RichardSRussell-1

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Reviews

Halloween Kills
(2021)

Confusing, chaotic, poorly written
There must be a ton of fans of previous movies in this franchise who boosted its opening-weekend box-office totals, because nobody walking into the theater cold would've had a clue what was going on. The movie jumps all over the timeline and the map without warning; there's no clue who any of these people are or how they're related to each other; the dialog is puerile, stilted, and repetitious; and the ostensible star of the film, Jamie Leigh Curtis, spends most of her time either unconscious or in a hospital bed, saying that it's her duty to go and kill the killer, but she never even gets close.

I used to see every SF and fantasy film released (about 80 a year), so I've got a sense of what a truly bad movie is, and this one qualifies.

Experimenter
(2015)

Fascinating Real-Life Story, Weirdly Told
The Milgram obedience experiments are justly famous in the field of psychology, and an interesting movie could undoubtedly have been made about them, but this is not it.

Peter Sarsgaard sleepwalks thru the Milgram role with almost no affect, and Winona Ryder is wasted as his devoted wife. Writer/Director Michael Almereyda seems more interested in cutesy cinematic tricks (like constantly breaking the 4th wall) than in telling a coherent story, and the viewer is often left wondering "Who is this guy?" and "What just happened?". I DID learn that Milgram was the researcher behind the original "6 degrees of separation" experiments as well, and it would've been interesting to spend a little more time on that story line instead of boring living- room conversations about academic tenure and publishing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
(2017)

Comedy?
Why is the top category for this film listed as "comedy"? Yeah, there are a few sequences of grim gallows humor, but this is 95% a dead-serious drama, with heavy emphasis on the "dead" part. Fantastic performances all around, and not a single flat character in the entire film: every one of them a fully rounded individual. No easy outs in the plot department, either, as the movie unfolds the way life itself does — unpredictably — often worse than you expected, sometimes better.

Frances McDormand should be up for an Oscar for this one.

X-Men: Apocalypse
(2016)

Progressively Harder To Pose a Credible Threat to Superheroes
Stop me if you've heard this one before. A single humanoid with immense powers wants to wreak global death and destruction just because he can. No, that was Avengers: Age of Ultron.

*beep*

2 evenly matched groups of nominal heroes with a wide variety of super-human powers duke it out over some arcane movie-mcguffin dispute. No, that was Captain America: Civil War.

*beep*

Regular human beings stand by helplessly as their buildings are toppled, cities exploded, and fellow citizens slautered by the tens of thousands during a pissing match between 2 supposed good guys. No, that was Batman v. Superman.

*beep*

We know from long experience that superheroes always defeat supervillains, so where's the fun in that? It's finally reached the point of detachment wherein the only credible danger that a superhero can face is another superhero — or possibly a god.*

So it is here. The god in question started off in Egypt 5600 years ago as a regular mutant (named En Sabah Nur {not that anyone cares}, portrayed by Oscar Isaac, better known as Poe Dameron from the recent Star Wars movie), but his particular power was the ability to transfer himself into the bodies of others, including other mutants. Every time he did so, he added their abilities to his own and eventually came to dominate the civilization of the Nile. But in his arrogance he was viewed by the common people as a false god, and a conspiracy among his own palace guard resulted in his being buried under a collapsed pyramid during a period of vulnerability as he was again changing bodies.

Fast forward to the Reagan Era, when a CIA agent accidentally opens the ancient crypt, and empowering sunlight falls on the arcane runes which will reanimate the dormant deity. He spends some time strolling around Cairo, taking in the sights of the modern era, before recruiting 4 mutants to be his henchoids, the 4 "horsemen" to his Apocalypse. One of them is the grieving and misanthropic Magneto / Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender, who will grow up to be Ian McKellen). Another is weathermeister Storm (Alexandra Shipp, who will eventually become Halle Berry). And there's Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, who will grow up to be Mrs. Aaron Rodgers). His come-on to all of them is that he can enhance their nascent powers into something truly formidable.

Standing in the way of his plan of world destruction / domination are the students at the School for Gifted Youngsters run by Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, wwgu2B Patrick Stewart). And it turns out that Prof. X himself has the one superpower that Apocalypse covets most of all: the ability to reach into the mind of every human on Earth.

Truly gargantuan quantities of wanton destruction ensue.** These are well done, as the various FX subcontractors dominate the film. There's some pro-forma dialog, but hardly anybody gets a chance to truly act.

Much of this film makes sense only if you've seen the previous ones in the X-Men series. Which I have. And I'm a comic-book fan. So I still liked it. YMMV.

––––––

*Altho see the wry observation: "Captain America met 2 gods face to face; still a Christian. Iron Man met 2 gods face to face; still an atheist. The Hulk met 2 gods face to face; kicked the snot out of both of them." (except he didn't say "snot")

**Why can't we ever have superheroes whose skill sets involve building things? Instead, the new kid in school is Scott Summers, whose only ability is to blast the living crap out of everything he aims his laser-beam eyes at.

The Martian
(2015)

A Terrific Adaptation of a Terrific Novel
The Martian reminds us that the first word in "science fiction" is SCIENCE!

The film adaptation is largely faithful to the novel by Andy Weir. In either format, this a terrific story!

Of necessity in a visual medium, the movie doesn't spend any time on the equations or similar wonkiness that gave the book its signature credibility. It likewise culls some of the realistic personality quirks that got only a page or so in the print version, including the feuding nerds, the Aspergerite nature of the orbital-mechanics genius, and the vulgar cynicism of NASA's chief PR flack. They were practically cinematic from the get-go, but the movie runs 141 minutes as it is, and the tertiary stuff was what got the axe. The film also trades in the book's barely noticeable dust cloud at the end of Mark Watney's Martian trek for a more visually exciting use of atmospheric propulsion to effect the orbital rendezvous, which also has the salutary benefit of dramatizing the crew of the Hermes as having a significant role to play in the rescue beyond merely agreeing to do it.

You can search on line for more differences between the book and the movie and Weir's reaction to them.

To achieve a PG-13 rating (a move I reluctantly support in order to reach a wide audience), the screenplay (by Drew Goddard) neutered the novel's occasional (and wholly justifiable) profanity. (Shoot, I was really looking forward to Watney's typographical representation of boobs.) We do get a brief nude rear view of a body double showing a skeletal Watney after months on ⅓ rations, but that apparently wasn't enuf to push it into R territory.

In compensation for the cuts, we get the sort of things that movies are really good at: visuals! Looks like Mars, looks like space, looks like JPL, looks like science geeks. We're also reminded that a whole lot of mechanical problems can be fixed using only duct tape to make things sticky and WD-40 to make them slippery. And that it's a good idea to hang onto those decades-old Earth-based mockups.

The most engaging aspect of the book — the crew's fierce loyalty to each other — is preserved intact. However, aside from Watney (Matt Damon), mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ojiofor), and NASA chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the rest of the cast doesn't get much individual screen time. But even the tiny performances are pitch-perfect. It's relentlessly and unapologetically international and gender-neutral, as is science itself. Good! Better than good — perfect, in fact — is the tune played under the end credits: "I Will Survive".

