Iron Man 2 (***)

Posted on May 10th, 2010 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

"If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him."

Iron Man 2 is a not-disappointing sequel, however it’s also not as entertaining as the original.  But, there have been only a very few sequels that equaled or surpassed their predescessors, so that’s not surprising. 

What was surprising, for me, was the understated performance by Mickey Roarke as Ivan Vanko (right), Iron Man’s nemesis with a family grudge in this installment.  Calling his performance “understated” is an…well…understatement, because Vanko is of course a larger-than-life comic book villain.  However, within that context, Roarke’s performance is carefully restrained and excellently realized.

Also well cast and well characterized are Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, head of a competing defense contracting firm, and Garry Shandling (Garry Shandling?!??!?) as Senator Stern, Iron Man’s foe in the Senate who is looking to have the government own (and exploit) the underlying Stark technology.  Scarlett Johansson also does a good job as Natalie Rushman, Tony Stark’s new assistant who is “from legal”.

The story…well…the story gets us from Point A to Point B very effectively, but it felt like a transition piece instead of a complete story.  That may be the way it has to be for movies based on comic books, since the comics have been around for decades and have much more story material than can be compressed into a movie (or two, or three).  However, it seems like a movie of this caliber should at least strive to end at a more momentous and climactic juncture.

The film-making is also sloppier than in the first one.  As an example, there is a sequence where Tony Stark appears as Iron Man at his own Expo (about the size of a World’s Fair) and is attacked by an army of drone robots.  These drone robots are similar to Iron Man, can fly, and are packed with advanced weaponry.  Iron Man takes off with the fleet of drones in hot pursuit, launching a continuous stream of weapon fire at him.  Does Iron Man fly as far away from the gathered expo-attendees?  No, he spends five minutes swooping and diving around the Expo, causing the drone-fire to strafe the crowds of innocent bystanders below, over and over and over and over again. 

He has no reason to hang around the Expo, there’s nobody he needs to rescue, nothing he needs to disarm or defeat, and if he had simply headed as far and as fast away from the Expo as he could he would have saved many, many lives.  In fact, after his 5 minutes of induced-strafing-of-the-innocents, he finally wises up and says something like, “Holy crap, I better get away from the Expo!”, and then zooms off.  Narcissistic personality disorder, indeed.

But, overall, it doesn’t disappoint, which is a bit of faint praise, but also a bit of a relief.  I really liked the first film, and was very worried that the sequel would go off the rails.  It didn’t.  It

Sherlock Holmes (***)

Posted on December 29th, 2009 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Bound by Logic

Bound by Logic

We walked into Sherlock Holmes with the baseline hope of being entertained, and we were not disappointed.  Director Guy Ritchie has created a period/action/mystery film, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson.  We could not recall a single other Guy Ritchie film that we’ve actually watched all the way through, as we typically find ourselves overwhelmed by the style but underwhelmed by the story, however in this case the film delivers on both counts.

The story revolves around a plot to return England to her glory days as the Empire, including re-absorbing the United States, weakened by the Civil War.  A secret society uses advanced (for the times) technologies in an attempt to give the appearance of supernatural powers, and to then rule by fear.  In a parallel thread, Watson is engaged to be married and is in the process of moving out of 221B Baker Street, much to the dismay of Holmes, who conspires to delay the passing of their close partnership.

Holmes and Watson, of course, work together to uncover the plot and foil the plotters, and the film ends with an obvious setup of the sequel, which will, of course, include matching wits with the infamous Professor Moriarty.

The style is a mash-up of authentic-looking old London combined with modern slow-mo, blow-up, near-super-hero-ish sensibilities.  This could have been a horrific combination, but Guy Ritchie keeps it all just enough in check so that things don’t spin into forehead-slapping territory.

Put it together and it was a solidly entertaining film, and I am looking forward to the sequel.  It wasn’t great or classic cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but you’ll feel like you got your money’s worth, unlike with many (many, many) other big-budget, action-oriented movies.

