013
18 January 2014
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is Martin Scorsese at his most unrestrained. For a filmmaker no stranger to controversy, (and often condemned for his depictions of violence) it's really saying something that this is his most lurid picture to date. That may be too mild a statement.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort, a married, seemingly idyllic New York stockbroker who takes a job with an established Wall Street firm. By chance, he is noticed by his Boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a memorable minor appearance) who takes him under his wing and advises him to adopt a steady lifestyle of sex and drugs in order to succeed. Not before long, "Black Monday" hits, leaving Jordan without a job and with little options. His wife pressures him into taking a job with a small Long Island firm who's penny stock dealings are of the shady variety. His aggressive knack for the scam amount him a fortune, and it's not long before he along with new found friend and all-around oddball Donnie (Jonah Hill) open their own firm "Stratton Oakmont," ambitiously scamming their way to the top. This soon gets the attention of Forbes (who label Jordan The Wolf of Wall Street) and inevitably the FBI.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is completely outrageous, hilarious, perverse, vulgar, and brilliant. In it's three hours of (mostly) depravity, it gets away with things that R-rated films usually don't or wouldn't even try. But this is no mere waltz in exploitative muck. There's a method to this madness sure, but a point as well. It's an exquisitely naughty satire... a send up that is to corporate and systemic corruption what "Taxi Driver" is to suppressed rage in the face of a collapsing infrastructure. The dark comedy of Terence Winter's script effectively cutting just as deep as the rebel yell of Paul Schrader's opus.

Belfort is essentially a scumbag who embodies a lot of what's wrong with the western world (as does the film itself), but this degenerate provides the perfect vessel for what is arguably Leonardo DiCaprio's best performance. The guy's a marvel to watch. We should hate him, but we never do and attentively watch his unbelievable story unfold for 180 minutes. That's a credit to DiCaprio's endlessly likable presence and under-appreciated range. He balances the comedy, the dramatics, the intensity; commanding the screen in a way few could. Look to the already classic, as well as horrifyingly hilarious "Quaaludes" scene (THE scene of 2013) for definitive proof of his skill. Jonah Hill (surprisingly Oscar nominated for his role) is really strong here as is the pitch- perfect cast in it's entirely, including Margot Robbie, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, and most notably Kyle Chandler who's federal agent Denham emerges as our moral compass through the sleaze.

"The Wolf of Wall Street," a remarkable directorial achievement, is above all else a masterpiece of pacing. This is a three-hour epic, but you'd never know as it flies by like a picture half it's length. The film maintains a sense of urgency so that even extended scenes are played snappy and breeze by. The film spits so much quick fire information that a mere bathroom break would throw a viewer so out of the loop that catching back up would feel impossible. It's marvelous to behold how Scorsese is able to stuff every frame with so much detail and never have it overwhelm or feel like graphic overkill. Like "Goodfellas" and "Casino" we are more than happy to soak all of this in. Despite the potentially off-putting motivations and actions of these characters, Scorsese captures glimpses of humanity while entertaining the hell out of us at the same time.

Comparisons made to "Goodfellas" and "Casino" should not only be acknowledged but welcome. Those are two of Marty's very best films, and in time I have an inkling that "The Wolf of Wall Street" will be held in similarly high regard.

Now the hot button issue. Is "Wolf" a celebratory picture glorifying a culture of corporate thievery, rampant carnality, and hardcore drug use? Some might feel this way, but they have either been seduced by the events portrayed or have refused to read between the line... missing the entire point in the process. That's not the fault of the film or it's makers, but select audiences that consume entertainment at face value alone.

For it's incendiary screenplay, wicked sense of humor, on point performances, outstanding editing, and typically stellar direction from the master, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is frankly a phenomenal film that can't be ignored. It's the fastest three-hours in the history of cinema.

"The wolf of Wall Street" is the best picture of 2013.
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Drug War (2012)
Meth in the Mainland
8 January 2014
After his meth lab explodes, leaving him scarred and his wife dead, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is apprehended by the Chinese police for a crime that warrants the death penalty. In the custody of Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), Choi sees only one option to avoid execution; turn traitor and help Zhang's undercover unit bring down the powerful cartel that he has been cooking for. As the stakes get higher, it becomes increasing unclear as to who has the upper hand, and who will dictate the endgame.