You can see the movie in 3-D (post-production conversion), but there's no particular reason to do so. Arid, monotonously rusty desolation looks just as forbidding and depressing in 2 dimensions, and 3-D's wasted on anything occurring in space, where there aren't any referents to provide a sense of scale or depth.

This film marks a return to form for Ridley Scott after the regrettable Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings. No, it's not Blade Runner, but who (other than Stanley Kubrick) ever gets more than one masterpiece in a lifetime? He'll just have to settle for it being the best SF&F movie of the year.

Jurassic World
(2015)

The Kind of Spectacle That Imax, 3-D, and Dolby Stereo Were Invented For
Jurassic World (SF, biggie, sequel, 2:04, PG-13, Imax, 3-D) — 8

Now THIS is what Imax, 3-D, and Dolby stereo were invented for — pure spectacle, voluminous in both senses, immersive without being overwhelming. And spectacle is what it delivers, with both barrels, all cylinders, and every flag flying. A worthy sequel to Steven Spielberg's 1993 classic Jurassic Park, this summer blockbuster likewise envisions a 22-year time gap, during which time the theme park on Isla Nublar has grown huge, attracting over 20,000 people at a time, deserving the new "world" label.

There are plenty of resonances with the earlier film. Spielberg himself is executive producer, tho the directing has been turned over to Colin Trevorrow. Michael Giacchino, in charge of the music, has the eminent good sense to use a full-throated reprise of John Williams's magnificent theme at appropriate moments. We still get platoons of lightning- fast velociraptors, now rendered even more realistically. And B. D. Wong is back as ace geneticist Dr. Henry Wu. My only disappointment in the nostalgia department was the absence of a scene in corporate HQ with a large portrait of visionary John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) hanging at the front of the board room.

But, for all its harkbacks to Park, this World truly achieves its goal of being "bigger, louder, with more teeth". There's nothing at all wrong with the action, adventure, or pacing.

The one thing that prevents it from achieving 9-hood on my 9-point rating scale was that the human interactions were slightly off. Unlike Mad Max, here we are given 4 characters we can readily relate to: Chris Pratt as Owen Grady, ex-Navy, trainer of and surrogate father to 4 velociraptors; Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire, buttoned-up, all-business director of operations for the park; and Ty Simpkins as Gray and Nick Robinson as Zach, her 2 nephews, whom her sister naively expects will be getting the personal touch from their Aunt Claire. Unfortunately, these 4 relate to each other just a little too stiffly, with supposedly humanizing quirks more glued on than integral to their characters. Claire's slavish adherence to her stiletto heels, for example, just comes across as stupid, and their improbable cleanliness distracting. And the brothers' brief foray into the subject of their parents' possible divorce comes out of left field, lingers awkwardly like an unwashed guest, and then vanishes as pointlessly as it came. These aren't fatal flows, tho; the dialog isn't blatantly bad, just could've used more polishing.

The example they should have aspired to is the cinema's all-time greatest sight gag, the exquisitely timed glimpse of the phrase "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" from the original. There's no equivalent here.

The plot trigger is the escape from containment of the one and only specimen of a new species of dinosaur, the Indominus rex, created from a variety of predecessor species by means of genetic engineering, since the money guys behind the park evidently didn't think that regular dinosaurs were cool enuf all by themselves. (Totally wrong there; they are way cool!) Every time a new attraction has been introduced, we are informed, attendance has spiked. And they're overdue for another spike.

An unexpected side effect is that Indominus (Latin for "untamable") isn't just big, hungry, and ferocious, it's also smart, cunning, ruthless, and equipped with a cuttlefish's camouflage genes. When Owen discovers that it's loose, he doesn't hesitate for a second: He advises hitting it with every lethal weapon available. Claire and her staff, of course, are reluctant to just blow away a scientific wonder, a unique creature that they've invested heavily in and are counting on for the park's future income. But, despite these differences, all concerned agree that they've got to work together to keep the monster away from the paying customers.

About that word "monster". In one of the few reflective, philosophical moments of the film, one of the characters muses about whether it's appropriate to apply it to the big guy. "To a canary, a cat is a monster. We're just used to being the cat." Um, yeah. Yeah, you may be right. But check out all the former canaries around here. Now let's hit that monster with everything we've got.

In pursuit and attainment of a PG-13 rating, there's no gratuitous gore and violence here. People are obviously being slautered left and right, but very little of it occurs on screen, and only the occasional splash of blood on a wall or off-screen crunching sound gives any hint of the extent of the carnage.

Poltergeist
(2015)

New and Startling Then, Old and Humdrum Now
Poltergeist (fantasy: supernatural, 3rd string, remake, 1:33, PG-13, 3-D)

They changed the family name from Freeling to Bowen, and they threw in cell phones, wide-screen TV, and a commercial drone, but otherwise this is the same movie that, written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, scored a surprise hit in 1982.

A young family beset with financial difficulties downsizes into a newish home in a newish suburban development, unaware that it was built atop an abandoned cemetery. Despite the fact that neither the realtor nor the previous tenants nor any of the nabors has ever had a whiff of difficulty, these poor saps start experiencing weird phenomena within 10 minutes of moving in, and it only gets worse over the next couple of days.

When their cute little girl gets sucked into an adjacent dimension peopled by restless spirits seeking some kind of release, they're only able to talk to her thru their TV set. It was this fusion of bland suburbia and pristine, modern technology on the one hand with ancient dread, darkness, dirt, and death on the other that gave the original its unbalancing impact and led to 2 successful sequels.

But what was novel then is pretty ho-hum 3 decades later, so even tho the film is well acted, it's hard to take it seriously. People go thru the motions, but there really isn't any suspense. And, despite the presence of actors you may have heard of before (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie Dewitt, and Jared Harris), it's basically a low-budget, one-setting, paint-by-numbers effort with prosaic special effects.

Now let me tell you a true sad story. You may remember the sweet little blond girl from the original 3 Poltergeist films, Heather Michele O'Rourke, the one who uttered the memorable line "They're baa-aack". I wondered what ever became of her and looked up her bio on IMDb.com. The stark prose at the end of it packed more of an emotional punch than this remake did, and I suggest you check it out.

Tomorrowland
(2015)

2nd Half Was OK
Tomorrowland (SF, biggie, original, 2:10, PG, Imax)

Just over 2 hours long, it drags thru the first hour, wherein Britt Robinson (serviceable as the curious teen Casey Newton) tries to make sense of this "T"-emblem lapel pin that's mysteriously appeared among her belongings and can apparently transport her to a strange new world. How? Why? Who's behind it? She tries to figure it out, and an enigmatic tween named Athena, replete with the obligatory annoying accent, shows up along the way to provide some timely rescues and tantalizing clues but not much candor.

