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Ash vs Evil Dead

Season 2: Still better than Season 8 of The Walking Dead
Is there even one fan out there who wasn't at least a little disappointed in season 8 of "The Walking Dead"? I mean, the ratings are pretty clear that a lot of people stopped watching in the wake of the grotesquely mishandled season 6 finale but millions of us stuck with it. I guess we all thought that if we could make it through season 2's neverending stay on Hershel's farm, we could sit through anything but who could have foreseen the non-stop dumpster fire of used diapers and Indian food that season 8. I have unfortunately watched way too much television in my lifetime and I can state categorically that I have never seen a show as good as "The Walking Dead" get so bad so quickly. And yes, despite what all the haters out there want to pretend, "The Walking Dead" used to be a damn good show. It had its problems but they were mostly due to questionable creative decisions like "Hey, let's destroy Andrea's character by making her cuddle up to The Governor" or "Hey, you know what viewers want? An entire episode focused on Tara and Heath!" Season 8 has featured some of the worst writing I've ever seen on a top rated TV show. And Negan and his men going from Seal Team Six to the Three Stooges and back to Seal Team Six for no reason wasn't even the worst of it. What exactly was Rick's plan when he went to talk to Jadis and the Garbage People? When they took him prisoner, I thought "Cool. This is some plan for Rick to get inside their junkyard and then Daryl and company show up next week to kick some Garbage-butt." But no, it turns out that Rick's entire plan was to show up and convince them to join the rebellion against the Saviors based on nothing but his irresistible charisma. AAAAARRRRGH!!! Well, if you're starting to wonder if it's time to end your unhealthy relationship with "The Walking Dead," there IS an alternative. "Ash vs. Evil Dead" stars the incomparable Bruce Campbell in the TV continuation of the "Evil Dead/Evil Dead 2/Army of Darkness" horror trilogy. It picks up the adventures of the only hero with a chainsaw hand 30 years after the events of the films and it amazingly blends the gore and over-the-top theatrics of the first two "Evil Dead" movies with the absurd humor and attitude of "Army of Darkness." I previously wrote about season one of "Ash vs. Evil Dead", so this time let's take a look at season two. It picks up with Ash (Bruce Campbell) having the time of his life in Jacksonville after making a deal with the mysterious immortal Ruby (Lucy Lawless) to free himself from the burden of the Necronomicon, the mystically powerful Book of the Dead. He's joined by his comrades from season one, the relentlessly supportive Pablo (Ray Santiago) and the more-cynical-but-has-nowhere-else-to-go Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo). But when Ruby's plans for the Book go awry, she's forced to call on Ash and his fellow "Ghost-Beaters" for help. That leads to Ash's return to his old hometown of Elk Grove, Michigan and reunions with his estranged father (Lee Majors), his ex-girlfriend (Michelle Hurd), his old high school running buddy (Ted Raimi), and a town full of people who hate and fear "Ashy Slashy" as the guy who murdered his sister and friends at a cabin in the woods. It turns out the help Ruby needs is to prevent the resurrection of a demon named Baal (Joel Tobeck), who loves to psychologically manipulate we humans into tearing each other apart, and it eventually involves Ash and company time-traveling back to the early 1980s. I don't want to give away any spoilers because season two is quite enjoyable and, at 10 half-hour episodes, you can binge-watch it in a single weekend. The "Evil Dead" films and Bruce Campbell's B-movie shtick are something of an acquired taste but it you've enjoyed them in the past, "Ash vs. Evil Dead" is definitely something you should check out. In all honesty, season two isn't quite as strong as season one, which had a basic quest plotline that carried through all the episodes. Season two essentially has a four episode prologue, followed by a four episode story with the main villain, and concludes with a two episode epilogue. Those middle four episodes are really strong, with the show even managing to take one of the most hackneyed plots in drama and turn it into something pretty interesting, but those bookend episodes aren't quite to that level. The prologue is very focused on Ash's return to Elk Grove but it doesn't appear they completely thought through that premise. Not only are both Campbell and Ash a little long in the tooth for the "man returns home to confront the sins of his youth" storyline, the writers treated the premise like it was a punch line. If a bunch of young people got butchered in the woods and one survived, what actually happened next? Was Ash prosecuted for murder? Was he sent to an insane asylum for all his talk about Deadites? Has Ash been a wanted fugitive all this time? The show offers no explanation at all, which is kind of a problem when that's the main linchpin for the first four episodes. And there was reportedly some behind-the-scenes conflict with the "Ash vs. Evil Dead" creators and I believe it after watching the last two episodes. They start out fairly strong, though hamstrung by echoing the ending of season one, but the final episode of season two ends with a scene that legitimately makes not a lick of sense and has three "Force-ghosts" show up like it's a Star Wars spin off. Those issues, though, don't detract that much from the really fun and funny good time to be had watching season two. The prologue episodes have one of the craziest scenes I've ever watched in my entire life. Dana DeLorenzo is absolutely outstanding. Kelly is kind of third wheel when it comes to the plot but DeLorenzo is so good you can't imagine the show without her. There are some truly surprising twists and things are even flat out scary at times, which is damn hard to do with this kind of program. Most horror TV shows rapidly turn into action shows with monsters but there are moments when season two will creep you out. And Bruce Campbell, of course, is and remains THE MAN. "Ash vs. Evil Dead" season two is extremely gory and has a buttload of profanity, so it's not something to view with the whole family unless it's The Addams Family or The Munsters. But if you want to watch a show that only wants to entertain you, rather than one that seems to be deliberately trying to frustrate and anger you...give it some sugar.


In their own minds, this is probably what 1970s porno folks thought they were making. They were wrong.
When Carey Mulligan getting naked isn't the highpoint of your motion picture, you've really accomplished something. When your movie includes multiple full-frontal shots of Michael Fassbender's Magneto-dong and that isn't the lasting image left in your mind, you've made something pretty remarkable. And when you can fill up your film with long, single-camera shots of actors neither saying nor doing a whole lot and I'm not left squirming in my seat, you are an adept storyteller. The subject matter and style of Shame isn't for just anyone but anything this good will be enjoyed by a lot of people who wouldn't expect to.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a good looking guy in the big city working an undefined job at and undefined company. What is starkly defined is Brandon's sex addiction. From porn to masturbation to prostitutes to banging complete strangers and a whole lot more, Brandon's entire existence seems to revolve around doing things to, for and with his penis. That includes his relationship with his estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who forces her way into his life despite Brandon's every effort to ignore her. When he catches her naked in his shower and neither Brandon averts his eyes nor Sissy tries to cover herself, you know there's a damaged history with these two.

That's not what Shame is about, though. It's not about a lot in most conventional senses. In lieu of a plot, director/co-writer Steve McQueen slowly peels the apple of Brandon's sexual compulsions until he's revealed to be an addict no different than most. Whatever pleasure sex used to give Brandon, he now needs greater and greater sexual extremes simply not to feel bad. His addiction consumes more and more of his life while losing any power to distract Brandon from his crushing misery.

McQueen's filmmaking here is quite noteworthy. He doesn't tell us anything about Brandon. McQueen lets the audience discover it all for ourselves by showing us Brandon's actions, his inactions and the environment he's created for himself. Let me give you an example. After finding his sister nude in the shower, Sissy enters the kitchen the next morning to find Brandon making breakfast and her wearing nothing but a virtually see-thru t-shirt. When you watch them have "normal" brother-sister interactions with Sissy's nipple clearly visible, you realize the shower thing wasn't some bizarre event. A lack of sexual boundaries is fundamental to them and their relationship. Shame isn't shot like a stage play but with a largely static camera and very few, if any, cuts during its scenes, Shame is closer to a book than a movie in certain ways. It doesn't feel like McQueen is telling you a story. It's more like you're observing and deciphering things happening in front of you. His technique here is a reminder that fast edits and visual tricks can distance you from the emotional and intellectual heart of a film.

Fassbender and Mulligan are great, with Mulligan perhaps shining a bit brighter because Sissy is able to express her needs more openly. James Badge Dale does a fine job as well as Brandon's boss, someone who's ineptness as a pickup artist and capacity to live a fully functional life is a wonderful contrast to Brandon's stunted manhood.

Shame is very good. You might start watching it for the sex. You'll keep watching for the humanity.


Takes way, way, WAAAAAAAAAY too long to get going
I would guess there are a lot of people out there who don't appreciate what a big deal Oliver Stone used to be in cinema. And no, Stone fans, the guy hasn't been a big deal in any respect for a while now. Well, if people could watch the last half of Savages, they might gain some understanding of why Stone's work was once so highly anticipated and much discussed. Unfortunately, that kind of requires you to watch the first half of Savages, which is the sort of overwrought and uninspired filmmaking which is simultaneously so boring and exhausting that sitting through it is more like an endurance test than entertainment. There is not one single moment, performance, passage of dialog, plot twist or visual trick in the first half of Savages that has originality, surprise, uniqueness, insight or any emotional appeal.

To start with, this film may have the laziest narration I've ever heard in any motion picture I've ever seen. And I don't mean lazy like the half assed job Harrison Ford did with Blade Runner. I mean lazy in that Stone uses it to repeatedly inform the audience about the story they're watching instead of showing it. Not to mention that it includes plenty of eye-rolling phrases like a woman describing a troubled Afghanistan War vet with the line "I have orgasms. He has wargasms". Yeesh.

This tale is about a couple of California pot growers named Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Yes. His name is Chon, something I'd bet 98% of viewers don't realize unless they sit through the end credits. I don't mind unusual or distinctive character names but Chon? Was the hospital out of J's the day he was born?

