“The Crazies ” (R)

The pitchfork scene (see movie poster above) is genius horror moviemaking.

If you like zombie movies, where normal people suddenly become afflicted with the urge to lose control of themselves and become rabid killers, then this movie is for you. Too many other write-ups on this film explain in advance why the people in this story become zombies. And that’s too bad, because half the fun of these things is trying to figure it out during the movie.

Here, the small town sheriff (well played by Timothy Olyphant) and his deputy have to figure out why their townsfolk suddenly go nuts and kill their neighbors and families. It all starts with the first zombie, a local man walking onto the field during a little league baseball game. He carries a shotgun and has a menacing look on his face. The showdown between the zombie and the sheriff, in front of all the children and their families, makes for some anxious moments. Even when in a jail cell, these zombies are no nonsense, and not to be fooled with.

Unlike others in this genre, these zombies don’t limp as if back from the dead, nor do they run after their victims like greyhounds. They simply possess the stare of a great white shark and will patiently stand motionless for weeks in a house or the local diner until you walk in. Eerie.

It’s a tense movie throughout and offers plenty of disturbing images, including a nighttime monster farm equipment scene (filmed in an “ET” Spielberg kind of fashion), a claustrophobic carwash adventure, and the aforementioned disturbing, but quite effective pitchfork scene. It’s always bad news when a zombie gets hold of a pitchfork, but even when you figure out in advance how the scene will end, the director definitely kicks it up one horrifying notch and milks it for all it’s worth.

Good stuff. You already know if this film is for you or not.

- See it on "The Big Screen"



“Avatar” - In 3D (PG-13)

James Cameron returns to directing for the first time since “Titanic,” and brings us an uplifting story (unless you are an enlisted Army/Marine guy) for young and old alike.

Here a wheelchair bound ex-Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is called back into service in order to run the Avatar body that once belonged to his now deceased brother. (It’s a DNA thing - that will save the time and money it would take to grow and program a new Avatar.) Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the scientist that runs the Avatar program. There is a very expensive/valuable rock called unobtainium (the most lame word to come out of this film), that lies beneath the surface of the planet Pandora. We need lots of that material in order to save the dying, resource challenged Earth.

But there is an indigenous group of bow and arrow equipped native people living on Pandora, and in particular, on the very ground with the most dense amount of unobta . . . I can’t use that silly word again . . . where most of the valuable ore is located. The American humans have tried for years to “educate” and explain to the local aliens why they need to relocate, but to no avail. So the U.S. military is called in to forcefully move or otherwise destroy the locals in order to get the precious mineral to save Earth.

If you’ve even glanced at any description of this movie over the last few months, or have seen a trailer, you can figure out the paint by numbers Hollywood plot of this 2 1/2 hour film. Take the knowledge you have from the other 1,200+ movies you’ve seen in your life, and you’ll experience no surprises here. That doesn’t make it a bad film. Paint by numbers = feel good audiences and lots of money for Hollywood.

Jake Sully finds himself, in Avatar form, suddenly stranded in this strange world called Pandora, where he must learn everything from scratch in order to survive the ordeal. When any strange fact is revealed to us about this odd world, we are sure to see that tidbit come around again to help the plot to its solution. He is aided by a local female alien, and as we’ve seen many, many times before, he falls in love with the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Suddenly he sees the world from her prospective and switches sides.

It is an interesting time in history to release a film with this subject matter. Do you root for the alien tribes against the big bad U.S. Military? Do you root for the tribe, which in turn means the destruction of our planet Earth?

We take sides all the time. We root for the rebels when the big bad guy is Darth Vader in Star Wars. But what if Darth Vader represented the U.S. Marines? Then what? Would we root FOR Darth Vader and the destruction of the rebels and their collective planets? Perspective is a funny thing.

The all too obvious parallels with the U.S. Military and its ongoing wars, overuse of Earth’s natural resources, the plight of the American Indians, etc. etc. will leave some shaking their heads and others nodding theirs during the movie. Still others will simply watch the show and munch on some popcorn. It’s up to the viewer whether to take this as more than just a movie. But as I sat there I noticed a strange urge from the people around me to clap/not clap/stop clapping when a military airship full of American soldiers went down in flames. The worldwide brainwashing (regardless of country) of all populations that “Our soldiers are great, and should be supported, always,” has certainly taken hold. I would imagine the applause to be quite loud and sustained in movie theaters outside the U.S., much as the applause would be thunderous here in America if the airships were full of Russian soldiers, or even better, terrorist rebels!