Director Johnny To is a master of the crime film, and with "Drug War," he's created a near masterpiece of the genre. He never convinces us of being in anything but complete control of his multifaceted thriller, and exudes an unparallelled confidence in every scene and phenomenal set piece.

To's electrifying picture recalls some of the best work of his great contemporaries. "Drug War" possesses the technical brilliance of Scorsese's "The Departed," the ground-level knowledge and surveillance of David Simon's "The Wire," the gritty realism of Michael Mann's best work, and by the end the blistering, double-fisted action of John Woo's prime. These elements don't come together as a derivative; To is a filmmaker at the top of his game, and makes the most of his cast, his influences, the Mainland setting, and a little of the grotesquerie that often has Hollywood shuddering; in a singular whole.

Disparate from most Hong Kong action films, "Drug War" is a methodical, meticulous procedural first, exploiting a street-smart screenplay that knows the Chinese crime scene; and if that statement is indeed false, it never feels less than authentic. Much of the intensity derives from dialogue exchanges, and how rigorous both the cops and criminals try to not get made. Because of this well paced, equally well played dynamic, we never know who we should root for, and that's exactly the point. Mr. To's drama is incredibly intense... but then he pulls out all the stops.

The last 20 minutes of "Drug War" is the show-stopping action set piece of the year. An extended shootout that's brutal, ambitious, and a masterpiece of it's kind. It's a marvel of physical filmmaking that also works as an unexpected plot device, violently flipping our conceived notions of these characters on their ear; clearing the way for a fittingly ironic, ice-cold conclusion.

"Drug War" might just be the best pure crime film of 2013. Technically and narratively stellar, it already seems like a minor classic of the genre.
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Picture Day (2012)
Terrific lead performance in a smart coming-of-age story
8 January 2014
Now here's an insightful little teen film that gets the angst of coming- of-age without having to resort to the same old clichés. "Picture Day" from promising first-time filmmaker Kate Melville is a sensitive portrayal concerning a couple of teens going about the daily grind.

The reckless, wannabe rebel Claire (Tatiana Maslany), forced to attend an extra year of high school, befriends the socially awkward Henry; a boy she used to babysit years earlier. Claire is unaware of their history at first, but Henry isn't, and in fact has never abandoned his long standing, secretly obsessive crush.

"Picture Day" is well written and unpredictable, but it is the terrific work of Maslany (a revelation on TV's "Orphan Black") that makes the film succeed. She's a quirky, natural performer and at 28 somehow plays a high schooler with utter conviction. Her character is flawed, brash, but realistically drawn and we root and sympathize with her. Melville rests a lot on Maslany's performance to great results.

The plot goes some places that don't really work, and some scenes are in need of a good trimming, but this is never the less a rarity in the teen genre; one that favors character development, leisurely pacing, and no easy answers.

This is smart, good-natured indie fare with a terrific performance at it's center. It's imperfect sure, but memorable and well worth seeking out.
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Somber Revenge
8 January 2014
A bleak, at time brilliantly realized revenge drama from CRAZY HEART's Scott Cooper, "Out of the Furnace" is a familiar setup executed to the nines. A simple, spare rural crime saga with ambition and commentary; and performances that make it great.

At this point, it seems pointless to praise a Christian Bale performance, but he gives one of his best here, as does Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson as the menacing, hateful ball of psychotic rage DeGroat. Bale is mesmerizing in his restraint... Harrelson; quite the opposite.

"Out of the Furnace" isn't going to win anyone over with originality. On the surface, we've seen films like this before but Cooper has a unique vision. He skillfully touches upon America's current Socioeconomic climate without drawing attention away from the narrative. In this way it reminded me of Andrew Dominic's underrated "Killing Them Softly," only a lot more subtle and with the stark, backwoods atmosphere of "Winter's Bone." It's with it's performances however, it's cinematography, and the unexpected way in which the story unfolds that makes "Into the Furnace" standout; even in a particularly strong year at the movies.