Anyway, Ben and Chon have become quite successful selling their own brand of highly potent marijuana. It's given them a big house and a polyamorous relationship with O (Blake Lively), a poor little girl neglected by her rich mother and multitude of stepfathers. Then a Mexican drug cartel insists or forging a partnership with Ben and Chon and kidnaps O when the boys are reluctant to agree. Our dynamic and quite chronic duo then kidnap the somewhat estranged daughter of the cartel's distaff leader (Salma Hayek) and demand the return of O and the end of the cartel's harassment. There's also a stretch where Ben and Chon attack a cartel drug shipment to get money to pay for O's return and then frame a cartel lawyer as a spy, but none of it matters or makes much sense as anything but an excuse for Stone to try and recapture the visceral and visual thrills that once distinguished his movies. He fails.

None of the preceding stuff in Savages has a whit of heart, charm, style or brains. A bit more than halfway through the flick, though, Stone largely abandons Ben and John to focus on Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a cartel enforcer who's playing every angle on both sides of the law and the border; Dennis (John Travolta), a DEA agent who is delightfully straightforward in his corruption; and Elana's turn toward O as a substitute for her own daughter. Scenes where Lado confronts Dennis about his treachery and where Elana's motherly instinct toward O exists in perfect harmony with her criminal ruthlessness are just marvelous in their style, substance and timing. In a few moments, Travolta will remind you of how truly gifted he is and how he's squandered almost as much of his acting life as Nicholas Cage. Travolta is even able to overcome a scene where Dennis laments to his dying wife about how the world is full of crap and everyone is on the take, the sort of speechifying Stone no longer has the deft touch to pull off as a filmmaker.

Too much of this sounds and feels like Oliver Stone's version of Miami Vice, the TV show and not the Michael Mann film. And not the good episodes of the early years but the stuff from late in its run when some blend of inertia and instant nostalgia was the only thing keeping it on the air. Stone has nothing to say here about drugs, addiction, legalization, relationships, violence, assimilation or any of the other themes the screenplay touches on and then forgets. This is a movie about nothing more than the fact that Oliver Stone still has enough juice to get a movie made in Hollywood. I suppose that's more than most folks can claim at any age or stage of their career. It's a lot less than we used to be able to expect from Stone.

If Savages encourages anyone to check out Stone's earlier and much more ambitious work, I'm happy for that. I don't think that's enough to justify this film's existence.

Solomon Kane

Gets it wrong almost every way it could
Sometimes the movie business makes you shake your head and sigh. Sometimes it just really pisses you off. Watching Solomon Kane was the latter experience. As a fan of Robert E. Howard's dour, puritan adventurer, I was quite excited when I heard he was finally making it to the big screen. I mean…at least it had to be better than Kevin Sorbo as King Kull, right?


If this had been a good film but an unfaithful adaptation of Howard's work, I could've accept that. If it had hewed closely to the pistol- blasting, sword-wielding, explicitly Christian fanatic that REH created but sucked as a motion picture, I could have lived with that. Writer/director Michael J. Bassett, however, managed to screw this pooch coming and going. Whatever affection for or commitment to the source material he may have had, he let his ego run wild and decided to substitute his vision for REH's. Which would have been bad enough but then that vision turned out to be as hazy as Mr. Magoo's and as shopworn as a 53 year old crack whore.

Let me start by addressing my fellow REH fans. You may be tempted to view this thing in the future. Don't. There is little to nothing of REH to be found here. This is a freakin' prequel, for pete's sake. It is set BEFORE any of the Kane stories or poems and purports to explain how Kane became the icy crusader against evil that you and I enjoyed reading about. Now, you may be thinking that means Solomon Kane is like a feature- length version of the origin story from the Schwarzenegger Conan flick. It isn't. This thing gives us a Solomon Kane who is a greedy, self- centered and somewhat cowardly bastard and is transformed by experiences into a steely, unflinching slayer of villains and monsters of all sorts. Imagine if Conan had started out as some effete, Hyborean Age accountant and turned into a barbarian thief and warrior. Who wants to see that? Bassett then compounds his arrogant error of thinking anyone would be interested in him de-and then reconstructing the creation of a writer a thousand times better than he with filmmaking skill on the level of a basset hound. Let's start with the most elementary of his mistakes. He introduces Kane as a murderer obsessed with treasurer who is told by a demon that his actions have damned him to Hell, causing Kane to flee to a monastery and be even more obsessed with saving his own soul, to the point that he begs like a little bitch when the head of the order throws him out. I don't recall Kane doing anything all that heroic for almost the first half of the film, and even then he only kills a bunch of bad guys AFTER they've slaughtered most of the Puritan family who took him in and kidnapped the family's daughter. Kane then gallops around killing possessed raiders, with no apparent plan of how this would lead him to the missing girl, and falls into alcoholic despair when told the girl has been killed. It's only when he learns she's alive that Kane rouses himself and confronts those responsible. That turns out to be Leatherface, who has somehow traveled back in time like Army of Darkness to the early 1600's in England, and this other dude who looks like he's been lifted entirely out of a REH Conan story because pre-history Cimmeria and Jolly Old England are interchangeable to a "writer" like Bassett. After defeating them and a CGI fire-demon that appears to have a slow wifi connection, Kane sets out as a redeemed soul ready for the stories REH came up with.

Oh, and there's also this bit about an old friend of Kane who helps rally the people against Leatherface and the Conan sorcerer. Except he's introduced with about a half-hour to go in the movie, despite the movie starting out in Kane's past during roughly the same time this doofus was supposed to know him. Why not have the guy appear in those scenes and then return later in the story? Because if this guy hung out with Kane when he was a greedy, murdering bastard, that would make him a greedy, murdering bastard too, wouldn't it? Bassett somehow realized that would be problematic for a minor supporting character, but not that it was an even bigger problem for his main character. Forest. Trees. You know the rest.

And this thing also has several flashbacks to Kane's childhood and we find out that the evildoers he's facing now are connected to what happened in those flashbacks. I guess because being horrible and vicious killers who pillage the countryside and massacre scores of innocents isn't bad enough. They have to have a backstory with the hero, as though that's going to be what finally gets the audience's attention.

This is a prequel for a character that, sadly, few people have ever heard of. It takes nearly half its runtime to get that character into his classic outfit. Then by its end, he's abandoned that look and is garbed like some generic D'Artagnan-wannabe.

On the plus side, the sword fights are okay.

If you see this on a nearby screen, look away and go find the original stories by REH. You'll be glad you did.


Arrogant irreverence is not the same as actually funny
For a legendary comedy, MASH isn't that funny. It's mostly mean, petty, arrogant and self-righteous.

As anyone familiar with the TV show spawned by this film knows, MASH is the story of 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. It primarily follows the exploits of surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) as they joke their way through bloody surgery and dealing with Army bureaucracy. There's really not much of a plot to the film. It's just the characters moving from one situation to the next, mostly becoming more absurd as they go along.

There aren't that much more than a handful of real jokes in the movie and most of them are the simplest sort of slapstick. Almost all of the alleged humor of MASH comes out of the characters' irreverent attitude toward each and every thing around them. But being irreverent isn't always the same as being funny. Sometimes being irreverent is just being a jackass and in the case of MASH, sometimes it's just being a cruel child lashing out at anyone different than you.

My problem with this movie started with the scene where Hawkeye and his fellow newly arrived doctor, Duke (Tom Skerrit), encounter Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). As they enter their tent, they find Frank trying to teach a young Korean boy how to read, and he's using the Bible to do it. Hawkeye and Duke find this to be odd and somewhat offensive behavior and give the boy a girlie magazine to look at instead. Later on, Frank prays for the safety of U.S. soldiers in the field, their commanders on the ground and their Commander-In-Chief and again, Hawkeye and Duke find this behavior objectionable and openly mock and deride Frank for praying. And it's very clear that the movie wants us to agree that Frank's actions are strange, bad and laughable. But the movie never bothers to explain why.

Trying to teach a Korean kid to read English is a noble thing, especially because the movie never implies that the kid has any real education to speak of and in contrast to the way the movie's "heroes" treat him as nothing more than a servant. Praying for the well being of others should be about the most unobjectionable thing anyone can do, yet MASH implies it shouldn't be tolerated in polite company. Frank Burns is constantly treated like a terrible person, but Duvall's Frank isn't the complete weasel that Larry Linvile portrayed on TV. The only sin Duvall's Frank ever commits is being a little uptight. He never does anything any normal person would consider that bad, yet because he doesn't think and act the way Hawkeye and Trapper John do he's subjected to cruel torments and physical violence.

It's even worse for Major Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Again, her only real offense is being a little uptight. But she's repeatedly subjected to the most vicious sorts of humiliations and unlike Frank, who at least gets to strike back at his tormentors, "Hot Lips" laps up the abuse like a whipped dog and later in the film grinningly pals around with the very people who treated her like the lowest form of garbage.

I can only imagine that MASH was supposed to reflect the cultural attitudes of the day. Audiences were supposed to identify with Hawkeye and the gang as "us" and laugh uproariously as they heaped abuse on "them". But if the narcissistic, crude, intolerant, vindictive, sadistic and awful thinking and attitudes embodied by this film really did represent the true face of the late1960s/early 1970s…no one should be surprised that there are so many people who deeply despise that era and everything it stood for.

