Category Archives: Review

The Lincoln Lawyer, the Film that Never Ends

If you read my Sucker Punch review, then you know a little bit about O‘ahu and all the totally fun things you can do there. In fact, we were having such a good time with the rain and lack of surf that when it came to our last day of break, we decided to go to the movies…again, only this time we had to walk the 3 miles there, and we were late, and it was hot out. Who knew that three, shirtless, power-walking dudes would get so many cheers and catcalls? That’s right. Hawaii thinks I’m sexy.

After showing up to the theater sunburned and pouring sweat and getting told by a manager that clothing at this particular establishment was not in fact optional, we settled into what was a perfectly good but rather forgettable thriller. And that’s how I think this review will end up: Thrilling!…or forgettable. One or the other.

Anyway, I don’t remember how the movie started, but I do remember that lawyer Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) was a great character to root for. He’s charming and slimy in all the right places. He hires a guy to pretend to be a reporter, then talks him out of filming in order to keep heat off his client. As far as the client knows, Haller has complete control over all cameramen. Amazing! Haller loves his daughter and is on good terms with his ex-wife and is friends with a bike gang, and damn, what a good-looking guy that McConaughey is.

For all that, he’s no Tom Cruise–level lawyer from A Few Good Men, which I finally saw last night. I can’t believe it took me so long to not be able to handle the truth! I’ve been waiting for that for so long. Anyway, The Lincoln Lawyer is much more of a mindless beach-read, but it does a great job of being what it is. The thrills keep increasing in intensity, for not only is the courtroom setting nerve-wracking, but there starts to be real danger outside the office as people get killed off and the mystery weaves its way into Haller’s life.

There are twists aplenty, to the point that the person sitting next to me kept gasping and squeaking in fear and excitement. The twists were just unexpected enough, the acting never got in the way of anything, and the pressure was always on.

I enjoyed myself pretty much the whole time, and if I were a betting man, which I am, I’d put money on your liking it too. Still, there were some problems. For instance, the ex-wife: completely unnecessary. I’m sure she’s a relevant character in the book, but she doesn’t actually add anything to the film, thematically or plot-wise. In my opinion, they should’ve just cut her and found some other way to scare Haller, rather than relying on threats to a family to which his ties are tenuous at best.

Oh, and there’s some shameless product placement that was jarring and painful. When Haller is carrying his daughter home after their dad date, she’s holding this bright red AMC popcorn bag, then later it cuts to a scene of Haller and his ex-wife talking, and the first thing the wife says is “Who knew 3-D movies could be so much fun?!?!!” in this over-the-top “this is an advertisement” voice that reminded me of the wife in The Truman Show. Why advertise AMC to people who are already at the movies? It reminds me of when they used to have those “Don’t download movies” messages before the trailers. Preachin’ to the choir, man. Preachin’ to the freakin’ choir.

Last and the opposite of least, this movie has no ending whatsoever. The evidence is starting to mount against the bad guy, Haller is just about to be all kinds of awesome, and you can’t wait for the moment you get to see Haller kick ass in the courtroom and put away Mr. Evil for life, but instead a minor character pops in and informs us that everything worked out. There’s absolutely no catharsis. Your emotions are all pent up…and that’s how they stay. It’s especially obvious in the final scene as the bike gang pulls up alongside Haller’s car and you’re worried they’re going to betray and kill him. You know some manner of horrible thing is going to happen because otherwise why would this scene be there. I mean, the movie’s got at least 15 minutes left, right? WRONG! It’s just over. The bikers are all friendly and un-twisty.

Thrilling the whole time, but nothing new, plus that bad ending left a sour taste in my mouth.

2.5/5¢

Also, don’t watch the trailer. It gives away one of the twists, and though it’s not the most surprising twist, it’s certainly important.

Written by Russ Nickel

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Sucker Punch – Mindbending and Awesome

Reality is a prison. Spring break 2011: trapped on the island of O‘ahu. The streets overflow with prostitutes, the destitute denizens of a corrupt city. I stand on the balcony of my hotel; below me, a fight breaks out, and soon cops flood the scene. Desperate to escape, we drive to the theater, situated between an abandoned warehouse and a broken-down cannery. We see some mountainous Samoans, tattoos rippling along their muscles as they load pieces of bikes into a truck. Undaunted, we ask them about parking—

Wake up. Somehow, this place is a penitentiary no longer, though it’s still not without its trials. Inside an IMAX theater, we take seats on the stairs, all too aware of the glares of those around us, disdainful of our audacity. Theater employees walk into the room and head toward us, grim looks of duty spreading over their compassionless faces—

Overwhelmingly loud music, images so forceful they tumble from the screen. Suddenly everyone is gone and I’m alone, drawn into the movie, disconnected from pain and worry and self.

That’s basically how Sucker Punch worked. The film starts off with an incredible sequence entirely devoid of dialogue (my second-favorite opening in recent memory—right after Star Trek). The music pounds with a driving rhythm, and Zack Snyder’s signature slow-mo is used to great effect. The artistic style is stunning, and some of the crystal clear IMAX shots are beyond entrancing. I was immediately sucked in, and I simply wondered how long the movie would be able to sustain my adrenaline-fueled sense of total immersion. The answer was “the entire time.”