Director Scott Cooper has proved "Crazy Heart" was no fluke. "Out of the Furnace" is a great sophomore effort from a promising new talent as well as one of the stronger films I've seen this year.
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Kill List (2011)
A failed experiment, yet worth a look
8 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
"Kill List" is really a tale of two films. The first is a mysterious hit-man story that grows increasingly spastic up until a violent last act twist, and the second is, from the ground up, a self indulgent experiment in manipulating an audience. The writer/ director is Ben Wheatley, and there's no doubt he has had a hell of a time toying with us. I just didn't have nearly as much fun watching it.

Wheatley sets up his story as an impressively acted kitchen-sink drama. It's slow in the beginning, and does a great job establishing it's characters. I was instantly drawn to these people, especially Jay and Gal (the two leads played by Neil Maskell, a great screen presence, and Michael Smiley). We soon learn (rather vaguely) that they are Hit men, and that Jay has been left emotionally and physically broken from the last job he pulled 8 months back in Kiev. He hasn't "worked" since, but Gal persuades him to take on a high profile job... to complete a contract that will entail clipping a Priest, a Librarian, and lastly a member of parliament. They carry out their deeds with shocking brutality, as Jay becomes increasingly unhinged.

"Kill List" does a terrific job at upping the intensity at a smooth, subtle pace, and Wheatley nails the tone. Even when "Kill List" eludes that it's only a crime drama, the atmosphere is a constant whisper that something is not quite right. Through sound and nuggets of surreal Lynchianisms... "Kill List" becomes an otherworldly mystery, and we are baffled. Scenes like that of the Hit List being signed in the blood of a deep cut and Jay's visit to his family doctor are stark, disturbing reminders.

But then there is the final act twist, at which point "Kill List" becomes what it was always building too; a horror film. That isn't spoiling anything though, since pretty much anything you've already read or have seen on the film has given away it's genre-bending nature. Unfortunately it's here where the film fell apart for me. The finale isn't a devious turn of events or a shocking twist, but rather something that just happens for the sake of it. The movie leading up to this freak show was an oddity sure, but a developed one with great characters and promise. I felt cheated. "Kill List" fails as a horror movie in the end because it was only scary before it tried to be. The horror scenes are half baked and instead of going for the throat seem content playing almost as homage. "The Wicker Man," "A Serbian Film," and 28 Days Later" came instantly to mind. Did I mention it wasn't scary?

Since all of this tomfoolery does away with coherence (the little there already was) and the established film that I really liked... "Kill List" stands as well made, scatter-shot nonsense that is made more frustrating because of it's expertly crafted build up. Maybe if I'd gone in blind it would have shocked and surprised me? This movie has it's admirers. I'm guessing the cat wasn't yet out of the bag.
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The Reader (2008)
A beautiful, yet flawed curiosity
30 January 2009
THE READER is a film that is going to perplex many audiences. The reason for this is that is has many of the ingredients that make a film great, and many will see the film as a great success because of these. But unfortunately, the film also misses the mark in a few areas and many film goers will not be able to look pass them. I was stuck in between these views... that is why it has taken almost two days for me to get this review out.

What really struck me off the bat was how great the film looks. Roger Deakins always works wonders behind the camera, but there was something about the look of this film that was just so lush and captivating. There's no doubt that it's Oscar nomination for cinematography is completely justified. Next, direction. Daldry, with just two other films under his belt has gained quite the reputation (with 3 Oscar nominations under his belt), and that is because he has a great sense of realism and the ability to make the audience feel apart of his character's world. Those abilities are put to great effect in THE READER. There is not a moment that doesn't feel completely authentic. Also adding the the sense of immersion are a wealth of very fine performances, by heavy-weights (Winslet, Fiennes) and relatively unknowns. I'm pretty sure that Kate Winslet will take home the Best Actress Oscar this year, but I feel that it is NOT her finest performance and there were better performances from other female leads (Melissa Leo in FROZEN RIVER and Sally Hawkins who failed to obtain Oscar recognition for HAPPY GO LUCKY).