The Wolverine

I feel sorry for Hugh Jackman
The Wolverine is one of the better made super-hero flicks of its era. Screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank have come up with a story that's better than Spider-Man 1 or 3, Iron Man 2 or 3, either Hulk movie and both Captain America and Thor combined. Director James Mangold also does fine work, though many of the action scenes suffer from the modern blight of camera movement that's so frenetic you can barely tell who is hitting whom. The special effects are solid and even the soundtrack is well done. And the cast, highlighted by the tremendous Hugh Jackman, is as appealing as you'll find. There's almost every ingredient here you need to make a great motion picture. The one thing missing, however, is so important that it negates almost everything positive.

Wolverine is not a great character. Yes, I know. He's the most popular comic book creation of the last 40 years and has joined, if not surpassed, Batman, Superman and Spider-Man in the hearts of super-hero fans. That's still doesn't change the fact that he's not a great character. Or to be more accurate, that's he's only a great character in the limited role for which he was originally conceived. Wolverine was created to be a one-off opponent for the Hulk and then was hauled out of mothballs to join a revamped X-Men roster and as a rebel anti-hero in opposition to or operating alongside more traditional heroic types, Logan is a whole lot of fun. On his own as the emotional and narrative heart of a story, he's a whole lot of one-note nothing.

Wolverine is nothing more than adolescent badassery given form. He has none of the natural depth of Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne. Those characters are enmeshed with bigger concepts like responsibility, guilt, compulsion and myriad other things. Wolverine is about nothing more than looking, talking and acting "cool" and every attempt to graft more onto him ultimately fails. This film ambitiously tries to build off both Logan's sense of loss from killing Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand and his weariness over decades of battle-torn existence to give him some pathos, then strips him of his healing factor to try and make him slightly vulnerable. But adolescent badassery and vulnerability never mix and by the end of the movie, Logan is back to getting skewered through the chest by a katana and shrugging it off like it was a splinter. The super power that originally meant he could recover from a non-fatal gunshot in a day has metastasized into every boy's fantasy of never being hurt by anything.

And if you think I'm wrong, ask yourself this. What are the best Wolverine moments on the big screen. They're all from the first two X-flicks, aren't they? Moments when he may have been the star but shared the screen and story with others. Or why did they need to go back to a 4 issue limited series from 30 years ago for the guts of this motion picture? No one wrote a Wolvie story-arc in the last 20 years that was good enough for the job?

In many respects, this movie helps to solidify the standard of quality by which the whole genre should be judged. It really is that good in so many ways. But just because a comic book character is popular, that doesn't mean he or she can carry an entire film.

Pacific Rim

If any filmmaker desperately needed to fail, it's del Toro.
The greatness of Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker is his ability to tap into the pure imagination of childhood. The failing of del Toro as a storyteller is that he's not grown up enough to discipline that imagination. He embraces fantastic ideas and marvelous imagery but, left to his own devices, his films falter on simplistic and underdeveloped characters, boring and meandering plots, clichés piled on top of clichés and an unwillingness to get everything to make sense. Like a child, del Toro doesn't notice if he's being repetitive or nonsensical or erratic or if his story isn't going anywhere.

Pacific Rim is probably the best looking giant robot vs. giant monster movie ever made. The special effects and fight scenes are remarkable to watch. Outside of those scenes, this film isn't any better and might be a bit worse than the average man-in-suit Godzilla flick from Toho. Frankly, the prologue where del Toro world-builds the setting of this motion picture is more interesting and more dramatically compelling than everything that follows.

After years of Mankind using giant robots to kill giant monsters coming out of a dimensional rift on the ocean floor, a fallen hero is resurrected to help in a final attempt to end the war. A bunch of stockier-than-stock characters are introduced. There's a tired subplot with one of the guys from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Big battles ensue. The good guys win. Granted, most folks are looking for stuff like Pacific Rim to be a combination of Mamet, Shakespeare and Steinbeck, but there's not a moment of alleged drama or comedy here you haven't seen many, many, many times before.

But del Toro can't even manage his clichés right. He spectacularly introduces his main hero, played by Charlie Hunnam, and sets up the character's personal challenge. Then del Toro relegates his hero to bystander while he elevates a series of secondary characters to the fore. That might have been bold if their stories were at all entertaining or original. Those secondary character arcs, however, are arbitrarily manufactured, introduced and mostly left unresolved. This could have been Hunnam's big shot at movie stardom. Instead, you'll barely remember he was in the movie.

By the standards of summer blockbusters, Pacific Rim is unexceptional but okay. Maybe if it bombs, folks will stop letting del Toro run wild and force him to marry his amazing vision to some cold, hard, practical thought.

Take This Waltz

Proves that Seth Rogan can act, but that's about it.
Writer/director Sarah Polley makes things perfectly clear from the very beginning of Take This Waltz. As Michelle Williams and her feet shift in and out of focus while making blueberry muffins during the opening credits, I felt like Polley was speaking directly to me. She was saying "I have no interest in entertaining you. I made a film that satisfies my creative vision and if you enjoy it, great. If not, suck it".

I liked Polley's take on how the desire of the moment transforms into the reality of the rest of your life. Williams and Sarah Silverman get gratuitously naked, which is always welcome. Seth Rogan also demonstrates that he could be a pretty good dramatic actor if he worked at it. Everything else about this movie left me sucking it.

Margot (Williams) and Lou (Rogan) are a young married couple who are very much in love, but Lou no longer fulfills Margot's yearnings for passion and won't give her a child as compensation. Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), a young artist/rickshaw driver who Margot meets and flirts with on a plane and then turns out to live right across the street. As Margot and Daniel slowly dance the dance of seduction around each other, the seams of Margot and Lou's marriage even more slowly split apart. Margot eventually leaves her husband and, in what is absolutely the best part of the story, we see that her "happily ever after" winds her up in exactly the same place she was before.

The montage where Polley shows us how the burning lust of soulmates turns inevitably into tedious domesticity is some great filmmaking. That sequence alone justifies her as an artist. Another montage where Rogan goes through 6 months of post-breakup emotions in one morning, however, shows that Polley has a long way to go as a craftsman. Take This Waltz is too long, too scattered and contains too much stuff that doesn't connect.

Take the Rogan montage, which could double as his screen test for any dramatic role for which he might ever audition. Rogan does a nice job handling the acting up to that scene, but the limits of his skill show through in the montage. What is obviously supposed to be a defining moment in the film falls flat and what makes it worse is that the montage is superfluous. There's no need to feature the character of Lou so prominently. This is overwhelmingly Margot's story. No other character really gets that kind of showcase moment against Lou and he already has a smaller bit that does everything necessary to tug on the audience's heart strings. The montage doesn't pay off anything we've seen of Lou leading up to it. It doesn't lead to any plot or character moments after it. It's isolated and arbitrary and may very well have been inserted into the script for the sole purpose of enticing a star like Rogan to take an otherwise meager part.

Another isolated and arbitrary scene is where Williams, Silverman and other women of various ages and shapes are showering together in a locker room. They're completely naked and there's nothing comedic or titillating about any of it. Polley is clearly trying to make some kind of statement about women's body types and the exploitation of female nudity in cinema. That statement has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in Take This Waltz. The dialog from the scene could have been spoken in any other setting and neither female body issues nor meta-textual commentary of film are even vaguely alluded to in the rest of the motion picture.

And while Polley does a good job at making Margot and Lou into reasonably believable human beings, Daniel is a construct. He has no thoughts, emotions or existence beyond serving the plot. Additionally, there's a subplot about Silverman's character being an alcoholic where Polley doesn't appear to understand the difference between being a drunk and having a mental illness, like bipolar disorder. Either that or alcoholism is simply illegal in Canada.

Take This Waltz isn't a disaster. It did need someone to step in and persuade Polley to make it as a 40 minute long film festival entry. That didn't happen so I'd advise all but the most devoted lover of art house flicks to wait for the next dance.

[Rec]³: Génesis

Why couldn't they have stopped at 2?
I can't characterize Rec 3: Genesis any better than by quoting The Dark Knight. "In this world, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain". The original Rec was an outstanding piece of filmmaking and downright scary. The sequel, while not as striking, was an exciting and entertaining expansion on its predecessor. Rec 3 is not only garden variety crap, there's nothing in this movie to make you think the folks behind it had any intent of churning out anything more than that. Rec 1 and 2 were the sort of thing to which all cinema should aspire. They were smart, skillful and engaging. Rec 3 is far too much of what passes for cinema today. It's dumb, hackneyed and soulless.

Supposedly set in the same time frame as the first two films, though it could have been long before or long after for all the difference it would have made, this one sees an outbreak of Satanic Rabies during a wedding. The infection spreads, people get chomped and the always intrepid bride and groom (Leticia Dolera and Diego Martin) struggle to make it out alive. That's basically it for plot, which only illustrates how bad this thing is compared to 1 and 2. Those films took place in a well-defined environment which presented clear and believable challenges to their characters, facilitating logical and compelling stories. In this one, there's a bunch of drones in an amorphous setting and some bad stuff happens. The end.

The only halfway decent things about this flick are Leticia Dolera as the bride and Ismael Martinez as the groom's best friend. Dolera is quite attractive and conveys a real likability, even when the movie descends into virtual self-parody and turns the bride into a knockoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Martinez play a guy who appears to have been imported into this motion picture from the Spanish version of Swingers and gives and enjoyably different reaction to his horrific circumstances. I wouldn't say the rest of the cast do poor jobs but they're playing roles we've all seen time and time again.

There's one part that best encapsulates the quality and quantity of suckage in Rec 3: Genesis. This thing begins with the "found footage" approach with hand-held camera shots, then introduces a wedding videographer with a stedicam. When that happened, I anticipated something interesting that mixed the hand-held and stedicam shots. There's a bunch of contrasts and comparisons and other dramatic effects to be mined from such a combination. Instead, they ditch the "found footage" approach as soon as the Satantic Rabies shows up and switch to just being a normal movie.