The 3D experience is up there with the Imax 3D experience that has been around for years. We will now see a smattering of 3D movies as Hollywood tries to milk the gimmick for all it’s worth. But just as in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, this 3D phenomenon will be short lived, so don’t expect a special “glasses free” 3D TV anywhere near your living room for another 30 years, if ever. This movie, like any good movie or TV show, will stand up in 2D as well as in 3D.

I’m not fond of the $3 added cost per ticket to buy the 3D glasses that probably cost them a buck. They are not recycling these glasses like the Imax and theme park venues do. You go home with the worthless glasses after the movie ends. Do we really need multiple pairs of goofy 3D glasses gathering dust in our homes? Unless they are going to give me a $3 discount in the future for bringing my own 3D glasses to the theater, I want no part of this scam. I suppose you could reuse one single pair when the 3D DVD rental comes out this summer.

If you have a nice big HD TV, the DVD rental will still be a very enjoyable viewing experience.

- See it on "The Big Screen"



“Paranormal Activity” (R)

Your skin will crawl.

“Paranormal Activity” is not a Hollywood movie. It was shot in one week on a budget of $11,000. It’s a “Blair Witch” type of film, except this movie is far better.

A couple moves into a new home where strange noises start to occur. The woman reveals that she has had noises like these follow her wherever she lives since she was a child. The boyfriend buys a video camera to document the strange happenings, and to further study/solve the issue. It certainly CAN’T be ghosts. How silly to think it’s ghosts!

The woman is pretty sure it is something - like a ghost.

They bring in a psychic who tells them it’s not a ghost. It’s a demon. And demons are way out of his league.

Like “Blair Witch” there is a lot of camera shaking (it’s shot on a handheld home camera) but the disturbing parts happen when the camera is mounted in the bedroom, security mode style on a tripod whenever the couple sleeps. And this is the film’s strength.

“Jaws” affected us because it played on the fact that we can’t see what’s below us when swimming in the ocean. We’d rather not think about that stuff. If you think about it too much, the urge is to get out of the water.

This film plays on the fact that we don’t really know what happens in our bedrooms when we sleep. If the next morning a video revealed things happening around us while we slept, that would certainly freak us out. It might even make someone want to stay awake all night. You can’t simply run from the house because, as the girlfriend revealed from the start, this issue follows her wherever she goes! With that being the case, the boyfriend chooses to stay and fight.

This is not a movie you’d want to sit through multiple times (the pace is too slow and methodical for multiple viewings). However, the acting is realistic as the issue affects their relationship, and the creepy content will certainly make your hairs stand on end.

Note: When the film ends, the screen stays black for a long, long time, giving the audience a cue that there is more footage coming. It’s a fake tease as only credits await those that sit patiently in the dark. So look for the nearest exit and stumble your way out of the theater immediately.

- See it on "The Big Screen"



Surrogates” (PG-13)

Bruce Willis stars as a detective who is trying to find out how people are dying while jacked into their personal surrogates in this latest sci-fi action thriller. The premise is not all that shabby and mirrors online sites like “Second Life,” but instead of animated avatars on a computer screen, the whole world uses expensive animatronic robots in the real world. People all around the world are so hooked on this that they no longer physically venture outside at all.

The claim is that racism is solved, and the crime rate dropped 99% after everyone went to surrogate use. Hmmm. Perhaps the writers forgot about how much fun Grand Theft Auto players have making their avatars rob, murder and otherwise trash the entire city. Having no skin in the game turns people into real risk-takers.

Issues immediately pop up as you watch this film. To run your personal robot, you need to be laying down on a special chair with a pair of wired sunlamp goggles over your eyes. (Willis sits upright more than most.) People are so sedentary while “driving” their personal surrogate through their daily routines that obesity would plague the world, if not terrible bed sores.

In one scene we see Willis’ Surrogate perform like a Terminator. He must own the upgraded G.I. Joe model with the kung-fu grip.

There are pockets of people who shun the idea of surrogates as an evil idea. They are put on reservations (slums) and look less healthy than the surrogate users who lay around all day and night. Odd.