While the film has it's undeniable strong points, THE READER also has some unforgivable flaws that damper the film as a whole. Frankly, it's one of the colder films of recent memory. For such an intimate portrait of these characters, I was shocked at how little I cared about any of them. Even Winslett, the heart of the picture, I had little feeling or sympathy for. For a drama of this caliber, the lack of emotional connection was beyond disappointing. But perhaps the biggest flaw was how generic it all felt. Throughout, I was just constantly reminded of different, and often better, films. I don't know why, but there was so much familiar with the plot and the setting that I couldn't help but be reminded of such films. I know it has been stated to the point of insanity, but THE READER is the definition of Oscar Bait (especially in the case of Winslett, who will once again prove excessive nudity = Oscars). What also didn't help matters was that after a strong start, the film just seemed to get more tedious and boring as it proceeded, to which I began to car less and less (The film at just over two hours rushes through it's plot, sometimes leaving the viewer confused and in a state of "why do I even care." The film does build to a strong third act though).

I may sound like I'm ragging on the film, but I'm most definitely not. It's just that in the time after my viewing of it, the flaws have seem to become more apparent then before; and that's always frustrating.

For all it's stunning cinematography and visual grandeur, there's an uneasy sense of "I've seen this all before;" For all of the films great performances, I wondered why I didn't care about their characters more; For it's strong direction, I wondered why the film couldn't flow at a more comprehensive pace.

This brings me to the conclusion that in THE READER, most every positive aspect comes with a negative one. This is a shame because the talent on display could have given light to a great film. Instead, the final product is more of a deeply flawed curiosity that some will love and some will hate. A few however will be stuck in the middle like I am. I find that worse than the two extremes.
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Max Payne (2008)
Easily the best video game to movie crossover to date.
16 October 2008
I got to see MAX PAYNE a day in advance due to a sneak preview screening at a local theater.

And I've got to say... it was impressive to say the least. I consider MAX PAYNE and it's sequel to be my favorite games of all time, and now the movie is the best based on a video game yet produced (though that's not giving it enough credit). Though the film does a few things different, it definitely compliments and stays true to the source material. John Moore, a hack director, turns in his best work to date, delivering some crisp and tense action scenes and most importantly, gets the feel for the game JUST RIGHT. There is also some stunningly gorgeous effects a digitally-altered photography to behold. Mila Kunis was slightly miscast, but Walhberg I feel was a perfect fit to Play Max. It's also good to see Beau Bridges working again, and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges proves once again he's the best rapper-turned-actor since Ice Cube (Boys N the Hood and Three Kings... not the family friendly Ice Cube of recent memory.

But the reviews will be terrible. Every time a movie based on a game is released, critics bash it. OK, most of the time it's justified, but here, I can assure you it won't be. Some reviews I've read are straying from the film, and talking about how games shouldn't ever be movies because they have NO emotional impact or artist and creative purpose. A: this is a completely idiotic, false, and ignorant statement, and B: this has nothing to do with the film being reviewed! SHOOT EM UP and WANTED got very strong reviews which they wouldn't have if they were based on games (and they were essential video games!). MAX PAYNE is better than both of those, but will get pummeled critically do to the format it's source material is on. That's just stupid.

See this movie with an opened mind. It's a very well crafted modern neo-noir.

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Ben Stiller and company hit the comedic mark with "TROPIC THUNDER."
1 August 2008
Advanced screening: Toronto (July 31, 2008) Tropic Thunder is a film I've anticipated (from it's trailers/ Downey Jr's "Blackface" controversy) for quite awhile, but knowing Ben Stiller's hit (Reality Bites) or miss (Zoolander) directing filmography, I kept my expectations relatively lukewarm. Luckily that wasn't necessary because it's Stiller's best effort as a director to date as well as one of the best comedies of the year.

Starting with the best fake-trailers this side of Grindhouse, TROPIC THUNDER develops into the most uniquely wacky blend of satire/action/ and gross-out I've ever seen. At first it appears to be a straight-up spoof on popular war films, then it becomes a film within a film, then an attack on Hollywood and the film industry in general. Also present are some rather shocking (and hilarious) sight gags (exploding film-crew members, the brutal slaughter of an endangered species) that managed to catch everyone off guard (yet not offend them).