The pace and plot don't really pick up much until the George Clooney character (reclusive and embittered former child genius Frank Walker, presumably no relation to our governor) puts in an appearance and gradually reveals the secrets — and pitfalls — of time travel. Along with some spiffy gadgets and booby traps.

Of the movies based on Disneyland rides and attractions, the Pirates of the Caribbean series clearly holds pride of place, and this one is probably a middle-distance second, but it's still way above the Eddie Murphy vehicle The Haunted Mansion (2003) and the gaggingly bad The Country Bears (2002).

Directed and co-written (with Damon Lindelof) by Brad Bird, the guy behind The Incredibles and Ratatouille, this one comes from Walt Disney Pictures but lacks the Pixar magic touch.

It's available in Imax for no discernible reason, since most of the scenes are close-ups and interiors.

Orphan Black
(2013)

1 Nominee 5 Times at the Next Emmy Awards
Really, at the next Emmy Awards, Tatiana Maslany should be all 5 nominees for Best Actress. This has got to be one of the world's all-time most virtuoso performances by anybody anywhere. Not only does she make each of her clones a distinct and memorable character, you can actually tell when one of the clones is assuming the role of a different one - something that happens quite a lot!

So the acting is phenomenal, but if it were only that you could turn it into a kind of FaceOff competition. Instead there's much more. The plot is layer upon layer of intrigue, and every time one layer is peeled away and you think you're down to what's really going on, it turns out to be just a deeper layer.

A Canadian production made with a limited supply of Canadian dollars, "Orphan Black" proves that you don't need megabux worth of fancy special effects if you've got truly inspired writing.

One thing I really admire is that this is a serious show for serious adults, not children or the squeamish. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to bemoan the absence of an "A" rating for movies, for films that were intended for adults and didn't deserve the kiss of death that was the "X" rating (now wussified as "NC-17" but still just as deadly). This series earns its "A" in both meanings of the letter.

Really, the only thing keeping "Orphan Black" from being the best TV series on the air is that it had the misfortune to share the current decade with "Game of Thrones".

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death
(2014)

It'll Probably Actually Make Money
(fantasy: supernatural, bargain basement, sequel, OSIT cynics, PG-13, 1:39)

The original Woman in Black from just 2 years ago (tho it seems like lots longer, such was its unmemorability) was notable mainly because it was Daniel Radcliffe's first vehicle after the Harry Potter series. In it he played a solicitor called to creepy old Eel Marsh House to settle the affairs of its late owner. The house was located on a bump of land that's an island at high tide but which turns into the end of a peninsula at low tide, when it's accessible only by a causeway winding thru the eponymous marsh. I assessed it as 3rd string, formulaic, and worthy only of a 4. The sequel is equally formulaic and also gets a 4 but is downgraded to bargain basement in the absence of anybody you've ever heard of before, a nickel-a-word script commissioned by nickel-lovers, and the recycling of what must be the last tangible asset that Hammer Films owns, that increasingly rickety house on the moors.

Set in the English countryside to which London children were evacuated during WW2, the cast comprises 2 teachers, 1 PTSDed RAF pilot from a naboring decoy airbase, and 8 children, only 3 of whom were paid to speak. The cast list is so short that they even pad it out with a credit for "Woman in Black", who barely appears at all, has no dialog, and could as easily have been rendered as a matte painting. Much of the plot is recycled from #1 — young single mother had her only child taken away and raised by relatives, faces horrible early death, vows to come back for her son, but by then he's already dead, so she needs to take others instead, yada yada yada, here we go again.

It isn't actively bad (despite the usual batch of unimaginative and irritating jumpatchas), thus the 4, and there are modestly effective uses of music and lighting from time to time, but really, the only reason this sad excuse for a movie saw the light of day was that they probably knew they'd make their production costs back out of the first dozen theaters that screened it.

Penguins of Madagascar
(2014)

Not for Unaccompanied Adults
(other: talking animals, 2nd string, sequel, PG, 1:32)

Penguins is from Dreamworks Animation and tries to capitalize on the popularity of penguins generally and more particularly the 4 little comic-relief guys from the earlier Madagascar movies (tho it tells you something about the rest of what purports to be a comedy in itself if it needs its own comic relief). They are Skipper (the boss), Kowalski (the intellectual analyst), Rico (eater and disgorger of many things; also the demolition guy, not entirely unrelated to the disgorging), and Private (the cute one).

Joining them this time around are agents of North Wind, a kind of wildlife version of Men from UNCLE, protectors of animals generally and penguins in particular: leader Classified (wolf), Eva (big-eyed, dulcet-voiced snowy owl), Short Fuse (some kind of bird, I think), and Corporal (polar bear, the muscle). Skipper and Classified bicker first over whether the penguins need protecting at all and later over which of them should lead the strike team while the other guys provide a diversion.

All of this is to combat Dave, a giant purple octopus who used to be a feature attraction at the New York City Zoo until the penguins came along and drew away all the crowds with their unrelenting adorability. Dave became jealous and vowed revenge, and he's taking it in the guise of more-or-less human Dr. Octavius Brine, who's developed a green-slime Medusa Serum that he plans to use to turn all penguins worldwide into monsters so people won't love them any more.

Yes, this is absolutely a by-the-numbers throwaway plot. There are a few decent sight gags, a couple of chuckly lines of dialog, some wordplay featuring names of movie stars, and the obligatory happy ending, where even the villain finds someone to love him. It doesn't really drag because it keeps coming at you so quickly, ideal for SAS audiences (IE, little kids). Overall it's harmless but hardly worth the time of unaccompanied adults.

Transformers: Age of Extinction
(2014)

Nearly 3 Hours of Michael Bay Blowing Things Up
Transformers [4]: Age of Extinction (PG-13, 2:45, Imax, 3-D) — SF, biggie, sequel

No, 4 hours' worth would not have earned 4 stars.

Many years ago, I saw a movie about the Crusades, told (naturally) from the perspective of the Christian West trying to "civilize" the blasphemous Musselmen who were profaning the Holy Land with their mere presence. (How much things have changed since the 12th Century, eh?) During a truce, Richard the Lion-Hearted hosted Saladin at a grand feast in his royal tent and, wanting to impress the infidel with his puissance, seized a broadsword and, with a single hack, clove a large, solid object in twain. Saladin politely applauded, then arose, flung a convenient filmy veil into the air, and held his curved blade edge up as the veil settled gently across it, hanging for just a moment before its own weight parted it cleanly. (Damascus steel, you know.)

I was properly impressed at the time — and the level of respect the film-maker had accorded to Saladin also formed a lasting memory for me — but the real take-home point was that battles were not necessarily won with thud and blunder but sometimes with subtlety and finesse.

Expect none of that from the nearly 3 hours of Michael Bay blowing things up in Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Good things first. (It won't take long.) Yes, the movie was really loud, but it wasn't outright deafening, like its 2 immediate predecessors. A fast-talking, well buffed Mark Wahlberg was a distinct upgrade from Shia LaBeouf in the role of The Human We're Supposed To Care About. The 1st half-hour or so, the warmup that featured real human interaction, had some welcome goofy moments from screenwriter Ehren Kruger.