At the beginning, Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) mother dies, and when her stepfather receives nothing in the will, he turns murderous. In an attempt to defend herself and her sister, Baby Doll shoots her stepdad but only clips him, and somehow her sister ends up dead. Things look grim for Baby Doll when she’s committed to an insane asylum run by a corrupt doctor who agrees to have her lobotomized so she can never tell her story. She lies down in the doctor’s chair and—

Wakes up. After that, none of the remaining scenes take place in reality until the last five minutes, and the rest of the time, it’s up to you to use your imagination to fill in what’s happening. So if you didn’t like it, it’s clearly because you’re uncreative (winky face). But seriously, while some films may be a metaphor, this is one in which every single scene is metaphorical, and the task of deciphering their meaning is placed on the audience.

Like Inception, this movie takes place in layers of reality. The lowest layer is the insane asylum. Then comes the imaginary world in which all the mental patients are dancers in a burlesque house. This world mimics the asylum in ways that are relatively easily linked, but the layers don’t stop there. Any time there would be a scene of conflict, drama, or action, instead of actually seeing it occur, we are whisked away to a chimerical world of pure fantasy. For those of you who doubt Zack Snyder’s screenwriting ability or level of intention, there are a few scenes that make it clear we’re supposed to read deeply into this layer system. At one point, Baby Doll is dancing in front of the cook, but some water is spilled, and it’s slowly flowing toward the radio. In the battle layer, the girls are trying to disarm a bomb, and some high-tension intercutting lets us know that if that bomb goes off, it’s equivalent to the water shorting the electricity. The way the stakes are heightened in one level through what you see in another level is an undeniably creative conceit that, in my opinion, was executed nearly flawlessly.

But don’t worry. This movie isn’t some plodding allegory that exists purely to enlighten us. It’s got more eye candy than a deranged, cannibalistic optometrist confectioner’s sweetshop. The cast is composed entirely of beautiful women, and as if that weren’t enough, they’re clad in sexy schoolgirl outfits in the burlesque layer, and during the battle sequences, they don hot femme fatale outfits and run around firing guns and wielding swords. What’s not to like? And my sci-fi and fantasy desires were more than sated. First we get to see a martial arts fight against gargantuan robot samurai with spears and Gatling guns; next a WWII battle against zombie steampunk Nazis that plays like a level of “Call of Duty”; then a fantasy castle siege in which the girls have to slay an army of Orcs, only to face a powerful, fire-breathing dragon; and finally a futuristic sci-fi thriller sequence on a high-speed train filled with robots guarding a ticking bomb. This movie was a combination of all the best action scenes from all the best genres, and it wove them together under the veil of a psychological mind-bender.

All the while, the film was artsy and stylistic, epic, and driven by a soundtrack so compelling that I downloaded it as soon as I got home. If you approach this film with the right mindset, you’ll be blown away. Make sure to see it in IMAX, because it’s imperative that your senses be bombarded as overwhelmingly as possible, and don’t forget that it’s up to you to decide what happens.

4.5/5¢

Despite all the layers and metaphors and everything, the most confusing thing about this movie is the title.

Written by Russ Nickel

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Review

The fact that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie at all is a feat unto itself. A simple plot summary is likely to elicit blank stares from anyone unfamiliar with the books:

Twentysomething slacker Scott Pilgrim doesn’t have much going for him other than his crappy garage band and his high schooler girlfriend when he meets (literally) the girl of his dreams: Ramona Flowers. He falls head over heels for her, but there are complications. He has to defeat a league of her seven evil ex-boyfriends.

Author Brian Lee O’Malley renders his book in dynamic cartoon visuals and uses symbols from video game culture for both humor and narrative effect, but it’s not something that easily translates into a mainstream big-budget movie flick. But strong source material goes a long way, and so despite its flaws, Scott Pilgrim succeeds.

Most of the time, Scott Pilgrim is hilarious, giddy fun. It’s funny, really funny. Quite a lot of the original dialogue (which was what made much of the book so enjoyable) has been maintained, and the video game CGI elements connect effortlessly with the rest of the picture. The visuals are beautiful and visceral, though at times they border on being too happy and colorful, undermining the more serious themes at play. The artistic directors would have benefited from a more varied palate.

Director Edgar Wright is an excellent choice for such a plot-heavy ADD epic. The signature quick cuts that characterized his work in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are reincorporated en force, and scenes change mid-dialogue without missing a beat. It’s a source of humor and also a way of reflecting Scott’s own confusion.


Michael Cera is surprisingly good as the titular protagonist. He holds the perfidious title as the prototypical indie hero with all the backlash that invites, and his “star power” could have easily engulfed Scott Pilgrim and turned him into a blank-faced dope. Instead he shows off more versatility than he has in anything since Arrested Development, and while his performance doesn’t soar, at least it doesn’t destroy the movie as it could have. More impressive is Kieran Culkin, who plays Scott’s gay roommate Wallace with a reserved, dry wit.

Part of the problem with Scott Pilgrim is that it starts off at a run and never slows down. If they had spent a little less time on cartoon fights we might care a little bit about whether or not whether Scott gets the girl in the end (or which girl it ends up being). The second half of the film is  a relentless series of battles, and the emotional crux of the story isn’t addressed until the climax. The tension leading up to that point feels entirely unearned.