Paranormal Activity (***)

Posted on November 1st, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Three's A Crowd

First, about the hype.  This is one creepy and disturbing movie.  It may not be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s in the top ten.  The fact that it delivers such a wild ride but was made for less than $20,000 borders on amazing.

The plot is simple – Katie has been sporadically plagued with things going bump in the night her whole life.  She now lives with her boyfriend Micah, and recently she has started noticing strange happenings once again.  Micah, being the typical male, figures that the best way to respond is to buy some new electronics, and so as the film begins he as just come home with a brand-new, high-def video camera and sound recorder which he proudly explains (multiple times) he has connected via firewire to his laptop to document the events.  Then, if they are actually happening they will have proof, but if the tapes show nothing, it will serve to help Katie understand that nothing is actually happening.

That seems reasonable, except for the fact that Micah’s meddling and problem solving only serve to piss “it” off, and so matters begin to escalate.  They consult a ghost expert, who is helpful and friendly, sort of like Tim Gunn if he were on Project RunAway!  However, once the expert figures out that the malevolent entity is a demon instead of a ghost, he gets the hell out of there, leaving Micah and Katie phoning for help from what appears to be the only practicing demonologist in Southern California (ha!), who conveniently happens to be out of town until after the movie is over.

The entire film takes place on their property, from the opening shots of Micah filming Katie pulling into their driveway, to random handheld shots around the house, typical family films from the backyard pool, and most disturbingly, tapes of them sleeping, filmed with the camera completely stationary on a tripod in the corner of the bedroom, in night vision.  Yes, that’s where the fun begins.

The film does a great job of ratcheting up the tension, night after night after night.  We learn from the film that since this is a demon who is fixated on Katie, it wouldn’t help for them to leave, because the issue doesn’t have to do with the house, but with Katie, and the demon would simply follow them.  So, they surf the web and read books and try to figure out what to do.  How successful they turn out to be I will leave as an exercise for the viewer.

The actors who play Micah and Katie do a great job of seeming like a typical, young, upwardly-mobile couple.  Their house looks freshly decorated, and doesn’t have a “lived in” look.  He’s a day trader, she’s a student, he plays guitar, she does bead-work and knitting.  They seem perfectly natural on-screen, just the way all of us look and act when self-consciously filming ourselves with home video equipment. 


The Ruling Class (****)

Posted on October 31st, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Jesus Christ, it's the 14th Earl of Gurney!

Jesus Christ, it's the 14th Earl of Gurney!

I am amazed that I had never heard of this film until very recently.  We watched it last night (via Netflix Watch Instantly), and it was one of the most profoundly absurd, amusing, and disturbing films I’ve ever seen.  If you think you may one day have any plans to see it, my advice is to stop reading reviews right now, and come back after you’ve seen it.

Part of the power of this film is that it starts out as what feels like a quirky little comedy, then evolves into a sort of absurdist satire of the English class system, takes a turn into the blackest of black comedy, and then…well…let’s just say that the longer you watch the stranger it gets, until the end when it will elicit from the viewer an involuntary “WTF?!?”, whether one likes the film or not.

And we liked it, very much.  Well, as much as a disturbing move can be liked, that is.  However, I wouldn’t give it a blanket recommendation to every potential viewer, because it’s just so…bizarre.  I’ll put it this way, if you think that a film that is sort of a combination of Eraserhead, Monty Python, A Clockwork Orange, Murder by Death, and Jesus Christ: Superstar sounds intriguing, then this might be a film for you.

The key ingredient that allows this film’s radical elements to coalesce into a near-masterpiece is the transcendent performance of Peter O’Toole, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (losing to Marlon Brando in The Godfather).  He enters the film sporting both the appearance of, and belief that he is, Jesus Christ.  When asked how he knows that he is God, he responds, “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.”