OK, so much for that. Let's smash some things. Let's smash some more. Nope, not enuf, more! Is that all you've got? Smash some more. C'mon, sissies, more! Look, we've still got an hour left to go, let's get with it! Whack. Bash. Slam. Ka-blooie. Whang. Ba-doom. Crash. Whoom. Clang. Bzzzap. Brief interlude in the lab. Kapow. Blooey. Somehow we found ourselves in Hong Kong. Hack, hack, hack. Metal dinosaurs. Gratuitous fireworks. Stabby. Pokey. Scratchy. Scrapy. Rakey. Ships falling from the sky. Whangy. Rippy. Smash, smash, smash, smash, smash! Gentle ringing sound of circular object slowly spinning down. SMASH IT!!!

Who are these giant robots? Apparently we're supposed to know in advance, because they're never properly introduced in the movie, and they move in such close-up and so confusingly and quickly (no cut longer than 3 seconds, lest Bay be accused of Attention Deficit Aversion) that we never have any idea of which of them is doing what to which others. I get the vague impression that there was supposed to be a 3rd group of them in addition to the 2 traditional ones, but really they're all indistinguishable from each other, except for a few who spout bad dialog a la the #3 henchthug in a 1947 gangster film. And those are, I surmise, the good robots.

Oh, incidentally, there are some characters. The one that showed the most promise gets fried early. All the rest have the sort of good fortune and miraculous escapes that are the stuff of epic poetry, legends, and holy books. Then again 4-5 more times for good measure.

You'd think it would be difficult to get bored with all this non-stop action roiling across the screen, but about 130 minutes in I found myself imagining Megatron sidling up to his director during a break in the filming and asking "What's my motivation here?" I expect that Bay would be at a total loss for words. But he'd make up for it by blowing something up.

The Rover
(2014)

Hard, Desperate, Slightly Crazed Men in a Hard, Desperate Society
The Rover (R, 1:43) — other: drama, 3rd string, original, OSIT cynics

We know this from the opening title card: It's Australlia, 10 years after "the collapse". That's the last nod to science fiction in the film, which is otherwise about hard, desperate, slightly crazed men in a hard, desperate society that might as well have been medieval Japan.

We learn this thru dialog: 4 such men have committed some kind of crime (never seen, even in flashback), and 3 of them are fleeing from the scene in their truck. The older of a pair of brothers, Henry (Scoot McNairy), has been shot in the leg and is in the truck; the younger, Rey (Robert Pattinson), a dimwit, was shot in the side and left for dead, but he wasn't.

We see this in the opening scene: A gaunt, grizzled, bearded loner in cargo shorts (Guy Pearce), sits brooding behind his steering wheel before bestirring himself to enter a ramshackle, isolated general store in the outer part of the Australian outback, where they sell limited amounts of expensive food, very limited amounts of very expensive petrol, ammunition, and serious, serious suspicion. The credits claim that this is Eric, but I don't recall him ever mentioning it, not even later, to the grandma who continuously importunes him for his name. As he nurses his mason jar of hooch, the overturned truck containing the 3 squabbling fugitive thugs slides by outside the store window.

That was probably the most expensive action scene in the whole film, which would have qualified as a bargain-basement production were it not for the presence of its 2 stars. There are few characters, almost no sets or locations, maybe 20 total costumes (mainly army surplus), and even dialog that appeared to be dispensed with eye-droppers. Screenwriter (and director) David Michôd was clearly not being paid by the word; the Pearce character in particular is monumentally taciturn.

The thugs get out of their truck, spot Eric's car standing nearby, hotwire it, and take off again. He immediately leaps into their truck (which has come to rest upright but entangled), rocks it out of its snare, and takes off after them. When they finally both stop for a confrontation, he is monomaniacal on a particular subject: "I want my cah back!" he repeatedly insists, in the thick Australian accent that makes it difficult to understand half of what limited dialog the movie offers up. And, despite the fact that the thieves are holding guns on him, he seems determined to beat that car out of them.

When he wakes up, they're long gone, but shortly thereafter, as he's trying to figure out what to do next, the halfwit Rey shows up, looking for the brother who abandoned him. These 2 form an uneasy partnership and set out on the trail of the desperados. Along the way they will encounter multiple hard-core and hard-luck types, and there will be a plethora of danger, punctuated by sudden, violent death.

About 99 minutes into the 103-minute run time, we finally find out why Eric was so damn obsessed with getting his cah back.

As I said, hard, desperate, and perhaps more than just slightly crazed.

The Signal
(2014)

Spoiler Bait — 1st 15 minutes described here, rest keeps getting weirder
The Signal — SF, 3rd string, original

An odd film. A trio of hyper-bright MIT students are on a road trip to California to deliver 1 of them (the cute one, Olivia Cooke) to a year's fellowship at Caltech, but the other 2 (the dorky one, Beau Knapp, and the rugged, athletic-looking guy with the crutches, Brenton Thwaites) want to take a little side excursion to a spot in rural Nevada which seems to be the point of origin of a mysterious computer signal that trashed their computer servers back in Cambridge and which has been heckling them about it ever since.

They drive down a rutted dirt road to find what appears to be a deserted shack, and they figure it must just be a relay point for a hidden operative located elsewhere, but the lads go poking around inside it anyway, when they hear screams coming from outside. They rush back out just in time to see the gal suddenly levitated, then everything goes black. When they wake up, they're flat on their backs in separate rooms, wearing hospital gowns, in a strange, all-white underground lab, surrounded by mysterious people in hazmat suits, only one of whom (Laurence Fishburne as Damon) ever talks to them, often from behind a 1-way mirror.

What's up? They spend the rest of the movie trying to (a) find out and (b) get out.

It's a puzzlebox of a movie. It didn't need much of a budget, but it's well scripted (by William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank, and David Frigerio), aside from repeated obscure flashbacks by Nic (the viewpoint character), his legs all muscular, running thru the woods, pausing beside a rushing stream, and riding on a carnival tilt-a-whirl. We keep waiting for these scenes to contribute some explanatory power to the situation, but they never do, so in the end they're just a distracting annoyance.

There are few other characters, and — aside from the central 3 — they're all strangely "off" somehow. The actors sell them well. The plot keeps your attention all the way thru. It's an original. All of these are plusses. The main downsides are the credibility gaps, but if you go into it without conventional expectations, you'll probably be able to slide past them.