Like all film adaptations, the restrictions of the medium lead to compressions of plot. This is understandable and unavoidable, but unfortunately is done at the expense of character development. Side characters are reduced to nothing more than stereotypes with clever lines, and the evil exes are nothing but bosses to be defeated. The film could have (as the comic does) given the reader an idea of these character’s lives outside of their relationship to Scott, but they don’t. Worst of all, Ramona herself is reduced to a prize, a Princess Peach held captive by a hipster Bowser.
As a result, the nobility of Scott’s video game quest is never challenged, which borders on unforgivable. A major aspect of the book is Scott’s dickish behavior. He’s selfish and thoughtless, and his actions hurt a lot of people throughout his life. By contrast the film devotes little time to Scott’s internal struggle. There’s no examination of his integrity or his motivations. While the comic used the cultural currency of its audience for a compelling examination of relationships, the film takes the video game metaphor at face value and turns it into a shiny veneer on another typical love story.

3/5 Stars

Overall assessment: Fun, but they should have spent more time on the script.

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Battle: Los Angeles – Marines vs. Aliens (Starcraft, Anyone?)

And then they die, just like that. At first you think a reasonable number of the characters will survive, but like I said, this movie is all about the intensity, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat no matter what. Suddenly aliens are storming into the building, swarming the characters with superior tactics and tech. Gotta get the kids out, but they’re everywhere! How do they even kill these things? Nantz cuts one open to find its weak spot but it’s like their tech has been grafted to their muscles. How the hell do you kill them?!

Six Paragraphs Earlier:

If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s fear of an alien invasion. That, and copious amounts of caffeine, the lure of videogames, and pretty much anything else, but mostly it’s the fear. That’s why I was so excited to have a marine move into my apartment with me. I figure marines are pretty badass, so with him around I could sleep easier. My excitement quickly dwindled, however, when I realized how much exercise he was going to make me do. Running every day! Plus all sorts of pushups and marine-type body-destroying things that make me hurt everywhere.

It’s all worth it though, for the protection. Only problem is, he’s the kind of marine who paints picturesque ocean views and studies vocabulary of his own volition and likes to debate philosophy, all while steadily improving his culinary skills. If we needed someone well-versed in philosophy to use grandiloquent rhetoric to persuade our malicious invaders of the immorality of their actions, I wouldn’t need marines. I could just do it myself. If we need to shoot them in the brains, I’m willing to step aside and let someone with training go ahead and do that. Thankfully, the marines in the movie were much more battle-focused than the one in my apartment.

One of the coolest parts of Battle: LA is its opening. It starts in medias res, which kicks off the action with extreme intensity. A newscast plays over the opening credits, then there’s a cut to shots of LA being blown the hell up. A military leader explains that we’ve lost San Francisco and San Diego, and Los Angeles is America’s last line of defense in the west. It cannot be overrun! Then suddenly the main characters are in a chopper, heading for the front lines, under heavy fire, with people dying everywhere. I knew Battle: LA was going to be all about war, but I didn’t think they’d go so far as to skip characterization completely. To be honest, I was excited. I’d never seen a movie do something like this before, and if they could keep up that palpitating level of pure intensity, I’d be hooked.

Sadly, it quickly flashes back to 24 hours before the attack and goes through all the standard character intros. They’re made even more standard thanks to how little time is spent on them. SSgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is the only one who becomes any sort of relatable. Every other character gets about 1 paltry minute of humanizing screen time, but there are so many marines in the troop that your eyes just glaze over while you wait for more action. After five minutes, I couldn’t have matched a single character to his backstory if my life depended on it. But who cares? It’s a war movie!

And war it does well. Around every corner lurks danger, each consecutive moment ushers in new fear, and after the first few deaths, I realized no character was safe. It’s the intensity that makes this movie worth watching. People die bravely, and people die for no reason other than bad luck; some die after heart-wrenching monologues, and some die without warning. People receive injuries, show great heroism, yield to their cowardice, and generally run the gamut of war-time emotion. The moments when two characters look at each other knowing that one is about to sacrifice himself are truly compelling, and there are more than a few poignant speeches. They may not have good backstories, but sheer adrenaline makes you care for these guys.

The set pieces and general look of the film elevate these scenes to an even higher level. The camerawork is anything but smooth, so you feel as if you’re running right alongside the marines. And Los Angeles looks like a battlefield. Fights break out in suburbs, on broken-down freeways, and, at one point, in a dimly-lit police station. The sense of fear really starts to mount as Nantz investigates alien anatomy, searching for a weakness while a select few marines are ordered to hold off the inhuman enemy. You think they’re gonna do it…

And then they die, just like that. Suddenly aliens are storming into the building, swarming the characters with superior tactics and tech. How the hell do you kill them?! The aliens are hard to kill, but the fact that they’re aliens hardly matters. Science fiction really takes a back seat to what is essentially a movie about a small troop of men facing overwhelming odds. In fact, the aliens get basically no story time at all. This is no Independence Day, what with that alien that takes over the scientist and speaks through him. Battle: Los Angeles is much more realistic and not nearly as light-hearted.

Not everything works, however. There’s a subplot about all the men distrusting Nantz that feels totally superfluous. Anyone with half a brain can tell that Nantz is probably the best guy in the world, so when they finally all come to terms through a heartfelt speech, it doesn’t jive.

The movie knows what it is: an explosive war story. It focuses on a small group, builds intensity until you can’t take it anymore, and delivers on sweet action.