The main reason TROPIC THUNDER works so well though is it's stellar ensemble cast. You have the likes of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Steve Coogan, and Nick Nolte all turning in terrific comedic performances that they obviously had fun with. Tom Cruise gives the extended cameo of the year as a studio executive, while Tobey Maguire and a slew of other actors make notable appearances. Ultimately it is Downey Jr. who steals almost every scene as the platoon's very white, African-American squad leader.

Rude, witty, and ballsy, TROPIC THUNDER is a great time at the movies. It's hard finding worth-while large budget comedies these days, but DIRECTOR Ben Stiller, supported by a strong cast and a great premise, has proved himself to be the right man for the task. 8/10
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The Happening (2008)
The Happening: Shyamalan's entertaining B-Movie
13 June 2008
Better than LADY IN THE WATER and THE VILLAGE, but doesn't touch the likes of THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS.

THE HAPPENING is indeed a minor work from the very inconsistent Shyamalan, but I found myself enjoying it more than I should have by coming to the conclusion that it was a glorified B-movie. It plays like a 90 minute episode of the Twilight zone, and it has a preachy message to match.

The acting and dialogue were pretty awful throughout, but I felt this aided the B-movie feel nicely. The film also has the most moronic and uneven blend of shock and humor (yes...humor) I've seen in any film, but somehow it managed to work here (in context of course). I know moviegoers ever where are going to hate the film for these very reasons, but I admired the film for it's goofiness,, it's b-movie charm, and the fact that you never know exactly where it's going next.

THE HAPPENING is proof that Mr. ''Shyamalamadingdong'' can make an entertaining picture without a twist ending; without jump-scares; and without pretension. It may not be the film he set out to make... hell it may not be the film that many people will expect to see, but in a time when most films in release are dull and by-the-books, THE HAPPENING is neither.
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21 (2008)
Highly entertaining despite historical Inaccuracies
24 March 2008
Okay, first let's dispense with the pleasantries. Jim Sturgess, Laurence Fishburne, and Kevin Spacey are all of course their perpetually brilliant selves. The script is nice and tight, with plenty of physical and verbal humor. It's a thoroughly enjoyable movie...but Anyone who's a fan of the real story though will be both off put and possibly offended. In the book Bringing down the House, the four main students are all Asian. I understand this is an American movie, so I can see why the studio would cast mostly white people...hey, it's money what can you say? The thing that irks me SO much is the time frame. The MIT Blackjack team originated in the late 70's. This incident, with Ben Campbell, took place in '94. There was no Vitamin Water and there were definitely no PSP's. We're supposedly watching the story in modern times as they face a software program developed over a decade ago! But by all means, go see this movie. you'll realize how truly little this actually matters, but I for one just can't get over it. It really is solid on every other front though.

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A Superb Sequel
17 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
28 Weeks Later is one of the best worst-case-scenario films. While it doesn't surpass the first film, it more than lives up to every expectation set by 28 Day Later and is a great sequel.

The second installment of what is all but a confirmed trilogy takes place six months after all of the infected from the first movie have starved and died… again. American forces have moved in and are now attempting to rebuild and repopulate England starting at the Isle of Dogs in London. Amongst the civilians now living in complete safety and quarantine is a man named Don, who fled a refuge under attack 28 weeks prior where he lost his wife and was the only survivor, or so he thought.

Don's children, teenage Tammy and twelve-year-old Andy, come to live with Don in the quarantine some time later. The mischievous kids finding it difficult to live in their new surroundings break out of quarantine and attempt to find solace in their old home, and it's there that they find their mother; alive, infected, but not symptomatic.

And from that point on, the movie snowballs into the usual catastrophic, apocalyptic, epidemic scenario film. Sort of predictable, but enjoyable none-the-less (and it's the very formula that always has people coming back for more). The biggest difference of all with 28 Weeks Later is that this film is actually good. It's atmospheric and frightening. There is a fair bit of gore, but it never gets lost in its own indulgences. The film is well acted, well produced, and well worth it. When this film gets moving, it's one hell of a ride.

The only problem with 28 Weeks Later is that there are far too many clichés surrounding a survival horror movie that it's hard not to get bogged down in at least a few. There's the rag-tag group of survivors, the rogue military escort, the looming presence of a hidden evil enterprise, the "why in the hell would you do that??" situations, and many more that it's a futile attempt to encompass them all. Thankfully, 28 Weeks Later does enough of them right that it's hard to stay mad at it for too long.