That splendidly represents what's wrong with Rec 3 because it's obvious these filmmakers didn't give a single thought to what they were doing or why. They just began with "found footage" because that's was they thought Rec films should look like, didn't give a crap about what the style means or how to make use of it, then abandoned it to make something that looks and sounds just like another horror flick. Something that tried to take "found footage" in a new direction would have been admirable, even if it utterly failed. Rec 3 is just more of the same old schlock.

Oh, and instead of the rabid and rapid beasts of Rec 1 and 2, the infected here behave like Romero zombies most of the time. Why? Because that's how they need to behave so these filmmakers can tell their stupid story in the stupid way they want. It's almost like this thing was made by someone who never even saw the first two, just read the reviews and thought they were normal zombie pictures.

Rec 3: Genesis isn't merely bad. It's the kind of insultingly awful that taints the great stuff that came before it. Rec fans should definitely give this a pass.

Conan the Barbarian

Only watch it if you haven't seen the original
One of the worst things about modern, or postmodern, culture is the division between art and entertainment. Put simply, art is not expected to be entertaining and entertainment is not expected to be artistic. That's how we wind up with so many carefully crafted art house flicks that bore the pants off the general public and big budget blockbusters whose storytelling ranges from sub-mediocre to downright atrocious. There may be no better illustration of that than to compare this Conan movie to its Schwarzengger-starring predecessor. That film aspired to genuine artistic merit, which led it to become perhaps the greatest sword-n-sorcery epic of all time. This one aims no higher than basic competence and though it meets that mark, such a lack of ambition ultimately leaves the viewer unsatisfied.

A cinematic reboot of Robert E. Howard's greatest creation, this motion picture echoes the first in that it's all about Conan's quest to slay those who massacred his village when he was a child. In this one, Khalar Zyn (Stephen Lange) kills everyone in order to claim the final piece of a magical mask that he needs to revive his slain wife and, somehow, resurrect an ancient empire of evil. Conan survives the attack and grows up to be Jason Momoa, who crosses paths with Zym again 20 years later and must prevent him from ritually sacrificing a woman (Rachel Nichols) and completing the final part of his obviously long-delayed plan.

There are only a few things wrong with this movie. Both the beginning and end are way, way, waaaaaay too long. I mean, you're a half hour in before grown up Conan appears and the final battle against Zym is a meandering mess that goes at least 10 minutes longer than it should. There's also far too much time spent on Zym. He's essentially an equal to Conan as a main character on screen. It's one thing to do that when you're dealing with the Joker as played by Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger. Generic bad guy portrayed by veteran character actors should not be elevated to that status.

The rest is no worse and maybe a bit better than most sword-n-sorcery flicks, though Rose McGowan's hammy performance is a bit of an acquired taste. The problem is that these filmmakers had not intention or desire to try and make a great movie. They just wanted to come up with something good enough to score at the box office. The plot is okay. The music is okay. The cinematography is okay. The costumes are okay. The set design is okay. The action scenes are okay. There are no chances taken. There's no striving for the exceptional. It's nothing more than yet another genre film.

Such thinking didn't exist with the original. Though the subject matter may have been adolescent or melodramatic, the filmmaking and storytelling was still expected to try and be as good as anything else on screen. The writing needed to be sharp, subtle and memorable. The visuals had to stand up, in technique and style, to what the audience might see in more high class fair. And the music...goodness! The soundtrack of the original Conan the Barbarian is one of the greatest in Hollywood history.

I can give this film a bit of a break because it's traversing well-worn ground that was still somewhat fresh and new when Schwarzenegger donned loin cloth and blade. That doesn't obscure the truth that the best thing about it is how well the comparison of the two serves as a primer on the superiority of the filmmaking of previous generations.

Star Trek Into Darkness

So, is this reboot ever going to have a purpose other than making money?
I thought JJ Abrams' initial reboot of the franchise was fresh, exciting and not really much of a Star Trek movie. Into Darkness is still moderately exciting and slightly more Trekish, though more of the DS9 and Voyager variety than either Classic or Next Gen, but the freshness of Abrams' take expires long before this film is over. The story swaps out stunning scientific illiteracy for a senselessly elaborate plot that feels more like an overstuffed episode of Alias. The interior of the new Enterprise continues to make less sense than the TARDIS. And while the rest of the cast comes a bit closer to matching Karl Urban's great imitation of DeForest Kelley, the fact remains that the only reason any cares about Kirk is William Shatner, the only reason anyone cares about Spock is Leonard Nimoy and the only reason anyone cares about this motion picture is Gene Roddenberry.

Into Darkness stays true to the fanfic alt-history approach of Abrams and mashes up the first re-appearances of both Khan and the Klingons with a "lessons of 9/11" message that would have been bold 10 years ago but is now positively moldy, especially given that it follows the similarly "lessons of 9/11" themed Iron Man 3. There's a whole lot of running around, some decent action and comedy bits and Alice Eve joins the cast, which is good enough to raise anything at least one star on the ratings scale.

Remember when fans of the John Carter movie got all defensive over how badly it bombed at the box office? I remember because I was one of those fans and Star Trek: Into Darkness is a great example of why we tried to make so many excuses. This film isn't substantially better than John Carter. It inarguably isn't so much better that is deserves to make a couple hundred million dollars more in ticket sales. The power of the Trek brand, however, will get people into the theater and Abrams provides an adequate diversion for a couple of hours. If Disney hadn't almost entirely abandoned John Carter to the whims of fate, a sequel to that might have been just as unavoidable as this one.

There are a host of "Wait...what?" moments in this movie. Let me focus on just two of them. Wrath of Khan brilliantly handled the problem of how to credibly defeat an enemy who is smarter than you through the insight that intelligence is not the same as knowledge or wisdom. Classic Kirk and Spock whupped Khan's butt by taking advantage of his inexperience and emotional immaturity. Muppet Babies Spock is victorious because Muppet Babies Khan is an idiot who falls for a pretty obvious trick. And during Into Darkness' most notorious echoing of Star Trek II, can anyone explain what lesson is being learned and who is learning it? I don't think we need to get into the films' respective "KHAAAAAAN" screams and how Wrath's made perfect dramatic sense while Abrams' version is melodramatic tripe.

I am surely being too critical of this thing. Judged on the awesomely low standards of summer blockbusters, it's definitely above average. I'd just like to know when this rebooted franchise is going to offer something more than Roddenberry's reheated leftovers.

The Wicker Tree

Yes, directors do indeed need writers.
The worst thing about The Wicker Tree is that it's not even the worst attempt at exploiting the original horror classic. The remake of The Wicker Man starring Nicholas Cage is at least so awesomely point-and-laugh terrible that you can enjoy mocking it. This thing is merely another lame horror flick to throw on the ever-growing pile. Robin Hardy turns in a thoroughly pedestrian job as a director but came up with a stupid, shallow and simplistic script that works best as an unintentional love letter to Anthony Shaffer, writer of the first film. I hate to put it this way but The Wicker Tree looks, sounds and feels like the work of an old man who is well past his creative prime and no one had the decency to tell him. If this move had failed spectacularly, you could credit Hardy with perhaps trying to be bold and imaginative. As it is, it's hard to view this as anything more that a much delayed cash grab.

Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) is a Christian country singer who, along with her cowboy fiancée Steve (Henry Garrett), travels from Texas to Scotland as a missionary to revive the faith of a small village. Let me stop right here and point something out because I think it gets at the heart of what's wrong with this film. Hardy was bright enough to realize that England has become such a religiously neutered society that he would have to go far afield to find representatives of Christianity to square off against the forces of paganism. However, he didn't bother to think about how that kind of cultural shift would affect anything else. Paganism in a post-Christian 21st century should not be at all the same thing as during the 1970s when church-going was still part of the established order of life in the UK.

Let me draw an analogy. Organized crime still exists in America but is, by all accounts, a shell of what is once was. If you made a movie about the Mafia today which didn't acknowledge that reality, that portrayed the Mob as the same sort of pervasive and powerful force it was in the 70s or during Prohibition, you'd end up with a silly and contrived bit of nonsense. Tony Soprano could not be Michael Corleone. Yet, other than bringing in Yanks as his designated Christian victims, Hardy didn't put any thought at all into how the passing of time and cultural and economic changes would require re-imagining the Wicker Man story.

The whole of The Wicker Tree is a constant reminder that Hardy didn't think things through when he wrote this screenplay. I mean, the original was set on an island that was physically cut off from civilization. That's the sort of detail that helps the viewer suspend disbelief and accept a pagan cult surviving in secrecy. The Wicker Tree not only takes place on the mainland, it's set in a village near a nuclear power plant. There's nothing isolated or secluded about such a location that would make avoiding public scrutiny easy. And while the original Wicker Man left open the question of what happens after the human sacrifice of a police officer and even hints that things aren't going to turn out well for the murderous cult, this flick ends with an epilogue that expects us to believe that not only can a minor celebrity vanish from a Scottish village with no one caring but that the gruesome death of the founder and leader of the cult would have absolutely no effect on anything. Oh, and it expects you to believe that a human being exposed to flame burns like gas-soaked tissue paper.

Anyway, Beth and Steve arrive in Scotland. The pagan villagers want to kill them. They do. The end. Believe me, I put as much thought into those four sentences and Hardy did with this script.