Score: 3.5/5 ¢

Alignment: Spectacular Fluff

Oh and:

Michelle Rodriguez was sexy and badass, killing aliens all over the place and looking hot while doing it. She’s pretty much always the same character, isn’t she?

Epic F-Bomb usage, and in a PG-13 movie, you’ve got to make it count. During the final battle, Nantz says, “Marines, we make our stand right here. Let those bastards know who they’re fucking with.”

Written by Russ Nickel

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The Adjustment Bureau – Angels, Doors, and Boredom

(Warning: The following may and does contain SPOILERS)

Have I sinned? Is it thanks to some flaw in my character that I was led to The Adjustment Bureau? Or did sitting through the movie simply cause the fewest ripples? I tried to avoid it; I did—but every conflicting event was canceled, every excuse invalidated. I didn’t have a ride, then someone offered to drive. I was too hungry, then a stranger handed me a burrito. I had to finish building a machine that could drill to the center of the earth so I could set off some nuclear bombs and restart the spinning of earth’s core, then I realized that didn’t make any scientific sense! After so many small miracles, I knew I couldn’t avoid my fate any longer. I had to go the movies.

It wasn’t an altogether pleasant experience. The car seat had left a sticky residue on my pants, the burrito was vegetarian, and I kept worrying that the world was about to end, but worst of all was this persistent feeling that I’d been tricked. Twice in the last month I’ve ended up watching romance movies. And I never watch romance movies by accident. Because if I do, I don’t remember to bring tissues for my tears, and my face just ends up a total mess. I Am Number Four looked like an epic superhero movie, so I went, only to find myself stranded on a small island of CG in an ocean of emotion. The Adjustment Bureau was no better. What looked like a supernatural thriller starring Jason Bourne was nothing more than a tale of bittersweet love covered in a deceptively crunchy shell of conspiratorial candy coating.

I suppose bittersweet isn’t all bad, though—useful for baking. Anyway, Matt Damon stars as David Norris, an up-and-coming politician with a pretty face and a promising future. He loses an election and is on the verge of also losing hope when he runs into Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) in the bathroom. It’s love at first sight. Her carefree attitude inspires him to give a heartfelt speech that wins over the public. By chance, he later runs into her on a bus, and things are looking great. The only problem is, he was never supposed to see her again.

The Adjustment Bureau knew David needed a nudge in the right direction so he wouldn’t give up, and they chose to use Elise, but they weren’t meant to be together. That goes against the Bureau’s plan, and it’s up to the agents to make sure everything goes according to plan. That’s right. There’s a secret world of agents running around the world mapping out our lives for us. The plan is God’s work, and these guys in suits are angels, and, you guessed it, there’s no such thing as free will. But love conquers everything, even God, so David sets out to prove he has free will, overcome the administrative powers of the seraphim, and tell God to suck one.

The setup is full of fate vs. free will potential, with plenty of room for conspiracy and action, but that setup is all it is. The movie never really delivers, choosing instead to spend lots of time on the love story and long-winded explanations of the workings of the Bureau. Nothing particularly exciting ever happens, save for one scene of David running from the agents. Plus there’s a bunch of arbitrary rules tossed in that reek heavily of plot device and rip you out of the flow of the film. Angels wear hats that allow them to make doors lead to distant locations. Hats?! Oh, and certain doors connect to specific other doors, so the angels have to spend a lot of time memorizing the “substreets.” This leads to the comedic line “I hate downtown.” Yeah, it gets a laugh, but really it’s just pointing out the absurdity of these arbitrary plot conventions. Turn a doorknob right and you jump to the next place. Turn it left and you meet God. And for some reason, angels are weak to water.

The Bureau’s limitations are silly, but so are their conventions. Each agent is only allowed to make so many minor changes, because after that, the effects, or “ripples” become too great, but we see one angel cause series after series of car accidents. If we start to imagine the butterfly effect, even the smallest change will have huge repercussions, and something like a car crash is really gonna fuck someone’s day. I mean, imagine. You’re driving to work, then boom! Angel messes you up with his magic. Suddenly you’re in the hospital and your wife has to leave work to come meet you. Her friend has to take over her shift, meaning she can’t go out on her blind date. It falls through and she ends up with some low-life and they give birth to Hitler 2.

Ok. Ok. People have told me that I tend to read way too heavily into the science fiction behind these love stories (read: The Lake House—basically time-travel vomit), so I think maybe I’m being a little harsh and I try to keep an open mind. I’m sitting back, trying to enjoy myself, when out of nowhere the movie tells me that the characters aren’t really in love anyway. They slap you right in the face with it. The agents explain that the only reason David and Elise love each other is because they were supposed to end up together in an earlier version of the plan! Suddenly the film isn’t about love conquering everything or even free will vs. predestination. It’s about David accidentally stumbling onto an outdated version of his fate because the agents made a mistake. It completely eviscerates the entire romance. And it’s not even revealed as a twist; it’s just mentioned in passing like it’s no big deal, but I mean, what am I supposed to be rooting for? For the beta version of the plan to win? For David to literally reach God and beat the crap out of him? Actually, that would be pretty sweet. Could be some hardcore, supernatural action sequence.

Oh well. I suppose it’s not my place to question God’s plan, for as we all know, the best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew, and leave us nothing but grief and pain. But you know whose plan I can question? The screenwriters, because this movie could use some serious adjustment.

Score: 2.5/5¢

Hats?!