Survival horror movies are unique in the sense that no other film genre has as many clichés to avoid and/or reinvent, and there are an astronomical number of ways to muck it all up. That said, 28 Weeks Later navigates through the pits of plot holes and stupidity well enough that it manages to become stylish, frightening, and above all else enjoyable. 28 Weeks Later is essentially the blue print for all survivor horror movies to come for the next decade, and makes me wonder where the hell Danny Boyle was six years ago when Resident Evil was in production. While not quite perfect, it really doesn't need to be.

Personally, I'm just happy knowing that the end didn't involve blowing up a giant mutated something or other with a rocket launcher with only three minutes left before the mansion/facility/island blows up. (If you've played and Resident Evil game, you know what I mean).

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Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Strong third outing, but doesn't quite match the brilliance of Spider-Man 2
22 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
While it does at times tiptoe on the line of being an epic and brilliant work of cinema, SPIDER-MAN 3 is also a big case of overkill. There's way too much going on, and it just seems to keep on coming.

After a somewhat shaky series of opening scenes (with that voice-over narration by Maguire still being as lame as always), the movie quickly finds its balance. It isn't until the symbiote subplot (involving the black Spidey suit) gets into full swing that things become a little too hectic. Director Sam Raimi pulls off an incredible feat by making the never-ending onslaught of subplots balance as well as they do, but the pieces still don't fit to the extent that you'd hope. There's enough plot here for two or three different movies, with plenty of obstacles for Peter to overcome and an ample amount of baddies for him to fight. But in putting the four main plot lines together (i.e., revenge against Sandman, Peter's relationship with Harry, the symbiote suit/Venom, and problems with MJ), the whole experience becomes overwhelming. There's not nearly enough time to absorb all the intertwining threads, no matter how hard the filmmakers obviously try to make it work.

That's not to say this is a bad movie. Far from it. In fact, despite its shortcomings, this picture still marks one of the most fun times I've had at the movies. It wasn't even until after I left the screening that I started to realize how many problems it had. I bet a large percentage of moviegoers will feel the same, being so taken aback by the constant action sequences and stream of story lines that they never even get a chance to notice the film's problems. That's the good news. Bad news is, there's no way these issues will go unnoticed upon repeat viewings. While SPIDER-MAN 2 seems to just keep getting better with each consecutive viewing, I see this one coming up short. It's still less problematic than the first film (which already feels a bit dated), but it just can't compete with the damn near flawless second.

One of the few complaints I had with SPIDEY 2 was the "raindrops are falling on my head" sequence. It was silly and awkward, not fitting well with the rest of the film's style... Well, this sequel tops it. After the symbiote takes over Parker, there's a lengthy montage sequence of him (now turned emo) strutting down the street, dancing around and pelvic thrusting at women. It's basically him hopping about to music while looking like a jackass. And it gets worse. He goes with Gwen Stacy (a hot but disappointingly extraneous character) to a club, where MJ is currently working, and basically reenacts the scene from ANCHORMAN where Will Ferrell starts randomly playing the trumpet and hopping across tables. There are slight differences, of course; this one involves a piano and groovy dance moves. But the outcome is the same, leaving audience member's mouths agape at the uncomfortable hilarity. They really should've saved that scene for the DVD outtakes. Then it'd at least be fitting.

Fortunately, the whole movie isn't plagued by scenes like these. It's only rarely that things start getting ridiculous or cheesy to the point where you can't help but roll your eyes. The other problem comes in the way of bits of awkward dialog and rushed character development. There's about an 80% hit rate where everything in the script is as smooth as can be, but that last 20% block does hurt the a few vital aspects of the storytelling. Particularly when it comes to fleshing out character motives and emotional conflicts (something that was given almost complete focus in the first two movies).