Topping it all is that while the original seemed like its pagan cult was at least based on some real and coherent religion, The evil faith in The Wicker Tree appears to be nothing more than horror movie tripe that Hardy just pulled out of his butt. I'm no expert and maybe it is drawn from historical truth, but it's presented so poorly and idiotically that it comes off like made up crap.

Now, Honeysuckle Weeks does take her top off and there a good bit of nudity at the end but it is mostly of the real world nudist variety where you kind of wish the folks had kept their clothes on. There isn't anything that's even inadvertently worth seeing here. Watch the original. Watch the remake and turn its awfulness into a drinking game with your friends. Don't waste your time on The Wicker Tree.


You've got no right to bitch if you didn't like it
If nothing else, I've got to give writer/director Lars von Trier credit for being upfront with viewers. He kicks off Melancholia with a long, wordless montage of music and imagery which previews all that is to follow. If you sit through the film after that prologue, you've got no right to complain. Von Trier does everything but send up smoke signals to indicate that this movie is going to be slow, fancily stylized and plotted like a shambling zombie. To some, that sort of thing is the cat's pajamas. To others, they'd rather undergo a root canal with no anesthesia. Whichever you are, you'll know right away whether to keep watching.

Let me be as honest as von Trier. I only rented this flick to see Kirsten Dunst topless. As spectacular as she is, however, Dunst's bosom isn't the only appealing thing about Melancholia. I am not one who is usually a fan of this kind of ostentatious art house tedium, where being excessively quiet and taking forever to so or say anything is supposed to be a mark of quality. I believe any artistic endeavor should engage the audience, not demand its tolerance or indulgence. I don't need something to explode every 5 minutes but I'm also not impressed with a filmmaker trying to impress me with how deep and subtle he thinks he is. So if it weren't for Dunst's bare boobs, I'm one of those people who have turned this film off after the first 5 minutes.

I'm glad, though, that the lure of Dunst's nudity kept me watching. Don't get me wrong. I didn't enjoy the rest of Melancholia and certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone not already a fan of this type of cinema, but the visuals offered up are beautiful and while von Trier's storytelling could be accused of pretension, it's never aggravating. Throw in Dunst's nakedness and I'm glad I experienced this thing, though it felt more like I was watching von Trier trying to paint or sculpt through instead of making a movie.

If you're wondering about the dubious plot, it's like a sci-fi double feature. The first half is about Justine (Dunst), a woman who suffers from clinical depression in an alternate reality where psychiatry and psychology never existed and we watch as her medical condition destroys her wedding night. The second half is about Justine and her sister's (Charlotee Gainsbourg) family loitering around an English estate as a rogue planet approaches Earth.

Melancholia isn't for everyone and doesn't offer much, besides Dunst's breasts, for anyone. But if your significant other wants to subject you to some art house cinema, you could do a lot worse than this.

An American Werewolf in London

More noteworthy than entertaining
Time is a cruel judge and there are few better examples of that than An American Werewolf in London. This is a well made and very clever film which, in its day, was more remarkable and historically significant. The passing of the years, the coarsening and acceleration of our culture and the movie's own impact on popular imagination have unfortunately robbed it of most of its appeal. Now, the most noticeable things about it are its weaknesses and not its strengths. As cliché as it sounds, sometimes you really did have to be there to appreciate what all the fuss was about. That's the case here, so I'd first and foremost encourage anyone who watches this flick to keep that in mind.

David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are a couple of puffy coat-wearing Yanks who are backpacking their way across England when, on a night when the moon in full, they're attacked by a savage beast on the moors. Jack is slaughtered, the beast slain by villages and the badly wounded David only sees the animal transformed back into a man before he wakes up weeks later in a London hospital. There he flirts with a beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter) and chats with Jack's undead spirit. The beast, you see, was a werewolf and Jack is condemned to spend eternity in limbo until the monster's bloodline is ended. David survived being bitten, which means he's going to become a werewolf. So, the only way for his friend to rest in peace is for David to kill himself. And he's better hurry up about it because the next full moon is only a few days away.

There's a lot to admire in An American Werewolf in London but I'm going to start with its flaws, since those are what most modern viewers will primarily see in it. The plot is painfully sparse and nothing more than the bare bones of the werewolf story everyone learns growing up, with no attempt to expand, extend or amplify the tale. Writer/director John Landis uses some startling dream sequences to fill time, but there's no disguising that little happens for the first hour of this year. The special effects, while cutting edge for their day, have been far surpassed. Anyone who's grown up with horror-comedy as a fully formed sub-genre will also detected the abrupt and severed nature of how the two are blended here. The ironic, self-referential distancing that has come to traditionally lubricate the mixture is almost entirely absent. Even when the occur virtually side-by-side, the laughs and screams the film means to provoke are separate impulses. The movie has funny bits and scary bits and there's not a lot of connection between the two.

Those are the things that will cause a lot of viewers to react negatively to An American Werewolf in London and that's a shame. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments here. Landis demonstrates his skill by succeeding where so many lesser filmmakers fail by making his characters talk and act like believable human being who are just living their lives, rather than designated victims waiting to be killed. The horror genre has also developed a look, sound and feel where if you see any random 15 seconds of film, you instantly know it came from a horror flick. That's not the case here. This looks, sounds and feels like a regular movie that just happens to deal with supernaturally violent subject matter in comedic fashion.

And while it may not have been the first to do so, An American Werewolf in London might have been the most important factor in changing lycanthropy in Hollywood. The image of the werewolf in entertainment used to be someone in regular human clothing who was really hair and had an animalistic face. Landis rejects that concept in favor of a four-legged creature with a snout and mostly non-human aspects. In the wake of this film, werewolves stopped being guys in costumes and became puppets or CGI creations and that visual interpretation helped establish the parameters for everything else about the notion. The pop culture evolution of the werewolf could have gone in a completely different direction. Instead, John Landis became the midwife, if not the father, of all the howling beasties we see in the Underworld and Twilight franchises and most every other werewolf story told since this one.

I liked An American Werewolf in London, but more as a museum piece than as entertainment. It has its charms. It's also going to seem dated to those to young to remember what werewolf movies were like before it. As long as you understand that going in, you'll probably enjoy it.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

And the point of this was?
I can't decide if watching Martha Marcy May Marlene is like falling into a black hole or like undergoing Chinese water torture. On the one hand, time seems to dilate while viewing it until a minute feels like a thousand years. After it ended, I checked the run time and was flabbergasted that it wasn't at least 4 hours long. On the other hand, there's no singe moment in this film I can point to as being legitimately terrible. The cumulative effect of one tedious scene after another, however, is will-breakingly awful. On two separate occasions, I had to pause the DVD until I recovered enough to continue.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young woman who fell in with a cult after distancing herself from her family, only to flee the cult after two years and seek shelter with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy's new husband Ted (Hugh Darcy). The movie bounces back and forth between Martha's experiences at the cult's communal farm and with its theoretically charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) and Martha's struggle with the emotional and psychological aftermath at her sister's home. There are some clumsy attempts to connect the flashbacks at the farm with Martha's post-cult present, but there's nothing else to mention about the plot.

That's because writer/director Sean Durkin decided to make a movie about a young woman surviving a cult but didn't bother to come up with anything interesting, insightful or engaging to say about that premise. The cast all does a fine job and some of the interactions between characters, particularly Martha and Lucy, are well executed. The story itself is bereft of detail or depth and is told is such an ostentatiously slow and quiet way that it's impossible to really give a damn about any of it. Durkin fails to meet even the most basic narrative requirement and doesn't explain the nature of the cult. Is it religious? Ideological? Philosophical? Does it believe in primitivism? Transcendence? Post-material enlightenment? It is all a big scam or hopeful intentions gone astray? Why have these young people flocked to Patrick? Is it just because he can do a half-assed imitation of a folk singer? If the audience doesn't know any of those things, they can't know what attracted Martha to the cult. If we don't know what attracted her to the cult, we can't know why she stays. If we don't know why she stays, we can't know why she leaves or appreciate her trouble dealing with regular life when she does. If we don't understand any of that, how can we care about Martha or anything that happens to her. She's just an opaque figure morosely wandering across the screen.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of these art house flicks that people make and watch more as a cultural signifier than as true cinema. Creating or sitting through something like this and pretending you like it is supposed to prove that one's own intellect and taste are more advanced than that of the average yokel who floods the local multiplex for the latest Michael Bay fiasco. But if Bay made art house movies, he'd make stuff like Martha Marcy May Marlene. Excessive silence is the art house equivalent of excessive explosions. A meandering paucity of plot is the art house version of mechanical, overdetermined melodrama.

There's a lot of shockingly bad movies that come out of major Hollywood studios today. Sometimes I think the first step to fixing that is to stop fooling ourselves that twaddle like this is any better.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Nick, Norah and company are a fun group
A teen romantic comedy set in the world of indy rock wannabes, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist gives Michael Cera a slightly less pathetic role than usual and wonderfully recreates the free flowing, borderless anarchy of your late teens. Add in the beautiful Kat Dennings, who's a much better actress than I think she gets credit for and gets to play an actual person here instead of just a girlfriend, and you've got a fun and funny little film. This thing does have an ending that's one of the most pointlessly extended dénouements I've ever seen, but by that point spending a little more time with these characters is not something you complain about.