Edge of Tomorrow
(2014)

Groundhog D-Day with BFGs
Edge of Tomorrow (PG-13, 1:53, Imax, 3-D) — SF, biggie, original

Officially sourced from the Hiroshi Sakurazaka novel All You Need Is Kill, this movie will never escape the comparison to Groundhog Day, where the protagonist (here Tom Cruise instead of Bill Murray) is required to live the same day over and over until he gets it right and can finally escape into the future. What, does that make it derivative? Yeah, sure, because it reworks a concept so overused that you can remember picky little details of its predecessor — like the snowball fight or the alarm-clock song — 21 years later. When's the last time you saw a hair's-breadth escape from a car crash, volley of gunfire, or exploding bomb and thot to yourself "Golly, THAT'S original!"

The comparison I encourage you to make is to Greg Bear's Nebula-winning short story "Hardfought".

Here the day being relived occurs not in placid Punxsatawney, PA, but rather on the beaches of Normandy. Not the Normandy of D-Day 1944 (tho the movie was released on its 70th anniversary, doubtless by pure coincidence) but rather one of the near future, when a meteor smashing into Hamburg, Germany (seen briefly in an opening montage of TV news clips), has emitted a ravening horde of kinetic alien sea anemones that rapidly overspread Europe like, um, a ravening horde of Nazis (maps included). Human resistance seems futile until the Battle of Verdun (no, not THAT one, THIS one), when a heroine emerges: Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), quickly dubbed "the Angel of Verdun", who seems to be everywhere on the battlefield, able to anticipate the enemy's every move and provide just the right counter to it. On TV news coverage, this is credited by US Army Major William Cage (Cruise), a former PR flack, to "new technology".

Of course, as is customary in war, the first casualty of battle is the truth. There was no new technology involved. Instead, as we soon learn, Vrataski's abilities were a fluke, the result of her having been initially killed at the Battle of Verdun by an alpha-type alien that got some of its blood on her. It turns out that alpha blood, now mixed with hers, enables her to restart the day whenever she dies. So that's what she does, hundreds of times, each time learning exactly what to do to avoid her previous death until she finally prevails.

But wait, there's more. There's a flaw in her plan of continual resurrection. Eventually she's just wounded instead of killed, she gets a blood transfusion, and that thins out her time-shifting abilities to the point where they no longer work. Now she's just an ordinary soldier (tho admittedly by far the most experienced one on the planet), when into her lap drops Cage, a former ROTC guy who isn't trained for warfare, isn't any good at it, and wants nothing whatever to do with it. That's why he too was killed (also by a splattery alpha, as it happens) 5 minutes into the invasion he was press-ganged into. Rita's job becomes to prepare him for combat, join him on the battlefield, and keep killing him until he gets it right.

Of course, each day that Cage comes back, he's initially confronted with non-coms who think he's just a shirker looking to desert as soon as possible, so he has to figure out a reliable way of outwitting them as quickly as possible so he can get busy with the real work. The movie gives us 1 or 2 quick tastes of what this must be like without beating it to death. The rest of the film is building up the choreography step by step, using trial and error, without ever having seen the full dance demoed.

Hanging like a sword of Damocles over the whole proceeding is the knowledge that the alien's central controlling omega organism — Cage and Rita's ultimate goal — is itself capable of fiddling with time.

After you walk out of the theater, you may find yourself asking questions like "Where was our air support?", "Why didn't we just nuke 'em with ICBMs?", or "Why was Paris awash in water?", but none of that occurs to you in the midst of the action, which is a mark of a movie that effectively causes you to suspend your disbelief.

Maleficent
(2014)

An Interesting Frozen-Like Variant on an Old Fairy Tale
Maleficent (PG, 1:37, Imax, 3-D) — fantasy: fairy tales; biggie; formula; OSIT feminists

Well, after only a week, you're probably out of chances to see Maleficent in Imax (as Edge of Tomorrow takes over the big screen at 8 PM), but it'll still be available in 3-D as well as 2-D. IMO, not worth the premium price for either of the frills.

I enjoyed Maleficent and give it a 7, but I guess I was hoping for more. In particular, if you saw Super 8, you know what a tremendous talent Elle Fanning is, and that was back in 2011. Here she plays the role of Aurora, the sleeping beauty who's the ostensible central character of the original Grimm Brothers fairy tale, and all she's expected to do is skip about, smiling and perky, looking all dimpled and rosy-cheeked and fresh-faced, and very very blond. With so little to do, she comes off as perhaps a little dim or simple in addition to being cloyingly vapid. But she clearly has a heart of gold, and that endears her to all who meet her.

The odd couple here are the super-powerful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and the power- obsessed peasant boy Stefan (Sharlto Copley from District 9), denizens of naboring kingdoms with radically different lifestyles. Stefan's is a typical ruff-and-ready, ruthless, medieval human kingdom, while The Moors, where Maleficent hangs out with a host of animated (but universally insignificant) critters, is a literal fairyland. They meet young and hit it off, but as they grow older, Stefan's ambition leads him to betray Maleficent, and he cuts off her wings to present to his king as evidence that he has vanquished the chief defender of the naboring realm.

Maleficent, horrified and outraged, waits until Stefan — now elevated to the throne — hosts a christening celebration for his new-born dotter before exacting her revenge, in the form of a curse upon the infant that she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel before sundown on her 16th birthday and fall into a deep sleep, awakenable only by love's true kiss. That's the basic fairy tale, and the rest of the movie is devoted to the untold part of the story, which is not as neat and clean as has come down to us in legend.

Suffice it to say that neither Maleficent nor her pet crow are beings you want to be on the bad side of, and Disney pulls out all of its special effect to underline the point. I would've preferred a little more humanity, altho, to be fair, one of the reasons Imax was overkill for this is that much of the screen time is devoted to closeups of the characters. But they're mainly just doing completely in-character line readings.

I suppose I shouldn't expect too much realism in what's basically a fairy tale. And it puts a nice feminist gloss on the tired helpless-princess trope. Still, I ended up wanting more.

Godzilla
(2014)

Everything You Expect in a Godzilla Movie, Nothing You Don't
Godzilla (2014, 2:03, PG-13, Imax, 3-D) — SF, biggie, remake

It's everything you expect in a Godzilla movie and nothing you don't. Special effects are bigger and better than ever before. I saw it in Imax (worth it for the big screen and big sound, not so much for the retrofitted 3-D, which is nothing special).

If you were expecting meaty roles for top-notch actors Bryan Cranston, Julette Binoche, and Ken Watanabe, too bad. The first 2 are killed off early, and Watanabe mainly just stands around with his mouth open (tho he and sidekick nuclear engineer Victoria Graham do get a couple of minutes to unload the only exposition the screenwriters figured the audience would sit still for). At no point does anyone question why creatures that feed on electromagnetic energy need such huge mouths and so many teeth.

Elizabeth Olsen is utterly wasted in a throw-away fretting-mom role, and the nominal hero of the whole shebang, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (much buffed up since regularly getting his ass kicked in the title role in Kick-Ass) stoicizes as a Marine lieutenant thru a series of disasters that he just happens to be in time to witness as he follows nature-balancing Gojira and its 2 new nemeses, a male and female mating pair of MUTOs, across the Pacific where they will jointly devastate San Francisco for a change, after warming up with Honolulu and Las Vegas.