Written by Russ Nickel

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Paul Review

About halfway through the second act of my pre-screening of Paul there was a sound error, and the dialogue and soundtrack of the movie became accompanied by a sort of droning, thumping, static sound. At first we thought it was part of the film, but after a few scenes without any justification we determined otherwise. The sound continued unabated for about half an hour, sometimes growing so loud that it was actually impossible to tell what the characters were saying. This might have been a problem, but I found that with Paul, it didn’t actually matter much. No one was saying anything so complicated that it couldn’t be deduced though body language and context. It’s too bad, because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s previous works (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) both demand to be torn apart word-for-word to root out all the layers of comedy. Paul ditches the high-concept premise and instead becomes a crass homage to science fiction movies without ever being more than a momentary distraction.

Paul begins at San Diego Comic-Con, the first of its many fan services. Graeme and Clive (played by writers Pegg and Frost) are on vacation and taking a road trip to see all the famous UFO sightings in America. Instead, an actual alien crashes a car in front of them. Paul, a wise-cracking little green man, greets them with a snide remark and quickly convinces Pegg to drive to a remote location in Wyoming so that he can get back home. From there the film becomes a race to the finish line, with special agent Jason Bateman hot on Paul’s tail. Various events occur before the end of the movie; we meet Kristen Wiig as a one-eyed Bible-thumper who abruptly becomes a scientific objectivist after Paul uses his convenient healing powers to fix her eye and transfers his collective memory to her brain (don’t ask). Then there are some explosions, some pathos as Paul apologizes to an elderly woman for accidentally killing her dog in the prologue, and then everybody’s running to Forest Clearing A, where Paul uses some store-bought fireworks to signal a mothership the size of New York City. Sigourney Weaver cameos as the villainess, because she’s like a sci-fi staple now, and Paul saves the day by reincorporating his well-established healing powers.

I don’t really know where to start with this movie. I’m really disappointed in Pegg and Frost, who I thought were a lot smarter than this. Compared to their previous work, Paul flat-out sucks. There’s virtually no character development between anyone. Peripheral characters are either unfunny stereotypes or just unfunny. The writing feels bland and lazy, so much so that the same “joke” will be repeated three times with the only variation being that a different person said it at a different time. It doesn’t help that the film’s definition of a jok is creative profanity. The flimsy plot, which never gets beyond a manic “escape the baddies” chase, makes sense only until you actually scrutinize it, upon which it collapses from its own weight. And while the film heaps on the nerd homages, as a science fiction story it’s embarrassingly short-sighted. There’s potential in the script for something worth watching, but they never got past the first glimmer of an idea.

That’s pretty much all you need to know. I’m going to go in depth to the above points, so if you’re not interested in the process just skip to the bottom where I’ve conveniently distilled the film’s qualities into an amount of stars.

The film’s protagonist and main relationship character are naturally, Pegg and Frost. This is fine, and expected, and while it’s disappointing that Frost isn’t given the lead as was originally planned (wonder who axed that one) it’s a false distinction since neither of them really have any agency whatsoever. So they’re friends, one’s a writer and one illustrates science fiction novels. But the film is called Paul, which is neither of them, so how does he fit into the film? Well, the film tries to make him the source of conflict between them. Frost is a little more freaked out by the alien, a little more untrusting. This is kind of hard to believe because literally any nerd would gladly cut off a finger to be in his shoes, but could still work if they had backed it up with some characterization (perhaps his knowledge of science fiction leads him to be suspicious of Paul’s motives?). Instead he’s just a wet blanket. Frost comes around to Paul but becomes jealous of Pegg who, as the protagonist, gets the romantic interest. And Paul bonds with him over that, so everyone’s good and we can go into the climactic action sequence without any lingering uncertainty hanging over our heads.

I’ve compiled a theory that Frost’s character is actually written as gay and secretly pining for Pegg. There are homophobia jokes galore, enough to beg further justification. And honestly, it would completely explain Frost’s resentment and complaints that the trip was supposed to be “just the two of them.” It would even resonate with the themes of fraternal geek culture that Paul tries so hard to embody. But in the end that possibility is left unresolved. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was written in and then cut by the producers for being too “controversial”. I guess nerd audiences are okay with jokes about being perceived as gay, but to actually have a gay character (excluding the self-proclaimed bisexual Paul) would hit too close to home.

Pegg and Frost clearly had something going on with this nerds-encounter-an-alien plot. It has all the elements of their previous genre-bender films, only this time for science fiction. There’s even a formula for us to follow. At first common tropes are undermined amusingly, but they are eventually embraced and reincorporated in the end of the film. It seems like that’s what they tried to do, but for various reasons it doesn’t work, the main one being that they don’t have any kind of investment in the science-fiction portion of the story.

Science fiction is supposed to be about speculating on the vast possibilities of the universe, and what makes a close-encounter story compelling is the chance to interact with an intelligent organism entirely different from humanity. Paul the Alien is basically your college roommate inside the body of a squat grey midget.

The explanation for why his personality is so abrasive is that he’s lived on Earth for 60 years and evidently maturity or tact are qualities less enlightened species are burdened with. His explanation for why his biology is so stereotypical is dismissed as a subconscious conditioning program dispersed through the human population over the years in order to keep humans from freaking out should they ever make contact. This does nothing to explain why he’s humanoid in the first place– I guess because the answer is, “it was convenient.” That’s the answer for pretty much every interesting question the film poses.