Nick (Michael Cera) is a high school kid still mooning over his ex (Alexis Dziena) when the other members of his struggling band drag him out of his depression and to a gig in New York City. There he runs into Norah (Kat Dennings), a Jewish Catholic school girl who's out for a night on the town with her BFF, the adoringly inebriated Caroline (Ari Graynor). Nick's ex is there too with her new guy, and she also happens to be a schoolmate and frenemy of Norah's. To defy taunts about her datelessness, Nora lassos Nick into pretending to be her boyfriend and helping her get the drunken Caroline home. Nick's bandmates then push Nick and Norah together by agreeing to take care of Caroline. Things don't go so smoothly for anyone after that, but Nick and Norah are stuck together all night looking for Caroline when she goes missing. I don't think anyone could possibly be surprised at how things work out but most everyone will enjoy the ride.

This may be one of the best roles in which I've seen Cera. Nick is similar to his type but has much more of a spine and his pitifulness appears to be more the product of his heartbreak and depression, rather than just being a loser. There's a basic strength and togetherness to Nick that's visible early on and it's refreshingly realistic. This is a guy and not a high school archetype. Likewise, while there's a bit of the "poor little rich girl" to Norah, the film shies away from that and instead focuses on the paradox that Norah can be so forceful when it comes to protecting her friend and so weak about protecting herself. There are moments of this screenplay that perfectly capture that awkward and even combative aspect of extended adolescence where you're desperately trying to connect with someone else while just as desperately trying to define yourself, though they'd just be words on a page without Cera and Dennings so nicely bringing them to life.

Now there is a lot of aggressively prominent music throughout this movie, which is normally something that drives me up the wall. Pop or alt-rock songs swelling up on the soundtrack for repeated segues or montages is one of the worst habits of this era of cinema. It's become beyond cliché and too often features just terrible songs that no one besides hipsters ever like. Here, though, the music is good and its constant presence fits the milieu these young people nestle and swim in. It's an effective atmosphere rather than an intrusive bit of product placement.

Besides Cera and Dennings, their fellow castmates are quite entertaining on their own and are given just enough to do so that they're more than props surrounding the two stars without ever competing with them for the viewer's attention. Ari Graynor, in particular, has a role that could have gone very wrong, very easily. Yet, there's enough restraint to the part and enough ease to Graynor's performance that it adds a great deal to the whole.

The ending of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is not good. Essentially, it comes to an appropriate climax (so to speak) and then remembers a heavily stressed plot point is unresolved. So the movie has to keep to going for that and they decide, to kill time, to have Nick and Norah repeat the emotional challenges they triumphed over just 10 minutes before. It's as awkward as any teenage moment in the rest of the film.

I liked this motion picture enough to recommend it to anyone wanting a teen romantic comedy that's lighter on crudity and heavier on intelligent characterization. Give it a try.

Meet Monica Velour

So...why wasn't this all about Monica?
This film is disappointingly good. Not because I would hoping it would suck and it didn't, but because it is fundamentally flawed in a way that all the positive things movie cannot overcome. This is a funny, sensitive story with fine performances and careful direction. It's also a tale that is structurally centered on one character while its emotional focus is almost entirely on another. The plot is all about a 17 year old kid who seeks out the 1980s porn star he's fantasized about for years. However, that harshly aged porn star is the only one writer/director Keith Bearden really cares about. It is her life and her struggle that are at the heart of this film, even though she's only a supporting character and the movie revolves around the mostly hapless teen. At the end of Meet Monica Velour, the viewer knows far more about the ex-porn star than the teen and understands her better than him. That's like knowing more about Fredo than Michael at the end of The Godfather II or more about Han than Luke at the end of Star Wars.

Let me try and put it this way. The teenager's obsession with the porn star is the most important thing in his life. Yet, the audience is provided with not one scintilla of explanation for why he's obsessed with this particular figure from X rated history or how he even discovered her. This motion picture is set in 2010, which means the kid was born in 1993. The porn star ended her career the better part of a decade before the kid was born and the better part of two decades before he entered puberty. How did he find out she ever existed? And what is it about her that commands his pre-adolescent brand of adoration? I'll admit the former is primarily a pesky little plot detail that others might not care about. The latter is at the core of who this kid is, how he got to be that way and why he does the things he does. No matter how otherwise well written or performed the role, and both are nicely accomplished here, this is a character with a gaping void where his humanity should be. He's a puppet through which Bearden and actor Dustin Ingram show off their considerable talents, but that's all.

In addition to Ingram, Kim Cattrall as the ex-porn star and Brian Dennehy as the teenager's grandpa are quite enjoyable to watch and their characters do have a bit of historical and personal depth to them. Even the smaller parts like Daniel Yelsky as a neighbor boy, Jee Young Han as the girl the main character should be lusting over, Keith David as the wise man who enters the teen's life and Sam McMurray as the ex-porn star's ex-husband feel like living human beings. There's not a question is my mind that you could leave almost everything else the same and if you concentrated the story on Cattrall's character and cast Ingram in a supporting role, this would have been a vastly better and more entertaining film.

If Keith Bearden had only directed someone else's script, I'd be very interested in seeing more work from him. He does that good a job telling this story. That's he's the one who came up with this out-of-whack screenplay, however, gives me pause. I'd still be interested but I'd want to know what other people thought of it before investing my time and money. If you're a fan of any of the actors here, you might like Meet Monica Velour. Even though there's a lot of skill and talent evident in this production, I can't say anything better about it than that.


It's like these filmmakers used up all their talent before getting to the last 15 pages of the script
Kolobos might have been a pretty good little horror flick if it had even a half-decent ending. It's got a talented cast, a script with a nice beginning and middle, above average gore effects and a distinctly 1970s vibe to the look and rhythm of the production that sets it apart from most of its low-budget kin. It does have too much annoyingly stereotypical "scary" music on its soundtrack, but I was able to put that out of mind after a while. Unfortunately, all of the quality work here is just build up for a big conclusion that falls flatter than western Nebraska. This movie has one of those finishes that leaves you saying out loud to the screen "Wait…that's it? Seriously?" It's the sort that leaves you so let down and disappointed, you almost forget everything you liked up to that point while being reminded of all the loose ends and holes in the plot. I don't know what these filmmakers thought they were doing with this ending. All they accomplish is betraying their otherwise admirable efforts.

The story is about 5 people who agree to live in a house for some kind of ill-defined experimental film. No one ever references or even alludes to MTV's Real World or similar such reality television when talking about the project, which is part of the 1970s feel to Kolobos. There's little about this film, either culturally or in technique, that brands it as being from its particular era. If you'd told me it was made in 1978 instead of 1998, I would have absolutely believed it.

In the house are Kyra (Amy Weber), a young artist with psychological problems; Tina (Promise LaMarco), a sassy kid with a zest for life; Erica (Nichole Pelerine), an ambitious and somewhat full of herself actress; Tom (Donny Terranova), an assertive but unfunny standup comic; and Gary (John Fairle), a pretentious college student. The tale is told in flashbacks as members of the group are killed off one by one while Kyra has hallucinations about disembodied voices and faceless figures. The flashbacks end with Kyra leaving the hospital after recovering from her ordeal, and that's when the wet fart of a conclusion kicks in.

Now, maybe I'm missing something so I'll lay it out for you. Kyra is specifically and repeatedly described and portrayed as having serious mental health issues. She's tried to commit suicide, is generally skittish and emotionally shaky and constantly sees and hears things that aren't there. So, the mindblowing twist at the end of Kolobos is…wait for it…Kyra is crazy. No, I'm not leaving anything out. The crazy chick turns out to be crazy. That's it.

I'm at a loss because the rest of the screenplay is rather well written, at least for this kind of thing. It's not high art but the characters are clearly established and their interactions are relatively believable. The scenes are solidly constructed and the direction, while clearly bound by financial limitations, is intelligent and sharp. The five main members of the cast all come off like folks who should be acting for a living, which is not something you can say about a lot of low-budget cinema. Promise LaMarco appears to be someone who could have a good career as "cute horror chick".

Yet all that leads to closing scenes so awesomely lame that I almost lost the use of my legs through osmosis. Something else…hell, literally any other type of finale would have been better than we get. I went into Kolobos thinking it was going to suck. I'd never heard of it or any of the people in it before. The DVD had a lot of the signs indicating cheaply made gunk. When I popped it into my DVD player, it doesn't even have a menu with set up options or scene selections. It's just an image of Kyra and Tom, the title and the word "play". As I watched it, however, I grew more and more pleasantly surprised and interested. It seemed to be a hidden gem. Then the last 5 minutes left me thinking it should have never been unearthed.

I can't call Kolobos bad but I also can't recommend something that falls down so severely at the end. Decide for yourself and don't come complaining to me afterwards.

Legally Exposed

There is no excuse for this
When I state for the record that Legally Exposed is a terrible motion picture, I know what the reaction is going to be. "It's a softcore skin flick! These things are made by people on the lower rungs of the Hollywood ecosystem as wanking material for those who can't hand real porn. What did you expect?" There is a lot of truth to that. Nothing like this is ever truly good in most senses of the word. Within the confines of the genre, however, some of these things are better than others. This is one of those others.

Doctor Fez (John La Zar) uncovers a device in an Egyptian tomb. It looks like a child's walkie talkie but is in fact capable of plunging any human being into the depth of uncontrollable arousal. Dr. Fez tests it on his hotel room maid and almost gets to second base before it's stolen. After a few random sex scenes of people using the "clicker", which is floating through the world's erotic black market, to seduce the object of their desires, the device winds up in the hands of LA lawyer Arthur Brimstone (Arthur Roberts). He uses it to get busy with the devious and demanding Victoria (Jacqueline Lovell) only to die in mid-boink. The "clicker" then falls into the hands of paralegal Ashley (Leigh Ann Garrett). She uses it for a little self-pleasure, to have sex with a hunky neighbor and to push her half-sister into screwing some dude she doesn't even like. Meanwhile, Victoria is searching for the "clicker" with the help of her sniveling associate, Jason (David Richard). They grab it and turn Ashley into a sex slave, only to have Dr. Fez and Hollywood super-agent Lou Birnbaum (Kim Dawson) ride to the rescue. Lou and Victoria have sex and then Dr. Fez uses the "clicker" to transform Ashley into another woman and then she has sex with Victoria. The movie ends with Dr. Fez using the "clicker" to sexually stimulate a lab mouse.