At least the action sequences stand strong as some of the most spectacular since... well, SPIDER-MAN 2. They take full advantage of the characters' abilities and surroundings, and then fuse the two together to create a number of downright breathtaking moments. The CGI isn't quite flawless yet, but it's still a visual feast for the eyes. The only disappointment is the use of Venom. He does get some time to shine in the movie's third act (or possibly ninth, taking into account how many different stories overlap), but Topher Grace removes all of the character's menace. It really hurts me to write that, considering how wonderfully handled everything was concerning Brock's character before that point. But alas, despite Grace's strong and amiable efforts, his voice is just too awkward coming out of Venom's mouth. And all they needed was some slight voice alteration to fix the problem. Drats.

SPIDER-MAN 3 may not be a flawless endeavor, but it's certainly epic. Raimi and company reach for the stars, and instead end up making it halfway across the universe. It's one bumpy and crazy ride getting there, but when things go well, they go really damn well. And while some movie trilogies end on a note that make you yearn for one last installment to redeem the series (I'm looking at you, X3!), we should be so lucky to get a conclusive finish to the SPIDER-MAN series. Almost brings a tear to my eye.
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Grindhouse (2007)
Grindhouse: A Nastolgia trip worth taking
21 April 2007
Grindhouse is a double feature throwback to the olden days of exploitation theater. Where anything goes and everything went. Since the movie pushes three hours (almost 200 minutes), "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" are worthy for their individual critiques.

Planet Terror: "Planet Terror" is Robert Rodriquez' contribution to the double feature that is "Grindhouse", and it's certainly the better movie of the two. No contest. The by now clearly multi-faceted (from Spy Kids to Sin City) director handles this project with ease.

"Planet Terror" tells the tale of Cherry Darling, a stripper who loses her leg in an 'attack', and El Wray, a gunslinging renegade, who attempt to flee a small Texan community being overrun by a mysterious viral infection (you know, the usual zombie apocalypse story).

You'd think that with all this blood and carnage, things like plot and drive would be overlooked. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised to find a heart pumping all that blood. The tales of the survivors (the usual rag-tag group of idiots somehow lucky enough to find a way through it all) are for the most part well acted, suspenseful and engrossing. Kudos to Rose McGowan & Freddy Rodriguez (Cherry and Wray), Josh Brolin & Marley Shelton - an anesthesiologist and her psychotic husband - and Michael Biehn & Jeff Fahey - a grill master and his deputy brother - for portraying their parts exceptionally well. 4.5/5

Death Proof: Quentin Tarantino's second half of Grindhouse is certainly not the better half. "Death Proof" comes off more boring than it is exhilarating because of it's stupefyingly slow pacing about a killer stunt driver.

"Death Proof" is the exploitation story of "stunt man mike", former stunt driver of a 'death proof' car from hell that he uses to commit unusual acts of vehicular homicide against women. This 90 odd minute feature is a tale told in two acts as he pursues two packs of prey.

Although the action is about nothing more than speed, the pacing is about anything but. Tarantino goes into incredibly long and detailed conversations and tangents that have the same air of the exchanges and dialogs in Pulp Fiction. Heck, practically every clichéd Tarantinoism is employed in lengthy cuts that would make Kenneth Branagh himself flinch (reference to cinematography in Hamlet from 1996). The thing is, they all go ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE! All the wit, quips and remarks are useless in the end, except for perhaps extending a 30 minute film by a good hour. A fact likely to be gleefully overlooked because, hey, it's Tarantino! Death Proof may go over well for people hyped up on exploitation, nostalgic for classic Tarantino writing (useless as it is seen here), or those in admiration of Kurt Russel or adoration of Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan or any of the other seven leading ladies, but there's really nothing here aside from that. Well... the soundtrack is excellent too (I guess). 2.5/5

The faux Trailers and style: Some of the best moments of Grindhouse are in the way it's filmed with nostalgia in mind, and the fake trailers sure to go on the list of movies "that aren't real but should be made". If such ideas like "Hobo With A Shotgun" and "Thanksgiving" (complete with a slasher pilgrim) don't make you laugh out loud as you flinch a bit while you watch them, you might be a bit too use to the idea of teenage girl getting stabbed in the baby maker as she jumps on a trampoline. Then of course there's Cheech Marin making an appearance as Father Benecio Del Toro in "Machete", Edgar Wright's (Shaun of the Dead) laugh out loud trailer for "Don't!!", and Rob Zombie's tribute to sexploitation with "Werewolf Women of the SS", the trailers should not be missed for a refill of your gallon cup of cola.