Why does Paul have godlike powers of healing, invisibility and telekinesis?  He’s the title character for the film, but by the end we know virtually nothing about him. We know nothing of his race, where they come from or what their society is like. All we know is that we have to get somewhere to shoot off fireworks so that the massive, invisible alien mother ship will know where to pick him up. The ship only poses more questions. Did they drive all the way from Alpha Centauri to rendezvous with Paul? Or were they always there? Are they upset that the USA was interested in killing one of their citizens to harvest its stem cells? What kind of diplomatic relations does the government have with these guys, anyways? No one knows, because the movie doesn’t bother to address any of these questions.

You might say (Russ I’m looking at you), that I’m overly scrutinizing what’s just supposed to be a lighthearted romp through some old science fiction tropes. But is it too much to ask that a film riffing off of science fiction actually do its homework? If I can come up with these few questions just sitting here at my computer, couldn’t two guys actually faced with a real-live alien do at least as well? They’re poor representatives of nerd culture if they can’t approach a close encounter with at least a hint of skepticism.

2/5 Stars

Posted by Sam Julian

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Unknown – Liam Neeson vs. a Taxi

And no, I know what review this is.

Unkown and I have a special bond ’cause I had to deal with real life fear while I was watching it. When I entered the theater, I made strong impressions on a lot of the employees, striking up all sorts of random conversations, but what I didn’t tell them was that I had plans to do the unthinkable: I was going to movie-hop. As The King’s Speech drew to a close, I thought I could surreptitiously kill some time by waiting until the end of the credits, but suddenly an employee was there, cleaning, getting closer. I had to get out, but there were still twenty minutes before Unknown started.

I sneaked past all the same employees I’d befriended, pulling my coat up over my face to avoid being recognized on my way to the bathroom. Every face was that of an enemy. I didn’t know who I could trust. Any random viewer might rat me out to the authorities, having seen me leave The King’s Speech. I made it back to my seat, and soon enough the trailers began. I tried to enjoy the movie, but I was on edge the entire time. What if I got caught? What would happen when I left a full four hours after I’d arrived? Every scene was made more tense by my beating heart, so for me, Unknown was an incredible thrill. For my friends, however, it was simply “meh.” Too bad they’re not the ones writing the review!

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is on a plane with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones, whose name is as hot as she is), on their way to Berlin. When Harris accidentally leaves a suitcase at the airport, he sends his wife to check in to the hotel while he rushes back to get it, but on the way, his taxi crashes off a bridge. Next thing he knows, his wife has no idea who he is, and to make matters worse, she’s with another man who claims to be Dr. Martin Harris. It’s an exciting setup, and the film does a great job capitalizing on it.

It’s normally hard to review a movie that relies on mystery and revelation, since I don’t want to give too much away, but luckily there were misdirections everywhere, so it would be hard to pick out what’s actually true anyway. Think about the usual explanations for psychological thrillers in which the main character doesn’t know what’s going on. Wake up and it’s all been a dream? Actually crazy the entire time? Some sort of advanced scientific experiment? A giant government conspiracy? The writers doing heavy-duty hallucinogens when they came up with the idea?

Unknown leads you down pretty much every one of those paths. Dream? Check. Liam Neeson’s character, Dr. Martin Harris, is in a coma for four days. Crazy? Check. Even Harris’s wife doesn’t recognize him, plus no one ever saw him check in to the hotel. Advanced science? The film is set at a biotech convention at which Dr. Harris was to give a speech. Government conspiracy? The other Dr. Harris knows everything Liam Neeson does and is furnished with passports, documentation, and even pictures with Neeson’s wife. Is his wife in on it? Is she a prisoner? Does he even have a wife?

These and more are the questions I continuously asked myself, along with things like “Should I have bought popcorn?” and “If I had, would the girl have known I was movie-hopping?” But in all seriousness, Unknown’s relatable characters and sense of constant danger kept me in uneasy suspense at all times. I loved it, but some of my friends were disappointed at the lack of action, thinking that the trailers had misled them. By no means is this an action movie, and anyone going in with that expectation will be severely disappointed. There may be car chases, but they only serve as vehicles for characters to escape. There may be fights, but they are desperate fights for survival, not badass battles full of slick stunts.

As a writer, I’ve always had trouble with two climaxes, but during Unknown it was no problem. The entire movie builds toward the ultimate revelation, and when it finally comes, it’s completely satisfying. But just when you think you’re done, suddenly it starts all over, this time even more intense, for the stakes shoot through the roof. There’s a lot more on the line than just Dr. Harris. The secondary climax is a fast-paced, heart-pounding endeavor with a literally explosive finish. And I was blown away by the ending in which Liam Neeson gets to deliver a fantastic killing move coupled with an equally badass line. I wish I could repeat it, but then people might read too much into it and gain a clue, so just take my word when I say that it is freaking awesome.

I was thrilled, and if I had to guess, I’d say you would be too.

Score: 4/5¢

Alignment: Spectacular Fluff

Hint: He was dead the whole time, and weak to water, and it was actually present day.