Blessedly, the movie-makers let us see the creatures fairly early (instead of teasing us with obscure distance shots and partial glimpses for much of the movie) and at full size. Unlike the Transformer movies and Pacific Rim, you can actually see who's doing what to whom else at reasonable distances, and at speeds resembling real time. Good shot composition and no soft-pedaling of the destruction involved, tho the PG-13 rating is preserved by showing us essentially none of what had to be a gargantuanly massive toll of deaths and injuries.

Godzilla gets bigger with every incarnation, and this one is no exception, making it perfectly believable that some forces of nature (like Antarctic glaciers, sunspots, and giant radioactive Japanese lizards) are so powerful that humanity is helpless before them. Really, with CGI technology as advanced as it's gotten, there's no upper limit on creature size, certainly not the frequently and cheerfully ignored square-cube rule. I expect that soon we'll be seeing Galactus gracing the big screen.

Of more substantial interest, the opening trailers included one for Christopher Nolan's latest mind-blower, Interstellar, due out Nov. 7. It's not the case that the trailer alone is worth the price of admission, but it's value added.

Under the Skin
(2013)

Boring, Pretentious, Cognition-Free, but Naked Scarlett
Under the Skin (1:48, R) — 4 — SF; 3rd string, original; OSIT chauvinists

I realize that lately I've been handing out mainly 6es and 7s, but that doesn't mean I've abandoned all critical judgment, it just happens to be a coincidental run of pretty good movies.

To reassure you that, yes, there are worse flix out there, I cite for you the OTHER film in which Scartlett Johanssen stars this month: Under the Skin, a no-bones-about-it art film playing at Sundance Cinema. Based on its artistic merits alone, it deserves a 3, but my reviews are my personal opinions, so it gets bumped into the up-to-you range due to the many opportunities to watch Ms. Johanssen disrobe. YMMV.

You can tell right off the bat that it's going to be pretentious when the opening 15 seconds comprise a silent black screen, and the rest of the opening minute or 2 is a tiny pinpoint of white light in the center ssssllllllooooowwwwwllllyyy growing larger and transforming into a series of shiny circular shapes that slllloooowwwwwllllyyyy morph into each other. This motif is apparently offered sui generis and never recurs. So, check mark for "pretentious".

The check mark for "tedious" is justified by the glacial pacing, best exemplified by 20% of the movie being medium shots of our nameless protagonist behind the wheel of her big white panel van, devoid of expression, driving around what appears to be Edinburgh looking for lone male pedestrians. Really, a little of this would've gone a long way, but apparently Director Jonathan Glazer enjoyed extended periods of watching his star at work.

The extremely limited dialog is all vapid small talk exchanged in mumbles or chowder-thick Scottish accents, adequate to establish a mood and obviously not intended to convey any useful or interesting information, as this seems to be a cognition-free zone.

Intermittently a mystery motorcycle guy careens buzzingly down a deserted highway for about 30 seconds, to no obvious purpose and without any visible connection to the rest of the story.

Oh, the SF angle. She's an alien, as we finally see in the last 5 minutes of the movie. But by then we'd inferred that something bizarre was up, due to the repeated scenes of her and a series of guys walking sssllllloooowwwwllllyyyy across all-white or all-black backgrounds, dropping articles of clothing as they go.

If you're looking for a GOOD off-beat movie with "skin" in the title, go for Pedro Almodovar's 2011 The Skin I Live In.

Heaven Is for Real
(2014)

A Nice Family Drama, Not Even Remotely Preachy
Heaven Is for Real (1:39, PG) — borderline, 3rd string, original

You might be surprised that this film attracted an atheist activist like me. But I went to see it because — as part of my self-imposed obligation to catch EVERY science-fiction and fantasy movie that hits town so I can review them for my listserv and at SF cons — it looked like it might have some fantasy elements. I ended up classifying it as "borderline", which is where I put movies that are not clearly SF or fantasy but might be if viewed from a certain angle. This one leaves it open to interpretation whether little 4-year-old Colton Burpo actually experienced a trip to heaven while he was unconscious on the operating table at death's doorstep with a burst appendix.

The Burpos are presented as being among the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, and not in any "holier than thou" sense but as solid, down-to-Earth working folk, a kind, loving, and happy family. The dad, Todd Burpo, a part-time Protestant minister in Imperial, Kansas, is humble and declines the title "Reverend", saying "Call me Todd" even to members of his own congregation. He wears a work shirt and sits in the pews with the other congregants while the church service is doing other things, like Bible readings or singing led by Todd's wife Sonja.

The skeptical attitude is clearly articulated by several different characters in the film, including Todd Burpo himself, who's obviously having trouble wrestling with and reacting to what his son has been saying about his brief sojourn in heaven. And the conclusion is not some grand revelation or depiction of the "real" heaven but rather an informal sermon in which Todd (well played by Greg Kinnear) talks thru his uncertainties and tells his fellow congregants that "on Earth as it is in heaven" means that we should each value the little bit of heaven we share when we appreciate the people who love us.

Frankly, an avowed humanist couldn't have put it much better.

Still, there's the obvious fact that little Colton has been drenched in religion for almost his entire waking life, and that such total immersion surely accounts for everything he claims to have seen. And the Burpos had been having serious financial difficulties, a not-so-subtle motive for playing Colton's story for any financial benefit it might bring. Nor does the film stint from dramatizing those perfectly naturalistic explanations.

In short, if you were expecting a piece of pious propaganda, this isn't it. It's more like a nice, non-saccharine family drama with unusual subject matter, kind of along the lines of We Bought a Zoo. On my 9-point scale, it rates a 6.

Her
(2013)

Sadness Is Good If Done Well, and This Is
Spike Jonze's Her follows a lonely writer who gradually falls in love with his computer's sentient operating system (OS 1). Poor Theodore Twombley is sensitive and empathetic but just can't quite figure out how to get that across to the women in his life until he meets the one gal who's specifically designed to be exactly right for him.

The irony is that Theodore works for a fictional web company (sometime in the near future) called Beautiful Handwritten Letters (dot-com), where we see the letters being "handwritten" on a computer screen using voice-activated script fonts. But, despite the artifice and deceptive business practice, there's real human intelligence and caring behind the text of the letters. Theodore's really good at imagining himself in the position of the people who've asked him to pour out "their" hearts in the letters he's composing on their behalf — in some cases for repeat clients who've been coming to him for 8 years.

Not at all techy (not even an admonition to back up your hard drive, with accompanying cautionary tale), it's a really low-key film about the quest for human connection. It's not talky, either, but the limited dialog (by Jonze) is well crafted, realistic, and involving.

The most unbelievable part is that our boy lives 2 floors up from Amy Adams, who's a good friend of his, and he hasn't crawled across crushed glass to try to win her affections. The least unbelievable part is that he attains an intellectual and emotional resonance with the warm, cheerful voice of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen, never seen), who's always there for him, constantly evolves to adapt to his personality, and is exquisitely sensitive to his moods.