If you find that quote witty and sublime, you might enjoy this film.  If you find it blasphemous and/or offensive then you may want to skip this movie altogether, because it only gets worse (or better, depending on one’s perspective) from there.  In another example, while reciting his marriage vows he promises to love his bride “…from the bottom of my soul to the tip of my penis.”  Again, if you think you could find that line funny in the proper context, this might be a film you would enjoy.

The basic storyline is that, after his father’s (jaw dropping) death, Jack (Peter O’Toole) returns to inherit his vast estate and title as the 14th Earl of Gurney.  Jack has spent the last few years in and out of asylums, as he is quite mad, but his powerful father would never allow him to be committed, as that would bring shame and disgrace on the family name.  Jack’s surviving relatives begrudge him the inheritance, and so plot and scheme to take control away from him.

That could be the synopsis for a benign and forgettable English parlor

Zombieland (***½)

Posted on October 3rd, 2009 in Commentary,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Zombieland Rule #1: Cardio

Zombieland Rule #1: Cardio

To survive in Zombieland, you have to follow the rules:

Rule #1: Cardio.  These are fast, famished zombies and they will run you down…unless you have speed and stamina.

Rule #2: Beware of bathrooms.  You’re exposed and encumbered, and there’s usually only one exit.

Rule #3: Seatbelts.  When you’re whipping around trying to run over and/or shake off zombies, you want to be sure that *you* stay put.

Rule #4: Doubletap.  Shoot ’em once to stop ’em, shoot ’em again to make sure they stay stopped.

And so on.  These are the first few of an ever-expanding set of rules that Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has derived for survival in Zombieland.  It seems that mad cow disease mutated into a more immediate and vile infection, one which causes the infected to become black-goo-spewing, human-flesh-eating, fast-running, not-very-smart zombies, who roam America looking for their next man-wich. 

Columbus is a nice young man who is trying to wend his way back from his dorm in Austin, Texas to his parent’s home in Columbus, Ohio (hence his nickname).  He meets up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who is a hard-bitten, hard-driving, hard-hitting, zombie-killing machine (with a cool hat, more on that below).  The unlikely duo decide to join forces for as long as they can stand each other, and along the way manage to get conned by a couple of grifting sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who take the boys’ Escalade and leave them stranded.

The tale unfolds from there, and I won’t say much more about the plot.  Zombieland is both a zombie film and a comedy, and it does both genres very, very well.  It compares vaguely to Shaun of the Dead, but it has a much different vibe, and is better as both a zombie film and a comedy. 

And the laughs are big…BIG.  After the film, my throat hurt from the laughing and hooting I’d been doing throughout almost the entire film, which is amazingly short at 83 minutes.  There was even an eye-misting interlude shuffled in between the carnage and mayhem, which was suprisingly effective and well-done.

The film also earns its R rating, as the violence and gore are excrutiatingly high-def and are often presented in super-ultra-mega-slo-motion, so that you can practically count the droplets in the spray of zombie-ejecta, and count the shreds of flesh between their teeth.

However, if you can handle over-the-top-gore and convulsive laughter, then Zombieland just might be the picture for you.

Oh, and stay all the way through the credits.

The Real Deal

The Real Deal

Okay, now, about the hat.  Woody Harrelson’s character is wearing his hat (seen to the left) in virtually every single scene.  And I can tell you from direct experience that that is one cool hat.  It’s made by a company called Real Deal Brazil, and they make them from reclaimed/recycled tarps used on trucks that

The Informant! (***½)

Posted on September 18th, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Lies Scene

Lies Scene

The Informant is a *real* movie, made the way movies should be made.  First of all, the script is amazing.  Second, the acting is phenomenal.  Third, the score is perfect.  Fourth, the costumes, locations, and make-up are flawless.  And fifth, the directing and cinematography are beautiful.

And sixth of all, it’s funny as hell!

The story is loosely based on the events surrounding the Archers Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal of the 1990’s, primarily involving lysine, a food additive.  Matt Damon plays a fictionalized version of real-life whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, a high-level ADM executive who turned informant for the FBI.