The weapon that does the killing is pretty interesting, and other than an absurd Saturday morning cartoon of a car chase scene, this very dark story is engaging.

This is a leave your brain at home kind of action movie, but would make a great rental.

- Wait For DVD



District 9 (R)

I wanted so badly to love this movie.

The theater was nearly sold out at the midnight sneak preview of “District 9” as we all sat, ready to be the first folks to see this intriguing alien movie before it opened nationally. Too many critics (who loved this film) have revealed too much about the story already. I won’t.

The movie covers (in a documentary style) the story of a group of space aliens, who find themselves stranded here (perhaps) and end up fenced into a sort of prison camp in Johannesburg (obvious apartheid parallel) by the humans. Twenty years later, the new plan is to relocate these aliens to a different camp further away from the local humans, who have grown tired of the animalistic alien antics. It would seem the two species are not compatible with each other. That’s an understatement of the highest order.

The new alien camp is in no way better than the current slum camp, but that’s not an issue for the humans who plan to use sly crafty maneuvering to get the creatures to agree to the move. It seems like an impossible task to the movie viewer from the onset, but what do we know.

The young theater crowd was into it as the house lights went down. We were ready to partake in this strange script, starless cast, and independent film budget. And then we waited, a full one and a half hours for the action to start. The movie takes its time laying out various loose ends, many of which are not tied up at the end. It would make a better book for sure.

Shaky cam aside, it’s not a bad movie. The plot turns will absolutely keep you guessing right up to the credits. But having seen it, I can see very clearly that this two-hour film is simply a set-up for a much better part 2 down the road. Can’t wait for that one.

When a movie is slow, it just allows more time to pick it apart. A couple pet peeves are in order:

We’re to believe just over a million human sized aliens came off that crippled ship. Dallas has just over a million people. I know the alien ship is pretty big, but why tell us a million folks were on it? Really? A million?

Chairs are designed to work for humans because our legs bend a certain way. Dogs can’t use our chairs as currently designed. Neither can giraffes or dolphins, and those animals are from our same planet. If a human gets behind the wheel of a friend’s car, they have to adjust a lot of things to make it work - and we’re the same species! These crazy alien creatures have legs that bend at wacky angles. You could never use their alien crazy legged chairs and devices, nor could they use ours - ever. The director doesn’t seem to understand that.

- Wait For DVD


Public Enemies

“Public Enemies” (R)

The boring photo above pretty much sums up a lot of the shortcomings of this film about John Dillinger’s short, bloody crime spree, and Melvin Purvis, the FBI pursuer. The 140 minute run time feels like three hours. Strange for a Michael Mann film. Mann’s films are usually exciting. A man sitting in the row in front of me snored a few times as he went in and out of consciousness. I think a few folks in the theater were near that point as well.

One problem is that Melvin Purvis is played by Christian Bale. Bale’s a bore. He has exposed his true self with his growing list of films showing his lack of animation and monotonous scratchy whisper of a voice. His one trick pony career should be shortened because of it.

Johnny Depp, on the other hand, plays John Dillinger very well. Depp is the only thing that keeps the audience awake until the credits roll. People then quickly roll to the exits.

To add insult to injury, the film has all the facts wrong. Wrong jail breakouts, wrong characters breaking each other out. Gangsters (like Pretty Boy Floyd) dying in the wrong order. It’s one historical mess of a movie. Strangely, the truth might have been more exciting.

Couldn’t have hurt.

But regardless of whether you’ve ever read about these gangsters, you’ll likely find the film worthy of passing the time while digesting Thursday night’s dinner. But you won’t pay much mind to it after it’s over and you flip the channel to see who’s on Letterman.

- Wait For HBO


“Drag Me To Hell” PG-13

There are certain directors that have an irreverent style all their own. Love them or hate them, they usually stick to their fingerprint locked style forever.

The Cohen Brothers come to mind as having their own special mold. Their quirky movies stand apart from all others. David Cronenberg certainly has a few screws loose, as does Quentin Tarantino. And here we have Sam Raimi, a guy who was doing shock value, campy horror movies (by campy horror I mean hokey, not campy like “Friday the 13th”) twenty years before Tarantino started his career by shocking audiences.