It's a really sad movie with flits and blips of light-heartedness and happiness. Much of it is just Joaquin Phoenix's sorrowful face filling the screen in silence. This is about as far from Transformers and Pacific Rim as imaginable, which is all to the good IMHO. There is zero action, indeed, hardly any rapid movement of any kind. It's quiet and contemplative, giving the audience a chance to reflect on what we really seek out of a relationship and discover that the physical connection is only part of it, and probably a dispensable part at that.

It's from Annapurna Productions, the independent studio founded by Megan Ellison (dottor of úber-billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison), and that is turning out to be quite the mark of quality. It didn't go into wide release until last month, but they snuck in a limited release in December to qualify for the 2013 Oscars, and, sure enuf, it's a Best Picture nominee.

About Time
(2013)

A Lovely, Lovely Film
About Time is full of really nice people who love each other, and you want nothing but good things for all of them. And that often turns out to be possible, thanks to the Lake family secret. All the Lake men have a limited ability to travel backward in time — only to earlier points in their own lives, true ("We can't go back and kill Hitler or anything."), but usually getting a 2nd run at various awkwardnesses and infelicities is all it takes to smooth out life's little bumps and jolts.

Aside from the time travel, the biggest imagination-stretcher is that Rachel McAdams's Mary is a single gal in London in her early 20s and doesn't have a boyfriend. Our hero, the gawky but endearing Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), recognizes the cosmic injustice in that and determines to use his powers for good (or, in this case, love). But between his wistful adieu from the shy, plain girl he's met in a lights-out bistro and getting set to call the number she's punched into his cell phone, he performs a good deed for a friend, and it turns out that his little jaunt into the past has erased his evening's conversation with Mary from her memory and her number from his phone.

That's about the highest level of stress this film ever reaches. It's the farthest thing on Earth from an action-adventurer. It's mainly a love story with minor elements of comedy (sometimes it takes several re-runs at the past to get things just right, and we see the failed attempts in quick succession) and pathos.

It's written and directed by Richard Curtis, who earlier did About a Boy and Notting Hill, so you know he's got the characterization down cold, and Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Richard Cordery, and Margot Robbie are pitch-perfect in supporting roles. And, if I didn't emphasize it strongly enuf earlier, you'll really like all of these people, even the crusty curmudgeonly playwright Harry.

Go see the movie.You won't be sorry. You can thank me later.

The World's End
(2013)

Better Than the American Equivalent, "This Is the End", Funnier, Less Raunchy
The World's End is kind of like a British version of This Is the End, an American buddy comedy featuring a gang of raunchy male actors from the Judd Apatow repertory company. In this case, it's Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan as high-school buddies who tried to perform a heroic pub crawl — the Golden Mile, 12 pubs in a single evening — on the night of their graduation but didn't make it all the way to Pub #12, The World's End.

Now, 23 years later, head provocateur and wastrel Gary King (Pegg) wants them all to reunite to have another go at it. A subtle joke (too subtle for the blatant barf and fart humor this movie basically appeals to) is that all the family names involved (respectively King, Knightley, Chamberlain, Prince, and Page) are titles you'd find in a royal court, not among the commoners. Things start to go awry 4 pubs and 35 minutes into the movie when they discover that true bluebloods, human-like androids ("Don't call us robots"), have essentially taken over the old home town of Newton Haven and are gradually replacing all the actual humans with simulacra. This being a dark comedy centered around drinking more than alien invaders, our 5 lads decide to carry on with their quest even as the situation deteriorates around them.

The movie, despite having some good moments, never really quite clicked. It wasn't overtly bad, just not at all compelling.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
(2013)

The Quest for the Next Franchise Continues Unfulfilled
The Mortal Instruments is the first in what was obviously hoped to be a series that would catch on like Harry Potter or The Twilight Saga (or, one presumes, The Hunger Games). Alas, it's more like The Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles, City of Ember, I Am Number 4, or the Percy Jackson "series" (currently up to #2). It features a naive teenager who's heir to mystical powers but who has been "protected" from that knowledge up until a crisis from the other world claims her mother. The dotter, Clary (Lily Collins, the good Snow White from the bad Snow White movie), and her mom, Jocelyn (Lena Headey from Game of Thrones, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and the under-appreciated The Purge) are perfectly fine, tho Jocelyn gets to spend much of the film doing her Sleeping Beauty impersonation. The rest of the movie is portentous and stylized. It has a few good action scenes, and an interesting wrinkle or 2 in the plot line, but it suffers from the same problem that all these supernatural/demigod films do, which is trying to explain the motives of the bad guys, other than just, well, that's the way villains are supposed to behave. It doesn't get all carried away with special effects but actually lets the actors perform. I will leave it to the females who see it to explain to me why the heavily tattooed shadow hunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) is supposed to set young Clary's heart all aflutter, as he seems to me to be self-centered, boorish, and badly in need of shampoo. But then, maybe that's what's in these days.

Jobs
(2013)

Like a Jell-O Banquet — Lots of Volume, But Not Very Filling
They say there are 2 rules for success in business: (1) Never tell everything you know.

That seems to have been the watchword for this biopic as well. It's half of the story of Steve Jobs in business. It starts partway thru his career, in 2001, with the announcement of the iPod to an adoring auditorium full of Apple employees by a gray-bearded Jobs, seen in all his mock-turtlenecked skinniness only at a distance. And we get a glimmer (but only that) of the famous reality distortion field that legendarily surrounded him and made everybody in the vicinity want to believe what he was saying, support what he was promoting, buy what he was selling.

Almost immediately, tho, it cuts to the early, much furrier Jobs, a barefoot dropout on the campus of hippieish Reed College during the flower-child era. If the subtitle hadn't made the time shift explicit, the strains of Cat Stevens singing Peace Train sure would've. (Later we get House of the Rising Sun; the nicely done sound track keeps pace with the internal chronology.) And here we get a look at the personal side of Jobs, the hyper-jerky side, as he seduces a coed and afterward, when she offers him a tab of acid and a few extra for the road, he takes her up on the offer because, he says, he wants to share it with "my only friend, my girlfriend". Geez, dude, at least put your pants on before flaming the nice lady.

A bit later he throws his "only friend" out of the house when she says she's pregnant. He refuses to admit that her eventual child, Lisa, is his (despite a paternity test to the contrary) and even refuses visitation rights, tho it would cost him nothing to accept but never use them. Yet, at the same time, he's throwing himself heart, mind, soul, and other people's hard work and ingenuity into a gargantuan project for his company's next-generation computer to be called ... Lisa. Whom does he see as his real child? The subject is ripe for psychoanalysis, but the movie not only doesn't beat you over the head with it, it doesn't even remark upon it.