And then of course there's the style. The grittiness of the films seem to be amplified with classic low budget filming methods that, while overbearing at times, usually work in favor for "Grindhouse". Missing reel notices and all, it's a unique cinema experience. 5/5

Grindhouse is an interesting movie if only for the sheer fact that it works. That doesn't mean to say it's an amazing movie by any stretch. While "Planet Terror" could potentially stand on it's own, "Death Proof" is decidedly just a cut above average, and mediocre when it comes to Tarantino fare. See it for Planet Terror, the trailer, the style, and the end of Death Proof. It's a lot of fun, and at over 3 hours, you get your money's worth! 4/5
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The Hoax (2006)
A character driven drama of the highest caliber
21 April 2007
Now here's a movie almost doomed to the back pages of cinema history. Only playing at one cinema in my area and having grossed a mere 3 million in two weeks at the box office, it might just be only a matter of time before this movie fades away and is forgotten. That would be quite the shame as the Hoax is quite the movie, and a real treat for the very few people who are actually willing to give it a chance.

"The Hoax" is the story of Clifford Irving, a struggling author pitching ideas to the McGraw-Hill company. As his most recent novel is blasted by critics before release, a desperate Clifford promises his editors and publishers the story of the century, without having precisely figured out what that is. That is until he stumbles onto it (literally). Clifford decides to con the whole world into believing that the reclusive enigmatic billionaire Howard Hughes has commissioned him to write his autobiography.

What follows is an intriguing and enthralling romp through the mazes of lies and deceptions that Clifford and is "co-author" Dick Suskind have spun. Eventually, the fictitious story snowballs past anything the two writers could believe as revelations into accounts of fraud and blackmail begin to penetrate the highest offices, and it all begins to come crashing down.

"The Hoax" is a character driven drama of the highest caliber. The sharp direction and writing, and excellent casting make it hard to ignore. Richard Gere and Alfred Molina give career high performances, and the supporting Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Hayden just round the film off nicely.

This is one of the best movies of 2007 so far. It may not have as wide an appeal as other outings, but it's thoroughly enjoyable all the same.

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300 (2006)
A "bloody" good time!
21 April 2007
"300" has become the most anticipated film in a long while, and in my honest opinion, it delivers exceptionally.

The film contains some of the most Jaw-dropping special effects and battle sequences I have ever seen, and contains some of the most memorable dialog in film (Our arrows will blot out the sun/Then we shall fight in the shade). Gerard Butler delivers his best, most powerful performance to date, and the supporting lineup including Lena Headey, David Wenham and Michael Fassbener was top notch.

I loved the dialog (which has been receiving some criticism) and the plot which many thinks is thin. I don't know what people were expecting from the straightforward plot of "300" to which most everyone knows the outcome, but I found it to be tight and engaging from start to finish.

"300" isn't perfect- I think it should have been at least a half-hour longer, and the action could have been more varied (less spears to the chest, and more sword limb severing) but I can't really nit-pick on a motion picture this thrilling.

It may not be the next Spartacus, but "300" is a bloody good time. It's the most fun, and the most eye gluing experience I've had at the theater since "Sin City." Highly Recommended
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Hot Fuzz (2007)
Great fun and terribly clever
21 April 2007
"Hot Fuzz" completely exceeded my expectations. I never would have thought that Edgar Wright and the gang could possibly top the wonderful "Shaun of the Dead" from back in 2004, but somehow "Hot Fuzz" does with flying colors. This is literally a belly laugh a minute type of film, which was made possible by the great performances by Simon Pegg and the always oafishly hilarious Nick Frost. Action movie junkies will also be pleased with the wealth of in-jokes and homages to popular action/cop/buddy/crime movies of the past such as Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Police Story 3, Leon: The Professional, Point Break, Bad Boys 2 and even Straw Dogs. Mixed with it's seemingly flawless blend of action, humor, gore and slapstick makes "Hot Fuzz" not only one of the best films of the year so far, but one of the best comedies I've seen in the past few years.

Highly Recommended*
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