Although most would instantly think of Raimi’s latest “Spider-Man” film releases, this is no comic book superhero franchise. While it’s been many years since he’s done horror, Raimi’s horror gene is already cast in stone. He can’t change.

To prepare yourself for any Raimi horror film you must recall these fine gems from his past:
“Evil Dead” (The first director in history to film a girl getting raped by a demonic tree. Really.)
“Evil Dead II”, etc.
“Army of Darkness”

If the preceding films disgusted you - move along, keep driving, there’s nothing to see here.

If these classic titles don’t ring a bell, perhaps you should rent one first before proceeding to the expensive theater.

If you enjoyed any of the sick demonic titles above (and really, who among us could blame you?) then this is another fine installment in Raimi horror film making.

In a nutshell, “Drag Me To Hell” follows a young loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) who desperately wants to get a big promotion at the bank. To show she’s manager material, she makes a tough call against an old grotesque gypsy woman who’s looking for a loan extension in order to keep her home. The old hag finally gets down and begs on her knees, but Christine will have none of it. Big mistake.

The old gypsy puts an evil curse on Christine. As curses go, it’s about as bad as you’ve seen in any movie. Turn up the curse level to ten, then break off the furry curse knob so you can crank the curse stem two notches higher with a pair of rusty pliers.

It’s gross at times (every 15 minutes) so skip the buttered popcorn and just sip on your Coke instead. You’ll likely never look at a housefly the same way again. The film is also needlessly loud, so skip the THX theater for this trip.

Her boyfriend, professor Clay Dalton (Justin Long), is as supportive as any guy could possibly be in the year 2009 when he hears someone has a curse put on them.

It must be made clear from the start that although the film is over the top campy, there are solid strong points to this movie that make it worth seeing.

1) Alison Lohman plays it straight. Although she’s got over a dozen movies under her belt, this is the first time I’ve seen one of them. She’s terrific in her role. With all the absurd demonic things going on around her on screen, she plays it just as a real woman would play it if it were happening for real. Amazing how well she stayed in character. This movie could easily have been a total stink bomb without her professional acting skills.

2) Although Raimi has been a fan of handheld cameras in the past, he uses a tripod throughout most of this film, giving it a very polished professional Hollywood look.

3) Justin Long plays it straight as well. He’s more likely to goof on what’s happening, but any guy in 2009 would goof in the same manner if faced with the ridiculous situations he faces.

Unfortunately you’ll see the “twist” of the ending a full 20 minutes before it happens, and Christine does something with a shovel toward the end that will have you rolling your eyes as well as pique the interest of the “Guinness Book of World Records” authors. However, if this is your kind of film, don’t let that stop you from seeing it. {It’s not quite scary enough to recommend a theater trip, (the PG-13 rating has a lot to do with that outcome)}.

- Wait For DVD


“Star Trek” (PG-13)

It’s been a while since we’ve been able to line up to see a new Star Trek film. Few people disliked the films staring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Some fans fell by the wayside when new characters came into the series, such as the Patrick Stewart addition. I would include myself in that camp. Then there are the Trekies (or Trekers as they prefer to be called) who line up for anything with the words Star and Trek on the sign.

Writer/Producer J.J. Abrams got the nod to direct his first film, and he succeeds in delivering a stand out story in the long series. This latest 2009 “Star Trek” rides high into the summer blockbuster lineup. Because Abrams decided to go back in time to the roots of the franchise he was able to use an all new fresh young cast to explain how all the original characters came to be. We get to see how Dr. McCoy got the nickname “Bones” from Captain Kirk. Watching Captain Kirk develop from a young punk to a Star Fleet Captain is equally entertaining and enlightening.

Then there is the addition of Industrial Light & Magic’s latest movie visuals to ensure the space and planetary scenes are breathtakingly intense and realistic looking. There’s a lot to like in this film, and those that appreciate the original cast will equally enjoy the much younger version of them.

Just four small critical items to note:

1) The menacing music that plays whenever a Romulan ship is on screen is 60’s campy. Perhaps it was on purpose, but it was overdone and cheesy.

2) Uhura has a ridiculous connection with Spok that makes utterly zero sense.

3) There’s a Willy-Wonka Chocolate Factory style scene with clear water pipes that had no business in the film.