Written by Russ Nickel

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I Am Number Four – Twilight + Michael Bay + Smallville

Twilight + Michael Bay = I Am Number Four

This is the entertainment business, and you know, they try, but probably the most entertaining thing about this movie was how it came to be. There are a lot of great films based on books, and even more great books deserving film adaptations, but rather than take a literary success and bring it to the big screen, Dreamworks decided to buy the rights to, of all things, I Am Number Four. Oh yeah, and they purchased them a year before it was even published! All because James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, decided to start a fiction franchise that pumps out books and movies that could be marketed to teens.

Our early attempts at a tractor beam went through several preparations. Preparations A through G were a complete failure. But now, ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a working tractor beam, which we shall call... Preparation H.

But hey, why not? It was bound to be a success. A young man escapes a planet just as it’s being destroyed, ending up in a quaint town in Kansas Ohio where he attempts to live a normal life, only to find that he possesses superpowers, which really throw a kink in his small-town romance. That exact story has already worked out once — why not a second time? All you need to do is get the creators of Smallville to write the script, toss in some beautiful people and a few Michael Bay explosions, and you’ve got yourself a hit.

I Am Number Four opens on a scene of said beautiful people partying at the beach. Our hero, John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), is having a blast with all his buddies, and even gets invited to a sexy swim with the school hottie, where she delivers such lovely dialogue as “The big dipper. It’s my favorite.” I doubt she could even name another constellation, but that’s neither here nor there, because suddenly a scar on John’s leg emits a blinding light, signaling that Number Three is dead. For some reason that may or may not be explained in the book but certainly isn’t in the movie, the survivors of planet Lorien can only be killed in order, so it’s time for Number Four to go on the run. He and his protector, Henri (Timothy Olyphant, whose last name always reminds me of Lord of the Rings), burn all their belongings and hit the road, but an eeeeevil gecko sneaks onto their truck.

Their flight leads them to Paradise, Ohio, where the gecko turns into a cute puppy…of DEATH! At least, that’s what I kept expecting. But when the puppy passed up numerous opportunities to transform into a horrible monster and slay everyone, I ended up just being pretty confused about why they built up so much suspense.

Puppies aren’t the only danger in Paradise, however. There’s also Sarah (Dianna Agron), the school sweetheart. There’s an alliterative joke in there somewhere. Something like “dogs are dangerous, but nothing can match the peril of the…” I don’t know, some word for cat.

Anyway, Sarah is an irresistible cliché, the blonde who dated the quarterback of the football team until she picked up photography, thus gaining a lens into the soul and learning the true meaning of love. At least the quarterback is original, except for the fact that he beats up science nerds and can’t understand why Sarah doesn’t want him and hates John for moving in on his territory. And the science nerd isn’t just a science nerd. He happens to have a dad who was totally abducted by aliens so he’s obsessed with rooting out all extraterrestrials at the school. All this is nothing at all like Smallville, because in that show, the blonde photographer is the same person who wants to root out the mystery behind the alien occurrences, and a different character is the love interest.

I feel bad bashing this formula so much, because I have to admit, the characters really were hot, which is what really matters. Dianna Agron of Glee fame is a girl next door of no compare, and Alex Pettyfer is, undeniably, a beautiful piece of man. I mean, in his next movie, he literally plays a guy whose main character trait is that he’s really really ridiculously good looking. Based on that alone, I figured I’d be able to enjoy their romance, but man, was I wrong. This was supposed to be a superhero movie, dammit, and we end up sitting through more than an hour of plodding romance with no action whatsoever. And it’s not good romance either. It’s just like Twilight: all meaningful looks, lip biting, and a thirst for blood.

Maybe not the last one so much, but when this movie wasn’t Smallville, it really was Twilight. The main guy has a secret that makes him an outsider at the school, but a beautiful girl is intrigued by his mystery and they fall for each other. And Loriens, unlike humans, only fall in love once and it lasts. Isn’t it romantic? Blehck. Males everywhere will squirm in their seats. On the other hand, it’s a perfect date movie. The guys will be excited to go, the girls will acquiesce, and then the girls will be so pleasantly surprised by the fact that the guy took them to a chick flick that they’re sure to sleep with them. Except studies show that scary movies are much more likely to get you laid, so oh well.

Although the whole first hour had me teetering on the edge of boredom, what’s scary is how much I actually ended up liking the movie, because, you see, the last 20 minutes kick so much ass! The action sequence is the only place you feel like Michael Bay was attached to this, and it shows. Number Six (Teresa Palmer) arrives, and she’s this hot, sarcastic Aussie girl with wavy blonde hair who can kill the evil Mogadorians like nobody’s business and deliver one-liners right after. She slides on her knees, hamstringing baddies while Number Four deflects plasma gun blasts with his hands, shooting them back at his foes. Six can turn invisible and teleport and generate a fire shield and all this sick stuff. Which brings up the question, why is John’s main superpower the ability to turn his hands into flashlights? I mean, like, I guess that would be sort of useful, but I’d way rather be able to turn invisible. The movie has to find all these excuses to have the battles take place in dark places so that John’s power is useful, and it’s amusing to see how often they work it in.

Number Six was so cool that she saved the movie.The fact that she arrived at the end meant that I left feeling super stoked, which colored my whole experience with such a positive light that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. I don’t know why she wasn’t in the movie the entire time. Having someone fun and sarcastic was exactly what the plot needed to keep it from taking itself, and the romance, way too seriously.