As imagined in The Informant!, Mark Whitacre is a mildly sociopathic, self-deluding, compulsive-lying, white-collar criminal.  When Whitacre blames his own failures on sabotage by competitors, the FBI is called in to investigate.  Lead agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) develops a rapport with Whitacre, and eventually hears about much bigger malfeasance being perpetrated by ADM themselves.  Whitacre’s wife guilts him into revealing the sordid details to the FBI, seemingly because it is the right thing to do.

And over the course of the next few years, Whitacre is run as an undercover agent by the FBI, wearing wires, eliciting damning statements from competitors and co-workers who are being secretly videotaped, and providing substantiating documentation of the global price-fixing being organized by ADM.  And, when they finally have enough evidence to convince the Attorney General’s office that the case is solid, they swoop in and make a bunch of arrests.

And then the fun really begins.  I won’t divulge any of the rest of the story, but suffice it to say that The Informant is an engaging and laugh-out-loud black comedy, made with near-perfect craftsmanship.  Matt Damon added 30+ pounds to meet director Steven Soderbergh’s one-word description of the look we wanted for the character – doughy.  Add the 80’s styled hair and porn-star-ish moustache, and Damon is transformed into a grifter extraordinaire.

And if there was an Oscar category for Best Stream-of-Consciousness-Narration, this film should win, hand’s down.  As played by Damon, Whitacre is placed into many stressful, dangerous, and scary situations, but his running mental commentary is…sublimely detached and egocentric, as if he was having an out of body experience, and while his body and voice stay engaged with the real world, his thoughts wander to trying to figure out how polar bears realized their black noses made them stand out against the snow, and so cover them with a paw while lying in wait for prey.  Did they see their reflection in the ice or the water?  Did they notice other polar bears were conspicuous with their black noses?  That seems like a lot of thinking for a polar bear.

It certainly does.  And this movie will cause a lot of thinking from the audience, because the story moves fast, the plot is serpentine, and there are no dramatic zooms or musical flourishes to alert the audience that

Moon (***½)

Posted on September 13th, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Hello, It's Me

Hello, It's Me

If you think you might end up going to see Moon, I strongly suggest that you stop reading this (and all) review(s) and just go see it.  Really, you don’t want to know what happens before you see it.  Trust me.

However, I read reviews all the time for movies I’m planning to see, because how else is one to figure out which movies to see, particularly if you don’t have time to see as many of them as you would like?  So, for the benefit of those of you who are trying to figure out if you might like Moon, the following paragraph (and *only* the following paragraph) will represent my attempt at a spoiler-free review/guide.  Remember, the paragraph after this next one will start to reveal plot, so only read this next paragraph if you haven’t seen it yet.

First of all, if you are looking for some light, late-summer fare to while away an evening with mindless entertainment, this isn’t it.  This movie is very challenging, the storyline is purposely confusing, the scope of the story is very small, and the ending is…well…not a typical Hollywood ending.  To give away a little of the flavor of the movie, it is set in the reasonably near future, and, as you may have guessed from the title, it has something to do with the Moon.  This is not a space opera (like Star Wars), it isn’t an breathtaking allegory of the ascent of man (like 2001: A Space Odyssey), and there aren’t any aliens (like Aliens).  All of the technology in this film is easily extrapolated by taking current technology and extrapolating it forward to the time the film is set.  And although the special effects are stunningly well-done, this is a movie based on the character(s) and their interactions with each other, and themselves, and the effects merely serve as just that…effects, not as the story itself.  And the story is incredibly well-done – well-written, well-acted, well-filmed, and well-directed.  So, if you can enjoy serious, small-scale character films that are well-done, and also just happen to be set in the future and off the planet Earth, this might be the film for you.

There, that concludes the generic review/recommendation, such as it is.  I know it contains some nuggets of information, but it couldn’t be helped – and, anyway, if you didn’t want to know about this movie you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

So, on to the more detailed review, which will also reveal the plot.