And that's the way it is thruout the whole film — a fair amount of detail, but all on the surface, from the public record, no depth, and gaping lacunae all over the place. We get only the barest glimpse of why the original Apple 2 was considered so far superior to all its competitors at the time. John Sculley orchestrated Jobs's ouster from Apple in 1985, and Jobs spent a dozen years that might as well have been in the wilderness according to the movie, since we see him only as hands weeding a garden during a few-minute montage before he resumed control of Apple by booting Gil Amelio in 1996. There is one flicker of him appearing before the logo of NeXT, his post-Apple company, but no mention whatsoever of his co-founding of Pixar Animation.

During the 2 tenures of Apple years we are treated to brief appearances by some of the famous names of the technical and creative geniuses behind Apple — Steve Wozniak (who comes off as the sweetest guy on Earth, a largely accurate reading, according to all accounts), Jony I've, Jef Raskin, and Andy Hertzfeld. (I had a laff-out-loud moment when Jobs is introduced to Hertzfeld, looks him straight in the eye, and asks in all seriousness "Are you good?" Well, I guess there's no way he could really have known how ridiculous the question would sound 20 years later.) But we never really learn why they're good. We don't really see their work (aside from a little smoke curling up from Wozniak's soldering iron) or hear them explain their ideas. As with Steve Jobs himself, the movie is all about Steve Jobs.

And when the timeline has advanced as far as the opening scene, in 2001, the movie stops. It doesn't conclude, it just quits. The last scene is of Jobs recording the voice-over for the "Think Different" commercial (which I consider the greatest of all time, better even than "1984", which is reprised at about half length), and then he asks "How was that?" Fade to black.

No iPhone. No iTunes. No Mac OS X. No iPad. No cloud computing. No WiFi. No resuscitation of Disney. None of the subsequent triumphs. (I suppose it goes without saying that there is nothing about the failures, such as the Newton, eWorld, or Taligent.) Almost nothing more about his personal life. Nothing about his health problems. The only allusion to his death is the final title card "Steven Paul Jobs • 1955-2011".

Instead, we get to see a lot of shots of rich white guys in suits sitting around a board room playing corporate money, mind, and power games. Big whoop!

We know about banks that are too big to fail. Maybe Steve Jobs's life is too big to film. It's hard to fault this movie for what it actually did — especially if you take a good look at the still shots at the end, where the actual men in Jobs's life (and they were essentially all men) are shown right next to the actors who portrayed them, and you have to give a big shout-out to the superb job done by casting director Mary Vernieu. Ashton Kutcher as Jobs was every bit as good as Noah Wyle in Pirates of Silicon Valley, which is no small praise. But there was so much the film didn't do that it leaves you feeling like you've just had a Jell-O banquet — lots of volume (over 2 hours running time), but strangely unfilling and unsatisfying.

Kick-Ass 2
(2013)

Nothing "Comic" about This Excellent (but extremely violent) "Comic" Book Adaptation
Kick-Ass 2 (1:43, R) — 8 — fantasy: comics & pulps, 2nd string, sequel, OSIT feminists

The film snobs over at The Onion's AV Club hated the original Kick-Ass and thot the sequel was only slightly better. The aggregators at Rotten Tomatoes had the opposite experience, with the original scoring 77% on the Tomatometer but the sequel clocking in at only 27% (still early, tho). IMDb has them about even and pretty good at 7.8 and 7.5, respectively. I loved the first one (it got an 8) and thot the 2nd one was just as good (also an 8). Of course, I'm a huge comic-book geek and appreciate more than most any movie that treats the comic-book genre with the seriousness I think it deserves.

Kick-Ass 2 is violent as hell — and not Wile E. Coyote violence, either, the real bone- snapping, blood-spurting, knife-to-the-throat, screaming-death kind — and fully deserves its R rating. The opening scene shows a 15-year-old girl shooting a teen boy point-blank with a high-caliber revolver. Death #1 (an insensitive mother being electrocuted in a tanning bed) occurs only 7 minutes in. It is not for the squeamish.

While the dialog refers to the extensive character list as superheroes and supervillains, the former should really be known as costumed crime-fighters, since they don't have a single superpower among them. The latter, I guess, need to be called costumed criminals for parallellism.

Chris D'Amico, the teen son of gang boss Frank D'Amico, who was killed with a bazooka by Kick-Ass at the end of the first movie, is practically frothing at the mouth for revenge. Christopher Mintz-Plasse — yes, the little skinny, wimpy actor — is absolutely gonzo as the blood-lusting, sociopathic maniac. "My superpower is money!", he declares, as he proceeds to use his inherited fortune to buy up a band of costumed thugs to help him track down his nemesis and dispatch him most horribly and cruelly.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson has a kind of thankless role as the eponymous Kick-Ass, high-school dweeb by day, self-questioning punching bag by night (which he can endure mainly because nerve damage from a beating in the first film left him mostly insensitive to pain), who nonetheless continues to believe that ordinary people have to stand up and be counted in order to make the world a better place. As more like him start coming out of the woodwork, they coalesce into a team, a la DC's Justice League or Marvel's Avengers.

That team is led by a snarling, unshaven, cameo-clad Jim Carrey, as Mafia hit man turned born-again Christian Colonel Stars and Stripes. He picks up chewing the scenery where Nicolas Cage left off at the end of the first movie.

But the unquestioned star of the show is the awesome Chloë Grace Moretz as Mindy Macready, a tiny, demure high-school freshman who's the brunt of psychological cruelty from the older girls in the school's "in" crowd, who sneer that she'll never amount to anything. She just shuts up and takes it, knowing she's already accomplished more in her brief alternate identity as a real, serious, super-competent costumed crime-fighter than the social butterflies will likely do in their entire lives. But she's promised Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut) — her father's former partner, who promised he'd look after her — that she'd given up that life. "Hit Girl — that's not who you are.", he assures her. Oh, yes, she is!

After young D'Amico, now going by the nom de guerre The Motherfµcker, and his gang waste nearly a dozen cops in under 5 minutes, the entire police force turns on anyone wearing a costume. Of course, it's easy to round up the ones who think they're the good guys, because they're not in hiding and they don't resist the authorities. This makes it all the more dangerous for the few who are still free solely because nobody knows their secret identities — but the baddies have an inside tip, and they vastly outnumber our heroes as they close in for the kill — which, make no mistake, will be a LITERAL kill.

There are plot twists, ugly surprises, a fair amount of philosophizing, a (very) few laff lines, believably realistic consequences for violence, and solid dialog. Credit for the latter goes to Mark Millar, who wrote the original graphic novel, and Jeff Wadlow, who adapted it into a screenplay. Wadlow also directed, and blessedly eschewed the kind of frenetic, whirling, super-quick-cutting, too-fast-to-follow fight scenes that made Pacific Rim and the Transformers series so unsatisfying. Neither did he go for the tired old technique of snapping momentarily into slo-mo, which was already starting to wear out its welcome with the $6,000,000 man back into the 1970s. You watch these action scenes, and they look like what real people would really do in real life. Pretty good for a comic book. No surprise to those of us who knew they had it in them.

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