4) For some reason the director purposely has crazy “stylish?” camera lens glare on the screen during most scenes of the movie. You’ll notice colored streaks of glare and shiny lights reflecting off the camera lens as it bobs and weaves throughout the movie. Once you notice them they show up in nearly every scene. Directors avoid lens glare like the plague - but not first-timer J.J. Abrams. Are these shiny room lights of the future? Overdone. Annoying as hell.

- See it on "The Big Screen"



“State of Play” (PG-13)

Russell Crowe stars as Cal McCaffrey, a veteran reporter for the Washington Globe. He’s the non-blogger guy in the room who most folks consider a dinosaur. But when “real” reporting needs to be done, Cal shows everyone why newspapers will be sadly missed when they’re inevitably gone.

After two people are killed and one is critically shot, Cal investigates a connection that no one else notices. One of the victims is a research assistant for a congressman, well played by Ben Affleck. It turns out the congressman was sleeping with the attractive woman who is now dead. Certainly little stretch there.

Cal and the congressman are not friends, but were roommates in their college days, so there’s obvious tension within that relationship. Robin Wright Penn plays the congressman’s wife (more tension) and Jeff Daniels plays another congressman (menacing tension).

But every Hollywood movie needs eye candy. Enter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), as the Globe’s resident blogger. She’s a greenhorn who, for reasons she doesn’t initially understand, is suddenly taken under Cal’s veteran wing. They end up examining a connection with a corporate group called PointCorp (instead of using the too obvious Blackwater name) that hopes to take over America’s domestic surveillance bid and make billions in the process.

So it becomes a race to:
1) Uncover the truth behind the conspiracy.
2) Uncover the truth (boring) instead of running the easy (racy infidelity) side of the story which would sell infinitely more papers and save The Globe from extinction.
3) Do all this in time to make the morning edition before any other newspaper scoops it first.
4) Avoid getting killed by Blackwater-like villains who don’t want anyone to stand in the way of billions of dollars.

The film is actually quite entertaining and all the actors are first rate. Although not filmed entirely in shaky-cam mode, when any scene of two or more chatting characters comes up, the camera gets to bobbin’ and a weavin’ as if the cameraman’s private headphones are playing his favorite rhythmic gangsta rap. When will this amateur filming technique madness end?

Also note that the movie shows the Globe’s morning paper delivery trucks driving out of the warehouse with the sun rising off in the distance. Everyone over the age of eleven knows that newspapers are delivered in the wee hours of the night - long before homeowners get up to go to work at 6 AM.

- See it on "The Big Screen"

Sin Nombrea

“Sin Nombre” (R)

A teenage girl from Honduras gets a chance to change her life by making a journey with her estranged father and uncle through Mexico and, they hope, illegally enter the United States. If they indeed make it, they’ll have a new life waiting for them with their extended family in New Jersey - but that’s a big if. It’s a tough trip and most don’t make it to the U.S. border, much less through it.

Then there’s a gang member named Casper who has a conscience (something his gang members lack) and he hides the fact that he has a non-gang-member girlfriend, which gets both of them into hot water with his gang brothers. Fleeing town is the only option.

This film gives deep insight into the struggles that face those who attempt the long 1,700 mile journey with little food, water or money. For most of the trip, the immigrants ride on top of fright trains, getting on and off to either change trains or avoid immigration officials. It’s a side of life most of us have never actually seen, even if we’ve imagined the journey some take, and makes for quite an interesting story to watch.

With ruthless Mexican gang members in pursuit, the tension is real. The bonds, both formed and lost, all have a realistic feel to them. “Sin Nombre” stars no one and feels more realistic because of it. It’s best if you don’t know any more specifics about this foreign film that recently debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It’s worth a trip to the nearest trendy inner city theater where this movie is likely lurking until DVD release time.

(In Spanish with large, easy to read English subtitles)

- See it on "The Big Screen"


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My Personal Rating System is as follows:

See it on "The Big Screen" .  .  .  . (Best of the bunch)
Wait for video/DVD 
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  . (Not a bad movie, but not worth $9)
Wait for HBO release  .  .  .  .  .  .  . (Not worth renting)
Avoid!  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . 
(Not worth your time - period.)

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- Reviews by Jim Ramsey
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