Now, Legally Exposed does have fairly attractive women in it and they do get naked at regular intervals. The sex scenes are rather tame and marred by some deeply aggravating camera work. You know that shot where two people are standing together and the camera rotates around them? That is director Hamilton Lewiston's "go to" technique for sex scenes and he does not know when to let it go. In scene after scene, it spins and spins like some R rated carousel and 30 seconds into the first scene, I was practically motion sick. This must be some kind of genetic flaw in atrocious directors because I've seen it before in crappy films where this rotating camera shot will persist for 2 or 3 or 4 minutes at a time.

There's also far too much man ass on display here and some down right odd creative choices. For Leigh Ann Garrett's masturbation scene in a bathtub, she wears a white dress shirt through the whole thing. For a few of the sex scenes, they completely change the lighting and it even looks like they're being shot with a different quality of video tape. There's also a scene in a morgue that is filled with fog, of all things. Did the coroner accidentally leave on the smoke machine he uses for his KISS cover band? And I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that no one in this thing can act worth a damn.

Now, I know for a fact that not all softcore skin flicks have to suck like Legally Exposed. There's one out there called Sinful Temptations which is practically The Godfather compared to this one. The sex scenes are more involved. The direction is superior. The plot isn't so stupid that you feel embarrassed to be watching it. The cast can even believably emote. Again, it's not really good by the standards of regular films, but it does prove that you can make this kind of stuff without plumbing the depths of crap like Legally Exposed. No matter how horny you are, don't bother watching this.

The Juror

Heche and Moore should have swapped roles
This film is a great demonstration of why Demi Moore didn't have a more successful career as a top-level actress, though whether it was the fault of Moore or society is open for debate. She's a capable enough performer, but she lacks the ability to project either vulnerability or likability. With the former, you can trade on an audience's sympathy. With the latter, you can paper over the problems in a script or a production with your own charm. Moore's weaknesses are so clear in The Juror because she fails first at playing the victim and then can't entice the viewer to overlook the obvious melodramatics of the film's conclusion. She also stands exposed when compared to her co-star Alec Baldwin. He himself has always suffered from a lack of likability, especially in his dramatic roles, but Baldwin can manage a bit of vulnerability. His cold-blooded, criminal mastermind here is far more open and inviting than Moore's ordinary woman and mother.

It's especially a shame because a different actress, one without Moore's emotional blind spots, could have raised this movie up from being slightly better than average and made it a truly thrilling thriller. Anne Heche is a perfect example, playing as she does a supporting role to Moore's lead. There's an unguarded energy to her acting that makes her characters so much more appealing than Moore's, who cannot radiate the same kind of joy and ease as an essential contrast to the more sullen and terrifying moments in the story. I'll confess to being more a fan of Heche than Moore, but I think my argument is supported by examining the roles and quality of work done by each woman in the years after The Juror.

Annie Laird (Demi Moore) is a sculptress and single mother to Oliver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who essentially talks her way onto the jury of a major Mafia trial. That leads to her being targeted and manipulated by the brilliantly evil "Teacher" (Alec Baldwin), a Mafia associate who demands that Annie produce a not guilty verdict. She succeeds, only to find that the twisted romantic obsession of "Teacher" is far more dangerous than any aspect of organized crime.

Putting aside Moore's deficiencies as the star of the show, this is a pretty good flick up until and ending that goes over-the-top and all the way to Guatemala. With James Gandolfini as a gangster that serves as sort of a midpoint between Annie's normality and the psychopathic nature of "Teacher", Ted Tally's screenplay put a lot of mostly effective effort into building an interesting dynamic between his two leads. And in the relationships between "Teacher" and other mobsters, Tally defuses the super-villain aura around his bad guy and makes him both more believable and more frightening because of that.

And when Moore is able to play Annie as a strong and defiant person, her strengths as an actress shine through. Which brings up the point of why a woman can't build a career on playing strong, aggressive characters on screen? There's a legion of men in Hollywood history who duplicated Moore's lack of accessibility or possessed even worse flaws in their craft, yet were able to prosper in roles that didn't require or disguised their faults. But at least in American cinema, female roles are defined almost entirely by vulnerability, likability or f**kability. Moore has the last in spades but admirable avoided that career path. Maybe the problem isn't in Moore, dear friends, but in ourselves.

All in all, I like The Juror enough to give it a mild recommendation. Heche does get naked in it and that's more than enough to tip the scales to the good for me.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Not much of a farewell to Ledger
If The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was the greatest motion picture ever made, it still would have left me with a bittersweet feeling because it's the last film made by Heath Ledger. I'm not sure if he had that elusive "it" to be a full fledged movie star, but anyone who's seen Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight knows Ledger's awesome talent and can lament all the great works we've been denied by his untimely death. This is not one of those great works as it founders on Terry Gilliam's weaknesses as a writer and his inability to translate his imagination into modern CGI effects. If you've seen Gilliam's other works, you may have expected his creative vision to explode in the limitless world of digital magic. The most interesting looking things in this movie, however, are made out of wood, canvas and paint instead of pixels. As a story, it's not awful. It's just that Gilliam has created a fable without giving it a real moral. T he Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a parade of fancy set pieces that never amounts to anything and doesn't even look all that fancy.

The Doctor in question (Christopher Plummer) is a millennia old gentleman who has been reduced to wandering the streets of London in his wagon/performance stage with his soon-to-be-16 year old daughter (Lily Cole), an enthusiastic vagabond performer (Andrew Garfield) and the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer). Though the details are a bit sketchy, Parnassus is able to allow others to enter his imagination and experience their wildest dreams. Despite that, his traveling show has fallen on hard times and The Devil (Tom Waits) is soon to collect on an old agreement. Into this falls Tony (Heath Ledger), a man found hanging by his neck from a bridge and who may have the answers to all of Parnassus' problems, both material and metaphysical…if Tony's dubious past doesn't turn out to be the ruin of them all.

I suppose the main thing to know about this film is that Ledger plays, at best, second banana to Christopher Plummer and that Tony is arguably behind Garfield's Anton when it comes to screen time and significance. That speaks to Gilliam's charm and failing as a commercial filmmaker. Who else would have the confidence or indifference to be able to call on the services of someone like Ledger and use him as a plot device in the service of other actors' performances? Not that Ledger doesn't have a few scenes to shine and prove that, while he might have never been a Tom Cruise or a Tom Hanks, he would have been someone long remembered in cinema. But there's not enough of Ledger here to elevate the movie and, given what Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell do as replacement Tony's inside the Imaginarium, that probably would have been true even if he'd lived to finish shooting.

The ultimate problem with this as a movie is that Gilliam never defines exactly what is at issue between Parnassus and The Devil. It has something to do with imagination and choice and, honestly, it seems as though Gilliam himself gives up trying to figure it out by the end of his script. The lack of a coherent theme eventually undoes it all, including a plot where Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown have to contradict themselves not once, but twice in order to keep the movie going.

As I mentioned, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn't awful. It's very elaborate yet even more ordinary and perhaps that's for the best. The more amazing and powerful it was, the more painful it would have been to watch Ledger in it. Instead, it's a gentle goodbye to someone we'll regret losing long after we've all forgotten that we should.

Hard Breakers

Somebody should have staged a filmmaking intervention
Written and directed with all the style of a wretchedly unfunny sitcom on the CW or its predecessors, the WB and UPN, Hard Breakers sets a new low in product placement by prominently displaying an infomercial in one scene. Fortunately, this movie is so thoroughly terrible that such a crass move fits in perfectly with the crippled plotting, abortive characterizations and leaden comedy. And by leaden comedy, I mean they don't just rely on stereotypical gay jokes in 2010. They use the same gag of the main characters not knowing they're in a gay-oriented business twice. Sophie Monk also embarrasses herself here with weak acting and weaker mugging for the camera. And director Leah Sturgis reveals that she has as much imagination as the average catfish by repeating the exact same establishing shot over and over and over again. This is just a pitiful effort.

Alexis (Cameron Richardson) and Lindsay (Sophie Monk) are friends who hang out at their beach house and complain about men. They eventually hit upon the idea of knocking men unconscious and taking them back to their place, with the idea that the men will revive, have sex with them and then leave. Shockingly, that plan doesn't work out so well and then Alexis gets tied up by this absurd movie producer (Chris Kattan) and must be rescued by her neglectful father, Lindsey and Alexis' stalker ex-boyfriend. That's really all of Hard Breakers' story guck I can stand to repeat.

Firstly, Sophie Monk does take her top off in this film but if you blink, you'll miss it. Cameron Richardson doesn't get naked, but some poor actress flashes her boobs in a depressing moment. I'm not one to complain about gratuitous nudity but this almost slapped me in the face with how cheaply exploitative it was. There's really not a lot of bad language here and the humor isn't even that crude. So if you're looking for raunch, keep looking.