So, way too much slow, clumsy romance (and don’t get me wrong. I love Titanic and The Notebook), and not nearly enough action, but the premise is good enough (even if it’s stolen straight from Superman), and when the fighting actually starts, it’s awesome (explosions, fireballs, plasma guns, giant winged monsters). If they made a sequel, I would definitely see it. Therefore, I give I Am Number Four:

3/5¢

Why did John decide to reveal himself to so many people in Paradise? The film made it look like he’d had a ton of close friends at his old school, but the second they found out about him, he fled. Within days of moving to Ohio, he was willing to confide in all sorts of people. Seems pretty fickle for a Lorien who’s supposed to bond forever, but maybe that same fickleness will mean that Number Six is a love interest later. Who wouldn’t pick Number Six over Sarah? Honestly.

Written by Russ Nickel

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The King’s Speech:

Just in case you’re wondering what on Earth I’m talking about, here’s what I was going for.

King George VI’s Original Speech, 1939 vs. The King’s Speech Review

Man, it is impossible to record youtube videos with a laptop mic and camera…

Written by Russ Nickel

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True Grit – Cowboys Acting Serious

I never rightly expected True Grit to send me a trampin’ through the wilderness on a journey o’ my own, pittin’ me against man and nature, but when I found m’self parked at the wrong movie theater, my life transformed into a most dire adventure. I’d already paid the meter 45 cents; if I reparked now, those coins would’ve given of themselves fer nothin’. I stood, perplexed, until my cousin said he knew the where’bouts of the other theater. We put aside our differences, he one o’ them proud college types, me a lowly alcoholic, and set out together, our common goal keepin’ our travel civil.

We sprinted through them streets, never heedin’ the warnings o’ the people we flew past. We ran and we ran, like we was on the dodge, all the while knowin’ we was never gonna make it, but then, suddenly, the theater came into view, and what a sight it was. We raced down the stairs, and before we knew it, we was inside. But I still had to acquire m’self some sustenance. I didn’t have time for decisions, so I told the girl behind the counter, “Get me some popcorn, lady. Whichever size is best.” She seemed miffed and did not act until I specified. Once I did, she moved ponderous slow and would not hand over the bag until I done tell her whether I wanted butter. I said I was watchin’ my figure, so no thank you ma’am, but my cousin, see, he wanted just a bit, so he asks for it. She musta been right spiteful, because she poured on more butter than I ever did see and handed it over with a glare in her eye.

Our old-west style journey finally over, my cousin and I settled into our seats, sitting right next to a young couple and thus unintentionally ruining their chances of making out the whole time.

In my opinion, True Grit received way too much acclaim. Its award-worthy acting and snappy, well-written dialogue were the stuff of Best Pictures, and critics and average moviegoers were drawn to this, forgetting that there’s more to movies than just acting and dialogue. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much more to this movie. Where was the plot? Where was the character development? Where was the emotion?

The plot was slow and predictable. True Grit is basically just a buddy cop movie augmented with a precocious little girl. In order to fit the Hollywood standard, the girl is required to succeed, the two buddies must have flaws that are counterpoints to each others, and the main characters must have a falling out, only to put aside their differences right before the climax. True Grit follows this plotline exactly, but the Coen brothers try to hide that fact behind high production values and a not 100% happy ending. By making the girl lose an arm, the brothers hope to shift this movie from trope to trophy.

Because the plot was so obvious, I never once feared for the characters, and if you’re never afraid of what might happen, there’s no emotional tension. You end up with a movie that’s logically good but emotionally uninspired. Sure, the little girl was smart for her age and very determined, but they spent like an hour building up that character. How many times do I have to watch her barter? She starts off precocious, and she ends precocious. By the time the closing credits rolled around, the only thing she’d learned was how to function with one less arm.

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a totally wasted character. Get it? But seriously, he had so much potential. He’s this badass marshal who’s seen better days and now pisses away all his money on booze. Jeff Bridges plays him so well, but he just doesn’t have enough to work with. He could have started out down in the dumps, been inspired by this girl, lost his newfound faith, and then come through in the end. That’s basically what happens, except that they never sell you on his character arc. You can from tell the beginning that he’s still just as hardcore as ever. You never truly believe that he’s given up, and when he finally saves the day it’s just not surprising.

Maybe it’s a little more realistic this way, but it’s like the Coen brothers decided the only way to achieve realism was to sacrifice character and plot. Nothing interesting happens until well into the film when Cogburn and the girl come upon a cabin and kill some shady characters. Sure, it might be realistic for nothing to happen, but we don’t go to the theater for nothing; we go for a good story. Also in the name of realism, the main villain is painted as a sort of normal guy. Well that’s great, except I don’t care about watching Mattie Ross track down someone normal. I want higher stakes!

True Grit had high production values, great acting, wonderful dialogue, and a good sense of the Old West. What it did not have was an interesting plot, good character arcs, high stakes, or any semblance of emotional connection. Because the things that made it good are usually lauded by critics and people who think too highly of themselves, this movie has received largely positive reviews, but in my opinion, it simply wasn’t entertaining. And art, be it good or bad, serious or light-hearted, meaningful or shallow, must do one thing, and that is entertain. I was teetering on the edge of boredom throughout, and therefore, I give True Grit:

2.5/5¢

Alignment: Standard Gold

I know this is a nitpick, but why did that guy cut off his partner’s fingers before immediately stabbing him in the chest? That’s just unnecessary!

Written by Russ Nickel

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