Again, please don’t read any further unless you want spoilers.

Not kidding now, here we go.

One last chance for you to go back.

Okay, if you’re still here, Moon stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, the lone worker at a helium mining facility located on the far side of the Moon.  He has signed up for a three year contract to work there alone, with only a talking computer called

Extract (***)

Posted on September 5th, 2009 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Sympathy for the Bossman

Sympathy for the Bossman

When we heard that Mike Judge had a new movie coming out, we knew it was a must see for us on opening weekend.  His previous films Office Space and Idiocracy are considered to be works of genius in our house, even though it took us a while to discover and appreciate the masterpiece-i-ness of them both.  But we now know and love them, and regularly quote both on a daily basis.

For those unfamiliar, Office Space told the story of downtrodden workplace drones who rise up to throw off the shackles of their e-dentured servitude  and stick it to the man, while Idiocracy tells the story of the evolutionary decline of mankind into mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, mono-syllabic morons.

In counterpoint to those films (particularly Office Space), Extract tells the story from the perspective of “the man”.  Jason Bateman plays Joel, who is the owner of a successful food flavoring extract company.  While he was in college he developed a unique way of creating extracts that retain their flavor when heated, leading to tastier results.  Through years of hard work he has parlayed his breakthrough into a moderately large factory, which he runs from his office overlooking the shop floor.  He’s so successful that General Foods is sniffing around and thinking about buying him out lock, stock, and barrel, which would allow Joel to retire a relatively wealthy man.

However, even with his professional success, Joel is not happy.  He and his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) have drifted apart, and Joel finds himself lusting after the flirty new company employee Cindy (Mila Kunis) who seems to be fascinated by the world of flavoring extracts.  But, Joel is honorable and can’t bring himself to be unfaithful, so his spacy bartender friend Dean (Ben Affleck) suggests that he secretly hire a gigolo to seduce his own wife.  If she goes for it, then Joel is then morally free to also cheat, and if she doesn’t go for it then he’s learned a valuable lesson about his wife’s fidelity.  So, in a fit of chemically-enhanced miscalculation, Joel hires the himbo gigolo to “clean his pool”.

And then – everything goes wrong for Joel.  His wife Suzie jumps at the chance to jump the new pool guy’s bones, Joel’s Idiocracy-like workers perform a ballet of OSHA violations that result in a sprung bolt performing a half-masculation on his floor supervisor Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who decides to sue big, which scares General Foods into delaying their buyout until the lawsuit is settled.  Add to that the fact that Cindy, the cute new employee, is also a sociopathic grifter who is pilfering the purses of her workmates while she dates Step and pushes him to sue for bigger money (which she presumably plans to get her hands on).


Jim Adler, the Texas Hammer!

To help Step score the big civil case win, Cindy hires bombastic lawyer Joe Adler (Gene

District 9 (***½)

Posted on August 15th, 2009 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Prawns a la Apartheid

Prawns a la Apartheid

If you are planning to see District 9, I urge you to stop reading reviews and just go see it.  It will best be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible, so that the film can be experienced without preconceptions.  I will warn you that this film is not for the squeamish, and the R rating is well deserved.  I don’t recall there being any sex or nudity, and the language isn’t all that bad, so you can infer from that where the R rating comes from – the violence, evil, and inhumanity.

You’ve been warned, the information starts flowing below – seriously, just go see it, then come back here.

Really, just go.

Okay, for those still reading, this film as that rare cinematic gem in that it is both completely unique and absolutely entertaining.  It took a few minutes to get my bearings as the film started, but I was quickly absorbed into the story and felt like I didn’t blink for the entire running time, except when diverting my eyes from the carnage on the screen.