It's difficult to even tear into this disaster as hard as it deserves because the whole production is so pathetic it feels like kicking a retarded puppy. Co-writers Sturgis and Elaine Fogg make so many elementary mistakes with their script and their writing is so unintentionally awkward that I feel more sorrow than anger toward them. Watching this motion picture is like watching a kid trying to ride their bike for the first time without training wheels and seeing them crash every 5 feet. Someone should have stepped in and stopped the production like a boxing referee protecting a fighter that's being beaten to death. I can't imagine anyone in Hollywood seeing Hard Breakers and then hiring Sturgis and Fogg as dog walkers, let alone for any cinema-related job.

This fiasco is not funny. It's not sexy. It's not outrageous. It barely makes any logical sense. Avoid Hard Breakers like it has an incurable venereal disease.

G.I. Joe: The Movie

Is this where Jim Shooter got the idea for Warriors of Plasm?
It's not always pleasant to revisit your childhood. Some of the things you loved back then stand the test of time. Star Wars is still great, Dr. Who of the 1970s and 60s remains, below-bargain-basement special effects aside, a fun and well done little program and The Incredible Hulk is better than any attempt to meld a gamma radiation-spawned monster with The Fugitive has any right to be. A lot of the stuff you loved as a kid, however, doesn't survive adult scrutiny. That's because you and I and everybody else don't really know enough when we're young to tell when something sucks. I recall seeing an episode of the original Thundercats cartoon and being struck by how the animation was still very pretty and reasonably fluid, but the storytelling was…so…unbelievably…slow.

Well, when I was a child I loved G.I. Joe. I loved the toys, which were the smaller, hard-plastic action figures and not the bigger one with the real hair and clothes you could take off. I loved the cartoon. And I really loved the comic book. As a grown man I can say with complete confidence that the toys and the comic book are still pretty cool, at least until Hasbro's continual deluge of newer and stupider additions to the line destroyed the creative integrity of each. And yes, action figures and comic books about those action figures can have creative integrity. As for the cartoon…?

Well, I haven't seen an episode in a good long while and this film-length version makes it hard to judge because this is rather a long way from what the regular show was like. G.I. Joe: The Movie was apparently made by people who said to themselves "You know what would improve our cartoon about a crack U.S. military team vs. a fearsome terrorist group? Let's make it more like Sectaurs! And let's create a new bad guy with the biggest ass in animated history!"

The story is about the hidden society of Cobra-La, led by the evil Golobulus (Bergess Meredith), which sent Cobra Commander (Chris Latta) out into the world to destroy human civilization. After years of Cobra Commander proving the only thing he's good at is running away, Golobulus has decided to take charge and orders the seizing of an energy transmitter which he will use to shower the Earth with spores that will mutate Mankind. G.I. Joe gets in his way and various battles where no one gets killed ensue, leading up to a final confrontation where Lt. Falcon (Don Johnson), a reckless and irresponsible soldier, finally proves himself worth of saying "Yo, Joe!" Oh, and Duke (Michael Bell) dies, only to have the movie producers chicken out and have new dialog dubbed in that he was just put into a coma and recovered.

Putting aside Cobra-La's Nemesis Enforcer and how he clearly inspired a lot of the character design at Image Comics in the 1990s, the attempt to inject some sci-fi and almost Lovecraftian horror into G.I. Joe is a massive stinkburger. It doesn't even come close to fitting in with the established concept and has to rank as one of the greatest creative missteps of all time. Golobulus and company are the "Greedo shoots first" of G.I. Joe and the only reason it's not as infamous is because this movie came out when we were kids and far less prone to obsessing over one of our favorite things turning to crap.

On the other hand, the animation isn't terrible and the voice work, outside of Don Johnson, is as good as I remember. This flick is certainly action-packed, though amazingly repetitive, and Chris Latta's Cobra Commander remains a great juvenile adventure villain. While this film isn't any good, it makes me suspect the original TV show might not look that bad to my now-adult eyes.

So, skip G.I. Joe: The Movie and give the original cartoon a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Find Me Guilty

This was probably just a bad idea all around
A great story and a greatish performance are largely for naught in Find Me Guilty. Director Sidney Lumet's rambling approach to his narrative and disconnected feel for his main character stop this movie from ever rising above the level of "eh". There are individual scenes and moments that are a great deal better than that. Lumet never manages to assemble them into anything of value and it often seems as though he doesn't want to. I could be wrong, but this whole motion picture felt like Lumet had no inkling of who Jackie DiNorscio was and why he was that way. He also appears to have been uncomfortable with portraying this mob story either too irreverently or with too much grit and grime. Find Me Guilty comes out weirdly tepid and uneven. It's not awful. It's just not very good.

Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) was a New Jersey gangster who got swept up in the biggest and longest criminal trial in American history when the feds tried to take out an entire mob family in one fell swoop. Prosecutor Sean Kierney (Linus Roche) assembled a mountain of evidence that took almost two years to get through. Lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage) tried to get around that by painting it all as anti-Italian stereotypes. Mob boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco) became a seething cauldron of anger under the pressure and Judge Finestein (Ron Silver) tried to keep the proceedings from falling apart. Complicating it all was Jackie's efforts at defending himself, which relied more on humor than the law and more on Jackie's absolute loyalty to his friends and his chosen life than anything like the truth.

Vin Diesel is almost great as Jackie. I'm not sure why anyone should be surprised at that. You can tell the difference between a guy who can act and one who gets by on attitude and personality. Diesel can act. He's no Dustin Hoffman. He's not even Val Kilmer. But he can act. The only thing holding Diesel back here is that Lumet and company have given him an extremely binary character. There's joking, sentimental Jackie and then there's street thug Jackie who's never more than an inch away from violence. He switches back and forth between them like a blinking neon sign and Diesel is given no chance to play anything in the middle or find a whole that encompasses both. If, at the end of this movie, you can explain why Jackie is so different from every other mobster we see, you're much more observant than I am.

Lumet is just as ineffectual when it comes to the trial. He uses actual court transcripts for some of the dialog, but it's almost as though he trapped himself by doing so. Lumet obviously decided that his story would be about Jackie and this triangle of people who orbited around him in court. The prosecutor, the lead defense attorney and the judge, however, are an uneasy fit. Only Linus Roche is given anything like an independent character to play but Lumet can't decide on what kind it should be. Sometimes he's the overweening heavy opposite Jackie. Sometimes he's the man fighting the good fight. Sometimes he's the tragic victim of the absurdities of the legal system. Dinklage and Silver don't have enough to do to vacillate like that. They're just props that stand there opposite Jackie and do what needs to be done to facilitate his scene.

And while Lumet was obviously aware of the comedic ridiculousness of the trial, Jackie's behavior and how it all worked out, it sure appears as though he was hesitant to embrace it for fear of portraying violent criminals in too light a fashion. In a post-Goodfellas world, showing gangsters to be buffoonish scamps was a bridge too far.

My ultimate impression is that Lumet, and the audience, would have been better served if he had tried to make a darkly sarcastic film about the trial itself with Jackie merely comic relief in the overall drama. Imagine making a movie about Watergate where the main character was G. Gordon Liddy. That's what Find Me Guilty is like, though probably a bit funnier. It's still not something I can recommend.

Easy Virtue

Biel's appeal continues to elude me
No film involving Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas and Noel Coward can be all bad. Easy Virtue comes a good deal closer than it should. Coward's sparkling wit barely manages to overcome the laborious adaptation of Stephan Elliott and Sheridian Jobbins, with Elliott's cumbersome direction not helping any. Firth and Thomas are marvelous and a decent chunk of the cast follows their example as well as they can. Jessica Biel, however, is not just terribly miscast but displays the limits of her ability with an often mannered and occasionally brittle performance. The first hour of the movie is more or less enjoyably carried along by an emphasis on Coward's humor. The last half hour turns dour and lifeless. Throw in a soundtrack that is constantly annoying in its doubly anachronistic fashion and you've got a motion picture that can't manage to do more than break even.

John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) is a young Englishman abroad who meets an unconventional America race car driver named Larita (Jessica Biel), marries her and the two of them return to John's family estate. His controlling, resolute mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) only wants to be rid of Larita. John's WWI veteran father (Colin Firth) is roused from his "Lost Generation" ennui by the arrival of his new daughter-in-law. John's two sisters (Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson) vacillate between being intrigued and appalled by the new arrival. John's hasty union with Larita has spoiled long-anticipated dreams of his marrying the "girl from the country estate next door" (Charlotte Riley) and Larita's desire for a city life and gainful employment are contrary to John's gentry upbringing and his mother's plans for John to take over control of the family fortune, which has fallen on hard times. A secret from Larita's past may give John's mother everything she wants, but is that what John wants?

I'm not the one to compare this production with Coward's original play or the 1928 silent movie version. All I can do is evaluate 2008's Easy Virtue on its own merits. As previously mentioned, it has some but they are nearly equaled by its flaws. I don't think these filmmakers every realized that in their approach, the most sympathetic figure in the story is John's mother. She's a woman under tremendous stress from trying to hold her family together single handed, only to find the future of her home and her son imperiled by a strange interloper. As the two women struggle over the feckless John, it's hard not to root for the mother no matter what the film throws at you. And while Ben Barnes and the other performers look almost as at ease inhabiting their characters as Firth and Thomas, Biel appears very "actorly" for the vast majority of time she's on screen. She's not speaking. She's reading lines. And Biel is also far too young and fresh-looking for her role as its sculpted by Jobbins and Elliott.

Easy Virtue is an easy mark for a critic. You could gush over Coward's words the work most of the actors or you could pick apart the pacing and tone and Biel's inappropriate presence. I'll say it's a movie you probably won't love but you probably won't hate it, either. Your affection for Noel Coward should probably decide whether to watch it or not.

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