We jump into the middle of a story where a gigantic alien spacecraft is hovering of Johannesburg, South Africa, and has been there for 20 years.  The aliens on board, numbering in the millions, were “rescued” by earthlings and put into a holding camp, which over the years devolved into a ghetto.  The aliens are referred to, derogatorily, as “prawns” because of their resemblence to roughly human-sized shellfish.  The prawns from the ship seem to be all be from a worker-class, and aren’t particularly smart, communicative, creative, or industrious.

They do have language, consisting of very alien-sounding clicks, grunts, and squeals, and they can understand English, and the human governmental workers that interface with the aliens can also understand their language.  The prawns are enamored of cat food, and the local Nigerian criminals are only too happy to provide it to them, at a price.  The Nigerians are also accumulating alien weaponry, even though each weapon is genetically locked and can only be fired by the aliens.

As the movie opens, the residents of Jo’burg are tired of having the aliens around, and a private conglomerate called MNU has been contracted to build a new settlement for the prawns 200 miles outside of town, and then forcibly relocate the aliens there.  Technically, the aliens have rights and there is at least a superficial attempt to try to make it all seem legal, but the aliens don’t really understand what an eviction notice is, so the logistics are kept on track by private mercenaries, who are only too happy to…uh…incent the prawns into cooperating.

MNU puts a man named Wikus Van De Merwe in charge of the move.  Wikus is a middle-management type, not really too bright or ambitious, not really evil, either…just sort of banal and thoughtless.  He doesn’t seem like he’s spent any time examining the awe-inspiring fact that humanity has

Funny People (***)

Posted on July 31st, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

L'Chaim...and the turkey, it's kosher?

Funny People is the latest film from adult-comedy king Judd Apatow, and only the third that he has directed, after The 40 Year Old Virgin in 2005 and Knocked Up in 2007.  If you’ve seen either of those, or Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall (where he was the producer), you should have a read on whether or not you’ll enjoy this new film.

George Simmons (played by Adam Sandler) is a successful star who parlayed his beginnings in stand-up comedy into a mega-career and a string of blockbuster films.  However, as the film opens, George receives bad news about his health, and faced with the gaping maw of his own mortality, begins to re-examine his priorities.

He picks Ira Wright (played by Seth Rogen) out of the string of aspiring comics performing for free at the local comedy club and asks him to take over as his personal assistant, and also write some jokes for him.  It’s difficult to tell if this move is selfish (he needs somebody around so his loneliness doesn’t consume him) or generous (he wants to pass on his comedic legacy by helping out a struggling nobody), and Adam Sandler doesn’t give us a clear read, because he plays the character as a realistic-feeling combination of neuroses, talent, affection, and dickish-ness.

Seth Rogen continues to be able to play a believable every-schlub, in spite of his rocketing stardom, and he imbues Ira with a sympathetic combination of self-doubt, opportunism, diligence, and nascent talent.

Part of the realistic feeling in their relationship may come from the fact that Judd Apatow wrote the script, and back in the day he and Adam Sandler were struggling unknowns together, but Sandler’s star caught fire long before Apatow’s, and it feels like some of the real-life dynamics they experienced have been folded into the story. 

I mean, if you look backward from today, you see that both Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow have parlayed their abilities into larger-than-life careers making people laugh, and back in the beginning they must have known that they were roughly equivalent in the talent department.  The fact that one of them (Sandler) hit it big before the other (Apatow) can easily be interpreted as luck, and the inexorable hand of fate plucking one of them from obscurity while leaving the other behind had to introduce some kind of tension and ill-feelings into their relationship (unless they were both saints).

And that dichotomy is played out in startling contrast in this film.  Ira Wright sleeps on a pull-out sofa in an apartment he shares with two other guys, one of whom (Jason Schwartzman) has scored a recurring role in a throwaway sitcom and finds endless ways to flaunt his new liquidity in the faces of his roommates, and the other of whom (Jonah Hill) is faring much better on the stand-up circuit and claims the other bedroom by virtue of being able to pay rent.

This leaves Ira as the bottom dog,

Next Page »